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Are You Listening?

Obama-ListensWhile Washington and most of the media are obsessed with the botched roll out of Obamacare, a story with much more long-lasting and more profound implications unfolds around us with hardly a passing notice from Congress or many voters.

Here’s a prediction. When the history of the Obama Administration is written, the admittedly monumental screw ups with the health insurance website will get a paragraph or two of attention. The vast network of intelligence gathering – OK, let’s call it what it is spying – that is taking place on the watch of a president who was elected as a civil libertarian will get a full chapter. It’s that important.

It is nearly impossible to keep track of the flood of revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), but here are some of the highlights. The New York Times reports that the NSA listened in not only to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls, but started doing so years ago when Merkel was merely a backbencher in German politics.

“How the N.S.A. continued to track Ms. Merkel as she ascended to the top of Germany’s political apparatus illuminates previously undisclosed details about the way the secret spy agency casts a drift net to gather information from America’s closest allies,” Mark Mazetti and David Sanger wrote in the Times. “The phone monitoring is hardly limited to the leaders of countries like Germany, and also includes their top aides and the heads of opposing parties. It is all part of a comprehensive effort to gain an advantage over other nations, both friend and foe.”

The news of the spying has already badly damaged the personal relationship between the American president and the German chancellor. The phone call Merkel initiated to express her outrage was, as an Obama aide told the Times, “not easy.” No kidding.

We also know that NSA has been tapping into Google and Yahoo networks, monitoring the phone calls of journalist, gathering millions of bits of data from foreign and domestic phone systems and, most significantly, saying almost nothing – at least nothing truthful – about this gigantic infringement of civil liberties.

When the NSA’s James Clapper speaks his language of evasion reminds you of the once popular television comic Professor Irwin Corey, the absent minded “world’s great authority” who would ramble on speaking nonsense that sounded strangely profound. Corey once opined, appropriate to NSA spying, “If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.”

“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper a while back during a Senate hearing.

Clapper responded: “No, sir … not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”

Only after the Edward Snowden revelations did Clapper admit his answer was, as The Atlantic reported “erroneous,” or “the least untruthful” one he could provide. Wyden recently said, “There’s not a shred of evidence today that that would have been corrected [in public] absent the [Snowden] disclosures.”

Normally lying to a Congressional committee – ask Oliver North – is reason to clean out your desk or maybe fix up your cell, but Clapper remains on the job with his efforts now focused on explaining away the spying on Merkel and 30 other world leaders.

Forty years ago another Northwest senator, Idaho’s Frank Church, laid bare the out-of-bounds behavior of the NSA, the CIA and the nation’s other security agencies. And, like the prescient civil liberties advocate he was, Church carefully warned that an American government with the means, in the case of the CIA, to open the mail of American citizens and hatch plots to kill foreign leaders, conceivably could turn that same awesome power on domestic enemies.

Then President Gerald Ford tried repeatedly to blunt Church’s investigation in the 1970’s once telling Church and Texas Sen. John Tower, as Leroy Ashby and Rod Gramer report in their fine biography of Church, that America is “a great power and it is important that we be perceived as such – that our intelligence capability to a certain extent be cloaked in mystery and held in awe.” But Church knew that just the opposite was true. An all powerful and overreaching national security state that employs tactics more and more reminiscent of Putin’s Russia or Saddam’s Iraq is not a recipe for global respect or moral authority.

A great country, secure in the wisdom of its own best instincts and loyal to its creed, could command real respect. “Ours is not a wicked country,” Church said in 1976, “and we cannot abide a wicked government.”

A country that is a force of moral authority in the world doesn’t find itself with a Secretary of State saying what John Kerry was compelled to say this week. “The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there,” Kerry told a conference in London via video link. “In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

Oregon’s Wyden is a worthy successor to Idaho’s Church and is playing much the same role as he confronts the entrenched power of the national security state. “We will be up against a ‘business-as-usual brigade’—made up of influential members of the government’s intelligence leadership, their allies in think tanks and academia, retired government officials, and sympathetic legislators,” Sen. Wyden warned last month. “Their endgame is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin-deep. … Privacy protections that don’t actually protect privacy are not worth the paper they’re printed on.”

