Monday, December 17, 2007

Happy Holidays

NEWS ITEM: “(New York) A group of people exchanging holiday greetings on a subway last week hurled anti-Semitic slurs and beat four Jewish riders who had wished them “Happy Hanukkah,” authorities said. The prosecutor’s office was investigating a possible hate crime.” (USA Today, 12/12/07)

In our country’s continuing need to create a controversy where there need not be one, we have now annualized this penchant. I refer to the great “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” cloud that hangs over salesclerks everywhere. What does one say to a stranger in this season of joy and love for people of virtually all faiths over an extended calendar of celebration?

I guess there are some folks who feel it to be their First Amendment and unalienable right and spiritual obligation to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Whether the recipient celebrates Christmas or not, or celebrates within a Christian or secular context, and usually without bothering to ask. Where companies have asked employees to use the Happy Holidays greeting (a meaningful wish applicable to virtually all peoples), employee groups and speeches from the pulpit decry once again “another assault on religion.” I think such outraged individuals have it backwards. If I may, I will use a personal story to illustrate.

When I left my native Arkansas at 21 to go to Boston, a more Wonder-bread kid from a homogeneous white Protestant environment could probably not be found. (What diversity existed in my town was out-of-sight/out-of-discussion, e.g. non-Protestants, Blacks.) Yet in Boston I found myself in a completely foreign melting-pot environment unlike any I had known. Religions, cultures, nationalities, with all their various Americanizations, were all there. Reflecting against all of these new experiences caused me to have to go back and understand where I had come from in my safe, all-the-same upbringing. It was a head-swirling multi-year process of change and assimilation, all for the far better I know.

On my return to Boston after a 2-year absence, I became dear friends with a couple whose history could not have been more different. Raised in New York City, in close knit Jewish communities, immersed in the performing arts, I seemingly had nothing in common with them at all. But over the years I learned so much from them and their family and friends. Not just about Jewish culture, but about many other cultures as well and the ability to all live together, given their broad exposure to such versus my nil.

For years, when the December holidays came around, I always sent them and his parents a Christmas card. Because Christmas cards is what I did every year. It was an unthinking reflex. Kind people that they are, they never pointed out to me my un-thoughtfulness, but just accepted the wish in good (and probably bemused) grace.

It was probably 15-20 years later when, out of the blue, it suddenly hit me how backwards I had been. Christmas is MY holiday, MY set of long memories. Their holiday, their memories, are of a different celebration and meaning --- in their case Hanukkah. I take joy when they wish me a Merry Christmas, their knowing that is a special time for me and my family. In my special feelings for them, I finally realized that my heart should wish them not my holiday but theirs: Happy Hanukkah, the holiday that brings similar seasonal warmth to them.

There are millions of non-Christians in this country, and many non-religious celebrators of Christmas. Many no longer live in isolated homogeneous communities, but increasingly we live intermixed all together. One can choose to “spread the Gospel” in the winter holiday time, or one can express true love and acceptance of each other and their respective celebrations. People who insist on the “right” to wish a Merry Christmas to people whose tradition of observance is different are in fact being very selfish. They make themselves feel better, but they are not truly spreading “joy and good will to others.”

Our country's diversity is one of our strengths. But say Happy Birthday to me on my birthday, not yours. Wish me a happy 4th of July, not a Happy Bastille Day. Wish people joy and peace in their own personal form. And if you don’t know, or haven’t tried to understand another’s culture, don’t assume; just know that “Happy Holidays” really does work just fine.

Happy Holidays to each of you, and to your friends and families, my readers.

Dedicated to Steve and Marilin, and honoring Steve’s recently deceased father.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

We Do Not Torture

President Bush has declared to the world that “Americans don’t torture.” Therefore, since Americans don’t torture, the various things we do to extract information from the “civilian combatants” we are holding are – by his definition – not torture. Because we don’t torture. Because we are the good guys. Because …..

It is said that a paradox is the ability to hold two apparently contradictory opposite thoughts in your mind at the same time with no apparent discomfort. It often seems that George Bush has raised the concept of paradox to an unimaginable art form enveloping not just Americans but citizens of the world.

By any simple definition, torture is the act of inflicting pain or death on someone, or causing one to believe that such pain or death is an imminent outcome, in order to force one to commit an action. Much of our recent national discussion has been around the example of “waterboarding” as an interrogation technique. This involves submerging individuals in water, or pouring water over their heads, to the extent that an individual believes drowning is imminent. Well, if this is not torture, I just don’t know what else is. Most common-sense Americans can recognize it as just that. Stripped of any legalistic wordsmanship and political candidate rhetoric about who is more qualified to “keep America safe,” this is violence against others rationalized by the end [keep Americans safe at any price] justifying the means [torture].

We have given away so much of our better selves as a result of our venture into Iraq. So many human, philosophical, and ethical casualties. We are still working through 30 years of our legacy in Viet Nam; our Iraq experience will likely take us as long or more to recover. Americans are fundamentally a good and generous people. But in the name of personal security we have long ago surrendered the moral high ground. While we point to the bad guys and say that all we do is permissible because our cause is just and ethical, the bad guys are equally convinced in the rightness of their cause. A cause that is a mystery to us, perhaps, but very clear and rational to them. And they have the willingness to do whatever is necessary to advance that cause. We are left to wonder --- what version of America are we defending?

When we operate on the same level as our enemy, we thereby implicitly endorse their actions. We become what we say we despise. It matters not who started a cycle of violence; that becomes irrelevant history in favor of who did what last. So their actions begat our actions begat their actions, and the cycle never ends.

John McCain, himself a torture victim in Viet Nam, is the only Republican presidential candidate forthright enough to denounce this mentality for the danger that it is. The other Republicans are too busy out-racing each other to be the ultimate war hardliner. Meanwhile, most of the Democratic candidates speak out against the use of torture, but are still trying to figure out how to present themselves as both a peace candidate and war president at the same time.

McCain, for whom this question is not a hypothetical question, understands the simple truth of reciprocity: that what we do to others inherently gives permission to others to do the same to us. We are entitled to no better treatment than what we give. When we inflict torture, no matter how seemingly justified in the short term, we invite the same treatment to our soldiers and civilians in the field. When we give away our morality in favor of revenge, how do we subsequently explain the abused and distorted body of a tortured soldier to his or her parents and family? “He did not die in vain” and “she served her country proudly” somehow just doesn’t seem to be enough.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

We Still Pray

In this age of personal statement by bumper sticker, I frequently see the message “We Still Pray” on the back of cars in front of me. Actually, I am glad that the folks in that car apparently do so. God has given us so many forms in which to engage in prayer, meditation, or just quiet contemplation, the more people engage in prayer in their own way is no doubt to our collective benefit.

The thing I don’t quite understand is why someone feels the need to tell me that they do so. Did someone tell them they could not pray anymore? If it is some form of “I do it, maybe you’d like to do the same,” perhaps God doesn’t mind a little recruitment on his/her behalf. But more often than not, I suspect it is offered more as a political statement than a spiritual one. In reaction to a perceived threat from the secular world that prayer, and those who do so, are under attack. This brings us to a political theme of the last 30-odd years of legal decisions against prayer in the public venues (e.g. public schools, government functions, and public-funded recreational activities).

I confess I am strongly on the side of very hard lines of separation regarding legally-sponsored spiritual and religious activities in publicly-funded venues. Certainly not because I am opposed to spiritual activity and expression by people. But when you do those activities in publicly-funded (secular) places, the problem is --- whose spirituality will you use? Whose religious ritual and dogma shall be used by a collective group of dissimilar taxpayers?

The U.S. is the most mixed cultured country in the world. It has been so since our beginnings ever since religious and economic pilgrims from a multitude of European countries and religions first encountered the Native Americans already here. We have certainly had our difficulties throughout our history in assimilating and respecting all of these forms and cultures, but in our own erratic way we’ve continued to generally do pretty well with it over time. Yet we also still have many pockets of isolated culturally homogeneous areas, such as in my current home here in western North Carolina.

Some groups today insist on trying to define America as a “Christian nation,” yet nowhere do I see that codified in any of our founding documents. And given all the different religious forms that claim the mantel of Christian, and the track record of argument (if not violence) that has occurred within that label, I can hardly see how that standard can provide a unifying framework for religious expression in America. As we also watch non-Christian religions growing in number in the U.S., the idea that one spiritual language, one religious practice, one faith can be made either universal or a yardstick implodes on its own improbability.

No, the founding fathers were, as usual, highly insightful in understanding what was needed for this country to truly be free, united and welcoming. Make every possible opportunity for people to find and express their faith, in the company of like-minded spiritual worshipers, in their homes and those places dedicated to worship. Given its abysmal track record, leave the state out of this.

