Bob Massie

Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

A Eulogy for Catherine Elizabeth Osgood Chanock

In Theology and Spirituality on January 24, 2009 at 11:42 pm

On Thursday, January 15, Beth Chanock, the mother of my closest friend, Stephen, died abruptly and unexpectedly of heart failure at the age of 80 in Maryland.  Anne, Kate, and I flew down the next day.   When we arrived Stephen picked us up at the airport and asked me to deliver the eulogy at the memorial service the next day. I wrote this late that night and early the next morning, and I am posting it here in Beth’s honor and in gratitude for everything that the Chanock family has meant to me — and to hundreds of others. 

If we know one thing about love, it is that in this world love takes many forms.

And if we know one thing about love in a single person’s life, it is that love is made manifest in many ways.

We are all here because we loved Beth Chanock.  And we are all here because we were loved by Beth Chanock.

I would like each of you to pick an image of her in your mind, and to hold that image for a few minutes while I speak about her.  

I would be willing to bet that most of you have chosen an image that includes her beautiful smile.  I see her whole face glowing with delight, with the remarkable widow’s peak that crowned her dark and then grey hair and her sparkling eyes crinkled with amusement – a face animated by the generous laughter that bubbled out of her when she thought something was funny. 

And she thought a lot of things were funny.  

Over the last two days, as people have learned of her death and have reached out to her family, Stephen and Lizette have noticed how many people use the metaphor of family to describe their bond to Beth. 

She “made me feel like a member of her family,” so many people have said.

“She was another sister to me.”

“She was a second mother to me.”

“She was a grandmother to me and to my circle of friends.” 

And we were all family to her.

Each of us has our own particular memories, our own stories about how she changed us.  Each of us can point to a moment when she entered our lives and how our lives were never again the same.

For some, like Bob or Stephen or Lizette, or Nicholas or Christopher or Alexander or Sabrina, Beth’s presence and Beth’s gifts quite literally give birth to a whole new universe of life and joy.

For others, like me, like so many of you, Beth swirled into view with the brilliant energy of the dancer that she always was.   It was almost like being seated on the edge of a party, and having this fantastic woman sweep out of nowhere and grab your hand, and tug you with laughter on to the dance floor.

From the moment I met Beth Chanock she embraced me unconditionally.  Then she drew me – as did all of us — round and round, through her humor, and her delight, and her absolutely inexhaustible generosity, pulling us, no matter how clumsy or resistant we might at first be, through new steps and new places on the dance floor of own lives.

Each of us has our own memories.  Mine include those first moments when I met the astonishing Stephen Chanock and – was it possible? – his equally astonishing brother and mother and father.   They all welcomed me with magnetic warmth.  Bob gave me a nickname and told me funny stories and opened new doors to palaces of the mind and of culture.  Foster teased me with some wry comment and challenged me always to be better than I thought I could be.    Beth met me at the door with food, and books, and towels to protect my lap from the drool of their four St. Bernards.

And what a patient family they were.   More than thirty years ago, when Stephen and Foster were going to be away for a summer, and Beth found I needed a place to stay, she placed me into their rooms – for three months.  

I never found out whether they had been informed of this in advance.  

Around this time I was taking Chinese and Vietnamese cooking lessons and knowing of Bob and Beth’s love for these cuisines, I decided to express my appreciation through an eight course meal.   I think it is fair to say that in launching on this project, in almost every sense including the literal one, I had “bitten off more than I could chew.” 

In the course of my preparations I used every single bowl and pot and plate and platter in the house.  I wore out the blade of every knife and fired up the oven and every burner on the stove and the grill on the porch.  I emptied and filled and re-emptied and re-filled the refrigerator with concoctions.   I covered every inch of Chanock kitchen with evidence of my culinary genius. 

I think I splattered enough sesame oil and minced ginger and chopped vegetables and marinated meats and exotic spices on myself and on the counters, floors, and some even say the ceiling of Beth’s kitchen to have served at least twice the number of people who came that night.   But even as her amusement – and horror – mounted as she witnessed the well-intentioned devastation being visited on her own home, she offered me nothing but encouragement.

When at about 11 PM – four hours late — I finally presented them with my hot and sour soup, my shrimp toasts and spring rolls, my salted black bean spiced chicken, my five spiced marinated drumsticks with apricot sauce, and my beef with oyster sauce all accompanied by mountains of singed rice and some colossally inedible failure of a dessert she complimented me on this stupendously foolhardy project.  I beamed with pride as Bob and Beth ate.  

I did not learn until much later that it took Beth and a small army of cleaners about a week to put that kitchen back into shape.  She knew that my errors flowed from my impossible aspiration to offer a proportional response to their unending generosity.

We all have our memories.  At some later moment, when the transmission of my crumbling 1971 Buick Skylark finally fell abruptly out on to the ground not far from her house, she drove over to meet me, parked her car a block away, and then phoned AAA, a service to which I could not afford to subscribe.  She calmly told them that she had been driving her friend’s car and something seemed to be wrong with it, and would they mind towing it to a service station?   They agreed,  thus saving me the $150 that would have represented  a week of my salary if I had had it in the bank.  

And that same summer, Beth sat by my bedside for most of two nights and three days as I battled a fever that shot up to 103 degrees.  She calmed my hallucinations, reassuring me in her gentle, deep, soft voice, all the while stroking my head with a cold cloth and offering me timely medication and fluids.

And so it went, in large ways and small, through the thirty-five years I knew her.   Through such experiences – and hundreds of others – that Beth manifested her love to me, a love disconnected from my own worthiness to receive it and my impoverished capacity to return in kind.

As Stephen reminded me last night, when I graduated from college, she gave me the key to her house so that I would know that the welcome that had been mine in the past would remain forever mine in the future.  She did the same thing literally and figuratively to many of us here.

There is a secret here.   Somewhere in her life Beth discovered how to drill right down through the bedrock that seems to limit many of our individual capacities to love.   Unlike many of us she drew from some unlimited aquifer of compassion, and that enabled her to water and tend and feed such a huge botanical garden of human specimens that she discovered and collected throughout her life.   

What a magnificent parade of people came through her house, many of them drooping and parched when they arrived but blooming with new strength and vitality when they left her presence and her care.  

At the center of her garden was her husband Bob, into whose arms she threw herself with characteristic abandon as a young woman, and to whom she devoted a full lifetime of passion and attention.  

And also at the center were her sons, first Foster and then Stephen.  And then the daughters that her sons brought home, Dorie and Lizette, and then her grandchildren, for whom she felt the most expansive and thrilling joy and pride, and in whose honor I believe the verb “to dote” was invented.

Our lives seem to be bounded and organized by chronological time.  We enter the flow of each other’s lives at particular moments, and we float together as the unstoppable currents of time carry us downstream, a great tubing party through the canyons of decades. 

But in a rare moment like this, we are permitted to step off on to the bank, and to climb to some higher point, and from there we can suddenly see the canyons, rivers and tributaries from a distance – where they came from, how they intertwine.  Time falls away and we can experience the unity of a person’s life. 

We can think about Beth’s life from beginning to end, from her days in Massachusetts, to her time in California and Ohio and Japan and Maryland, all in one piece.   We can feel, simultaneously, the joy of having known her and the sorrow of having lost her.  

And if we climb a little higher, we can see how her the light from her life illuminates our own, not only in the past, but in the future, as we carry forward the gifts she gave to us and as we commit ourselves, in her name, to passing similar gifts on to others. 

And if we rise higher still, we can see what a truly stupendous world we live in, all these lives bound together, through interconnections in time and space, held in unfathomable unity — from the most infinitely small pieces of life all the way out past our own world to the riotous galaxies in whose midst we are all swirling, at this very moment, and in this very place.

We navigate our lives in comfortable vessels of familiarity that are themselves floating across an ocean of mystery.  

We don’t know the boundaries or limits of love, or whether such boundaries or limits even exist.  We receive glimpses of the infinite from the intricacies that lie within and around us, from the songs of interwoven happiness and the light-filled rhythm of human lives, but at some point these eventually draw us out to the vast and silent expanses — beyond our experience and even our existence. 

All seems bound together by a power and continuity that we do not comprehend and cannot master, and about which we can only speak through the limits of our language and the depths of our faith.

But if there is one thing we know about love, it is that in this world it takes many forms.   And it has many names. 

And one of those names was Beth. 

/\/\ END /\/\



Memory and Amnesia

In Politics on January 22, 2009 at 6:41 pm

Some reflections two days after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.

America lives eternally pitched forward, and never was the angle more acute than on Tuesday at the Mall when Barack Obama became the President of the United States. 

In our headlong rush into our own future, we often are quite content to leave huge chunks of our memory – and our history – behind.  And over the past few days I have pondered how this is both good and bad.

Every one of the 1.8 million who are estimated to have crammed on to the Mall – a number that would have been equal to nearly 50% of the country’s entire population at the time of the Revolution. – had his or her own memories, and these memories accounted for the tears and cheers captured in so many of the photographs of the moment.

As I rolled (for I was in a wheelchair) with Anne and Kate on to the Mall, I found myself thinking about a different inauguration, one that that took place twenty years ago. 

On January 20, 1989, George H. W. Bush took the oath of office.   I was not in Washington on that day, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the day had dawned rainy and grey.   I was graduate student at Harvard University, just finishing my dissertation.  

A decade before I had been deeply moved by the first inauguration to which I really paid close attention, which was that of Jimmy Carter in 1977.   It was not the pageantry that touched me, but the simple sight of the peaceful transfer of power from Gerald Ford to the new president.   The campaign had been hard fought, Carter had defeated an appointed (though incumbent) president, and now the country was moving forward into new territory.  I found myself choked up by the majestic ease of this moment.

In 1989 though I had not supported George H. W. Bush, I was hopeful that I would again experience this cleansing effect.   Yet as I started watching the television coverage and I found myself drenched in anger and misery. 

It took me a few minutes of self-diagnosis to locate the origin of these disturbing thoughts.    What infuriated me was the fawning tone of the news commentators, men and women so caught in the moment of saying hopeful and praiseworthy things about the new president that they seemed to have forgotten the shameful price that Bush had been willing to pay to win office.

I am referring specifically to the horrific piece of race-baiting that the Republican campaign pursued in the Willy Horton attacks.   For those who may not remember it, these were filthy tactics in which the frightening mug-shot of a bearded black man – “every suburban housewife’s nightmare,” as the ad’s creator put it — was broadcast around the country to destroy Michael Dukakis’ candidacy.   Horton had been released for a weekend on a furlough program while Dukakis was governor, and during one of his absences from prison he brutally raped and stabbed two people.

The superficial point of the ad was Dukakis was soft on crime and thus somehow responsible for these acts.  The deeper – and racist — subtext was that Dukakis would not protect whites from the violently criminal impulses of black Americans.

It was slander, chosen specifically for its explosive content.   The most offensive television ad about Horton was made by Larry McCarthy, a former assistant to Roger Ailes, now the head of Fox News.  Information about the furlough program came from Andrew Card, a Massachusetts State Senator who later became George W. Bush’s chief of staff.   The Horton ad was powerful because when shown to focus groups it caused voters to shift from Dukakis to Bush almost instantaneously.  

Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manage said at the time that he intended to make Horton a household name, better known than his running mate.   In 1991, when Atwater was dying of cancer, he apologized to Dukakis for the whole tawdry event.   The apology was appropriate, but the damage had been done, because it, more than anything else, won the presidency for the first president Bush.

In 1989 the outrage of the Horton ad still burned in me, though on the day of the inauguration I felt like I was the only person who remembered it.   The sight of so many happy faces talking about the virtues of the new president seemed to confirm an elementary truth about American politics: shamelessness wins.  The pomp of the day seemed to proclaim that no matter how terrible one’s words or dishonorable one’s deeds, the amnesia that is one of America’s best – and worst – characteristics, would always reward those willing to wallow in slime.

On that rainy day this unhappy view pulled me away from the television set.   Instead, I walked over to the chapel of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.  This is a small Episcopal community of monks who live and worship in a monastery on the banks of the Charles River, tucked right in among the buildings of Harvard University.

I spent several hours in prayer, trying to rinse away my bitterness at the collective loss of memory, hoping that the day would come when our national capacity for amnesia could be put to better use and that America would find a new way to practice politics.

And then, two days ago, on Inauguration Day 2009, that day arrived.  Exactly twenty years later, I found myself not on my knees in a monastery but standing between the Reflecting Pool and the Capitol, watching, again, the miracle of renewal that is America at its best.  This time American amnesia was being put to it correct use. 

Though Obama himself was careful to honor the struggles of those who had gone before, the tens of millions who watched him take the oath were willing to cast aside the varied forms of personal and public anguish of the past.   Either they did not know what happened or they no longer cared.  Time had perhaps not healed all wounds, but it had healed enough.

And though we will certainly keep talking about race in American politics, everyone on the Mall, and in the country, and perhaps on the whole planet, understood that one question has forever been laid to rest.   

 For most of my life, the question was so powerful that it was almost never directly asked: when would America ever be ready to elect an African-American president?   And until two days ago, the answer could only be: a long, long time in the future.  So long that it was too painful to think about. 

 Now, abruptly, that moment is in the past.

 What is remarkable is that soon this reality will no longer be remarkable.  

My sons, who both voted this fall, are too young to remember Willy Horton.   Professors of modern American history teach about the massive wound of race that has festered for nearly four centuries, but the story of Horton and the campaign of 1988 has already been superseded by George H. W. Bush’s eventual loss to Bill Clinton, W’s abuse of patriotism as a weapon of electoral division, and finally, of course, the superlative transformation wrought by the election of 2008.

So standing on the mall, shoulder to shoulder with so many Americans, black and white, from all over the country, and of every age, many of whom had walked a long weary road over many years to stand next to each other in the frigid wind, I thought of another great historical transformation which I had witnessed, as an international observer at the South African elections in 1994 in South Africa. 

 I thought specifically of the marvelous passage from the memoir The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter by Albie Sachs, a long-time member of the African National Congress.  Though Sachs lost an eye and an arm to a car-bombing by the South African secret police, he returned to post-apartheid South Africa and became a justice of the new Constitutional Court (equivalent to our Supreme Court).  Standing in line at those same elections that I had witnessed, Sachs wondered:

Did things just happen, or did we make things come about?  I knew that nothing we were living through had just come to pass.  We had willed it all, worked for it, never given up, never let go of the basic ideas.  Yes, we had believed – belief had been fundamental – but we had backed it up with endless hard work, and learned how to do things together, and to accommodate the fears and interests of others, and to survive the sarcasm and disbelief of those who regarded themselves as more knowledgeable than ourselves about what they called the real world, and we just kept on going on and on until at last the impossible became first feasible, then real, and finally inevitable.

The presidency of Barack Obama is an idea that has made a similar transition – from impossible to feasible and now to real. 

We may not quite prepared to call it inevitable.  But we have crossed the boundary into the utterly astounding.  

More than once our nation – born in devotion to freedom — has lost complete track of its ideals, but now they have again been found.  And the future — for which we had longed, and to which many had been blind – is something that we have now seen.  

It has moved from unreasonable aspiration to unforgettable memory, from that which we could only perceive dimly to what we now have seen face to face.

/\/\ END /\/\


A New Birth of Freedom – An Advance Text of Obama’s First Inaugural (sort of)

In Politics on January 19, 2009 at 10:17 pm

 I know this is pretentious, but after writing my previous piece on presidential speaking, I thought I would try my hand at drafting my own guess of what Obama’s First Inaugural Address might include. I wrote this over the last 48 hours and I am posting it fourteen hours before we know what Obama’s speech actually contains. (Keep in mind that Obama has been on his speech with Jon Favreau for two months). I kept in mind that Barack Obama has been extremely disciplined about framing and retaining certain key themes, and these appear below. For the record: I have not read any of the articles that are predicting his themes. This is simply my own personal guess – one of many that one could – about the kinds of language we might hear. I look forward to hearing from you – and to seeing myself – how close I make it to the real mark.

My fellow Americans, I stand before you with both pride and humility as we prepare to take another step together on our great national journey.

When we began this improbable trip more than two years ago, I said that this was not about me. It was about you.

Two years I thought I knew this nation.  But, now, after traveling so many ribbons of highway and endless skyways, from some of our smallest towns to our greatest cities, from the majestic purple mountains and from sea to shining sea, I learned to love this country even more deeply than I knew was possible.

And I saw your faces. I heard your voices. I understand in new ways what we can do together.

We said that we would bring change to America. And we did.

We did so not by tearing down what was wrong, but by building up what is right. We have done so not but pulling us apart, but by bringing us together. We should pause for a moment to acknowledge the many who came before us who gave everything they had so that we could be here today, the heirs to their timeless commitment to freedom and to equality.

We remember those who conceived this nation in liberty and dedicated it to the proposition that we all are created equal. We remember those who devoted every waking hour and when necessary laid down their lives as a measure of their full devotion to this .

We remember those who walked the stony road, who carried the heavy burden, who spoke the truthful word, and who paid the fearful price. We honor them not through our power but through our promise to rededicate ourselves to the hope and the dream. They trusted in things they could not see, yet they kept on going. They faced terrible odds, but they kept on going. They held to the faith that this nation could, no matter what the obstacles, find the unity and the strength and the courage to pre We honor them all.

And now we must demonstrate that we are their rightful heirs to our ancestors by showing that now, in our time, in this place, in this nation, and at this time we too came together as one people and to take the next step down the road of liberty.

Now again, we face a time of great challenge and great change. The dark clouds of discontent and disruption have rolled across our skies.

We are a nation at war. We must find a path to peace. 

We are nation confounded by loss. We must return to the path of prosperity. We are a nation with a proud heritage, to whom others have looked for moral leadership, and we must strengthen that tradition.

In every thing we do we must carry before us the knowledge that despite our difficulties, we are not alone. We are not alone in this world in our struggles, nor are we alone in our commitment to resolve them. We know that despite the differences within this country and across this planet, every human being deserves and desires to be free from hunger, injustice, and oppression.

This is a long task that will not be completed by one person or within any one presidency. It is the never-ending task of the entire American people. We are standing at a crossroads, with many choices before us. We still have much to do and far to go. We are not afraid because we are full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
we are filled with the hope that the present has brought us.

We may grow weary, but we will not stop.

We may need to hold each other up, but we will never hold each other back.

We may falter, but we will never fail.

We can only make this improbable and demanding voyage if we do so as one people, bound by our common purpose, guided by our beloved constitution, proud of our shared identity as a united people in these United States.

We cannot do this alone. We must come together, dream together, strive  together again.

Our unity must flow not from our constant agreement, but from our mutual respect. It comes not from any one party or person, but from the process of democracy itself. It bubbles up from the ground and flows down from the mountaintop, rolling down like waters, bringing forth justice like an ever-flowing stream.

I commit myself in our urgent here and now to do all in my power, imperfect though I am, to lead us toward new birth of freedom. And today I call on you as well: will you join me in the next steps on our endless road to renewal?

Will you play the part that is uniquely yours in the unfolding story of America?

Will you accept the responsibility and the privilege and the courage and the joy that come from knowing that our beloved country is poised and ready to do what has never been done?

If you do, then I know that no matter what stands in our way, we will persist and we will prevail. The clouds will roll back, the dawn will shine forth, and we will stride together towards the light of our brighter future.

Thank you and God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Borrowing Words: Some Thoughts on Oral Tradition in Advance of Obama’s Speech

In Politics on January 15, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I have not read Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, which still lies a few days in the future, but I am confident that it will enter the pantheon of top ten inaugural addresses.   

And it will do this not only because he – and his team – will find wonderful and evocative new phrases, but because his speech will also resonate with old rhythms and references.  We will find ourselves moved not only because he will point us forward, but because he will also reach back in order to strike the mystic chords of memory deep in the American mind.

Sound at all familiar?

Most of those who love U.S. history will know already I borrowed the words of one President to compliment another.   Whose?  Lincoln’s – from the final sentence of his first inaugural address. 

We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory …will yet swell the chorus of the Union….

So – today’s question – was I plagiarizing Lincoln or was I relying on our common knowledge of the mighty code that shapes our national values and political culture?

The press always seems horrified when one person – particular a politician, who is assumed to be a hypocrite — is found to be using someone’s else words.   I understand the elementary moral logic of this – don’t steal someone else’s property.   But sometimes we all seem to lose control of the concept.   

Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have been through the mill of criticism on the use of other’s words.

When Barack Obama was criticized for his elevated rhetoric during his campaign, he turned around and rebutted the attacks with quotations from various major pieces of American literature, lightly mocking the idea that words were not important in and of themselves.

