Reflections on Loss: My Mom, My Country's
October 19, 2004
By Bernard Weiner, The
mother died this week, at age 93, and I'm still struggling with
the finality of her departure - even though, in her long slide into
terminal Alzheimers, she had been disappearing from us in stages
for the past 15 years.
Florence Weiner was a pure soul, mostly uncontaminated by politics,
but she and my late father imparted in me a deep sense of ethics
and morality. Mom also possessed a fairly sharp bullshit detector,
which obviously was passed on to us kids as well.
As I sat there at the memorial service with my wife and sisters
and sons, and listened to the various comments from the relatives
and the rabbi, I came to appreciate even more the totality of Mom's
life's experience. Certainly, I was concentrating on my mom during
the service, but every so often - and after we left the sanctuary
- my mind flitted to others.
I thought of how many young American soldiers, and Iraqi civilians,
would never get to live out their lives' potential because of misguided
aggressive policies of our government. That's the blood of 20,000
souls on their - and, to a certain extent, our - hands.
I thought of how supportive and caring my Republican friends and
acquaintances have been as they watch our family grieving the death
of our matriarch - the universality of life, and the ache accompanying
its loss, transcends all political lines. But after that expression
of caring will come the usual denunciations for my "lack of patriotism,"
as they confuse support for the country with support for the President.
I thought of how stem-cell research holds the distinct promise
of finding cures for so many major diseases - including Alzheimers
- but we will lose years and decades because of ideological disputes
about the spiritual qualities of frozen embryos.
I thought about a system that required Mother to spend down her
precious little bank account - the money she wanted to pass on to
her children and grandchildren - before the care facility would
move her into the Medicaid program. Surely, there is a better way
to insure that all citizens receive adequate health care during
their lives without forcing them into poverty.
I thought about the fear that dominated her life - her father
had been murdered by anti-Semites, as a child she had to hide under
the bed when periodic pogroms swept through her tiny village in
Poland - and how Americans are being programmed for constant fright
by an Administration manipulating the 9/11 attacks for its own political
and economic ends.
BEWARE OF PHONIES, THE UNCURIOUS
My mother, by positive and negative example, taught me key life-lessons:
always be who you are, don't try to bend yourself into someone else's
vision of who you should be; don't meekly accept someone else's
definition of truth but always seek it yourself. Authenticity and
integrity and education are all; beware those who are phony, corrupted,
Maybe that's why I became a writer, and why I was fascinated by
politics and social psychology. I wanted to explore the complexities
of personality, of life; I wanted to figure out how the system worked,
what led folks to behave and believe in certain ways, and how their
actions affected others.
My formative years were in the 1950s, and then again in "The Sixties."
As an adolescent and teenager in the '50s, in the American South,
not much was happening in the way of democratic political activism;
most people simply took their cues from the central government.
And, in the post-World War II boom, they were busy building families
and reconstructing their economic lives, trying to return to normalcy;
the business of government was left to those in power.
AMERICA'S APARTHEID SYSTEM
But even as a teenager, it was impossible not to notice certain
social forces at work. The South separated whites and blacks in
a rigidly segregated society; though I didn't know the word then,
it was effectively an "apartheid" way of life, with African-Americans
and Native Americans at the bottom of society, treated like subhumans.
To my way of thinking, that didn't square with the words I recited
every day in the Pledge of Allegiance, and with what was being taught
in the synagogues and churches with which I was familiar.
As a budding writer, I came to be aware that most newspapers were
silent about the various hypocrisies involved in the power structure.
They just went along to get along, and thus perpetuated the injustices.
In order to find out what really was going on, one had to search
out alternative sources of information - such as I.F. Stone's Weekly
or David Riesman's Committee of Correspondence or in folk music
and jazz bubbling beneath the surface or in the repressed communities
themselves. (I hung out in those few jazz clubs in my later teenage
years where, even in the South, blacks and whites could mingle freely;
later, I would join the courageous young African-American activists
in the Civil Rights Movement in breaking down those apartheid laws
In 1954, I remember sitting mesmerized in front of our tiny, black-and-white
TV, watching the Army-McCarthy hearings. As a teenager, I had little
understanding of the complexity of what was unfolding in front of
my eyes, but I was quite aware that the curtains masking the powerful
are seldom opened to the citizenry, and this was one of those rare
times. And so I watched, fascinated to see how a dangerous demagogue,
Sen. Joseph McCarthy, after doing untold damage to our body politic,
finally destroyed himself on national TV.
This was in the beginnings of the Cold War between the Soviet
Union and the United States - that conflict that had terrified us
as kids , forcing us to drill for thermonuclear war by hiding under
our desks at school, as if that procedure actually would save us
from the radiation and blast. Even we children knew better.
