Monday, January 31, 2011

Family Ties

But you're so far away
Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?
It would be so fine to see your face at my door,
And it doesn't help to know you're so far away
 -   “So Far Away,” lyrics by Carole King
* *                          *
I had our Great Dane out for her morning constitutional, and one of the new neighbors stopped to admire her.    
“She’s a beautiful dog,” he said, as she tried to climb up into what would have been his lap if he were sitting.  “My name’s Rick, by the way.”
“Chuck,” I said, reaching out to shake his hand.  “We live around the corner in the yellow house.  She’s just a pup.  She has a lot of filling out to do yet.  Our son in Tennessee brought her up for us the last time he came up for a visit.”
“Tennessee?” he said.  “My dad was from Tennessee, near Sparta.”
“No kidding?” I said.  “My dad was born in Kentucky, but he and my mother lived in Tennessee for a few years before they moved to West Virginia.”
“So you’re from West Virginia originally?” he asked.  
“Yep,” I said.  “The state calls itself America’s Switzerland sometimes, but that’s a joke.  Switzerland is rich, educated, and secure.  They would no more strip mine their mountains than they’d desecrate a painting by Paul Klee or drive a bulldozer through their front door.  We're actually the Ireland of America.  Just like the Irish, we labored for the benefit of absentee landlords, were driven out of our homes to find food and work, and scattered all over the world, taking our music and our accents with us.”
“So where did you scatter to?” he wanted to know.
“Oh, I worked for a few years in North Carolina, and then got a job at an assembly plant in Ohio.”
“Is that right?” he said.  “Where in Ohio?  I was stationed there after I got back from Vietnam.”
“Near Cincinnati,” I said.  “I worked in a GM assembly plant.  It’s shut down now.”
“No kidding!” he said.  “I was stationed at Wright-Patterson outside Dayton.  I was two years there before I got transferred to Edwards AFB in California.”
“Our youngest daughter lived in San Francisco for a few years,” I told him.  “Then her husband’s company relocated.  They were in Seattle and then Chicago.  They’re up in Portland, Oregon, now.”
“Sounds as if your kids are pretty scattered,” he commented.
“Well, the oldest boy is in Alabama.  He met a girl from there when they were in school together in Georgia.  The next one is the one in Tennessee.  He got a job there after he finished school in Kansas.  And then there’s the daughter in Oregon, and another one in Minnesota.  She wants us to move up there, but I told her I have a tough enough time with the winters here in Virginia.”
“Must be hard seeing your grandkids, if you have any,” he said.
“We’ve got five.  We’d like to see a lot more of them,” I admitted.  “The oldest just graduated from MIT.  He took a job with a company in Connecticut--something to do with extreme low temperature physics.  How about you?  You have any kids?”
“Just two, both girls,” he said.  “The younger one’s a teacher up in Alaska.  She went to school in New Jersey and then graduate school in New York City.  The older one is living in New Mexico.  She was working in Louisiana, but got driven out by Katrina.  She moved to Nevada but didn’t care for it.  She says she likes it in New Mexico, though.”
“I drove through it once when my sister and her husband were living in California,” I said.  “But they’re in Colorado now.”
“Colorado’s a beautiful place,” he said, “but it’s getting overrun.  It’s like Arizona; too popular for its own good.”
“I guess so,” I said.  “My uncle and his wife moved to Phoenix years ago because of his asthma.  But I hear the air is as bad there now as it is anywhere else.  Maybe worse.”
“I don’t know about that,” he laughed.  “My brother lives in Pittsburgh, and the air there will peel the paint right off of your car.  Imagine what is does to your lungs.”
“I’ve got a niece in Houston,” I said.  “She says the pollution there is a nightmare.”  
“One of my cousins lives in Dallas,” he told me.  “She was an Army nurse for twenty years and out.  Lived in nine different countries.  I haven’t seen her in--gosh, must be thirty years now.”
“Are you originally from Texas?” I asked.
“No,” he laughed, shaking his head.  “I was born in Mississippi, but we moved to Missouri when I was just a kid.  My father’s brother went to work in the oil fields in Oklahoma, and one of his daughters married a petroleum engineer.  That’s how they wound up in Texas.  But they’ve been all over the world.”
“So how did you end up here in Virginia?” I asked.
“Oh, after I got out of the Air Force I took a job with the government in DC.  We lived in Maryland and commuted for years.  But when I retired, we decided to move some place walkable, where traffic doesn’t dominate your life.”
“Maryland,” I said.  “Where in Maryland?”
“Bethesda,” he said.