We hold these truths to be self-evident… just words.”  Ask not what your country can do for you, but you can do for your country … just words.” 

The problem for Obama was that this particularly brilliant formulation had originated not with him, but with Deval Patrick, our governor here in Massachusetts, a warm and wonderful speaker in his own right.   Patrick had invented and used the exact same phrasing several times towards the end of his campaign for governor of Massachusetts in 2006.   I heard Patrick myself roll out the phrases in a speech at Powderhouse Park in Somerville during the summer of that campaign.  

People attacked Obama for using Patrick’s words, even though Obama and Patrick are close friends, Patrick wanted him to use them, and Obama had inadvertently slipped – through the tedium of repetition — from carefully attributing the phrases to Patrick to simply using them.

Some will remember that when Joe Biden ran for President in 1988 he was forced to withdraw from the race after plagiarizing Neil Kinnock.   David Greenberg, writing in Salon at the end of August in 2008, put it this way

Biden’s downfall began when his aides alerted him to a videotape of the British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who had run unsuccessfully against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The tape showed Kinnock delivering a powerful speech about his rise from humble roots. Taken by the performance, Biden adapted it for his own stump speech. Biden, after all, was the son of a car salesman, a working-class kid made good. Kinnock’s material fit with the story he was trying to sell.

Greenberg goes on to attack Biden for other instances of plagiarism and uses these examples to question whether he had adequately been vetted.

I have been a university professor and I know that the unattributed use of others’ work is a serious problem, especially in the age of the Internet.  I am also the son of two authors who have made their livings carving sentences out of thin air – and who have both been plagiarized at different times.  So I don’t view it lightly.

At the same time, I am a preacher.  A good many of the words I have delivered in public have been expositions of other people’s words – most notably those of Jesus.  And I am mindful that in Jesus’ day and age, most people could not read and so the primary medium for communication was the spoken word.  And the more memorable that spoken word was, the better. 

Indeed, the gospels record the words and actions of Jesus preserved in the memories, compiled in different ways and different times, by people who had heard what Jesus had said.   Thus we have Jesus in Luke saying “Blessed are the poor” and in Matthew saying “Blessed are in poor in spirit.”

One major cultural transition that we have undergone is that many people no longer understand references to Biblical stories and language.  This gap allowed Mark Gerson to write skillful references into George Bush’s speeches that could be heard by religious conservatives as references to Christian hymns and scripture, while those same comments swept past other Americans unnoticed.

But this gap also makes for real confusion.

Quick – who said: “a house divided against itself cannot stand”?   Most people would say Lincoln.   And it’s true.  But he was quoting Jesus.

And who said: “Let justice roll down waters”?   Martin Luther King.  Yes, but he was quoting the prophet Amos.

And (for extra credit) who said “some people see things that are and ask ‘“why?”  I see things that never were and ask: “why not?’”  Bobby Kennedy?   Correct – but he was quoting George Bernard Shaw.

The media confusion that can build up about this is quite amusing.   The most loopy example of hysteria came this past summer from right-wing-absurdist-artist-cum-anchorman Steve Doocy, who accused Barack Obama of quoting Mario Cuomo “practically verbatim.”    On June 17, Jon Stewart brilliantly satirized Doocy’s looniness by putting up the two supposedly matching quotes and identifying that they shared exactly three words: “of”, “to”, and “we.”

But let’s take a look at a real string of verbal tradition.   Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention address is considered one of the greatest American speeches of the late 20th century.  This is an excerpt:

Ten days ago,  President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn’t understand that fear. He said, “Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.” And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill….

Mr. President … the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.

Cuomo was attacking Reagan’s use of the “city on the hill” imagery.  Reagan, in turn,  was quoting John Winthrop’s speech on board the Arabella before he landed in Massachusetts in 1630.   And Winthrop was in turn quoting the Sermon on the Mount – thus, again, Jesus.

This is not plagiarism.  This is a cultural conversation over several centuries.   In holding a conversation within such a community, we rely on shared knowledge that is rooted in phrases and stories.   That’s one reason comedy is so hard to translate – to appreciate a joke, we often have to understand the rich context in which it sits.

The problem of drawing the line between plagiarism and oral tradition is particularly acute when it comes to telling stories.  When I heard that Donald Neale Walsh had been criticized for using someone else’s touching story about a Christmas pageant, I thought, “uh oh, that sounds bad.” 

But then I realized that I tell dozens of stories of unknown origin.  I don’t say that they happened to me.   But I can no longer remember exactly where I heard them.

Indeed, when I first started preaching more than two decades ago I realized that I desperately needed good stories to spice up my thin theological perspectives.  So I began to collect anecdotes.  When I heard a good tale, I wrote it down.  And being an earnest scholar, I often tried to record the source.  Often that was unsatisfying.   I had heard the story on the radio.  I had heard someone tell it at a dinner party.  I had read it in a waiting room in a doctor’s office.

As I told the stories over the years, I gradually reshaped them.  I figured out what moved people, where the emphasis should lie, how the punch-line should be framed.  And, in doing so, many of these stories became like old friends who I can bring forward and introduce to new people.   Yet through years of doing this, I know no longer remember how to attribute them. 

And the truth is that no one, sitting at a dinner table, would want me to take the time  to share the detailed provenance of every anecdote or illustration.   It would look like – and be – pure pedantry.

Telling good stories is a waning art.  Abraham Lincoln was superb at it.   It would be a shame if people killed off this lovely form because they were anxious about being blamed for having told something that began somewhere else.  Almost everything begins somewhere else.  

Of course, I still follow a few rules.  I don’t say that things happened to me that did not take place.   I don’t quote people directly without attribution.   But I do make references – clumsy or clever, silly or sly – to things that other people have said, including people in the Bible or people in politics or even people in my own family.  This is how culture is created and passed on.  We share our words and our stories and pass them on to each other, across the oceans and down through the ages. 

There is nothing wrong, and much that is good, with that.


/\/\ END /\/\


How Obama Detoured Around the South

In Politics, Things I Wrote Before on January 12, 2009 at 3:59 am

Before we say a complete goodbye to the campaign, I wanted to make one more “electoral college” comment. I posted this on Facebook just before I decided to start a new blog.

More than one commentator has noticed that Barack Obama has so far drawn few cabinet members and senior staff from the South. His choices may simply be the result of the complex balancing act required by appointments. It also may represent a more noticeable shift away from a region that has dominated presidential politics for more than 60 years.

This year Democrats won the White House for the first time since 1944 (when Roosevelt ran with Truman) without a Southerner on the ticket. Since that election in the middle of World War II, the Democratic party has felt the obligation to offer a Southerner as president or vice-president in every electoral contest, with only one exception (1972). Truman brought in Alban Barkeley of Kentucky in 1948. Stevenson tapped John Sparkman of Alabama in 1952 and then Estes Kefauver of Tennessee in 1956. Kennedy turned to Lyndon Johnson of Texas in 1960. When Kennedy died, Lyndon Johnson became the first Southern president in a century, in bizarre imitation of his long-ago namesake, Andrew Johnson, who had also risen to power after Lincoln’s assassination.

When Lyndon Johnson was re-elected in the landslide of 1964, the South had been reliably Democratic – with the exception of the special circumstance of Reconstruction – for more than 130 years. In 1968, however, the segregationist George Wallace, governor of Alabama, ran as an independent and began to undermine these traditional Democratic ties. That same year, Richard Nixon, who had lost to Kennedy in 1960 when African-Americans deserted the ‘party of Lincoln’ over civil rights, paid them back by initiating the infamous “southern strategy,” an appeal to racial anxieties that eventually lured millions of conservative whites and transformed the former slave states into Republican strongholds.

From then on winning the South gradually came to be seen as the key to the White House, especially for Democrats, especially after the McGovern-Shriver experiment of 1972 went down to a crushing defeat. After that Democrats felt obliged to place a southerner somewhere on the ticket, preferably at the top.

Jimmy Carter won his primaries and the general election with the help of newly engaged southern Christians (few people today remember that TIME magazine declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical” because of this victory). In 1988 Al Gore of Tennesee fell short of the nomination because his Super Tuesday cluster of Southern states fell to a three-way split with Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis; when Dukakis emerged as the nominee he unsuccessfully tried to nail down a general election victory with Texan Lloyd Bentsen. Bill Clinton then doubled up on the Dixie strategy by embracing Al Gore as his running mate in 1992 — and won.

In 2000 Americans had two Southerners running for President – Texas governor George W. Bush challenged Vice President Gore, who was running nationally for the fourth time. Bush skidded unevenly through the campaign using coded language to signal his trustworthiness to conservatives in the south and west while insisting that to everyone else that he was ideologically a uniter and centrist. Both Gore’s popular vote majority and his court-determined electoral college loss offered early signals of the erosion of the South’s singular power at the ballot box. We know that Bush officially won Florida by only 537 votes. We forget that If 3,600 votes had switched sides in New Hampshire, neither the hanging chads of Florida nor the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote would have mattered.

In 2004 John Kerry attempted the Dixie play again, with John Edwards of North Carolina, but was turned aside by voters in Ohio, a famously split state whose southern counties are often more conservative than parts of its neighbor to the south, Kentucky.

This past November – for only the second time in 64 years – we witnessed what could happen if there were no Southerner anywhere on a national ticket. In 2008 McCain came out the West (Arizona), while his running mate Sarah Palin represented the even more far-flung parts of America – as well as Alaska. With Barack Obama at the top of the ticket anchoring the northern cities and reaching out to the upper Midwest (MI, WI MN, OH), Joe Biden was the closest thing to a Southerner to be found, though Biden spoke of his roots in Pennsylvania at least as often as he mentioned his border state home in Delaware.

Of course, Obama’s victory signified the convergence of many factors and it would certainly be premature to suggest that the South’s role in American politics has permanently been diminished. Yet the raw strangeness of Obama’s accomplishment, when set in its historical context, provides considerable opportunity for reflection.

Obama will not only be the first African-American president, but also the heir to the mid-western tradition of Abraham Lincoln, and the standard bearer of the former political party of the Confederacy, which steadily built up northern support through Cleveland, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, all the while retaining its Southern strength. Obama will enter the White House as the first northern Democratic president in nearly 50 years, and will have done so with a two-to-one electoral college victory that included only a handful of Southern states (VA, NC, and FL).

Before we turn to weighing the challenge that our new president faces, we should pause to recall the magnitude of what he has already achieved. Though surmounting the barrier of race is clearly the most astonishing, we would do well to recall some of the geographic obstacles Obama overcame. America has had Republican presidents for 28 of the last 40 years – more than two-thirds of the time. For 12 of those 28 years we were ruled by men from one family, the seemingly unstoppable Bushes, whose Bible belt strength came in part from running for president or vice president six times (every cycle from 1980 to 2004, with the exception of 1996). The only successful avenue open to Democrats – judging from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – seemed to be to draw a nominee from the South.

Guided by a truly new political GPS system, Obama took another route. His road trip to the White House was exceptional not only because he took many new people with him, but because along the way he redrew the map.

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Infrastructure spending for families

In Business and Sustainability, Politics, Things I Wrote Before on January 12, 2009 at 3:48 am

This is an op-ed that appeared in several forms on the Internet and was published in the Boston Globe on December 13

Barack Obama  intends to invest in public infrastructure and boost green technologies. These powerful ideas should be more directly connected.As many have noted – such as the newly established Green Justice Coalition – we could solve many problems at once by stopping the waste of energy and dollars flooding out of American homes.

Think of this as “infrastructure spending for American families.”We need to break free from our paralysis. When energy prices rise, we can’t afford efficiency improvements. When prices drop, the payback seems too long. This is the business-crushing vacillation between “shock and trance” to which Obama referred two weeks ago.

So how do we make repairs despite fluctuations in the price of oil and gas? The solution is simple and elegant: The state could set up a leveraged investment fund to help families make changes immediately.

Here’s how it would work. The state would allocate a small amount of money to guarantee a fixed interest rate for private investors. Sixty million dollars would be enough to pay a mouth-watering 6 percent on $1 billion. The money would be disbursed at zero percent to anyone willing to make an investment in insulation or heating systems. Renters could split the benefits with owners. The loans would be paid back directly from the savings.

Such a program would achieve five goals at once.

First, it would create local jobs – from blowing insulation and training energy auditors to installing super-efficient boilers. These jobs would swiftly pay back the original investment by government, since workers would pay both state and federal taxes. There would be an additional multiplier effect as both families and workers had more money to spend. And $1 billion could generate as many as 10,000 jobs in Massachusetts. It would also reinvigorate training and other youth programs such as YouthBuild.

Second, it would improve housing values. We have efficiency stickers on appliances; why not on houses? States should fix this through mandatory disclosure of the likely energy costs – or savings – of any home for sale. An energy audit would thus become a routine part of routine home inspections. Homes with upgraded efficiency would instantly be worth more.

Third, it would increase disposable income for families. Right now the state scrambles every winter to find millions for fuel assistance. Economically this is like burning crumpled dollar bills to keep poor people warm. Morally it holds low- and middle-income families hostage to the profit demands of energy companies. It would make far more sense to invest some of those dollars in permanent change to cut energy use.

Fourth, it would bring new technologies rapidly to scale. Did you know that you can install a one-cylinder co-generation unit – known as the Freewatt system – in your basement that creates hot water, heat, and slices your electric bill?

One homeowner in Somerville insulated his house and dug a 250-foot well in his tiny backyard. He uses the stable temperature of the ground water to heat and cool his house for less than $150 a month. There are many revolutionary technologies ahead, but to bring the unit costs down, you have to push the volume up.

Fifth, it will drive down greenhouse gas emissions. In Massachusetts, approximately 1 million homes burn nearly a billion gallons of heating oil every winter. Cutting emissions from this single sector by 25 percent would lower Massachusetts emissions by at least 3 million tons a year.