In the secular world of tax-supported institutions, my dollars are equal to your dollars. So in an open and public setting, will your prayer be used, or mine? Will we say the Catholic Lord’s Prayer or the Protestant version? Will we bow in Christian prayer, meditate in Buddhist silence, close down the post office for Yom Kippur, or fast together in the school cafeteria for Ramadan? Prayer has not been forbidden; where one might pray, and your ability to tell me how to pray, has correctly been limited. The religious majority today could well be the religious minority of tomorrow. Then whose prayer will we use?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Freedom of Speech Defended

Columbia University recently invited Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on its campus and submit to a Q/A session. For this, the University has taken a lot of flack in conservative quarters for giving Ahmadinejad a public forum from which to speak. I, however, was delighted that the invitation was extended. Certainly not because I am any fan of Ahmadinejad and his positions. Rather, I do think he is an ill-informed political ignorant given what he has said are his beliefs and his views of the world that surrounds him. (Then again, we fail to acknowledge that we are generally quite similarly ignorant of the world, belief systems and cultural history from which he comes.) But by extending this invitation, we demonstrated to him (and the citizens of Iran and the world) what freedom of speech really means in this country, versus in Iran; we created the opportunity to Q/A a national leader in an open, non-staged debate (something our U.S. President has shown no willingness to do), versus in Iran; and we allowed that national leader the opportunity to make his case for his beliefs, or to fail, through civil discourse, versus in Iran. And in this instance, Ahmadinejad managed to fail miserably to convince, almost to the point of the laughable.

It is a shame that this important example of democratic free speech was lessened by the self-serving, uncivil and rude introduction of Ahmadinejad given by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger. It was, nevertheless, an otherwise “America at its best” moment: our willingness and ability to let hate and ignorance fail on its own through the light of the spotlight rather than exist in isolated darkness. Hard as it may be at times, requiring the courage of our willingness to air that with which we disagree, it is still what we are to be about: the faith that extremes will ultimately be exposed for what they are, and that truth ultimately wins out. Or, as a quote stated that I read in an unlikely place, “If we don’t protect freedom of speech, we’ll never know who the idiots are.” The reality is that we are never able to create an effective dialog, or reach a negotiated conclusion, with another individual until we first at least understand what that person thinks, and why she/he thinks it, no matter how foreign those may be to our own background and thought process. We must first listen before we speak. Only from that basis can effective dialog begin.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Potpourri #1

Some short thoughts on various subjects passing by ….
Alberto Gonzales. Finally gone, finally resolved. Hopefully we can now get back to respecting the Constitution with apolitical justice. Have any lessons been learned?

The talk show commentators are continuing their goal to trivialize important issues in favor of ratings-producing hysterical rantings over distracting trivia. To wit:
- does Obama’s recent decision not to wear an American flag lapel pin really denote a non-patriot / un-American? (I personally have never been too fond of bumper stickers on my car or on my lapel.)
- Does’s New York Times ad about “General Betrayus” really require a Congressional denunciation over not being respectful of our soldier(s), while concurrently skipping over denouncing the Iraqi killing fields fiasco which has created the problem in the first place? (And since when did any self-respecting right-winger start admitting that they read the New York Times?)
- When you have no case of substance, we need to beware the demagogue who moves to distracting sloganeering.

George Bush has apparently suddenly become our historian-in-residence. He now says that “we failed to learn the lesson of the Viet Nam War.” He said that lesson to be learned was “not to leave early, but to see the mission through.” (Even though I thought the Iraqi “Mission [was] Accomplished” a couple of years ago.) I would hardly call 10 years of a stalemate quagmire and 40,000+ American deaths in Viet Nam as “not seeing it through.” Like Iraq, an outsider cannot “save” a country that does not really want to be saved or does not want to achieve the outsider’s vision, while it seeks to pursue its own ideological aspirations. In the long run, you cannot prop up an unrepresentative and ineffective government through a military presence. You can only at best conquer a country, which we certainly have not achieved in Iraq nor did Russia achieve in Afghanistan in the eighties during their middle-east intervention fiasco. You cannot win a military objective by lying and covering up to the American public the realities occurring on the ground. And the body count of how many dissenters you have labeled “un-American” diminishes fighting strength, not enhances it. Those are the real lessons of Viet Nam that the mid-level military men of the mid-1960s-70s and the American people learned. George Bush apparently skipped class that day, and read a different history book than the rest of us.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Individual Learner - Part 2

Prior to the 1900s, learning was highly individually directed, even if done in small groups. The early spiritual masters taught in parable and broad example, challenging the individual to think through and determine his/her actions within those truths. Socrates perfected his “teaching through questioning” methodology, idealized still today by many educators as the “perfect form.” Early teaching forms in England, and carried over into colonial America, followed a religious-based liberal arts education driven by a educator (typically a religious figure) who served more as a mentor, guiding his students into learning through readings and 1:1 or small group discussions. Formal education stopped when the student was out of money or moved out into work and commerce.

American public education was a huge social commitment coming out of the 1800s. A commitment that this country justifiably took pride in then and still now. It was generally epitomized by the world of the 1-room schoolhouse. A body of learning that could be done, underwritten by a core expectation of reading and writing, taught to students of all ages, working together in one shared environment. With peer support provided by “those who knew helping those who didn’t,” regardless of respective ages. With the teacher providing individual mentoring and guidance on the side to students as they expressed interest, aptitude, and curiosity. And out of those times and simple backgrounds America produced some intellectual and creative giants in the arts, literature, politics, science, and commerce & industry. They discovered knowledge and creativity combined with culture and entrepreneurship to produce an incredible explosion of growth and development in America.

So how do we recapture the benefits of that directed, individually-based learning environment from yesteryear, but meld it with the vast new knowledge and teaching tools that we have today?
- First and foremost, we destroy the “grade level” concept and relegate it to the trash heap where it belongs;
- we provide learning sessions grouped around subject matter (instead of age);
- we let students enroll in subject matter sessions as they are ready, interested, and capable without regard to age level;
- we let classmates help classmates;
- we certify “competencies” where the outside world requires such certifications;
- we let the student accumulate competencies over time (including a lifetime), resulting in a broad “completion” credentialing.

Under this approach, the role and goal of the educator is more clearly to:
- expose an individual (at any age) to what is available across the learning spectrum;
- help the student identify where his/her interests lie;
- bring out and maximize those talents.

The only core minimum education required should be:
1) to achieve the ability to read and digest the written word;
2) to understand how past experiences, history and culture are shaping the present; and
3) how to continually and enthusiastically learn throughout one’s lifetime.
With those three starting points, the human individual can go to virtually unlimited places.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Individual Learner - Part 1

We have all seen and heard the last few years the growing discussion about the state of education in America, a discussion probably ranking only 3rd behind Iraq/terrorism and the healthcare crisis. “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) was supposed to be the curative for our public school education ills. Yet the results from this initiative are questionable at best, partly for lack of funding but more due to a premise that remains highly suspect.

Within NCLB, all children are to have equal access and equal, if not extra, support for their educational needs or shortcomings. Millions have been invested in tutors, extra learning programs, etc. to bring the lowest levels of learning up to a national par --- a par based upon defined expectations and outcomes for specific grade levels. Yet, as a recent TIME magazine article discusses, a significant portion of this support has come from redirected allocations for programs and opportunities for the brightest kids, the “gifted” ones. These students, forced to also work to the “statistical norm,” suffer from boredom and increasing social disconnections from their grade-level peer group. Dropout rates for the gifted can be as alarming as the dropout rates of the so-called underachievers. Home schooling continues on the rise, now affecting somewhere between 1-2 million students (according to one recent statistical report). The students who are in the statistical norm fluctuate on either side of ‘average,” and overall school dropout rates are still alarmingly high in many states (over a quarter of the students in my state of North Carolina).

Bad teaching going on? Yes, but there are lots of would-be good teachers trying to make a creative difference in “learning.” Teaching to the test? Absolutely, with avenues for creative thinking and expression from our kids rapidly disappearing. Stigmatizing of our children? Yes, creating defeatism in kids who should be experiencing positive and reaffirming growth in who they truly are. The real culprit? An archaic, antiquated structure left over from the early 1900s that does not meet the needs of our students, or prepare them for their future, nor does it find, expose and develop their best individual talents. A primary culprit here is the ridiculous, counter-reality concept of “Grade Level.”

We group students together based upon their chronological age. Yet every study done about childhood acknowledges that children have different learning styles, mature at different ages, identify interest and talents at different points and from different stimuli, often differentiated by gender, geography and culture. Many new parents are often downright fanatical (and frantic) about measuring the tricks and skills their child shows at a particular age point. Yet at some ridiculously early age we put all of these individual kids together by age group and say “this is what you should now learn and show competency in.” Completely divorced from what the child’s potential and future may be, regardless of relevancy to the child.