“My wife’s brother lived in Silver Spring for years,” I said.  “He’s from Iowa, but he lost his job there when the company he was working for outsourced his job to India.  He and his wife moved to Maine a few years ago when they retired.”
“Is that right?” he said.  “Small world, isn’t it?”
“It doesn’t feel so small when you’re missing someone,” I said.  “We’re a nation of nomads.  Freedom’s just another word for somewhere else to move.”
“‘Me and Bobby McGee,’” he laughed.  “I loved that song, back when I was living in....  Darn, where was I living then?”   
© Tony Russell, 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Four Thousand Upward

A southwest Virginia school district [Giles County] is reposting copies of the Bible's Ten Commandments in all county schools, despite concerns that doing so is unconstitutional. ....  The decision came even though the board's attorney had previously advised that such Christian displays represent unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. - ZINIE CHEN SAMPSON, Associated Press
* * * *
LA School Board Approves Posting of Texts from Upanishad, Qur'an, Tao Te Ching, The Analects of ConfuciusScience and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Book of Mormon, The Divine Principle, Zend Avesta, Kojiki, Dianetics, and Zhuan Falun
LOS ANGELES, Ca (MP) - This Californian school district is posting texts from the Upanishad, the Qur’an, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of ConfuciusScience and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the Book of Mormon, The Divine Principle, Zend Avesta, Kojiki, Dianetics, and Zhuan Falun in all classrooms in the district, despite objections that doing so violates the Constitution.
The seven-member Los Angeles School Board voted unanimously to post the framed three-foot-wide-by-four-foot-tall texts after parents and local ministers, rabbis, gurus, monks, healers, teachers, elders, and other religious leaders demanded space equal to that of Christians, who recently pressured the board to hang copies of the Ten Commandments in the district’s classrooms.  
Monday night’s board meeting was packed with supporters from the various faiths, who sat in separate sections to avoid contamination and reduce the chance of violence.  Speakers from each faith rose to shout over the objections of the others, telling the board that the schools had a moral obligation to reinforce God’s/Allah’s/the Supreme Being’s/Vishna’s/the Tao’s/Mohammed’s/Confucius’s/et cetera’s teachings.  
“After hearing from these members of our community,” said perspiring Superintendent Donald Madison, “we just felt this was the right thing to do.  It will take us a while to get copies of all the texts printed and framed, but we think we can have them in the classrooms by mid-April, at the latest.”  
Madison noted that other faith traditions, not represented at last night’s meeting, might also demand to be included.  Preliminary research by a reporter for the Herald indicates that while the precise number of religions in the world cannot be determined, the best estimates range from four thousand upward.
Harried teachers said after the meeting that they were concerned about whether there was space to incorporate that much moral obligation in their classrooms.  “Right now we’re looking at a hundred and ninety eight square feet of wall space devoted to religious texts, with more likely” worried Aakifah Ali, who teaches geography at Jefferson Middle School.  “I don’t have space now for everything I’d like to display.  I’ll have to take down my maps, posters, material on current events, and student papers.  Even then I’m not sure all the religious texts will fit.  Maybe they can mount them on the ceiling,” she joked.
One segment of the audience which left dissatisfied was a sizable contingent of secularists/non-religious parents.  Daniel Brinkman, spokesperson for the group, had risen to point out that one in six Americans have opted out of organized religion and consider themselves non-believers.  He asked about having one-sixth of available space allotted for his group to post their absence of belief, but was rebuffed by Madison, who said that the blank, transparent windows in the room already fulfilled that function.
Christians, who had earlier succeeded in having the Ten Commandments posted in classrooms, were furious at news that they would have to share wall space with groups they regard as heathens.  “It’s blasphemy, pure and simple,” asserted Rev. Randall Snodgrass, a leader of the group who had previously won the right to insert their religious text into the classroom.  
When reminded that he had earlier argued that the Ten Commandments belonged there because of their historical rather their religious value, and that each of the subsequent groups had argued for inclusion of their texts on the same grounds, he had to be restrained by security personnel.  “That was just a legal maneuver cooked up by our lawyers to get our faith in the schools where it belongs.  This farce tonight is all the work of the ACLU, the ADA, the Democratic Party, and other hate groups!” he yelled as he was being escorted out by half a dozen guards.
Constitutional scholars, almost unanimously, expect the courts to reverse the board’s actions.  Taxpayers will foot the bill for all legal expenses incurred.
© Tony Russell, 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Pentagon’s Good Samaritans

Sign on door of our granddaughter’s preschool this morning:  “In honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, let us be kind to one another.”
