Saturday, March 22, 2014

W.S. Merwin: To Mistakes, Luck, and the Gods

They are related or connected, these three poems—and not just because they are all from W.S. Merwin’s collection, Present Company. Those who follow the poetry I post, and my comments on it, recognize that sharing poems somehow related is something I enjoy doing. Most often there are two or three poems from the same collection or different collections by the same author, even poetry of different authors, but somehow topically or artistically connected.
There is much that could be said of these three, each one, in pairs, or together. Certainly each of them offers Merwin’s unique style and extraordinary command of language and form to paint the topic in both interesting and illustrative terms. But there is more, of course. I’d ask you to consider what more there is in common to the three notions of luck, mistakes, and God as Merwin treats them—how each is so difficult to get definitions, purpose, and predictability to adhere to, how the form and vocabulary chosen to approach them is by addressing the topics or notions themselves in the second person as if real, and how he employs a simple story-sharing monologue with each of them.
And then, as you read them, one after the other, consider how often so many of the statements or ideas shared in each could have been used to good and consistent effect in one of the other two. Consider the extent to which these three notions are considered anchored in superstition, are thought random events that appear destiny through happenstance, are thought extensions of our emotional need for order and explanations, and are intertwined and complement each other in their descriptions and roles. Consider also the extent to which they may yet be considered a reality, even truth, in our experience and lives, perhaps rightly. Consider whether, as such, they might conflate into a larger deterministic phenomenon, somehow spiritually, deistically or cosmologically lawful—which might also include yet another deterministic notion, fate or destiny. Or are these notions more likely—individually and collectively—mere variations on the perceptions of happenstance and superstition? In these poems, W.S. Merwin often gives us reason to consider all those things as he is questioning or denying them, sharing implied general views that dismiss them, and all the time while speaking to them insightfully, descriptively, in the second person as if they were surely quite real.
Let us begin with luck.
To Luck*
In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the cross fire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never
to put our faith in you
but to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but we were not to believe in you
and though we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or relics
of vanishing animals
observance rituals
none of them binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
O you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
whenever we can
without understanding
Could the poet just as easily have replaced the title “To Luck” with “To God”? Next, let’s take a look at the topic of mistakes?
To the Mistakes*
You are the ones who
were not recognized
in time although you
may have been waiting
in full sight in broad
day from the first step
that set out toward you
and although you may
have been prophesied
hung round with warnings
had your big pictures
in all the papers
yet in the flesh you
did not look like that
each of you in turn
seemed like no one else
you are the ones
who are really my own
never will leave me
forever after
or ever belong
to anyone else
you are the ones I
must have needed
the ones who led me
in spite of all
that was said about you
you placed my footsteps
on the only way
And couldn’t many verses in “To the Mistakes” have been employed to good and consistent effect in “To Luck”? But now, on to the God(s). As you read this, please remain open-minded, nonjudgmental about any agenda or view—for it can be seen differently from different perspectives from stanza to stanza. For me, it’s simply a succinct chronicling or history of some types of experiences between man and God. But after you’ve read it to the end, you may want to read it all again and rest with those last three lines.
To the Gods*
When did you stop
telling us what we could believe
when did you take that one step
only one
all that
as once you stepped
out of each of the stories
about you one after the other
and out of whatever
we imagined we knew
of you
who were the light
to begin with
and all the darkness
at the same time
and the voice in them
calling crying
and the enormous answer
neither coming nor going
but too fast to hear
you let us believe
the names for you
whenever we heard them
you let us believe the stories
how death came to be
how the light happened
how the beginning began
you let us believe
all that
then you let us believe
that we had invented you
and that we no longer
believed in you
and that you were only stories
that we did not believe
you with no
moment for beginning
no place to end
one step above
all that
listen to us
believe in us
Are there not many verses in “To the Gods” that could have been placed to good and consistent effect in “To Luck”? And if those beginning questions posed interest you, then please go back, read them again, and then read the poems again with those questions in mind.
*Poems found in Present Company, by W.S. Merwin (2007), Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the U.S.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Grandchild, a Grandson

Today is a special day for my wife, Ginny, and me. Today, unto us a child is born. And his name is called wonderful, at least by us. Actually, today at 1:30 pm, a 6 lb. 11 oz. son was born to our much-loved son, Adam, and our much-loved daughter-in-law, Nilofer. His name is called Luke Alexander Hudson. And he is our first grandchild. We could not be happier.

The only thing on our minds is to travel to California to drink in and celebrate the first sight of the next generation of our respective families. For surely, Nilofer's Mom, Dad and brother feel just as we do. Please pray for Ginny, that the flu that has held her captive, confined her for over four weeks, would give way to healing and health, that we might travel to see Luke Alexander without bringing with us illness.
My apologies to those for whom I owe a response today. I was consumed most of the day with seasonal activities here in Naples--in this case, the NCWA Model United Nations competition for high school students. Then upon returning home, I started to receive the wonderful pictures of mother and son. And he does appear wonderful to me. But I will respond when I can catch my breath and contain my joy.
Lifting up my peace and joy to you all,

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Modern Chinese Leadership & Governance: The Evolving Challenges

Some of you know that I've long been interested in modern Chinese national leadership challenges, the societal and international realities, and the relevance of over four millennia of Chinese history. This article in Foreign Affairs by David Lampton offers an informed, thoughtful reflection on the government and leadership issues of today's China. It begins with the new direction of modernization set in the bold, clear-thinking changes authored by Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping—and then his successors, though to a more careful, restrained extent within a more consultative, collective process.

Now ascends Xi Jinping, the first party leader of the next generation. He assumes the challenge and responsibility of leading China in its most challenging time since the new direction set by Deng. If you want to understand better China's issues and challenges today, the national issues and leadership possibilities, this is a good review with which to begin. Would you believe extensive public polling to gauge the concerns and feelings of the Chinese citizenry? Oh yeah, they're working at it, but the ship of state turns only so quickly, and they must feel their way through what constitutes a prudent, workable pace and direction. From the article:
[…] It began in mid-1977 with the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, who kicked off a decades-long era of unprecedented reform that transformed China’s hived-off economy into a global pacesetter, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and unleashing a massive migration to cities. This revolution has continued through the tenures of Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. 
Of course, the revolution that began with Deng has not been revolutionary in one important sense: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has maintained its monopoly on political power. Yet the cliché that China has experienced economic reform but not political reform in the years since 1977 obscures an important truth: that political reform, as one Chinese politician told me confidentially in 2002, has “taken place quietly and out of view.” 
The fact is that China’s central government operates today in an environment fundamentally different, in three key ways, from the one that existed at the beginning of Deng’s tenure. First, individual Chinese leaders have become progressively weaker in relation to both one another and the rest of society. Second, Chinese society, as well as the economy and the bureaucracy, has fractured, multiplying the number of constituencies China’s leaders must respond to, or at least manage. Third, China’s leadership must now confront a population with more resources, in terms of money, talent, and information, than ever before. 
For all these reasons, governing China has become even more difficult than it was for Deng. Beijing has reacted to these shifts by incorporating public opinion into its policymaking, while still keeping the basic political structures in place. Chinese leaders are mistaken, however, if they think that they can maintain political and social stability indefinitely without dramatically reforming the country’s system of governance. A China characterized by a weaker state and a stronger civil society requires a considerably different political structure. It demands a far stronger commitment to the rule of law, with more reliable mechanisms -- such as courts and legislatures -- for resolving conflicts, accommodating various interests, and distributing resources. It also needs better government regulation, transparency, and accountability. Absent such developments, China will be in for more political turmoil in the future than it has experienced in the last four-plus decades. 
---“How China is Ruled: Why It’s getting harder for Beijing to Govern,” by David Lampton, Foreign Affairs (January/February 2014) [To access this article you will need to create a log-in identity and sign in, which is free of charge.] 
At this point, Dr. Lampson asks us to consider the succession in leaders after Mao, and the evolving nature of their leadership—beginning, of course, with the visionary and (counter-) revolutionary leadership of Deng Xiaoping (pronounced, Dung Shyow Ping).
[…] Like Mao, Deng enjoyed a mix of traditional and charismatic authority. But the leaders who followed him earned their legitimacy in different ways. Jiang (who ruled from 1989 to 2002) and Hu (ruling from 2002 to 2012) to various extents were both designated as leaders by Deng himself, and Xi’s elevation to the top position, in 2012, was the product of a collective political process within the CCP. Over time, a set of norms that regulate leadership selection has developed, including term and age limits, performance measures, and opinion polling within the party. Although important, these norms should not be mistaken for law -- they are incomplete, informal, and reversible -- but they do mark a dramatic departure from Mao’s capricious system. 
As the foundations of legitimacy have shifted, Deng’s successors have seen their capacity to single-handedly initiate policies diminish. Although Deng did not enjoy the unbridled power that Mao did, when it came to strategic decisions, he could act authoritatively and decisively once he had consulted influential colleagues. Moreover, the scale and scope of his decisions were often enormous.  
[…] Jiang, Hu, and Xi, by contrast, have been more constrained. The difference was on full display in late 2012 and into 2013, as Xi took over from Hu. In the 1970s, in order to build ties with Japan, Deng was able to sidestep the explosive nationalist politics surrounding questions of sovereignty over the disputed Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands). But Xi, having just risen to the top post and eager to consolidate his power in the wake of Japan’s September 2012 nationalization of the islands, felt obliged to act muscularly in response to Tokyo’s move. 
China, in other words, has gone from being ruled by strongmen with personal credibility to leaders who are constrained by collective decision-making, term limits and other norms, public opinion, and their own technocratic characters. As one senior Chinese diplomat put it to me in 2002, “Mao and Deng could decide; Jiang and the current leaders must consult.” 
China’s rulers have strayed from Mao and Deng in another important respect: they have come to see their purpose less as generating enormous change and more as maintaining the system and enhancing its performance. Deng’s goals were transformational. Deng sought to move China up the economic ladder and the global power hierarchy, and he did. He opened China up to foreign knowledge, encouraged China’s young people to go abroad (an attitude influenced by his own formative years in France and the Soviet Union), and let comparative advantage, trade, and education work their magic.
Having reviewed the foundation laid, and progress made, in the preceding decades starting with Deng, Dr. Lampton now moves us to consideration of China’s newest leader, Xi Jinping (pronounced, Shee Gin Ping).
