The Miracle of Whitney

Fifty years ago today, just a few weeks before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington, a miracle happened: a baby girl was born. She would grow up to become a global superstar, but most importantly, she would be faithful, even in the midst of inner battles, to the mission God gave her: to bring love and joy to this world through the gift of song. The baby girl’s name was Whitney Elizabeth Houston. Her family would call her, simply, Nippy.

Over a year has gone by since Whitney passed away at 48 years of age. For many of us, the sorrow will really never go away. And yet, for me anyway, the more that time passes, the more that sorrow swims alongside a flowing, gushing, and unadulterated gratitude: gratitude for Whitney, and gratitude for God for giving our world such a miracle.

Down below is a link to one of Whitney’s 1991 hits, Miracle. This line from the song resonates with me now as it did back then:

Nothing should matter
Not when love grows inside you
A voice of love is crying out
Don’t throw love away
There’s a miracle in store…

Ironically, on this day, August 9, we also remember the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. As Whitney sang in Miracle, we all have love – individual talents from the Creator – growing inside each and every one of us. It is always we human beings who throw away that love, who throw away the “miracle in store,” when we use our talents for war and other destructive purposes, or perhaps countenance or, quite commonly, live in fear of, those who do.

It is never, ever God who is throwing away the love that was put inside of us from the moment we were conceived.

It may sound like a stretch, but perhaps God decided that baby Whitney should be delivered into the world on August 9, simply to get us to stop throwing our hands up in the air when war and injustice take place, asking – and indeed shouting – “Why God why!”

God is always, always doing his part: giving us miracles of love inside each of us to work with, every single day. Miracle upon beautiful miracle.

Despite her battle with the dreadful disease of addiction, Whitney never threw away her miracle. Even in the last few years of her life, when her voice was wearing down, she still was faithful to her call – singing from the depths of her soul the best she could. She gave, and gave, and gave.

Generations yet to come will be blessed by God’s generosity that came in the form of this beautiful person, just as we have been so blessed.

Happy 50th Birthday, and rest in peace, Whitney Elizabeth Houston. Yes, we will always love you.

Here is Whitney’s video for the classic song, Miracle:

The Petraeus Illusion Is Our Own

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton famously wrote about his spiritual awakening at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville’s shopping district. Away from the monks and bucolic rhythms of Gethsemani Abbey, Merton described his reaction to seeing all the city people bustling about: “It was like waking from a dream, a spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or my monastic life: but the conception of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, ‘spiritual men,’ men of interior life, what have you.” Merton goes on to explain that though he and his fellow monks live their spiritual lives“out of the world,” they are every bit as much a part of the same violent, tormented physical world as everyone else. Merton writes, “We just happen to be conscious of it [the world’s problems] and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better [his emphasis], than others? The whole idea is preposterous.”

Though not referring to his theretofore monastic experience as a brainwashing, Merton nonetheless described his awakening experience at the corner of Fourth and Walnut as a kind of ecstatic deprogramming: “And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: ‘Thank God, thank God that I am only a man among others. To think for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.”

In the wake of the Petraeus scandal, much has already been said about journalistic failure, not only of the broken boundary between the former general and his biographer, but about the media’s largely uncritical reporting on Petraeus and his rise to power. Yet it seems that for some years now the American people have been drinking the same strange brew as the media when it comes to things Petraeus: opposing the military quagmire in Afghanistan, yet standing foursquare behind the military general who principally conceived it.  This strange brew, it seems, leaves our critical capacities fully intact – handing out teddy bears to Afghan children to win “hearts and minds” while dismissing those same children as “collateral damage” when they and their parents are killed by U.S. bombs is both immoral and nonsensical – yet simultaneously renders We the Drinkers utterly incapacitated to actually do anything to stem the aforementioned bombs-and-teddy bear schizophrenia. What gives?

The Dixie Chicks, American musicians.

Is it simply a matter of old-fashioned moral inertia?  After all, we are still just a decade from the time when the Dixie Chicks –who spoke truth to power about the Iraq War – were turned into fiddle-playing pariahs. We are just a decade from the time when Congressman Walter Jones, who now regrets the Iraq war, attempted to turn the family trip to McDonald’s into a litmus test on one’s personal patriotism. (Remember, call em’ freedom fries, or don’t bother calling yourself an American!)

Indeed, though the jingoism of the immediate post-9/11 period may have receded into memory, the military jingles surely have not: If you want to be considered an acceptable member of society, you must sing the praises of the military prior to giving your policy critique.