It is assembly-line education ——— education’s version of Henry Ford’s Model-T automobile assembly line. The foreman’s job is to maintain order, ensure proscribed process, create outcomes to a predicted expectation, all the while judging the competency of the worker. The worker performs the specific detailed task, at the proscribed time, in the regulated manner dictated by the manufacturing plan. Our teaching is predominately done on the same model. Assembly-line students needed to become assembly-line workers.

So what is our true priority for educators, governments, and parents:
a) WHAT students learn, over time, when it may be relevant? Or;
b) B) WHEN students learn it? (or don’t learn it, as the case may be)

In this age of vast information and learning media made available easily and rapidly, with so many options possible for living one’s life, and longer lives capable of experiencing multiple forms of life and career within one lifetime, this narrow and limiting approach to education is not only not working, it is indefensible. Educating to the individual instead of to the statistical middle, presenting learning at the time that learning is ready to be absorbed, and helping children find and exploit their true talents and future life directions, should be our true goals for educating our children. But is this achievable in America, given our embedded institutions and way of thinking?

See forthcoming blog entry for Part 2 of this discussion.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Presidential Election - August 2007

About six months into this overly-protracted election contest, the next set of some interim observations:

Biden: very smart and knowledgeable on foreign affairs. But unable to stand out overall.
Clinton: oozes assuredness and competence. Electable?
Dodd: very smart and knowledgeable on domestic affairs. No chance with the public.
Edwards: still hard to resolve the “substance” questions.
Gore: remains on the sidelines, unlikely to come in; the field is too strong for its base.
Gravel: counterweight to the discussions who cuts through political correctness, but too angry for any message to be heard.
Kucinich: has well thought-out positions that need to be heard, but won’t be able to convince the general election voters.
Obama: oozes charisma and believability, but questions of experience remain; has a couple of months left to convince. Memories of Michael Dukakis?
Richardson: still has the great resume, but cannot find a leadership style to sell.

Brownback: probably would have been Falwell’s choice.
Guliani: amazing performance thus far given the Republican base he bears no resemblance to. He wins the terrorism issue, but is that enough?
Huckabee: a rising star, the most reasonable and least dogmatic of the conservatives.
McCain: he may be the only person who doesn’t know it is over; now trying to reclaim his 2000 "straight talk," but too late? Very sad.
Romney: is there any real person under that fa├žade?
Paul: Gravel, without the anger. The counterweight on the Republican side.
Tancredo: he would blow up the holiest mosques in Mecca and Medina if the Moslems don’t behave. That should certainly fix everything! Very, very scary person.
Thompson (Fred): still on the sidelines, but will come in; the field is too weak for its base. He will go through a fast “baptism by fire” that will unmask his positions.
Thompson (Tommy): gone.

What I Would Like To See (but probably won’t):
· An end to endless debates where people speak 1-2 minutes of buzzwords on major social / political issues

· More in-depth debates on one topic at a time with a selected mix of participants, e.g.:
+Gravel and Paul
+Kucinich and Trancredo (or Brownback)
+Hillary and Guliani
+Obama and Romney
+Biden and Huckabee
+Dodd and Thompson
+Edwards and McCain

· More candidates appearing on Charlie Rose’s in-depth 1:1 interviews (PBS late-night; highly recommended)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Remembering Republicanism

My father was a life-long Republican. The only thing remarkable about this statement is that he was so throughout most of the 20th century while living in Arkansas. Which meant that his vote was essentially pointless given that Democrats won virtually every election and every office during that period. He never really told me why he was a Republican, leaving me to only speculate. Yet one of my early clear memories was sitting in front of our floor model radio listening to the 1952 presidential election returns, cheering on president-to-be Eisenhower.

During his life, he watched the Republican Party move from a center of northeast moderates to a western center of conservatism as espoused by Goldwater-Reagan. He did not live to see the more right-wing Republicanism of Gringrich-Bush, and I think that is just as well. I am not sure he would recognize modern Republicanism, and he certainly would have trouble supporting it.

My father was a businessman, and he knew Republicanism as a party reflecting business thinking (save Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps) which provided the necessary balance to Democratic populism. He believed fervently in the Constitution and the respect for the law that that document represented (which left him bewildered by the civil rights and anti-war demonstrators of the 60s, even if he might be sympathetic to some of their aspirations). He absolutely believed in keeping government out of our personal lives, and having a power to keep it always in check. And he was driven personally by a (perhaps unrealistically) high expectation of always seeking to act honorably from an ethical basis. So Richard Nixon was an inexplicable disappointment to him, while he continually respected the character and honest talk of Barry Goldwater. The Republican fixation on conservative spending and small government was fully in sync with his professional life as a Certified Public Accountant.

The Republican Party we see today in the White House and Congress bares no resemblance to this Republican Party of my father. The unbridled intrusion of the federal government into the private lives of our citizens --- under Bush’s all-encompassing rationale for his “war on terrorism”; the extreme deficit spending of our budget; the tax cuts and selective corporate tax breaks that have not generated promised off-setting revenues. Most importantly, the continuing ethical lapses, overtly politicized crassness of language, and the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions would have been abhorrent to him. That which the Republican Party once decried is that which the Party has become. For my father, honor and dignity were primary values. To have seen his party finally return to the majority, only to then see the current fallen standing of this government and his party, both internationally and here at home, would have been a severe disappointment and embarrassment to him.

We have seen so many times over what happens when institutions and individuals veer from their basic values and beliefs in the name of ambition and expediency. We learn and mature, and from such learning and maturity our values and beliefs can and should evolve, refine and change over time. But what has remained consistent over time are the American people and their basic common sense, who have always ultimately rejected extremism, hypocrisy and phoniness. Sometimes it just takes a little longer for them to clearly see the evidence, and to then make that rejection.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Pope, The Preacher, and the Zealot

Recently, Pope Benedict hurled yet another had grenade into the goals of religious cooperation and tolerance. He affirmed a position of dogma for the Catholic Church which stated that only Christians were eligible for entry into Heaven. All others are thereby damned for eternity. I don’t believe he was quite clear as to the whether only Catholic Christians were so eligible --- or Roman Catholics specifically --- so the total count of heathens is as yet untotaled.

For Osama bin-Laden, all infidels (i.e. non-Moslem, and perhaps even non-Sunni Moslems) are damned. For him, these infidels cannot even be left alone in their damnation; they must also be eradicated.

Like the Pope, Pat Robertson damns all non-Christians and excludes them from a Heavenly opportunity. I suspect he also considers Catholics as de facto non-Christians for this purpose. Jews appear to be tolerated by Robertson, at least Israeli Jews, because they are the protectors of the Holy Land where Jesus is expected to make his Second Coming reappearance. He certainly only includes those Christians who accept Pat’s definition of the “right” moral code --- which thereby leaves out a significant percentage of practicing Christians from Pat’s group. And, like bin-Laden, Robertson is not above calling for violence to achieve his version of ethnic cleansing --- assassination of political leaders is deemed OK.

While Pope Benedict’s exclusivity message did not overtly call for violence against the non-chosen, he seems to not understand that such bigoted statements, especially coming from religious leaders, are the first steps toward violent outcomes. It brings to mind his recent insult of the Prophet Mohammed just prior to visiting Moslem Turkey.

When one adopts a belief that his/her religion is not just a personal statement of belief, but it is also divinely sanctioned, that step can clear away any limitations on actions one does in the name of that religion. Which then leads to the religious zealotry we see across the U.S. and the world today.

In his role as protector of his church, Pope Benedict demonstrates that he is not quite up to the job. The specifics and the overtness of their words may vary, but the words of Pope Benedict, Pat Robertson, and Osama bin-Laden all ultimately drive to the same end.

These disturbing words come at the very time when the need for religious tolerance and respect is greater than ever. Faith, and the particular expression of one’s religious practice, are deeply personal and individual, not universal. But the true expression of the humble, compassionate, and moral life transcends over our individual human limitations.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Above the Law?

There are times when it seems very difficult to sit down and write another of these postings. This is one of those times. Not for a lack of subject matter to write about, unfortunately. But for when one feels that the off-course road we are currently traveling does not seem to have a bend, a turnaround, visible up ahead.

I am speaking of the latest successive events by which current government officials signal a complete disregard for being subject to civil law, and being accountable to the American people who placed them into such positions. Most significantly is the degree to which they believe that no one is paying attention to them and their words, and that we do not notice or comprehend the arrogance and deception that they are practicing. To wit:

1. George Bush’s assertion of “executive privilege” as the basis for not providing documents, or documented interviews with his staff, over the firings of U.S. prosecutors. Executive privilege is supposed to protect the ability of a president to get candid and undisguised input from his advisors. In this day and age of the isolation of the presidency, I support such a privilege. However, Bush is claiming such privilege over conversations in which he claims he was not involved, conducted instead among his advisors and executive officers, regarding a question as to whether the actions of a supposedly independent Attorney General were politically directed from the White House. How does one assert executive privilege in that circumstance, except to implicitly confirm “I am guilty of the suspicion, so I need to hide it”? Huh?