[…] Following his promotion to top party leader in November 2012, Xi impressively consolidated his authority in 2013, allowing a vigorous debate on reform to emerge, even as he has tightened restrictions on freedom of expression. The core of the debate concerns how to reinvigorate economic growth and the degree to which political change is a precondition for further economic progress.  
After the Central Committee meeting of November 2013 (the Third Plenum), the Xi administration stated its intention to “comprehensively deepen reform” and has created a group to do so. The need for such a body signals that many policy disputes remain and that the central government intends to stay focused on change until at least 2020. But there simply is no clear-cut path forward, because in some areas, China needs marketization; in others, it needs decentralization; and in still others, it needs centralization. 
Although many ambiguities remain, the thrust of emerging policy is to have the market play a decisive role in allocating resources, with Beijing leveling the domestic playing field between state enterprises and nonstate firms and simplifying bureaucratic approval processes. Foreigners can find things to like in the government’s promise to “relax investment access, accelerate the construction of free-trade zones, and expand inland and coastal openness.” Such policies would have political consequences, too, and the meeting’s communiqué mentioned the need for changes in the judiciary and in local governments, while vaguely suggesting more rights for peasants. That said, in calling for the creation of a national security committee, it identified both internal and external security as major concerns. A long march lies ahead. 
If the policy focus has been all about leadership and governance, it begs the question of the drivers of leadership issues. And that includes the extensive and varying range of Chinese territory, the diversity of the Chinese people, their many, sometimes troublesome neighboring states, and their societal needs and changes in a modern international context. And that plays out against the persistent call of its historical regional hegemony, and arguably, in one era or another, its international cultural supremacy—its recurrent ascent to the apex of social, artistic, philosophic, scientific, military, political and diplomatic life over the millennia. But first, among the most basic challenges in China today are the needs and expectations of the Chinese people. 
These changes in individual leadership style have coincided with another tectonic shift: the pluralization of China’s society, economy, and bureaucracy. During the Mao era, leaders asserted that they served only one interest -- that of the Chinese masses. The job of the government was to repress recalcitrant forces and educate the people about their true interests. Governance was not about reconciling differences. It was about eliminating them. 
Since Mao, however, China’s society and bureaucracy have fragmented, making it harder for Beijing to make decisions and implement policies. To deal with the challenge, the Chinese government, particularly since Deng, has developed an authoritarian yet responsive system that explicitly balances major geographic, functional, factional, and policy interests through representation at the highest levels of the CCP. Although the pathways for political self-expression remain limited, and elite decision-making opaque, China’s rulers now try to resolve, rather than crush, conflicts among competing interests, suppressing such conflicts only when they perceive them to be especially big threats. They have attempted to co-opt the rank and file of various constituencies while cracking down on the ringleaders of antigovernment movements. 
Many of China’s powerful new interest groups are economic in nature. Labor and management now clash over working conditions and pay. Likewise, as Chinese businesses come to look more like Western corporations, they are only partially submissive to party directives. For example, as the scholar Tabitha Mallory has pointed out, the fishing industry has become increasingly privatized -- in 2012, 70 percent of China’s “distant-water” fishing companies were privately owned -- making it far harder for the central government to prevent overfishing. 
Meanwhile, in the state-owned sector, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or CNOOC, is supporting policies that favor more assertiveness in the South China Sea, where significant hydrocarbon deposits are thought to lie, and it has found common ground with the Chinese navy, which wants a bigger budget and a modernized fleet. On issues both foreign and domestic, interest groups have become increasingly vocal participants in the policy process. 
China’s bureaucracy has adapted to the proliferation of interests by becoming more pluralized itself. Officials use forums called “leading small groups” (lingdao xiaozu) to resolve fights among squabbling organizations and localities, and vice premiers and state councilors spend much of their time settling such disputes. Meanwhile, provinces, big cities such as Shanghai, and industrial and commercial associations increasingly rely on representatives in Beijing to promote their interests by lobbying national decision-makers—a model that has been replicated at the provincial level as well.
The article then turns to consideration of the increasing importance of public opinion, and larger role for public polling, by the Chinese government. Although they have their own issues and concerns that drive its importance to them, and the purposes it best serves, it is a welcome, if surprising, move toward a need to listen to the popular voice, the needs and concerns of their people.
Mao almost never allowed public opinion to restrain his policies; the popular will was something he himself defined. Deng, in turn, did adopt reforms, because he feared that the CCP was close to losing its legitimacy, yet he only followed public opinion when it comported with his own analysis.  
Today, in contrast, almost all Chinese leaders openly speak about the importance of public opinion, with the goal being to preempt problems. In August 2013, for instance, the state-run newspaper China Daily reminded readers that the National Development and Reform Commission had issued regulations requiring local officials to conduct risk assessments to determine the likelihood of popular disturbances in reaction to major construction projects and stated that such undertakings should be shut down temporarily if they generated “medium-level” opposition among citizens. 
