Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Tough Week

A Tough Week

“All in all, it’s been a tough week.”  Those words from Barack Obama as he mentally toted up the damage from the Boston Marathon bombing and its afterwards, the horrific explosion in Texas, and the latest scalp collected by the National Rifle Association.

Mr. Obama showed a gift for understatement.  It was a very tough week.  The loss of life and home, and the sense of vulnerability it brought was a shock to the system.  And, as the painful collapse of the Manchin-Toomey compromise made clear, even something supported by 90% of the electorate can’t get past the piranhas.

It was a week where chaos seemed to rule, where ugliness bubbled out of every crevasse.  The giant sigh of relief we all let out after Friday’s capture of Dzhokar Tsarnaev was a little like the end of a particularly potent horror movie. You were glad that it was over, but that didn’t mean you weren’t shaken.

I took Boston a little personally.  I love to run, although I must admit I use the word “run” generously.  It’s the simplest thing to do.  A pair of shoes, shorts, and a top and you are off.  You don’t need to be fast or graceful.  Running alone takes you away from cellphones and emails, opens up your mind, gives you a sense well-being.  Running with others is like a mutual admiration society; you go faster, you fall into rhythm, you pull each other along.  I plan to run in a four-mile race next weekend; do that and you can understand the simple beauty of the experience, the feeling of oneness with your fellow racers, the sense of community. The New York Road Runner races group people into corrals, based on past times, so standing together before the starting gun goes off, you are surrounded by people who are a bit like you in ability.  You compete, but in a good-natured way.  It’s politics at the micro level; you feign tightness or fatigue, make jokes about your age or weight, and do everything possible to reduce expectations.  Once you are off, you make your way around the course and find people cheering, small children waving to their racing parents, volunteers handing out water and encouragement.  The last mile is half dread and half expectation; have you paced yourself well enough, do you have anything left for a final sprint?  As you approach the finish more people are clapping, you push to beat the clock, the other runners are straining around you.  Then, it’s over, and in between the gasps and gulps you see big sloppy grins and sloppier hugs.

But, last Monday, two murderous lunatics came to that incredibly simple event, and, in the cruelest possible way, they tore into people lives and legs and innocence.  I found that hard to take.

That the people of Boston acted so magnificently, with such acts of courage and even more extraordinary presence of mind, is a tribute to them, their police force, and their leadership.  Not a false note, just one community working together, everyone contributing in their own way. 

Unfortunately, their selflessness was not matched by others.  The media was filled with self-serving articles and criticism dressed up as analysis.  The on-line forums outdid themselves in repugnant comments.  Most of the spittle came from the Right, with a healthy dollop of Obama-hating, wild accusations of secret favors being given to the Saudis (Obama being a secret Muslim) crass jokes about banning pressure-cookers as assault weapons, and an avalanche of anti-immigrant commentary. 

And, not surprisingly, some of the leadership followed.  Senator Grassley of Iowa, his taste for blood whetted by his victory on the gun bill,  leapt for the opportunity to deep-six the immigration bill.  In Grassley’s construct, since these two murderers were legal immigrants, all immigration must be stopped.  Others, like Senators Graham, McCain, and Ayotte, with the ever vocal Congressman Peter King, demanded Mr. Obama declare Tsarnaev, who was a naturalized citizen, an Enemy Combatant (and, what, send him to Gitmo or Putin for questioning?)

Usually, I’m a junkie for this.  I love the politics, I love reading even the columnists that I disagree with, I love the give and take.  But the contrast of the public-spirited citizens of Massachusetts and the mean-spirited posters and devotedly amoral politicians just turned me off and I found, by the end of the week, that I needed to take a break.

So, on Saturday, I went up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent a few hours in the American Wing. I thought that walking around the paintings of the Founders would purge my mind of the pettiness.  And there were plenty in attendance, including Leuze’s heroic “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”   But I found myself looking for the smaller pictures, the everyday genre works, the portraits that weren’t just stiff headshots.  There is a wonderful charm about American painting which differs from a lot of the European.  It is generally not heroic and not over-ornamented.  To the extent it is epic, such as the works of Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, it comes more from the land itself (the Hudson Valley, the Rocky Mountains) and not from aristocrats placed in classical poses.  America was a world of doing things, and living life, and amongst the stern-looking bankers and shipping magnates and lawyers, there was the movement and energy of ordinary people.   So, here was Bingham’s “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” with the mysterious black cat on the bow.  Winslow Homer’s eight boys outside a school house in “Snap the Whip”, and John Weir’s “Forging the Staff” and William Sidney Mount’s “Cider Making.” 

My mood improved and, as I turned to leave, I came across a favorite, Thomas Eakins’s terrific “The Writing Master.”  The subject was his father, Benjamin Eakins, in old age.  His hair is grey and thin, the lines in his face and hands are deep, but he pours over the document with great devotion to his craft.

There is a bloodline that runs in Americans, regardless of their age and where they come from, and you could see it in those paintings.  All these people are alive and vibrant.  They aren’t stuffed talking heads looking for talking points, and they aren’t narrow-minded posters getting their daily ration of venom. They are all just people, doing things, I would think, as the Founders intended, because that is how you build a nation.   

The most remarkable image of Boston was that when the bombs went off, countless people ran towards the danger.  They applied tourniquets, and tore off shirts, and comforted, and kept pressure on wounds.  They didn’t ask the victim’s party identification or political philosophy or place of origin.  They just helped.

To me, that is the essential challenge of contemporary politics.  Do you want to go with the skeptics and the doubters, the peddlers of discord and hate, or do you want to take chances and solve problems and move forward?

I think I’ll go with the people of Boston, who ran towards the danger.  Mr. Obama was right; the bombers “picked the wrong city to do it.”


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