Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Parent’s Dilemma, A Nation’s Conscience

You know that moment as a parent when you steel yourself and say you’re going to let them make their own choices? You’re not going to interfere. When is that? When they’re eighteen? Twenty one? For most of us it’s a gradual process. Raising the training wheels a little bit at a time before finally taking them off.

Watching the Middle East now, especially Egypt, I have some of the same feeling I used to have when one of my children flexed his or her independence to do something I was sure was a bad idea. At first I would panic: “Don’t do that, please don’t do that.” Eventually I had to look away. Not turn away--I’d always be there if they asked for help--but look away.
Iraq and Afghanistan are orphans we adopted as political adolescents, after they had bounced around between foster homes and the streets. Whatever our selfish motivations for taking them on, we had this feeling deep down that the ordinary people of those hard lands would in the end be grateful to us. It hasn’t turned out that way, and we’re having a hard time accepting that they hate us, or at least don’t want us telling them what to do anymore. Exhausted and frustrated, we want nothing more than to look away.
Egypt is a little different. Egypt made peace with Israel forty years ago. We brokered that peace. Egypt gives our military free access to its airspace and to the Suez Canal, both of which are strategically important to us. If Iraq and Afghanistan are rebellious youngsters, Egypt is a middle-aged child whose quirks and foibles we have learned to accept. When it overthrew its dictator and held free elections, it was like watching an older child who has been struggling with an identity crisis declare his commitment to a newfound sense of virtuous purpose. We were both high on hope.
But Egypt’s democracy has been sidetracked again. The good and bad angels perched on its broad shoulders are screaming in its ears. We can’t choose which they should heed. I doubt we even fully understand what the choice means to them. What is worse, if you are Egyptian: dictatorship or Sharia law?
So what should we do?
What you do when your adult children hit a rough patch: let them know you are there for them, that you are willing to help them keep body and soul together to the extent you can. What we shouldn’t do is give them money to finance self-destructive behavior.
Nations are not children, of course, and we are no other country’s parent. Analysts call regimes we assist in our own self-interest “client states.” I think that term is too businesslike, though. Our relationship with those leaders and their people is more personal, with all the strong emotion, irrationality, mistrust and conniving that exists between two people who are locked together by love or circumstance and can’t agree on how one or the other should behave.
After a while parents learn that with some children the best thing they can do is stay out of it. I think this is what it has come to in Egypt, indeed in most of the Middle East. The people there need to work out their futures for themselves.
There is, however, one aspect of our relationship with struggling nations that is unlike that of parent and child. If an adult child hurts others, what to do about it is out of the parents’ hands. The law takes over to protect innocent people. What a parent wants, or can do, becomes irrelevant.
Just as with grown children, when countries go on killing sprees, our effectiveness as an encouraging parent diminishes to zero. In those circumstances, called upon conscience and by others in the global community, we have to decide whether to step in as something like a world policeman or to look away. It is hard to intervene when a ruthless despot is murdering his citizens. It is hard not to.
How do we decide when to get involved? What spurs us to rush in in some cases and not others? Why the Balkans and not Rwanda? We have to ask ourselves how much suffering of others we can ignore, how much risk of war in foreign lands we can accept. These are the questions we are asking this morning as evidence mounts that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of innocent civilians, the latest of tens of thousands who have died in the last two years of Syrian civil war.
However we make that judgment--in Syria and other countries, perhaps even Egypt one day--if we do intervene we must remember why we are doing it. We must resist the temptation to play political missionary. That, at a minimum, is the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan.
If, like some Old West sheriff, we take our gun down from over the mantel and step into the street to face a band of lawless killers, when the job is done, we need to put away our badge go back to acting like a worried parent: watching and hoping, but knowing that the internal affairs of other countries, like the lives of our grown children, are not ours to decide.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Helping Hands

My life of crime began when I was twelve. I was roaming around my suburban neighborhood with a BB gun when a police car passed by and then stopped, paused, and started backing up. I ditched my air gun in the weeds and did my best impression of a nonchalant walk. No sale. Dad had to come to the police station to retrieve my Daisy Red Ryder, and me. He’d delivered the baby of one of the policemen, so I dodged a BB, so to speak.

