In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.
Barack Obama's inauguration, Washington, D.C., January 2009
On this election day I'd like to suggest a re-read of the guest post, "The Rewrite," by Teju Cole, written and published here the night of Obama's election four years ago.
What a different day that was, quivering with hope and anticipation! I was thrilled about the election of our first black president, but less dewy-eyed about his prospects for changing things than many of my friends. Still, my husband and I saw it as a momentous, historical occasion, so much so that we drove from Montreal to Washington that January to attend the inauguration. ("Inauguration Journal," The Cassandra Pages, Jan 2009)
As it turned out, I was unfortunately right about Obama vs. Congress, Obama vs. the status quo, Obama vs. the conservative media machine, Obama vs. the military complex, Obama vs. Public Fear, Obama vs. the Israeli lobby...on it goes. I wonder what he really thinks, when he sits down and talks to Michelle after a long day. Has he moved in his deepest convictions, or simply woken up to the divisive, mean-spirited, nearly-gridlocked reality that is U.S. politics today? I still think he is a good man, brilliantly quick to grasp the nuances of any subject -- and therefore I'd much rather have him at the helm than any Republican alternative. But, regardless, if he wins it's still going to be politics as usual.
When I visit the United States these days, I'm struck with the general level of frustration, bitterness and anger among not only the disenfranchised, but the solidly middle-class: people who've had good educations, worked hard, saved money. They see their children growing up in uncertainty, with fewer opportunities than we had, at a time when corporate greed runs rampant, aided and abeted by the government. These are people with common sense and a sense of fairness who see neither in the way their government operates.
I'm a writer, and have long valued the power of the spoken and written word. Obama came to office largely on the strength of his ability to speak. I think we all felt he spoke from his heart, and I don't doubt that still. But as we've seen, rhetoric may be golden, but it can turn out to be flimsy gilt foil rather than 24K; loftly rhetoric doesn't change the minds or hearts of people who are determined to work for their own self-interest and that of those who pay them with gifts, favors, trips, and contributions. Neither words nor good intentions can turn around the ship of insider-government: the way things are done and have always been done in an entrenched power structure. And even more tragic than that is the fact that how ordinary citizens feel, or what their live are like, is less and less a factor in what actually happens. The idea of representative government itself, in the United States, has become an illusion, but one we stubbornly cling to.
As a Vermonter, I was always proud to cast my vote for the independent Bernie Sanders, first for the House of Representatives and then as a Senator. I was proud to vote for him again this year. He's that very rare bird in Washington: honest and straightforward, outspoken, truly representing not only his constituency but the neediest within it, morally uncompromising, and beholden to few. He was a fixture in Vermont politics as long as I lived there. When we first sent him to Washington the naysayers insisted he'd always be on the fringes, unable to accomplish anything, unable to get his voice heard, but he's proved them wrong.
The difference, I think, is that Vermont is one of the smallest states, where a man of Bernie's integrity can cut across party lines and capture people's hearts not only through rhetoric but by actually doing what he says he'll do, day in, day out, year after year. I doubt if he could have been elected in, say, New York, the much larger state where I grew up. By virtue of its small size and tradition of local debate and control, Vermont has also been able to pass controversial, ground-breaking measures, from environmental protection laws to the early adoption of same-sex partnerships. Lately, the state has been pushing toward adopting its own single-payer, European-style health care system; today's election will probably decide whether that initiative continues to go forward or not.
I doubt if the Founding Fathers anticipated the sheer size to which the United States would grow, or the enormous difficulty of governing such an entity either at home, or in its capacity as a world power. If I have any hope for the future, it lies in greater local control, greater citizen involvement, and more insistence on representatives following the will of the people. Here in Quebec during 2012, public opinion expressed on the streets, during a summer of protest and unrest, forced the Liberal provincial government to call elections, which they then lost. Revelations from a province-wide, ongoing inquest into political corruption forced the mayor of Montreal to resign last night, and will have many other far-reaching consequences.
The demos in democracy is, after all, us -- and yet, over time, we've slowly handed over our own rights to others who have twisted them into something almost unrecognizable. It's an illusion to think they mean what they say, and an even greater illusion to think they're going to give those rights back without a struggle, a collapse, or a defeat. The Book of Kings told it like it was, in the dawn of written history, and that story has been written and rewritten over thousands of years: the basest qualities of human nature don't change, nor does the basic human struggle for equality, justice, and freedom. Voting is crucial, but it takes a lot more than that.
As you've probably read or seen in the news, Montreal and Quebec are in the throes of a student protest that has drawn hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets for more than 100 days. I've been wanting to write about this for you but it's such a complicated tangle of issues, an history, that I haven't yet found the time to do the subject justice in words. But it's still my intention, especially since many of the foreign news reports I've seen seem pretty far off the mark. On Saturday night Jonathan and I went out at 11:00 pm and joined the march as it went through our neighborhood: it was quite an experience. This video will give you the flavor of what's been going on:
Meanwhile, I'm working on my community garden, between thunderstorms, and on the next title forthcoming from Phoenicia, Claudia Serea's Angels & Beasts, a three-part collection of surrealistic prose poems from a very gifted Romanian-American author -- the book will be coming out in September.
Sunday, Pentecost, was another all-day affair for us singers, and full of fabulous music: a contemporary mass setting by Jonathan Dove in the morning, and some wonderful music by Herbert Howells in the afternoon. Between the two services and rehearsals, I helped facilitate a discussion within the cathedral community about the protests, our history, and our city, and what - if anything - we might offer as a response.
Yesterday I was pretty tired! But in the late afternoon we went to Pépinière Jasmin, up on Henri-Bourassa toward the western side of Montreal island, and I bought some plants...a white anemone, some delphinium and achillea, a hosta, and a hardy yellow rose, along with a bag of fumier de lapin: composted rabbit manure, highly recommended by the staff and apprently quite potent. And early this morning, after being woken at dawn by huge thunderclaps and then a torrential downpour, I went to the garden and worked...and worked...while the skies cleared, the earth rapidly heated up, and everybody and everything (including that rabbit manure) began to steam. Now, in the late afternoon, the skies have gotten absolutely black and the rain is starting again.
It's time, I think, to go home and pour a glass of wine.
Roman Skaskiw, who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has written several thoughtful pieces about his experiences for the New York Times. He has an essay there today in the "Home Fires" series that the paper has been running about Iraq. Titled "Narrative Memory at War," Skaskiw writes about the fact and fiction of war narratives, and why they come down to us in the forms that they do. It's a good piece, well worth reading, and I appreciated his comments on two of our most ancient war narratives as he probes the curious line between hero and victim, and the mixed motives of participants and chroniclers of war:
While I like the spare granting of hero or victim status in “The
Iliad,” I’d be kidding myself to think it isn’t also a whitewashing —
propaganda even — for the Greeks. Unglamorous labors are merely alluded
to, while excessive descriptions of bloody, glorious combat go on for
My favorite war narrative is Thucydides’s “History of the
Peloponnesian War.” The two-and-half-millennium-old narrative does not
ignore selfish pettiness, opportunism, false bravado, naïve adventure
seeking, and is more familiar to me than many accounts of our wars
being peddled today.
For those who would like to read some alternative analyses of the conflict in Gaza, here are a few recent links. These are less focussed on the reporting of specific incidents, and more on political analysis; several speak to the grave challenge facing the new U.S. President.
Chris Hedges, "The Language of Death," (Truthdig) (Many readers may find the first few paragraphs of this article over-the-top - Hedges, who was a Middle-East and war reporter for many years, is very much on the side of the Palestinians and in deep distress about current events. But his analysis of the internal political realities is astute and his connections in the Israeli media are deep and longstanding. He used to work for The New York Times but now can only get published in the alternative press.)
This week's Ekklesia newsletter (a liberal Christian newsletter from Britain) is devoted to this subject, from a religious perspective.
So the year slides to its end in the calm silence of these icy northern nights, and in crushing violence -- this year in the Middle East. Is it any wonder the stories we recite have become sentimentalized fables, as removed from the original text's setting of Roman oppression, militarism, and human poverty as our modern Christmas pageant creche scenes, acted out by children wearing homemade white wings and fake-fur sheep's ears, are from what our own governments and taxes now support in the lands of those poor shepherds? In spite of the Gospel message of peace, reconciliation between peoples, and an end to treating anyone as "less" or "other", we have 2000 years of intervening human history to show just how much we've learned.
So I've felt depressed and discouraged these last few days, by the news itself, and the way it's being reported in North America, and the lack of first-hand accounts. Is there indeed any cure for "our warring madness?" For all of human history we've seen wars waged, and disproportionate violence committed against the weak by the strong, in order to "stop violence" and teach rebellious subjects a lesson. Instead both the combattants become more vulnerable, more angry, more vindictive and bent on revenge - especially when young men on both sides watch their mothers, wives, old fathers and young children die, and proud and stubborn older men continue to hold the reins of power. I am a woman, and I suffer with all my sisters, on every side of every conflict; I have grown intensely weary of male anger and its effects.
Christmas and holiday cards arrive from far-flung friends, many expressing hope that Obama will truly represent change. I share their hope, but I am skeptical -- or rather, I think I'm realistic about what this good, decent, talented man will be able to achieve.
So I sit here, near a beautiful little Christmas tree shining with lights, and look out at the dark night, wondering about my own life and the use I've made of it. What have I done with the talents left in my safe-keeping? This is not the happiest thing to be pondering as yet another year slips away, but I'm afraid I'm apt to do it at least once during this season, worn down by too much holiday partying, too little sleep, and Montreal's bitter winds and brief days. For a time, I allow myself to tearfully miss my mother and the naive, carefree holidays of my childhood. I recite a bitter litany of personal griefs; seethe helplessly at the waste and violence of our societies and my part in it; deplore my own failures and weaknesses, my concessions and compromises.
And then I start to pull myself up, to face the new year rightly.
Thank you for being my companions, willing to share the days as they come and to read my attempts to write of them. Happy New Year, Bonne année. May we help each other to live it wholly, honestly, creatively, and with joy.