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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Somebody Else

(This is the second and concluding segment in a two part series under the title of Tolerance and Inclusion.  The first segment identified the cure for intolerance, specifying the need to increase the size of the tent.)

Do you want to be somebody else?  Are you tired of fighting battles with yourself?

Perhaps, the ordinary citizen’s more practical approach to transformation from who we are to who we might like to become involves merely changing the way we looks at things.  To illustrate this point, consider the following story.

A pair of strangers finds themselves together by chance as first time patients in the waiting room of the psychiatrist’s office, where each awaits her private session.  Invariably, the two strike up a casual but nervous conversation.

“What are you here for?” one innocently asks the other.

“Oh, I’ve got a ton of family issues,” the other responds.  “My mother is forever trying to control my life.  It’s bad enough that she can’t even manage her own.  My father got tired of trying to help her --- he just goes down to the local Knights of Columbus and drinks his sorrows away.  The poor guy.  Don’t know why he just can’t exist without that evil alcohol.  On top of that, my husband’s really stressed out at work.  With the recession and all, his boss is working him like a dog, and he’s accepting as much overtime as he can get.  But sometimes I think he loves his job, or should I say the money it brings in, more than he loves me and the kids!  Since he’s never at home any more, I have to do all the parenting, cooking, cleaning, caring for our pets, and all the other things that a mother does, while still holding down my own job.  The kids are no help, either.  When they get home from school, all they seem to want to do is play video games or get on that stupid Facebook.  And what is the business with that text messaging anyway?  It’s like they’re in some kind of trance.  I saw from the bill that our daughter had over 2,000 text messages last month, and our son was not far behind.”

The woman paused, and then continued, “My sister’s husband has a terrible gambling problem, whether it’s the football games, lotto or the online version.  My sister told me she gave him an ultimatum recently: It’s either the gambling --- or her.  My other sister moved down to Texas and became one of those born-again-whatever-you-call-them.  She gives all her and her husband’s money to some evangelical minister, who I swear is a crook.  Religion my butt!  What a sucker!  And she says the immigration problem down there is terrible.  The Mexicans are overrunning everything.  If that weren’t enough, my other sister just pronounced that she is now openly gay - and summarily dropped her husband like a rock.  What a great guy he is, too.  I feel so sorry for our niece and nephew.”

The woman then provided a short summary of her plight: “I’m going to need a lot of prescriptions for all of these people who are screwing up my life.”

Just then, the door to the office opened, and the psychiatrist called the woman in.  Well, it was apparent that this woman, who was eager to become the psychiatrist’s patient, had whipped herself into a severe frenzy.  But she had also succeeded in inciting the anxiety of the other woman, who had been listening intently.  And so, the second woman continued to sit there in the waiting room, fixated, trying in vain to read a magazine, watching the wall clock as the second hand ticked along.  She marveled at the spectrum of problems which the other woman was facing, wondering just how the doctor was going to navigate his way through and fix them all.

The woman’s session was done soon enough, though, and the door opened once again.  Expecting to see her exit with a pad full of prescriptions, the woman who had been waiting was quite surprised to see the other grasping onto but a single slip of paper. “Well, how did it go?  Only one prescription?” the second woman inquired in understated manner.  "I thought you’d have several."

“So did I,” the first woman countered.  “But, the doctor told me I couldn’t worry about matters beyond my control.  He said I only needed one prescription.  The only person who needed to change was me!”

Is there a moral here?  If you want to be somebody else, if you’re tired of battling with yourself, then change your mind.

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tolerance and Inclusion (Part One)

 (This is the first segment in a two part series which begins here today.)

What is the universal cure for intolerance?  How do we increase the size of the tent?  How do we become somebody else? …

One of America’s core values is acceptance of different cultures which then blend into one common cultural identity.  E pluribus unum, or one from many, is a uniquely American claim.  This core value is based squarely on principles of tolerance and inclusion.  Often, however, in action we see the other side of the coin.  On the one hand, we preach tolerance and inclusion but, on the other hand, we can’t seem to avoid the practice of intolerance and exclusion.

