Thursday, April 28, 2011

Looking for Heroes in the USA

Wael Ghonim, Google’s young marketing executive credited with sparking the revolution in Egypt that ousted Hosni Mubarak, announced this week that he will take a long-term leave from Google to start an NGO (non-governmental organization) devoted to ending poverty and promoting education in Egypt.

Over the weekend, Time magazine included him in its latest list of the 100 most influential people. He is my hero.

Former United Nations chief nuclear inspector and Egyptian politician Mohamed ElBaradei said of Ghonim: "Wael Ghonim embodies the youth who constitute the majority of Egyptian society - a young man who excelled and became a Google executive but, as with many of his generation, remained apolitical due to loss of hope that things could change in a society permeated for decades with a culture of fear.”

While our society does not have a majority of youth, and, thank God, our society is not permeated with fear, we can relate to the loss of hope that things here will change given the selfish and self-serving atmosphere in our state and federal governing bodies.

Not only our young people, but also many Baby Boomers shake their heads and turn away from engagement in the political process - abandoning hope that things will improve. We are hard-pressed to identify a single person in power who speaks for us, whose voice is our voice. Lawmakers seem removed from us and working mainly for their own self-preservation.

Even President Obama, battered by relentless toadies on both sides of the aisle, conceded that the change he envisioned eludes him. He may have surrendered, relinquishing his own aspirations, no longer apart from the bleakness of “at least getting something done.”

Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison. We could argue that things are simpler in Egypt. Corrupt rulers persecuting innocent people. Homogenous society held back by greedy tyrants.

We don’t experience the kind of intimidation and torment the Egyptian people endured. Our population is heterogeneous and multifaceted. Our issues also.

Still, we seek a Wael Ghonim among our elected officials. He put himself at risk and spoke out against the brutal police state that held Egypt by the throat for thirty years. As he might have predicted, he himself disappeared shortly after tipping the Facebook domino that inspired and empowered the Egyptian people. Only with help from Google and (by his assessment) President Obama, was he freed to speak again. Now he’s setting aside his own secure position in our country to devote himself to the Egyptian people and their future.

Who among our politicians puts himself at risk? Whose integrity prohibits him from remaining silent? Who dares to challenge his own party? Which legislator would support his colleague for speaking his mind if it strayed from the party line?

Name one. Go ahead, if you can. Who will forgo his own security to further empower and inspire the American people?

On the other side, Wael Ghonim himself will likely find that relieving poverty, for example, is not so straightforward as it seems. Certainly, establishing a government of the people and for the people promises to present unimagined difficulties.

We hold so much hope for Egypt because it reminds us of how we once were: New in the world having thrown off oppressive bonds, on the brink of rebirth, full of vision and promise. Are there more like Wael Ghonim who will now step forward to create a new day for Egypt and the Arab world?

I shudder to think that he could be overwhelmed and defeated. Would he ever shake his head and turn away? Could he succumb to the terrible weight of “the way things always have been,” become a bureaucrat, push paper, secretly knowing he sold out?

What of our politicians? Rushing and turning, never moving alone or taking the road less traveled. From strategy meeting to news conference, do they remember who they are and what their charge is? In their distorted province, they bustle about like elementary children on the soccer field playing bunch ball.

Meanwhile it’s jobs and the economy. Immigration. Education of our children. Global relationships. Enemies and friends. War and war and war.

If anyone can ring the bell and sound a resonant note on these issues, please do so. Tell the truth. Be guided by principle. Cut through the double talk and harangue. Shine a light. We’ll listen and follow.

We’re looking for heroes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can We, Should We, Forgive?

Can a criminal ever be redeemed? He serves time, pays restitution, completes the requisites of the law…is that it then? Is he absolved? In the eyes of the law, we should say yes, though a person’s record shadows him and that asterisk sitting next to his name makes him suspect.

Maybe it’s only certain crimes or infractions that are forgivable. Could be that some crimes a person might commit can never truly be forgotten or forgiven.

Murder comes to mind, of course. Can a person be forgiven for murder? Can he redeem himself by serving his time?

It seems that only those who acknowledge their crimes can redeem themselves from having committed the crime. If you’re guilty and deny it, you remain guilty and the crime stays with you until you come clean and accept the consequences. Even then, you’re guilty, but redeemable.

If a person commits murder in a fit of passion, turns himself in, stands before a judge and accepts responsibility, goes to jail for the assigned time, and returns to society, is he redeemed? Can he, should he, be forgiven?

Forget about the jerk who kills someone, even in a moment of passion, and then lies, denies, covers up, runs, makes excuses, and tries to evade his just consequences. He will have no redemption. He wants to pretend and so he shall have it. Guilty within and without.