2. As discussed in a blog posting before, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales managed to only say one thing in all his hearings about his running of the Justice Department: “I don’t know.” Over and over again. Whether his memory is that bad or he is just that out of touch with his own organization, in either case any corporate leader responding in this manner, or any accused suspect on a witness stand, would already be long gone by now.

3. We then come to the secretive Vice President Cheney. Who has a special over-sized safe in his office to hide his own personal documents. Who refuses to reveal conversations he had with oil company executives to formulate a national energy policy, invoking executive privilege on those discussions. Yet when challenged about his designating and not reporting an overly large number of documents as “secret” in violation of federal rules governing executive officers, conveniently and unilaterally secedes from the executive branch to suddenly become a member of the legislative branch. (No, Congress did not invite him in!) This is not “an intriguing constitutional question to be answered by the courts,” as some pro-administration commentators have claimed. It is absolute and utter nonsense. But it is completely revealing about the nature of the Vice President and his disdain for the law and the people.

4. Lastly, we come to President Bush’s latest maneuver. Commuting Scooter Libby from serving any jail time for his conviction of violating CIA secrecy laws. A violation that had costly consequences to CIA national security plans and agents. This leaves Scooter on probation for 2+ years. All of this maneuvering is in direct conflict with federal rules on commutations, which require a person to already be in jail or served time before one can be commuted! Which thereby puts a wrap of secrecy around Libby from testifying any further during his probation time. Leaving everyone else involved off free from legal danger. A presidential spokesperson said, “We’ll leave all of this to the courts to sort out how it will all work.” Implicitly saying, “Because we don’t care about the messy details.”

Which is most discouraging: That these people act with so little ethical consideration? That they do so continually from one event to another? That they do not realize that all of their conflicting words and actions have been recorded on video for side-by-side demonstration of their hypocrisy? That they fully believe the American people don’t know and don’t care, so that they have the license to continue to speak and act this way?

How could one manage to be a “White House spokesperson” in these times, with your purpose in life to work each day to rationalize these untruths, unethics, and (near?) illegality. Or are these people right in their low opinions about us?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In Defense of Non-Impeachment

I read and hear lately about several “impeach George Bush” movements that are afoot. The earliest such serious call was probably from Senator Russ Feingold, which got no traction from his senatorial colleagues. The latest comes from Representative Dennis Kucinich. Various other individuals and organizations are echoing this call.

Unfortunately, such calls for impeachment result in a waste of badly needed political energy. Like many others, I am personally very desirous of a change in this nation’s ethical thinking and political actions. I am also fairly convinced that it will take a change of characters in the driving seats to accomplish such a change, given that current leadership players are showing thus far that they are more geared towards a “hunker down and retrench” mentality.

Significant change is needed in this country. However, calls for the impeachment of the current president are counterproductive because it is a dead-end initiative. Why?

1. There has been no “smoking gun” act presented thus far that can be constituted as the “high crimes and misdemeanors” required by the Constitution to impeach a president.
2. The calls for impeachment come from negative reactions toward the President’s political decisions and actions. However much I may concur in those negative reactions, to follow an impeachment course based upon political disagreement is as reprehensible as the distasteful spectacle of the Clinton impeachment attempt, which at its core was similarly politically based.
3. The actions of this President, however poorly informed arrogantly conceived, and miserably executed, were legalized in almost every instance by the Congress, and endorsed by the American public through the election of 2004. To impeach the President also logically requires an impeachment of Congress, which passed the seditious Patriot’s Act, authorized the disastrous Iraq war, semi-approved torture and interminable imprisonment, condoned internal spying, and provided no effective public airing or oversight of the Executive Branch.
4. In the 1½ years remaining of the Bush presidency, and lacking any conclusive illegal act becoming public, the congressional votes simply are not there to adjudge impeachment.

Unfortunately for supporters of the impeachment call, the Bush presidency has not crossed that demarcated line as did the Nixon presidency. The national trauma of impeachment is too serious a matter to be used as a political tool for expressing differing opinions and judgments, however seriously motivated.

In the mid-fifties through the sixties, there were billboards scattered all over America that said “Impeach Earl Warren.” Impeaching the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was supposed to somehow reverse the precedent-setting judicial decisions emerging at that time. Good sloganeering, perhaps, but ultimately Chief Justice Warren retired peacefully and on his own schedule. In these critical times, all available energy should be focused on the issues and people that will matter in 2008. The priority is to bring Americans together to create an environment that will respond to our pressing needs, instead of the punitive stalemates we have today.

Be careful what you wish for. Would you really want Vice President Dick Cheney ascending into the presidency as President Bush’s legal successor for even one day, one moment? That is the far scariest thought of all.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

TheGrass Has To Be Made Greener

I recently made a vacation trip to southwestern Utah to see some of the national parks and canyons located there. An unfulfilled interest after all of these years, but which proved to be a trip decidedly worth making. As I traveled, I could not help not wondering …..

Why do we seem to have such difficulty accepting things simply for what they are, without needing to change them into what they simply are not? Everywhere I went, new housing developments were springing up in the middle of open desert ground. Each of which was also bringing the inevitable same old indistinguishable shopping malls and franchisees you can now find in any section of the country. Along with increased traffic congestion, resulting in desert cities now enclosed in smog, no longer able to see the incredible night sky clearly. And most frightening of all, vast pockets of constantly-irrigated deep green grass arising out of the desert rock and sand. Lakes and rivers are disappearing, but desert lawns are watered to look like Kentucky Bluegrass horse farms, and garish water fountains spray tourists on the other-worldly Las Vegas strip.

It has been said that “you can’t take it with you.” Apparently someone forgot to tell the 2nd-homers, the vacationers, the retirees, and the “newvo-richo!” Too many move from where they are, and rather than honor where they’ve arrived, they attempt to recreate it into something it is not. Yes, we can continue to grow, continue to spread ourselves across this vast country. But we should do so in a way that respects the natural sense of place, of openness in the midst of expanse, balancing green and brown with tree and rock as God provided them. In such a way that our grandchildren will not have to wonder ---- what did this land, my home, look like generations ago?

Thank God for those who had the vision for creating our national, state, and local parks and forests against all the intense pressures that still continue today. Pressures to denude them for individual commercial reward, or to plow them under and create yet another sterile, repetitive, commercial environment or a parade of look-alike, cookie-cutter or excessive homes that attempt to pass for a neighborhood and community of distinctive individuals.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

They Said What? (May 2007 edition)

Some recent quotes that give one pause …….

1. Alberto Gonzales, our US Attorney General and the nation’s highest law enforcement official, giving testimony to the Senate and subsequently House congressional committees about his role in the US Attorneys firing: “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, …. [ad infinitum].” So much for being the example for the rules of law enforcement and responsibility for testifying.

2. Mike Pence, R-Indiana congressman: “I want to thank you, Mr. Gonzales, for your candor, honesty, and humility in your testimony today [to the House committee].” What?

3. Attorney General Gonzales commented on the resignation of his Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, reportedly due to his disagreements over the firings: “At the end of the day, the recommendations reflected the views of the Deputy Attorney General. He signed off on the names.” Seems like Mr. Gonzales at last found his memory, at least long enough to blame his principal subordinate.

4. Republican Senator Arlen Specter (Senate Judiciary Committee) responded, “It is embarrassing for a professional to work for the Department of Justice today.” And Democratic representative John Conyers (Chair, House Judiciary Committee) added, “With this Justice Department, the buck always stops somewhere else, and the fall guy is always the last guy out of the door.” This version of a Justice Department seems to be following in a continuing line of inept federal agencies, but with this agency the impact of incompetency is far higher.

5. The same Mike Pence quote in #2 above was also the one who said (following his trip to Baghdad with John McCain) that the Shorja marketplace in Baghdad --- where a suicide bomber killed 88 people in January --- “ is now like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.” What planet is this Congressman living on? And what does that say about life in Indiana?

6. Given both of the above Mike Pence statements, Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) said: “All in all, this man is an idiot.” Accurately said.

7. Speaking of John McCain (and skipping over his incomprehensible statements about his “safe walk in the Baghdad marketplace” while surrounded by a phalanx of armed troops and covering air gun ships), he made this statement regarding the death of Jerry Falwell: “Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country.” Funny, in 2000 he called managed to call both Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance.” How nice that running for President brings forth a heightened sense of new tolerance in a candidate.

