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Monday, May 28, 2007

George W. Bush and the Grateful Sparrow

George W. Bush asks us to fight for freedom worldwide.

Associated Press:

President Bush urged Americans to use Memorial Day to rededicate themselves to fighting for freedom around the world and pray for the safety of U.S. troops serving overseas.

"In Iraq and Afghanistan, millions have shown their desire to be free," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. "We are determined to help them secure their liberty. "

Sounds good -- when do we start? In fact, a good question would be where do we start? A good answer might be 'here.' The idea that Bush asks us to 'fight for freedom' abroad and give up freedom here at home should be deeply offensive to anyone who's given it a moment's thought. Does 'fighting for freedom' mean fighting for freedom from privacy, equal access to justice, and habeas corpus? We've freed one helluva lot of people from the burden of life. Maybe that's what he means. It'd be hard to argue that iraqis have been 'freed,' considering they're afraid for their lives pretty much 24/7.

Some time ago, President Bush made another ridiculous statement.

Mother Jones:

...I am proud of the efforts we did. We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude, and I believe most Iraqis express that. I mean, the people understand that we've endured great sacrifice to help them. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq.

There's no end to the list of people who Bush thinks aren't grateful enough -- the american people can probably be added to that list, what with all the low poll numbers. Bush changed America from a good old fashioned democracy to a repressive regime, complete with secret prisons, torture chambers, and kangaroo courts. Clearly, we should be grateful.

The military should also be grateful. They get to take part in this great reshaping of the world. If they don't get pay raises and decent medical care, they should take what they get and be grateful.

All of this lack of gratitude made me think of a old japanese fairy tale, The Grateful Sparrow. There's help we should be thankful for and help that's no help at all.


One day, an old peasant woman is walking along a road and sees a bunch of cruel boys stoning a bird. She chases the boys away and finds that they've broken a sparrow's wing. She puts the bird in her basket and takes it back to her village.

All of the villagers see the old woman with the sparrow and they ask her what she plans to do with it.

"I'll nurse it back to health," she says and all the villagers laugh at her and call her senile. A peasant has so much work to do -- from dawn to dusk without any rest -- why would anyone take on one more chore? If she saves the sparrow, she'll get nothing for the effort. The old woman shrugs and takes the bird home.

The old woman wakes up before dawn and goes to bed after dark to nurse the sparrow. She's very tired, but she continues to care for the bird in addition to all of her other work. After several weeks, the woman has managed mend the bird's wing. The villagers watch as the bird flies off and laugh at the woman again. "See?" they say, "It's not even grateful enough to stay as a pet! You've wasted your time on this bird and now all you have to show for it is your fatigue."

The old woman watches the sparrow fly off. She's happy to see it healthy again, that's good enough for her and she tells them so. This makes the villagers laugh all the more.

A few days pass and the old woman sees the sparrow land on her windowsill. She smiles at it, it drops a seed from its beak and flies off. The woman takes the seed and plants it in her garden, wondering what the sparrow has brought her.

Eventually, a vine grows with two large gourds on it. The old woman dries the gourds to use around the house. One will be a new water gourd and another will be a rice scoop. She finally cuts the stem off the one she'd planned to use for water and finds it filled with plum wine. No matter how much wine she pours from the gourd, it's always full.

She discovers the other gourd is filled with rice and, like the first gourd, it can never be emptied. The old woman who'd exhausted herself for the sparrow will never have to work again.

Learning about this, the villagers don't find her all that funny anymore. Her efforts paid off in a way that no one could ever have expected. The woman's kindness has been rewarded. Most of the villagers are happy for her and regret laughing at her.

But one woman, her neighbor, feels only jealousy and envy. Why should the crazy old woman have the good fortune of saving the sparrow? So she heads out to the road where the woman rescued the sparrow, hides, waits, and breaks a sparrow's wing with a stone.

The neighbor takes this wounded bird home, nurses it back to health, and sets it free. Just as it did for the old woman, the sparrow returns with a seed. The neighbor plants it and another vine grows with two gourds.

The neighbor cuts open one gourd and finds it's filled with plum wine. She drinks, but it's gone to vinegar and makes her vomit. The first gourd being a disappointment, the neighbor cuts open the second gourd, expecting to find rice.

But the second gourd is filled with spiders and scorpions and snakes, which pour out of it and bite and sting her to death.


The first thing we learn from this story is that japanese fairy tales don't end with 'happily ever after.' The second is that rescuing someone from the results of your actions is no rescue at all. The rescued won't be grateful for the help, but resentful of the original injury.

The people of Iraq owe America nothing. Even if we got rid of all the militias and insurgents, ended the civil war, set up a model democracy, and left, we'd only be fixing what we broke. It's hard to argue that we should expect thanks.

Likewise, it's hard to argue that we shouldn't expect to have made enemies. Sure, things were screwed up before we showed up, but things are now inarguably worse. And even if we patch everything up just great -- better than before -- it's that original injury that will be remembered. And it won't be remembered fondly.

This Memorial Day, we should spend some time remembering those we've lost, those who've given everything for us -- rightly or wrongly. As Shakespeare pointed out, it's not the soldier who bears the burden for the war or the cause, but the king. "But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left."

But we should also think about how we'll be remembered. When those spiders and scorpions and snakes pour out of that gourd, will they look for George W. Bush only or will they look for America as a whole?

We can't unbreak the sparrow's wing, but we can make it clear that one man broke it. If George W. Bush isn't held to account for his actions, there's a good chance we'll all pay.

When George W. Bush is out of office, that's when we should feel grateful.


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