Monday, January 15, 2007

Disoriented in Dhaka (Though Not Politically)

Finally laid low by jet lag, I am lying on my very firm bed in the Pacific Inn guest house as sounds of an early evening in Dhaka filter through the windows: raucous conversation among men in the streets, droning/wailing music from nearby backyards, a cat meowing, kids yelling, some kind of thin metallic clanking from one of the many dusty construction sites, and, faintly, the symphony of horns of cars, taxis, buses on the busy main road a few blocks way.

I arrived at the guest house seventeen hours ago at three thirty on Monday morning, grabbed five hours sleep; showered, breakfasted on pineapple juice, toast, a banana, an apple, and a cup of strong black coffee; and was put in a cab to the high-rise offices of Grameen Bank, where I was whisked from floor to floor to meet people whose names I am struggling to keep straight (and who have already been making arrangements to meet with and educate me about microcredit and "social business"), shown a plain deal desk in a sunlit triangular space, which will be my office during my weeks here in Dhaka, set up with a Nokia handset by the efficient people at Grameen Phone, and finally fed a lunch of spicy vegetables, soup, and endless white rice at the Grameen Bank cafeteria.

Back in my guest house room, I felt excited and anxious, as one will during the early hours in a strange country. I went out for a walk; was stared at, not with hostility, by most of the people I passed; was offered rides by the drivers of at least a dozen of the amazingly painted bicycle-style rickshaws that fill the streets; wandered into an enormous, lovely nursery of tropical plants and trees that I vaguely thought was some sort of public park until a sari-ed woman with two small children approached, smilingly wondering what I intended to buy; and finally wandered over to the tin-shed "departmental store" I'd passed earlier to pick up two large boxes of tissues and a big bottle of spring water to bring back to the guest house (where the manager sadly reproached me: "We would put these things in your room! No need to buy--just tell us what you want!")

I will tell him next time, or maybe not, since the three items cost only a total of 110 taka (about a dollar eighty, which is what the water alone would cost at home).

Got back to the room, suddenly realized I was exhausted, took off my shoes and fell into a deep sleep on the very firm bed . . . woke up an hour ago, around 7:30 in the evening, changed into pajamas, and decided to surf the Internet a little before going to sleep till the morning. (And, yes, I can go on line for free from my room, which is more than I could say at the four-star hotel we stayed at in Madrid last fall.)

And scanning the Internet I find that much of the commentariat is reacting to this NPR commentary on the Bush administration by a disillusioned lifelong conservative named Rod Dreher. Key excerpt:
As President Bush marched the country to war with Iraq, even some voices on the Right warned that this was a fool's errand. I dismissed them angrily. I thought them unpatriotic.

But almost four years later, I see that I was the fool. In Iraq, this Republican President for whom I voted twice has shamed our country with weakness and incompetence, and the consequences of his failure will be far, far worse than anything Carter did.

The fraud, the mendacity, the utter haplessness of our government's conduct of the Iraq war have been shattering to me. It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. Not under a Republican President.

I turn 40 next month - middle aged at last - a time of discovering limits, finitude. I expected that. But what I did not expect was to see the limits of finitude of American power revealed so painfully. I did not expect Vietnam. As I sat in my office last night watching President Bush deliver his big speech, I seethed over the waste, the folly, the stupidity of this war.

I had a heretical thought for a conservative - that I have got to teach my kids that they must never, ever take Presidents and Generals at their word - that their government will send them to kill and die for noble-sounding rot - that they have to question authority.

On the walk to the parking garage, it hit me. Hadn't the hippies tried to tell my generation that? Why had we scorned them so blithely?

Will my children, too small now to understand Iraq, take me seriously when I tell them one day what powerful men, whom their father once believed in, did to this country? Heavy thoughts for someone who is still a conservative despite it all. It was a long drive home.
Barbara O'Brien writes about this on The Mahablog, noting that one element in the creation of the sixties "counterculture" was the sense of betrayal many young people were feeling at the time. She talks about the idealistic belief in America that many kids growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s felt, and then says:
For many of us, these feelings reached their apex during the Kennedy administration. I was nine years old when he was elected. He seemed to embody everything that was noble and good and heroic about America. I remember his tour of Europe the summer before the assassination. I watched his motorcade move through cheering crowds on our black-and-white console television and never felt prouder to be an American.

But then our hearts were broken in Dallas, and less than two years later Lyndon Johnson announced he would send troops to Vietnam. And then the young men of my generation were drafted into the meat grinder. Sooner or later, most of us figured out our idealism had been misplaced. I was one of the later ones; the realization dawned for me during the Nixon Administration, which began while I was a senior in high school. Oh, I still believed in liberty and democracy; I felt betrayed because I realized our government didn't. And much of my parents' generation didn't seem to, either.

The counterculture was both a backlash to that betrayal and to the cultural rigidity of the 1950s. And much of "movement conservatism" was a backlash to the counterculture, albeit rooted in the pseudo-conservatism documented earlier by Richard Hofstadter and others.
I would add another key piece to this story. In 1968 (when I was fifteen), hundreds of thousands of young people poured their sense of frustration and anguish about the war into politics. While some (from those on the far left who toyed with the rhetoric of revolution to those in the mushy mainstream who were focused mainly on musical and pharmaceutical experimentation) were already thoroughly disenchanted with "the system," many of us tried working within it, organizing voters on behalf of the Democratic peace candidates in that year's primary campaign.

And by god the voters responded. Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy won primary after primary that spring and summer of 1968. Vice president Hubert Humphrey, who took up the administration's banner after Johnson withdrew his candidacy at the end of the March, scarcely competed in the primaries. But he didn't have to. Instead, he accumulated support through deals with state and local party bosses, who then controlled the majority of convention delegates. The summer culminated in the disastrous Chicago convention at which the party "regulars" steamrollered the angry peace delegates and nominated Humphrey for president.

So despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Democrats had voted for peace, the party handed us a candidate fatally tainted by his long-term support for the war. And the country ended up with Nixon as president.

"So much for working for change through the system," many of us said. "The people speak--and the powers-that-be do exactly what the hell they want." (It's another parallel to today that I've been thinking about lately, as Bush wields his prerogative as The Decider to ignore last November's electoral results. When the Republicans win, we get lectures about how "elections have consequences." When the Democrats win, elections apparently have no consequences.)

In the aftermath of 1968, I dialed my personal commitment to politics way down, as did many people of my generation. That is, until Bush revealed himself to be an even worse abuser of the Constitution than Nixon, and the Internet helped give us our voice.

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