That was the first time he saved my bacon, but certainly not the last. I feared his interminable lectures, but nothing else. It was like being under the protection of the mob: there was a cost in terms of personal dignity, but no one outside the family could hurt me.
We weren’t rich. We were solidly middle class. Maybe upper middle class. Middle class had levels in those days. We had enough that Dad often delivered babies for country hams. He told those proud families who were down on their luck that he liked country ham better than money anyway.
I didn’t think our family was special. I thought anyone could be like us if he worked hard enough. I was a punk, but I worked hard. I had a newspaper route when I was eleven. My friend up the street had two. He was upwardly mobile.
Today, upward mobility has gone the way of my friend’s ducktail haircut. The middle class is, as President Obama puts it, being hollowed out. According to an Associated Press report last month, four out of five Americans live in danger of falling into poverty or joblessness. Four out of five! That’s not just bad for people who, no matter how hard they try, have little prospect of getting ahead, it’s bad for our nation’s long-term prosperity. The middle class buys the most stuff, and consumption is two-thirds of our economy.
My father died in 1974. I miss him, but by the time I lost him he’d picked me up and dusted me off often enough that I’d learned to stand on my own two feet. Looking back at that time, the early seventies, and the decades since, it seems to me that something besides my father died then too: the notion that the government could help us the way a parent does. The Great Society had been shelved. We’d come home from Vietnam with a national case of PTSD. Nixon’s secret tapes destroyed whatever remaining trust we had in government.
For a boy and for a nation, growing up is tough. When I think of all the twists and turns that led to the me I am now, all the one-on-one support I had, I realize how easily I could have failed. I see now that that my father’s steady belief in me, even at times when I did not believe in myself, was likely the most important gift of my birth.
But what about the millions among us who don’t have that support? Maybe they’re from broken homes, or from families in which both parents have to work all the time just to scrape by. Maybe they’re on the streets when they are eleven, but not to deliver newspapers. It’s unlikely that their father or mother delivered the child of the patrolman who busts them for doing what adolescents have been doing forever: testing the limits.
I had ups and downs, but I was shooting a BB gun, not a Glock; I was high on adrenaline, not crack; I had a paper route, not a drug route. If you’re in the wrong environment, not only is it easy to slip off track, it’s a long way down when you do.
We can’t bring back the post WW II manufacturing boom that created the middle class of my youth. We’re moving toward becoming principally a service economy. Instead of Detroit’s assembly lines and Pittsburgh’s steel mills, workers are needed now in the information economy, in health care, in technology, in distribution, in services for the aging population.
Government can’t be our parent, but it can help us in many of the same ways a good parent does. It can extend a hand to aid rather than punish. It can give kids a better start in life with good preschool and elementary and high school education. It can, as Attorney General Holder recommends, stop filling our prisons with minor offenders. It can retrain workers and give them the public transportation systems they need to get to their new jobs. It can give second chances.
We risk becoming a nation of two classes: those who are born into families that can support them, and those who are not. We don’t get to choose to whom we are born, but if we did is there any question which class you would want to be in? If you are one of the lucky ones, is the privilege and opportunity that comes with your accident of birth just your good luck, or does it carry with it some obligation to seek a way to help those who weren’t so lucky?

Many engage in private charity. They deserve our admiration and respect. But they are too few. Only through collective action, administered by local, state and federal governments--by our democratically elected representatives--can we extend our hands to the millions in need. We need to quit bitching about government and try to make it better. We need to quit talking about drowning it a bathtub and focus on making it a more responsive and efficient servant for our needs. Like a biological parent, government can be loutish, vain and wasteful, but for many, it’s the only dad they have.