The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

Cancer, Live Theatre, and “The Penguins of Ithaca”

There are…things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself.”

Notes From the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Every writer has stuff that’s off limits. There are some things we just don’t want to think about. They are too personal. Or painful. Or perhaps writing about them would be awkward, or even embarrassing. Eugene O’Neill waited until his father, mother, and brother died before writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and even then gave strict instructions to suppress the play’s performance until 25 years after his own death.

Writing is terrifying, especially when it requires us to relive any kind of pain. “Why do I have to go through everything again?” So cries Louis in Suicide in B Flat, Sam Shepard’s beautiful and bizarre mystery play about the fragile and explosive relationship between Biography and Art. The play is literally framed as a mystery: Louis is not an artist, but a detective who, while searching for the link between the artist and his life, falls prey to his own inner demons, until all that is left is the past.

That’s all well and good, but who of us can write as well as Shepard? I know I can’t. There’s a reason why creating art is called a ‘risk’: the potential for failure is enormous. You want proof? Look at The Onion: “Study: Family History of Alcoholism Raises Risk of One Man Show.” Pure satire, but the joke magazine’s description self serving ineptitude has the terrible ring of authenticity. “The study found that males raised by alcoholic parents are 40 percent more likely to someday force their friends to attend a self-penned theatrical production about their life experiences….To see them throw their lives away by performing an hour-and-a-half-long monologue for 15 people in a tiny black-box theater is just plain sad. Tragic even.” One man’s catharsis is another man’s kitsch. Maybe it’s easier to just not write at all.

Alright, fine. But what’s the alternative? Years ago, I read an interview with Paul McCartney. This was a long, long time ago, back in the day when journalists and reviewers criticized the former Beatle for putting out less than totally outstanding material. (It’s kind of hard to imagine anyone doing that now, isn’t it?) Frustrated, the future knight of the realm shot back: “What am I supposed to do? Take Polaroids of myself sitting on the toilet?” It’s a good question; and one that every artist needs to ask when feeling too chicken to get disciplined, sit down, and start telling the truth. One of the great pleasures of Notes from The Underground is watching the author undermine of the narrator’s false premise. We can admit everything. It is possible to speak the truth. Not just speak, but write it down. Put the painful thing on paper and relive that moment we thought we never could. Or should. In order to survive, we finally need to heed Danton’s heroic call: “L’audace, L’audace, tu jours L’audace.” Sooner or later, we must employ audacity, and finally emerge from the underground.

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Fifteen years ago, I began tutoring 9 year old boy named Eric. My new student had recently been diagnosed with leukemia, and was being homeschooled. Told by his family of a voracious appetite Shakespeare, I was asked if I could take an hour a week to help foster his burgeoning interest.

Eking out a living as a professional actor in San Francisco, I was happy for the work. And I was especially pleased to meet my new charge; even at our first interview, Eric wasted no time. He wanted to talk about The Merchant of Venice. Bothered and fascinated with the Bard’s treatment of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, Eric wrestled with the most troublesome issues in the play before finally asking: “Was Shakespeare anti-Symmetrical?”

Most malapropisms reveal ignorance. Eric’s revealed knowledge. And curiosity. I mean seriously, how many nine year olds do you know who have even heard of The Merchant of Venice? Not only that, this nine year old boy cared about Shylock as if he were a living human being. Eric was concerned that Shakespeare might have done his own character an injustice. Tutoring Eric was already proving to be an extremely exciting prospect, and within a month, he’d read A Midsummer Night’s Dream from cover to cover. Pretty soon we were tackling Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Eric’s personal favorite, Macbeth.

We had great fun together. And Eric was brilliant. Totally, totally brilliant. It wasn’t just that he could read Shakespeare, he understood it. Not just intellectually, but on a visceral, gut level. “Malvolio and Puck are basically the same person: they’re both just in love with themselves.” “It’s wrong for Antonio to treat him that way, Shylock has to do something.” Eric once told me that Macbeth was his favorite character from Shakespeare. When I asked why, he replied, “Because even when he knows he’s going to die, he keeps on fighting. Right until the very end.”

I should have paid attention. There were times when Eric was just fine. Better than fine. His white blood cell count improved. He was in remission. He had energy, tons of it, and everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. But then there were times when Eric was not just fine. The cancer came back. He had a stroke. And graft versus host. And a bone marrow transplant. And exhausting treatments. And…I don’t know. Disappointment? Fear? I’ll never really know what it must have been like. To be Eric, or his amazing family who loved and supported him every step of the way. But you don’t need a great imagination to guess that the worst of it must have been terrifying.

I knew Eric for five years. And pretty soon, it became clear that I was being called upon to do something besides teach Shakespeare. I did the best I could, but I made a lot of mistakes. The worst was a speech that I gave at a concert held for Eric while he was in the hospital. (The scope of this boy’s influence was unimaginable; you simply can’t count the number of artists who decided to be a part of Eric’s life). At the time of the concert, his condition appeared to be improving. I said to the audience that I had faith that Eric’s life would not finally be a tragedy, but a comedy. Yes, I said “comedy”. Sure, I qualified it with some clever remark to the effect of “not the slapstick kind that makes people laugh, but the comedy of life renewed, and blah, blah, blah,” but the fact of the matter is that the operative word, which I used more than once, was “comedy”.

Eric was not amused. He saw a videotape of the concert, and a month or so later, when he got out of the hospital, he sat down with me and made his feelings clear. His cancer was not a comedy. There was nothing funny about his struggles. And my use of the word had upset him. Eric was quiet, direct, and polite. I was devastated. But not as devastated as Eric must have been felt when he heard what I had to say at a concert that was, after all, supposed to be in his honor.

Instead of firing me (he certainly could have) Eric stated quite reasonably that he hoped that it would not happen again, and would like for us to continue in our work together.

When did I figure out that he was smarter than me? That I was running out of things to teach him? Was it when he started learning ancient Greek? (Homer was quickly replacing Shakespeare as his author of choice, and Eric was determined to read the original). I didn’t keep a journal of our time together, so I rely entirely upon my memory, which is fragmented, incomplete, and infuriatingly anti-Symmetrical.

Five years is a long time. And I am grateful for every minute. But I wish I’d had more. Eric died ten years ago, and hardly a day passes when I do not think of him. And I guess some part of me still expects to hear his voice when I answer my telephone. Indeed, for years I kept one of his last messages on my answering machine. Finally, a technical malfunction erased his voice, and with it the illusion that I would ever talk to my friend again.

But that’s not entirely true. In fact, it isn’t true at all. Because I do talk to Eric. All of the time. It started from the very day he died. About a year before, I’d moved from California to Portland, Oregon. Eric and I continued our lessons almost every week over the telephone. I even managed one trip back to California to visit him. But I wasn’t there at the end; Eric’s mother telephoned to tell me of his death. I hope that I was able to give some small measure of consolation to Eric’s grieving family. But, as is the case with so many other things, my memories are fragmented. I simply can’t remember.

Here is what I do remember. The day that Eric died, my wife and I had family visiting from out of town. Resisting the temptation to spend the rest of the day in a dark room, I kept the dinner date we’d made. We took our company to this place called The Kennedy School, a former elementary school in Northeast Portland that’s been refurbished into a pub and motel.  The school’s halls have been repainted by local artists, and part of the establishment’s charm is in its invitation to stroll around the grounds and explore every inch.

It was weird. I felt alone. Eric was dead, and all I could do was pace around some local brewpub and sip on an IPA. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, but thiswas definitely not it.

I want to be careful how I describe this next part, because after a decade, I still don’t understand it. I also want to resist the temptation to guild the moment with any gratuitous drama. So the best I can say is this: as I walked around The Kennedy School, I started to feel like Eric was there. Here he was standing by the radiator. There again, for a second, looking back at me from a painted wall. They were moments, and only moments. But the feeling was clear and unmistakable. Most of my adult life had been spent as a lazy agnostic. As was so often the case with Eric, my previously held assumptions were proving absolutely inadequate for the awesome immediacy of the present.

Was Eric really there? Or did my grief and imagination get the better of me? And in the end, does it really matter? When Harry Potter asks Dumbledore’s spirit: “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” his master replies, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

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Years passed. My son was born. My mother died. I started writing plays, all of them haunted by the specter of death. A girl refuses to visit the nursing home of her ailing grandmother. A couple vainly ignores the death of their middle child. A teenager commits suicide in Act I, only to return as a ghost in Act III to haunt his grieving siblings.

One day I had a chat with my godmother about my writing. Karen, a retired actress who still lives in New York suggested: “You should really write about Eric.” “Oh, I already have,” I lied, “All of this stuff I’ve been writing…it’s like, well, it’s my indirect way of processing my experience with him.” It sounded plausible enough to me, and I considered the matter closed.

