Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Why E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is the Best Movie


E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

“Best” and “worst” are, of course, subjective terms, especially when it comes to art. Different people assign different values to things using all sorts of criteria, so it’s impossible to make superlative statements that can’t apply to everyone. But in my opinion, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is the best movie ever made.

When we think of “best movies,” academics usually reference movies like “Citizen Kane,” or “The Godfather,” or “Lawrence of Arabia.” These are all critically-acclaimed movies, but they require certain prerequisites in order to fully appreciate them: a knowledge of history, a knowledge of culture, and, most significantly, age. Many of these “best movies” simply cannot be seen or understood by children, and they therefore exclude a large number of potential audience members. To watch something as a child, as an adolescent, and as an adult and to still experience profound emotion is a feat that no other movie does as well as “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”


When I saw “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” in theaters in the summer of 1982, I was a 6-year-old boy. I was just a little bit older than Gertie (Drew Barrymore), but I related more to the 10-year-old boy Elliott (Henry Thomas). We spoke the same language and had similar interests, and the motivations of the grown-ups in the movie were more alien to me and Elliott than E.T. himself. During the course of the movie, I experienced all the emotions that Elliott experienced, and, through Elliott, I learned some new ones as well. After feeling the shock and fright of getting scared by (and scaring) E.T., Elliott didn’t retreat; instead, he went out on his own to find this scary creature, luring him with (of course) candy. That brief scene of Elliott sowing the ground with Reese’s Pieces and avoiding “Keys” (Peter Coyote) showed me an example of bravery and courage that I could understand. When E.T. says “stay” to Elliott as he is examined by scientists, I heard what Elliott heard: to comfort Elliott, E.T. was sadly parroting Elliott’s words as E.T.’s condition deteriorated. I felt Elliott’s grief and anger at losing E.T., and his subsequent elation when E.T. comes back to life. I was in awe of the teenagers as they used their biking skills to evade the authorities. The authorities’ guns frightened me, which made my relief and joy at the boys’ escape flight that much more powerful. I felt the sadness of their parting, a parting that was ultimately accepted as necessary. When we first see Elliott, he is a boy who couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously. The last shot of Elliott looking up in the sky as E.T.’s spaceship disappears is not that of the boy we saw in the beginning, but of a young man ready for the future. As John Williams’s score boomed its final chord and the screen went black, I wiped the tears from my eyes and I knew that watching movies would be my favorite thing to do.

“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” came out on VHS in the fall of 1988, and I got it for Christmas. I think I watched tape at least twice a day during that holiday break. Now 13-years-old, I was able to better understand Elliott’s pain, especially that of missing his father. I was happy when he got to kiss the pretty girl in his class. I felt guilt when watching Elliott and his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) coercing Gertie by “torturing” her stuffed animal. Of course, a TV monitor can’t project the same scope and scale of a movie screen, but the beauty of the story shone through nevertheless.

As years passed, I would revisit the movie rarely, with other interests taking my time. When watching the movie again as a senior in high school, I was shocked at how I now could relate to Michael. As a child, I saw Michael as much an authority figure as their mother Mary (Dee Wallace). When Michael poorly backed out of the driveway, as a kid, I was shocked that he was that bad; I thought everyone who could get behind the wheel of a car would be an expert. His line of “we’re all gonna die, and they’re never gonna give me my license!” sang so true to me as a new driver that I had an epiphany about this movie: all the characters in this movie were written as real people. (Well, except for the grown-ups, right? But I’ll get to that later.) This movie stood out in my memory because of that enduring feeling: I could relate to someone other than Elliott.


For those of us of a certain age, national and world politics made less of an impact on our lives and were therefore less of a priority. For older people, the experience of the end of the Cold War was a disruption of the world order, a welcome one, but a disruption nevertheless. For people my age, the end of the Cold War was seen as more of an inevitability and a hope for new opportunities. It wasn’t exactly a topic that young people could debate about.

Pop culture, on the other hand, was an easier field for younger people. The impact that certain movies had in our young lives made them an integral part of our psyche, so it’s understandable when something you once held as constant and true is changed in any way, even in the name of progress. When George Lucas re-released the original Star Wars trilogy with added effects in preparation for the release of “Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” the alterations felt more like desecration than improvement to some people. If Lucas had only made cosmetic improvements like recompositing footage or cleaning up matte lines, there wouldn’t have been much outrage. But Lucas’s additions were so significant that his “improvements” or “corrections” invalidated our enjoyment of a supposedly inferior experiences, experiences that we had held to be ever unchanging.

As the years passed, my generation became more aware of the impact of the rest of the world outside of popular entertainment. There were so many changes: the Clinton Administration’s scandals, the war in Bosnia, and the 2000 presidential election nonsense had taken its toll on American society. We were all needing something definite to hold onto, be it a new experience like “Harry Potter” or “The Matrix,” or re-experiencing older ones, like listening to forgotten hits from the 80’s by downloading mp3s en masse from Napster.

And, of course, there was 9/11.

No matter your age, there was no denying that a profound change had occurred on a worldwide scale. Nothing would ever be the same anymore. Everything was in flux, and everyone had to confront the harsh reality that there were forces who were willing to do anything to change what they didn’t like. There was a widespread feeling of powerlessness, an existential fear that unfocused anger would threaten to run unchecked on a global scale. That need to hold onto something like a cherished memory grew even more intense, and when Steven Spielberg re-released a Special Edition of “E.T.,” it was not hard to feel insulted.

It was the summer of 2002, and the Special Edition was released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” There were only a few changes that Spielberg made to “E.T.,” and some were not too bad. One example was the modification of E.T.’s escape from authorities in the beginning of the movie: instead of an obvious doll on a track, a CGI-version of E.T. bounding away using his arms was digitally inserted. But even the subtle changes, like E.T.’s face being digitally-enhanced to look more expressive seemed uncharacteristic. It was my mother who voiced what I felt was wrong. She said, “E.T. is an alien; he wouldn’t have human expressions.” She was right. E.T. looked and acted more like a cartoon than a corporeal entity, and I found that to be a little condescending. More specifically, my 6-year-old inner child felt a little patronized, and that hurt. But that was nothing compared to the digital replacement of the firearms with walkie-talkies.

I knew that Steven Spielberg was uncomfortable with displaying guns in the presence of children, and it was certainly understandable considering the horrors of the previous years involving firearms, most notably the 1999 shooting spree committed by teenagers at Columbine High School. But it was precisely the threat of violence that allowed us to cheer so hard by the miracle of the boys’ and E.T.’s escape into the sky. The greater the fear of danger, the more palpable the feeling of relief and joy, and Spielberg took that away. In his effort to spice things up, Spielberg made something blander. In his effort to sanitize, Spielberg made something more sterile. During a time where we as a society had experienced so much loss in the real world, losing a sense of joy in the fantasy world hit some a bit too hard, and in a world where nothing was certain anymore, this alteration was unequivocally declared by more reactive fans to be nothing less than a perversion. Were the minds of Spielberg’s critics so fragile that they could unironically proclaim that he and George Lucas had “ruined their childhoods?” If you believe them to have been weakened by an ever-changing and more dangerous world, then maybe. Personally, I was extremely disappointed, but I empathized with Steven Spielberg; this movie was his baby, and like a parent, he wanted to correct what he felt to be a mistake that he did to his child. But like a parent, he couldn’t see the perfection in the masterpiece he created; what he saw as flaws actually made his work endearing to the world.


More years passed. I enlisted in the Air Force. I got married and moved overseas to serve in Okinawa. I moved back home, and I became a father. I did a tour of duty in Iraq. I got divorced after 9 years of marriage, and shortly afterwards, my enlistment in the Air Force ended. Jobs came and went. Relationships, love, and heartache all came and went. The only thing I was certain of was that I was a good father to a loving daughter. I made it a point to be present for her no matter what, and our time together was always precious. I counted myself lucky that she was interested in watching movies, and I was anticipating the day when I could finally introduce “E.T.” to her (the DVD or the original version, of course). When we finally watched it in 2017, she was 9-years-old. I was 41.

I didn’t realize how long it had been since I’d seen the movie, and it was the first time I watched it as a parent. On that level, I was now able to relate to Mary, Elliott’s mother. I also could relate to “Keys,” and I smiled when he told Elliott that E.T. “came to me, too.” As a child all those years ago, I was irritated by that exchange. E.T. didn’t come to you, I had thought. Keys said he had been wishing for this since he was a boy, but I had thought that was impossible. You’re a grown-up, I had thought. You could never have been a boy, and you could never understand what it means to be a child. Now as an adult, hearing Keys talk to Elliott, I finally understood what he meant.

