I haven't had my driving-on-black-ice lesson yet. Weather conditions have been spectacularly cold, but there hasn't been the right combination of temperature, precipitation and time off to open space for this particular learning experience—yet.
Everyone is happy to offer advice, though. They tell me to drive slowly, brake slowly and turn slowly, so as to avoid gliding into the intersection precisely when I mean to stop. They describe slow-motion accidents observed from this very location. Most of all, they deliver the paradoxical prescription that apparently is foundational to Ice Driving 101: Steer into it. "When your car starts to skid," they say, "you'll feel like braking or turning the wheel in the other direction, but don't do it! Just steer into the skid until you feel the car gripping the road again."
Surrender again? Remember in The Wizard of Oz, when the Wicked Witch of the West spelled out "Surrender Dorothy" using her broomstick as a skywriter? Maybe I'm projecting, but the surrender message seems pretty ubiquitous right now.
Starting at home, of course. Since I moved to Kansas City a month ago, the rear windshield of my car shattered (an invisible flaw, responding badly to a rapid drop in temperature); then the radiator cracked; the pipes in our house froze three different times. The dishwasher stopped working. (How is that weather-related, you ask? The problem turning out to be a solid chunk of ice lodged in the hose.) The furnace also quit, the problem being that a screen put in place to protect the air intake had iced over, sending the whole thing into shock. By the last of these incidents, I was laughing, having finally surrendered to the reality of an exceptionally early and cold winter in a house built in 1890. I bought long underwear. What else to do?
Last week, I was contacted by many people who want to be sure that public service employment for artists is part of any jobs stimulus or public works program adopted by the Obama administration, a goal I heartily endorse. My essay, "The New New Deal 2009," placing these developments in the context of prior public programs in the 1930s and 1970s, can be found at communityarts.net. One of my intentions in writing it was to consider what might have been learned from prior public service jobs for artists that could help a new program succeed. Of the four lessons I drew out, the last is sobering: censorship had a large role in ending both the WPA arts projects and artists' employment in the CETA programs of the seventies (read the essay to understand the acronyms and much, much more). One little voice counseled me to leave that out, but the one I listened to said, "Steer Into It." What's true is true; pretending it's not only leads to relearning the same hard lesson.
Between email exchanges about jobs for artists, I picked up outraged messages about President-elect Obama inviting Rick Warren, notorious for his opposition to same-sex marriage, to offer the invocation at his inauguration. I have the same worries right now that most progressives do: that in leaning out so far to pull people into his circle who are seen as "centrist," as "adding diversity," as outside the realm of "usual suspects" commentators might have associated with an Obama administration, he will start out having lost ground, handicapping his own ability to drive change. (For a different view, hang onto a large grain of salt and read what Charles Krauthammer recently had to say.) I dislike Obama's foreign policy team, the group put in charge of arts and humanities appointments seems dismayingly unoriginal, the new Secretary of Agriculture inspires sighs rather than cheers, and so it goes.
The underlying message, at least as the Obama team spins it, is that Obama espouses a big-tent approach to government. I respect that, even as I have my doubts. So, yes, in being inclusive, he will offend some stalwart allies by drawing to him people with whom they are uncomfortable. But if the tent is going to be a really big one, open the doors wider. My advice to Obama? Steer into it! Besides Warren's intolerance, what I really don't like about Obama's inaugural program is how among the blessings and benedictions he evidently didn't think it necessary to include a rabbi, a Buddhist priest, an imam or indeed, anyone who is not a Christian. Your election started us skidding toward true diversity, Barack Obama: Steer into it!