Yet moral inertia alone simply fails to account for why the American people continue to fund a multi-billion dollar a year colossus – the Afghanistan war – even though they long ago rejected and discarded its moral and strategic rationale. Something else must be in play. Arguably, that something is a failure to have a Merton-like “Fourth and Walnut” awakening, and to realize that other people’s lives are just as sacred as our own.  In others words, Americans have yet to come to grips with the fact that we’ve been brainwashed by some – and a certain former general comes to mind –  who put extraordinary elbow grease into portraying themselves as more patriotic than the rest of us.

Imagine if David Petraeus, who stopped wearing his general’s uniform upon his military retirement in 2011, never wore the uniform in the first place. Imagine if, to borrow a line from director Oliver Stone, there was no “fruit salad” of medals on his chest. Imagine if the U.S. Senate respected the right of Americans – like the group – to publicly criticize military leaders, instead of using the Senate to censure citizens as the Senate did in 2007 when took out an ad criticizing Petraeus. Would We the People give much credence to the claims of a mere bureaucrat in a civilian suit trying to sell a multi-billion dollar war with an intrinsically flawed premise, namely that Afghan “hearts and minds” can be won with the proper balance of teddy-bear tenderness and hellfire missile destruction? It’s doubtful.

But once that uniform goes on, once the “fruit salad” is donned, once the official censuring of First Amendment-protected speech commences, once the multitudes are cowed into submission, it’s no longer We the People anyway – it’s We the Drinkers of that strange brew so necessary for mass brainwashing.

The hardest part of realizing that you’ve been brainwashed is dealing with the humiliation. Just ask the millions of women who’ve been betrayed by their husbands and boyfriends. Most people simply don’t want to admit that they’ve been so gullible, even stupid.  Thus the illusion can carry on for some time. But if one has developed the spiritual and psychological tools to realize that all of us are susceptible to brainwashing, it’s really not so bad.

Clearly, Thomas Merton developed those tools, and as result was able to free himself from the illusion that he lived in a state of higher holiness and was therefore better than other people, simply because he was a monk. Hopefully, the American people will, sooner rather than later, free ourselves from the utter illusion that military generals are more devoted to our country and our freedom than the rest of us.  It’s simply not true.

If we did free ourselves, we might also free our foreign brothers and sisters in this human family from the wretched violence and indignity that our illusion unleashes upon them.

Filling Up Our Senses With Senselessness

In his classic 1974 single Annie’s Song, the late John Denver drew vivid portraits of nature to describe his love for his wife, Annie:

“You fill up my senses like a night in a forest

Like the mountains in spring time

Like a walk in the rain

Like a storm in the desert

Like a sleepy blue ocean”

The poetry reaches its climax with “Come let me love you, Come love me again.” If ever there was ever an American song to make you appreciate love and senses in life’s sadder moments, it’s Annie’s Song.

Reflecting upon First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention, memories of Annie’s Song came flooding back, precisely because the “American spirit” the First Lady was describing went in the polar opposite direction of the spirit of Annie’s Song.

Speaking about the American spirit of “service and sacrifice” Michelle Obama told the convention, “I’ve seen it in our men and women in uniform and our proud military families…in wounded warriors who tell me they’re not just going to walk again, they’re going to run, and they’re going to run marathons.”

All right, so maybe her husband did not turn out to be the peacemaker many Americans had hoped he would be, but certainly, using her platform before the nation to give praise to paralyzed soldiers confident they will walk again, one could set aside the disappointments and simply appreciate the indomitable American spirits of the wounded soldiers Michelle Obama spoke of. Then came the stunner, sordid and twisted as it was revelatory about our times.

Mrs. Obama said she found the American spirit, “in the young man blinded by a bomb in Afghanistan who said, simply, ‘…I’d give my eyes 100 times again to have the chance to do what I have done and what I can still do.’

How did one’s sacrifice of one of their senses, in this case sight, for a war that most Americans want absolutely nothing to do with, come to define the “American spirit” itself, at least according to the First Lady of the United States?

The senses, like rights themselves, come from the Creator, however one chooses to define the Creator. The senses are sacred, a choreography designed by God not only to guide our way in the world, but to enable us to witness the majesty of creation – mountains in springtime, deep blue oceans, John Denver’s voice and guitar.

That any grown man or woman, a political figure or not, would characterize a young man’s loss of one of his senses through violence, in this case war, as anything other than a profound tragedy is deeply disturbing.