Unfortunately, even though I understood and could now relate to the experiences of the adults in the movie, I wasn’t feeling it as much, because part of my attention was directed towards my daughter and making sure she was enjoying it. That was really my priority, and I was relieved after we finished the movie and she had declared it to be the “best movie ever.” Mission accomplished. Milestone achieved.

In following years, I’d played back the movie in my head, and as I learned more about my inner child in therapy, I finally felt what Keys had meant. Keys saw himself in Elliott and was showing Elliott his honest and heartfelt appreciation in the only way he could. “He came to me, too,” continues to hit me hard in my memory; there is a child within us all, and that inner child needs as much love and validation as real children. E.T. was able to give those things to Elliott, and through Elliott, Keys was able to feel some of that validation as well.

From boys to men.

Elliott’s time with E.T. profoundly changes Elliott from a timid boy to an assured leader. Elliott starts off the movie pleading to get a chance to play Dungeons & Dragons with the older boys. The boys reflexively mock his whining tone, and it’s painfully clear that Elliott has absolutely no authority with this group. In the third act, Elliott becomes a general, with Michael as his adjutant. It’s Elliott who makes up the escape plan and  gives the orders to Michael and his friends.

There’s a small moment that means more to me now after having served in a combat area: Michael pulls up the stolen government van to his friends and tells them to “get the bikes,” to which one of them immediately exclaims, “LET’S DO IT!” without question or hesitation. They then “suit up” in their “helmets” of hats and sunglasses with such seriousness that it’s hilarious, but the camaraderie they display is nothing short of inspiring.

These would-be cavaliers then work as a team, following Elliott’s lead, expertly using the terrain to their advantage. They split up, evade, and eventually reunite like cavalrymen, and through the miracle of E.T.’s telekinesis, the cavaliers become pilots. It’s a quest that their time spent playing Dungeons & Dragons might have prepared them for.

Michael has one final moment with E.T. as they say their goodbyes. Michael reaches out to touch E.T.’s face, which E.T. reflexively avoids, but eventually allows Michael to do. This is the first and only tender touch that Michael displays throughout the movie. Michael is the family’s steadfast knight, and in addition to displaying strength, he displays vulnerability. When E.T. verbally thanks him, Michael responds with a kind and dutiful, “You’re welcome.”

Four decades later.

And now, “E.T.” is back in theaters for its 40th Anniversary. I rarely go to re-releases like these, but this was one I couldn’t miss. How serendipitous it was that it happened to be playing while out on a date with my girlfriend, a woman who also loves the movie. Before we knew it, I’m in my seat next to my her about to watch my favorite movie of all time, the first time seeing it in a movie theater since 1982.

It was a revelation.

All my previous experiences with this movie were amplified, and there were new ones as well. Melissa Mathison’s script allowed me to see Mary not just as a parent anymore, but as a woman in her own right, trying to deal with the hurt of not only being a newly-single mom, but also as an ex-wife and a woman who pushes her own individual needs aside in order to deal with the logistics of having three kids, a job, and a dog. I felt her frustration when she said, “Stupid Ragu, I knew it wouldn’t come out!” as she saw that the dry cleaners couldn’t get a stain out of her clothes.  I remembered the deleted scene on the DVD bonus features that elaborated why Mary was wearing a tight cat costume for Halloween: she was about to go on a date while the kids would be out trick-or-treating. It makes Michael’s and Elliott’s stunned reaction to her costume that much more hilarious in context. In that deleted scene, we also learn that she was stood up, and it makes her anger as she drives to look for her kids understandable, as she grumbles “Mexico” under her breath, referring to her ex-husband’s whereabouts with (presumably) his new girlfriend. When Mary yells “This is my house!” as the space-suited government agents corner her in her home, I felt the power she was trying to muster as she was trying to keep control of her and her family’s sanctuary. I could never have understood the struggle Mary had been going through until now, and I felt her anguish.

Throughout the movie, we never see any of the adults’ faces. Spielberg, taking cues from Tex Avery and Charles Schulz, has all adult characters (except for Mary) shot without showing their faces. John Williams plays a sinister melody whenever the government agents appear, and when Keys’s face finally is shown, it is eerily lit from lights under his sterile containment suit. Knowing Keys’s benevolent intentions, it seems unfair the way the movie manipulates the audience into immediately distrusting this authority figure, and it’s a brilliant filmmaking choice. His kind and supportive words to Elliott may be touching, but they’re just not enough to overcome this prejudice against Keys and his men that was established from the start of the movie. When I was a kid, I remember agreeing with Elliott when he yelled at the doctors, “you’re killing him!” I remember being extremely shaken when the doctors used the defibrillators on E.T.’s body, thinking they were torturing the poor dying alien. Now, I know they were trying their best to save him, and they didn’t have time to spend trying to explain to Elliott what they were doing, I wanted to reach out to try and calm Elliott down, but I also knew it wouldn’t have made any difference. No matter how smart Elliott was, this understanding was still something beyond his capability, and as I watched the doctors and scientists do their work, I noticed for the first time, I’m now older than all of these people. It was at this point that I found myself for the first time, absurdly, incomprehensibly, relating to E.T.

The (missing) father.

Steven Spielberg has been on record about a couple of things regarding this movie: first, that it was a story borne out of the loss of his father’s presence after his parents’ divorce; second, that any Christian thematic parallels were purely coincidental from this Jewish director. While ostensibly coincidental, parallels of E.T. to Jesus are impossible to miss. Love, death, sacrifice, faith, and resurrection are central to the structure of this movie. This superpowered entity from the heavens, a being that is able to perform incredible feats like restoring a plant’s health, healing injuries, levitating objects, and flying, is a presence whose brief time among mortals enriches the lives of all he comes into contact with. “His being here is a miracle,” Keys tells Elliott. The power of faith, first shown in a tender moment as E.T. and Elliott listen to Mary reading Peter Pan to Gertie, is echoed when Gertie wishes E.T. to come back, a wish that Mary seconds. Allegories of death and resurrection within literature and performance aren’t exactly novel, but the wholesomeness of its presence in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” makes the power of this theme incredibly heartwarming to watch, even for a non-Christian like myself.

But throughout the years, it was the loss of a father figure for Elliott that I had the hardest time understanding. Because Elliott’s father wasn’t in the movie and only mentioned a handful of times, I never gave much thought about how his absence affected the characters; if he wasn’t there, he wasn’t important. As a kid, when Michael and Elliott find their dad’s shirt in their garage and smelled it, I found it a cute scene, but ultimately unnecessary, really only there to show how the government found E.T.’s location. Now, I completely understand what Spielberg was trying to show: the giant hole in his life that Elliott now had because his father wasn’t there. Michael was older and could understand: his outburst of anger at Elliott for upsetting their mother by bringing up their missing dad and “Sally” is not coming from an insensitive older brother but from a dutiful eldest son defending his mother. “Think about how other people feel for a change!” is not something you’d expect to hear from a teenage boy, but from a young man, now the default man of the house. Gertie was too young to understand what was missing: all she knows is that her father is “in Mexico.” It’s Elliott, the middle child, that is hit hardest. He has no one to turn to for support. Gertie is the baby, so she is the one that is taken care of. Michael has his friends for support, but Michael and his friends won’t waste time with emotional nonsense from Elliott, who is (in their eyes) a “douchebag” and a “wimp.” This boy needs his father, and the bond that Elliott forms with E.T. takes that place.

The bond that E.T. and Elliott share is obvious, but as a kid, I perceived it to come gradually. Watching it with new eyes, the bond is immediate. It’s a bond created for survival, and examining the bond more closely, it is clear that it is unfortunately parasitic. That is not to say that E.T. is consciously harming Elliott, but Elliott’s loss of self is disturbing to watch as the movie progresses. When the scientists discover that E.T.’s and Elliott’s brainwave patterns are perfectly synced, the implication that Elliott’s words might actually be E.T.’s is profound. When Elliott repeatedly tells Keys that “he wants to go home,” it’s not that hard to hear E.T. saying through Elliott, “I want to go home.” Later, Elliott inexplicably starts to recover, while E.T. starts to deteriorate. As their bond breaks, E.T. says “Stay,” to Elliott. This exchange, which I had once thought was E.T. saying one of the few words he knew, takes on a more poignant tone when interpreted E.T. as telling Elliott to “stay” as E.T. willfully releases Elliott from a vital bond, sacrificing his own life in order to spare Elliott from a conjoined death. Elliott’s recovery, in other words, is no longer inexplicable.

In the middle of the movie, Elliott tearfully pleads to E.T. to stay, that they “could be happy” together and they could “grow up” together. At the end, when E.T. asks Elliott to “come,” Elliott sadly but apologetically answers “stay,” telling E.T. that he will stay home with his own loving family. It’s a decision that hurts, but it’s one that Elliott makes completely on his own as an individual. When E.T. tells  Elliott “I’ll be right here” and points a glowing finger to Elliott’s head, I felt the reassurance coming from E.T. for the first time, while simultaneously feeling Elliott’s sadness and resolve as he whispers, “Good-bye.”

For Everyone.

“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is unique not just because it is a movie that can be seen and appreciated by all ages, since all ages (except for the very old) are represented, but also because there are no villains in this story. It is a story that is best told through the medium of film, with all the visual and aural magic that only film can provide. It is a product of its time, yet the humanity of all the characters makes it timeless. Think about when Michael comes home from football practice to raid the fridge. As he’s singing Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen,” he scans the fridge and mumbles, “nothing but health shit.” A timeless sentiment.

These sentiments transcend time. No movie has ever shown how the same miraculous encounter could affect different people of different ages in the same way. “E.T.,” both the movie and the character, came to me when I was a boy. E.T. came to me as a teen. E.T. came to me as an adult. E.T. came to me as a father.

E.T. is here for everyone.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Art of Compromise

It is apparent that the health care bill that will pass (if it does) will not be in a form that any self-respecting progressive liberal will like. There will be no public option, there are massive concessions to the health insurance industry, and the process has given perks and benefits to single states at the cost of all American taxpayers. But if it does pass, it will be worth it.

The most important goal that we all must remember is the extension of health insurance coverage to those who presently cannot afford it. Thirty million men, women, and children will now have health care coverage that would not had this bill not have gone through. In addition, passage of this bill means that the public option will be added to our health care system eventually, it just won't be as soon as people expected.

When President Clinton passed the federal budget during his administration, it was a very hard-fought battle, with concessions made on both sides. The GOP got to pass legislation giving tax breaks to those who really didn't need it, angering many tax-and-spend liberals (of whom I can sympathize with). But the end result was what is now known as a "super-bull" market, with innovations that led us into the 21st Century. My argument is not that I support tax breaks for the wealthy, but that for government to apply its helpful energies (and yes, I believe that's not a contradictory statement) to the people, it is important that those wheels be greased. If that grease comes from letting go of things we really want in order to reach the magical number of 60, then it must be done. It's ugly, but that's politics.

And thirty million men, women, and children will now have affordable coverage that didn't before.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How we honor the fallen

As some of you may know, one of my additional duties at Dover Air Force Base is that of an Honor Guardsman. My participation as a member of the Honor Guard has been limited to a handful of ceremonies, mostly that of retirements and changes-of-command. I look forward to each time I get to put on my ceremonials and taps, beast (i.e.: hard slap) my inoperative M-1 rifle in unison as we present arms for the national anthem, and stand motionless for as long as the ceremony lasts. I've come to appreciate those who can sing the national anthem with efficiency and clarity, and I get annoyed when a singer tries to "soul it up," and add notes to an already inspiring song. When I am in those ceremonials, I know that I am presenting myself as the image of the United States Air Force in particular, and the Armed Forces in general.

When I was in training for the Honor Guard, I participated in one our most solemn duties: the reception and transfer of the flag-draped transfer cases of our fallen troops. As a trainee, I hadn't yet learned the commands and procedures for carrying the cases from the aircraft to the lift and finally to be loaded in the mortuary's van, so I, along with my fellow trainees, were positioned on the aircraft to deliver our slow, simultaneous, three-second salutes.

We watched as four cases were deplaned, one at a time. As we saluted time and again, the lack of media coverage became more and more apparent to me. I understood why the ban on the media was in place -- why subject these images to ridicule and disrespect? But not only were there no cameras in place, but family members were not allowed on the flight line as these cases were transferred. So, I kept asking myself, for whom are we doing this?

I asked that question to my instructor later on. He said that we were doing that so that the fallen would know that we were treating their remains with respect. I didn't really think much of that answer, because pretending to know what the dead find respectful is presumptuous at best. In addition, don't we all take an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?" Doesn't that Constitution include the protection of a free press?

Let me be clear. I am a very liberal person. I believe in the free press and am against censorship. I believe that gays should be allowed to marry and should not be afraid to serve openly in our military. I believe in civil liberties and the freedom to criticize our elected officials. These are the main reasons I enlisted, and why I feel so strongly about preserving the Constitution. And it pains me to no end when the images of these ceremonies are politicized on both sides. I understand, even sympathize with those on the right who wanted to keep the media ban in place, because I get disgusted by the arguments from anti-war protesters on the left. The disgust does not come from any difference in political ideology, but from a very clear disconnect between the politics of war and the simple humanity of a fallen troop.

It's easy to find fault with right-wing partisans who hide behind those of us in uniform, lest anti-war protesters be validated be validated by the publication of the images that display the horrible price that an unjust war asks for. But some left-wing partisans have no better arguments. Those who say that these images should be published to show the price we pay may have a legitimate argument, but their argument is not about the ceremony, but about their own political agenda. It's no longer about the sacrifice that an American has made, but about sticking it to Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld. The outrage over our invasion in Iraq has clouded the judgments of those on the left so much so that they feel more strongly against Paul Wolfowitz than they feel sympathy for parents who have just lost their child.

But the publication of these images is necessary if we are to honor the sacrifice that these men and women have made. We bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution when we are not afraid to publish how far we are willing to sacrifice for that document and its ideals; however, we need to balance out the public's need for information with the family's need for privacy, which is why I am relieved about the Obama Administration's and Secretary Gates' decision to lift the ban on media coverage with the provision of family approval.

Ceremonies are performances, some more solemn than others. It may seem callous or dismissive to refer to a burial as a performance and an Honor Guardsman as an actor, so we have euphemisms. Instead of "staying in character," we say we "maintain our military bearing." Instead of "choreography" or "blocking," we say "movement execution." Instead of "beats," we have "counts." Instead of "rehearsal," we say "drill." But every performance needs an audience; without an audience, the performance becomes almost worthless. Let us show how we honor the fallen, and let us always remember that no matter how you feel about the war or our government, that no matter whose body is in that transfer case or coffin, that body held the life of an American son or daughter. For these solemn moments, let the outrage take a breather and think not about partisanship, but about our children, our siblings, our spouses, and our parents. Let us be thankful for the families we still have, because a family in Dover or Arlington has just become smaller.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hello, Governor Jindal

Governor Jindal, my name is Omar. I, too, am the Gen-X son of immigrants who considers himself an American. My parents saw poverty in their home nations before immigrating to the United States. My Filipina mother was a baby during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Her oldest sister had told me of the necessity of keeping a low profile around the Japanese troops lest she catch the eye of a soldier looking for a comfort woman. My aunt also told me that the Japanese had used their Manila home as a garrison headquarters, which makes me appreciate the Third Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that much more.

The start of your response to President Obama’s speech seemed bipartisan enough, calling for Republicans to not only support the President and Democrats during times of agreement, but to also offer up better ideas when disagreeing with Democrats. Then your speech went south and turned into a problem that has been plaguing conservatives for quite some time: the notion the government, any government, is bad government. Your example as evidence: the lack of proper government response at the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. That’s where you lost all credibility, all the more so because you are the governor of the state most affected by the storm and the government inaction.

Governor Jindal, it was precisely the conservative notion of limited federal government that allowed the mess of Hurricane Katrina to perpetuate. It was the reluctance of President Bush to let the state and city fend for itself that prevented the swift recovery of New Orleans. It was the lack of regulation and oversight that prevented FEMA from acting in a responsible way when the federal government did eventually step in and attempt to do its job. Yes, the hurricanes caused the destruction, but it wasn’t government that failed at the recovery; it was bad government.

You then proceeded to criticize the wasteful nature of Washington politicians, a criticism often spouted from the very Republican hypocrites who are doing the actual wasting. You point to silly programs such as “$300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a ‘magnetic levitation’ line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring…’” Governor, if you knew what you were talking about, you would realize that the funds for new government cars are actually for battery-powered vehicles that are now being used on military bases that save money on gasoline; that keeping track of volcanoes is not a frivolous expense. Governor, you and I may have been children when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1981, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and cannot happen again. As far as the mag-lev train? The $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail projects is to be spent at the discretion of the Secretary of Transportation, a Republican. In addition, the proposed mag-lev line from Anaheim to Las Vegas (supported by the Republican governors of both California and Nevada) is not part of the Recovery Act.. Governor, do you even know what a mag-lev train is? If you did, then maybe you would support its inclusion.

Governor, your opposition to government-run health care is an understandable one. No one wants the government to supersede an individual’s decision over his or her health care. But that is precisely what HMOs are doing right now. Families are suffering from longer wait times, higher co-pays, and shoddier service, because HMOs are cutting costs by not only not hiring more physicians and staff, but also by not purchasing more equipment. A typical visit to an HMO may end up costing a family $100 in co-pays and medications, not to mention lost work time, all in the effort to keep medicine privatized.