Lane Garrison, a young man who pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and was released for good behavior after serving 22 months in LA County Jail and a total of eight prisons, granted interviews this week, expressing regret for his crime and gratitude for getting a second chance.

Garrison, who was 26 years old in 2006 and riding high on a budding career in Hollywood, having appeared in a few films, and ironically in the TV series “Prison Break,” was invited to a high school party, drank two beers and two shots, then took three teenagers away from the party in his car. Twenty-six minutes after he met them, he crashed into a tree, injuring two and killing the third.

Before being sentenced to three years and four months in federal prison, Garrison faced the parents of his victim, young Vahagn Setian. Setian’s father said of Garrison, “He is reckless, careless, and especially selfish.” In response, Garrison told the victims' families he was "genuinely remorseful" and "sickened" by his behavior that night.

He stood up that day and took responsibility for his poor decisions, telling the judge, “I am guilty.” He now shows deep pain and remorse. The weight of his crime and depth of his sorrow sit at the surface of his features as he speaks. He says he thinks of the family of his 17-year-old victim “every day, almost every hour,” and prays for them every night.

It appears his career may be resurrected. He seems profoundly humbled.

I hope we never see his face at a red carpet event or at a party in New York City with Lindsay Lohan. If he regains success and the privileged life he nearly tossed aside, he cannot have our hearts and our good will, our forgiveness, if he ever laughs too loud.

But all that aside, is he forgivable? Can a family who lost a son forgive?

I’m thanking God right now that for my husband and me, this is a theoretical exercise. But I’d like to believe we could forgive a young man like Lane Garrison if we were in the position of the parents of Vahagn Setian. I’ve read that to forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. It’s easy to see how a person can be held prisoner by anger and hatred, by condemnation.

Mohandas Gandhi said the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong. Would we be strong enough to forgive this young man? We’d have to let go of what he did, how he wronged us, or we’d never move forward. When a person forgives, he doesn’t change the past - he changes the future.

It’s a vital exercise on a personal and global scale. The willingness and ability to forgive may be our most significant contribution to the healing of the world.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ignorance Repeats Itself

When I worked in the high school I used to smile to myself each September when staff lamented the newest freshman class: “They’re so immature!”

So true. Small and socially inept, the 9th graders were alternately hilarious and horrible. One minute they skipped through the hallways arm-in-arm with their BFF from seventh grade. The next minute they’d be texting each other with brutal verbal attacks on each other’s physical appearance, personality, lineage, and actual or supposed sex life.

Every year we speculated about their parents. We looked back at our feeder middle school and wondered if they learned anything there. Certainly not what they should have learned.

"They oughta know!” we’d say. They oughta know to get to class on time. They oughta know that homework counts for a big chunk of their grades. They ought to know a better way to resolve their conflicts. (The biggest percentage of fights at high schools is between freshmen.)

But of course, they were just kids. Freshmen are 14 years old, pretty much the definition of immaturity. That we acted surprised every year may be more puzzling than the 9th graders’ state of development. Why would we expect a 14-year-old to be anything but immature?

Yet isn’t it reasonable to expect folks past 18 say, or 21, to be more grown up? More feeling? By that chronological stage shouldn’t we all know better ways to resolve our conflicts? Certainly we should be able to accept your choice of a sports team good-naturedly even if it rivals my choice of a team.

Compassionate adults were all hurt and demoralized by the beating of Brian Stow, an EMT who attended a Giants v. Dodgers game last week in LA, only to be attacked in the parking lot by fake Dodgers “fans.” He remains in critical condition in a medically induced coma, perhaps having sustained brain damage – because he’s a Giants fan.

A few fake Giants “fans” went online before Monday’s home series against the Dodgers to rally the ignorant to retaliate for the attack on Stow. One even suggested murdering the attackers, who haven’t yet been identified.

However, true San Francisco Giants fans, and true Dodgers fans, showed themselves to be circumspect. Players from both teams spoke out against the regressive and mindless brutality of the cowards in the parking lot that day. Both franchises and other organizations have offered rewards totalling thousands of dollars for the arrest of the perpetuators of this heinous assault on the intellect and psyche of fun-loving freedom.

At the base of it, the two-year-old in all of us understands the urge to hit back. You hurt me. You hurt my friend. Let me hurt you. Let me show you how it feels.

But since we’re not two anymore, most of us also recognize the world of food-gumming blind people who subscribe to that Biblical adage about eyes and teeth. It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t get the results. Don’t we all know this by now?