But the truth was, I had made a decision not to write about Eric, or the effect he had had on my life. For one thing, I didn’t want to churn out some sentimental TV movie of the week Lifetime special get out your hankies and have a good cry piece of horseshit. Sure, I guess all writing is manipulative. But still, the whole prospect seemed wrong. And after all: I hadn’t had cancer. Eric had. Wasn’t this his story? Hadn’t I been there to help him? And hadn’t I screwed things up enough by just talking about his life with that horrible ‘comedy’ misnomer? No way. I wasn’t going to do it. Every writer has stuff that’s off limits. There are some things we just don’t want to think about.

In the spring of 2010, eight years after Eric died, I was writing a piece that I guess you could call an absurdist sketch. Here’s how it went:

A fully grown man named Ectoplasmic Jim is confronts an imaginary version of his middle school English teacher, a woman in her ‘70s whom he’d always had a crush on. Ectoplasmic Jim (EJ, for short) is smitten, terrified, neurotic, and self absorbed. Sputtering like a teenager, he presents his former teacher with a list of his virtues and good deeds, hoping to mitigate his crush, and in the proces justify his entire existence.

“Hmm,” I thought, “What does EJ have to say for himself? What’s the first thing that would come out of his mouth?”

And the first thing that came out of my brain was this:

“There was this one kid that I hung out with, he was like this genius. I think that he was ten or eleven or something ridiculous like that and they already had him studying ancient Greek.”

Oops. I knew where this was going. Eric did not belong here, didn’t belong here at all.

But I had made myself a promise: never censor anything from the first draft. You can always edit later. And you don’t have to show it to anybody. But the first draft is sacred. A note from the underground. So I took a deep breath, and spent the next month and a half writing something that I’d been avoiding for years.

The play I wrote is called The Penguins of Ithaca. It is about a self absorbed, neurotic man named EJ who befriends a ten year old cancer patient named Carl. (I named after the children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle). The play is a work of fiction. Most of the events are imagined, and roughly half of them aren’t realistic. But the play for me is real. In writing Carl, I tried to capture Eric’s voice as accurately as I could, even when inventing dialogue that never happened in real life.

I’ve tried to be respectful. I hope I’ve been honest. And I’m sure that I’ve made tons of mistakes. But McCartney was right: you have to keep going, even at the risk of getting it wrong.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is not the story of Annie. Rather, it’s the story of how she forces the neurotic narrator to get over himself and grow the hell up. I tried to be original, but I’ve never been able to shake off Woody’s influence. And so my play is not about Eric. Rather, it is a fragmented, anti-Symmetrical reflection of how he taught me life’s value of making every moment count.

Still, I wonder what Eric would think. He was very critical, and I cannot help imagining him scratching his head and asking: “When did we ever talk about that sort of thing?”

Then again, Eric was a performing artist. He could do the dagger speech from Macbeth like nobody’s business. He put together intricate clown routines that from time to time he’d share. And Eric was a remarkable dancer. One of my most cherished memories is that of watching him perform in The Nutcracker at Marin Ballet. So I can’t really say whether or not he would have liked this thing. But I know that in writing the play, I have tried to honor his memory. I hope that perhaps, on some level, Eric is able to understand.

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Shortly before he died, The Make-A-Wish Foundation sent Eric and his family to the island of Ithaca. My young friend was eager to visit the home of Odysseus, who’d trumped even Macbeth as his all time favorite hero. “He’s a survivor,” Eric told me, and it was clear that he’d found his kindred spirit. Back in the states, Eric filled me with tales of his own voyage to Ithaca, as wonderful and amazing as any told by Homer.

Suddenly, he asked me: “Do you know where the word ‘perfect’ comes from?” I confessed my ignorance. “It’s from the Latin word ‘perfectus’, which means ‘finished’, or ‘complete’, like…like coming around full circle.”

It would be one of my last conversations with Eric. Except for the fact that I still talk to him. It sounds crazy, until you consider the alternative. Those notes from the underground will only be ignored for so long. If Eric taught me nothing else, his life demonstrated the amazing and transformational power of art, knowledge, and friendship. I shall not look upon his like again.

Thank you, Eric. I hope that your Odyssey has indeed come full circle. As for myself, I still have a bit of a way to go. But wherever you may be, you will always have the gratitude and fondness of a humble fellow traveler.

David Berkson

1/17/12

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The Voice Of A Reluctant General: Why Obama Can (and Should) Win a Second Term

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Rick Santorum. The former Senator from Pennsylvania is a leader and a darling of the Christian right. He is a vocal and committed homophobe who has called gay relationships analogous to “man on dog.” He supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution “to protect the holy sacrament of marriage from those who would legalize same-sex ‘marriage.’” Mere weeks ago he was polling in the single digits. But as of Tuesday night’s Iowa caucus, Rick Santorum is (at least for now) the Republican party’s new “It” boy, trailing Mitt Romney  for the party’s nomination by eight stinking votes.

For the last year, the 2012 race for the Republican nomination has seemed more Reality TV than…well, actually real. But unfortunately, this contest is real: one of these candidates will run against Barak Obama in less than twelve months. With that in mind, it might be useful to step back from Iowa’s Tuesday night freak show, and look with a wider perspective at the upcoming November election.

Even before last night’s contest, I looked back at 2008 with tremendous nostalgia. I especially remember our family gathering around the television to watch Barak Obama’s victory speech on election night. Our then five year old son Nicholas stayed up way past bed time to be a part of this historic moment. No less poignant for me were Obama’s earlier primary wins in states like Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. I was born in 1966. I can only imagine what would have happened had an African American dared to campaign for president (or virtually any elected office) below the Mason Dixon line during America’s civil rights era. Yet here was Obama, 42 years later, winning by inspiring and decisive margins, achieving what a mere generation earlier had seemed a distant, and perhaps impossible, dream.

Candidate Obama was a remarkable figure of clarity and inspiration. What happened to him? His famed rhetorical brilliance seemed to disappear on the very day he was sworn in. The Marc Anthony of Chicago somehow transmogrified into the Brutus of D.C., the persuasive verse of the candidate almost instantly diminishing into the pedantic prose of a mere office holder.

Effective presidents are not always great speechmakers. Neither Truman nor LBJ were known for the rhetorical gifts of their predecessors. But they were plain spoken Democrats who employed blunt powers of speech to fight, hard when necessary, to put through policies which some members of congress and the public were not quite ready to embrace.

But these are different times. And perhaps it’s not really fair to compare Obama to other presidents. And the demands of the office are hard, so incredibly hard. And of course, the romance of the campaign will always seem sweet when followed by the compromise required by the marriage of governance.

But the American economy is still in a shambles. The current 8.6% unemployment rate tells only a fraction of the story. According to the U.S. Census bureau, over 47 million (one in six) Americans are now living below the poverty line, which is $22,400 per year for a family of four. (For more on this, read Francis Fox Piven’s excellent article at http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175463). 1 in 5 of our children are members of those families. And the infamous 1%? They possess 34.6 percent of all the private wealth in America. (Source: http://www.thenation.com/article/164434/war-against-poor).

Argue, as some do, that the president is not solely responsible for fixing a broken economy. (In 1992, Republicans did argue that on behalf of President George H.W. Bush). And to his credit, Barak Obama, who inherited the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, took immediate action at the beginning of his administration with a massive, billion dollar stimulus package. Sure, he could have pushed harder for a larger bill, but he finally got one through, and any massive government shot in the arm would have been unthinkable with a Republican sitting in the oval office.

But in the midst of a bleak economy, Obama is still our president. He may not deserve all of the blame. But he certainly bears much of the responsibility.

As it stands today, Americans are almost evenly divided on Obama’s performance: 45% disapproving vs. 41% approving. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/113980/gallup-daily-obama-job-approval.aspx) This ambivalence stems not so much from the success or failure of one policy or another. It may not even rest entirely upon our faltering economy. (I’d like to think that it’s at least partially caused by Obama’s appalling record on worldwide indefinite detention, which I’ll discuss later). No, I suspect that America’s real issue with our 44th president comes from his puzzling indifference, and even disinclination, to shape and move the public opinion.

It is a skill that was mastered with dazzling success by FDR and Ronald Reagan, the two most influential and transformational presidents of America’s last century. Both instinctively grasped the public’s need to hear and understand a solution before rallying behind it. Each man also understood his own responsibility to articulate those solutions simply, clearly, and frequently. Roosevelt and Reagan both used their astonishing powers of persuasion to reshape the way voters understood the government’s role in American life. Roosevelt reversed course in the1930s; Reagan turned it all the way back around in the 1980s. And each molded, with varying degrees of success, the mechanics of government in accordance with his own particular vision.

