The Breakfast Table

God on the Radio

Dear Michael,

Hmmm. There seems to be a new, exciting trend here. A regular growing phenomenon. People who operate small, edge-of-the-dial, low-profile radio stations tend to be …. Christians! This came as a surprise to anyone? Where I come from–and I’m not talking about Arlington, here, Fraysters, because I know how very tired you all are of that, all this insufferable getting-to-know-you stuff that Michael and I, who have never met, briefly indulged in as a means of establishing some connection; I’m talking about southwestern Virginia, in the heart of the Blue Ridge–it has always been the case that when you turn on the radio and fiddle with the AM dial, what you are most likely to hear is preaching. That or obscure country songs. Funny that it didn’t occur to Republican policymakers, when they began their crusade to stop the new licenses, that Christian ministers might be chief among the people applying for space on the FM dial. As you point out, Michael, the Times story about FCC licenses really does show how hard it is to tell, like, who is the counterculture these days. Moreover, isn’t there just something fundamentally weird about the fact that the federal government gets to hand out licenses to the spectrum? Licenses to the air? I’ve never understood quite how the government acquired this property deed to begin with. On a related note, in the Washington Post story today about how the CIA has reneged on its promises to provide financial support to defectors, I was interested to learn that the director of the CIA gets to bestow as many as 100 citizenships each year. Just like that, pow, he can make 100 people citizens. No green card, no humiliating INS visit, nothing. Is there any other government official with that power? To grant the right to citizenship? What if he gives them to more Christian preachers?

Me, I’d automatically give citizenship to everybody living in the garbage dump in Manila that collapsed, a photo of which is on the front page of the Post. Could there be any more meaningless, horrible death than being crushed by garbage? How gruesome, the quote from the woman whose husband and three children were buried, dead, under the refuse, and who called out to rescue workers to use backhoes, not bulldozers, so she could at least recover their bodies intact.

One reason all these stories are on the front page today is that it’s July; as Gail Collins observes in the Times, the candidates are taking their traditional summer break, and Congress, while busily speechifying, is not actually enacting the amendments it spends most of the day proposing. In short, it promises to be a week not of laws or Supreme Court pronouncements or campaign sniping, but instead of summits–namely, the AIDS conference in South Africa and the Israeli–Palestinian summit in Camp David.

For my part, I’ve never known quite what to think of summits and other high-profile diplomatic peacemaking efforts, when it comes to Middle East politics or, say, Northern Ireland. I mean, to a person like me, who is not an expert in foreign affairs but is merely struggling to understand the latest chapter in what is, basically, a serial novel of hostility, summits are things that happen over and over, year after year, with a sort of numbing, baffling repetition. Inevitably somebody will break the agreement and then inevitably there will be another summit, and then somebody will renege on that, and so on. Thinking about this, I realized where I had seen that pattern before: in substance-abuse clinics. In a way, summitry is a kind of diplomatic Hazelden: The really hardened cases go back to substance-abuse clinics over and over, 10, 15, 20 times, they are always in and out, and this, I think, does not mean that substance-abuse clinics fail at what they do. It simply means that some habits are really, really hard to break, and so you have to keep trying, you have to keep going back and refining and reaffirming and revisiting. I don’t why, but this metaphor helps me avoid seeing summits as something repetitive and fruitless.

The South Africa AIDS conference is another matter: Rather than being something very old this is, I think, something very new, which is to say, an attempt to understand why it is–specifically–that AIDS is so virulent in Africa, and why, there, transmission has occurred mostly within the heterosexual population. Today’s dispatches, suggesting that men who are not circumcised may be much more likely to contract and spread the HIV virus than men who are, seemed concrete and useful. Ironic, that in this rich and healthy country of ours there is, yes, the growing phenomenon of an anti-circumcision movement, close cousin to the growing phenomenon of the anti-immunization movement. Stories like the one about HIV and circumcision make me come down on the side, I’m afraid, of old-fashioned health and hygiene measures, which is to say, on the side of ritual cutting. Let’s see. Would that make me mainstream or countercultural?