Sunday, November 30, 2008

You Never Seem to Recognize My Face

preoccupation (n.): The state of being preoccupied; absorption of the attention or intellect.

preoccupy (v.):
1. To absorb or engross to the exclusion of other things.
2. To occupy beforehand or before others.

Many words have multiple definitions, but preoccupation and its root, preoccupy, have been on my mind for a while now. If a thought or a subject has completely preoccupied you, has consumed you completely, are you occupying that thought pattern before anyone else? Have you claimed that preoccupation as your own? Does it belong to you? Or, is it just the opposite? Does preoccupation own you by preventing you from owning whatever the preoccupation is?

Usually, the verb "preoccupy" is modified by the preposition "by." In effect, this means that whatever follows the "by" is what's doing the action of "preoccupying." The actual subject of the sentence then becomes that which is being preoccupied rather than the preoccupying agent.

When I am preoccupied by something, I feel helpless, unwillingly transformed from the agent to the recipient of some other action. I know I don't want to think about this thought or subject anymore but, try as I might, I cannot get myself to think about anything else. Preoccupying me wholly, it takes over my sensibility and, like an unavoidable demon, forces my attention on something undeserving.

"She was preoccupied."

Maybe what all of us are looking for is the less common form. "She preoccupied him." "The fate of the world preoccupied them." Maybe this switch of the agency is all that we need to feel meaningful rather than powerless: to occupy beforehand or before others, rather than to be occupied at the exclusion of all other things.

Friday, November 28, 2008

This One's for Mumbai

In August 2006, I started an entry with this: "As has been said one thousand times before, we live in a world of terror." Almost five years after September 11, we were still living in fear that someone out there would turn anger into mass destruction at the cost of people's lives. Now, two years after I wrote about the terror in Lebanon and seven years after my own city saw this grief, the world is mourning and fearing on a large scale once again.

Terrorism is not a new term; it's not a concept that has been introduced and defined in the last twenty or thirty years, like the internet or fiber-optics or in-vitro fertilization. In the last few American political administrations, though, the term has taken on a significant political weight. It has become a method for perpetuating an "us" vs. "them" rhetoric and, as a result, has become something we think about on a regular basis in evaluating how we behave versus how other people behave. It's important to look beyond the way we are taught to think about terrorism, though, and understand what it really means absent of our own political and social interpretation of it. In 2004, the United Nations Security Council defined terrorism as any act "intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act." In short, terrorism means trying to promote a political agenda by seriously harming regular people.

There are two facets of terrorism that I find most disturbing. The first is the idea that physical force against innocent people is a useful mechanism for instigating political change. This has nothing to do with our group versus that other group and everything to do with the perception, held even by a small group, that violence against civilians is a constructive method for change. This is something that sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, and political scientists are all studying, but once we know the cause, will we then know how to change it? Since this discovery seems unlikely, we must operate with terrorism as a reality, as skewed as it may be, and learn how to live with it rather than against it.

This brings me to the second element of terrorism that disturbs me. Terrorism, in the most unfortunate of ways, takes precedent over all other things because of its unpredictability. In my normal, day-to-day life, I am training to be an educator. I believe that schools make a difference in our society, and my goal is to make American schools training grounds for capable and engaged citizens. Yet when tourists and businesspeople are trapped in a Mumbai hotel under siege, having spent one minute sipping a cocktail in the hotel bar and the next being ushered by men in masks into a hostage situation, the mission of education seems quaint, like a topic for cocktail party discussion or some sort of idealist, hippy-dippy dream distracting from the "real" issue. Terrorism does more than inflict pain on individuals and their families and pressure governments to change political stances. An act of terrorism commands the attention of the world. It pushes all other matters to the wayside and, like a child doing something unfathomable just because he hasn't received enough attention, momentarily shocks us into abandoning our long-term missions and day-to-day activities.

Fear is debilitating, and terror, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a state of intense fear." Our challenge, as global citizens, is to recognize terrorism as a misguided agent of change and continue onwards in building the kinds of agents and mechanisms that will instigate change appropriately and civilly. Though thinking of terrorism through an "us" vs. "them" lens, in which we are able to victimize ourselves and feel helpless against psychologically disturbed and violent rouge groups, is easy given the constant rhetoric of our political leaders, we must look beyond this self-victimization to work towards the world we want to see rather than fearing action in the world in which we currently live. Fear is all-consuming, and loss even more so; but the greatest thing we have to fear is leaving a terror-drenched world for our children and grandchildren. If we instigate positive change in our domestic social systems (like education) and our international interactions, we could reshape this world and slowly begin to see the change we need. Facing forward through challenge and potential loss, prioritizing the power of the future over the immediacy of grief and fright, we must remember what FDR said in his 1933 inaugural address: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ushering in the Next Era

I have never been one to write about politics. During the 2004 election, my parents told me to write about my experience in Ohio so I wouldn’t forget; they said it would be an experience for the books, a time unlike any other that was mine to document. Here we are, four years later, singing a reprise of that blazing chorus of hope and fear, and though I let it all seep over me before, maybe the time to write about it is now.

In fall 2004, Lorain County, Ohio saw an influx of visitors from across the nation pile out of vans to “get out the vote.” Celebrities made appearances, rallies were held, blue and red signs dotted front yards for miles. On Election Day, we watched the outcomes in other states come in from lines at our own polling places. During the six and a half hours that I spent waiting to vote, I was fed and entertained by fellow students and townspeople afraid that the long wait would send tired would-be voters home. I enjoyed Chinese food from a local restaurant, brought to my spot in line with a choice of sauces, listened to some of Oberlin’s best musicians perform violin concertos and organ pieces, avoided local media covering the “unexpected voter turnout,” did some schoolwork. Every so often, I’d chat with the others in line; we’d say we couldn’t believe how few voting machines there were, would our votes make it in on time, avoiding the real subject of why we were there: to change the nation. In 2004, unprecedented numbers of college students exercised their voting rights in Ohio. Home states like New York and Massachusetts and California seemed undeserving of our votes. Instead, we imposed ourselves on our temporary state, Ohio, not to impact life there but to impact the nation for which we stand, no matter which state we stand for it in.

In the end, our votes in Lorain County weren’t counted. Kerry indicated intentions to cede long before many of us even made it inside a polling booth. For weeks, it felt as though we had lost six and a half hours of our lives for the basic, unrealized premise that, in a democratic nation, every vote counts, when really ours didn’t even matter.

Like a dream deferred, the hope for change became focused on four years down the road, November 4, 2008, a date that seemed too many days of poor leadership away. We watched the American image abroad decline substantially through intifadas in Israel, invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a slew of other questionable foreign relations decisions. Outside our own front doors, we sent children and teachers into underfunded failing schools, invested our money in an increasingly unstable economy, struggled to afford healthcare, and further perpetuated the view that Americans are greedy, uneducated consumers of the world’s products and resources who think about nobody other than themselves. Having by majority elected monkeys in suits to take vacations from a big white house on the American dime instead of improving our lives, we were held responsible for this action, in a sense, by getting what we deserved.

Now, on November 3, 2008, we brace for another day of reckoning. Most of us think we are ready for change, or at least know we desperately need it. Many of us think we see an opportunity for this in one of the candidates, though quite a few of us think we won’t see the change we need in either of our options. In the 2004 election, voters had the choice of the incumbent; they saw the familiar face of a man who didn’t seem to totally mess up our lives, compared to a stranger who said he would do great things but hadn’t had the opportunity to show that he really would. In 2008, the starting ground is flatter. Though both candidates have track records, neither has been the chief executive. Neither has had that unfair advantage of not totally messing things up, an advantage that sadly instills trust rather than disapproval in this country. As a result, we can hope that the man who wins tomorrow will be the one elected by the majority to show us what a fresh face in the White House can do for our nation.

On November 4, 2008, we exercise our right to elect the leaders of our government. We cast our votes for the person who most represents the values that we adhere to and the future we see for our country. All that we know now is that the Bush era is over; we can only hope that after tomorrow, we will not spend another four years waiting on a dream of strong, competent leadership deferred, but instead move full-force forward into four years of re-evaluation, reconstruction, and re-determination to make America a place where we want and deserve to live.