Sunday, April 24, 2011

Defending Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson does more good in the world in one month than most people do in their entire lives. He should be given the Nobel Peace Prize, not be subjected to an attack on his character and a financial audit of his nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which primarily builds schools for impoverished children. Mortenson repeatedly risks his life to promote education and improve the lives of people living in the most distressed communities in the world.

Now Journalist Jon Krakauer has surfaced information that seems to prove that Mortenson’s story in Three Cups of Tea was not entirely true, resulting in a feeding frenzy in the mainstream media, beginning with none other than 60 Minutes. Why Krakauer would choose to spend his time tearing down the good work of a selfless man such as Mortenson is mystifying. Aren’t there enough scoundrels out there to expose without setting one’s journalistic sights on discrediting a man dedicated to healing the world?

Shame on Krakauer. Of what significance are the discrepancies that he has found in Mortenson’s story? And why dwell on them? Brief excerpts from Three Cups of Tea have been put to more productive use and resulted in more positive change in the world than everything Krakauer has written in his entire life. Three Cups of Tea, required reading by U.S. military personnel, has put a face on the people living in countries in which American troops must make life and death decisions on a daily basis. So who cares if Three Cups of Tea is entirely factual? What difference does it make if Mortenson, at the advice of his ghost writer, took certain liberties with the facts of the story? Does this suddenly negate everything Mortenson has accomplished?

Mortenson has arguably done more to bridge the cultural divide between Americans and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan than any other person in history. He has succeeded in teaching American schoolchildren about the lives of Afghanis and Pakistanis and has inspired them to care about these Muslim children on the other side of the world who are so different from them. He has succeeded in engendering empathy for the Afghani people in those serving in the U.S. military. Who knows how many innocent lives have been saved and how many innocent individuals have escaped harm because members of the U.S. military have read Mortenson’s book? He has helped dispel negative stereotypes about Muslims, has illustrated the difference between the violence of Islamic extremism and the everyday gentle beauty of other Muslim sects, and has proven that education has the potential to eradicate terrorism and violence.

So the million-dollar question is: Why is the mainstream media in the U.S. so eager to get their hands on Krakauer’s story; so lip-smacking delighted to discredit a man who has done so much good? Why attack Greg Mortenson? Who or what benefits from discrediting him? And why now? The timing of this is suspect.

What is the one area of government spending that has remained untouchable in every discussion about balancing the federal budget and reducing the deficit? Defense spending. It is the sacred cow. But what if defense spending was placed on the chopping block with everything else? What if the U.S. called off the War in Afghanistan? Mortenson’s work challenges the necessity of the War in Afghanistan. If he is successful in educating the next generation of Afghanis, then that war becomes irrelevant, even counterproductive. In order to be successful, Mortenson must continue to raise money for the CAI. The greatest immediate impact of the 60 Minutes story attacking Mortenson is that the CAI will have more difficulty raising money. Mortenson already pushes himself on a brutal touring schedule to raise funds for the CAI’s work. He spends far more time away from his wife and children than he does with them, while at the same time jeopardizing his health. Do you really think that his deepest motive is to get rich? A man who is quite happy to spend months at a time wearing the same pair of pants and sharing a tooth brush? Get real, people.

If the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, and from Iraq and Libya as well; if the U.S., for the first time since entering the Korean War, is no longer at war with anyone (and Obama actually earns his Nobel Peace Prize); if the U.S. wages peace; then the defense industry will shrink dramatically. All those bazillion-trillions of dollars being spent by the federal government on manufacturing weapons, waging foreign wars, and killing Afghanis (and occasionally reducing CAI-built schools to rubble) will be redirected to expanding the Head Start Program, supporting the American public school system and system of higher education, saving libraries, Medicaid, Medicare, mental health programs, and other health and human services programs, such as those that support the poor, the marginalized, the sick, children at risk, the elderly, struggling families, and so forth. People here in the U.S. are suffering and they are being told there is no money to spend on providing them with relief, which is simply not true. From national budgets to household budgets, how money is allocated and spent is all about priorities.

Back in the days of the Vietnam War, there was a bumper sticker that read “What if the schools had plenty of money and the military had to hold a bake sale to buy a B52 Bomber?” That’s what this attack on Mortenson is all about. That’s why the mainstream U.S. media are into it up to their eyeballs. The military industrial complex is the largest industry in the U.S., the lion’s share of money pouring into it comes from the federal government, and a deep discussion about cutting federal spending is currently underway in the halls of Congress. Meanwhile, the more successful Mortenson is in making real change through education, then the more the activities of the defense industry become obsolete. Mortenson is therefore a serious threat to that industry, because he has completely, successfully, unequivocally demonstrated that bullets can be replaced by books; and no one will get rich off that.


[In an unrelated note: I want to acknowledge that today would have been my mother's 80th birthday. She was also someone who did a great deal of good in the world. In a more quiet and less dramatic way than Mortenson (because that was her style), but with just as much commitment to helping others.]

