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Friday, February 25, 2011

For What It's Worth

Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, a grandson of the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia, is the chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company and the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundations.

He has written a passionate plea for reformation in the Arab world which appears on the Opinion Page of the NY Times this morning.

He writes, in part:
The majority of the Arab population is under 25, and the unemployment rate for young adults is in most countries 20 percent or more. Unemployment is even higher among women, who are economically and socially marginalized. The middle classes are being pushed down by inflation, which makes a stable standard of living seem an unattainable hope. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. The basic needs for housing, health care and education are not being met for millions.
I had to read that paragraph twice. At first I thought he was talking about America. When I moved on to read his second paragraph, I experienced the same disorientation:
Moreover, Arab countries have been burdened by political systems that have become outmoded and brittle. Their leaderships are tied to patterns of governance that have become irrelevant and ineffective. Decision-making is invariably confined to small circles, with the outcomes largely intended to serve special and self-serving interests. Political participation is often denied, truncated and manipulated to ensure elections that perpetuate one-party rule.
As I read the words of this Saudi Prince, I could hear the words and music of the Stephen Still's song "For What It's Worth" as performed by the Buffalo Springfield come wafting back up from the late 60's, early 70's.
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
It was written as a protest song - not about the war, but about the closing of a club on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, CA - and has come to symbolize worldwide turbulence arising from events during the 1960s - particularly the Vietnam War.
May 4, 1970 - John Filo's iconic Pulizter Prize winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio  a 14-year-old runaway, kneeling in anguish over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot dead by the Ohio National Guard

There are many of us who have a close association with this song and the Kent State Massacre on May 4, 1970.

Some of the students who were shot had been protesting against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Richard Nixon announced in a television address on April 30. Other students who were shot had been walking nearby or observing the protest from a distance.

The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four unarmed students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis.

There's a haunting familiarity in that picture which calls to my mind some of the images we've been getting over the last few months from Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It has been feared that we'd see similar pictures from Wisconsin.

There is something happening in the "Big Blue Marble" we call "home". For what it's worth, I think the events in the Middle East and the Midwest are not unconnected.

Indeed, I think what's happening in 2011 is connected to what happened in the 1960s and 70s in profoundly deep and significant ways. No doubt, it is a an image which forms a pattern we can trace back to antiquity.

I remember the first time I visited the Arlington National Cemetery with my father. I was a young child of perhaps 10 or 11.

Looking out over the gravestones, my father asked, "Elizabeth, what do you see? What do you notice about these gravestones?"

I looked them over carefully, then gasped as the commonality struck me like a Rorschach test and said, "Most of them say 'PFC'. What does that stand for?"

My father said, "Private First Class. These were all young men - 18, 19, 20 years old. That's about how old I was when I was in the war. About 10 years older than you are right now."

And then, an ancient weariness came over his face and seemed to push his head and shoulders down into a slump. When he opened his mouth again, he seemed to be talking - almost in a reverent, apologetic whisper - to the earth where the bodies of young soldiers lay buried beneath our feet.

"It's the blood of the young that gets spilled to appease the appetites of power of rich, brittle old men."

I didn't fully understand or appreciate his words then, but I never forgot them. I don't suppose I ever will. They haunt me today, as I see images from Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

I was curious about Mary Ann Vecchio, the 14 year old runaway who is seen kneeling over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller. She is married, the mother of three young men who are now older than she was at the time that picture was taken, and works as a Respiratory Therapist in Nevada.

In April, 1995, she met with John Filo, the photographer who took the picture of her, at Emerson College. She is quoted as saying,
"[...] I just wanted to be here, and I'm glad we're getting this all out and [...] all the people that has been affected by this and we can go on with our lives, and teach other people that that's not a way to act. It's not a way to be. And that we've got to have a peaceful society so we can go on and take care of the earth. It's an important place. Thank you.

[...] is all failure to communicate with other people. Communication is the key. That was the problem back in 1970. There was no communication between the government, the people, the students, housewives, steelworkers. There was no communication [then], and this will give us better communication and more understanding so that this doesn't happen again."
It is easy for many to dismiss these words as a simplistic, naive statement. "Communication" has become such a wastebasket term for the ills of relationships - personal and political.

Is it the problem today, in 2011? We text and tweet, facebook and blog, but do we communicate with each other in ways that are meaningful? Will words alone - spoken or written on protest placards carried by people who have taken to the streets - appease the appetites of rich, brittle old men? Or, will only the blood of the young accomplish that task?

Brad Cotton, a Kent State Alumnus who was there in 1970, went back again in 1977. He was, once again, arrested with 192 others attempting unsuccessfully to stop Kent State's construction of a large gym on significant portions of Blanket Hill - the site of the massacre.

He wrote this in 1977:
"A decade ago, during the most difficult time of loss, sadness and questioning I have ever experienced, I came home to behold my own Moses-like burning bush moment of peace. Our forsythia was in full bloom, affirming most clearly with glowing yellowness that life was here, that it is often good, that even on fouler days with frost in the air and snow piling up about the roots, that life itself would flow through its’ branches and burst into color and life. I remain unconvinced, as were Job and Qoheleth, seeing that evil often triumphs and the good undeservedly suffer injustice."
Cotton's words could also be seen as a lovely, sentimental, naive echo of the words of Vecchio. Are they? Or, are these the words of hope that surge through us all - young and old - that provide a buffer and shield against the powers of darkness which threaten to overcome us all?

Where are the forsythia bushes of hope in these turbulent times?