China has built a large apparatus aimed at measuring people’s views -- in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, some 51,000 firms, many with government contracts, conducted polling -- and Beijing has even begun using survey data to help assess whether CCP officials deserve promotion. “After Deng, there has been no strongman, so public opinion has become a kind of civil society,” one pollster, who has seen more and more of his business come from the central government, told me in 2012. “In the United States, polling is used for elections, but in China, a major use is to monitor government performance.” 
Such developments suggest that China’s leaders now recognize that government must be more responsive, or at least appear that way. Indeed, since 2000, they have increasingly invoked public opinion in explaining their policies on exchange rates, taxes, and infrastructure. Public opinion may even lie behind the uptick in Beijing’s regional assertiveness in 2009 and 2010. Niu Xinchun, a Chinese scholar, has argued that Beijing adopted a tougher posture in maritime disputes and other foreign issues during this period as a direct response to public anger over Western criticism of China’s human rights record, especially in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, when some Western leaders suggested that they might not attend. The Chinese were so fed up with France’s behavior, in particular, that China Daily reported that the “Chinese people do not want the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.” 
Beijing’s greater responsiveness stems in large part from its recognition that as local governments, nonstate organizations, and individuals all grow more powerful, the central government is progressively losing its monopoly on money, human talent, and information. Take the question of capital. Ever since the Deng era, more and more of it has accumulated in coffers outside the central government. From 1980 to 2010, the portion of total state revenues spent at the local level rose from 46 percent to 82 percent. Meanwhile, the share of total industrial output produced by the state-owned sector dropped from 78 percent in 1978 to 11 percent in 2009. Of course, the state still holds firm control over strategic sectors such as those relating to defense, energy, finance, and large-scale public infrastructure, and ordinary Chinese still do not enjoy anything close to unlimited economic freedom. The change has also benefited corrupt local officials, military leaders, crime syndicates, and rogue entrepreneurs, all of whom can work against citizens’ interests. But when people gain control over economic resources, they have far more choice in terms of where they live, what property they acquire, how they educate their children, and what opportunities they will pursue. This is not unfettered liberty, but it is certainly a beginning.
Dr. Lampton concludes with a reflection on the future of Chinese governance, and whether it will include the stabilizing structures and processes of government that better accommodate effective, responsive leadership--or not. And while the article focuses on responding to the needs and interests of an increasingly fragmented society, there remain the unaddressed global interests of China to be played out in an increasingly complicated international context and a more demanding, responsible role for China.
[...] China’s reformist revolution has reached a point that Deng and his compatriots could never have anticipated. China’s top leaders are struggling to govern collectively, let alone manage an increasingly complex bureaucracy and diffuse society. Their job is made all the more difficult by the lack of institutions that would articulate various interests, impartially adjudicate conflicts among them, and ensure the responsible and just implementation of policy. In other words, although China may possess a vigorous economy and a powerful military, its system of governance has turned brittle. 
These pressures could lead China down one of several possible paths. One option is that China’s leaders will try to reestablish a more centralized and authoritarian system, but that would ultimately fail to meet the needs of the country’s rapidly transforming society. A second possibility is that in the face of disorder and decay, a charismatic, more transformational leader will come to the fore and establish a new order -- perhaps more democratic but just as likely more authoritarian. A third scenario is much more dangerous: China continues to pluralize but fails to build the institutions and norms required for responsible and just governance at home and constructive behavior abroad. That path could lead to chaos.  
But there is also a fourth scenario, in which China’s leaders propel the country forward, establishing the rule of law and regulatory structures that better reflect the country’s diverse interests. Beijing would also have to expand its sources of legitimacy beyond growth, materialism, and global status, by building institutions anchored in genuine popular support. This would not necessarily mean transitioning to a full democracy, but it would mean adopting its features: local political participation, official transparency, more independent judicial and anticorruption bodies, an engaged civil society, institutional checks on executive power, and legislative and civil institutions to channel the country’s diverse interests. Only after all these steps have been taken might the Chinese government begin to experiment with giving the people a say in selecting its top leaders. 
[...] The dangers of standing still outweigh those of forging ahead, and China can only hope that its leaders recognize this truth and push forward, even without knowing where exactly they are headed. Should Xi and his cohort fail to do so, the consequences will be severe: the government will have forgone economic growth, squandered human potential, and perhaps even undermined social stability. If, however, China’s new leaders manage to chart a path to a more humane, participatory, and rules-based system of governance -- while maintaining vigorous economic growth and stability -- then they will have revitalized the nation, the goal of patriots and reformers for over a century and a half. 
(This essay is adapted from his book Following the Leader: Ruling China, From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, published by the University of California Press. © 2014 by the Regents of the University of California.
 Link to article here or at citation, above:

