Friday, May 23, 2014

A Memorial Day Lament: How the U.S. Fails Its Veterans

“Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?”  --from a 1969 film of the same name

Qualification.  I’m not a veteran.  Have never put on a uniform and fought on behalf of my country and fellow citizens.  My Dad was a vet, served in the Korean War.  I’ve been blessed to know many vets as friends, neighbors, colleagues and parishioners.  Regardless of how I’ve felt about the morality or rightness of any war in which our veterans fought, I’ve always believed that the very least America can do in thanks to these women and men, is to take good care of them once they come back home and hang up their uniforms. 

This doesn’t seem to be happening, at least according to recent allegations about the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the federal agency responsible for veteran services.  It’s been reported that staff at VA hospitals across the country may have manipulated waiting lists to cover up the agency’s ineptitude at providing compassionate, competent and most important, timely care, for America’s wounded warriors.  At one VA facility, up to 40 vets may have died while waiting to see a doctor. 

So imagine this.  You are a veteran. You served one, two or more deployments in America’s latest wars, Iraq or Afghanistan, or both.  At best you need the VA for basic medical care and services to readjust to civilian life.  At worst you suffer from post traumatic stress disorder or lost a limb in the war.  You are haunted by violent, unrelenting memories. Traumatized by war, you struggle with an addiction or mental illness.  Maybe you’re homeless. You are a Vietnam vet with cancer linked to Agent Orange, a World War II or Korean War vet. And you need help. 

But when you reach out, the phone line is perpetually busy or you’re told it will be months before you can see a doctor. The nearest VA facility is hundreds of miles away or that disability check you need is caught up in a backlog of millions of others.  And yup, every few years or so, the latest VA scandal is exploited by pols worried about re-election and a media seeking sensational headlines.  A few heads roll and there’s a series of angry press conferences and congressional hearings and promises are made and then the next big story comes along and vets are essentially forgotten. Again. Except for Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

I wish I could say this reality was an aberration, that from generation to generation we’ve treated our veterans with dignity, respect and generosity. But the truth?  In 1781 the army which defeated Great Britain was demobilized, without any discharge pay.  In the midst of the Great Depression, 43,000 World War I veterans and their supporters were so desperate to redeem their war service bonuses that they marched on and occupied Washington, D.C. In response the army and police routed them, killing two veterans, a twelve year old boy and injuring 135 others.  Vietnam veterans faced a hostile public. Today there are 2.3 million veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and 22 million veterans total. 

They served. But how do we serve them, now that they are home for good? 

I’m not sure why the United States has so often failed its veterans.  Maybe it is because the all volunteer army has negated the “we’re all in this together” ideal of national commitment and service.  Now it is the very, very few who serve. Active military folks represent less than .80 percent of the entire U.S. population.  How many of us non-veterans have done anything to help or sacrifice in any recent war effort?  We’ve not even paid our taxes for the last two wars, which were instead financed completely by government debt.  Communal sacrifice?  Shared responsibility?   In 2014 vets may seem more like “them” than “us”. 

Maybe it is because we do not want to be reminded of what we ask soldiers to do on our behalf.  War is hell. Who among us really wants to hear the gory details, or face the true price paid by soldiers for the hell on earth which is armed combat? We’ve seemed more than willing to go to war as a country in the past decade or so, just as long as someone else does it for us. Makes me wonder how quick the U.S. would be to wage war if, before one shot was fired, we’d all have to be willing to serve too.  Then perhaps we’d take more seriously the toll that war takes on human beings, how it breaks hearts, maims bodies and wounds souls. 

So in the shadow of Memorial Day, the day we are supposed to remember and honor our nation’s war dead, let’s do more than just pin on a flag lapel pin or wave the red, white and blue at a parade or stand at attention when the national anthem is played. That’s easy patriotism, mere ritual, which asks nothing of us. Instead let’s thank our vets directly, and not just through polite words. Let’s really care for them. Pay enough in taxes to make the VA a world class agency. Demand accountability from our government.  And most important, recognize what veterans have done for us. What they gave. What they sacrificed.

They answered the call. Now it is our turn.



Monday, May 19, 2014

Intolerance On Campus: What Happened to "Liberal" Education

"Let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished.”              
 --Fredrick Siebert

I wish I could say the commencement speech I heard at my graduation ceremony from the University of Massachusetts thirty one years ago this month was memorable for me, life changing, that its soaring rhetoric sent me into the world, diploma in hand, primed for action!  But it did not. On that bright sunny Saturday, like many of my fellow graduates, I had other things on my mind.  I wanted to find my proud parents in a sea of onlookers.  I wondered if I’d find a job. I was sad about leaving UMass, my friends, my community. 