At the risk of sounding like a Tea Party conspiracy theorist, I do reflect on the historic fact that our federal government, even with all the sacred respect we profess to show for the Constitution’s protections of our civil liberties, has frequently trampled on those liberties. From World War I when American citizens went to jail for criticizing the war to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, from liberty oaths in the McCarthy era to Watergate break-ins, it takes no Orwellian flight of fancy to see an all-knowing, all-seeing federal government destroying our standing abroad, while trashing our liberties at home.

Great nations are true to their values. Great nations don’t just do things because they can. And great nations do not put civil liberties on autopilot.

Frank Church warned us 40 years ago. Ron Wyden is trying to warn us today.


Seamus Heaney, 1939 – 2013

A-Seamus-Heaney-9Traveling in Ireland for the first time a few years ago I was struck by the fact that everyone – everywhere – seemed to have a book under their arm or clutched in hand. Everyone it seemed was lost in words, heads in books. Crossing the Shannon on a car ferry the truck driver next to our rental car had a big volume propped up on the steering wheel. He had obviously taken in the lovely scenery before. Now his lovely book had his full attention, if only for a few minutes.

One wonders why Ireland, a country with 4.5 million people, has produced so many of history’s greatest men – yes, mostly men – of letters. Shaw and Joyce, Behan, Beckett and Oscar Wilde. Now another of the greatest – the poet and Nobel Laureate Shamus Heaney – the greatest Irish poet since the great William Butler Yeats is gone.

I’ll leave the pondering of the Irish literary tradition for another day and instead praise Shamus Heaney who was both deep and accessible. You don’t often find the words “best selling” in the same sentence with “poet.” Heaney was the best selling poet in the English language, but also an acclaimed translator and essayist.

Heaney famously advised in his Nobel acceptance speech to “Walk on air against your better judgement.” In one collection in 1984 he offered good advice to writers and readers. “The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night, dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”

I wish that when I struggled to read and comprehend Beowulf in school that Heaney’s translation, by most accounts the best ever in English, had been available. The man was more than his poetry, as if that weren’t enough.

As the Irish Times reported today, “Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said the death of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has brought a ‘great sorrow to Ireland’ and only the poet himself could describe the depth of his loss to the nation.” The BBC, giving proper notice to an Irishman, noted in its coverage that Heaney’s international literary impact, like that of Yeats, only grew as his body of work expanded.

“Born in Northern Ireland, he was a Catholic and nationalist who chose to live in the South,” the BBC said. “‘Be advised, my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen,’ [Heaney] once wrote.”

“He came under pressure to take sides during the 25 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and faced criticism for his perceived ambivalence to republican violence, but he never allowed himself to be co-opted as a spokesman for violent extremism.

“His writing addressed the conflict, however, often seeking to put it in a wider historical context. The poet also penned elegies to friends and acquaintances who died in the violence.

“Describing his reticence to become a ‘spokesman’ for the Troubles, Heaney once said he had ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head.'”

Here’s how Heaney ended his Nobel acceptance speech in 1995, an ode to the power of words – and poetry – to explain and shape the human condition.

“The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”

The late Idaho Supreme Court justice and poet Byron Johnson once said that the country could use more poets and fewer politicians. The passing of Seamus Heaney reminds us of just how accurate that statement remains.



When in Disgrace

The Best Valentine Poem (Sonnet) Ever

The Bard, we think, wrote his 29th sonnet around about 1592 at a time when he was deeply troubled by something. Perhaps it was the closure of London theatres due to the plague. That would put you in a sour mood.

Or it might have been a critics – it’s always the critics – who wrote dismissively of Shakespeare’s artistic merit. In any event, the sonnet transcends the writers sour mood and ends with a wonderful statement of love.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
Sonnet 29
William Shakespeare

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Poetry Month

Billy Collins on…What Was It?