8. The best quote of recent note: In response to the latest attack by Vice President Dick Cheney that as usual questioned the patriotism and judgment of those who would cut spending on Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid replied, “I'm not going to get into a name-calling match with the administration's chief attack dog ... I’m not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9% approval rating.” Says it all.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Huntley, Brinkley and Cronkite

I miss Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, those two NBC newscasters from the 1950s-60s. I was a bit too young to know Edward R. Murrow, the lionized god of broadcast journalism, although it seems in his case that the man is in fact the myth. I also miss CBS's Walter Cronkite. These were all the people who created and defined television broadcast news. People who did their homework, asked right questions, distilled down what I really seemed to need to know and presented it to me concisely, cleanly and respectfully. Then they left it to me to interpret its meaning, both in absolute as well as personal terms. I sense that they would be appalled by what they see passing for news reporting today.

Today, television news is all about entertainment and it shows, whether network or cable. And this entertainment keeps coming at us nonstop, offering more time and words than we can possibly absorb or have need for. The commentator is concurrently surrounded by tickertape news blips and multiple viewing windows ---- who or what am I supposed to be reading or seeing at any given moment? News stories now come with catchy silly titles (“Iraq: Day of Decision”! “Election 2008: Road to Change?”) and their own theme music. It is a visual medium, yet clips are shown that have no visual interest whatsoever. People standing around at a crime scene, or looking at the house where it happened; committee members sitting at a desk talking inaudibly among themselves; reporters standing in front of a scenic backdrop (how many shots of a reporter standing in front of the White House does it take for us think “gee, this obviously important reporter must really know what’s happening inside!”?).

And now that we have too many cable news networks and we show them 24 hours a day / 7 days a week (because they are inexpensive to program), the challenge is how to fill all that air time. And the answer is usually either to make trivial stories into major news events, transform everyday people into major actors performing in Warhol’s 15-minutes of fame, or supply us with “news commentators and analysts” who believe that intelligent conversation is defined by who can be the rudest and out-shout the other conversational participants, or say the most outrageous unsupported things, or say anything to provoke controversy for its own sake and garner headlines.

All this ain’t news, folks. And it is not even very good entertainment. Anna’s death and the father of her baby is information that has no impact on my life’s actions. Virginia Tech was a significant event to give us pause ands reflection, but the intrusion into private grief and the decision to air a gunman’s recorded rantings descended into sensationalism and irresponsibility. It is journalism as an embarrassment.

The promise of television news is visual and depth. What radio and newspapers cannot do is show you people’s faces and character as they speak, and allow you to add the important body language and nuances into the words they speak. Whereas all that blank airtime could be used to show real in-depth conversations with people on significant subject matters, television news instead simply fills people’s time under the banner of “news,” making it all seem more substantive than it is. Guilty consciences are assuaged for both the watcher and the provider: “I am not wasting time or just idly watching entertainment, I am listening to the news.” No you are not.

For my part, I refuse to watch anyone whose idea of news-giving is to yell at me, as if his/her volume will overcome my stupidity. Or who conducts a television discussion any differently than if they were a guest at my dinner table conversation. Or watch the phony displays of indignation. Or listen to people whose claim to be an authoritative / specialist / expert is all self-designated, only to be betrayed by the hollowness of their words. When O.J. or Michael Jackson turns the law into farce comedy, I will pass that up also. And please let me never again hear the question “So what was going through your mind at that moment?” from some lightweight interviewer who obviously has no real question of substance to ask.

In a recent column defending the role of the film critic, Time reviewer Richard Corliss nicely said “”If our opinions on a movie don’t coincide, I don’t care, and neither should you. I’m not telling you what to think. I’m just asking that you do think.” Well put statement of the reporter’s/reviewer’s role.

By the way, I miss Peter Jennings, too. A lot.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mass Killing

This past week, Americans were witness to yet another incident of mass killing. An incident where one lone individual decides to make a statement, to act out his/her angers, and uses multiple indiscriminate killings as a tool of self-expression.

This time it was 33 persons dead at Virginia Tech University. With the exception of the University of Texas-Austin 40 years ago, most of our mass killings have spared our colleges and universities. They have been more at high schools (Columbine and the young girls at the Amish school), or in the workplace where an angry employee returns to take vengeance on a boss and innocent coworkers. In its aftermath, there will be the usual national discussion that, in the end, seems to result in little change.

There will be a new call for gun control to prevent such unstable people from obtaining guns; but politically there is not the strength of will to fight the minority NRA and enact meaningful legislation or control processes. Our Bill of Rights guaranteed the right to bear arms. It was written for a time when many people hunted to feed their families with a single-shot rifle, there was no standing law enforcement in the unsettled frontier wilderness, and it followed a citizen’s war of independence against England. (In that same antiquated spirit, the Bill of Rights also guarantees that we cannot be forced to house British troops in our houses, but I believe that has not been an issue for any of us since it was enacted over 200 years ago.) In short, it was a defensive legal protection. I do not know that the constitutional framers envisioned the level of personal armament and firearms usage that we experience today as necessary to protect our homestead.

There will be calls for an investigation into the actions of the campus police and the need for increased security; yet in reality there is little increased security possible at most of our open-access universities. Irresponsible outlets of our national news media roll out the historical comparisons of similar death counts (killing as a competitive Guinness record?) and intrude on the privacy of people’s grief. They broadcast photos and video clips and unending details about the shooter all in the name of “news,” thereby giving that individual all of the inappropriate attention he craved but never had in life, and laying the foundation for the next person to believe that mass sensational killing is the way to make a personal attention-getting statement.

As all of this was happening in America, over 200 citizens of Iraq died this same week. Over 150 people died in one Baghdad marketplace incident alone. By the most conservative of estimates, that war has consumed well over 50,000 innocent citizens on a cumulative daily basis. We rightfully grieve for the 33 lost in Virginia. How can we even imagine what it must be like to experience a Virginia Tech on a daily basis. How can we even imagine the numbing impact on one’s emotions from such a continual exposure to unexpected and horrific death, especially for a whole generation of young people. Why is it that we react more strongly to the death of an individual that we can to 200 hundred people, or to the millions killed in World War II? Our emotional and rational capacity to understand and assimilate death is truly very limited.

Whether it is the suicide shooter or the suicide bomber, whether a Christian shooter or an Islamic car bomber, it is still r4eally about people who have lost their sense of self-worth, of hope, of personal power, and for whom such a “glorious ending” is seen as the only recourse left. It is to this greater issue that our thoughts, energy and prayers must attend. (See future posting on this website regarding “Powerlessness.”)

A member of my spiritual group shared the following at our gathering this week from a prayer made available by the United Methodist Church:

“Whether in Darfur or Baghdad, London or Madrid, Kabul or Atlanta, Paducah or Blacksburg … The bullets ripped their flesh, and tear our souls, Lord God. Flashing from nowhere, unseen, unforeseen, perhaps unforeseeable, lives of promise ended, others mangled by hot steel and the shrapnel lodged in hearts too stunned to cry ... What break in heart, or mind, or flesh moved, possessed, demanded him to stalk these down like prey? We cringe, paralyzed before the mystery of evil even as we remember that he was your son who also needs your peace. We open our mouths, and join the silence of the disbelieving. Hear us, Lord. Heal us, Lord. Grant them, and us, your peace.”

We grieve for them all, and earnestly seek the capacity of forgiveness.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Language of Imus

Don Imus was recently fired from his radio show and the various media outlets that have distributed it. He appears to be the latest fodder for what passes for “news” on the several cable network news stations. I guess the great consuming interest in Anna Nicole and Brittany Spears has thankfully finally worn down, at least for the moment.

Apparently, in one of his recent broadcasts, Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a bunch of “nappy-headed hos,” which is street language for calling a black woman a whore. I have not heard the context for Imus’s statement, or what he could have possibly been discussing when he made this reference. I do know that the Rutgers women’s team is not all black, and that they had a very successful basketball season run, including making it to the NCAA championship game before losing to perennial powerhouse Tennessee. So I cannot imagine how that could lead Imus to having anything to say about them at all.

But the fact is it was a stupid thing to say, regardless of any context. It was certainly not accurate, though that has certainly not been a prerequisite to comments made by these radio/TV commentators. It does demonstrate how much entertainment, in the guise of outrageous comments from outraged-appearing “news commentators,” has been the guiding hand for these kind of shows.

Firing Imus appears to have been a right response to his blunder. But it also calls attention to two other items of concern.

One is that cable TV news is in serious need of being called to task, and not just for the individual “shock jocks” that we often hear about. The cable networks’ voracious appetite to fill too much air space with the cheap-to-create product of shouting headlines and happy-talking anchors and arrogant (but intellectually shallow) commentators that passes for news has worn very thin.

I realize that the days of Huntley/Brinkley, Cronkite, and Jennings have passed and will not return. But there are a number of news individuals out there who show respect to my intelligence, and inform me with information and thoughtful perspective that is worthwhile. I have adopted a personal policy that I refuse to listen to any broadcaster who feels it necessary to yell at me to make a point, or to someone who thinks that outtalking and verbally stepping on another guest presenter wins the discussion.

