Running on Empty

“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace, that two become a law firm, and that three or more become a congress.” — John Adams

There are two enduring images from my childhood. The first is my grandfather’s description of the end of the world as a fiery catastrophe revealed to us in the Bible. The second is the infamous Doomsday Clock that counted the minutes until nuclear annihilation. Honestly, growing up as a Black Baptist in the shadow of the Cold War, I cannot say which outcome was more frightening to me then. Yet as luck would have it, Communism collapsed, taking with it the threat of mutually-assured destruction; and the Biblical apocalypse so vividly described from the pulpit of my neighborhood church assumed its place alongside other cultural myths shelved in my mind.

Having thus fallen out of the habit of thinking about the END OF TIME (except for the Zombie Apocalypse, I desperately want a Zombie Apocalypse), I was more than a little surprised to see a return of cataclysmic visions and predictions arising from the Federal Government shutdown and unsuccessful (to date) negotiations over raising the debt ceiling.

Now I am the first to admit that I am not an expert in the intricacies of the Federal budget and the politics behind it. That said, it is perfectly clear even to an Ivy League poseur like me that people are suffering and that both the power and image of the United States are in serious jeopardy. To be sure, there is plenty of blame to go around for this deplorable situation; but the House Republicans have achieved savant status in the art of self-destruction.

As a Republican, I agree with the desire to control spending and reform entitlement programs. I can even understand the urge to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. (In my view, the effort to do so, however, was a waste of precious time and goodwill.) But I am simply stunned that the Party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan seems content to bring about fiscal ruin under the guise of “upholding principle.” Make no mistake. If our financial house collapses, the GOP will be MUD.

At the risk of summoning the ire of my fellow Republicans, I lay the blame for this calamity at the feet of one person: Speaker John Boehner. Call me Old School, but I fervently believe that if “Tip” O’Neill were still alive and Speaker of the House, there would be no “Tea Party Overlords.” (Thank you, Harry Reid, for one of the best phrases of 2013.) The Tea Party would be just another caucus of House members with a particular agenda. We would have a deal — and not one that would expire in a mere six weeks. And perhaps most importantly, the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States would appear together on camera to announce that they had reached an agreement. The American people and the world would see and understand that the Republic had emerged even stronger for having endured tough but fair negotiations.

But alas, Tip, the Gipper, and the great deal-makers of Congresses past are gone. Our nation is now being run by petulant children for whom compromise is as odious as castor oil.

The fiscal doomsday clock ticks on. Yes, there is still time to avoid, in the words of a classic R.E.M. song, “the end of the world as we know it.” But our so-called leaders should be ashamed that their endless bickering has brought us all to the brink of oblivion – again. We the People deserve better.

Advertisements

You Can’t Come Home Again

“It’s a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers—you are the Indian.” – James Baldwin

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as he tried to enter his own home last week marks the official end of the post-racial honeymoon that followed the election of President Barack Obama.  Black is now the same old Black, especially if you are also male.

Professor Gates’ humiliating ordeal flooded my mind with memories of several incidents that happened to me during my undergraduate years at Yale and doctoral study at Princeton.  And like Gates, I was utterly stunned because in each case I was part of an elite academic and cultural community and believed (foolishly, it turned out) that my race no longer mattered.

The episode that came to mind immediately when I heard about the Gates incident occurred while I was in graduate school at Princeton University.  The year was 1988; and I was a first-year student in the Department of History.  I was at the time the Department’s only student of color and one of only four students of color who chose to live in the Graduate College, a magnificent Gothic edifice at the edge of campus.  Situated next to a golf course, the GC, as we called it, was peaceful, majestic, and a marvelous place to engage in the life of the mind.  I loved it.