But whether or not I and my fellow undergrads actually listened, our speaker, Eleanor Holmes, Chairperson of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: she spoke her piece.  Expressed her opinion. Speechified unfettered, unedited. No one protested.  No one complained.  No one sought to shut her up because of what she believed, her politics, her past actions.  I mean we were on a college campus, right?  The place in the world where ideas of all kinds are supposed to be taught and discussed, debated and argued, aired out and presented in freedom, for all to hear and then for all to judge.    

But not so much this year at some very high profile “liberal” American colleges and universities.  In 2014 the list of speakers shut down, shut out, or invited but then rudely disinvited to speak at college commencements: it reads like a who’s who of some the most qualified, talented and committed folks in our world.  At Smith College, International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde, one of the most powerful women in the world, withdrew from speaking after student protests. At Rutgers University, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at one time the most influential African-American woman in the United States government, bowed out from her speech in the face of student and faculty complaints. At Brandeis University, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the bravest voices in criticizing religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world, was told, “thanks but no thanks”, her invitation to speak rescinded. Alums and students apparently were afraid she might be too controversial.

One of the things I loved about undergraduate and graduate school was learning and growing in a place of tolerance, enthusiastically investigating ideas and life experiences and politics different from my own. As a Christian at seminary, I was immersed in the study of other faiths and became less self-righteous in that process.  As a white at UMass, for the first time in my young life I actually listened to the stories of students of color and began to understand the struggles they faced, the privilege I possessed.  Straight, I met and became friends with gays and lesbians. A man, I was educated in the truth of gender discrimination.  Liberal, I argued on the pages of my college newspaper, The Collegian, with conservative writers who gave me their best shot.

Isn’t that what a “liberal” education is all about?  Isn’t this what it means to live in a “liberal democracy” like ours’, this amazing and messy and heady mix of religions and races and genders and orientations and ideologies?  We’re not supposed to live in a mono culture in the United States but sometimes it can feel that way.  We get the news from sources we feel comfortable with, hear only the opinions which reflect our bias—think all Fox News or all MSNBC or all Wall Street Journal or all NPR all the time.  I’m guilty of this. 

We’re governed by leaders who way too often stake out their positions at the far end of the spectrum: wide eyed knee jerk soft hearted “liberalism”, or close minded, small hearted crazy conservatism.  Who speaks for the many of us who live in the middle?  We can be tempted to worship our God in our way and become so convicted of the rightness of our faith that faithfulness morphs into fundamentalism. We consciously and unconsciously segregate ourselves into communities of people who look like us, talk like us, believe like us and live like us. 

I know I don’t want to live this way: closed off, existing in an ideological echo chamber which reflects back only ideas guaranteed to make me comfy, happy and oh so sure of what I believe.  In a way the censoring of commencement speakers reflects a larger trend in our country towards social fundamentalism.  We fear what we don’t know. And we don’t know, because our fear prevents us from even listening to “the other” in the first place. 

This is what I believe, even before I believe anything.  In the free marketplace of ideas, a radically open exchange of knowledge and opinions is needed for the “truth” to finally emerge, whatever that might be. Without this interaction, we are doomed to live on islands of ignorance.  We are consigned to life in a warring world where we attack each other because we don’t try to actually find what our “opponent” thinks.   

So here’s to graduation. Let the champagne flow and the speeches fly and the diplomas go hand to hand.  Maybe next year more of our mortar board clad grads will actually get to hear from someone they disagree with. 

Now that’s truly “liberal” higher education. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Minnesota Nice or Cranky Yankee? It's All About The Geography...

Geography (noun) 1. the topographical features of a region, usually of the earth

I love to travel and see new places for lots of reasons. There’s the new and exotic food, like the beef tongue in Guatemala I tasted for the first time, and no it didn’t talk back, and yes it was very delicious.  There’s the chance to witness traditions not much found in my little New England town.  In Istanbul, Turkey I heard the Muslim call to prayer as it floated out and over that metropolis five times daily, a haunting cacophony beckoning the faithful to that city’s 3,000 mosques.  There’s often a baseball game to catch, a great way to get the sense of a place and so my visit to Japan included a contest between the Tokyo Giants and the Nippon Ham Fighters. “Get ya sushi here!”  

