Pensées I: Pardon My French
This is Not a Blog
“What’s that mean?” I almost thought it was the title credit at the end of a TV show I occasionally watch. I was standing in the parking lot at the post office, about to get into my car, and I realized the fellow was looking at the sign in my back window. It read, “Smile Speeders! Al-Qa’ida (hearts) you.” [The first version of the sign went up back in the ’70s during the first Oil Scare. It had “The Ayatollah (hearts) you.” I eventually changed it to “OPEC” when people gave me dirty looks: that drew approving honks.] This guy looked genuinely puzzled so I said, “Follow the money. Where does al-Qa’ida get most of their funds?” He hazarded, “Diamonds?” (He must have heard of conflict gems.) “The Saudis,” I replied. “And where do the Saudis get most of their money?” “Real estate?” (I had no idea where That came from.) “Oil,” I said, trying not to sound like I thought he was an idiot. “And who is the Saudis’ biggest supporter?” At last he got it, “Oh.” Most people haven’t got it: too cerebral? or requires too much political awareness? One person was creative, however: she thought it was because we were killing ourselves and al-Qai’da liked that. I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “Speeders cause Global Warming.” Not bad.
On the road, I have lost count of the number of cars (and SUVs, huge pickups, and Hummers) who come racing up behind me in the fast lane, slow down to my speed (65) for several seconds to read the text (probably moving their lips), travel along for a while on my port aft quarter, disbelieving that I Really am going the speed limit, then ostentatiously floor their hemis to show me who’s macho, roaring off to resume their laps. You can see why I don’t have a lot of sympathy for drivers complaining about gas prices.
I used to tell people that I had a secret way to get to Los Angeles where I never passed another car: drive the speed limit.
California drivers aren’t the worst in the country (Balmer was worse and I’ve been warned about Bast’n) but we have rules all our own.
1. Always exceed the speed limit by at least 10 mph.
2. Never leave more than a car’s length between you and the vehicle in front. But, preferably, Be the vehicle in front.
3. Save all your chores to do while driving.
4. On the freeway, Never, Ever take an exit without passing at least One.More.Car.
5. I’m not sure if this last is a rule or whether there is an adjustment on the car that causes this one. On the freeways we have raised reflectors every 10-15 feet that delineate the lanes, called Botts’ Dots (from their inventor). They perform an additional service of alerting the inattentive driver if your car drifts over the line with their “brrrrt” sound. It seems that one can Never use the turn signal when changing lanes until you hit the dots. Or maybe the dots cause the signals to blink. Anyway, never indicate your intention until it is a fait accompli.
Jan. 3, 2005
Robert Matsui’s death was reported today. He was my age and a longtime Congressman from California. I never knew him but we shared many things, with one big difference. While I was with my mother in Cleveland, Tennessee, waiting word from my father in the South Pacific, Robert and his parents were evicted from their home and sent to live behind barbed wire. All because his ancestors came from Japan and not from Holland.
When we consider our injunction to love our neighbors, we always think it will be easy. After all, I know my neighbors: they’re not bad folks. I’m sure many people knew the Matsui’s too; I’m sure they weren’t bad folks either. But in 1942, few spoke up for them, or any other “Japs” on the West Coast.
The late Charles Kuralt had an interview once with a woman in Northern California who, when all her Japanese neighbors were rounded up and sent away, did The Right Thing. She took the deeds to all their farms and took care of them until the war was over. Those families came back and could reclaim their lives. Most were not so lucky. Greedy neighbors, “Christian” neighbors, took what they had always wanted. You never know what you will do in times of crisis. I will always remember that woman and her example of loving her neighbor and hold that example against my time of trial.
When our family first moved to San Diego in 1948, I was in second grade. I went to Central School where many of the children were Japanese. I always thought the girls were the prettiest ones in school and I even somehow hoped I would grow up to be as handsome as the Nisei boys. I never knew, and they never mentioned, where they had all grown up.
I read about it when I went to college in the early 1960’s and was almost in denial. It didn’t square with anything I knew or had experienced. I had seen segregation in the South and knew racism existed against Blacks, and hated it, but the roots of that were centuries old and we were struggling to change it. I had never suspected such a dark thing could have happened so recently, in my lifetime, against another group of people I had known and loved, and lived with all my life. Even before the cancer of Vietnam ate away at American idealism I learned to be wary of Government claims of infallibility. I could not, and still cannot, bear to mention it to any of my Japanese friends. But I will not forget it and none of us should forget it either. Loving our neighbor is not a suggestion, it is an order. And I believe Robert Matsui knew that as well.
Whether it be grandmothers in the ghetto, honest cops on the beat, dedicated workers in industry, education, hospitals, unions, government, the military, the CIA, FBI: all who turn a blind eye to corruption are themselves corrupted.
Anyone who has ever worked in a bureaucracy (the military, university, welfare department: some of mine) could not have been surprised by the testimony about the colossal failures of intelligence before September 11. It is always the workers on the line, the grunts in the trenches, the teachers in the classroom, the agents in the field, who know what’s going on. And it is also always the middle management supervisors, the professional bureaucrats, who are more concerned with their little bailiwick, job security, and performance evaluation, than with the mission. And woe betide anyone who steps out of line, goes outside the chain of command, or dares to speak the truth. What would Gandhi do? What would Dietrich Bonhoeffer do? What would Martin Luther (or King) do? And, yes, what do you think Jesus would do? Certainly not what Rush and the other right-wing hate mongers, in and out of government would have us do.
Thank God for one honest soldier who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib. Any American who does not believe he should get a medal is no American and, certainly, no Christian. And pray God there will always be honest soldiers, cops, doctors, and workers in every field who will ask themselves, what should I do?
One of my favorite stupid political slogans: “You can’t solve the problem by throwing money at it.” Have you ever noticed that the same people who say that (about some program they oppose) always come around looking for money to throw at a program they favor? “Well, that’s different. We’re investing in the future. We’re solving problems. We’re feathering OUR nests.”
My other favorite stupid political slogan is like unto the first: “Tax and Spend (Democrats).” My reading of the duties of Congress, as specified in the Constitution, comes out pretty much: taxing and spending. Of course, they could always declare war. But that would involve more taxing and spending, with a capital “-ing.”
Speaking of lawyers: except for Honest Abe, Clarence Darrow, Perry Mason, and especially, Atticus Finch, I don’t have much sympathy for them. I might not go as far as Shakespeare but I always took it as an insult when I was growing up and adults would react to my mind and tongue by saying, “You should be a lawyer.”
On the other hand, it strikes me as the height of hypocrisy when politicians (most of them lawyers) rail against lawyers. The recent rhetoric about “tort reform” is a case in point. No one really thinks billion-dollar judgements in court cases are in anyone’s best interest. But the truth is, if tort reforms are passed only poor folks lose the ability to hold powerful interests accountable for their actions. There will still be plenty of lawyers working for the HMO’s, automobile manufacturers, the insurance industry, toxic pollutors, government at all levels, and anyone else with power and money. But why should we be surprised?
Once again, if rich folks get their way: rich folks win, poor folks lose.
When I first began to study history and politics it was clear that money and power were concentrated in cities. I always associated myself with small towns and the country. I could see the constant struggle, even in the United States, between city folks and country folks, those who exercised power and those who felt powerless, those who claimed knowledge and those whom they despised as ignorant, the elite and the masses, the captains of industry and those who produced, the haves and the have nots. But I knew a larger truth, for I had grown up in the country. I saw the dichotomy in different terms, Dives and Lazarus, the Arkansas Traveller, the Greater and Lesser Traditions. While the city disdained the country folk, it needed them, and they each other. Most city dwellers originated in the country and much of their discomfort was of themselves and their roots. Somehow the self loathing of the poor has transformed itself into identifying with their oppressors. No one considers themself poor anymore. It’s always those other people. We want everything for ourselves and our children and instead of despising those who exploit us and the country for their own gain, we want to be just like them. Traditional virtues like modesty, honesty, and thrift pale in comparison with self aggrandizement, conspicuous consumption, and profligacy. Greed is Good.
Well, I for one am proud to be poor. I know that the love of money truly is the root of all evil. And that it doesn’t profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul. If we don’t want to meet the enemy and find that he is us, we need to get off the mesmerizing, dizzying ride toward our destruction and try to establish once again the principles that frame the kind of world in which we want to live. Love, Honor, Tolerance, all those inconvenient ideas we have forgotten to take time for.
Nov. 4, 2004
The next time I flip a coin and it comes up on one side or the other, I’ll have to remember to declare I have a mandate. Sorry, I wasn’t planning on being so political so soon.
I might as well take on this French Thing right off the top. I am not French to my knowledge, nor have I ever been known as a Francophile. As the largest city often speaks for the country, most people equate Paris with France. As a country boy I have an aversion to Parisians and New Yorkers in equal measure, though I’ve always had a sympathetic feeling for southern France–much more like Italy or Spain–and peasants in general. I’ve never liked the art of the French renaissance or baroque, except the music, and I can’t listen to Edith Piaf. I don’t drink wine, red or white, don’t like my cheese bleu, and, as a Southern boy with a great cook for a mom, have never had much interest in a cuisine that wants to make a chicken look like a peacock.
As an historian I know as well as anyone the shortcomings of French politics, philosophy, and military leadership. But enough is enough. Arrogance knows no national boundaries: Americans need a history lesson and a reality check before criticizing the French, or any Europeans, in the post 9/11 world.
If the French hadn’t invaded England most of us would still be speaking some Germanic language with verbs at the end of our sentences and not even missing two-thirds of our vocabulary.
It is probable that the United States would not exist were it not for the assistance of French soldiers, sailors, munitions, and money during the American Revolution. (So I can’t hate everything about the Louis’s.) Afterwards, if Napoleon hadn’t sold us Louisiana, we might be stuck on the Atlantic seaboard, boxed in by France, Canada, or Mexico.
But much more importantly, France knows first hand what war does to a people and a country. The two greatest catastrophies of modern times played out on the soil of France. I grew up seeing pictures of the ruins of French cities after The Great War in my history books and photographs of the ruins of Europe after the Second World War in magazines. I saw some of these ruins with my own eyes in Italy still in the early 1950s. And anyone who watched the ceremonies commemorating the Normandy landings saw the genuine outpouring of affection and gratitude by everyday Frenchmen toward our Allied veterans. And we heard some of the stories they had to tell of their experiences during the Nazi occupation: the chances they took and the sacrifices they made on behalf of all of us, including the right-wing isolationists who had opposed our involvement. I will not criticize those who suffered oppression when they oppose war. When was the last time Americans heard the tread of occupying troops on our streets or saw our cities in rubble?
And the South still hasn’t gotten over it!