In trying to understand why this seemingly straightforward concept escapes fanatics (it’s where the word “fan” originated), gangsters, bullies, and others who keep violence alive, I’ve come to a sort of philosophy that helps get me through the days: Humankind may seem not to be evolving because earth provides a proving ground. It’s a high school for enlightenment and we get a new freshman class every year. Freshmen are immature by definition and cause many problems because of it.

And nowadays, it seems, for the radically unenlightened, the overblown penalty for every infraction, real or perceived, is death. Cut me off in traffic; I kill you. Flirt with my girlfriend; I kill you. Root for my team’s rival…

All the dark atrocities we would call Medieval still exist in the world in 2011, well past the age of the Renaissance. All the pettiness…easily found. Thieves, check. Barbaric dictators, here. Mindless attackers and mindless avengers, present, thanks to the mental 14-year-olds among us.

Sometimes it looks like these things will persist no matter what. And maybe they will because there’s always a new freshman class somewhere – a category of folks who haven’t seen the memo: Stop the violence. We’re here to make the world a better place.

Thanks for listening, Dear Choir. I don’t think the young ones will be reading this - short attention span and all. So if you don’t mind, please pass it on. Otherwise, ignorance repeats itself.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fat Grandma Beats the System

According to Chronicle News Services, Arizona’s cash-strapped Medicaid program is considering charging patients $50 per year if they smoke, have diabetes, or are overweight. They say the tax is intended to push patients to take better care of themselves. The fee would apply only to childless adults.

Not sure how far down the line of “consideration” those folks are…so let’s just process the concept for ourselves. The State Health Care Cost Containment System, the ones who are floating this idea, presumably has records of potential tax-ees already. They already know who reported himself to be a smoker, or who, during his last office visit, tipped in with a bulbous Body Mass Index. They surely can sort out who they’re treating for diabetes.

But do their records reflect childless adults? Really? No, I didn’t think so. Folks will have to respond to a questionnaire to get themselves in line for the dun. That’s sure to go well. A lot of folks will raise their hands and step forward. “Tax me! Tax me!”

The Cost Containment folks must compile the responses to their surveys and scan their records in search of offending parties. OK. Here’s a list of overweight, smoking, sick, empty nesters receiving Medicaid --- because they’re also poor. Let’s go ahead and send them a bill.

Now, will that be $50 per offending condition? Or will there be a two- or three-for-one sale? If I’m a diabetic smoker, for example, do I get a deal? Seems like a fleet discount might be in order except that the enforcers are of a mind to make some dough, er, my mistake - they’re encouraging these folks to take good care.

We can’t deny there could be some logic to this. When I get a ticket for a faulty muffler, it encourages me to get my muffler fixed. If I pay my taxes late, the penalty encourages me to pay them on time next year. But if I’m already spending, let’s say conservatively, $2 a day to the nicotine monkey, totaling $730 a year for an addiction some say is as relentless as a heroin addiction, I’m not sure I wouldn’t just pony up the added 14 cents per day the proposed fine represents.

(I knew a woman once who paid herself $3 a day for every day she didn’t smoke after she corralled the compulsion. Bought herself a diamond ring. Now that’s encouragement.)

Could this tax help make a person thinner? We’d have to look at the cost per calorie index for our amortization of this effect. Let’s see, here it is: If a person needed to lose 20 pounds to exit the “This is for Your Own Good” penalty box within the first year of paying said penalty, he would need to eliminate about 192 calories per day for an annual reduction of 70,000 calories. So, he’d need to lay off his daily box of Junior Mints, or take a brisk two-mile walk each day, every day, for 365 days to burn those calories. Either that, or of course, he’d have to pay that onerous 14cents instead.

The one that really gets me is the diabetic. Arizona would penalize, oops, sorry, encourage the diabetic with this $50 tax. But what exactly can a diabetic do to improve his lot? Can he behave his way out of diabetes? Once you have it, doesn’t it have you? You control it or contain it, but it doesn’t go away just ‘cause somebody says, “Do better.”

But of course! Here’s the giant loophole that will put the kybosh on the whole shebang: No one has to be childless. Even my favorite relative, known affectionately among the Okies back home as “Fat Grandma,” can have kids in the house. Heck, in today’s economy, it’s not uncommon at all to have kids at home, underfoot, and in the fridge until you’re underfoot yourself. Be gone Medicaid penalty!

What truly grates is the condescending deception used to package the proposal. Just tell the truth. The underlying problem in Arizona and the rest of our country is the cost of providing health care to the poor. But Arizona swaddles its proposal in a false premise: encouragement.

In fact, it may not be unrealistic or unfair to charge a smoker more than a non-smoker for services. After all, he costs the system more. So do diabetics and heavyweights. Maybe we should just call it what it is.

If I were a stout smoker, I might not like the extra charge, but I’d be less able to argue with it.