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Weng Family Visit

This weekend Gayla Weng and some of her family are visiting. Gayla went to SFSU with Ron back in the 80s. He was studying film and she was studying broadcasting. They rode into the city together from Berkeley several days a week for class and we have remained friends with Gayla and her family ever since. We last saw them a couple of months ago when we attended the memorial service for her dad, whom we had the honor and privilege to know rather well. He was a remarkable man with an enthusiasm for life that could not be beat. Just for example, one of the things I loved about him was that he attended Harvard Divinity School and received a degree in theology when he was in his 60s. Gayla and her older sister Kirsti are both part of multicultural families they have created and I want to describe their families a bit.

Gayla is ¾ Chinese, ¼ Finnish, and a convert to Judaism. Several years back she met and married her Euro Jewish husband, and (at the youthful age of 48) Gayla had a baby girl in December. So Gayla, husband, and baby Stella are here this weekend. Also here is sister Kirsti and four of her nine children. Kirsti’s husband is Euro. Many years back they adopted twin boys when the boys were about 11 years old. The boys are Black. When those boys were teenagers, Kirsti and her husband started their biological family. They had a son and then, a few years later, by a weird coincidence, they had twin boys! The adopted twins had an older sister, who Kirsti and her husband never formally adopted (she was over eighteen by the time she moved near them), but they swiftly came to consider her their oldest child. Sadly, the older sister died two years ago. She left behind three children (two girls and a boy), whom Kirsti and her husband were actively grandparenting at the time and they adopted them. So they have twin Black sons, twin Asian/Euro sons and their biological brother, and a Black grandson and two Black granddaughters whom they are raising. Mind-boggling. This weekend, Kirsti is here with the three grandchildren and one of her biological sons.

In many ways, this big multicultural family is a tribute to their dad, who was always everyone’s dad. The 50s-TV-Show Dad. The quintessential DAD. And the family that emerged from his life is swiftly becoming the quintessential American family. In my generation of Wachspress cousins who grew up with me, we have me and my Black husband, two Black stepsons, and three multicultural children; one of my brothers is unmarried and childless; my other brother married Jewish and had three children. I have two first cousins. One of them married a Catholic, had three children, raised them Jewish; the other cousin is gay and her partner gave birth to a set of twins (through artificial insemination) that the two of them are parenting. I have four second cousins that I grew up with. One of them married Jewish and had three children; one of them is a single mom who adopted a Chinese baby girl; one of them remains unmarried and childless; and the fourth married a non-Jewish Euro woman with whom he adopted two East Indian babies (from India) and had one biological child. That’s just in a small segment of my father’s family that is close to me! If I went to the wider family, there would be everything. And I come from traditional Ashkenazic Jewish families on both my mother’s and my father’s side, families in which no one “married out” for many generations (until mine).

I suppose I don’t really need to say more. I think you get my point by now. But I just can’t resist adding that last night we had a few other friends over for dinner with Gayla and Kirsti’s families. We had a couple who live here in Ukiah and the woman is American-born, but lived in Africa for many years working with Doctors Without Borders and her husband is Dutch, born in India, grew up all over the world because his Dutch parents worked for the World Health Organization, and the two of them met in Mozambique. Our other dinner guests were a wife born and raised in Ukiah and her husband who is ¾ Chinese and ¼ French (his Dad sold groceries for years and years to the French who were building the Panama Canal and he has a whole branch of the family living in Panama). Whew!

The world is a small place, a global community, and I am constantly reminded that if we can’t manage to get along as individuals, families, communities, and, on a broader level, as cultures and nations, then we will not survive on this planet. We have nowhere else to go. But I have high hopes because we are (quite literally) becoming family to one another.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Evelyn on My Mind

This coming Passover/Easter will mark sixteen years since my mother-in-law, Evelyn Reed, passed into spirit. It’s hard to believe that it has been so long. Even as recently as October, when I was in Chicago, I half-expected to see her. She was a single mother who raised four children under dangerous and stressful conditions in the ghetto in Chicago. Despite living in circumstances not supportive of family life, my husband and his siblings grew up in a large and loving family that provided a lot of laughs and nurturing. Mama was one of the most generous people I have ever known. She manifested Do Unto Others. Although Mama worked hard to support her family (for many years she was a mail carrier for the postal service), she lived in poverty her entire life. It’s easy to be generous when you have money, but it’s another story when you have next to nothing. Whatever Mama had, she shared. Anyone who turned up at her door hungry was fed, no matter how bare her pantry was.

During the years that I knew her, she lived in a duplex that she owned on the South Side of Chicago. My sister-in-law lived upstairs with her family and my brother-in-law shared the downstairs with Mama. When I first met her, Mama had her mother living with her as well. When I was seven months pregnant with Yael (my oldest), Ron and I went to visit Mama for Christmas. We arrived to discover that Mama’s younger sister and her five children were living with Mama. Her sister had left her husband (who had been abusing her) and she had nowhere to go, so Mama took her in. Mama probably saved her life. The children slept on the couch and chairs in the living room every night. While we were visiting, we slept in my brother-in-law’s room. I have no idea where he slept during our visit. The ten of us shared one bathroom. The kitchen was tiny, but it served well enough for us to cook up a delicious Christmas dinner. There were few gifts exchanged, but much time spent together as a family . The greatest gift of all. It was a memorable visit and a terrific Christmas.