Governor, I recognize your love for this country, but I’m disappointed you do not recognize that your pride in its accomplishments does not catch the whole picture. You said that America was “the nation that cast off the scourge of slavery, overcame the Great Depression, prevailed in two World Wars, won the struggle for civil rights, defeated the Soviet menace, and responded with determined courage to the attacks of September 11, 2001.” Governor, what you do not seem to recall was that we were the last enlightened nation to cast off the institution of slavery, and that it took another century after the Emancipation Proclamation to guarantee civil rights for all races. By that time, communist Cuba had more equality than Louisiana. You bring up 9/11, not remembering that the world had responded with courage and sympathy with us, until they scorned us when we invaded Iraq. And we are still paying for it, 8 years later. Governor, you said that “the American spirit has triumphed over almost every form of adversity known to man, and the American spirit will triumph again.” I believe that as well, but you have to recognize that the American spirit triumphed over adversity in spite of social conservatives.

Governor Jindal, on a more personal note, your election to the governorship of Louisiana could be an inspiration for all children of immigrants to this great country were it not for the fact that you changed your name in order to hopefully better assimilate in the United States. You went with the name “Bobby” instead of “Piyush” because it was more American, and it is telling – you wanted to fit in. I understand. I can relate. I hated my Arab name growing up. I felt second-class, different, all because of my foreign name. But now, thanks to men and women of all different races in this nation, from Denzel, to Kanye, to Barack, to Ming-Na, I’m not ashamed of my name anymore. I certainly hope you aren’t either.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The (George) Will of the People (Part II)

Usually, George Will offers his conservative viewpoints with a bit of evidence to back them up. Unfortunately, today's column offered no evidence.

First of all, in the politics of fear, this column was quite two-faced. Will accuses Obama of trolling out fearmongering, and then Will concludes his article by comparing the nation to Napoleon's troops at Waterloo. Nothing more calming than a comparison to Waterloo. Let's mention Little Bighorn while we're at it.

The seeming failure of bipartisanship (as if the first 100 days of a new presidency are the only times where a government can demonstrate bipartisanship) was caused by a failure of the losing side to offer up anything new to the table. Tax cuts are said to be stimulative -- in 1981, 2001, etc. What proponents of tax cuts forget is the recessions that soon followed (Black Monday, anyone?). What proponents of tax cuts also forget is that massive deficit spending has been proven to recover a failing ecomony. And no, I'm not talking about the New Deal.

The debate about how effective the New Deal was to pulling us out of the Great Depression continues, but all can agree that it was World War II that got us out of it completely. And what happened? Massive borrowing, massive deficit spending, raised taxes, businesses in support of government jobs, full employment, a draft, and food and materiel rationing. It was government intervention at such a grand scale, and this intervention pulled us out of the Depression. And New Deal opponents seem to forget that it was the same president who presided over the New Deal as who presided over World War II.

And afterwards, what did we do? We experienced the biggest economic boom of the time with the most massive public works project in the 20th century outside of the war effort: the building of our nation's interstate system.

The role of government to secure the rights that all men (who are created equal) are inalienably endowed with is considered one of the self-evident truths of the Founding Fathers. And when it doesn't work, we have to alter or abolish it. That's what voters did in 2006 and 2008.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The (George) Will of the People

In today's Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will wrote about California Attorney-General Jerry Brown's appeal to the California judiciary that the results of Proposition 8 were unconstitutional. Will is derisive of the obvious paradox that a constitutional amendment being declared unconstitutional, and any principled person dedicated to the government being decided by the people would find Jerry Brown's argument ludicrous.

And here lies the problem for progressives. If a socially unjust law is overturned by the people, then the circumstances demonstrate democracy at its finest; however, if the majority of voters enact a provision that would deny people equality, progressives look to the courts to legislate in their favor. Conservatives cry double-standard, and are left angered that their will and their vote have not counted for anything. Frustration and resentment builds amongst all in both sides.

In our American government, we learn that only the legislative branch makes law. If the executive passes an act that supercedes deliberative legislation, or if the judiciary overturns a piece of legislation, the executive and judicial branches are seen as overstepping their bounds. Yet throughout American history, there have been numerous instances of both the executive and judicial branches doing exactly that, for better or worse. Perhaps the most notorious case of judicial bigotry was the Dred Scott case.

