Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sound and Fury

There is a tactic that has been employed lately when the ethics or intelligence of our elected leaders is questioned. Our sitting president used it effectively when asked by Bill O'Reilly how he could respect a dictator and alleged killer like Vladimir Putin. The response was: "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"

It is an argument meant to stop the opposition dead in its tracks by turning the question back on the one who asked it, without ever answering it. It is a discussion stopper, not only because it's a pivoting over-statement and a deflective non-response, but because it makes the opposition appear naive, or unprepared, or un-American. It is "sound and fury" -- a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

I don't mind when someone who disagrees with me shares an opposing view. Discussion is the first step to understanding, and understanding is the first step to compromise. Compromise, regardless of what extremists on either end of the political spectrum might think, is a good thing. Compromise is the no-kill zone where reasonable people who disagree meet to fashion an existence in which both can survive and thrive, each having bent a little for the other's needs, preferences or beliefs.

Extremists, by definition, do not compromise, which is why they best serve any culture as outliers, yelling demands and threats from the cheap seats while moderates set the rules and play the game. In recent years, we've seen what happens when extremists rush the field. The rhythm of the game is broken and all progress grinds to a halt. And why? Because extremists don't back down. They don't acquiesce. They find fault in good sportsmanship, demonize their opposition, and label those among their ranks who are willing to compromise for reasonable gain as traitors to their extremist cause. They prize loyalty to their socio-political dogma over loyalty to country and they draw out the very worst characteristics in their support base by using paranoia, fear and prejudice as siren calls.

Extremists, however, are not the only problem that worries me. Equally troubling to me as the hate and bigotry bubbling up at Klan rallies, or the domestic terrorism of bomb threats to Jewish schools, more disconcerting than government-sanctioned denial of scientific fact, or the intentional dismantling of the national education system, or wild paranoid accusations bandied about as distractions when journalists start getting too close to the truth, is that argument of "You think we're so innocent?" (YTWSI). Several times on social media and even once in conversation the YTWSI argument has been thrown at me, as if I shouldn't question the questionable behaviors of our present government because, well shucks, the behavior of our government has always been questionable.

I understand the United States is not innocent. Our federal government, in its various forms throughout 241 years, has committed some heinous acts of brutality, denied human rights, persecuted the weak, and denied religious freedoms. We have gone to war too quickly for the wrong reasons and chosen to isolate ourselves when our allies needed us. We have reneged on promises, seized land, stolen property, ignored the needs of the common man and murdered the helpless in the name of manifest destiny, national security, social purification and intolerance.

But the fundamental flaw underlying the YTWSI argument is that it accepts these behaviors as inevitable and unavoidable. It turns the fact that we abused yesterday into justification for continued abuse. Even worse, it is used to justify turning a blind eye to the abuse presently being perpetrated in front of our very eyes. It's the "everybody else is doing it" defense a child might invoke when caught being naughty in some largely harmless way, which is why it's so alarming and disarming when a sitting president chooses to invoke it when speaking of murder. Our government and elected leaders might not always hold the moral high ground, but aren't they at least supposed to be striving to attain it for the good of nation?

Although I am concerned about the current state of government affairs, I am a long-term optimist. Our country cycles through periods such as these more often than people care to admit or remember. The United States of America has survived the Iran-Contra Affair, Watergate, McCarthyism, WWII Internment Camps, the Langer Affair, the Teapot Dome Scandal -- and those are just a handful from the 20th Century -- so I have little doubt the Putin Problem will one day be put to rest. I just hope it's sooner than later.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Falafel Fail

Being volunteered for random tasks is an occupational hazard of parenthood. The ability to say "no" is a critically important skill to possess, particularly when you've been granted the luxury of deciding whether or not to accept the gift of having been involuntarily volunteered. Unfortunately, it is not a word of which My Lovely Wife and I avail ourselves frequently enough.

We have served on numerous church committees, band committees, school booster and PTA committees. We have volunteered in school classrooms, Sunday school classrooms, chaperoned field trips, overseen finances, orchestrated parental support, planned and implemented fundraisers, and provided more meals than we care to recall. In almost all these situations, we had the chance to say "no." However, faced with the knowledge no other parents were stepping forward, we stepped up to take part or take charge.

The positive take aways from these experiences are immeasurable. The most significant is a rewarding sense of fulfillment knowing we helped enhance the lives of our children, and hundreds of other children, throughout the last two decades. The only negative is having seen the wizards behind the curtains at many different institutions and events that have lost their magical luster as a result. People are flawed, I get that, but sometimes flawed people are so content to remain flawed that they've no interest in receiving constructive criticism and no ability to learn from it when it's offered. It can be disheartening, causing you to back away from volunteering to regain your naive faith in humanity. It's at times like these -- when you start thinking you're doing too much in too many places and alienating too many people by offering your opinion too often -- your children volunteer you for a simple task you simply can't refuse. 

It's been years since I've been able to help with math or science homework. I've forgotten all formal education back to kindergarten, it seems, so when the twins told us they volunteered to bring homemade falafel to school as part of a Human Geography project, I was excited. Cooking might not be my calling, but I love it, and I had never before made falafel. Here was a challenge I could face with a smile, my boys by my side, as we mastered making this Middle Eastern meal. 

Perhaps mastered isn't the correct word...

We started off on the wrong foot by using canned chick peas instead of dried chick peas and soaking them for twenty-four hours like the recipe instructed. When you have only 48 hours notice, you can't sit around waiting for a garbanzo bean to rehydrate. You take the ones packed in water and chuck them in the food processor.

Next we added the brief list of spices that, despite the brevity of the list, infused such a toxic pungency of Mediterranean aromatics that tasting the raw batter was an exercise in self abuse. It's nearly impossible to determine the proper quantities of cumin and cayenne when your tastebuds have been carpet-bombed into oblivion.

The canola oil I found to deep fry our fiendishly fiercesome falafel batter wasn't much help. The only canola oil in the house had been used once already for frying donuts. Our falafel would set your mouth ablaze and scorch your throat like a barbed jet-fueled ghost pepper, but at least you'll enjoy the subtle hint of cinnamon apple while rolling on the ground scraping your tongue with a cheese grater. 

Fortunately, we never found out. Possibly because our batter was too wet from having used mushy canned chick peas, or possibly because the donut oil wasn't quite hot enough -- or most likely because we're from the Mid-Atlantic and not the Middle East -- our batter entered the oil in tablespoon-size dollops and rapidly dissolved amidst greasy cinnamon apple splatters into thousands of quickly burned falafel particles. We tried a few to similar effect, only to discard the remaining batter and reach the conclusion that hummus and pita chips are a reasonable substitute for a school project, especially since someone else would be making the hummus. 

2017 Mark Feggeler