One evening after dinner, I escorted a friend, a young White woman studying political science, back to her room.  Upon reaching that destination, we stood outside her door for several minutes and talked—about what I no longer remember.  While we were standing there, a uniformed Princeton University Public Safety officer approached, handed us a flier, and said that there had been several recent assaults on campus.  The officer then went on his way, presumably to hand out more fliers.  My friend and I looked at the handbill and simultaneously laughed at the description of the alleged assailant: “black male with dark complexion.”  I even remember saying something like, “Why, this describes me!”  We laughed some more, and I bid my friend good night.  I then returned to my room to finish my reading assignments for the next day’s classes.  About half an hour later, there was a knock at my door.  I opened it and discovered my friend.  She looked deeply troubled, and I invited her in immediately.

“Darryl,” she said, “Public Safety just left my room. They sent someone to see if I was okay.  They wanted to know who you were and where you lived.”  She did not tell them anything and, knowing my friend as I did, I am sure that she gave the Public Safety officers a piece of her mind.  We deduced that for some reason the officer handing out the handbills must have thought it strange that we were having a conversation in the hallway.  (Why?  Who knows what thoughts lurk in the minds of those who wear the badge.)  He might even have heard my comment about the vague description of the suspect in the assaults.  Whatever it was that got his spider-sense tingling, he acted on it.

My friend was horrified by what had happened and kept saying how sorry she was.  I was conflicted.  Of course, I wanted campus security to do its job.  What if the dark-skinned person the officer had seen with my friend had been someone who meant to harm her?  He followed his instinct and had been wrong.  But maybe the next time he did so would save someone’s life.  Maybe mine.

I comforted my friend as best I could.  I think I even made a joke, saying that if I had been arrested, I would not have to finish all of the reading I had to do for class the next day.  Inside, though, I was deeply hurt.  It was not the first time that my identity—my belonging—had been called into question by policemen; and I knew that it would not be the last.  What pained me more was the cruel realization that my Ivy League education and all of its purported advantages had not—and could not—shield me from racism, be it targeted or casual.

The experience of Professor Gates is an unwelcome but necessary reminder that though African Americans and other peoples of color have made impressive strides in American society, we always have to worry if the keys to the kingdom will actually unlock the doors before us.  Because if they do not (and sometimes even if they do), someone else might call the police.

Montgomery County Prison Blues

I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine,
Since, I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin’ on,
But that train keeps a-rollin’,
On down to San Antone.

— Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”

I go to prison every day. For once, I am not speaking in metaphor; and I am not trying to be clever, which I certainly am. I do not own a car, so I ride the 93 Bus from my apartment in Collegeville to Norristown. One of the stops as the bus meanders through the countryside of Montgomery County (“Montco” to those in the know) is the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. The bus slows down at the checkpoint; and the guard waves it through: no drug-sniffing dogs or mirrors passed under the vehicle – a good thing, as we are on a schedule. The bus stop is just a few yards from the main prison building, a low brick structure that in many ways looks like a high school. Coincidence?

I watch the people who stream onto and off the bus and wonder about them. Do they work at the prison? Are they here to visit someone incarcerated inside? Is the prison a symbol of hope (i.e., employment) or a reminder of how their lives have gone tragically wrong? There are young African American and Hispanic men who laugh and joke with each other; and young White men talking loudly about how hard it is to get a job and keep making child support payments. There is even one guy in a wheelchair who reminds me of the Fonz: complete with the white T-shirt, leather jacket, and pompadour hairdo. There are also women: usually thin White women with bad teeth and stringy hair—modern-day molls who have seen much better days. Or have they?

I am seized by the sudden realization that these people have experienced a segment of life that has never occurred to me. And worse, for me at least, is the fear someone might assume that—because I am on this bus—I too might have some connection to or business at the prison. The very thought shakes my Ivy League-educated, card-carrying elitist self to the core. I clutch my laptop bag tighter, as if it is some sort of ancient talisman that will protect me from demons. I try not to look at anyone else and promise myself that I will start saving money to buy a car. Right after I get a Venti coffee at Starbucks.