The other item of note is the one-sidedness of our racial dialog. If what Imus said on the air was wrong, it should be wrong for anyone of any race to use the same words. If “nigger” is a bad term to reference a black person, it should be so regardless of whether the speaker is white or black or any other color. If “nappy-headed hos” is a racially and sexually insulting phrase to use about a woman, it should be so regardless of the speaker. Inappropriate language is inappropriate, regardless of age, racial group, or whether the speaker is a musical artist, comedian, news commentator, or just an everyday Joe. I will have no respect for Al Sharpton’s many calls for civil respect until his sword cuts all attackers and defends all of the injured.

Our pressing need is for a language of civility that uplifts relationships among all people on a one-to-one basis. That is an obligation to each other that we all share. And an obligation that needs a lot more work.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rational Immigration

We are told we have an immigration problem in this country. What is really being said is that we have a problem with immigrants from Mexico, too many of whom are entering illegally. We don’t seem to have a problem with Canadians, Asians or Europeans, although in the past we have had periods of large waves of Asian and European immigrants. In most all instances, the driver for these immigrations have been economic --- people believing in the American dream, and maybe our values and freedoms and government systems, and who want to participate in them.

The current Mexican immigration is huge in numbers. Where it was once a southern California issue that became a southwestern US/Rio Grande issue is now almost a national issue as enclaves of Mexican immigrants have dispersed across the US. The arguments against this immigration include its sheer volume, its drain on US social service systems, the taking of jobs from US citizens, and the unwillingness to assimilate into American language and culture. The proposed “solutions” have included a 1000 mile fence to seal the border, and the roundup and return of the offenders back to Mexico.

These solutions are nonsense. The truth is, national unemployment is as low as it has ever been, so it doesn’t seem that Mexican workers are displacing too many American workers. Most Mexicans are here in the first place to work to support families in the US and/or Mexico. US employers (principally farm and industrial) tell us they are needed to fill jobs that would otherwise go vacant. In the meantime, these people are providing key inputs to many local economies.

Cultural assimilation will not happen if you concurrently refuse to let people become part of the citizenry. And we have always supported many bi-cultural identities and celebrations in America (African-American, Irish-American, Asian-American, Latino-American, even Native-American). These immigrants would not be “draining” our social services if they were allowed to fully pay into those services through taxes and other social rights and obligations. We have a reality of @12 million illegal immigrants in this country. Do we really think we are going to round up 12 million people and put them on trains back to Mexico?

As Americans, we are all of immigrant backgrounds, including what we now know about our Native American population. Our real problem is the attractiveness of our own success, and we cannot undo what has already transpired. Bring the illegals into legality, either as citizens or as certified immigrant workers, and let us move on. Then put an intelligent plan in place to manage future immigrants, including denial of services for those without certification. Pardon the past and accept our reality. We need to focus on the future.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Remembering Diplomacy

Do you remember the good old days of American diplomacy? An overseas visit by the President of the United States used to be a special event, well-prepared by solid advance field work that resulted in notable historical moments. Sure, politics and diplomacy were often married with a bit of show-biz spectacle, but that was all right. Those events in all their theatricality served to move forward international relations between countries and cultures.

There is the visual memory of Nixon with Mao in China. Of Ford with Brezhnev in Moscow. Of Reagan in Europe and Iceland with Gorbachev. Of Carter in the White House Rose Garden with Begin and Sadat. Of George the Elder on the phone patiently building a truly international coalition to resist aggression.. And of Clinton brokering peace in the Baltic and attempting to do the same in the Middle East.

Each of these instances marked the willingness of our President to put his reputation and commitment on the line by talking directly to people with whom we had substantive differences of opinion. But by showing respect for those differing opinions rather than contempt, and being confident and capable of defending our own beliefs without arrogance, we were able to engage in discussions and actions that led to positive change.

That was a very different environment than what we have seen these past seven years. Where are the grand ceremonies, the historic decisions, the major steps forward in “getting along and working together”? Versus refusing to even talk to those with whom we disagree, and publicly humiliating and insulting our adversaries. Our visual memory today is of giving a backrub to a friendly head of state and publicly embarrassing her. But we cannot demonstrate leadership around which friend and foe can coalesce.

How do explain such posturing to people such as Nelson Mandela, who embraced his captors and through quiet diplomacy subsequently obliterated the apartheid of South Africa which had imprisoned him for most all of his adult life?

“You talk to the most awful in order to get what you claim to be looking for ---Peace. And you will be surprised ... You don’t negotiate with your friends. You negotiate with the person you regard as your enemy.” (Bishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Elusive Rationale of Iraq

With our Iraq misadventure, we have engaged in a continuing shifting rationale to try to continually justify the support of the American population in what has become a huge mistake. But no rationale is credible any longer.

When we initiated America’s first unprovoked first-strike war by attacking Iraq, it was to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of an unstable dictator apparently willing to unleash them. We all know how that rationale turned out.

When no such weapons were found, we discovered instead that our real mission was to rid the Middle East and the world of that same horrendous dictator (conveniently ignoring other bad leaders in the world).

Despite having been told on the deck of an aircraft carrier “Mission Accomplished,” we found out instead that in the course of removing that dictator we had simultaneously destroyed Iraq’s economic, social and organizational structures with no plane to recreate these. (So much for Iraq paying for its own liberation with its own oil revenues ...) Most of the trained Iraq workforce (police, military, infrastructure, teachers, etc.) were sent into the streets to now be unemployed. So our mission then became to bring democracy and stability to Iraq. To a country that had already had stability (albeit in its own undesirable way) but with absolutely no experience or preparation for democracy.

As we began to fail on both the democracy and stability fronts, our mission then became one of defeating terrorists in Iraq before they could hurt us here at home. Of course, there were no terrorists in Iraq until we created an environment and haven for them to eb there.

And now as Iraq descends into outright civil war between the Sunni and Shi’ite Islamic sects, we escalate our troop levels to buy time for the transitional government to take control of its own country. Except that it is a Shi’ite government trying to take control over a Sunni minority that has a long history of domination over the Shi’ite majority. And who really thinks this can ever succeed in anything but trading one domination for another?

We are now stuck in the middle of something that has nothing to do with us, but which we have unleashed. When we chose to invade a country with no awareness or consideration of its history, its makeup, its dynamics, its aspirations, or its internal conflicts, why would we have ever thought that we would be welcomed as “liberators”? Of course why would they not want us to go home?

We are stuck in our own folly. And no shifting rationales-of-the-day can hide the calamity of our inadequate planning, arrogance and foolhardiness.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Palestinian Peace Not Apartheid

For those who share my high interest in the seemingly never-ending greater Middle East political nightmare, particularly with respect to the Israel/Palestine aspect, I would highly recommend to you President Jimmy Carter’s recent book “Palestinian Peace Not Apartheid.”
Unsurprisingly, this book is not without controversy. A number of people have said that this book is biased against Israel, is pro-Palestinian, and that the use of the term “apartheid” is inappropriate to describe the structure Israel has put in place to manage the Palestinian territories under their control. Several members have resigned their positions on the Board of the Carter Center in protest of this book, saying that the book now makes it impossible for President Carter to serve as a trusted neutral intermediary in any official or unofficial negotiations. Brandeis University outside of Boston did allow President Carter to speak on campus, but refused the filming of a documentary showing his talk or interviews of students regarding Carter’s writings.

In my own readings of this book, I find such reactive comments completely inappropriate and unjustified, but not a surprise. I have no doubt that President Carter fully expected that his perspective would generate some strong reaction. He has acknowledged that he is hoping to stimulate some fresh dialog into a situation that has remained largely stale and unchanged for some time, especially as the U.S. has largely abandoned any meaningful attempt to make genuine and balanced initiatives in this arena.

Structurally, the book includes an excellent snapshot history of events and players in the Israel / Palestine area, from ancient to modern times. It then goes into detail as to the modern events in the area, with the narrative built predominantly around his personal meetings and dialogs with many of the leading Israeli and Palestinian political players in that region (both during and after his presidency and continuing to this day). It is a fairly fast read that belies its significance. It is an important read if you are grappling as many of us are with understanding the real why’s of that area

I found his writing to be very even-handed towards both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the issue, telling the positive actions and in the negative actions of each side. If one is a “100-percenter” who believes that one side is all correct and the other side is all wrong, then yes you will find this book “biased.” But if one believes that no one (or nation) is perfect, that each political entity must acknowledge and take responsibility for and correct their imperfect actions or self-centered motivations, and must keep their commitments made, then this book will provide some possible starting places to find accommodations that must recognize the needs of all parties.

President Carter is neither a wholesale accuser nor apologist for either side. But if apartheid means treating people as second-class citizens in their own country --- as we did in America for several hundred years, as Britain did in Scotland and Ireland (and elsewhere) for almost a century, and as South Africa did for generations --- then perhaps the label may well be accurate.

