Monday, December 17, 2007

Happy Holidays

NEWS ITEM: “(New York) A group of people exchanging holiday greetings on a subway last week hurled anti-Semitic slurs and beat four Jewish riders who had wished them “Happy Hanukkah,” authorities said. The prosecutor’s office was investigating a possible hate crime.” (USA Today, 12/12/07)

In our country’s continuing need to create a controversy where there need not be one, we have now annualized this penchant. I refer to the great “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” cloud that hangs over salesclerks everywhere. What does one say to a stranger in this season of joy and love for people of virtually all faiths over an extended calendar of celebration?

I guess there are some folks who feel it to be their First Amendment and unalienable right and spiritual obligation to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Whether the recipient celebrates Christmas or not, or celebrates within a Christian or secular context, and usually without bothering to ask. Where companies have asked employees to use the Happy Holidays greeting (a meaningful wish applicable to virtually all peoples), employee groups and speeches from the pulpit decry once again “another assault on religion.” I think such outraged individuals have it backwards. If I may, I will use a personal story to illustrate.

When I left my native Arkansas at 21 to go to Boston, a more Wonder-bread kid from a homogeneous white Protestant environment could probably not be found. (What diversity existed in my town was out-of-sight/out-of-discussion, e.g. non-Protestants, Blacks.) Yet in Boston I found myself in a completely foreign melting-pot environment unlike any I had known. Religions, cultures, nationalities, with all their various Americanizations, were all there. Reflecting against all of these new experiences caused me to have to go back and understand where I had come from in my safe, all-the-same upbringing. It was a head-swirling multi-year process of change and assimilation, all for the far better I know.

On my return to Boston after a 2-year absence, I became dear friends with a couple whose history could not have been more different. Raised in New York City, in close knit Jewish communities, immersed in the performing arts, I seemingly had nothing in common with them at all. But over the years I learned so much from them and their family and friends. Not just about Jewish culture, but about many other cultures as well and the ability to all live together, given their broad exposure to such versus my nil.

For years, when the December holidays came around, I always sent them and his parents a Christmas card. Because Christmas cards is what I did every year. It was an unthinking reflex. Kind people that they are, they never pointed out to me my un-thoughtfulness, but just accepted the wish in good (and probably bemused) grace.

It was probably 15-20 years later when, out of the blue, it suddenly hit me how backwards I had been. Christmas is MY holiday, MY set of long memories. Their holiday, their memories, are of a different celebration and meaning --- in their case Hanukkah. I take joy when they wish me a Merry Christmas, their knowing that is a special time for me and my family. In my special feelings for them, I finally realized that my heart should wish them not my holiday but theirs: Happy Hanukkah, the holiday that brings similar seasonal warmth to them.

There are millions of non-Christians in this country, and many non-religious celebrators of Christmas. Many no longer live in isolated homogeneous communities, but increasingly we live intermixed all together. One can choose to “spread the Gospel” in the winter holiday time, or one can express true love and acceptance of each other and their respective celebrations. People who insist on the “right” to wish a Merry Christmas to people whose tradition of observance is different are in fact being very selfish. They make themselves feel better, but they are not truly spreading “joy and good will to others.”

Our country's diversity is one of our strengths. But say Happy Birthday to me on my birthday, not yours. Wish me a happy 4th of July, not a Happy Bastille Day. Wish people joy and peace in their own personal form. And if you don’t know, or haven’t tried to understand another’s culture, don’t assume; just know that “Happy Holidays” really does work just fine.

Happy Holidays to each of you, and to your friends and families, my readers.

Dedicated to Steve and Marilin, and honoring Steve’s recently deceased father.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

We Do Not Torture

President Bush has declared to the world that “Americans don’t torture.” Therefore, since Americans don’t torture, the various things we do to extract information from the “civilian combatants” we are holding are – by his definition – not torture. Because we don’t torture. Because we are the good guys. Because …..

It is said that a paradox is the ability to hold two apparently contradictory opposite thoughts in your mind at the same time with no apparent discomfort. It often seems that George Bush has raised the concept of paradox to an unimaginable art form enveloping not just Americans but citizens of the world.

By any simple definition, torture is the act of inflicting pain or death on someone, or causing one to believe that such pain or death is an imminent outcome, in order to force one to commit an action. Much of our recent national discussion has been around the example of “waterboarding” as an interrogation technique. This involves submerging individuals in water, or pouring water over their heads, to the extent that an individual believes drowning is imminent. Well, if this is not torture, I just don’t know what else is. Most common-sense Americans can recognize it as just that. Stripped of any legalistic wordsmanship and political candidate rhetoric about who is more qualified to “keep America safe,” this is violence against others rationalized by the end [keep Americans safe at any price] justifying the means [torture].

We have given away so much of our better selves as a result of our venture into Iraq. So many human, philosophical, and ethical casualties. We are still working through 30 years of our legacy in Viet Nam; our Iraq experience will likely take us as long or more to recover. Americans are fundamentally a good and generous people. But in the name of personal security we have long ago surrendered the moral high ground. While we point to the bad guys and say that all we do is permissible because our cause is just and ethical, the bad guys are equally convinced in the rightness of their cause. A cause that is a mystery to us, perhaps, but very clear and rational to them. And they have the willingness to do whatever is necessary to advance that cause. We are left to wonder --- what version of America are we defending?

When we operate on the same level as our enemy, we thereby implicitly endorse their actions. We become what we say we despise. It matters not who started a cycle of violence; that becomes irrelevant history in favor of who did what last. So their actions begat our actions begat their actions, and the cycle never ends.

John McCain, himself a torture victim in Viet Nam, is the only Republican presidential candidate forthright enough to denounce this mentality for the danger that it is. The other Republicans are too busy out-racing each other to be the ultimate war hardliner. Meanwhile, most of the Democratic candidates speak out against the use of torture, but are still trying to figure out how to present themselves as both a peace candidate and war president at the same time.

McCain, for whom this question is not a hypothetical question, understands the simple truth of reciprocity: that what we do to others inherently gives permission to others to do the same to us. We are entitled to no better treatment than what we give. When we inflict torture, no matter how seemingly justified in the short term, we invite the same treatment to our soldiers and civilians in the field. When we give away our morality in favor of revenge, how do we subsequently explain the abused and distorted body of a tortured soldier to his or her parents and family? “He did not die in vain” and “she served her country proudly” somehow just doesn’t seem to be enough.