And then there is the geography of a place: its shape, its contours, how the land is laid out, spreads out and contains its people.  How folks make peace with their particular corner of God’s Creation, adapt to life in their part of the world, with its unique topographical fingerprint, its quirks. As I write this, I’m far away from Massachusetts and its one of a kind topography: steep hills, rocky fields and windswept shores.  Instead I’m at latitude 45 degrees, 35 minutes and longitude -94 degrees, 23 minutes.  For the geographically challenged (that includes me) this puts me in Collegeville, Minnesota, 77 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Draw a straight line east from here and you hit Montreal; west you poke Portland, Oregon. 

I’ve been coming back to Minnesota for almost 25 years to visit friends and now to retreat at a Benedictine University, so even though this place feels like a second home, geographically? It’s kind of odd here, a land so different from the east coast.  This contrast got me to thinking that for all us humans suppose we shape the land, the truth is that the land shapes us too. The land makes us. That who we are is as much about where we live as how we live. That to be a northern New England Yankee, or Boston Brahmin or Connecticut Nutmeger or Maine-iac or Rhody Rebel is to be carved out by the geography we call home. 

In the northeast the land seems to weigh down upon us somehow, contain us, hover over us, invite us in.  Mountains and hills dot the landscape, rise out of the horizon in the distance, grow large, a bit ominous, as we approach, peaks stretching skyward. The scale of land in New England is tight, closed off even.  Or the land drops off into the vast ocean on the coast, pushes right up to the sea, gives us a craggy vantage point to gaze out upon the unknown, the threatening.  Howling northeasters, blowing blizzards, hellacious hurricanes. 

Ever wonder why New Englanders have a reputation for being reserved at best, chilly at worst?  Taciturn, sharp, flinty, puritan, circumspect.  The kind of folks who might not know their next door neighbor, even though they’ve shared the same street for years.  Well, what do you expect? Try coaxing food out the rocky soil or fish from the sometimes deadly ocean. Try making a life in its tightly packed and oh so busy cities. It is true that when you make a friend of someone in New England they are a friend for life and yet…first impressions?  Well—we can be kind of hard, not unlike the granite which marks the landscape. 

We are the land in New England.  The land makes us.

Which brings me to my temporary home here in the upper Midwest, a land of 10,000 lakes (actually 11,842 to be exact), a land which save for a few rolling hills, is about as flat as flat can be, at least to this New Englander.  The bike path I pedal is as straight and true as you can get.  No curves. No ups. No downs. And watch out for the stiff headwind.  This is a land of almost constant wind--once it starts to blow at the Rocky Mountains and head east there’s not much to stop it until it gets to the Appalachians.  A land which feels like an ocean of land, stretching out for as far as you can see, in some places so level you can perceive the curvature of the earth.  A land so far north the sun doesn’t go down until 8:35 pm this time of year.

Folks here live exposed, on top of the land.  If you want to experience your true place in this big world as one little human being, stand on the edge of a vast Minnesota prairie with its gently rolling brown vegetation and you are quickly reminded of how huge the earth and sky can be.  Here geography humbles, that’s for sure.  To watch angry greenish thunder clouds roll in from the west or south; hear a tornado siren wale, warning you to take shelter.  Here the land puts you in your place, cuts you down to size.

Maybe that’s why in the “North Star State” they talk about “Minnesota Nice” and without a tinge of irony.  Some of the nicest, most “down to earth” folks I’ve ever met in all my travels hale from here.  Their earnest helpfulness and sincere hospitality can be startling to this on edge northeasterner.  After the fourth grocery store employee in a row asked me, “Have you found everything you needed?” I was tempted to say: “Enough with the niceness already!”  Maybe that’s why former Minnesota Twins baseball player David Ortiz was destined to play for the Boston Red Sox.  You’d just never hear anyone from these parts declare: “You don’t %$^&* with our city!” Just not done.  Not the Minnesota way. The land here seems to remind folks of their true place in the universe.

Of course I’m playing with stereotypes, cranky Yankees versus Lake Woebegone friends.  There are surly Minnesotans and soft hearted New Englanders.  But stereotypes work because always there is a kernel of truth within.

So the next time you are out and about on the land, going for a walk or a hike or a ride, pay attention.  Find your place in the land. Thank the Creator for the geographic gifts and features, landscapes which make that land your land. We are the land.  In Massachusetts, in Minnesota, every where on God’s earth.

And who knows? I just may come back home a nicer guy.