Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What comes from Nothing?

Our extended family gathered over the Thanksgiving holidays and like others, ours represents a broad political spectrum. Conversations among us all are spirited, and at times tempers flare. But deep down we all know that the things we share transcend the occasional fissures that appear in our relationships.

A couple of my in-laws have committed themselves to improving the lives of civilians in war-torn countries. Each has a post-graduate degree in a field related to human services, and both have extensive experiences ranging from the Peace Corps to other US AID-funded projects. They have served in South and Central America, Thailand, Bosnia, Uzbekistan, and--more recently--Iraq and Afghanistan.

In general, they argue in favor of non-military solutions to problems that affect the interests of the United States--in stark contrast to several of my other in-laws who feel otherwise.

But when I asked them what the U.S. should do in Afghanistan, their immediate response was "finish the job." This was not what I expected, so I asked why.

"Imagine a region the size of California and Oregon with a population of less than 30 million. Now imagine what this region would look like after nearly 40 years of continuous war. Imagine that there are only two crops that grow in enough abundance to establish an agricultural toe-hold of which the largest provides the raw materials for a drug that the rest of the world would love to see eradicated.

"Imagine that for the past eight years this region had born the brunt of constant military strikes from the world's most powerful country that has left the habitable landscape almost completely barren of any civic infrastructure.

"Now imagine that this powerful country picks up its marbles and goes home. What does it leave behind? 28 million people with no functioning government, no civil authority, no infrastructure, no raw materials to build houses or schools or to feed the populace, no culture, no advocates in the international arena, and no hope.

"With no hope, there is nothing. And what comes from nothing? Chaos. Chaos scares human beings. We crave order and rules of behavior.

"So into this chaotic mess will step the very insurgent forces that, since 9/11, we have been trying to face down: the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and who-knows-how-many-other organized criminal elements. These insurgent forces will become the de facto civil authority in our absence. To us, that is a far worse outcome than the U.S. staying the course in Afghanistan."

This left me to wonder anew about the purpose of art in our lives; of song, of dance, and of storytelling. While bells on bob-tails ring in this country, drones seek out "targets of opportunity" in Afghanistan and the media reports on the gruesome results.

Are we building schools? Are we building hospitals? Food markets? What about community centers where people can gather to learn, to sing, and to share joy? Would the U.S. military and the UN ever consider seeking out different "targets of opportunity" like Oprah or Bob Geldof or Bono to to help it create positive change in a country in need?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then where is the media? Tiger Woods fills our newspapers and weekly rags. But where are the stories about successful encounters with Afghanis whose lives have been changed for the better by our presence?

It has been said often that a civilization is remembered not for its conquests but by its art and culture.

What if we created a national policy that dictated that out of every $100 spent on waging war in a place, $5 must be spent on waging peace?

What if, of the $1 trillion spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last eight years, we had spent $50 billion on schools and theaters, market places and safe housing; on teaching people how to appreciate each others' differences, not be scared of them; on helping the region learn to explore each others' cultures without being offended by them?

What if we started doing that today in Afghanistan? What if we also did the same in this country?

What if achieving peace on earth and goodwill towards all was just that simple?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tribute: Bess Lomax Hawes

We should all be so lucky to live to the ripe age of 88; luckier still to live a rich, full, and varied life; and luckiest of all to have a loving family, countless friends and associates who admire and respect us and our work, and yet still retain our compassion for other people and our zest for life.

Bess Lomax Hawes, who passed away a few days ago, was such a person.

For starters, she is arguably the single most important reason there is a comprehensive network of folk and traditional artists and organizations in the U.S. As founding director of the National Endowment for the Arts' Folk Arts Program, it was largely due to her vision that every state has a folk arts program, that the Smithsonian Institution holds its annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall, and why we recognize folk and traditional artists with the National Heritage Fellowships. This last program is so prestigious, and Bess's role in its creation so pivotal, that the awards themselves were named for her.

But all this barely scratches the surface of who she was as a person.

Growing up as the daughter of John Lomax (whose early recordings of largely self-taught blues and folk musicians throughout Appalachia and the deep South remains one of our greatest cultural treasures), and sister of Alan Lomax (who who continued and expanded his father's work) it was no fluke that Bess was drawn to folk and traditional artistic expressions.

An early member of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie's band, she is probably known best among folk musicians as co-author of the song made famous by the Kingston Trio, "Charlie and the M.T.A."

I worked quite closely with Bess during my time at the National Endowment for the Arts. She was pushing 70, had a flock of acolytes circulating in and out of her office on the 7th floor of the Old Post Office Building. She never raised her voice. She never said a mean word about anyone. And her smile, which was always a half-breath away, could light up a room.

There was something very "Aunt Bee"-like about her; a warm, trusting soul who with a recognizable voice and a ready laugh, packaged in a matronly figure with gray hair pulled back in a bun. I always expected, hearing her talk in staff meetings, that if Bess couldn't convince people around her to view things from her perspective, that all she had to do was make a call and Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife would gently show you the error of your ways.

It never happened. Bess always knew the best way to approach people; to get projects off the ground; to share credit; and most of all, respect the many artists whose work, without her efforts, might otherwise have remained largely undiscovered or unappreciated.

It's been about 10 years since I last saw her. She attended the Nancy Hanks Lecture at the Kennedy Center as part of National Arts Advocacy Day, and although it had been years since we'd been in touch, her face lit up in that warm smile of hers when I stopped by her seat to say hello.

Bess lived a long, full, rich, and rewarding life. Like I said, we should all be so lucky.