Perhaps it may be true that one should negotiate from a position of strength. But in the end, it is only fairness that will be successful in achieving a permanent end result, Otherwise an unresolved problem is simply continued for years in disguised form at great human, economic, and spiritual cost. If you think one side is all bad and wrong, and the other all good and right, then you are part of the problem that prevents a resolution.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Historic House Vote

Last week, the US House of Representatives cast an historic vote. 229 majority Democrats (2 voted against) and 17 Republican Congressmen adopted a resolution that stated:

“Resolved by the House of Representatives, that (1) Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq; and (2) Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq.”

This vote was historical because it was the first time that a branch of Congress has openly voted against a President’s conduct of a war. Not during Lincoln’s conduct of the American Civil War (which was highly unpopular in the North during most of that war); not during Truman’s conduct of the Korean War; not during Johnson and Nixon’s conduct of the Viet Nam War.

Unfortunately, the US Senate could not generate enough votes to allow this simple, yet direct resolution to be voted upon by the Senators. This was a call for a simple up/down yes/no statement: tell the American voters know where you stand on this question. Even though over 67% of the American public now disagrees with the present conduct of the Iraq war and/or the announced troop surge in particular, most Republican senators refused to let the Senate as a body stand before this question and let it come to a vote.

Our national government continues to be plagued by partisanship, politics and process, leading to stalemates instead of creating solutions to important public issues. National debate is needed over a large number of critical needs; but nothing of real consequence seems to move to conclusion. Then again, given the level of debate that often occurs in Congress, perhaps we are in fact better off with no debate at all. To wit:

During the historic House debate, each Representative was given 5 minutes of time to speak, and almost 400 representatives took advantage of that opportunity to be heard. As one can imagine, the number of historical statesmen and philosophers quoted was probably matched by an equal number of analogies and historical precedents given to support each speaker’s point.

Perhaps the most memorable imagery was from Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO). His argument was “Could you picture Davy Crockett at the Alamo looking at his Blackberry and getting a message from Congress saying ‘Davy Crockett, we support you. The only thing is, we are not going to send any troops.’ I’m sure that would really be impressive to Davy Crockett.”

Well, besides the obvious mind-boggling time-travel juxtaposition of Davy Crockett holding a Blackberry, the fact is that is EXACTLY the message Davy got from the Texas legislature (Texas wasn’t a state yet, so Congress wasn’t involved!) and General Sam Houston: no more troops are coming, so you’re on your own. But they stayed in the Alamo anyway, did their job, died, and helped make possible the later victories for Texas independence and statehood. So I guess for Davy and all the men there, being impressed by Congressional statements was not their major need.

Maybe we should be thankful sometimes not to have our elected people participate in important debates?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Election 2008 Preview - February 2007

Some non-partisan observations on the presidential candidates:

Biden: you may want to know that 2/3rds of the emails to Washington Week in Review (PBS) said your off-the-cuff Obama comments were clearly intended to be complimentary to him; another cable news sound bite distortion problem to create controversy – i.e. much ado about nothing.

Brownback: the home for the Republican right who are feeling let down despite past loyalties.

Clinton: most men don’t want a “conversation”; they want confident leadership and direction.

Dodd: an effective senate record does not necessarily a president make.

Edwards: you’ve grown up and have campaign experience, but is winning the Democratic left enough to carry you to the White House? (think Howard Dean)

Gingrich: you’ve come a long way back, baby, but who are you now?

Gore: not the candidate image of 2000, so what are you going to do now that you’ve found personality?

Guliani: memories of your 9-11 performance will fade quickly; a lot of old baggage is waiting to come out, and only the law-and-order-mayor portion of your history will likely appeal to the Republican right.

Hagel: courage of convictions is appealing, but you will need more than just Iraq.

Huckabee: it was a personal accomplishment, but losing 100 lbs of weight does not a president make.

Hunter: who are you and why are you bothering?

Kucinich: still the quixotic Don Quixote candidate.

McCain: out of step from the public on Iraq, and the once-attraction of integrity is increasingly giving way to pandering to the voters; he looks tired and diminished already.

Nader: symbolic candidacies are important, but only one is allowed per wanna-be candidate --- else you diminish your larger strength and contribution to the country (think Jesse Jackson)

Obama: inspiring, but most every election has had its Cinderella candidate (Gene McCarthy, Bill Bradley, John McCain in 2000) anointed by the press but who falters in translating a clean, fresh, honest-speaking image to the hard politics of being elected.

Pataki: served as governor too long; seems like old news out of the ascending flow.

Richardson: the only governor with national/international experience; a potential sleeping beauty hidden in the race.

Romney: learning and adjusting one’s beliefs can reflect wisdom, but which beliefs are really yours versus political opportunism?

Tancredo: who are you and why are you bothering?

Thompson: do you have any substantive plans we should know about?

Vilsack: lighten up on the extreme hardship background story; sympathy doesn’t win votes.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Random Lighter Stories - 1

Periodically, I will attempt to include in this blog a set of lighter stories to try to keep us somewhat in balance with life’s ongoing craziness as we focus on so many heady thoughts. To wit:

1. Police in Madison, Wisconsin recently arrested a lawyer for DUI after he arrived at the police station to pick up a client --- who had been arrested for DUI.

2. Jay Leno recently told of a scientist that had developed a donut with the caffeine equivalent to a cup of coffee already infused into the donut. Jay’s comment: “Aren’t we overweight enough already? Now we’re so lazy we can’t even get up and walk to go get our cup of coffee with our donut?”

3. I recently got an email from a friend describing how a doctor had recommended that if you press a standard copper penny against a bee or hornet sting for 15 minutes it will stop the pain and eliminate any swelling. No creams, no antihistamine, no antibiotic. Somehow the copper in the penny counteracts the bite. The email described 4 separate instances in which this technique had worked. Of course, growing up in the south my Mother always just used a cigarette’s worth of wettened tobacco on it, but that’s probably less possible now that smokers are in hiding. (Smokers as medical practitioners?) Between Native American medicine and proven old wives tales and cures --- why is our high-fallutin’ health care system in such a mess?

4. Another story courtesy of Jay Leno: Verizon has apparently announced the development of a new cell phone that will work underwater. Jay’s comment: “WHY? Do we need this so you can keep talking in your car on the way as you sink to the bottom?” [as you ran off the road due to talking on your cell phone and not paying attention to your driving!]. Another example of inventing a solution to a need we do not have.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Election 2008 Preview

It is now February 2007. The next election for U.S. president is in November 2008, a full 21 months away. Yet the campaign is already now in full swing. While this blog will seek to remain candidate-/party-neutral during these next excruciatingly long months, we will no doubt have many occasions to talk about important relevant issues, and the conduct of the campaign itself. We should seek to do this from a broad and open framework as to our thinking and values, not goals of partisan accomplishment.

Some observations on presidential politics to get us started:

We will be electing our 44th president. 42 white males have served in this office. (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th president.)

2008 represents the first genuine (i.e. not just a symbolic statement) presidential candidacy from a woman, from an African American, and from a Latino. Is the American citizenry potentially becoming an equal opportunity employer?

This election is the first since 1928 without a sitting president or vice president in the race. So it is wide open for selecting the candidates. (Truman lost the New Hampshire primary in 1952 and dropped out of the race.)

In the spirit of wide-openness, we currently have 21 (potential) candidates in various stages of announcement (*plans not formally announced):
Republican: Brownback, Gingrich*, Guiliani*, Hagel*, Huckabee, Hunter, McCain, Pataki*, Romney, Tancredo, Thompson*; Democrat: Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Gore*, Kucinich, Obama, Richardson, Vilsack; Green: Nader*

So how many of these names do you know and can identify their place and politics?

Most of these candidates are currently serving in Congress. Many of our presidents had congressional experience. Yet in our entire history, only four people went directly as sitting congressmen to elected president (Kennedy, Harding, Benjamin Harrison, and Garfield, three of whom died in office). Most presidents (after the Founding Fathers) were former governors or had other executive responsibilities.

Eight of the 43 presidents were sitting vice presidents and ascended to the office when the president died. The vice presidential candidate should be an important part of our vote.

The national press will likely spend more time on the “horserace” sport of the presidential campaign, with constant emphasis on polls numbers rather than on discussion of issues. At this point in time, god bless the “undecided” voters.

If we really do not want to hear negative campaigning and sound bite debates, then we have to make that known, and honor our words by not responding to such meaningless disinformation.

It was recently estimated that any serious candidate will need to raise $100M to get their party’s nomination. The two final candidates will EACH spend @ $500M from primary start to election day finish.

