28 February 2010

When Trees Fall

I am not claiming to be naive.

For instance, I remember watching Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F. Kennedy's funerals on television when I was five years old. I remember following Vietnam War protests as a kid, wearing POW bracelets, and observing the bitter political battles of 1968 and 1972. I remember watching Richard Nixon resign the Presidency in 1974 and feeling a cloud of cynicism envelope my developing political consciousness, alongside a strong desire to grow up and serve, to make sure that things were better than what I had seen as a young person.

President Clinton, the first Democrat I ever voted for who won the White House and Barack Obama won last year, offered that kind of promise of redemption for me, especially with his early call for health care reform and a national service program--both of which I was eager to see finally enacted in our country. I always felt that ending the draft was a strategy for ending the war in Vietnam but would be potentially detrimental to definitions of service and citizenship, which I understood to be essential in building a strong, ethical nation. My father was asked to serve so he did; I expected my country to ask the same of me.

But that never came to pass for reasons that have been rehashed over and over and when President Obama came to power, he did so with a great hope, a practically unrestrained hope, for a whole new political world. And there are days when that seems to be unraveling as well, the culture so impatient, so deeply riven, so unwilling, it seems to me, to make long-term sacrifice to truly build a better nation.

I guess you could say I rejected politics in the mid-1980s for service in the Jewish community, believing that my contributions would be strictly local, one soul at a time. And I have to admit, there are frustrations with that as well. No change movement--whether national, state, local or community-based, is ever easy.

But while walking around the neighborhood, the seat of such community work, during Thursday's and Friday's snowstorm, I was deeply moved by the number of trees that seemed to be falling. The frozen rain and snow of the storm had weighed down on these self-less servants of God, these producers of oxygen, these makers-of-shade. And one by one, they seemed to be falling. One at 8th and Berkeley; another at 7th and St. John's. And then another. Friday's paper carried the tragic news of a tree in Central Park that killed someone and as residents slowly took in the view of the fallen trees, a general fear seemed to take hold of people.

Of course, this all took place against the backdrop of Governor Patterson's decision not to seek re-election; against a state budget that is showing enormous strain; and with a national political environment in which it seems every way we turn there is scandal, crisis, lost faith in the power or mission of government.

I was moved by what Frank Rich wrote today, particularly his insistence on shedding light upon the Andrew Joseph Stack III, the IRS plane bomber and in particular, the shocking ways in which he was not resoundingly condemned by Republican leaders--not to mention the Tea Party leaders. There is something so sinister about the killing at the IRS because though the presumption is that "no one likes to pay taxes," I pride myself in that civic duty. Roads, garbage collection, and even fighting the wars that the Right often wants to fight are all paid for by taxes. It goes all the way back to my own understanding of the American Revolution and the twisted understanding of that revolution among the Tea Party stalwarts. It's not the Americans didn't want to pay taxes--it was that they no longer wanted to support the King of England in that enterprise.

So what does it mean when the population rebels against the core institution that pays for the people to govern themselves? And what does it mean, when, like trees in heavy snow and rain, our political leaders seem to be failing and falling all around us?

What happened to standing strong, making tough decisions, bending but not breaking in the wind, in order to provide the oxygen and shade of existence for the citizenry?

I ask these questions as a Jew and as an American and I wonder aloud at what role religious and ethical institutions ought to play in planting new trees among us so that future generations may flourish.


M. said...

“I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

—Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

M. said...

“I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

—Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes