Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Gift Of The Magi

The other night my brother called me. He was shopping at Target and was wondering whether or not our grandfather would like a gift set of cheese and crackers for Christmas. I said, "I don't know, I mean, I guess he would, yeah ok, just get that." After I had hung up I mulled over the gifts that I myself had bought, I did something a little different from usual this year. I bought only one gift for each of those people in my immediate family, with a couple of exceptions. I was trying to harken a feeling of last year's Christmas.

I was in Germany for Christmas last year and on Christmas Eve the family came together, after a nice meal, to exchange gifts. Each member gave only one gift to each of the other members of the family. After thanks and hugs we headed to the local church for Christmas mass and later came home to have a beer or two and go to bed. I loved last Christmas very much because of its simplicity. Each gift was carefully thought out because it was the only one you would give to that person. When unwrapping was done there wasn't a huge pile of packaging and paper, but a small amount of trash.

In America a lot of people go out to shop for presents with little in mind of what to get. They simply wander around the store until they see something someone they know might like and on and on until everyone on there list is filled. Everyone has to make sure and give gifts to co-workers, the mail man, friends, and family. Come Christmas day a bonanza of wrapping paper and gifts litter the floor of households as families play with new objects. Objects that are nice and fun, but not really to the core of what would be useful or meaningful for them. So why do we feel this compulsion?

For more than a century we have interfered in the matters of other countries to protect our economic interests. In the back rooms of our minds we justify these things as being humanitarian efforts of the U.S. We think this because this is what we have been told is true. It is not.

We have installed new leaders whose politics were traumatizing to their countries or conducted operations that were clearly undemocratic. In time the people of those countries fomented anger towards the U.S. and eventually we received the backlash. The most poignant in our minds in the past twenty years would be Iraq. We have protected the interests of American investments at the cost of human lives and the reputation of the United States. That is what we are doing, simply protecting investments that private American companies would like to retain, not human rights or America's freedom. These acts of thuggery diminish U.S. policy, strip it of its lawful conduct, and reduce its prestige.

Suddenly one day a few planes crash and kill thousands of Americans and we are left wondering what is going on. When we learn who did this we can't understand why they could feel this way about the United States. In exasperation we realize that these people were not alone, much of the world has similar feeling. We look around at each other and our politicians and try to retrace our steps to find out what we can do to prevent this from happening again, but the answer is shrouded by years of being lied to and distorting the truth. We realize many of these people have been bullied for decades. Martin Luther King realized this when we couldn't figure out a good way to win in Vietnam. As U.S. policy makers scratched their heads he said this about the Vietnamese.

"We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops….We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men."

These covert actions are usually taken by the Executive branch which lies about what it has done or plans to do to the congress thereby undermining the congress's constitutional role in our democracy. By downplaying these covert and illegal acts by the government we become narcotized from thinking about such issues. Presenting our American actions in a vacuum rather than as responses to multinational corporations and civil rights actions we end up mystifying the creative tensions between the people and their leaders. All this encourages us to throw up our hands in the belief that the government determines everything anyway, so why bother, especially if its actions are usually benign. Thus we minimize the power of the people and, despite our best patriotic efforts, take a stance that is overtly antidemocratic. As Richard Nixon said,
"When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and eventually incapable of determining their own destinies."
He would know.

Most of us can realize that bigger is not necessarily better. Today, rather than boasting of our consumption we are more likely to lament our waste. In terms of using the world's resources and spoiling the environment Americans are the world's most irresponsible citizens. In our lifetimes each of us are expected to generate about 150 tons of garbage (that means outside of recyclables) and we are expected to generate 9.8 tons of particulate air pollution. These numbers are just the tip of the trash-berg because what we often don't consider is that every ton of waste at the consumer end has also required about five tons in the manufacturing stage and even more at the initial site of extraction. We can all agree that Americans take more of the common pool than any other nation. We don't need so much stuff; we all know material things don't make you happy anyways. Too many people are confusing financial wealth with personal wealth.

Why do we even give gifts at Christmas? Is it because the magi brought gifts to Christ? If that is the case I must remind everyone that they brought only one gift each and with the intention that Joseph should sell them to have money with which to reach Egypt, not because baby Jesus would think they were cool and the magi would stimulate the economy.