In celebration of National Poetry Month – I love that poetry month coincides with the start of the baseball season – a great little poem for all of us growing a little older every day.


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

More Billy Collins

CollinsAnother wonderful little poem…

My lanyard wearing mom was born on this day in 1922. I miss her every day.

The Lanyard by Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Billy Collins

CollinsThe History Teacher

When I saw the story that Idaho’s State School Superintendent Tom Luna had pulled a pop history quiz on lawmakers on the legislature’s education committees, and that 17% couldn’t name the year Idaho became a state and that 15% didn’t know Lewiston was the original capital, I thought immediately of Billy Collins’ wonderful little poem – The History Teacher.

Trying to protect his students’ innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years

when everyone had to wear sweaters.
And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,

named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
“How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom

for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

Idaho became a state in 1890, by the way.


The Poetry of Cities

sandburgCarl Sandburg and Downtowns

It is the birthday of the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg born January 6, 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.

Twice winner of the Pulitzer – The War Years about Lincoln’s presidency won the award in 1940 and his Complete Poems won in 1951 – Sandburg is often dismissed today as too much the sentimentalist. Perhaps that is why I like him very much.

I thought of Sandburg’s poems about Chicago and Omaha and other cities this morning while absorbing the news that downtown economic mainstays – big Macy’s department stores – in Missoula and Boise are soon to close. As Idaho Statesman reporter Tim Woodward noted, the Boise store was a fixture in the heart of Idaho’s Capitol City for decades; a meeting place, a lunchtime destination. Such icons are hard – impossible perhaps – to replace.

Boise once had five downtown department stores. Now it will have none. Boise and Missoula are still among the most attractive downtowns in the west, but big, old time department stores are magnets for people and help support other small merchants and one hates to see them close and you wonder what can possibly fill the void.

But, back to Sandburg.

The editor of a recent collection of Sandburg’s poetry, Paul Berman, told NPR a while back that the writer was inspired by cities: “His genius, his inspiration in [the Chicago] poem and some others, was to look around the streets, at the billboards and the advertising slogans, and see in those things a language,” Berman says. “And he was able to figure out that this language itself contained poetry.”

There is poetry in great cities and, yes, a yearning for the variety and uniqueness of downtowns where people gather, things happen and the look and culture is much different – and vastly more interesting – than a strip mall or suburban shopping destination surrounded by acres of parking.

In one of my favorite Sandburg poems – Limited – the narrator is headed to a city, or at least a final destination.

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
of the nation.

Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.

(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men
and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall
pass to ashes.)

I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he
answers: “Omaha.”

Read some Sandburg. This is a great site to sample some of his enduring work.

The Choice

yeats The Greatest Poet…

For me the answer is easy – W.B. Yeats.

In December 1923, nearly 86 years ago, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature and made much of the fact that the recognition came shortly after Ireland had gained independence. His recognition, Yeats contended, was an acknowledgement of the quality of Irish literature. Perhaps, but Yeats was an immense talent. In fact, his greatest work – lyrical, beautiful poetry – came after he received the big prize that had been awarded largely for his work as a playwright.

One of my favorites poems is called The Choice:

The intellect of man is forced to choose Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

I also like Yeats because he was a man of the world, indeed he served in the Irish Senate where he became a major voice celebrating Irish culture.

Pour a little Irish whiskey on a cold November night and open Yeats’ collected works. You’ll find some magic.

All Souls

yeats UpdikeA Day of Remembrance

On All Souls Day, a remembrance of those we love and live among us in memory, two poems by John Updike and W.B. Yeats.

I can’t get this little Updike poem – one of his last – out of my head and, on this crisp fall day of remembrance, it once again seems particularly appropriate.

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise – depths unplumable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge,
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

– John Updike
from “Endpoint and Other Poems”

And Yeats’s – All Souls’ Night

Epilogue to “A Vision’

Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And may a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.

The rest of the All Souls’ Night is here: