CATEGORY: PersonalNarrative

A contrarian’s disheartened view of loyalty

As I age, I increasingly ponder loyalty. Most of us, I suspect, have an understanding of it. Perhaps it’s a feeling that we’d crawl through burning oil and run across broken glass because the person to whom we are loyal needs it. And that person never asks; we merely give unreservedly.

Lately, however, loyalty I have awarded (given? allowed? presented? What is the word that best presents bestowal of loyalty?) has been strained. Is it because I have come to expect something in return? A little quid pro quo? If that attitude has emerged in me, I am saddened. But I fear it has. I am human: I have done for others without marked compensation or gratitude for so long … but now, am I finally seeking a little sugar for my faithful attention?

I used to advertise my loyalty and I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray.
― Albert Camus, The Fall

Loyalty for me has always been freely given with no expectation of reciprocity. Either in an instant, or over time, I have become loyal to you. You owe me naught. But 70 years old is no longer a distant horizon. Has the erosion of physical ability or the emergence of emotional and intellectual insecurity altered that equation? Do I now need something, somehow, from an individual or institution that has received unqualified, unquestioned loyalty from me?
Continue reading

CATEGORY: Guns

Guns, knives, pit bulls and the new Gallup poll

CATEGORY: GunsThis morning I walked past a man about my age, sixty, who was wearing camouflage and a fatigue-style cap. He had two Bowie knives on his belt and was walking a ferocious-looking pit bull that had to weigh eighty pounds.

My immediate thought was, “Who’s this guy and what’s he afraid of?”

Who knows? Maybe he’s got good reason to be afraid. Maybe he’s in witness protection and the Mafia just put his home address up on their Facebook page. Or he just started a Salman Rushdie fan club. Or he’s a disguised federal prosecutor from Texas.

But I doubt it. I suspect he’s an extreme example of a surprisingly large group of people who are paranoid, perhaps not in clinical psychological terms, but in a not-quite-right sort of way. He’s obviously afraid of something, and whatever it is might show up at any minute on a quiet residential street in a nice small town like Bloomington, Indiana.

I’ve spent much of my life around poor and poorly educated white people and have met many folks who remind me of this guy. I’ve had them proudly pull handguns out from under their car seats and when I asked why they needed guns in their cars, the generic answer is they want to be ready in case somebody “messes with them.”

Who are the somebodies that’re going to mess with them, I always wonder?

I’ve asked that, too.

Sometimes the answer is enemies of the U.S. It’s hard to see how Muslims, or Russians, or Mexican cartels are going to mount an attack in the U.S., especially in central Indiana, but it’s always possible I suppose. No doubt those Bowie knives will scare a Spetsnaz or mujahedeen with an AK-47 right back to whatever unpronounceable place they came from.

Sometimes the answer is the government. However, most of the paranoid people I know are right-wingers. If the government helicopters ever do come, it’s far more likely they will have Christian crosses on the side and be coming not for righties, but rather for lefties like me. The great victory of the Nixon Youth has proven not to be a successful ideology that won most Americans over to their way of thinking, but rather a concerted and successful plan to infiltrate and take over the U.S. military. Motto: If we can’t convince ‘em, we can still kill ‘em.

Sometimes it’s their neighbors who might mess with them. This isn’t so silly a fear. According to the FBI, there are over a million violent crimes per year in the U.S. That means on average, a citizen has a one in 300 chance of being assaulted, raped or murdered each year, which says that one in four people will be assaulted, raped or murdered in their lifetimes. Now, of course, most of the people being assaulted tend to be young minority men in urban areas, not college-educated white people who live in the suburbs. But the man with the pit bull didn’t look well-to-do, and it’s entirely possible he lives in one of those neighborhoods.

Sometimes it’s people of color who will invade their homes in the night. According to hot-off-the-shelf Gallup data, 43% of Americans own and keep a gun in the home (I’m one of them.) Of these, 67% own one for self-protection (I’m not one of them.) Obviously, there’s a real fear here. Perhaps In Cold Blood scared the shit out an entire generation. It’s hard to say how real the perceived home invasion threat is. There are no reliable statistics on how many occur each year. Violent home invasions are probably relatively rare. But they happen and they are horrible. When they do happen, it’s usually to the poor and vulnerable. My mother was the victim of a violent home invasion by a man of color.

So the guy with the knives could be afraid of lots of things. Mujahedeen. The government. Neighbors. Strangers that come in the night.

Or not. I suspect President Obama had it right back in 2008. What people like the man I saw walking his dog really have to fear is that the world is leaving them behind. They lack the skills and education to catch up. The world economy is messing with them, it ain’t gonna stop, and they should be afraid. They can’t easily buy cheap protection against economic trends, so they arm themselves in the ways they can. They cling to defenses they know against threats they don’t.

I once worked on a dredge in Louisiana, a mammoth crane on a barge that dug canals through the delta. The digging was done by what’s known as a clam bucket which hangs by thick wire ropes from a boom. The bucket had two inch thick steel walls and was eight feet tall and big enough to put a half-dozen men in.

One day the bucket took a big mouthful of dirt and water and snagged a muskrat. The small animal was caught by one leg, and it hung there suspended fifty feet in the air, frantically trying to push open the bucket with its other foot. Kenneth, the operator, opened the bucket and let it go. He laughed about it for weeks, the idea of a muskrat trying to outmuscle a giant machine. He’d mimic the muskrat, contorting his face and imitating the animal’s frantic efforts.

Of course, if you’re a muskrat, and some giant force from the sky suddenly grabs you in massive steel jaws, you have to bite and push, because that’s all you know to do.

If you’re poor, you buy knives and pit bulls.

CATEGORY: PoliticsReligion

The devil is in the details: WHICH Christianity are we making the official state religion, exactly?

CATEGORY: PoliticsReligionLegislators in North Carolina recently introduced a bill to make Christianity the official state religion. That bill has now been turfed, but we can probably expect similar moves in the future.

An Omnibus Poll, sponsored by YouGov.com and the Huffington Post, reveals just how far from the nation’s roots we have traveled on the subject of separating church and state and retaining the nation’s neutrality when it comes to how Americans chose to practice their respective religions.

According to the survey, 34 percent of Americans would favor making Christianity their official state religion while less than half (47 percent) oppose the concept. Thirty-two percent of those polled indicated that they would also favor a constitutional amendment that would make Christianity the official religion of the United States with just over half (52 percent) opposing the notion.

Leaving aside for a second the abject failure of millions of Americans to grasp the most basic precepts of their Constitution, this poll actually provides more questions than answers. Lots more. And in truth, these are questions with roots that are hundreds of years old.

If you’ve visited America anytime during the past couple of centuries, you realize that the nation has something of a church and state problem. You can argue the details all you like, but the bottom line is that the Framers of the Constitution set the stage for controversy by being too damned vague. I mean, “separation of Church and State” – what the hell does that really mean, anyway? We have these problems before us today because Jefferson, Madison and Co. didn’t have the basic good sense to insist on specificity, which is odd, given that all the Founding Fathers were pretty clearly fundamentalists. As, one assumes, were the Founding Mothers. They just toss terms like “God” and “Church” and “separation” around like we all know what they mean, when clearly we don’t.

So here’s what we have to do. Let’s forget separation of Church and State and accept that we are One Nation Under God, In God We damned sure Do Trust, and that we are a Christian Nation® (this part is crucial). Let’s get past all that soulless secular humanism and By God establish a state religion. Better yet, let’s charge Congress with the job, since so many of the members of that august body have thought long and hard on the subject already.

Here’s how it works. The U.S. will adopt as our national religion that which Congress can agree on sufficiently to pass by a two-thirds majority, and by this I mean they must pass each plank of the resolution by that margin. Understand, “God” is way too vague, and you can’t very well build a moral society around vagaries. We have to insist that Congress agree on what God is and how He (She) should be worshiped.

For instance, we’ll need Congress to decide whether the Bible is intended as a metaphorical guide or as literal, journalistic fact. Was Mary literally a virgin? Did Abraham literally live 900 years? Did Moses literally tie his ass to a tree and walk 40 miles? These are not small issues, and if they are not settled by legislative fiat we risk another millennium of sectarian strife.

Other issues we’ll need Congress to rule on:

  • Should baptism be by sprinkling as an infant or by immersion once one is born again? And, how quickly can we set in place an emergency re-baptism program for all those people that had it done wrong the first time?
  • Is God a man, a woman, both, or neither?
  • What race is God? This will be important when we do physical and artistic representations of Him/Her/It.
  • What about those places where the Bible appears to contradict itself, as in Genesis 1 & 2? Are we to take these as tests by God, or error by monks, or what? Confusion in one’s prime legal texts can lead to all sorts of mischief, as I think is more than evident from the fact that we’re even having this little chat to start with.
  • We’ll need a plan to transfer power from the President to Jesus when He makes his triumphant return to Earth after the Rapture.
  • We’ll also need a policy of engagement for Armageddon. When do we launch the nukes, and at whom? Once we know who’s on God’s side and who’s on the side of Satan, shouldn’t we just go ahead and launch a pre-emptive strike?
  • How old is that darned Earth, anyway? I mean, it’s important to know what to tell kids about dinosaurs if the world is only 6000 years old.
  • What the hell do we do about those damned Jews, who have made clear that they aren’t on board with Jesus as the Son of God? Do we wait and let Jesus deal with them himself or should we set about making them either believe what we believe or leave?
  • And don’t even get me started on Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, and other varieties of Satanist. If we’re truly a Christian land, is it right that their blasphemy should be tolerated, and worse, that they should be able to benefit from social programs paid for by Right-thinking Christians?
  • Should the Office of Homeland Godliness be a Cabinet-level appointment reporting to the President? Should the President be the de jure head of the Church? Should it be a separate branch of government insulated from the meddling influence of future secular legislators, and especially from Satanic minions on the Supreme Court? Or, for that matter, should we rework the government and Constitution so that we replace the democracy with a Christian theocracy?
  • What should our foreign policy toward non-Christian nations be like? Some of them are Godless, but strategically important (Britain, Canada, anybody with oil, etc.) Should a nation’s relationship with God be a consideration in conferring most-favored-nation status?
  • There’s also the woman problem. Are they to be submissive to their husbands, as dictated by some, or are they to be accepted as full partners in God’s Church of America? Can they be ministers, for example? And while we’re on the subject of troublesome sorts, is the Church going to take the “accepting” stance toward gays or are they all going to hell? If the latter, should we get them on their way or let God deal with them in His own good time?
  • Finally, what about the athletics programs? Back in the ’80s in Wilmington, NC, there was a huge hullaballoo over – of all things – softball. The local Mormon church signed up for the city-run league, causing the other churches to pitch a galloping hissy fit. Said one spokesman, “we do not feel we can extend the hand of Christian fellowship to people who do not worship the same god we do.” The Mormons stood their ground, those who worshiped a different god from the Mormons stood theirs, and the city was forced to cancel the whole damned league. But that was over 20 years ago – we’re past all that now, right? Nuh-uh. The same kind of conflict broke out again last year in Pennsylvania.

Give me another hour or two and I’ll come up with more questions, but you get the idea. The success of a faith-based government hinges on getting these issues settled and chiseled into stone sooner rather than later. If Congress leaves wiggle room and unanswered questions we’ll be at each other’s throats until the Second Coming, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what the Framers intended.

_____

An earlier iteration of this post originally appeared on January 20, 2010.

Trashing libraries just a bit more

Critic Boyd Tonkin had a piece in last week’s Independent recounting the sad fate of his local library, Friern Barnet Library, in the hands of the enlightened council of the London Borough of Barnet. In this case, a group of volunteers have invaded this local library, which was, along with a number of others, slated to be closed. The volunteers have taken on the role of squatters, and are keeping the library running. The Council is currently trying to decide whether to have them evicted–since it’s a public building, that can’t just happen, so the Council is trying to decide what to do next. In this case, the Council is dominated by Conservatives, so it’s easy to see this as a part of a pattern of Conservative budget cuts. That, however, would be misleading—everyone’s doing it. Continue reading

Dear "small government" conservatives: that Thoreau quote doesn't mean what you think it means

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say. How true, how true, especially when it comes to reducing the wisdom of brilliant, complex minds to their pithiest quotes. In a recent thread on what has become of the GOP, one commenter went all-in with Henry David Thoreau’s famous (and greatly abused) edict: that government is best which governs the least. (Thoreau was actually quoting someone else, but he endorsed the idea, so let’s go with it.)

As I explained at the time, I used to be an enthusiastic young Republican and I was known to quote that line myself. Granted, I was just spouting something I’d heard others say – I hadn’t actually read Civil Disobedience. But by gods, it sounded good. It’s brief, it’s clever, it has the smell of truthiness about it and it comes with the credibility that automatically attends canonical high school reading assignments, even if we hated them at the time.

But there are a couple of problems with the quote. Continue reading

Nota Bene #124: I'm a Doctor, Not an Engineer

“I don’t believe in this fairy tale of staying together for ever. Ten years with somebody is enough.” Who said it? Continue reading

Stuart O'Steen is not a crook

But he is Richard Nixon.

Stuart, longtime friend to S&R, is a veteran stage actor who portrays the former president in the Longmont (Colorado) Theatre Company‘s ambitious take on Frost/Nixon.

I had the great pleasure of recently seeing the production. As a politics junkie and student of American political history, particularly of the Watergate debacle, I couldn’t pass it up. And I anticipated from having seen Stuart’s remarkable performance as Robert Scott in 2009′s Terra Nova that he would surely immerse himself in this unique role as well.

My high expectations were Continue reading

Nota Bene #121: Birds of an Ancient Feather

“Television is an invention whereby you can be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house.” Who said it? The answer is at the end of this post. Now on to the links! Continue reading

NASA, American exceptionalism, and me: older, and less viable

Fourth in a series

As a child turning teen in the late 1950s, the black-and-white RCA in the living room received only three channels … well, four, but we didn’t watch PBS. So I read. Newspapers, of course (after Dad finished sports and Mom finished news). And books. The library was only two blocks away, so I spent afternoons there sampling the stack. I was a small-town boy at the end of the idyllic “Father Knows Best” decade of Eisenhower placidity, a geeky kid feeling the first pangs of puberty.

I longed for adventure beyond being a Boy Scout or tossing a football with neighborhood pals. In the library I found adventure stories set in space, spun with well-chosen words and exquisitely crafted plots.

I discovered Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End.” Then Robert A. Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation and Empire.” Science fiction (or, in Clarke’s case, science prediction) captivated me. I became a sci-fi cognoscente.

Then, in 1957, came the shocker: Sputnik. Continue reading

The Fourth four years later: Nothing’s changed

As I predicted four years ago on the Fourth of July, little has changed. This year’s fireworks and barbecues offer only a brief respite from the problems of the nation, how they are worsening, and how those who are supposed to address them remain mere chanters of their respective ideologies.

Four years ago, I predicted that the cost of federal elections would continue to rise, that the role of money would increase dramatically. I did not predict — or even dream it could happen — the outcome of the Supremes’ consideration of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that deepened the hole in which corporate money could hide while paying for “electioneering communications.”

Sadly, I did not predict that more than 30,000 journalists would lose their jobs in the past four years, lessening the ability of the press to hold government accountable. To me, corporations are now essentially the American government; more journalists, not fewer, trained in the same accounting chicanery that allowed Enron to flourish, are necessary to hold corporate government accountable, too.
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Nota Bene #119: Think! It Ain't Illegal Yet

“My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” Who said it? Continue reading

FCC: Move to digital hasn't improved local news reporting

From the “The Feds Are The Last To Know Department”:

The Federal Communications Commission released a study today reporting that an “explosion of online news sources in recent years has not produced a corresponding increase in reporting, particularly quality local reporting …” The study, titled “Information Needs of Communities” takes a broad but somewhat shallow look at the media landscape. It reads as more of a history of how modern media arrived at its current state than as a clear, practical recipe for change.

The study — which looks at the local reporting performance of all media, not just that of newspapers — was undertaken by senior FCC adviser Steven Waldman, a former journalist for Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. According to his study:

In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism — going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy — is in some cases at risk at the local level.

Well, duh. Continue reading

The American Parliament: our nation’s 10 political parties

Part two in a series.

Forgive me for abstracting and oversimplifying a bit, but one might argue that American politics breaks along the following 10 lines:

  • Social Conservatives
  • Neocons
  • Business Conservatives
  • Traditional Conservatives (there’s probably a better term, but I’m thinking of old-line Western land and water rights types)
  • Blue Dog Democrats
  • New Democrats
  • Progressives Continue reading

Conservatives, Progressives and the future of representative democracy: what would an American Parliament look like?

Part one in a series.

A little thought experiment for a Monday morning…

Over the past few years I have tried to make as much sense as I could out of the American political landscape. By nature, I’m a theoretically minded thinker, and the point of these exercises has been to try and articulate the structures, shapes, motivators and dynamics the define who we are so that I might develop better theories about why so that I might then think more effectively about how we might be nudged in a more productive direction. Facts → Theory → Action, in other words.

I have observed a few things along the way.

The town the War of 1812 built

by Talbot Eckweiler

Part four in a five-part series.

Constance Barone sits at her office desk and adjusts her spectacles. For the last eight years, she’s been the site manager for Sackets Harbor Historic Site near Watertown, New York. In 2012, the site will celebrate its bicentennial anniversary as one of the major sites of the War of 1812. While two hundred years makes for many a memory, for Barone, the site holds a personal history that spans three generations.

“My mother’s father was in the naval militia, so he was involved right here on this property,” Barone says. “My mother as a teenager grew up here, in this house. They lived here and this was my mother’s bedroom,” she says and nods at the office area.

The Lieutenant’s House, a pale-yellow brick building, was built in 1847 for the second in command of the navy yard. Narrow, low-ceiling staircases and uneven wooden floors lead to dark rooms settled in silent repose. In October, the peak tourist season has passed, and now the site settles down for winter. Continue reading

Raptor rehab helps birds, people, parks


Moonlight, a male American barn owl. Moonlight was bred in captivity
for educational purposes

by Talbot Eckweiler

Part three in a five-part series.

Ava, Moonwink, Bella, Starlight: they are but a few of characters cast in Eagle Dream. Ava is a hunter; Starlight is a dancer. Moonwink has trouble keeping his eyes open, and Bella hails from across the Mississippi river.

Each has a distinct personality, a personal history. Each is a raptor, a bird of prey.

Some are rescue cases; others were bred in captivity for falconry or educational purposes. Their keeper, Mark Baker, started his chapter of raptor rehab just last year, and already he’s rescued an estimated forty birds.

When Baker rescues a bird, he does his best to release back to nature as soon as possible. “Because I have so many birds, when I release them, I like to split them up so they’re not all released in one area. Sometimes, I go to the state park area,” Baker says. Continue reading

New York's state parks an easy target in times of budgetary crisis

Text and photos by Talbot Eckweiler

Part one in a five-part series.

EDITOR’S NOTE: New York again faces a devastating state budget shortfall. Last year, when wrestling with an $8.2 billion budget shortfall, then-Governor David Paterson considered massive cuts to the state park system as one way to close the gap. The impact on the state’s conservation and preservation efforts would have been calamitous. As lawmakers again consider ways to shore up another catastrophically wobbly budget, a look at last year’s controversy can serve as an important reminder about the educational, recreational, and economic value of the park system. At a time when other states are also looking at severe budget crises, this can serve as a cautionary tale for others.

In the spring of 2010, my Facebook newsfeed showed several of my friends had joined a group called “Save New York State Parks.” I followed the link and learned that the New York State government drafted a proposal to shut down parts of the park system. In a press release on the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s website (OPRHP), Governor Paterson explained shutting down the parks was a better alternative to cutting costs in education or healthcare, and that the changes to the parks would be good for the overall well-being of the state. Continue reading