Candidate Obama seemed poised to follow in their footsteps. Indeed, with every chief executive since Reagan calling for less government, it seemed as if we were ready for another great president: charismatic, persuasive, and ready to take big risks in a time when they were most needed.

But Obama’s transformational moment was his change from Candidate to President. Starting from his inaugural address, he took on the personae of a caring, but somehow testy and impatient father, rebuking and scolding his children for failing to see the bigger picture:

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Well, no one can argue with that. But compare it with the manner in which Reagan seized his first inaugural moment:

“We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look…Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God. “

Reagan followed that speech by doing everything in his power to rip apart FDR’s New Deal. But The Gipper owed a tremendous debt to Roosevelt (a man whom he’d earlier idolized) when it came to communicating with the public. The phrase, “we have nothing to fear but fear it self,” is now a cliché. But in 1933 a desperate America heard its president say those words for the very first time. That inaugural address was his crucial first step in selling The New Deal. The rhetoric was less folksy and personable than Reagan’s, but no less effective or direct:

“With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems…The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.”

Must a president (or his speech writer) be a master of rhetoric in order to achieve greatness? Maybe not. But it sure doesn’t hurt. Governing, like marriage, requires communication. This is where Roosevelt and Reagan were unstoppable: both brilliantly employed the media to talk directly to the American people and ask for their help. “Hey! You know all that money you have stuffed under your mattress? Gather it up and put it in the bank that the government just insured!” “America, I have this pain in the ass Democratic congress that I have to deal with. Could you please write your representative a letter and tell him you want lower taxes?” What president since Reagan has appeared on television and directly asked the voters to take action? Other than a post 9/11 plea from W to go out and shop more, I can’t think of any. President Obama has an excellent voice. I’d like to hear it more often.

But our current president’s problems aren’t limited to style. Let’s say that during Obama’s first year he had appeared on television and appealed directly to the public. What would he have asked for? “My fellow Americans, I would like you to write to congress and ask for immediate passage of the health care initiative. What’s in the bill? Well, I’m leaving that up to congress. Me? I’m pretty flexible regarding its contents; everyone needs a voice here, and I’m sure that we’ll all find a compromise. So just tell your congressperson to pick himself up, dust himself off, and hurry up to get that bill written so we can get this sucker through.”

Roosevelt’s army knew where to march because the general gave them direction. The many parts of the New Deal adhered to one basic principle: the government’s job is to protect the people, and help them when they are in trouble. Reagan decided to march his troops in the opposite direction: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem.”

Obama was right to pitch his tent in the midst of America’s staggering healthcare crisis. His tragic mistake was not writing the bill himself. The opportunity for a big risk to pay off was huge: he might have demanded the public option, or even (dare I say it?) single payer. Obama had every opportunity to take it to the American people like this: “See this bill? It ensures that the next time you or a member of your family gets sick, you will receive excellent medical treatment no matter what, and you will get it without having to go bankrupt. Now please, ignore the hysteria, pick up the phone, contact congress, and tell them to pass this bill. Now.”

It would have been hard. And it might have been bloody. But by entering the battle in a spirit of compromise, Obama allowed the Republican minority to frame the debate, tragically ceding the populist mantle to the vitriolic Tea Party. A general does not ask for his troops’ permission; he picks a direction and tells them where to march.

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By focusing on our president’s shortcomings, I have ignored his considerable achievements. (Apologies to George Clooney.) And Obama’s accomplishments are considerable and impressive. He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. When nominating Supreme Court justices, he thankfully passed over Hermann Goering.  But in sizing up the current political climate, it is not enough to defend Obama. We must also perform a frank and sober assessment of those who would replace him: the cast of Tuesday night’s nail biter Republican caucus.

What can we say about this motley crew? It’s striking how many liberals are following the Republican primary unusual attention and delight. Why? Maybe it’s the sheer bizarreness and absolute unbelievability of this morbid and surreal spectacle. Did Rick Perry really just say “oops”? Whoa, is that really Michelle Bachman’s husband? Are we really watching Herman Cain’s campaign commercial, or is that a Daily Show spot? Wait, is “man on dog” Rick Santorum really “surging from behind” (will the media please stop using that phrase?) to just barely come in second? No, seriously. Is this really, really happening?

Yes, America. This is really, really happening. A serious presidential candidate has in fact called Kim Jong Il “Kim Jong the Second.” Mitt Romney did in fact say that “corporations are people”. Newt Gingrich advocates replacing unionized school janitors with teenagers (most of whom can’t be counted on to clean up their own rooms, let alone an entire school). Ron Paul has the audacity to call himself a champion of individual liberty while joining his colleagues in an all out attack on women’s reproductive rights. And Rick Santorum has compared homosexuality to bestiality and child molestation.

America is full of sane, reasonable, rational, thoughtful, and introspective Republicans. Too bad none of them are running for president. The candidates have their differences. But does it really matter who wins the nomination? Come November, you will have a choice between Barak Obama and a candidate almost entirely beholden to his or her party’s right wing. Count on the Republican candidate to work long and hard to finally smash Roe v. Wade to bits. Given the opportunity, Obama’s opponent will tip the Supreme Court even further to the right. And once in the oval office, that Republican will rip apart whatever is left of America’s fragile safety net. It won’t matter if that person is a Mormon, Catholic, or Protestant Evangelical. When the sun goes down, these candidates all pray to the same God: the Almighty Free Market, and their talismanic belief borders on the Medieval.

And it will not matter how many Americans are unemployed. It will not matter how many children live and die in poverty. It will not matter how many small businesses fail. It will not matter how many Americans become sick due to lack of health insurance, or lose their homes because they can not pay their rent or mortgage.

No matter how bad it gets, none of that will mater. Because the answer will always be the same. Cut government. Cut regulations. Cut taxes for the nation’s wealthiest citizens and corporations. Cut, cut, cut until there’s nothing left to cut, and then cut some more. “Fiscal conservatives” call it “starving the beast.” Well, at least they got the starving part right.

And I haven’t even addressed foreign policy. Obama’s would be competitors are giving it short shrift as well. That’s because (with some exceptions), our commander in chief looks and acts the part of a Republican. He didn’t put on a flight jacket or land on an aircraft carrier, but he did locate and direct the assassination of Osama bin Laden (a job that his tough talkin’ predecessor was “truly…not that concerned about.”) He also tragically reneged on his commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And on the day of the Iowa caucus, President Obama, to America’s great shame, signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law (http://www.aclu.org/national-security/president-obama-signs-indefinite-detention-bill-law), legalizing and legitimizing the inhumane practice of indefinite detentions throughout the world. It’s a day that will live in infamy.

But look at the alternatives. Would a Republican president have done any different? Or would he have gone further? That same president would have likely continued the war in Iraq, rather than pull U.S. troops out. Liberals and conservatives, doves and hawks, let’s put aside our differences for a moment and ask: are any of us really prepared to hand over the reigns of foreign policy to the likes of Romney, Paul or Santorum?

No. Barak Obama can, and should, win a second term. He is a smart and disciplined man who takes his job seriously. He is the most qualified candidate. And, perhaps most importantly, he understands that the Almighty Free Market, like anything else, has its limits, and may only be stretched so far.

A second term Obama will cast his eye not towards re-election, but the history books. They’ll be a lot more kind if he acts like a general and chooses a field of battle. (Let me be clear: I mean a figurative, domestic field of battle, not a real, foreign one). The history books will also be kind if he finds Obama way to repeal the NDAA, an action that every progressive must work to persuade the president to perform.

If re-elected, how could Obama’s second term be better than his first? Well, he could start by demanding (with legal action if necessary) that America’s mega corporations like General Electric do their fair share and pay their taxes. All of them. Those proceeds could start funding a major, exciting new economic initiative like an Education Stimulus Package. I would love to see the Republicans in congress gripe about raising the pay of teachers, administrators, and custodians (sorry, Newt!), and hiring new ones to reduce the obscene and unmanageable size of our public classrooms. While congress bickers, Obama could make a tour of our red and blue states to meet with America’s overworked, underpaid educators. Imagine those teachers (employed and out of work) standing beside our president while telling their inspirational and heartbreaking stories. Obama was himself an educator from 1992 to 2004. I wonder if a project like this might help our reluctant general once again find his inspiring voice, use it to summon his army, and lead our march to the very halls of congress.

Does the whole thing sound impossible? Sure it does. But the miracle of 2008 was in Candidate Obama’s call on our audacity to hope. Given a direction, we marched to victory. Hope we did, and hope we may again.

But first, Obama has to win. Time for all of us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and follow our general (or push him, if necessary) to begin again the work of a disciplined attack upon our nation’s common problems.

David Berkson

1/3/12

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