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Violent Crime Is Down; The Reasons May Surprise You

Violent crime is down--and down by quite a bit. But looking past the usual self-serving analyses by the usual interested parties, we find that experts, based on real insight and research, offer a lot more original, reliable and useful understandings of several of the factors actually responsible. And you may be surprised. Think violent video games--I know, you thought they were part of the problem--rethinking and moving beyond old public housing projects, declining cocaine use, Roe v. Wade, immigration, and more. The truth so often does surprise, doesn't it?
Sharper policing strategies, stiffer prison sentences and newer technologies are again being credited as police officials proffer explanations for the two-decade decline in violent crime in America’s biggest cities. But experts say the real reasons behind the downturn -- which included double-digit decreases in homicide rates last year in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles -- are more complicated and may involve factors as mundane as that X-Box sitting in the living room, Americans’ changing work habits and what comes out of your gas pump.
Here are seven other seldom-mentioned factors that those who study crime -- and even some who fight it – say may be helping keep a lid on harmful behavior: [Link to article by clicking on blue underlined article title, immediately below.]
---“Are the Xbox and unleaded gas helping keep you safe from violent crime?” Andrew Blankstein, Investigations, (1.4.14)

It's What the Healthiest Societies and Economies Do

There was little merry or bright this holiday season for millions of unemployed Americans who are losing their extended unemployment benefits. Many depend on these meager payments, a federal extension of state unemployment programs that expired as of the last Saturday of 2013, to stay afloat. After tapping out their savings, downsizing their living space, and draining their retirement funds, one-time managers and MBA grads bought Christmas gifts secondhand and worry over what the new year will bring. 
[…]The families receiving extended unemployment benefits are generally in dire financial straits, so helping them helps the economy overall, economists say. “Emergency UI has one of the largest economic bangs for the buck,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said via email. According to Zandi’s calculation, these payments have a multiplier of 1.49: For every dollar in extended unemployment benefits jobless Americans get, $1.49 goes back into the economy. 
"Nobody wins when we leave people looking for work out in the cold," said Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at advocacy group Demos. "It hurts the economy when local businesses can’t rely on basic spending… It strains the private safety net when food banks and charities have to serve more people,” she said. “It slows down our recovery." 
---“With benefits cut off, long-term unemployed brace for a new year,” in plain sight: poverty in america, (1.4.14)

Each new analysis stresses more the social and economic implications of the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the one-percenters and everyone else. America’s middle class is shrinking and falling further behind. But for the long-term unemployed--not those few playing the system, but the vast majority of unemployed who have worked, lost jobs, taken lesser positions only to lose them--those who want and need work, but have been dealt losing hands by the years of financial crisis, recession, underemployment and unemployment, it is an existential crisis that continues and gets worse. 

Mortgage payments are no longer an issue for them; it is now about rent for basic shelter, sustenance, and some semblance of self-respect. Healthcare is a luxury well beyond their means. But it's what civilized and responsible societies provide to those in need; it's what those who actually understand advocate and support to strengthen both the fabric of their society and economic health. It's simply what the most advanced industrialized societies and economies do--the Nordics, Germany and others. It's what we should do, too.

Link to article here or above:
With benefits cut off, long-term unemployed brace for a new year,

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Remarkable Pope Francis: TIME's Person of the Year

He is Time's Person of the Year, and I embrace the choice. Regardless of your faith, if any at all, and regardless of whether he has addressed every church or social issue to your satisfaction, he addresses so clearly, so unambiguously, the larger issues of responsibility and accountability in our time--personal, interpersonal, and community issues, economic and governmental issues, national and international issues. And he does it with equanimity, wisdom and authority through the natural expression of his very identity. He does it with authentic humility. He is the right person, the right heart, the right understandings, and the right voice for this place and time--not just for this year, but for this time. He is the remarkable Pope Francis.

It is worth reading and learning more about him.

Link to Time article:
TIME's Person of the Year 2013 Pope Francis, The People's Pope |

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Thousand Mornings, Three Poems, Mary Oliver

I’d been intending to share and speak about a few poems in Mary Oliver’s 2012 collection, A Thousand Mornings—but somehow just lost track of those good intentions. Here, now, three of those poems. First, “The Mockingbird.” It’s a perceptive reflection, and it’s not hard to see the analogy she draws to human nature and inclinations, the social and professional safety of mimicking what others do and repeating what they say. Yet, there is still the periodic inclination or need to speak openly and honestly about who we really are, the brighter and the darker, but most often only to ourselves and the ear of creation, to God, if you will—and even then, not as often as we should.
All summer
the mockingbird
in his pearl-gray coat
and his white-windowed wings
from the hedge to the top of the pine
and begins to sing, but it’s neither
lilting nor lovely,
for he is the thief of other sounds—
whistles and truck brakes and dry hinges
plus all the songs
of other birds in his neighborhood;
mimicking and elaborating,
he sings with humor and bravado,
so I have to wait a long time
for the softer voice of his own life
to come through. He begins
by giving up all his usual flutter
and settling down on the pine’s forelock
then looking around
as though to make sure he’s alone;
then he slaps each wing against his breast,
where his heart is,
and, copying nothing, begins
easing into it
as though it was not half so easy
as rollicking,
as though his subject now
was his true self,
which of course was as dark and secret
as anyone else’s,
and it was too hard—
perhaps you understand—
to speak or to sing it
to anything or anyone
but the sky.
I sometimes sense or see a connection between poems of different collections, even different authors (a particular joy), but not as often as poems of the same author and the same collection, which is the case here. And the connection here requires our human recognition and embrace of a journey, the seeking of our “true self,” and contemplating that identity largely in the quiet company of our self and that ear of creation, by whatever name and in whatever way that works for you. The second poem, I Have Decided, follows as a reasonable reorientation or choice of direction to me, a next step in that journey, and takes me from The Mockingbird to the third poem.
I have decided to find myself a home
in the mountains, somewhere high up
where one learns to live peacefully in
the cold and the silence. It’s said that
in such a place certain revelations may
be discovered. That what the spirit
reaches for may be eventually felt, if not
exactly understood, Slowly, no doubt. I’m
not talking about a vacation.
Of course, at the same time I mean to
stay exactly where I am.
Are you following me?
So far so good, if you’ve sensed or connected with that direction or orientation, if you are following the poet's steps along a path less traveled. Yet, it can often be an elusive, misunderstood or unwanted connection. That it can take you to the still, quiet places where you can hear and find personal meaning in the voices that speak from within and without may not resonate or connect with you at all. And that connection, as it wends its way through the third poem, Today, may again appear elusive or be unwelcome to many, while welcomed and connecting so clearly with others.