Helen Keller as a young woman.

We have all known or know of people who have been dealt the horrible blow of losing one of their senses, from natural occurrences, accidents, or through violence, and who then manage, both practically and psychologically, to triumph over the loss. The life story of Helen Keller epitomizes that triumph.

The young soldier Michelle Obama referenced in her convention speech certainly has every right to conclude that the war in Afghanistan was worth the loss of his sight, and still is worth that loss – a hundred times over. It ought to go without saying that neither that soldier, nor Michelle Obama, has any right to actually foist that formulation onto the rest of us and our lives, be we soldiers or not. But unfortunately, in these twisted times, from a cultural standpoint, it is no longer so clear-cut.

While not deliberately foisting the sight-for-war spirit onto us, without question, Michelle Obama, as First Lady of the United States, intended to give her imprimatur to that very spirit, and by extension the president’s as well.

Americans would do well to think more deeply before applauding, let alone embracing, this kind of imprimatur.

The question must be asked: Is the very definition of what we call the American spirit undergoing a major transformation right before our eyes, owing precisely to the hemorrhaging violence at home and abroad? It certainly seems that way, and it certainly seems that intrinsic to this new American spirit is the idea that Creator-given senses are a fair trade for personal and national pride.

In the last century, one American legend, John Denver, utilized his senses to the fullest, and in so doing elevated the consciousness of all who heard him bearing witness to the profundity of creation and the human experience. Another American legend, Helen Keller, stripped of her senses by nature, overcame her obstacles and bore witness to the profundity of creation and the human experience by becoming a peace and human rights activist.

The American spirit that defined those two American legends of the last century is, frankly, being replaced by a spirit of belligerence and pride, even stupidity.

Shifts in cultural trends, or spirits, take time. Here’s a good test for whether you have adopted the new American spirit:

Are you more emotionally moved by the tears of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ congressional colleagues as they talk about her progress after the Tucson massacre than you are frustrated with their constant kowtowing to the N.R.A. and its followers? If so, chances are you have already adopted the new American spirit articulated by Michelle Obama: namely, looking for valor in the violence suffered by others, all while accepting the same legal, constitutional, and cultural frameworks that led to the violence in the first place.

The new American spirit is, in a word, senseless. Indeed, it takes an awful lot of senselessness to valorize the needless death of the senses.

Time for Democrats to Ditch Gun Owners

Based on the barely audible applause that Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer received for his tip of the hat to the gun lobby during his DNC convention speech, Democratic delegates and activists are not big on guns. About former Massachusetts governor Romney, Schweitzer told the convention, “And here’s the one that got a burr under my saddle: he quadrupled the fee for a gun license!” It was a good thing that the Montana governor limited his blatant appeal to gun owners in swing states to the matter of registration fees. As governor Schweitzer himself might say, among Democratic activists at least, gun-worshipping talk is simply “a dog that won’t hunt.”

And yet, the Democratic Party continues to effectively coddle gun owners in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Nevada who otherwise align themselves more with Democratic than Republican values. At some point Democrats– like the ones who kept their hands to their sides during Schweitzer’s nod to the N.R.A. – ought to ask what is gained by adopting such milquetoast stances in response to the Great American Gun Plague.

Not only was discussion of the gun plague left out of the prime time speeches at the DNC convention, the proliferation of guns is not even listed in the “issues” section of the DNC Web site.

While most Democrats I know have no desire to descend to the mentality of people who find it entertaining to shoot cutouts of human beings at firing ranges, that is precisely what the establishment gun control lobby and the Democratic Party bigwigs want us to: So long as they are law-abiding, and never break the wall between cutouts of human beings and real human beings, we must respect and acknowledge gun owners’ basic instinct to shoot as some kind of sacred right – if we want their votes.

According to the commonly accepted statistics on guns, 40 percent of Americans are gun-owners, and there are roughly 88 guns in America for every 100 people. Those of us who are not gun owners – the 60 percent majority – are wasting crucial time on a Second Amendment –centered discourse; a discourse that solidifies the dangerous notion that an armed citizenry is the last bulwark against government tyranny.

An informed citizenry and a rigorous system of checks and balances are the last bulwarks against government tyranny, not glocks.

Those of us who want Second Amendment repeal should hold no illusions. It will take several decades, if not longer, to confiscate and dispose of the civilian firearms in this country, and to create a measured way for law enforcement to wean itself off the use of guns; a measured way that would protect law enforcement during a transition to a post-Second Amendment society.