Her sister was not the first nor the last to find respite in that house. I could not begin to count all the people who lived there at one time or another. Mama felt fortunate to have a house, making it possible for her to lighten the burden for others with nowhere to go. It was one of the ways in which she served God. When we called Mama, we never knew who would answer the phone because she was constantly taking people in to stay with her. I remember calling once and talking to an elderly woman whose locks had frozen on her house in the bitter Chicago winter. She couldn’t afford to fix the problem, so she left the house locked up until the spring thaw and moved in with Mama in the interim. Despite Mama’s poverty, she regularly gave a tithe to her church to support church activities that provided services for people in need. In the later part of her life, when she had become an elder in the church, many people relied on her to give them guidance, spiritual and emotional support, and encouragement. She never judged others. She was compassionate and a good listener. She enlisted the healing power of laughter as one of her chief assistants and she needed that sense of humor to cope with the huge whacky family and the ridiculous (and at times incredibly absurd) situations she and her relatives found themselves in because of their lack of money and resources.

In the spring of 1995, Mama had a heart attack and was hospitalized for a couple of weeks. The doctors readjusted her medications and sent her home. To this day, I believe that she was killed by racism and poverty and that if she had been a middle class white man, the doctors would have recommended bypass surgery and would have been more aggressive about saving her life. On Easter Sunday we were at my parents’ house with our children for Passover and we called Mama. Everyone spoke to her. Me. Ron. The children. My mother. Ron talked to her for a long time and they laughed a lot. When he thinks of her voice, he can still hear that laughter from the last time they spoke. Two days later she had another heart attack. She was 62. Because no ambulance service would go into Mama’s dangerous neighborhood, she could not call 911. Dear friends were driving her to the emergency room when she died in the back seat of their car, lying in the arms of one of them. The last thing she said was, “I love you.”

So many people came to her funeral that they couldn’t all fit into the church. Many of those who couldn’t get inside stood outside in the street for hours. The police came and officially closed the street because it was filled with people. So many people went up to the pulpit to speak about her or to sing that the service went for more than six hours (past midnight). Every year, I light a yahrzeit candle (Jewish memorial candle) for Mama on the Tuesday after Easter Sunday. I suppose there is a poetic irony in the fact that a Jewish woman lights a yahrzeit candle every year for an Apostolic Christian Black woman from the South Side of Chicago. There is a directive in the New Testament that says “Bloom where you are planted.” Mama, you were the most exquisite flower. Still missing you.


Me and my mom with Evelyn during an outing (photo by Ron).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Tribe

This past week I met with tribal leaders of a local Pomo tribe with whom I am going to work on a grant proposal. Our meeting sparked me to think about tribes and land, indigenous people, and having one’s ancient homeland robbed by invaders. I come from a native tribe that was forced into exile thousands of years ago. Recently, within the past one hundred years, my tribe, by a miracle, was able to reclaim a small sliver of our land. It wasn’t the part of our original land that was arable or rich with resources, much like the land to which many Native American tribes have been relegated. Hardly anything would grow on it. In fact, it was mostly desert. But my tribe worked to make the land yield food and flourish against all odds. I have chosen not to return to my ancestral land. Like many native peoples who have been separated from their tribal land for generations, I was not born on the land and it does not feel like home to me. Those of my tribe who returned and settled there have clung to the land fiercely. Many countries and peoples throughout the world would like to take that tiny piece of land away from my tribe again. My tribe, of course, is the Tribe of the Hebrews and our ancestral land is Israel.

Like many Jews and many progressives, I am deeply disappointed by the way the Hebrews have conducted business and government, by the violence perpetrated against the Palestinian people, the oppression. I would have liked to think that my tribe would have acted with patience, grace, tolerance, compassion, and generosity. I would have liked for my tribe to stand out as a beacon of justice and an exemplary nation. After all the oppression, persecution, and horror that my tribe has experienced during the decades of our exile, I hoped that we would be incapable of visiting such oppression and persecution on others. I expected it. However, despite my deep disappointment (at times horror) at what my tribe has done with its nationhood, I have never questioned the right of my tribe to exist as a nation on our ancestral land. Many countries have behaved as badly or worse than Israel and yet no one questions their fundamental right to exist as a nation. South Africa under apartheid. Nazi Germany. Bosnia. Libya. Hussein’s Iraq. Pinochet’s Chile. Rwanda. El Salvador. Afghanistan. Horrific things happen in nations throughout the world every day; and compassionate, moral people oppose these horrific things. Sometimes giving their lives to oppose these horrific things. But in all of this, the right of these nations to exist is not questioned. So I must ask, why is Israel’s very right to exist questioned? Why is it politically correct in the progressive community to support the return of tribal lands to other indigenous peoples, but not to mine?