Walking (and Stumbling) with Martin

President Obama gave the following sermon at a D.C. Church on January 17th. His Sunday text has historical interest since it hints the President wasn’t ready to hear the hard news from Massachusetts where Scott Brown would win Teddy Kennedy’s old senate seat two days later. But Obama’s speech is worth more than a snarky look back. While it underscores his over-confidence about the prospects of passing health insurance reform, it also speaks to what keeps America’s parties of hope alive. Take it as one true story behind the key line in the closing graph of his (much duller) State of the Union speech: “I don’t quit.”

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Who’s To Blame? (II)

Right after the Massachusetts debacle, Bernard Avishai published a short post on “Who’s to Blame” at his website BERNARD AVISHAI DOT COM. Avishai spoke as someone “marinated” in Massachusetts politics who wondered at Coakely’s grudging (“forced and fake”) nods to Obamacare. He argued: “The real question Democrats have to ask themselves is: how come the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare is something a progressive Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy’s seat has to speak so defensively about.” Talking Points Memo linked to Avishai’s post and it sparked argument. Here’s Avishai’s response to his critics.

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All and Nothing

Fr. Rick Frechette is a Passionist priest-doctor (and FIRST contributor) who has been working in Haiti for a generation, running hospitals and social programs in Port-au-Prince as well as a Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos orphanage on the outskirts of the capital. One of the two hospitals he directs was destroyed by the earthquake. (Two medical volunteers from the U.S. died there.) The other, newer, state-of-the-art hospital, was damaged but it’s functioning. NBC reported on the work being done there last month. The reporter noted Fr. Rick had been taking care of his dying mother in Connecticut when the earthquake hit. She insisted he return to Haiti. He went back and forth, returning to U.S. in time to be with his mother as she died. He’s now in Port-au-Prince again and he’s updated friends and donors on the situation there. Please consider donating to Fr. Frechette’s hospital and orphanage.

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Two Nations

“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

Disraeli published Sybil, or The Two Nations in 1845, when his two nations were very famously the rich and the poor. The thought the phrase encapsulates is in part obsolete, for modern societies combine increasing economic inequality with a striking amount of cultural egalitarianism via a pervasive mass culture. In another respect, the phrase is very far from obsolete. A little over a year ago Elizabeth Samet published a fascinating book about a meeting of two nations between whom there is nowadays disturbingly little intercourse and sympathy: American military officers, and academics who have very confident opinions about what military officers are like.

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My Summer Vacation in Afghanistan

My first time in Afghanistan was late winter 1968/69, making the Overland Trail fast as possible through howling cold of Central Asian steppes. Minibus from Mashhad to Heart, arriving at the border crossing: dark, dusty, cold and bleak (Later I was to discover that somehow Afghan border-crossings were always dark dusty cold bleak, even on nice summer days.) Busload of hippies pulls up at the checkpoint. Suddenly a huge Afghan officer with bristling mustaches and fierce scowl thrusts himself into the bus: “Any you got hashish?,” he screamed.

Chorus of “No,” “No,” “Not me,” “Not me, sir”—squeaky and scared. What the hell?!

“Sssooo…” hissed the officer, reaching menacingly into his jacket…”You like to buy?” He whipped out a chunk of hash the size of a loaf of Wonder Bread. “Very good, grade-A Afghani.”

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A Piece from “The 14 Ounce Pound”

Nat Finkelstein, who died earlier this month, contributed photographs and prose to “First.” He’s best known for his 60s pictures of Warhol’s Factory (such as the one above), but his life was bigger than his images. This piece, “Kandahar, 1971”, about his time in Afghanistan is from his memoir, “The 14 Ounce Pound.” (You can read another chapter here.) Nat knew this hunk of his past was pretty far gone, but he wondered if Afghanistan has “changed much in the past 1200 years.”

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How I Became a Writer (Pt. 1)

Brandeis accepted me on a Thursday, May, 1960. Friday, it dropped football. I had two varsity letters. I should have read the sign. I was leaving a land that valued touchdowns and jump shots for a preserve where the only score that brought respect was your G.P.A. “A place,” said Don Nussbaum, a disgruntled power forward from Rockville Center, “run by the first ones out in dodgeball.”

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At Ease in Azania

Charles O’Brien’s “At Ease in Azania” was originally printed 20 years ago in an obscure (and now defunct) journal. It will be reprinted this fall in the next volume of “First of the Year”. O’Brien’s piece begins with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” but it rock and rolls back to the 60s before returning to the Motherland to show how pop music may “exist in its time justly.”

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