Reflections On Loss: My Mom, My Country's Soul
Reflections On Loss: My Mom, My Country's Soul
By Bernard Weiner
The Crisis Papers
My mother died this week, at age 93, and I'm still struggling with the finality of her departure -- even though, in her long slide into terminal Alzheimers, she had been disappearing from us in stages for the past 15 years.
Florence Weiner was a pure soul, mostly uncontaminated by politics, but she and my late father imparted in me a deep sense of ethics and morality. Mom also possessed a fairly sharp bullshit detector, which obviously was passed on to us kids as well.
As I sat there at the memorial service with my wife and sisters and sons, and listened to the various comments from the relatives and the rabbi, I came to appreciate even more the totality of Mom's life's experience. Certainly, I was concentrating on my mom during the service, but every so often -- and after we left the sanctuary -- my mind flitted to others:
* I thought of how many young American soldiers, and Iraqi civilians, would never get to live out their lives' potential because of misguided aggressive policies of our government. That's the blood of 20,000 souls on their -- and, to a certain extent, our -- hands.
* I thought of how supportive and caring my Republican friends and acquaintances have been as they watch our family grieving the death of our matriarch -- the universality of life, and the ache accompanying its loss, transcends all political lines. But after that expression of caring will come the usual denunciations for my "lack of patriotism," as they confuse support for the country with support for the President.
* I thought of how stem-cell research holds the distinct promise of finding cures for so many major diseases -- including Alzheimers -- but we will lose years and decades because of ideological disputes about the spiritual qualities of frozen embryos.
* I thought about a system that required Mother to spend down her precious little bank account -- the money she wanted to pass on to her children and grandchildren -- before the care facility would move her into the Medicaid program. Surely, there is a better way to insure that all citizens receive adequate health care during their lives without forcing them into poverty.
* I thought about the fear that dominated her life -- her father had been murdered by anti-Semites, as a child she had to hide under the bed when periodic pogroms swept through her tiny village in Poland -- and how Americans are being programmed for constant fright by an Administration manipulating the 9/11 attacks for its own political and economic ends.
BEWARE OF PHONIES, THE UNCURIOUS
My mother, by positive and negative example, taught me key life-lessons: always be who you are, don't try to bend yourself into someone else's vision of who you should be; don't meekly accept someone else's definition of truth but always seek it yourself. Authenticity and integrity and education are all; beware those who are phony, corrupted, uncurious.
Maybe that's why I became a writer, and why I was fascinated by politics and social psychology. I wanted to explore the complexities of personality, of life; I wanted to figure out how the system worked, what led folks to behave and believe in certain ways, and how their actions affected others.
My formative years were in the 1950s, and then again in "The Sixties." As an adolescent and teenager in the '50s, in the American South, not much was happening in the way of democratic political activism; most people simply took their cues from the central government. And, in the post-World War II boom, they were busy building families and reconstructing their economic lives, trying to return to normalcy; the business of government was left to those in power.
AMERICA'S APARTHEID SYSTEM
But even as a teenager, it was impossible not to notice certain social forces at work. The South separated whites and blacks in a rigidly segregated society; though I didn't know the word then, it was effectively an "apartheid" way of life, with African-Americans and Native Americans at the bottom of society, treated like subhumans. To my way of thinking, that didn't square with the words I recited every day in the Pledge of Allegiance, and with what was being taught in the synagogues and churches with which I was familiar.
As a budding writer, I came to be aware that most newspapers were silent about the various hypocrisies involved in the power structure. They just went along to get along, and thus perpetuated the injustices. In order to find out what really was going on, one had to search out alternative sources of information -- such as I.F. Stone's Weekly or David Riesman's Committee of Correspondence or in folk music and jazz bubbling beneath the surface or in the repressed communities themselves. (I hung out in those few jazz clubs in my later teenage years where, even in the South, blacks and whites could mingle freely; later, I would join the courageous young African-American activists in the Civil Rights Movement in breaking down those apartheid laws and customs.)
In 1954, I remember sitting mesmerized in front of our tiny, black-and-white TV, watching the Army-McCarthy hearings. As a teenager, I had little understanding of the complexity of what was unfolding in front of my eyes, but I was quite aware that the curtains masking the powerful are seldom opened to the citizenry, and this was one of those rare times. And so I watched, fascinated to see how a dangerous demagogue, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, after doing untold damage to our body politic, finally destroyed himself on national TV.
This was in the beginnings of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States -- that conflict that had terrified us as kids, forcing us to "drill" for thermonuclear war by hiding under our desks at school, as if that procedure actually would save us from the radiation and blast. Even we children knew better.