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather. I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
But then, even for the welcoming, there are other days when these poems seem to relate less well to each other, and connect less well with us, when the ambitions of the day, or its demands and dictates, break the connections and press upon us the temporal identity and realities of time and place that are passing ever more quickly.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Gift & Thanks: W.S. Merwin

I like and read poetry. Most of you know that. But I’ve not been moved to post any poetry here or on my other sites for some time. In search of something special to think about—and also to share—I finally returned to old favorite W.S. Merwin, and pored over some of his earlier collections. Two poems, one each from a 1973 and a 1988 collection, connected with me because, in part at least, they seemed to be related and connected to each other.

Much is rightly made of the notions of identity, of talents or gifts received and shared, and to personal calling. This poem is about a gift given, and to be given again in its embrace and sharing with others. What that gift is, whether his muse and poetry, his poetic appreciation, some other, more spiritual sharing and direction, I leave to your understanding. Knowing something of his life, and his paths walked, I see the possibilities of those things and more. Let it speak to you as it will.


I have to trust what was given to me
if I am to trust anything
it led the stars over the shadowless mountain
what does it not remember in its night and silence
what does it not hope knowing itself no child of time

what did it not begin what will it not end
I have to hold it up in my hands as my ribs hold up my heart

I have to let it open its wings and fly among the gifts of the unknown
again in the mountain I have to turn
to the morning

I must be led by what was given to me
as streams are lead by it
and braiding flight of birds
the gropings of veins the learning of plants
the thankful days
breath by breath

I call to it Nameless One O Invisible
Untouchable Free
I am nameless I am divided
I am invisible I am untouchable
and empty
nomad live with me
be my eyes
my tongue and my hands
my sleep and my rising
out of chaos
come and be given

Gratitude is such a natural response to any life lived with  a sense of accomplishment, affirmation or possibilities, to the life attended by a measure of joy or hope, even for just the resolve to hold on and see if things won’t be better, more rewarding or comforting, tomorrow. In my faith, we are counseled to nurture a sense of gratitude in all things at all times. In this poem, whatever his gifts received and shared, W.S. Merwin reflects that same sentiment about life lived, but whether in times of plenty or penury, in satisfaction or despair, even if just for the relief of pulling the shade on another day full of pain, sadness, or resentment. It is a challenging, rather saintly disposition that he appears to assume or reflect.

That is one view of the poem. Let's read the poem, and then consider a second, very different view.


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you

we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us

we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

On the other hand, in “Thanks”, Merwin may not understand it that way at all—or, at least that may not be his principal message and rhetorical device. Consistent with the increasing sense of loss, sadness and darkness as the poem proceeds, it may be that he is employing a more cynical message and a rhetorical devise that in the end conveys exactly the opposite meaning. The “thank you” feels more and more hollow, empty, as the situations become more despairing and hopeless, and still more so as a false gratitude is elevated to “thank you, thank you, faster and faster."
So no, if this view is closer to the mark, then he is not holding up a Christian or other spiritual or philosophical notion of being thankful for all things at all times, however good, however bad. Rather, he is likely implying in strong rhetorical terms that, for most of the dispiriting circumstances in the latter half of the poem—and certainly with the cumulative weight of them all—only a relative few of we mortals might muster the emotional strength (or dissociation with human life) to feel and express honest, heart-felt gratitude—whether through religious faith, spiritual or philosophical disciplines, or one’s singular strength of personality.
Some background on M.S. Merwin: his earlier poetry was noted for its anti-Vietnam war and environmentalist sentiments in the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Carrier of Ladders (1970) and others. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he abandoned his Christian faith and turned his attention to his poetry, prose, and his more secular, social concerns. He then moved to Hawaii to pursue further his interest in advocating for the environment, and his growing interest in Zen Buddhism. He was and is an environmental warrior, albeit a gentle one. With that in mind, let's return to our conversation about “Thanks.”
Increasingly, as the poem moves toward its conclusion, there is the sense of futility in the nature and experience of mankind in dealing with mortality, human limitations and failings, the brittleness of his institutional constructs--and his inability to reform and change the things that seem so apparently in need of change. And the normal expression of gratitude, “thanks,” so appropriately employed in the first stanza, turns quickly into a hollow, cynical parody, a response that, by the inappropriateness of the circumstances of its use, makes clearer that the opposite meaning now likely adheres to it. It is now a wholly appropriate response of a very different nature, a subdued voice of disapproval, fear and distrust in the face of an unresponsive society, business world, or government that isn’t even paying attention. And so with each next insult to sense and sensibility, the refrain cynically drones on through the continuing despair: “Thank you, thank you.”
I like basic elements of both interpretations, and perhaps it's possible to craft an interpretation that incorporates the best of both. Or, perhaps it's sufficient to just recognize the way the use of the word "thanks" changes or evolves from the more normal context to the more inappropriate context, where its rhetorical use better dramatizes his point. And maybe there's more still to be found or experienced in this verse. I know I'm not satisfied with my understandings yet.

