What’s In A Symbol?

The power of symbols to crystalize a sense of commonality can be extraordinary.  The Eiffel Tower was intended to be a temporary structure, but now universally represents the spirit of France.  Queen Elizabeth is the living embodiment of Great Britain, as will be her heirs.

Symbols’ meaning have a way of evolving to meet the needs of those they represent.  The cross, originally a cruel means to a torturous death, became the adopted icon for Christianity, for example.  Tea became a symbol of rebellion once, and again more recently, in this country.

I’ve had an increasingly ambivalent sense of the symbol that is our flag for some time now.  You can fly it with national pride, wear it as a patch on your jeans, and burn it as an exercise of free speech.  Children, and sometimes adults, pledge allegience to our flag, but only incidentally to the “nation for which it stands”, something that more than a few intelligent students have found anomolous at times.

The Stars and Stripes certainly is a reminder of the sacrifices of many who fought to protect our country and to keep it one nation.  It represents the values and traits that helped set our country apart, but its image is simultaneously soiled by a history of slavery, trails of tears, Japanese internment and all too many more shameful times.  I suppose that in these ways it serves its role well, representing the best and the worst of what we, as a collective people, are and have been.

My ambivalence began, I believe, with the flag waving patriots of my youth who used the flag as an emblem of the motto, “My country, right or wrong.”  I have seen its meaning misunderstood, as when Ronald Reagan adopted as a campaign theme, Bruce Springsteen’s protest anthem, Born in the U.S.A. 

Recently, I’ve begun to recognize a mantra from some that could be characterized as, “My truth, right or wrong, and all who challenge it are traitors or worse.”  Their stance has passed beyond partisanship to one preferring that our house burn rather than allowing others in.  Their motives have become purely about winning and not about governing according to any coherent principles.

I’d like to be wrong, but I have begun to sense that displaying the flag can easily be interpreted as identifying with “them”.  It shouldn’t be that way, of course.  We should be proud of our diverse roots and of our freedom to be who we choose. The flag should belong to all of us, regardless of the meaningless things that make us each different and diverse.  Still, I never see the flag displayed any longer by people who just want to carry on with life and have us all get along.  I certainly never see it displayed by those who support “liberal” causes.

With all that in mind, I spent some time looking for a symbol that is universally recognized as a positive emblem of our country and the broader values of its people.  As it turns out, nothing could better represent that aspect of America than the Statue of Liberty.  It, like our nation, is a beacon to the world.  The words read at its dedication from the poem by Emma Lazarus speak perfectly to the spirit of those who came to this country and who made it great:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Woody Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land as a protest anthem in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.  Ironically, Ronald Reagan used Guthrie’s lyrics as part of his re-election campaign speeches, once again not recognizing the song’s original purpose.

At least for me, the Statue of Liberty symbolizes the America that Woody sang of: the welcoming of the “masses yearning to be free.” It does nothing to fade the literal and figurative colors of our flag, but at least to me, it is more inclusive and thus vastly more welcoming of the many shades of color that make up a people drawn by the common dream of freedom.

Without criticizing or demeaning any who might not share or grasp my point (which I apologize for not sharing well), I suggest a symbol of our country that we might all rally around, however tentatively in these distrustful times.  Let the Statue of Liberty share the stage with all the images that define us as a people.

As a personal statement, I’ve created my own bumper sticker with the image you see here.  I’m working on a flag to display outside my door and a burgee for my boat (ah, sailboats are for one or many future posts).  Still, I offer the symbol of the statue to you, but leave to you the choice of expression.

I dare say that this is a moment in history in which what we choose and what we do as individuals weighs more meaningfully than most.  I’ve shared one measure of my own attempt to reclaim and redefine all of us as something resembling one people.  Find your own place, but for the sake of anything holy, find and claim shared common ground.

For me, it is Liberty Island.  It is a stone’s throw from Ellis Island, the teeming shore of the homeless, yearning to be free – a vision we need to revive.

Look into your own heritage.  Contemplate and appreciate all that it represents.  The vision of those who sacrificed to become us, lives on.

 

 

 

 

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Reflections in the Rain

“Life is short, but the days and nights are long.”

Cheryl Wheeler

 

Today is one of those mid-winter days in which you can’t recall when you last saw the sun, and the damp, grey afternoon is distinguished only by occasional raindrops disturbing puddles that have taken residence outside my window.  These are, they tell us, the shortest days of the year, but too many seem cold and hollow, and the nights, indeed, so long.

At this point in the season, family gatherings are gone and forgotten, with children scattered to the four corners and to lives and children of their own.  Even football, for those so inclined, is only a memory, though it may have seemed important at the time.