It is said that the cure for intolerance --- is diversity --- whether it be a diversity of peoples, a diversity of opinions, or both.  A sprinkle of enlightenment wouldn’t do much harm, either.  Former President Bill Clinton made a statement once that gave a lasting impression.  He said he was getting sick and tired of people who simplified America’s problems into a finger pointing rant which went something like this: “It’s the blacks.  It’s the Jews.  It’s the Puerto Ricans.  It’s the Catholics.  It’s the Japs.  It’s the Russians.  It’s the Muslims.  It’s the gays.”  Mr. Clinton then paused for maximum effect, before completing his thought: “When, actually, that’s who we are.  It’s us!”

One of the most effective ways to increase diversity, including a healthy diversity of opinion, and thereby to consider even marginal views as a healthy byproduct, is simply to increase the size of the tent.  The “All Welcome” sign is a familiar one.  But talk is cheap.  Can we put it into practice?  Perhaps, a good place to start is by making a conscious effort at being more inclusive, more tolerant, of the way things are.

If we are nothing else, we are a nation of immigrants.  And, perhaps the greatest contribution of immigrants to the fabric of America lies in the rich, cultural diversity which each and every immigrant population delivers consistently, generation upon generation.  How else can we explain the “the bastard mulatto child of a heterogeneous American culture, combining black rhythm and blues with white country music?”  Of course, by definition here we are speaking of the phenomenon of rock and roll music.

How do we increase the size of the tent?  The ordinary citizen would suspect that following another bitter defeat in the hotly contested presidential election of 2012, the national Republican Party would surely want to know.  It is insufficient in today’s environment to rely merely upon principles which although still sound in many respects appeal to an increasingly narrow, limited audience.  The head in the sand, alternative universe formula has proven at last to be an utter failure.

The fact that demographics are changing the face of America is not a particular secret.  Those who made it their business to give the matter the serious attention it deserves know that the process has been ongoing for a considerable period of time.

And so the Democrats’ inclusive platform which successfully projected to a remarkably diverse audience had impressive numerical strength to carry the day.  The 2012 presidential election was not an exception to the rule that says the party whose appeal is closer to the political center line typically carries elections.

The Republican Party is now relegated to catch up role.  While time marches on, the sooner the Republicans come to grips the better off we all are.  America needs two strong national parties, if for no other reason than each to keep the other honest and in check, not permitting the more powerful of the two to slide toward despotic rule.  The Republican Party must learn to increase the size of the tent.  In the process it must transform itself.  But how best to do that?

(Next week’s second segment illustrates the most efficient means to go about the transformative process of increasing the size of the tent.)

-Michael D'Angelo

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Second Lesson of US History (Part Two)

(Note:  This is the second and concluding segment in a two part series under the title "Etched in Stone," in which readers may continue to enjoy the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.  The first segment left readers off inside the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC.)

May it "seem strange that any men should dare ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces?"  But who are we to judge?

Following the Union victory at Gettysburg, PA and in far away Vicksburg, MS, Lincoln’s commanding Generals, U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman, would prosecute a harsh, unforgiving "total war."  This was designed to demonstrate to the Confederacy the resolve of the North to preserve the Union intact by defeating the South decisively in battle on its own turf.  Lincoln would insist through Grant on simple terms of "unconditional surrender" and submission to the sovereignty of the federal government.

Sherman’s subsequent telegraph of the fall of Atlanta, which would later inspire Margaret Mitchell’s epoch novel, Gone With the Wind, electrified the North.  Largely as a result, Lincoln won an unlikely victory in his 1864 re-election to a second presidential term.

Back inside the Lincoln Memorial I notice there are more words etched in stone on the north wall to Abraham Lincoln’s left as he is seated.  I am confident that nothing can match the Gettysburg Address.  But I may well be wrong again.  On the occasion of his March 1865 Second Inaugural Address, looking toward the war's end, Lincoln’s prolific words again rang out.  While the whole speech is etched in stone on the inner wall, these particular words seem most poignant:

Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and others would accept war rather than let it perish.  And the war came.

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we will be not judged. (emphasis mine)

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Note the italicized language:  Let us Judge not that we will not be judged.  Lincoln was, of course, commenting on the peculiar institution of Southern slavery.  But he stopped well short of passing judgment.  It is important enough to be considered the second lesson of US History, authority for which Lincoln footnoted to the Holy Bible.  In that particular passage Jesus Christ had spoken thus:

"Judge not, that you be not judged.
for with what judgment you
judge, you will be judged; and with the
same measure you use, it will be mea-
sured back to you.

“And why do you look at the speck in
your brother’s eye, but do not consider
the plank in your own eye?

“Or how you can say to your brother,
‘Let me remove the speck out of your
eye’; and look, a plank is in your own

“Hypocrite!  First remove the plank
from your own eye, and then you will see
clearly to remove the speck out of your
brother’s eye.
“Therefore, whatever you want men
to do to you, do also to them, for this is
the Law of the Prophets. 1  

Words to live by, for sure, an important lesson of US history.  Etched in stone.

-Michael D’Angelo

1.  See Matthew 7:1

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Etched in Stone (Part One)

(Note:  This is the first segment in a new two part series in which readers may continue to enjoy the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.)

What exactly does it take for something to become etched in stone? …

The national monuments in Washington, D.C. are spectacular.  They inspire awe.  Tributes to some of our greatest leaders, from George Washington to Jefferson to Lincoln to T.R. and F.D.R.: they’re present.  Memorials to our participation in some of the conflicts of the 20th century, from World War II to Korea to Vietnam: covered.  Spending a little time away from the world of mass media and “always on” communication devices to absorb some of these monuments is worth the price of free admission.

Step inside the Jefferson Memorial, and there he is, in all his splendor.  Glance up at the statuesque figure of Thomas Jefferson commanding the center.  So what if he’s not really there?  Examine the wall plaques encompassing the surrounding perimeters for some of the finest prose man can offer to posterity.

Some years ago we traveled to Rome to experience that city’s ancient footprints and spectacular ruins.  We had arrived on Christmas Eve and were unaware that the city had already begun to shut down for the sacred holiday.  So we left our hotel and began to walk.  And walk we did, until our legs ached.

It was misting lightly, the temperature in the mid-50s.  Our feet got wet.  We were cold.  It was now late afternoon, and it would be time to stop soon.  But stop where?  Foolishly, we were not carrying a street map.  As we continued to pace, we happened to look up from the ground and took in a startling view.  Was my mind playing tricks on me?  Did I also mention we were getting hungry?

In the distance, yet still close enough to get to on foot, was what appeared to be the US Capitol Dome.  For a moment, I thought we were back in WashingtonD.C.  But it couldn’t be the US Capitol Dome.  We were in Rome.  The dome was attached to St. Peter’s Basilica, that great cathedral at the entrance to the Vatican.  It indeed looked familiar, since the US Capitol Dome was modeled after St. Peter’s.  I’m sure I had read that probably a dozen or more times over the years, but from that moment forward my brain made a permanent connection.  I guess you could say it was now etched in stone in my memory.

How exactly does something become etched in stone?  After all, it’s just an expression.  Back in Washington, D.C., I was conveniently in among the monuments.  If anyone knew the answer to that question, it had to be Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln Memorial is a majestic monument.  A set of pillars and a wide expanse of steps take you up.  And there sits the lifelike, father figure of the Great Emancipator in a big stone chair.  Almost 150 years later, it still looks like he’s obsessing over the preservation of the Union.  Some things never change.  But the feeling is comforting yet.

Gaze over to the left of Lincoln (his right as he is facing us), and there are some words actually etched in stone on the south wall.  They must truly be important words.  I begin to read them silently to myself:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. …

I recognize the writing at once as Lincoln’s November 1863 Gettysburg Address.  In a fateful three day battle Robert E. Lee’s invading Confederate army was reduced by one third.  As he retreated in defeat, we would learn that almost 60,000 lives from both sides were lost here.  President Lincoln wanted to commemorate the losses with a “few appropriate remarks.”  I continue reading:

It is rather for us to be here, dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

At the time, the retention of government by the people was of particular concern.  What a magnificent speech.  Lincoln managed to summarize the Civil War, 272 carefully chosen words in just 10 sentences.  It occurs to me that I am staring at the words for a longer time than the 12 minutes it took Lincoln to deliver them.  I guess that’s how things get etched in stone.  Did not Moses bring down the Ten Commandments on stone tablets?

Over on the other side to Lincoln's left, there are more words etched in stone on the north wall.  I’m too far away to make them out, so I wander over in that direction.

(Next week's second and final segment in this series unlocks the mystery of the words etched in stone on the wall to Lincoln's left and leads readers from there to the second lesson of US History.)

-Michael D’Angelo