No doubt, for every one of us alive now, even little babies, we will live in a gun-saturated society. It’s the lot we’ve been given from previous generations, and they ought not to brag about it.

Yet if the 60 percent majority of us who do not desire guns have the wherewithal to “just say no” to those who’ve made guns central to their identity – whether they live in swing states or not – we can start now to roll back the Second Amendment, and at least for our posterity, generations down the line, leave them with a society where men resolve their disputes through peace, due process, and dialogue – not guns.  Indeed, notwithstanding a minority of women gun owners, it ought to be obvious by now that guns are the male equivalent of make-up: external devices used to shore up insecurities in a person’s gender identity.  Just as some women can’t go outside the house without make-up on, so too some men can’t go outside their house without their guns – hence the proliferation of conceal and carry laws.

If we are ever to be carried into a time free of the tyranny of guns, a time when children can go to school, parents can go to work, the faithful can go to their places of worship, and moviegoers to the movies, without the threat of gun violence, it will be the liberal tradition that will bring us there.

It will never be the tradition of compromising with gun-worshipers that will bring us to that point, for it is precisely that tradition that has blanketed our entire nation in blood and tears for decades.

It’s time for Democrats to abandon gun-owners as a constituency; a constituency that, go figure, is holding political hostage the advancement of a domestic peace and disarmament agenda.

It’s time for Democrats to start identifying constituencies that can see the nexus between the violence-based philosophy underlying the Second Amendment and the realized violence of the Great American Gun Plague.

Gratitude for Pelicans

It’s not every day that a reporter gets a celebrity interview. It’s even rarer when the reporter is hardly a reporter, and the interviewee in question has wings. So I had to find a hat that looked somewhat like a reporter’s hat from the days of old, and scribble “Press” on a little sheet of paper to stick in my cap. Once I found something that looked like an old-fashioned reporter’s hat, I then grabbed my note pad and pen. I was ready to go…..except for one thing: I forgot to call a translator to help facilitate the interview. I’m not completely fluent in Pelican; I know just enough to get by.

Regina the Pelican is widely known around these parts. As she spreads her wings and gracefully glides atop the waters of Biscayne Bay, Regina is doing either one of two things: looking for fish to eat, or doing her morning exercise routine. For Regina, Biscayne Bay is her liquid stage, her silver screen turned blue. Yet when on land, Regina, like most celebrities, is very reclusive and protective of her privacy. Approach Regina when she’s on land, and you better be careful – she’ll flap her wings and fly away if you get too close. Like a diva who has simply had enough.

So when Regina showed up outside my door this morning, I knew for sure she was sending a signal: This star of Biscayne Bay was finally ready to give a tell-all interview.  Barbara Walters had been trying for years to land this one, and without any effort at all, I was about to get the biggest interview of the year.

Armed with my pad and pen, and of course wearing my “Press” hat, I slowly approached Regina. “Regina,” I called out. “Regina, it’s me, Scoop.” She didn’t respond. She just turned her head in the other direction.  It seems that when celebrities are used to Barbara Walters knocking down their door, the notion of giving an interview to a lowly reporter named Scoop is none too thrilling. Yet I persisted.

“Regina, I’ve been dying to get an interview with you for years now, won’t you talk to me?” No response. I was still a good three yards away. Perhaps trying some basic celebrity flattery would loosen her up a bit.

“Regina, I saw your last nose dive into the bay. Fantastic form. There’s talk of you being nominated for a Birdie. Does that make you nervous? Or are you just focusing on your next project?”

She slowly made two steps further away from me. Clearly this diva was wise to my flattery strategy. How could I get her to open up?

Even though I had only about seven minutes experience as reporter, and looked totally out of place in my “Press” hat, I wondered if I had enough journalistic skill to pull off a Barbara Walters. Would I be able to bring up something so sad and tragic that my interviewee would have no choice but to break down and spill the beans? Well, you never know unless try.

“Regina,” I called out. “I’m so sorry to hear about that ruptured pipe that spread sewage into the bay. I heard your vacation spot near FisherIsland was wiped out. How does that make you feel? Do you feel like dying inside?” No response. “Surely, Regina, that must make you feel like dying inside.”

Again, there was no response. On the positive side, I was now only two yards away from Regina. I had been moving slowly toward her as I asked my questions. While she was as reticent as ever, clearly she was getting accustomed to the sound of my voice. That being the case, I thought it would it be a good time to ask Regina if those rumors were true.

“Regina,” I said in a calm, professional manner, “After forty-two years of marriage, Sara the Seagull reportedly left Jonathan Livingston after discovering her true sexuality — that she was a lesbian seagull. Rumor has it that there was another female bird involved in the break-up. Regina, with all due respect, I must ask for the record: Are you the bird that broke up the Livingston marriage?” Regina said nothing. She ever-so slightly raised her beak, as if she were offended.

“I’m so sorry, Regina” I said. “I didn’t mean to offend you. Looks like my effort to imitate Barbara Walters is about as successful as Mitt Romney’s effort to imitate emotion. Why don’t I give up trying to be Barbara, and just be me……Scoop.”

She bent her beak just slightly down to the ground, as if to signal she accepted my apology, even though she was still hurt.

“It’s not like it’s even a secret anymore, Regina. The lesbian rowing crew that glides across Biscayne Bay in the early morning hours has already adopted you as their official mascot. So why are you so reluctant to talk about it? The cat is out of the bag, Regina. The bird is out of the nest. Face it.” Regina again slightly raised her beak to signal she was offended.

Regina turned her head toward me, looked me straight in the eyes for several moments, and in a somber, feminine voice said, “Why do you have to degrade me?”

I was too stunned to speak. I was too embarrassed to look her in the eyes. There she stood looking at me, not with an ounce of anger in her eyes, but with buckets of sorrow.

“That’s what you humans do, isn’t it?” she said. “You degrade each other.”

“Yes, Regina,” I conceded, “sometimes we humans degrade each other.”

“Sometimes?” Regina questioned.

“Okay, so maybe it’s more than sometimes,” I confirmed. Regina then walked right up to me. Since I was now sitting, and she was standing, our eyes were in perfect alignment.

She said, “If I could give you my wings, I would. Then you would have the bird’s-eye-view that I’ve had for all these years. And you would see why it’s more than sometimes.”

“I’m very sorry that I offended you,” I said.

“You shouldn’t feel sorry. You should feel grateful,” she replied.

“Grateful? Grateful for what?” I asked. Regina stuck her beak in my face and whispered,”Grateful that you don’t have the wings to see just how awful you humans really are.”

I remained quiet for several moments. Regina again turned her head toward the bay. I didn’t know how to respond to her. I wanted to tell her that her view of humankind was too dark and gloomy, but I didn’t know how to say it. She had seen more than I had. How could I tell her she was wrong?

“Regina,” I said, “Maybe you’re looking at the glass half empty.”

“Where I come from,” she replied, “we don’t have glasses. We just have the bay. And it’s always full, unless the humans make a mess of things.”

“Do I sense some anger toward us humans coming from you?” I asked.

“Humans have anger, not pelicans. We just have sadness,” she replied as she kept her eyes on the bay.

I thought about those words, and after a few more moments I said, “I’m sorry, Regina. I’m sorry if some of us have hurt you.”

“You mustn’t feel sorry for me. I can fly away from you humans and your anger. But you can never fly away from yourselves. No matter how many nations you build, no matter how many borders you draw, no matter how many weapons you have, you will never be able to fly away from each other. If you had a bird’s-eye-view you would understand that. But you don’t. You can’t fly, and therefore you can’t see.”

“Do you hate me for not having wings?” I asked.

“Pelicans don’t hate, we mourn.” Regina replied. As Regina stood there, regal but sad, the words began to sink in.

“What can I do, Regina? I’m only human. I don’t have wings. What am I supposed to do?”

“Listen, Scoop,” she said, “Scoop, that’s your name isn’t it?” she asked.

“Actually, it’s really not my name, so much as what I do, or at least what I’m doing right now,” I told her.

“Listen, you can never have wings like a pelican, so you will never be able to see like a pelican. But there’s no reason you can’t dive like a pelican. So whenever you are trying to get the scoop on something, make sure you dive in. Dive like a pelican. That’s as close as you’ll get to having a bird’s-eye-view, and feeling  what we feel.”

With that, Regina began to flap her wings as if she was ready to take off. “Wait, Regina, why are you leaving,” I asked. “I’m not angry, why are you leaving? Are you scared?”

“No, I’m not scared. Did you want me to stay?”

“Please,” I responded. Regina rested her wings, and sat down. The two of us sat there for the rest of the day, until the late afternoon sun made its pink reflection on Biscayne Bay, home of Regina the Pelican.

* This story is dedicated to all the brave journalists, diplomats, and NGO workers of all faiths and nations who have died in the line of duty trying to make the world a more humane place.