With the business of life at ebb, days like this may provoke one to ponder what they should mean when you string them all together and reflect on life and its meaning.  There are so many answers, and none seem complete.  The best that Rousseau and Tolstoy seemed to offer was to “tend your garden”, in a figurative and perhaps literal way.   Religion satisfies many, although Marx had a bit of a point in describing it as an opiate.

Pop culture often offers enigmatic or simply shallow answers.  One of the best comes from a scene in the movie, City Slickers:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s***.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: That’s what you have to find out.

In a more serious vein, Emerson once wrote:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy.  It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

There is an Internet page from years ago, but still available, that offers examples of the claim that many complicated things in life can be distilled into “Two Things”.  Here is one example, which as a lawyer, I can say is a bit too true:

The Two Things about Practicing Law in the Real World:
1. Billable hours.
2. Deep pockets.

For what passes as fun, as the rain takes command and punctuates this afternoon with thunder, I took a shot at what might be the two things about life.  Here is my offer:

  1. Remember to breathe.  For a few of us, and more in times of stress, this is not flippant advice, so take it.  For many others though, you can interpret it figuratively as a reminder to live in the moment.
  2. Have a reason to continue.  Consider why you add value to “life” in the larger context.  That may not be “one thing” or even two, but if you haven’t taken time to consider your place in the bigger picture of things, you probably aren’t experiencing life in any meaningful way.

I don’t mean to pontificate and have spent more than a little time this season considering my second point without any definitive answer.  Today, simply seemed like a good time to share the question, because life can well be short.

 

 

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In a Different Light

Please don’t get me wrong.  I believe every girl and every woman should enjoy the moment of wearing a pretty dress and being a princess at a ball.  (Don’t bother to comment on whether the dress you see is pretty, and don’t go off on women who don’t like to wear dresses, men who do, or even kilts.  You get my point.)  I imagine that the little refugee girl you see has imagined her own moment in a figurative glass slippers.

I happen to have known more than a few refugees in my sheltered life.  I know one who was the son of  Cuban doctor and was smuggled out during the revolution with his siblings.  His parents escaped years later.  His father could not practice, but they lived a modest life and raised a son who became a corporate executive and a good and caring man.  There are others, but I need to share one particular example.

My church and a related nonprofit sponsored a Cambodian family during the Pol Pot regime.  The family grew in numbers as others escaped and joined them to form a community that resembled what the values we think of as American much more than any “native” ones I know.

One Cambodian child stood out, and I’d like to share his story with you.  I doubt that he would mind my giving his name, but his story is not unique among those of refugees, so let him simply be an example.

This child crawled through the mud of rice fields in Cambodia with his family, while bullets passed overhead to escape horrors comparable to the Syrian girl you see above.  I had the honor of helping him when he arrived, but he quickly proved himself a better and more directed person than I could have been.  He learned English, excelled in school, and earned a scholarship to Duke.  There he became a nurse practitioner, so that he could return to Cambodia and help heal his people.  He is still there today, serving humbly but with more dignity and grace than words can relate.

I fond it hard at times to carry on in this world that has gone wrong in so many ways.  If you have a moment like that, find yourself a refugee and ask for his or her story. The power of yearning to be free can be miraculous, and we need some miracles today.

 

 

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The Rule of Law

Yesterday, the President fired his acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, for ordering the Justice Department not to defend or enforce his Executive Order banning Muslims from certain countries.  Her conclusion, reached after extensive discussions within the DOJ, was that the order appeared to be based on his stated intention to bar Muslims from entering the country.  Whether or not you agree with her order, it was her duty to enforce a decades old law that forbids religious tests for obtaining and exercising the right to enter the US.  Normally, the DOJ is consulted on decisions like that made in this order, which call for interpretations of the law.  This did not occur, and neither were other affected departments, resulting in chaos at our borders and around the world.

The Attorney General, serves in a unique role as the attorney for the United States and not for the President.  It is a principle that has been demonstrated and accepted by every administration in modern history, except one – or now two.  If, in this case, she found as she did, it was her duty to instruct the Department not to enforce the order.

One of the founding principles of this country is that we are a nation of laws, by which all are bound, even the most powerful.  Without that assumption, our Constitution would be meaningless.  Even the President, and most importantly the President, has this responsibility.