IGNORING NATIONALISM'S POWER
I became intrigued by that Cold War, and how both sides were locked
into rigid frames of mind that threatened to destroy the globe.
I moved on to college and then graduate school, determined to learn
more about this political/military impasse. My Ph.D. dissertation
was on a key turning point in that Cold War, America's so-called
Truman Doctrine - which I saw as a foundation for our misconceived
war in Vietnam - that refused to acknowledge the reality of nationalist
forces within world communism and instead treated that "ism" as
a single evil entity.
The next decade of my life - roughly from 1964 to 1974, as a graduate
student and then as a college teacher and then as an independent
journalist - became dedicated to ending that immoral and unwinnable
Vietnam war. As an antiwar journalist and activist, I became obsessed
with turning this country around from a culture based in death and
Many of our "Sixties" generation wound up confronting our parents'
generation - indeed, in many cases, our own parents - for their
timidity and willingness to follow their governmental leaders, even
when they were clearly wrong, as was the case in Vietnam. The culture
and generational civil war tearing American apart was present even
in our homes, and there were grand fights and estrangements - a
situation being repeated today in a good many families. (Mostly,
my mom was concerned with my safety, and constantly urged me to
keep my mouth shut - advice I simply was not capable of taking,
given the urgency of the situation.)
Eventually, the great middle class came to accept the truth that
had been staring them in the face - that their government had lied
them into an unwinnable war, that our country was losing its soul
in this slaughter - and the peace was made, and the U.S. withdrew
from Vietnam. Things calmed down at home.
STEPPING BACK INTO THE BIG MUDDY
And now, here we are, 30 years later, fighting much the same fight
all over again. A government, keeping its true goals hidden, has
lied us into a war that is unwinnable and that is killing and maiming
tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians and our own young
soldiers. The worst shadow-aspects of our culture are unleashed
in this battle - torture as state policy, bombing from thousands
of feet in the air (with the resultant "collatoral damage" in the
civilian population), our Occupation humiliating and angering a
proud, crushed people, our own national soul endangered.
And here I am again, along with so many of my compatriots from
"The Sixties," back on the antiwar, pro-democracy barricades. Except
this time, our country didn't bumble and stumble into a war; our
leaders knowingly sought it out for a decade before we actually
launched it. True, terrorists lit the match, but they were in Afghanistan;
there was no good reason to bomb and invade Iraq.
Knowing that the American populace would not accept an imperial
war - one designed to gain control of Iraq's enormous oil reserves,
to provide a military foothold in that volatile region in order
to drastically alter the geopolitical map of the Middle East, to
serve as an object-lesson to rulers who might want to dissent from
American desires - Bush & Co. settled on a justification they thought
would work. Americans and Brits and the United Nations were told
that Saddam had huge stockpiles of deadly "weapons of mass destruction"
- biological and chemical agents, an active nuclear weapons program
- and would use them on their neighbors and would deliver them to
the U.S. mainland unless they were stopped, immediately. Couldn't
wait another day.
And so, 30 years after the Vietnam war, we're once again fighting
a war based on lies and mendacity and deficient intelligence & theory.
KERRY IS BEST BET FOR CHANGE
If my mother's mind had been working in her final years, even
she, uninterested in politics, would have understood what was going
on - and would have warned me once again, especially in an Ashcroft
age, to keep my mouth shut.
But I love my country and its institutions - especially our exemplary
Constitution - too much for that. I couldn't remain silent during
the Vietnam War, and there's no way I can permit another such misguided
war to be waged in my name without standing up for what is right.
My mother was fearful throughout her life that bad people would
come and harm her. Now we are harming others (some of whom likewise
have harm in mind for us). There is a way out, though it's not certain
exactly the paths to take; but it is crystal clear that the Bush
cabal - who got us into this mess - are thorough incompetents and
have no workable plan for getting us out. Indeed, as more and more
facts emerge, it is increasingly clear they had no plan at all for
the "postwar" period in Iraq.
John Kerry does not have all the answers - either about the war,
or the many domestic issues that we need to deal with - but he does
have a curious, more open mind. He does understand the deadly folly,
and the thorough botch, Bush & Co. have made in Iraq. And he does
understand that, under Bush, we are sacrificing our precious Constitution
on the altar of "national security."
Therefore, on November 2, with my mother in mind, I will vote
enthusiastically for the Kerry-Edwards ticket, and, after their
victory, I will join millions of other Americans dedicated to keeping
that new Administration honest and on the moral track.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., a poet and playwright, was a government
professor at various universities, served as a writer/editor with
the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The
Crisis Papers. He is a contributing author to the recently-released
Big Bush Lies book.