The other night I got a call from one of our daughter's who is in South Africa on holiday with some friends. She was visiting with one of her friends - a college classmate - who had returned to her home in South Africa. At least, she thought it was going to be just a visit with a dear friend she hadn't seen in a long time.

While she was there, she met her friend's mother, a 70 year old woman with a passion for the women in Johannesburg who have died of AIDS, founding an organization that helps women who live in the Shantytowns who care for the many, many young orphans of the AIDS pandemic.

That led to my daughter accepting an invitation to go to the Shantytowns to visit with the women there. She accompanied her friend and her friend's mother to bring food - fresh fruit and vegetables - and clothing and blankets to the orphanage where these kids live with the women who are caring for them.

When she called me, my daughter was sobbing. She said, between her sobs, "Oh, Mom, I wanted to hold the babies but I was afraid to hold the babies because they were so beautiful and some of them had AIDS but I didn't know which ones had AIDS and they had infected mosquito bites with puss on their faces and I had mosquito bites on my arms and they wanted to be held and I wanted to hold them but I was afraid to hold them but all they wanted was to touch me and they were a little afraid to touch me and I was a little afraid to touch them but, Mom, how can you not touch these little ones who have lost their mother and all they want is a little hug. To be held. To be loved?"

When she came up for air, I said, "It sounds like these kids not only touched your skin, they touched your heart, and now your heart is broken."

"Oh, Mom, I almost can't stand the pain!", she wailed. "How can such poverty exist? How can I be blessed with so much? To come here - HERE! - on vacation for pity's sake! - when these little ones don't have food to eat or the dignity of a diaper to wear. What's wrong with this world?"

"It's what's been wrong with the world since the beginning of time, sweetheart," I said. "That's not the question. I hear you asking a question that you haven't yet put into words. I think that question is, 'What am I supposed to do about this?'. Is that right?"

"Oh," she said in less than a heartbeat, "I already know what I'm supposed to do. I've already called my dear friend who is a dentist and he's agreed to send over 10 pounds of tooth paste and tooth brushes and dental floss because, Mom, when I said to one of the women, 'Can I have his toothbrush? I think he's forgotten to brush his teeth,' the woman looked at me and smiled and said, "Oh, my dear, we have no toothpaste. Toothpaste is a luxury here.' Mom, can you believe that? Toothpaste? A flippin' luxury?"

She took a breath and continued, "And, I've already put in a few calls to some of my contacts on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. I've taken some pictures and when I get home they are going to see what I saw here and they are going to come up with some money. Real cash. I promised myself I'm going to raise a million dollars for this agency. I have to do it. I will do it. This is just not right. This is crazy, is what it is. Mom, has the world gone crazy, or have I?"

Did I mention how proud I am of my daughter?

The next day, she sent me an email. One of her traveling companions chided her for her efforts, saying, "All you are doing is keeping them from going out and finding jobs. Getting people to contribute money is to contribute to the problem."

Never mind that there are no "jobs" for people to find in South Africa. Never mind that her perspective is blissfully naive of the reality of global economics. She's too caught up in her own 'rugged American individualism' to see the real causes - or worldwide implications - of the poverty in her midst.

Two young people. Two very different perspectives and two very different views of the world. One looks at the status quo and wants to change it. The other looks at the way things are and wants it to stay exactly the same, thank you very much.

Which one is right? Which one will prevail? Or, is this simply the tension that ultimately explains what Jesus meant when he said, "You will always have the poor with you."?

I hear the last words of lyrics of Stephen Still's song continue to buzz around my ears. It's time we stopped and listen to the sound of the young people around "The Big Blue Marble".

Everybody look at what's going down.
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, now, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
For what it's worth, it's not a new sound. It's the ancient cry of the young to re-form and change the world that has been, in the words of the Saudi Prince, "burdened by political systems that have become outmoded and brittle. Their leaderships are tied to patterns of governance that have become irrelevant and ineffective. Decision-making is invariably confined to small circles, with the outcomes largely intended to serve special and self-serving interests. Political participation is often denied, truncated and manipulated to ensure elections that perpetuate one-party rule."

For what it's worth, I'm going to let the words of Mary Ann Vecchio have the last word, "And that we've got to have a peaceful society so we can go on and take care of the earth. It's an important place. Thank you."

Stop, children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down.


Ana said...

Thanks for saying it so well, mama. Now, how will I ever get that song out of my head? It won't stop spinnin' round...
BTW: your daughters rock.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Chica - I hope none of us gets that song out of our head. (If you click on the title of the song in the post, you can hear it again. And again. And, again.)

My daughter totally rocks. Hard. Glad to have my mama's pride affirmed.

susankay said...

Elizabeth -- after my parents died I got my fathers letters to my mother -- as he agonized about WW2 and the stupidity of war. He didn't fight and I am so honored to be his child. As your kids are honored to be yours.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susankay - my father had a great deal of flaws and faults too numerous to mention, but he did leave me with some wisdom and some good memories for which I am deeply grateful. Bottom line: he was my dad and I loved him.

Hutch said...

My daddy was a career soldier, and like your father, mourned to young who died for the games of the old. He used to say that only old men should be sent to war and then war would stop. Or women, and it would be so God-awful bloody that no one would ever want it to happen again and so work for peace. He suffered all his life the things he saw, and would be grieved to see his great grandchildren in the service because they cannot find jobs. Your daughter is YOUR daughter - bless you both for the courage you have and the pain you face.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hutch, - I think, when we finally meet on this side of Paradise, we'll have lots of stories to share.