   1 W.S. Merwin, Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment (1973) and The Second Four Books of Poems (1993)
   2 W.S. Merwin, The Rain in the Trees (1988) and  Migration: New and Selected Poems (2005)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Detroit Bankruptcy Begs Question, Where Next? (Issue: Unfunded Pensions & Healthcare)

Detroit is bankrupt. And while we'd rather not think about it, rather keep it out of sight and out of mind, an October 13th 60-minutes segment provides informative, deeply troubling, and occasionally hopeful views of the realities. It's worth opening our eyes slowly, one at a time, and taking a peek at what it has to show and tell us.
Link here or above:

But Detroit is not alone in its financial distress--and for the same principal reasons: unfunded or underfunded employee pensions and healthcare. From The Economist:
Other states and cities should pay heed, not because they might end up like Detroit next year, but because the city is a flashing warning light on America's fiscal dashboard. Though some of it's woes are unique, a crucial one is not. Many other state and city governments across America have made impossible-to-keep promises to do with pensions and health care. Detroit shows what can happen when leaders put off reforming the public sector for too long.
---"America's Public Finances: The Unsteady States of America," The Economist, Leaders Section (7.27.2013)
It's not a new story, but it remains an important one. There have been other municipal bankruptcies in California, Rhode Island and elsewhere, but much smaller in scale than Detroit. It was not so long ago a Detroit bankruptcy was unthinkable to most people. But there are now many other municipalities, and some states, where the same problems threaten the same result. It's worth reading more about it, and this article in The Economist is a good place to start.

Link here or above:

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ending the War in Afghanistan: Avoiding Failure on the Installment Plan

The ranks of our fallen in Afghanistan continue to increase daily, whether or not our government is shut down or supporting their bereaved families. But when and how will this war end, as it must? This article in Foreign Affairs by Stephen Biddle suggests that with the 2014 departure of most all our fighting men and women, the possibilities and our choices are few. From the article:
But the war will not end in 2014. The U.S. role may end, in whole or in part, but the war will continue--and its ultimate outcome is very much in doubt. 
Should current trends continue, U.S. combat troops are likely to leave behind a grinding stalemate between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Afghan National Security Forces ["ANSF"] can probably sustain this deadlock, but only as long as the U.S. Congress pays the multibillion-dollar annual bills needed to keep them fighting. The war will thus become a contest in stamina between Congress and the Taliban. Unless Congress proves more patient than the Taliban leader Mullah Omar [and patience, never America's long suit, is fast running out with Afghanistan GH], funding for the ANSF will eventually shrink until Afghan forces can no longer hold their ground, and at that point, the country could easily descend into chaos. If it does, the war will be lost and U.S. aims forfeited.  
[The author later refers to this and variations like President Obama's current middle ground of "muddling through" as "failure on the installment plan." And so it appears to be.]  
A policy of simply handing off an ongoing war to an Afghan government that cannot afford the troops needed to win it is thus not a strategy for a "responsible end" to the conflict; it is closer to what the Nixon administration was willing to accept in the final stages of the Vietnam War, a "decent interval" between the United States' withdrawal and the eventual defeat of its local ally.  
There are only two real alternatives to this, neither of them pleasant. One is to get serious about negotiations with the Taliban. This is no panacea, but it is the only alternative to outright defeat. To its credit, the Obama administration has pursued such talks for over a year. What it has not done is spend the political capital needed for an actual deal. A settlement the United States could live with would require hard political engineering both in Kabul and on Capitol Hill, yet the administration has not followed through.  
The other defensible approach is for the United States to cut its losses and get all the way out of Afghanistan now, leaving behind no advisory presence and reducing its aid substantially. Outright withdrawal might damage the United States' prestige, but so would a slow-motion version of the same defeat -- only at a greater cost in blood and treasure. And although a speedy U.S. withdrawal would cost many Afghans their lives and freedoms, fighting on simply to postpone such consequences temporarily would needlessly sacrifice more American lives in a lost cause. 
---"Ending the War in Afghanistan: How to Avoid Failure on the Installment Plan," by Stephen Biddle, Foreign Affairs (September/October 2013)
Of course, what Professor Biddle refers to as the price in political capital both in Washington and Kabul is likely more than the essential parties are willing to offer for an agreement the Taliban would nonetheless be loath to accept. And that assumes that many other realities and problems can be overcome with a multiplicity of interested parties, including a corrupt and inept Afghan government in Kabul (which, in itself, is fatal to a successful plan) and a fragmented Taliban that probably would not trust any one group, even Mullah Omar's, to fairly represent all. And even if they could, why would they? With the U.S. fighting forces soon leaving, with the period of their continuing financial support of advisors, trainers and the ANSF very much in question, why wouldn't the more patient Taliban just wait out the withdrawal of U.S. fighting troops, and then test the resolve of the ANSF to fight this unending war, and the U.S resolve to continue financing them in it?