Is this really possible? Yes. We need the Patrick administration to set visionary residential energy-efficiency targets, which so far it has failed to do. And we need President-elect Obama to take his two good ideas – investment in infrastructure and green technology – and press them into one.

It will not help American families over the long run if we get to drive down big roads in new cars, only to park them in front of cold houses.

The most fundamental infrastructures for individuals and families are the places we live. We have the ability to create savings that will last for generations while safeguarding our planet.

The question now is whether we can muster the will.

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We Become What We Believe

In Things I Wrote Before on January 12, 2009 at 2:14 am

Response to Boryana Dumyanova Award,  February 24, 2008

Boryana Dumyanova was an overseas student at the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership who died tragically in a pedestrian accident in Somerville.   Her program established this honor in her name, and I was privileged to be the first recipient.

I want to express my deep gratitude to Sherman Teichman, Marcy Murninghan, Bruce Male, Hannah Flamm, and all the faculty and students here at Tufts. Thank all of you for coming. It is a deep honor and a balm to my soul to be the recipient of the Boryana Dumyanova Award.

Ten days ago I had the privilege of attending the Third Institutional Investor Summit on Climate Risk at the United Nations. I would never have believed that such an event could have taken place except that I saw it with my own eyes. Indeed, I imagined it in my own mind, long before it was a reality, in 2002.

Early on the morning after the meeting, I went for a swim in the pool on the 27th floor of the hotel. The sun was rising over the East River, behind UN headquarters, and the light flooded through the glass and made the water around me glow.

I thought about what a peculiar privilege it was to be a mammal swimming in 280,000 pounds of warm water suspended three hundred feet above the ground.

I thought, as I do every day, about why we require so many human beings to live under inhuman conditions so that a so few of us can live in real comfort.

I thought, as I do every day, about how strange it is that we are willing, as a society, to pee such gigantic amounts of carbon dioxide into the swimming pool of our atmosphere. 

How could we imagine that such foul behavior would not wreck our earth, that it would not, if unchecked, destroy all but those wealthy and shameless enough to dodge the consequences of this collective folly?(1) 

We are taught — falsely — that we must accept injustice because of the physical limits of the earth. 

We accept — wrongly — that what is defines what will be. 

We think that we are confined by our material conditions, but I believe that we are mostly hemmed in by our lack of dreams. Too many people – big people, fancy people, powerful people — have entered the 21st century with 19th century buckets covering their heads. You must help them remove those buckets. That is what Bory would want you to do. You must push them to look at (2) the world we actually live in – and the world it could become. 

Take the field of clean energy. Five years ago, at the time of the first Institutional Investor Summit, few fiduciaries or money managers had even begun to consider whether the largest physical changes in the history of human civilization would have any impact on their portfolios. Their attitude was: we never had to think about it before, so we do we have to think about it now? 

Now investors worth $15 trillion (3) are beginning to examine the structural absurdity of what Al Gore correctly calls their “subprime carbon investments” and the immense financial opportunities that will arise as the world moves into mind-boggling new technologies. (4)

A McKinsey Global Institute report released last week estimates that the cost of achieving dramatic efficiencies in greenhouse emissions would be $170 billion a year globally. (5) This might seem like a large number until one remembers that this is about the same amount as the stimulus package passed at high speed, without hearings, by a panicky Congress. 

What transformations will be possible in the future? We will only find out if we dream the biggest possible dreams.

The United States, the United Nations, the Investor Summit, the swimming pool in the sky – all of these were realities that began as ideas. If there is one motto that I would like you to write down and to pin by your bedsides so that you see it every morning when you wake up, it is this: reality follows ideas. 

The Internet seemed huge and untamable until just ten years ago when two graduate students at Stanford wondered if it would be possible to index not just a few things, but everything. (6) Then we had Google.

When the discussion of hydrogen fuel cell cars first came up at the beginning of the decade, leaders and journalists scoffed at the idea of converting 120,000 gas stations at a potential cost of $1,000,000 each – 120 billion dollars! [7] Then we spent more than four times that amount — $500 billion and counting — on the war in Iraq.  [8]

What lies ahead? It depends on whether you can imagine swimming in the sky.

I believe you will see everyone’s individual genome on the Internet. Will that mean liberation from sickness or a harsh new regime of profit-driven discrimination that punishes the ill for their inherited disease? (9)

I believe that you will see the majority of the world’s population gain access not only to each other but to the entire intellectual genome of our species — in other words, education for everyone everywhere for free.

As we move to an entirely new energy economy, we will need to concentrate some power production in specific places, though we must remember that concentrated systems are always vulnerable to pollution and terrorism, corruption and collapse. We must also disperse new forms of energy and technology directly into the human communities that need it. 

When post-apartheid South Africa wanted to give telephone service to millions, they realized that they could skip laying phone lines and go straight to cellular. (10)

We see that kind of leap-frogging all around us. China is building 40 new cities in the next ten years and every single building in every city may have high-speed wireless Internet. (11) Those buildings could control their internal temperature the way in a similar manner to the way our brains control temperature in our bodies, creating a whole new universe of efficiency, savings, and prosperity. Or they could watch our every move.

One brilliant couple is designing phosphorescent cloth that absorbs sunlight during the day and releases it during the night. (12) With this there is no need for C02 emitting power plants or high voltage lines that cut through the rainforest. Do you need to read in the dark? Unfold the cloth. Do you want to go to sleep? Roll it up. (13)

Another group of scientists is tapping kinetic energy through a light knee brace that captures the forward motion of walking. Humans eat food created through sunlight, then translate that food into calories and movement. That movement, if captured in the brace, could create enough electricity to power cell phones or pace makers, or heat the body in cold climates, or run a small computer, even a small business. (14) 

A team of students responding to a $5,000 challenge from seem to have to solved the problem of transporting, filtering, and storing clean water for poor people through a cheap tricycle. The container is built into the frame of the trike. The pedaling power pushes the water through a filter and into a reservoir in front of the handlebars, where it can be stored away from contamination by larvae or bacteria – until the person needs to bike back for more. (15)

There are millions more such ideas imbedded in your minds and of those around you.

Will such inventions move us forward or backward? We will reverse poverty and climate change — or will we accelerate them? That depends on our mental and moral commitments – your mental and moral commitments.

Every one of you sitting here is harboring dozens of viruses that are being suppressed by your invisible immune systems. (16) If your invisible immune system failed, you would rapidly be covered, for example, by very visible warts. This suppression is an unconscious gift from our ancestors. Similarly, every day we make choices that support or suppress the moral immune systems of our society. 

Do we seek security – or do we seek justice? 

Do we blame – or do we forgive?

Do we live in anxiety – or do we love in freedom?

It will be up to you – and people like you — whether tomorrow’s inventions will be stolen by the cruel and the powerful — or employed to achieve prosperity and democracy for all.

Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, recently told an interviewer that poverty exists because human beings have accepted — and continue to accept — the idea of poverty. “You create what you imagine,” he said. (17) 

Reality follows ideas.

In sum: most of the choices ahead will not be driven but what lies outside in the physical work, but what lives inside our hearts and spirits. 

If we become what we believe,   then what will you choose?


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The Rev. Dr. Robert Kinloch Massie ( is the founder of the Global Reporting Initiative (, the former executive director of Ceres (; and the one of the originators of the Investor Network on Climate Risk ( He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


1) Speech given by Dr. John Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Professor of Earth and Planetary Science, Harvard University; Director, Woods Hole Research Institute; Chairman, American Academy for the Advancement of Science  – soon to be appointed President Obama’s chief science advisor – see




5) Diana Farrell, “The Case for Investing in Energy Productivity,” McKinsey Global Institute, released February 14, 2008 –

[6] Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, “The Anatomy of A Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, Stanford University 1998 – original paper still posted at




10) “Infrastructural Investment in Long-run Economic Growth: South Africa 1875-2001”. J.W. Fedderkea, P. Perkinsb and J.M. Luizb _aUniversity of Cape Town, South Africa_bUniversity of the Witwatersrand, South Africa _Accepted 9 November 2005. Available online 5 April 2006. World Development Volume 34, Issue 6, June 2006 

11)“Cisco to network whole cities” by Kevin Allison in San Francisco, site; Dec 23, 2007 
“Cisco Systems, the world’s biggest maker of data networking equipment, plans to launch a business group, based in Bangalore, India, that will wire new buildings and even entirely new cities with state-of-the-art networking technology… China estimates it will need to build 40 cities over the next 10 years to accommodate migration of workers from the countryside.”

12) Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich of Kennedy Violich

13); for an interview with Sheila Kennedy about application and acceptance among Mexico’s Huichol populution, see



16); see many other Google references under “verruca” and “immune suppression”


Additional note: The title of the talk comes from the concluding paragraph of  Robert Kinloch Massie, Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years [New York: Nan Talese – Doubleday, 1998]

What Surfing Can Teach Us About Managing the Unexpected

In Business and Sustainability on January 5, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I originally posted this in November on the Harvard Business Review blog – this was my first effort for them, after they invited me earlier in the fall – Posted by Bob Massie on November 17, 2008 8:31 AM; Originally posted at Harvard Business Review

Five years ago, right after the collapse of Enron, World Com, and the other mega-collapses of the Lost Decade, I attended a somber discussion at Harvard Business School. Three distinguished panelists — Harvey Goldschmidt, at the time a commissioner of the SEC; James Turley, the chairman and CEO of KPMG; and Professor Krishna Palepu, director of the HBS Division of Research — spent more than an hour before an audience of several hundred concerned business leaders dissecting two questions.

First, how could these collapses have happened? And second, why didn’t people perceive it in advance?

At the end of the discussion, I asked a question from the floor. Were we not neglecting a third, equally important question: what huge, hard-to-see and potentially threatening wave was roaring towards us at that very moment?

The question did not inspire much discussion, though in retrospect we all can think of emerging tsunamis that later emerged — from wobbly securitization and ballooning credit default swaps to erratic energy demand and deepening climate risk — that have damaged our economy.

What lessons can we draw from this repetitive myopia to which we are all inclined? More specifically, how can we learn to anticipate what lies around the next bend in the road?

First, we should acknowledge that capitalism oscillates between two conflicting convictions. We believe that the future will be like the past and that change is inevitable.

Too often when markets run into problems, we start off with the first assumption. We treat market malfunctions as isolated symptoms– a momentary cold rather than a chronic illness. Only after the symptoms recur — again, again, and again — do we start to accept that there may be a pattern. Then we suddenly switch, often abruptly, to the second view: we are in the midst of a sea-change.

Statisticians want us to believe that behaviors all revert to the mean. Entrepreneurs want us to believe that the past is irrevocably being left behind. Efficient market theorists tell us the prices embody all available knowledge. Scientists tell us that knowledge is constantly being expanded and rewritten. So what is a leader interested in the future to do?

Second, to predict the future, we paradoxically need to read more about the past. Only by learning about how societies have pivoted rapidly in response to new ideas and changing material conditions can we learn to detect such patterns early.

For example, when I was a high school student, the single greatest certainty in American foreign policy — the assumption from which all other predictions flowed — was that Communist totalitarianism would be a permanent feature of the world map. There would always be a Soviet Union, and, by extension, a Warsaw Pact, a Cold War. Our military, political, diplomatic, and commercial policies all flowed from this inescapable certainty. And this view was maintained until just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To go back a bit farther, it’s difficult to remember that New England, now almost entirely represented by Democratic elected officials, was once a vast and unassailable Republican peninsula. Or that the American South was made up for nearly a century of right-wing, states-rights, white supremacist Democrats — members of the same party that gradually morphed, from Wilson to Roosevelt and from Kennedy to Clinton, into the one that just nominated and elected an African-American president.

More strange twists and turns in our national and international economy lie ahead. We know that our capital markets failed us because they didn’t capture important underlying forms of value — but we don’t know what they will be replaced by. We know that we are witnessing deep structural changes in the global economy — through the globalization of information and trade, through climate change and population growth — but we don’t yet know how these pieces will interconnect. We know that big pieces of the wisdom we have inherited about how the world works don’t apply any more — but we don’t know which ones.

Instead of paddling around in circles as though we were in some calm lake, we need to learn to act like surfers — to place ourselves in the rising and falling swells, paddling forward while glancing occasionally backwards, so that we will be ready when the big wave comes. If we do that, we will stand up at the right moment, establish our balance, take a deep breath, and ride the exhilarating force of history all the way to shore.

Bob Massie has been a leading innovator in the fields of investment, finance, corporate responsibility and global strategy. Having received his doctorate from Harvard Business School in 1989, he has been, at different moments in his career, a professor, minister, historian, author, and statewide political candidate. The former executive director of Ceres and the co-founder of the Global Reporting Initiative, Massie is currently an advisor to many organizations and entrepreneurial projects around the world.

A Pre-election Post: Complacency Is The New Enemy

In Politics, Things I Wrote Before on January 1, 2009 at 11:56 am
An old posting from October 2008:

I wrote this soon after I joined Facebook and posted it there.  I also mailed it about two dozen friends.  I had the privilege of hearing back from two of the people I mentioned — Mike Dukakis and John Kerry — thanking me for writing it.  And several people told me that the piece motivated them (or friends of theirs) to go door-to-door in a swing state in the weeks before the election.

Complacency is the New Enemy
by Bob Massie
Whatever the polls may show, there is something ugly stirring under the surface of the American pond. The vitriolic and shameful language that has been flowing at Republican rallies and in campaign ads are signs of desperation and rage. These words are dangerous and troubling.  

What is even more troubling — in my view — is that now, in the final days of the campaign, too many people are taking their eyes off the prize.

I am worried that because of the rising polls many who favor a new direction for this nation and who want Barack Obama to become president are becoming complacent. 

