The Crash 4: Thoughts, Rosh Hashanah 5770

Dear friends,

To welcome Rosh Hashanah with some ideas, hopes, and plans - not just the platitudes -- I have posted a video on YouTube.

You can see me, leg immobilizer, turquoise robe, rainbow yarmulke, long white beard, and all, in my rehab-center room. (The beard is even longer than usual because I haven't been able to get to my usual pre-Rosh Hashanah barbering.) I hope you'll watch. And write me whatever thoughts it stirs in you.

I keep asking myself: "Waskow, what are you learning? - about yourself, and about our community, our society, as a whole!"

It's like discovering geological strata—just when I think I've got it all, another layer!

So here's the newest unpeeling:

The rehab center has been pretty good—the physical therapists are wonderful—but there are glitches. For example, we are all given menu cards for a week at a time to choose what we want to eat from a list provided. I dutifully fill them out&mdashbut so far there have not been more than two days in a row when the choices I make actually show up on my tray. Somehow my lists keep getting lost, and a card shows up on my tray with my name , in somebody else's handwriting, listing choices I never would have made.

OK: Glitch happens. What is interesting, I realize, is my reactions. Three:

  1. Patient efforts at "political reform." Call the chief dietician, fill out a whole new set of blue cards. And another. And another. Doesn't help.
  2. Apathy. The system is bigger than I am, give up, just skip what you won't eat.
  3. Rage. So far I have not exploded, but I can feel the heat in my face.

The lesson: Bereft of the world I know and understand, I can easily fall into apathy and /or rage. Behaviors I don't want as part of me.

And then I watch the news, and begin to recognize what I am going through, only much much larger.

We—the whole human race, the whole planet—are living in the middle of a world-wide earthquake. Everything has come loose, is gyrating wildly like my car at the moment of the crash, and it won't stop. Whole countries, whole cultures, come apart. The family, sexuality itself, is shifting. "Permanent" jobs vanish. Getting healed from a sickness gets as weird and bureaucratic as it is for me to get the food I want. On and on.

So -- one result is apathy, deference to the Big Powers of the world: Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Business, Big Army, Big Pharma, Big Banks. I'll come back to that one.

Another is grabbing on to whatever can be remembered as rigid. Strong, unbending. Maybe a place like that can save us from the earthquake. The "family" the way it was a century ago, as if that were eternal and immutable. Women in their place. Other folks - Black, Brown, Muslim, -- in their place. Gay men and lesbians in no place. The old-time religion. Technology useful, but the science that gave it birth -- evolution, quantum physics - a fantasy.

And if it turns out the earthquake really has turned all those "solid" places into wobbly uncertainties -- rage. And violence.

To reestablish an old order takes much more coercion and violence than holding it together in the first place used to. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it takes great force to put it back in.

You don't want women to pray aloud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem? A century ago, women didn't try. Now you have to beat them up, to stop them.

You don't want doctors to provide abortions? You may have to kill them.

The earthquake leads to fear. In many, to frustration. To rage.

For some, this is a matter of gut reaction. And for some, a combination of gut reaction and cold calculations of how to build a pyramid of power out of the rage.

Let me come back to the response of Apathy. (I actually mistyped it for a moment: "Happathy.") The Great Powers are too big to resist.

I am afraid that President Obama has been convinced that those Biggies cannot be defeated - so they must be allowed to dictate the terms of "compromise":

  • To oversee the "recovery" from the Big Bank Barbecue, he chose exactly the same people who had been in charge of the Barbecue in the first place. (Three guesses as to who gets roasted and served up.)
  • He arranged secret meetings with Big Pharma in the White House to strike a private deal about now much they would reduce drug prices, rather than fight for the much bigger reductions a robust Public Option could have brought about.
  • By agreeing to abandon the Public Option and require everyone to buy health insurance, he is providing the private companies with 20 million captive customers and no competition.
  • He surrendered to Big Coal when it demanded many exemptions from controls over CO2 emissions set forth in the original Waxman-Markey climate bill.
  • He accepted that we must pour troops into Afghanistan, because the power of the military and its industrial allies is so great that even thinking about an alternative is too hard to try.
  • He dumped Van Jones without a murmur, though Jones represented the best possibility of pulling together three crucial communities of possible reform: grass-roots Black communities; white workers suddenly losing their jobs and houses; and middle-class folk deeply concerned by dangers to the earth. Van Jones was a hero of Green Jobs - a synthesis, not a compromise. But fighting for that coalition, defeating its enemies, demands hard work.

Actually, it is true that the Biggies cannot be defeated - without hard work. Not just a great charismatic speech twice a year, but meeting after meeting, speech after speech, truth after truth. As I wrote after Obama's great speech of outreach to the Muslim world in Cairo, that speech (and all of them) needed to be given again and again and again --- in Alabama and Los Angeles and Miami and Northeast Philadelphia.

When the rich resisted what Roosevelt knew the country needed, he called them "Malefactors of great wealth!" "Economic royalists!" When some Congressmen tried to block crucial New Deal legislation, he stumped the country against them, naming names: "Mahtin, Bahton, and Fish!" he cried out in his Hahvahd accent. "They hate me and my program, and I welcome their hate -because I am fighting for the people!" he shouted.

And people responded. Organized.

Where is the President who could be saying, "Grassley and Gingrich - they lied. Kill my grandma? Did Gingrich and Grassley sit in tears beside their cancer-ridden grandma as she was dying, fighting an insurance company every inch of her death?"

But that kind of speech requires heavy lifting.

The incredibly hard physical work I watched Martin Luther King exercise one sweaty night in Atlantic City as he urged, begged, warned, appealed to a bunch of hard-bitten machine Democrats to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. With a heavy cast on a broken leg, he labored. No great charismatic speeches.

For Obama, the tug of wonderful words is great, the strain of facing down Big Whatever is strong, and the wistful wish to make friends with everybody is seductive. The result: Happathy.

So - what am I learning from my own small earthquake, my life turned upside down? From my constant brushes with the kitchen here, do I have another pathway?

Yes, I do. Friends who brought me tomatoes from their garden, celery and carrots to crunch on, a fresh peach or two. Subversive networks to meet our needs, and as our networks get stronger, face down the Big Whatevers. Van Jones on the outside - maybe far more empowering than he could ever be on the inside. The Shalom Center and a myriad networks like us. Growing not bigger but stronger, more connected.

If the President won't do it, we need to. We the people.

And -- guess what? If we do, he will. He did tell us one crucial truth at a crucial moment: the night of his election, he said that his election was not the change we seek. It was only the opportunity for change.

And the change was up to us, not him.

Up to that throng gathered in Grant Park in Chicago, turning that turf from a place of police beatings and the defeat of decency just 40 years before, into a place of victory and vindication.

According to legend, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. Not just the anniversary of Creation long ago, but every year, all over again, the world is reborn.

Get to work!

With blessings of shalom, salaam, shantih ---


P. S. - Remember, we at The Shalom Center need your help for us to do the work that helps you do the work. Please click on our logo, in the right-hand margin. Or send us your support - at 6711 Lincoln Drive in Philadelphia. Thanks!

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