IGNORING NATIONALISM'S POWER
I became intrigued by that Cold War, and how both sides were locked into rigid frames of mind that threatened to destroy the globe. I moved on to college and then graduate school, determined to learn more about this political/military impasse. My Ph.D. dissertation was on a key turning point in that Cold War, America's so-called Truman Doctrine -- which I saw as a foundation for our misconceived war in Vietnam -- that refused to acknowledge the reality of nationalist forces within world communism and instead treated that "ism" as a single evil entity.
The next decade of my life -- roughly from 1964 to 1974, as a graduate student and then as a college teacher and then as an independent journalist -- became dedicated to ending that immoral and unwinnable Vietnam war. As an antiwar journalist and activist, I became obsessed with turning this country around from a culture based in death and repression.
Many of our "Sixties" generation wound up confronting our parents' generation -- indeed, in many cases, our own parents -- for their timidity and willingness to follow their governmental leaders, even when they were clearly wrong, as was the case in Vietnam. The culture and generational civil war tearing American apart was present even in our homes, and there were grand fights and estrangements -- a situation being repeated today in a good many families. (Mostly, my mom was concerned with my safety, and constantly urged me to keep my mouth shut -- advice I simply was not capable of taking, given the urgency of the situation.)
Eventually, the great middle class came to accept the truth that had been staring them in the face -- that their government had lied them into an unwinnable war, that our country was losing its soul in this slaughter -- and the peace was made, and the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. Things calmed down at home.
STEPPING BACK INTO THE BIG MUDDY
And now, here we are, 30 years later, fighting much the same fight all over again. A government, keeping its true goals hidden, has lied us into a war that is unwinnable and that is killing and maiming tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians and our own young soldiers. The worst shadow-aspects of our culture are unleashed in this battle -- torture as state policy, bombing from thousands of feet in the air (with the resultant "collatoral damage" in the civilian population), our Occupation humiliating and angering a proud, crushed people, our own national soul endangered.
And here I am again, along with so many of my compatriots from "The Sixties," back on the antiwar, pro-democracy barricades. Except this time, our country didn't bumble and stumble into a war; our leaders knowingly sought it out for a decade before we actually launched it. True, terrorists lit the match, but they were in Afghanistan; there was no good reason to bomb and invade Iraq.
Knowing that the American populace would not accept an imperial war -- one designed to gain control of Iraq's enormous oil reserves, to provide a military foothold in that volatile region in order to drastically alter the geopolitical map of the Middle East, to serve as an object-lesson to rulers who might want to dissent from American desires -- Bush&Co. settled on a justification they thought would work. Americans and Brits and the United Nations were told that Saddam had huge stockpiles of deadly "weapons of mass destruction" -- biological and chemical agents, an active nuclear weapons program -- and would use them on their neighbors and would deliver them to the U.S. mainland unless they were stopped, immediately. Couldn't wait another day.
And so, 30 years after the Vietnam war, we're once again fighting a war based on lies and mendacity and deficient intelligence & theory.
KERRY IS BEST BET FOR CHANGE
If my mother's mind had been working in her final years, even she, uninterested in politics, would have understood what was going on -- and would have warned me once again, especially in an Ashcroft age, to keep my mouth shut.
But I love my country and its institutions -- especially our exemplary Constitution -- too much for that. I couldn't remain silent during the Vietnam War, and there's no way I can permit another such misguided war to be waged in my name without standing up for what is right.
My mother was fearful throughout her life that bad people would come and harm her. Now we are harming others (some of whom likewise have harm in mind for us). There is a way out, though it's not certain exactly the paths to take; but it is crystal clear that the Bush cabal -- who got us into this mess -- are thorough incompetents and have no workable plan for getting us out. Indeed, as more and more facts emerge, it is increasingly clear they had no plan at all for the "postwar" period in Iraq.
John Kerry does not have all the answers -- either about the war, or the many domestic issues that we need to deal with -- but he does have a curious, more open mind. He does understand the deadly folly, and the thorough botch, Bush&Co. have made in Iraq. And he does understand that, under Bush, we are sacrificing our precious Constitution on the altar of "national security."
Therefore, on November 2, with my mother in mind, I will vote enthusiastically for the Kerry-Edwards ticket, and, after their victory, I will join millions of other Americans dedicated to keeping that new Administration honest and on the moral track.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., a poet and playwright, was a government professor at various universities, served as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers ( www.crisispapers.org). He is a contributing author to the recently-released "Big Bush Lies" book.