The Bernard Madoff scandal has also been a big email generator this past week. Some foundations and charitable organizations are reporting losses, having invested funds with the unscrupulous financier, and this in turn has provoked more shock and outrage than would attach to bilking only individuals, using their greed as bait. Friday's New York Times carried a piece about the buzz among Jews the scandal has occasioned. I understand this, of course. It is the same for every out-group: you feel humiliatingly grateful for a positive depiction of your people in the mainstream media; and deeply shamed and certain that publicity for wrong-doing will reflect on the collective, reinforcing the views of bigots. Often it does, of course. The Times reports that anti-Jewish hate speech has proliferated with the Madoff scandal. Clearly, this is different from the way other malfeasance is treated. When a gentile's scandals are exposed—consider Alberto Vilar, a huge benefactor of major arts institutions from Los Angeles to London, convicted last month of securities fraud—that doesn't lead to an upsurge in anti-Christian (or in Vilar's case, anti-Cuban) rhetoric. Even the fraud and sex scandals of the televangelists (Bakker, Swaggert, Haggard et al) failed to generate much anti-Christian agitation. When an in-group member transgresses, the individual's reputation is soiled, but it doesn't rub off on the group.
The truth is that no membership in any ethnic or religious group confers immunity from crime and error. When I look at the long list of fraudsters who've made headlines, I see a Duke Cunningham, a Kenneth Lay, a Norman Hsu and a Charles Keating right next to Madoff and Abramoff. Jews are integrated into the American grain for good and ill: Steer into it. The huge crimes of an ambitious swindler have no more general meaning for Jews than for gentiles.
But for all of us, they should mean a lot about public responsibility to safeguard our commonwealth and protect citizens. This morning's New York Times reported that the Bush administration has shamefully neglected this public duty:
At a time when the financial news is being dominated by the $50 billion Ponzi scheme that Bernard L. Madoff is accused of running, federal officials are on pace this year to bring the fewest prosecutions for securities fraud since at least 1991, according to the data, compiled by a Syracuse University research group using Justice Department figures.
There were 133 prosecutions for securities fraud in the first 11 months of this fiscal year. That is down from 437 cases in 2000 and from a high of 513 cases in 2002, when Wall Street scandals from Enron to WorldCom led to a crackdown on corporate crime, the data showed.
At the S.E.C., agency investigations that led to Justice Department prosecutions for securities fraud dropped from 69 in 2000 to just 9 in 2007, a decline of 87 percent, the data showed.
According to election results, to every measurement of public opinion and even to random indicators such as the recent upsurge in TV series featuring good-guy avengers against corporate crime (for instance, TNT's rootin' tootin' "Leverage"), many people have awakened to the reality of malfeasance in high places, especially Wall Street and government. A growing number are receiving frightening wake-up calls in the form of layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies. The prevailing wind is carrying fresh air into the places most clogged with the decay of our social institutions, and many people seem ready to welcome it at last. Let's urge the new administration to make use of this momentum: Steer into it, ushering in an era of good government we want so much we can hardly allow ourselves to believe it possible.
Kansas City is the most Christmasy place I've ever spent a December. There's a right-wing cartoon on the Kansas City Star comics pages that fairly revels in the notion that there's a conspiracy against Christmas, but I haven't been into a single shop or restaurant that wasn't decorated for the holiday, nor one in which someone failed to wish me a merry Christmas. Last night we observed Christmas eve in the time-honored manner of Jews: we went to the movies and ate at a Chinese restaurant. After dinner, the waitress asked if we had big plans for the evening. I said we planned to light the Hanukkah candles. On the way out the door, another voice called out "Merry Christmas!" My husband, who is hard-of-hearing, looked up at the sound, but wasn't sure what had been said. There was a muffled whisper. Then the voice resumed, just as brightly: "Happy Holidays!"
I'm never sure if my annual bout of the holiday blues is merely a somatic reaction to dark days or an overdose of feeling Other—or both. But this year I'm in a new place. I don't really know my way around yet, and I've barely met anyone. It's very quiet this morning, with almost no one on the street. I find myself in another country than the multicultural west-coast world to which I have become habituated. You know what I'm going to try: Steer into it! This afternoon, the temperature is predicted to rise into the high 40s, which will be a tropical respite in comparison with the last week or so. We're going to walk around the nation's oldest suburban shopping district, designed in 1922, gazing at the decorations and window-shopping in serene certainty that all the stores will be closed. I'm hoping the effect will be healing. I'll let you know.