Remember in The Godfather how young Michael Corleone first appears, a dignified and principled Army captain who disdains the workings of the Cosa Nostra? But when his family is threatened, Michael transforms into a ruthless Mafia don with a code of honor that, for all its rituals and sanctimony, is chaotic and evil.
A similar character-driven drama is playing out in Syria where the son and heir of the monstrous Hafez al-Assad has followed in his father's footsteps, murdering over two thousand peaceful protesters to keep his grip on power. This same young man, Bashar al-Assad, once promised reform and freedom in his country. Returning from England, where he studied ophthalmology, he briefly encouraged a free press and countenanced dissenting voices. Bashar befriended the popular Syrian political cartoonist Ali Farzat, attending a gallery opening of a collection of his gently satirical works. He expressed admiration and encouraged their publication in a new magazine...for a little while.
Bashar either changed or he dropped his façade. Everyday we read of further atrocities in Syria's streets at his behest.
The cartoons here are by Ali Farzat. The one on top is from 2007 and states a universal truth about the alacrity with which nations go to war. Last Thursday, Assad's thugs kidnapped Farzat, beat him brutally, and broke his hands. But earlier today he seems to have overcome his injuries and sketched himself in his hospital bed. Click on the picture for a closer look at his gesture of defiance. Also, more of his work is displayed on his Facebook page, but the captions are in Arabic.
Where is the touchstone of memory? A friend's father had a charming quirk by which he discounted all changes to his environs. Thus the new Walmart was only squatting on Mr. Stillman's farm, and the sleek Exxon was just a mask fitted over the old general store with its hand cranked gas pump.
For people of my generation, an implanted memory abides from our first schoolbooks of Dick and Jane, Baby Sally, Spot, and Puff, and their lives on Pleasant Street. Theirs was a worriless world of temperate weather and kindly neighbors. From time to time, as I drive around Southern California, I see such neighborhoods with mature trees, wide streets, and grassy medians. For just a moment or two I can be fooled into thinking my memories are real and that the world of Pleasant Street in the 1950's is worth going back to.
But Pleasant Street is not a touchstone; it's a chimera. Post war America, despite its booming economy, was a place of great suffering. Poverty and discrimination were rampant. Conformity to narrowly defined religious and political beliefs, and social restrictions, were rigorously enforced both informally and by law. Shibboleths abounded regarding patriotism, sexual mores, race, God, and American exceptionalism.
And yet, I think we may be forgiven for hoping that one day we'll live in a demi-paradise of neighborliness and blooming gardens on shaded streets. What is unpardonable, however, is to believe that the past ever held a time when greater wisdom prevailed.
I mention this after reading Ryan Lizza's article about Congresswoman and Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann in this week's New Yorker in which he names people who have profoundly influenced her religious and political thinking, starting with the late Francis Schaeffer, who helped inspire the rise of the religious right, and who denounced the Renaissance as a time when the world ceased to be God-centered and embraced the heresy of humanism. Others include a revisionist historian who sees the Civil War as an attack by the Godless North on the Christian South, and followers of "Dominionism" which is a call for an American theocracy.
I hope that greater exposure of Ms. Bachmann's atavistic thinking will result in her greater renunciation and derision.
The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793. In this neo-classical work, David appropriates the style of religious art (think of Michaelangelo's Pieta) to depict a secular martyr: radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat. The painting was grandly reproduced onstage in Peter Weiss' inspired 1963 play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade , or Marat/Sade for short, which was embraced by radical chic audiences of the Viet Nam era.
If I were a political creature, I'd be tempted to start a new movement, or perhaps a party, and call it AARM: Angry, Abandoned, Radicalized Middle.
This week saw two strong rebukes to our political system, first by the historic downgrading of American debt, and next by a resounding market slump. Both have been attributed to the recent debt deal in Congress that came up short of its goals and settled nothing. Not a cent has been cut from the budget; we have merely a promise to reduce spending while the country borrows enough to tide us over until after the next election.
A committee of twelve has been named, evenly divided between the parties and the Houses of Congress, to negotiate just 1.2 trillion dollars (down from 4 trillion) in budget cuts. The party leaders named the members and it appears that on the hill, it's business as usual. There are no mavericks in the bunch.
Meanwhile we centrists, who we're told comprise a majority of the voters, are unrepresented.
The polarizing issues are taxes vs. entitlements. The Republicans oppose any tax increases, or "revenue enhancements" in the parlance of the euphemizers, whatsoever. The Democrats are defending Social Security and Medicare, plus a host of social programs, against all cuts.
The A.A.R.M. sees clearly that both sides are wrong.
Taxes were foolishly lowered under the Bush administration and should be put back where they were. Entitlements have been overpromised through the years; modest adjustments in them today may prevent drastic cuts, or even elimination, later on.
But there is no time to waste. And so far as this writer can see, that's all Washington is doing or wants to do: kill time until the next election when each side hopes to effect a sweep so that it won't have to compromise. In other words, the once coveted middle ground has been abandoned and neither party wants to answer to the nation's centrist majority.
Are you feeling as angry, abandoned, and radicalized as I am?
Solitude by Marc Chagall, 1933. The worried rabbi represents the Jewish people, outcast from the darkened city at the onset of the holocaust. The Torah scroll, the small and innocent looking cow, and the violin that's been set aside, recall the shtetl life that is no more. An angel flies unnoticed through ominous skies. Solitude decries the people's abandonment and isolation. Click on the picture for a closer look.