Professor Biddle, a recognized scholar on foreign policy and military strategy, spends much time outlining what an acceptable, negotiated role for the Taliban in Afghanistan might look like, and why the Taliban, too, might find elements of it appealing--if it were possible. But he spends more time more convincingly describing all the parties and reasons why it is highly unlikely. Still, he despairs, it is the only hope we have, the only course but outright and complete U.S. withdrawal of troops and military support, the only alternative to failure.
Since outlasting the Taliban is unlikely, the only realistic alternative to eventual defeat is a negotiated settlement. [Realistic, really?] The administration has pursued such a deal for well over a year, but so far the process has yielded little, and there is now widespread skepticism about the talks.
Many, for example, doubt the Taliban are serious about the negotiations. After all, in late 2011, they assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's High Peace Council and the Kabul official charged with moving the talks forward. Since the Taliban can wait out the United States and win outright, why should they make concessions?  
 [And there is more to read in his article about the contours of such an agreement , a settlement, with the Taliban, Kabul, and the U.S. that might be possible, and more to read about serious players with serious objections to any such agreed role for the Taliban, notwithstanding the well-intentioned, humanistic concerns, interests and hopes of Professor Biddle--concerns interests and hopes many of us may share with him.]
[...] Yet despite these concerns, there is still a chance for a deal that offers more than just a fig leaf to conceal policy failure... There may be good reasons for the Taliban to explore a deal. Mullah Omar and his allies in the leadership have been living in exile in Pakistan for over a decade -- their children are growing up as Pakistanis -- and their movements are surely constrained by their Pakistani patrons. Afghans are famously nationalist, and the Afghan-Pakistani rivalry runs deep; exile across the border surely grates on the Afghan Taliban. Perhaps more important, they live under the constant threat of assassination by U.S. drones or commando raids: just ask Osama bin Laden or six of the last seven al Qaeda operations directors, all killed or captured in such attacks. And a stalemate wastes the lives and resources of the Taliban just as it does those of the Afghan forces and their allies. While the Taliban are probably able to pay this price indefinitely, and while they will surely not surrender just to stanch the bleeding, this does not mean they would prefer continued bloodletting to any possible settlement. The conflict is costly enough that the Taliban might consider an offer if it is not tantamount to capitulation.  
Still, on balance, the author articulates more realistic and powerful political and practical reasons that negotiations are unlikely to take place, and if they do, will nevertheless likely fail. In fairness--and in the interest of completing both sides of the ledger--he does his best to be positive about some circumstances that could influence the Taliban to look favorably on a negotiated settlement (e.g., as suggested above, having their families back in Afghanistan after so many years in Pakistan, where they are not fully free or welcomed, or remaining subject to the many deadly risks of continuing war, including drone attacks). But all that is very much within their way of life and accepted as necessary to achieving their goals. Those points ring weak, and the author more or less acknowledges it.

Regardless, the element of timing and the weakening current circumstances of the opposition work to the Taliban's advantage. And it would also be be wise to consult the long history of Afghanistan and it's fiercely territorial tribal culture, the Taliban and Mujahideen being just the more recent manifestations of it. Their resilience and capacity for long-term resistance and suffering to defend or regain possession of their ancestral homeland cannot be overestimated, which suggests strongly that neither compromise nor capitulation will likely play any part in the Taliban's plans.

Yet, Professor Biddle continues to treat the slimmest of possibilities of a negotiated agreement with the Taliban as though it is a failure for lack of sufficient effort on the part of the U.S. government--even when the circumstances he has presented and the arguments he makes all lead clearly to a set of challenges that are more than "daunting," they define a near impossible situation. Somehow, he finds in the efforts the government has continued to pursue an "unwillingness to accept the effort and costs that a serious settlement effort would entail." A more disinterested view might more openly call it what it clearly appears to be: a realistic, facts and circumstances assessment of the situation by the government, one that pays as much attention and respect to realistic probabilities as it does to the sums of costs and benefits.

But having found a way to blame the U.S. government for not achieving the near impossible--and at the same time making it clear that abandoning Afghanistan to its inevitable, internecine warring, is an answer he  is forced to by that failure of government--Professor Biddle does then cut to the bottom line:
As daunting as the obstacles to a negotiated settlement are, such a deal still represents the least bad option for the United States in Afghanistan. If the White House is unwilling to accept the costs that a serious settlement effort would entail, however, then it is time to cut American losses and get out of Afghanistan now.  
Some might see the Obama administration's current policy as a hedged version of such disengagement already. The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will soon shrink to perhaps 8,000-12,000 advisers and trainers, and U.S. aid might decline to $4-$5 billion a year for the ANSF and $2-$3 billion in economic assistance, with the advisory presence costing perhaps another $8-$12 billion a year. This commitment is far smaller than the 100,000 U.S. troops and over $100 billion of 2011, and it offers some chance of muddling through to an acceptable outcome while discreetly concealing the United States' probable eventual failure behind a veil of continuing modest effort.  
Only in Washington, however, could $14-$20 billion a year be considered cheap. If this yielded a stable Afghanistan, it would indeed be a bargain, but if, as is likely without a settlement, it produces only a defeat drawn out over several years, it will mean needlessly wasting tens of billions of dollars. In a fiscal environment in which $8 billion a year for the Head Start preschool program or $36 billion a year for Pell Grant scholarships is controversial, it is hard to justify spending another $70-$100 billion in Afghanistan over, say, another half decade of stalemated warfare merely to disguise failure or defer its political consequences.  
It is harder still to ask Americans to die for such a cause. Even an advisory mission involves risk, and right now, thousands of U.S. soldiers are continuing to patrol the country. If failure is coming, many Afghans will inevitably die, but a faster withdrawal could at least save some American lives that would be sacrificed along the slower route.  
It would be preferable for the war to end a different way: through a negotiated compromise with the Taliban. Talks so complicated and fraught, of course, might fail even if the United States does everything possible to facilitate them. But without such efforts, the chances of success are minimal, and the result is likely to be just a slower, more expensive version of failure. Getting out now is a better policy than that.
And then, most recently, there is our poorly attended-to interest and reduced focus on China and the pivot to the East. Important negotiations on nuclear capability are going on in Iran, and chemical weapons in Syria. But it is difficult to remain properly focused on critically important foreign policy priorities when narrow-minded, politically self-protective, radical Republican ideologues--political anarchists, really--would place America, its economy, and its international interests at risk without apparent concern for the implications in China and Asia, in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the subcontinent, and the world economy.

Link to article here or in cite above:

References to earlier 2010 posts on the same topic:

1. Exiting Afghanistan