The British elect their Prime Minister in a 6-week mandatory time limit.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Walls Against Immigration

One of my required weekly rituals is to read News of The Weird in my local alternative newspaper, a snapshot of crazy true things people all over the world do or say, compiled by Chuck Shepherd (NewsoftheWierd.blogspot,com). I highly recommend this weekly article to each of you. These “can you believe this?” articles continue to reinforce my understanding that human beings can be so ridiculous, you just have to love them in spite of themselves, while simultaneously never taking ourselves too seriously. One of the latest articles is as follows:

“California’s Golden State Fence Company, which has a contract to build part of the United States’ immigrant-impeding barrier on the Mexican border, agreed to pay fines totaling nearly $5 million because it had been employing illegal aliens.”

So when the Golden State Fence Company builds its section of the border fence (approved but I believe so far still yet to be funded by Congress), on which side of the fence are its workers going to stand? Are they going to wall themselves on the inside or the outside of this country?

Do you not think we are well overdue for some better rational discussion about our issue of illegal immigration from Mexico than we have had to date? A more comprehensive discussion that recognizes the genuinely felt fears, the desire to move to a better life, the economic opportunities and employment needs of the U.S., the obligations of citizenship, and the importance of our system of laws. It is admittedly a more complex discussion to try to reconcile all the many facets of this very important discussion than just staking out a simple position on one aspect.

Many countries have tried to build walls between people: China’s Great Wall, Russia’s Iron Curtain, Germany’s Berlin Wall, Israel’s work in process to separate from the Palestinians, and now the U.S.’s attempt to seal off Mexico. But just building walls (physical or cultural) has never been successful in achieving their stated objective.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lebanon Explodes

On Tuesday, January 23rd, street demonstrations broke out in Beirut, Lebanon. The protestors were Hezbollah Shiite Moslems from southern Lebanon, protesting against the current elected anti-Syrian government. 3 people were killed, dozens injured, the airport was closed, and gunfire was exchanged in this first instance of internal protests turned violent. In northern Tripoli, Sunni Moslems fought Shiite Moslems.

Since being created as a protectorate of France after World War I, a once prosperous and stable Lebanon has endured a civil way throughout the 1980s between the southern Shiites and the northern Sunni Moslems and Christians, a successful rebuilding of their country’s economy, a peaceful revolution that pushed the Syrians put of their country after 20 years of occupation, and in the past 2 years elected a purely Lebanese government on their road back to true independence and self-fulfillment.

Then came this past summer’s incursion by Israel, clearly backed and tangibly supported by the United States government. Ostensibly this incursion was directed to the Hezbollah organization in Southern Lebanon in order to protect Israel’s border. In fact, the destruction was extended throughout Lebanon. As a result, Lebanon is now facing billions of dollars in damage to be repaired, serious dislocation of its people, and now its pro-western elected government on the verge of collapse. The best chance for a “Middle East democracy” is virtually in ruins. And Hezbollah is virtually unchanged.

This is yet another example of the outcome of the foreign policy America has been pursing these past years. A policy of good guys versus bad guys, shooting instead of talking, war instead of diplomacy, seeking to overwhelm enemies instead of working fairly with their frustrated aspirations. The U.S. government’s goal in the Middle East is supposedly peace, stability, democracy and self-determination. So tell me once again: after 6 weeks of war, started over two kidnapped soldiers, with all of the property and social damage, and over thousand dead ----- what exactly did those bullets fired from the guns of hatred accomplish?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Islamic Terrorists: One Word or Two?

Today, whenever someone of the Islamic faith commits an act of terrorism, the news media automatically refers to him/her as an “Islamic Terrorist.” We have been so inundated with that coupled phrase that for too many people “Islam” has become virtually synonymous with “terrorist.”

I never seem to hear about the “Christian terrorist” who kills people providing abortions. Or the “Episcopal terrorist” who wreaks havoc on labs perceived as mistreating animals. Or the “Catholic terrorist” or “Protestant terrorist” who killed indiscriminately in Northern Ireland. Or the “Baptist terrorist” who blew up an occupied government building in Oklahoma City. Nor the Methodist or Presbyterian terrorist who kills in various circumstances for one personal cause or another. Yet in each of these instances, violence was committed in the name of some supposed greater good or higher calling, more often than not towards an innocent bystander(s) who just happened to be there at a particular moment.

Yet we hear about the Islamic terrorist, the Palestinian terrorist, and the Basque terrorist. The common thread? Each of these is perceived by many in our population to be an underclass people with a culture significantly different than our own, a culture likely well beyond our easy understanding.

I would suggest that we need to either stop the name-calling altogether, or use it consistently across all cultures and religions. Terrorism is terrorism, plain and simple. Bin Laden is no different than McVeigh. Each acted with self-righteous indignation against what they perceived as a great evil, their acts made permissible to them by their own interpretations of their religious beliefs. Let us not make terrorists into a caste system of better or not-so-bad or worse. If we do, we thereby injure the reputations and distort our perceptions of many innocents who have not resorted to terrorism for their beliefs.

Corporate Green

For those rightfully upset by the pointed lessons in Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” I invite you to read “How Business Saw The Light” in the January 15th issue of Time Magazine. According to this article:
-Honda is field testing a first-to-market hydrogen-fuel-cell concept car to turn environmentalism into a competitive advantage;
-Toyota is looking to become the world’s leading automotive manufacturer, with its highly popular Prius hybrid, and a goal to reduce to reduce car emissions worldwide in 2010 by 20% from 2001;
-Among other initiatives, Wal-Mart building experimental green-based stores and is seeking to sell a major volume of ultra-efficient fluorescent light bulbs to consumers;
-Goldman Sachs has pledged to invest $1 billion in renewable energy ventures;
-GE has committed $1.5 billion a year on renewable energy and other green research.

Certainly much more can be done in many areas by these and other companies. But let us give credit where credit is due: these are significant gains on the environmental and social fronts. The profit motive itself should not really be our issue. Yes, in its worst form, it creates the Gordon Gekko types in the movie “Wall Street,” or the Ken Lay/Enron implosion in the all-too-real life. America may have lost many of its edges in manufacturing and services, and potentially in engineering and the sciences. But we are still the very best entrepreneurs in the world. The ability of American innovation to respond to consumer demand is a powerful sight to behold. We simply have to make doing the right thing profitable.

So let us not be knee-jerk antagonists to the corporate business world. Let us appreciate and acknowledge them when they do right, all the while continuing to show them where more right is needed and possible. At the end of the day, no corporate business plan calls for going out of business by making products people do not truly want or will pay for. Corporate America will build what we want as shown by our actions, not our words. It is our job to lead corporate America through our power of taking personal responsibility for our actions.

“Consumers remain depressingly ignorant about the environmental impact of what they do. They find no irony in getting into their SUVs to drive a few miles and buy recycled toilet paper.” (Joel Makower, executive editor of

PS: As an interesting parallel note, Wal-Mart is going to begin selling organic foods; Starbucks now pays more for its highly-recognized employee health care program than for the coffee it buys.

Moslems in Congress: Lock the Door!

U.S. Congressman Virgil Goode from Virginia has provided us with the latest example of how to flip the Constitution and the Statue of Liberty upside down. Mr. Goode objected to the election of Keith Ellison of Minnesota to the House because 1) he is the first of potentially more Moslems to be elected to Congress, and 2) he intended to take his oath of office on the Quran instead of the Christian bible. In his unique eloquence, Congressman Goode said:
-America is a Christian nation, so people should swear on the bible to reinforce this Christian heritage
-we need to tighten our immigration laws to prevent more Moslems from entering this country and overwhelming America’s culture and resources

Congressman Goode displays a remarkable lack of knowledge about both history and current events. This is particularly unfortunate given his status as an elected leader and spokesman representing close to ¾-million people in Virginia.
1. Many of the immigrants to this country since 1607 came here seeking political and/or religious freedom (the exception being many of the early Virginia settlers who were seeking economic success --- forced African slaves excepted!);
2. American law has long provided the option to any citizen to swear on any document of personal meaning to the swearer;
3. There is also that little item of the First Amendment prohibiting any one religion from becoming state sponsored.
4. The Congressman also managed to overlook the presence of two Buddhists, one Scientologist, 43 Jews, two Unitarians, and six non-affiliated members in the 110th Congress. I don’t know it for a fact, but I suspect some of these also did not use the Christian bible for their swearing in.

I understand that Congressman Goode speaks from a position of fear for himself and for this country. But fear cannot be allowed to evolve into demagoguery and name calling. This country is about respecting people of all background and beliefs who respect and seek to live in peace with their neighbors. It is not about building walls against “outsiders,” which all of us once were historically.

P.S. Compliments to Congressman Ellison, who is in fact a native-born US citizen who converted to Islam as an adult, and who has never spoken angrily or disrespectfully throughout this whole unfathomable public monologue. He ultimately took his oath of office on a borrowed Quran from Thomas Jefferson's original library. Nice Touch!