Ah, back to days past--when my Mozilla browser zapped out I lost a long post on the new Democratic-led Congress, so I'm not even going to try to replicate it. It was great to see photos of Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), wearing her best suffragette purple (which actually looks maroon in the photo at left), take the reins as the first female Speaker of the House in US history, putting her third in line for the presidency. She also made a point of posing with the first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison (D-MN), both their hands, along with his wife's, on Thomas Jefferson's two volumes of the Koran. As Reggie H. noted in the comments, two Buddhists were also seated as Congresspeople. (Ellison even sought out, greeted and invited for coffee the crackpot Republican, Virgil Goode (R-VA), who's been slandering him and attacking Muslim immigrants in general.) The contrast between the diverse Democratic caucus, which has a 30-seat advantage over the mostly male and monocolor Republicans, couldn't have been starker. Pelosi and the Democrats have launched their 100-day agenda, which they aim to enact with minimal Republican interference and maximum GOP and media carping and clamor (perversely enough, for Pelosi to "save" Bush's presidency, as if that were humanly possible), but the country will be better for it. Ms. Speaker really should rescind her edict about not impeaching Bush, who grows ever more dangerous. Without any fanfare, he arrogated to himself the right to search Americans' private mail, in yet another of his infamous signing statements, which was attached to a postal reform bill that purported to legislate just the opposite! And then there's his escalation....
A new and spirited air also filled the floor of the smaller, clubbier Senate, now led by soft-spoken but steely Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada; the majority of female Senators, two of the three Latinos, the two Asian-Americans, and the lone African-American (whom the right wing and its media apparatchiks are currently focused on) are all part of the Democratic caucus, as is new, very progressive Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is a self-described socialist. New York's junior but super-Senator Hillary Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton, provoked a hubbub by showing up at her symbolic swearing in, and 90-year-old Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, entering his 9th term, whooped and hollered before nearly collapsing, then recovered to cheer Sanders on. Like Pelosi and her House caucus, Reid put forward 10 bills immediately, some already passed, with Republican support, that have a small-bore progressive edge. It's likely most will pass, and it'll be interesting to see if Bush signs or vetoes them. He's a lame duck and occupies a place in history as the worst president ever, so he has nothing to lose either way.
A Democrat also made history today in Massachusetts. Deval Patrick was inaugurated as the first African-American governor of that state, which was the first to enact chattel slavery in 1641, and also command central for abolitionism in the 19th century. Surrounded by a sea of onlookers eager to witness the groundbreaking ceremony, and joined by four former Massachusetts governors (though not his retiring predecessor, Republican Mitt Romney), as well as the country's first Black governor, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, Patrick took the oath of office with his hand on a Bible that some of the victorious Amistad Africans had presented to former Congressperson and President John Quincy Adams, then offered a stirring outline of his progressive vision for the Bay State. He faces a number of challenges, however, from a $1 billion deficit to a somewhat more conservative Democratic legislature. I sincerely hope that he can succeed in enacting many of his measures. I also realize that, having lived in Boston for 10 years and witnessed some of the uglier aspects of its racist side up close, I probably would have wept had I been standing amid his huge crowd of supporters, because I couldn't have imagined this day would come so soon.
In other, less positive political news, America learned today that infamous right-wing Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was a confirmed drug addict on a drug ironically named Placidyl for nearly a ten-year period, during which he sat on the nation's highest court and issued rulings, many of them dissents. There's more incredibly disturbing material in the article. I couldn't make this crap up if I tried. Among other things, it confirms my sense of the media's utter bankruptcy. Was there not a single reporter from a major media outlet who knew about or had heard about this back in, oh, 1986? Not one? Of course there was, and of course they protected this awful person, who was a pick both of Richard Nixon and Ronald Raygun. Should people with known drug addictions--known, that is, at least to somebody at the FBI--be placed at the head of one of the most vital branches of our government (and no, John F. Kennedy and Dr. Feelgood don't count)? Yes, I know the answer to this question, and we all know that only certain people--cf. right wing Republicans--can get away with this sort of outrageous nonsense. Anyways, I always knew the man was a poisoned apple, I just didn't realize how toxically he was laced.
And then there' s Jose Padilla, who has literally been psychologically destroyed while in government custody since nutcase and former Senator and Attorney General John Ashcroft hastily called a press conference, from Europe, to trumpet Padilla's arrest. It turns out that the US government (may have illegally?) listened in on Padilla's calls, and in the audioclips they have at no point does he discuss the "radioactive dirty bomb" that Bush Ltd. claimed he was planning; the entire episode was one of many unfortunately effective propagandistic attempts to whip Americans into yet another white froth of fear. Instead, he can be heard discussing his Egyptian bride, a dream he had, other sundry matters. And for this this American citizen been held in custody and tortured for THREE YEARS, leaving him a psychological basketcase; that man is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome now. His defense counsel has said that his treatment is "so outrageous as to shock the conscience" and that he has been turned into a "piece of furniture." Now Bush Ltd. is in a quandary as to what to do, because their case against Padilla isn't holding up in the slightest, and as with the WMDs excuse for Iraq, they keep castinng about for crimes to assign to the poor man. But back to the state violence enacted upon him. There is absolutely ZERO justification, on any grounds--legal, ethical, moral, you name it, except for tyrannical ones--for what this man has been subjected to. And God and we know, he's not the only one. I seriously don't give expect the Democrats to do a damned thing about this, so call me cynical, but if there is any real recourse for Padilla and others who've encountered anything akin to what he has endured, let it be revealed and enacted as soon as possible.
On a completely different note, today was my first day of classes. I had two, full of eager young writers (several of whom are scientists, several journalists, several budding artists in other genres, and one a graduate business student!). We talked about what constituted fiction, especially in light of the literary scandals of the last few years (and fascinatingly enough, though I was sure they'd have heard of both James Frey and JT Leroy, many hadn't), what the standard elements of conventional good and great fiction might be, read a snippet of my colleague Stuart Dybek's exquisite short story "Pet Milk," and then they started on their first exercise. I was wiped by the end of the day (which also included a departmental faculty meeting), but also energized.