Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ishmael, Isaac and Karl Rove

Ishmael, Isaac and Karl Rove
Our Kentucky Valley

Family feuds have a way of getting out of hand.  We’ve had one in our family that began over 70 years ago and has already continued a dozen years after the death of one of the two participants, and it shows signs of being passed to the next generation.  My wife claims to be kin to the Hatfields, of the Hatfields and McCoys, and we all know the stories of their family feud over a pig and a forbidden romance (but not with the pig) that went on for so many generations that they long ago forgot what they were fighting about, but that didn’t stop them from shooting at each other. Feuding families is an age old theme that has driven our history on this planet...whether between neighbors, brothers or distant relatives.
“Cuz-een!” I often heard it shouted as I entered the temporary, blue tin building that served as the University of Missouri in St. Louis’ cafeteria back in the late 60s. 
“Cuz-een! Come, sit!” and so would begin an afternoon of heated political discussion with my friend, an exchange student from Jordan. I was politically active in the anti-war, women’s lib and civil rights movements of the time and he wanted to talk both American and Middle East politics. But I never gave much thought to his greeting...”Cuz-een!”. I assumed, as he knew I was Jewish, he was referring to us both being semitic people, people of the desert...I didn’t know. I didn’t feel very related to the Sinai desert, being that my mother was born in Russia as were my father’s parents.

Then it came back to me over a decade later.  I was crossing Iran...conveniently just in the middle of a revolution, December 1978...over land, in a van, on my long journey across Europe and Asia to India. We drove past toppled statues of the Shah, still smoking buildings and for a while just behind an open jeep with a machine gun mounted on the rear facing directly at us!  Our license plates had already been changed, we asked the two women with us to be as inconspicuous as possible and covered the side windows with blankets...and then, just as we entered a small village, the van broke down!
Shepard, Central Iran, 1978

Our driver said to go explore the village if we wanted as he hunted and negotiated for parts to make the repairs.  He then warned, “If you’re American say anything else, maybe Canadian and for G*d sake, if you’re Jewish do NOT mention it!” During my explorations I met a group of young men who were curious and wanted to speak English with me.  First question, “Are you German?”, to which I replied, “No, American”...and then “Muslim?” to which I, of course, said....”No, Jewish!”  I was then grabbed in a huge bear hug with the exclamation .... “Cuz-een!”  We spent the day eating pomegranates and peanuts while walking back village paths, laughing and talking.  They thought it was hilarious when I rode their donkey in the cotton field while they prodded the poor beast from behind.  As evening came they said “You must leave before night, we fight the troops tonight and you get killed” and then they gave me a photograph of Khomeini and wrote on the back “Khomeini good, CIA Israel bad”...a nice souvenir!   With the van repaired we drove a few miles away from the village and spent the night in the van waiting for morning and our drive to the border.

Galikesh, Iran 1978

But, there it was again....”Cuz-een”, cousin. It wasn’t until later during my journey, while praying in a mosque in Pakistan and talking with some of the young men there I began to understand. We are literally cousins, Abraham is grandfather to us both and they remember, we’ve forgotten. We may know the stories from Sunday school, but we don’t really remember, it’s not real to us, it reaches far too far back into history.  But this isn’t ancient history to our Muslim cousins, it’s as current and as real as your cousin 
Lenny.  Here’s the problem: we (Jews, and Christians since they come from our same lineage) trace our history to Grandpa Abe and his wife Sarah; while our Muslim cousins trace their’s to Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar. As it appeared that Sarah wasn’t going to bear a child for Abe she encouraged his liaison with Hagar who bore his first son, Ishmael, who became father to the Islamic people.  As the first born, our cousins claim, Ishmael received Abraham’s birthright to the land of Israel.  Meanwhile, us Jews claim that Hagar and Ishmael were sent away after Sarah gave birth to Isaac (at the young age of 90! Mozel tov!  But then again, Abe was 100, you go Abe!) and that the birthright was given to Isaac and his descendants, the Jews. 
My friend Steve...and we've remained friends all these
years since that amazing journey!
My Jordanian friend and my friends in Iran remember that we are cousins! They were also reminding me of a 4,000 year old family feud and that this feud was still very real to them. They were reminding me of our shared history and our family conflict. This family feud continues to this day and shows no sign of abating....the shooting goes on.
So, by now you’re thinking, Karl Rove? I was wondering how I was going to squeeze him in here too.  Well, Karl and his friend Dick know a thing or two about family feuds...about pigs and birthrights and battles that stretch into distant memory. The flames of distrust, old resentments, and hatreds can be rekindled and used for political gain. They are powerful tools if manipulated just right, as we’ve seen in the Middle East.
Many years ago, when Rove and Cheney were young bucks, just starting off their careers as Young Republicans, they began thinking how they could help realize the GOP’s goals of a reduced Federal government. One strategy they devised all those years ago was to manipulate the country into bankruptcy, thereby forcing the closure of whole departments, the firing of thousands of government employees and creating a default of the government of the United States of America.  To do this they needed the power to create a situation that would empty the treasury’s coffers and motivate a large enough portion of the population to allow them to carry out their plans.
George Bush conveniently provided them with an easily manipulated President, allowing them to start two wars while at the same time reducing taxes on the wealthy, a sure fire way to bankrupt a country.  But, to get Bush into office they needed to fuel old hatreds...they needed a good old family feud! They knew that old North-South animosities still brewed just below the surface of American culture, remembering a time that split families apart, pit brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, cousin against cousin.  Even the Hatfield and McCoy feud was fueled in part by Asa Harmon McCoy joining the Union army. Using social issues to thrust a wedge between fellow Americans, (the guns and God south vs the elitist north), changing the narrative of the Civil War to a war over states rights instead of slavery and by demonizing certain groups of Americans (environmentalists, intellectuals, the media, scientists) they were able to spark a new uncivil war which eventually brought us to the brink of default and gave us the Tea Party, stars and bars flags and all.  

My 'kin-in-laws'
And so here we are, with talk about “taking our country back”, political parties that refuse any form of compromise, birthers, Americans unable to have a civil discourse with one another, name calling, calls for second amendment solutions...they rekindled an old family feud and now the (verbal) shooting feels like the Hatfields and McCoys all over again...and I just feel like calling out...Cousin...come...sit!
PS:  On June 14, 2003, the McCoy cousins partnered with Reo Hatfield of Waynesboro, Va to author an official truce between the families. The idea was symbolic: to show that Americans could bury their differences and unite in times of crisis, most notably following the September 11th attacks.
So...there’s hope.

At least that’s the view from my valley.


  1. Now I get it...Working at the bank, I had three different Muslim customers all call me that in an affectionate tone. They told me we were all related to Eeebraham (their pronunciation). They also proudly told other customers I was their cousin. So thank your for the enlightenment. I was totally enthralled and captivated (until the politics, natch.)

  2. Love to read your thoughts and learn about your past cousin!!

  3. Thanks! Please feel free to share. Ellyn, I'll try to make my next one politics free...but no guarantee.

  4. I really like this analysis and I have always loved the story about "Cuz-een!"