In civics class we all learned about the concept of checks and balances that prevents one part of the government from usurping control from the people.  Sally Yates exercised that responsibility.  At the same time, the President was within his right to fire her.  Sadly, he chose to follow Richard Nixon’s model of firing his Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, followed by his deputy William Ruckelshaus, for refusing to unlawfully remove the Watergate Special Prosecutor.  Unlike Nixon, this President did not exercise the good judgment to ask for her reasoning, before summarily firing her.

I’ve tried here to stick basically to the facts, up to this point, and I hope I’ve been sufficiently accurate.  What I really want to address is the President’s seemingly insecure and baseless choice to disparage Sally Yates.  She come from a long line of distinguished and principled lawyers from the city where I live.  She made it here career to serve in and rise through the ranks of the DOJ.  She successfully prosecuted the Olympic bomber, Eric Rudolph. She served with honor, character, integrity, intelligence and humility  when she became the US District Attorney and again when she was appointed to be second in command in the Justice Department.

You may disagree with the decision for which she was fired, but you disparage an honest and upright person if you criticize her personally.  When all is said, we must be better than that.

Update:  Slate published a thoughtful article on this subject here, which I recommend.

And another:  The President, through his new Attorney General, recently asked a number of District Attorneys to resign.  One, Preet Bahara from New York, refused to resign and was summarily fired.  We have since learned that he was investigating the HHS Secretary, Tom Price, for insider trading while serving in Congress.  The potential motivation for his firing is truly troubling.

 

 

 

 

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Alternative Facts

 

Just about all has been said, at this point, about Kellyanne Conway’s quote:

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

Still, when all is said, we seem to be left, not of different minds, but in alternate universes.  Many oxymorons have an element of truth within and I’ve spent some time dissecting this one, because the statement seemed to be an oddly sincere one and not a last ditch attempt at the last word.

Part of the fabric of life that makes it rich and deep is that our understanding grows as we explore farther and dig deeper.  History is filled with examples too many to recount, except perhaps to note that often those with new insights suffered at the hands of others more myopic –  Galileo comes to mind.  The common thread through each seems to be that a tincture of time and exposure to the heretical thought has ultimately advanced acceptance of this thing we ultimately treasure as “truth.”

If Dante’s vision is correct, there is a special place in Hell for those who, in the presence of what cannot be denied, turn to wash their hands and say, “What is truth?” Pontius Pilate was not alone when Virgil led Dante past that point and I fear that Pilate’s level of Hell grows more crowded as we speak.

Coincidentally, it was on this day in 1302 that Dante was exiled from Florence by political opponents who had taken power.  He spent the rest of his life in exile, though he used the time to write The Inferno, a work that has long outlasted his opponents.

Plato crafted an entire work on the metaphor that there exist tangible truths we only see as shadows on the wall of a cave.  His message was to turn to the light for genuine understanding because truth is a real thing, although, like the sun, it may be too bright to stare into. He offered only a metaphor, but we seem to have lost touch with any form of reality.

When Joesph McCarthy waged his war of false accusations, the words that brought him down were,”Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”  We seem to live in a world where what is black and what is white are matters of opinion, advanced not for better understanding, but to beat down others.  There is no decency in that and no future.  That is a fact.

 

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A Different Kind of Climate Change

When Rousseau wrote “The Social Contract”, in which he imagined world in which people lived in natural harmony, without the need for God, the church or government as we know it, he wisely prefaced his work with praise for those very things, lest he be excommunicated or worse.

So I begin by offering my opinion that climate change is the greatest challenge and danger facing not just mankind, but all of life on earth.  As I write this at a time of year when I should see snow, it is 25 degrees above normal and there is a thunderstorm outside.  We have much to do, and I pray we are not too late.

I wonder if we might begin, however, with a different kind of climate change.  The change I’d imagine is one in which we talk, and listen, to each other again.  Perhaps a climate in which we communicate, not to win or worse to put down another, might just be our own “first small step for mankind” here on earth.

In my last post, I suggested that the time was ripe for each of us to write our own “manifesto.”  Corporations often articulate their values, even though they may not practice them.  Why not us and why not in this time of change?

Yesterday, in lieu of watching the news, I took the time to craft my own manifesto, my own statement of values.  For what it is worth, I’ll share it here.

 

Be Kind.  The world can be a cruel place.

Live Small.  Make room and save resources for others.

Seek Peace.  Both within yourself and with others.

 

There you have my opening offer toward a different kind of climate change.

 

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The Apocalypse

 

Stay with me on this.  I promise I have a point, and perhaps even one that is worth taking the time to read, in these final days of life on earth as we know it.