Why do I think this? I am finding it harder to recruit people to go to New Hampshire, where a handful of votes once determined the outcome of a previous election and could do so again.

I am finding that many of our beloved friends at church and in other activist organizations seems blissfully content to pursue a normal schedule right up until the election. Many people in my community and around the country seem to be relaxing at exactly the wrong moment. 

Everyone seems confident that the odious attacks on Barack Obama about Bill Ayers or Jeremiah Wright or his middle name or his views on abortion will not work. They are being encouraged in this view by the press and the pundits.

But I know from experience that slander works. Just down the street from me, where I get my hair cut, there is a small business populated by solid, working class Democratic Americans — employees and customers — who remain rattled by the claim that Obama is a secret Muslim.

Indeed I am old enough to have seen preposterous lies achieve their awful ends in American politics – not once, but three times.

I remember thinking in 1988 when Michael Dukakis seemed comfortably ahead in the polls that the Willy Horton attacks were so patently revolting that they could not possibly affect the outcome of the election. 

I was wrong.

I remember thinking in 2000 that accusing of Al Gore of being a “liar” was an absurd distortion. I understood the some voters might not like Al Gore as much as I did and do, but surely a man who had worked faithfully for his country as a veteran, a congressman, a senator, a vice president — a man who understood more about policy and science than anyone ever to have held that office — surely he could not be dismissed simply as a “liar.”

I was wrong.

In the late summer of 2004 I was sitting at an outdoor seafood restaurant in Maine, and I found myself sitting next to a bunch of young white mothers sitting around a picnic table chatting as their half-dozen tow-headed children clammered for ketchup and french fries. To my astonishment as I was getting from my meal I overheard them telling each other that my friend John Kerry was a traitor. 

They were accusing a man who had been wounded three times in battle — who had turned his boat around in the midst of a firefight in order to pull a drowning Marine to safety as bullets whizzed by his head — of being a coward and a threat to the United States. These women were smugly reinforcing the lies they had heard in a Swift Boat ad, that were printed in a defamatory book on sale that week at Wal-Mart, and that were being repeated in thousands of television commercials funded by right-wing extremists around the country. 

I almost walked over and spoke to them. I had been to New Hampshire many times for this campaign. At the time these claims seemed as shocking and meritless as anything we are hearing from Sarah Palin’s depressing speeches today. Surely, I thought, such slander could not determine the outcome of this election. I told myself that speaking to them might reinforce, not alter, their views.

I was wrong.

Three times I did not believe that the American voting public would not be swayed by the flat-out lies that were being advanced about decent and patriotic candidates for the presidency.

And three times I was wrong. 

I don’t want to be wrong again. 

Nor do you.

So I am asking each of you individually: what are you doing to contribute to this victory? Not someone else. You. 

Barack Obama has done everything we could possibly have asked of him. He has behaved with poise, courage, tenacity, passion, and dignity. Now we must respond in kind.

I am sure he appreciates whatever you have done so far. But the past is over.

We are now talking about what you will do in the next 23 days. Call voters? Go to a swing state? Walk door to door and ask your fellow Americans, from your heart, for their support? 

Whatever you are planning to do, you must do more. You owe it to your country. 

Look at your calendar and cut out everything that is not essential to your livelihood and loved ones. 

Then get busy. Now.

I am sorry if you find this annoying. I am sorry if you don’t want to hear from me on e-mail or on the phone as I continue my calling. I will have four years to win back your favor if it all turns out all right. 

But if Obama loses, then you will find yourself, to use the Biblical phrase, sitting in sackcloth and ashes, grieving that you did not do more. I am trying to spare all of us from that misery.

Think of what will happen if between now and election day a) someone fires at Obama or b) someone shoots down a US airliner or c) blows up a school bus and then d) McCain wins and Palin becomes president. 

We must do everything possible to nail this victory down. We have moved past the point where we are discussing the merits of the candidates. This is now a referendum on our identity as a nation and on our own capacity and maturity as citizens. 

George W. Bush now has less than 100 days in office. When he departs, the worst presidency since Reconstruction (as the New Yorker put it) – and possibly since the beginning of the American Republic — will come to an end. What happens next is up to us. 

We must intensify the effort for the next three weeks and two days. 

Stop relaxing. Stop thinking this is someone else’s job. Stop thinking that you can rely on the efforts of others. The responsibility is squarely on you and me.

We need not only to win but to win by the widest possible margin so that the ugliness of this campaign is repudiated decisively and permanently. The people running McCain’s campaign – Davis, Schmidt, Rove, Eskew, and all of the ugly manipulators who somewhere along their moral development road shed the capacity for decency — must be considered toxic to all future campaigns and candidates.

If they win, we will sink into the cesspool of their kind of politics for the rest of our lives, because it will have been proven that their path is the path to victory.

Perhaps when this is all over and Obama has won a large victory you will be able to pat me on the back and smile at me and say — “you see, Bob, you were wrong.”

Three times I assumed the best, and I was mistaken. Now I have flipped and I am assuming despite the positive signs we are still in real danger. 

I am willing to be wrong again.

I am urging you, imploring you — and daring you — to prove that I am.

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Beginning a new form of expression

In Uncategorized on January 1, 2009 at 11:30 am

Over the past few months I have been experimenting with writing things for different blogs and social networks and I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that I had accumulated a fair amount of stuff in a relatively short amount of time — but it is dispersed all over the Internet.   I wrote several comments leading up to the election that were circulated; I wrote a blog entry for Harvard Business Review; I wrote a short opinion piece on energy efficiency that ran in the Boston Globe (and on several blogs, in slightly different versions).   

Then my sons  gave me a book on blogging for Christmas and I thought – hey, why not?  Let’s put this material somewhere in the same place.   I have another website at, but that was designed several years to give our friends and relations insight into the on-going medical saga that I am slogging through.   I don’t think that people who are checking that site really want to know about my views on theology or politics or sustainability or education or corporate governance or the other issues that I find myself thinking about.   And I don’t think that someone reading about those issues necessarily wants to be dragged through the tediousness of my long wait for a liver transplant (you can read up on it if you like).   

In addition, it seems that Facebook is really for lighter fare — a couple of times I posted things there that seem to run counter to the very entertaining quips and personal details that I have enjoyed.   

So what to do?  The light bulb finally went off — start yet ANOTHER way to communicate online.   It seemed excessive at first — how many avenues does one person need — but then again it seemed worth an experiment.

Thus I am launching myself out into the deep, not knowing what I may pull out of the sea.

Before I sign off, a comment about the title:

I chose “What’s the Big Idea?” because of the nice double entendre.   I love big ideas and I hope to be writing about them.  And I also have a long, long, long history of raising questions in places and venues where they have not always been welcome, at least at first, thus eliciting this indignant response.  So you can take the title in other way — as my desire to point to new thoughts in this amazing world of ours or my belief that some questions need to be discussed even if sometimes it doesn’t seem like the perfectly right time or place.   

Let the experiment begin…

And please tell me what you think!