Friday, December 31, 2010

5 things about 2010 to keep in mind for 2011

1. Who put the diss in dystopia?

From codifying racial profiling laws to proposals to nullify the 14th amendment; from characterizing the DREAM Act as opening the door to ravening hordes to criminalizing all people of a given ethnicity or identity, this year was marked by the type of shameless xenophobia that seems a precursor to the establishment of a radically dystopian society.

To my horror, the dystopian novel I started writing a number of years ago is no longer so imaginative or far-fetched -- especially when it comes to our legislated treatment of “the other.”

But there’s this to carry into 2011: the architects of SB1070 in Arizona and copycat legislation in other states (including Rep. Metcalfe here in Pa.); the DREAM Act naysayers; those who propose to gut the 14th Amendment because they don’t like the color, class ethnicity and documentation status of those giving birth these days on U.S. soil … they only stay in office and retain power over the lives and well-being of our brothers and sisters if we let them.

So let’s not let them.

2. Party like it's 1984

2010 has been a banner year for what George Orwell termed doublespeak. Less than a month ago I was the recipient of a press release that claimed that museums were only for elitists and called for defunding them in the name of social justice.

Say what?

Guess only those who can afford to own a Fra Angelico or an Egyptian sarcophagus should get to ever see one. Guess us working class blokes don’t deserve access to art and history and cultural patrimony and education. Yup, that’s the definition of social justice. In some parallel universe.

I wish the doublespeak of the release were an isolated instance. But how many talk radio and TV commentators and legislators do you remember having twisted meaning that way in the past year? And how many times?

Even if you don’t want to think of it as doublespeak, think of it as savaged language. In the immigration debate alone, reform -- a word meaning the reorganization and improvement of something -- has been twisted into amnesty -- a pardon for a political crimes. Undocumented -- describing the state of being without documents, written information or reference -- is now illegal -- which doesn’t mean lawbreaker (the way many politicos use it) but forbidden by law.

There’s no way to stop the cynical and intentional degradation of meaning except to refuse to engage in it. The Society of Professional Journalists recently resolved to swap undocumented for illegal when referring to human beings -- and kudos to them for doing so, even if it took them f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Now, if we can convince the Associated Press to follow their lead in 2011.

And speaking of press….

3. No country for old men

2010 brought us rulings impacting net neutrality; a firestorm about information uncovered and released by Wikileaks -- along with allegations about governmental suppression and about the organization’s founder; and ongoing self-censorship by news media and other organizations averse to confrontation.


When I was growing up in a Guatemala that permitted no story published except “the official story;” where genocide resulted from an exaggerated sense of threatened national security; where a cardinal was assassinated for fear of the reports of governmental malfeasance the Church was set to release, I looked on reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and executive editors like Ben Bradlee, as my heroes. A free press afforded, I thought, a measure of protection against oppression.

Alas, just as I’ve become more cowardly as I’ve aged (earlier blog post and not getting into it again) so has the press.

I’ve always liked the following biblical passage for its neat turn of phrase: “[Y]our sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The last number of years, but particularly this past year, the “old men” of the press have been too caught up in nightmares of decline and demise of the traditional media to recognize how they’ve (we’ve) abandoned the real dreams -- of providing access and information to a wide swath of people; of exposing and holding governments and individuals accountable for their words and actions; of providing a place where, sometimes, voiceless would be heard.

A free press, without fear of overstatement, is one of the best tools for preventing repression and safeguarding civil liberties any society has. Unless, of course, it decides to eviscerate itself by caving to censorship and the trump card all governments eventually play -- national security.

With the twitter reporting and citizen journalism of June 2009 in Iran -- during the demonstrations that temporarily made an Iranian daughter, Neda Soltan, world renowned -- I held hope for the equalizing and globally unprecedented access to information offered by new media. The “prophesy” of our sons and daughters. Unoppressable information, if you will. And in many ways web-based media has started to live up to that. But the vision is only half-formed and will soon, it seems, be restricted according to economic advantage. Those who can pay for “the front page” will have it.

In the discourse about access, about the economy and politics of information, I fervently hope that in 2011 our “old men” start remembering the vision that undergirds a free press, and that our “sons and daughters” spend some time dreaming for it a future that isn’t determined by the highest bidder.

4. I'm talking to the man in mirror

I think God probably has a pretty terrific (in several meanings of the word) sense of humor and a most exacting sense of justice. So I have this completely undoctrinal belief that when we each come to our final judgment, God’s going to wear the face of the person(s) we were least able to see Him in during our life.

Sometimes I entertain myself by thinking what that face will be for public figures with big mouths and a demonizing bent. (Like, “OMG, He’s an ‘illegal!’” Or, “What the flip … God’s a ‘terror baby!’”)

But then I remember that for me -- if I die before midnight tonight, anyway -- God’s going to be wearing the face of that minister from Fla. who threatened, in the name of some perverse version of Christianity, to burn the Q’uran on 9/11. Or maybe it’ll be “Speak English” cheesesteak maven and anti-immigration Philly boy, Joey Vento. Or any of a number of public figures who don’t evince a bit of shame in working to make life harder for the poorer or the browner or the most vulnerable members of our human family.

2011 will no doubt bring other candidates to picture in this challenge. And I’m going to have to find my way through my disdain and my sense of righteous indignation to recognize Him in their features. Honestly, I don’t know that I’ll ever be successful at it. But that’s okay, I’ll keep trying anyway.

Because I kinda think that’s the point of faith.

5. Miracles happen

The Chilean miners get rescued,

Spain wins the World Cup.

My short stories get published.

They all seemed, at some point, absolutely impossible. (Someday I'll blog about this year's hard disc crash that ate my novel and all my poems and short stories -- including the ones that were published in 2010 and the ones slated, so far, for 2011).

Don’t despair. Keep breathing. Keep advocating (or agitating). Keep running (and kicking). Keep creating (or praying, or both at once).

Trust in the kindness of people, even those you don't know. Trust that, for some inexplicable reason, people will cheer you on, and go out of their way for you, or just hang on to what you need so when you need it, there it is.

Call it by whatever name you want, just give it thanks for the way the ups always (no matter how long it takes) follow the downs.

Because, hey, sometimes the wonderfully improbable just up and happens.

See you in 2011.

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