One of my favorite  blogs posted  a piece today on how to cope with “this week”, a euphemism for the inauguration and all that is taking place in Washington.  While this particular blog is not about politics, I recommend you visit hers, especially if you are a liberal, progressive, moderate or true conservative.  Change of the scope being proposed, by leaders who sometimes don’t know what their organization does, should make you stop and think. That is what this blog is intended to do, and thus this monologue.

While we still have the Internet to turn to, I searched “What to do in the apocalypse?”  After several pages of entries devoted to zombies, which I hope aren’t relevant, I came across two results worth considering.

The second, and I am not kidding here, is an article from The Economist entitled, “I Will Survive.” The article, while occasionally a bit tongue-in-cheek, is a serious discussion of the phenomenon of survivalist culture in our country.  The fact that the Economist, in 2014, would address what to do in a global economic collapse means that sane, dull and ordinary people have reason to contemplate what to do if the utterly impossible happened, as many fear is the case now.

The first recommendation I have, however, is for you to give thought to a fairly random list of “50 Things to do During the Post Apocalypse.”  Most of the list turns from silly to practical and back, but two suggestions struck me as brilliantly appropriate in the context of whatever you choose to call current events.

And here is my point,  for when, whether now or someday, the world crumbles around you and there is no hope to save it or escape.  First, “write your memoirs.” Capture and share how you got to wherever the end of the world is.  It is likely to be a good story and perhaps a lesson for the future, if there is to be one.

Second, and this is key, “write your manifesto” of what the world should be if you could rebuild it. Identify and articulate your values and describe what a world built on those might be.  There are times, I know myself, when all one has is hope and even that seems gone.  I suppose I am speaking to myself here, but even if there seems to be nothing one person can do, and everything is in free fall, grounding yourself in your values is a place to begin – again.

 

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When You Ask Who Said It

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King is most often quoted for this line, and he did, indeed, make this hopeful point, but his context was broader and deeper than meaning we give it in today’s Twitter world.

His actual statement was more telling:

“Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross,” Dr. King wrote, “but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”

The presence of the quotation marks points to another source and, with the aid of Quote Investigator, I learned that King’s words had their own historical precedent.

Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister and an abolitionist in a time when the change he dreamed of was something that had little relation to reality then or in his lifetime.  What he wrote was:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.  You will find other versions of his words in other sources, but none betray his certainty.

All this is not to ask whose words we honor – indeed, Barack Obama is rightfully fond of this phrase – but to add context to the necessity of hope that tomorrow can be better for those who follow.  We must all work to deliver, if not yet to live, the dream.

 

 

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What History Has to Say

Today is the birthday of Albert Schweitzer.  If that name is only vaguely familiar, click on the link in his name.  Despite great odds and the talent of a genius in more than one field, he dedicated his life to the health of the poorest of Africa.  By any definition, including those who award the Nobel Peace Prize, he was a hero.

Today was also the day that George Wallace became governor of Alabama in 1963.  One of the leaders who rose up to challenge the policies and hatred that Wallace espoused was John Lewis.  Unlike many whose lives were cut short for standing up to the injustice of the day, Lewis continues to stand for justice and service to his community as a member of Congress.  For many, however, he has also earned the title of hero.

John Lewis is in the news today, and I will not comment on the merits of the conversation he has initiated.  I feel a deep need, however, to say that with his honorable life and service, John Lewis has earned the right to speak and to be heard.  If we refuse to listen and discuss, we have surrendered a generation of progress.  The irony of Schweitzer and Wallace sharing this day, now with Lewis, deserves recognition and contemplation.

P.S.  Bill Moyers, who speaks with knowledge and authority had this to say this morning about John Lewis.

 

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A Shkreli Moment

 

Not to blame any one person, no matter how deservedly despised, but I experienced a “Shkreli” moment yesterday.  A prescription that cost us $10 last month was priced at $1200 yesterday.  Neither the pharmacy, our mail order service, nor our insurer could provide any useful explanation, which certainly diminished any confidence I have in our medical system.

As insurance goes, mine is fairly good, so I can imagine what many must experience in the murky maze that was once among the best medical systems in the world.  There is certainly much to criticize with the current Affordable Care Act, but I shudder to think what we may face in an unregulated free market in the coming days.

I have no stomach for political partisanship, but it disturbs me that a country like Cuba has a medical system that exceeds ours in many respects and is available and affordable to all.  Surely we all agree that we can and must do better.

In an ironic note, when I placed a call today to my insurer, they suggested that I check drug prices online before turning to their own contracted pharmacy service.  I’ll pass on their recommendation to you as well.  There are certainly other resources (including Canada, but check out GoodRX.com.

 

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The Last Word

After all is said and done, more is said than done.

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