But keep in mind that the use of the words "notorious" and "bigotry" are only used through the lens of present-day social mores. So now, let us ask ourselves these questions:

What does it mean to be American? Is it to be a supporter of representative government and democracy? A supporter of capitalism? Does it mean wanting to be the biggest and the strongest and the best? To whom or what do we look to determine what is truly American? George Washington? George Will? George Bush? George Stephanopolous? The Declaration of Independence? The Constitution of the United States?

Throughout the world, there is one word that is at the heart of what it means to be American: freedom. America may have been late to abolish slavery, but the Emancipation Proclamation was seen to be the embodiment of the American ideal. When blacks could not go to schools of their choice, Brown v. Board of Education overturned the legal segregation policies of Plessy v. Ferguson. FDR integrated the Defense Department. Harry Truman integrated the United States Armed Forces. When that was not enough, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discrimination. And none of these events happened with the consent of the legislation. They were all executive or judicial decisions.

Before the Civil War, popular sovereignty was used to determine whether a territory would be admitted as a slave state or a free state. One man argued against that. It is ironic that a man who would later on declare that government of the people, by the people, for the people would argue against popular sovereignty, something supposedly by the people. But Abraham Lincoln understood the fundamentals of what was expressed in both the Declaration and the Constitution: that it is a self-evident truth that government is necessary to secure the blessings of life and freedom, not prohibit it. When citizens are deprived freedom and equality, it is the responsibility of government to ensure that those rights are upheld.

It would behoove George Will to pay attention to the history that he claims to admire.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Islamophobia 2009

And so the New Year begins with an all-too-familiar case of Islamophobia as nine Muslims are removed from an AirTran flight for making innocuous comments about the safest place on an aircraft.

The outrage at this eviction is tempered by the equivocation of the victims themselves. One of them, Atif Ifran, told CNN that he was “impressed with the professionalism” of the FBI agents who questioned him, a tribute to whatever sensitivity program of interrogation that the CIA waterboarders never received. From the airline that kicked them off? No apology, and no help with getting them to their destination besides refunding their tickets.

When I was a child, my family and I would travel often. I must have been 10 years old when my family became a victim of profiling. My father was forced to open our luggage at the ticket counter so they could rifle through our clothes and our underwear that we had spent so much time packing the night before. I watched helplessly as my father protested this treatment, and I felt embarrassed; I was not embarrassed at having our bags searched, but at the way my father was upset at the authority of the baggage-checkers. I knew that Arabs had been hijacking aircraft, and I felt that they were only doing the right thing.

Year after year, whenever my father and I traveled, I would witness his ordeal as he would be singled out of the scanning line and have to take off his shoes. And I came to accept that this would eventually be my fate as well. I learned to keep my mouth shut at customs lest I say the wrong thing, and let my father do the talking. As I grew older, I came to accept myself as a sort of second-class citizen in the airport. I became accustomed to getting “randomly screened.” It was a matter of procedure that my bags would be the ones searched through, delaying my return home from the airport. I knew well enough to wear shoes that could be put on and taken off with ease.

So after 9/11, traveling didn’t change as much for me as it did for everyone else. I would shake my head sadly as I watched person after person go through the same embarrassing rituals that my father and I went through. I saw women wearing shoes that had too many straps break down and cry when they weren’t moving fast enough. I saw airport security men and women adopt the “I-have-the-worst-job-in-the-world-and-I-get-to-do-it-all-over-again-tomorrow” stare. And I saw businessmen in suits with looks of outrage on their face as they opened up their briefcases. I even had strangers (not realizing my Arab heritage) vent to me while waiting to board the flight about their difficult times with security. And I thought, why are you all so pissy? I go through this all the time! It never occurred to me that no one deserved to be treated this way until after I joined the military.

So, can you equivocate racial profiling? Rather than unequivocally say no, I would like to offer these tips to paranoid travelers:

1) If you’re at the airport, and you see a Middle-Eastern man with a beard wearing Muslim clothing, don’t worry. Chances are he’s not going to do anything else to draw more attention to himself.
2) There have been more disruptions on aircraft caused by intoxicated people. Since most Muslims don’t drink, you’re more likely to have a smoother flight with Muslims onboard than not.
3) If you are selectively screened by airport security, remember that unless you’re a minority, be thankful that you probably won’t have to go through things like this every day. Minorities, unfortunately, do.