* * * * * *
We were all sitting in the living room.  I was studying the sports page, Patty was reading the front section of the paper, and Kevin was doing his homework.  Patty gets fascinated by something she’s reading and just has to share it with you, so it was no surprise when she looked up and said, “Did you see this?  The general counsel for the Pentagon implied in a speech that Martin Luther King would have supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because ‘we live in a complicated world,’ and King would have recognized that ‘our Nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.’”
“No, I didn’t see it.  It wasn’t on the sports page,”  I said.  “Who was the speaker?” 
She skimmed down the story.  “His name is Jeh Johnson.  (I don’t know how you pronounce J-E-H.)  He graduated from Martin Luther King’s college, Morehouse.  He was a classmate of Martin Luther King III, and says King’s son was his study partner in college and has been a friend of his for almost thirty-five years.”
“So he has some credentials to speak on the subject,” I said.  “What does he base his claim on?”
Patty said, “That’s the peculiar part.  Actually, he doesn’t make much of a case for it, after making such a big deal about how he’s a King family insider.  He says, ‘Today, at the Defense Department, how do we honor and respect Dr. King’s message and legacy and reconcile it with our mission?‘  Then all he does is talk about Dr. King’s use of the parable of the Good Samaritan to show why he was in Memphis helping striking sanitation workers.”
I didn’t know Kevin had been listening.  “I’m afraid you lost me there, Mom,” he said.  “What does that have to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?”
She frowned.  “Well, let me read what Johnson said:  
In 2011, I draw the parallel to our own servicemen and women, deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, away from the comfort of conventional jobs, their families and their homes.  Those in today’s volunteer Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have made the conscious decision to travel a dangerous road, and personally stop and administer aid to those who want peace, freedom and a better place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in defense of the American people.  Every day our servicemen and women practice that “dangerous unselfishness” Dr. King preached on April 3, 1968.”  
I did a double take.  “So he’s saying that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are comparable to the Good Samaritan?  That they’re only there because they’re ‘personally stopping and administering aid’ to the Afghani people?  And therefore King would have approved?”
Patty nodded.  “It’s right near the end of his speech,” she said.  “After all the buildup, that’s what it amounts to.  He doesn’t have any other argument for why King would have approved.  We’re Good Samaritans.”
“‘Personally stopping and administering aid’ somehow doesn’t square with  shooting people and bombing them and torturing them and sending unmanned drones to blow up houses with women and children in them, does it?” I mused.
“That argument is just garbage!” yelled Kevin, red faced.  “It ignores everything Dr. King ever said about nonviolence and loving your enemies and America’s role in the world.  I don’t care if Johnson is black and a Morehouse graduate and a friend of the King family, he still twisted the idea of being a Good Samaritan to justify fighting a war!  Johnson is just trying to attach Dr. King’s good name to a war he would actually have condemned even more strongly than he condemned the Vietnam War!”
“Whoa, calm down there, Kevin,” I said, reluctantly laying the sports section aside.  “You seem to feel pretty strongly about this.”
Kevin took a deep breath.  “Sorry I got so loud, Dad,” he said.  “It just makes me mad.”  He held up the book he’d been reading and a couple of sheets of paper he’d been taking notes on.  “This is my homework assignment,” he said, waving the papers.  “And this is a book of Dr. King’s speeches.  I’m writing a paper for history class on King’s use of nonviolence.  Anybody who spends any time at all reading King’s work can see that nonviolence and Christ’s command to love your enemies meant everything in the world to him.  Given all Mr. Johnson says about his connection with Morehouse and the civil rights movement and the King family, he can’t be that ignorant of King’s writing and thinking.  He deliberately betrayed King’s legacy to propagandize for the Pentagon!  It makes me sick!”
“You disagree with Mr. Johnson.  You don’t think Martin Luther King would have backed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I take it,” Patty said.
Kevin gave her a look.  “That’s what I said, Mom.”
“No,” she said, “that’s what you yelled.  But all you did was give your opinion, which happened to be different from Mr. Johnson’s.  Opinions are cheaper than pennies.  Can you back yours up?”
Kevin hesitated while he thought about it.  “I think so,” he said more quietly.  “I’ve just been taking notes from King’s speeches.  I haven’t laid my notes out for a debate or anything, but Dr. King was always developing an argument in his speeches anyway.  And they’re consistent from speech to speech, from year to year.”
“Let’s hear them then,” Patty said.
“Well, okay, just give me a minute,” said Kevin.  He began shuffling his papers and making checkmarks by some passages, while Patty and I went back to reading our sections of the paper.  
“Okay, I think I’m ready,” said Kevin after a while.  “These two quotes are from a 1957 sermon, Loving Your Enemies.”
Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.  Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe.   And you do that by love.
“It’s pretty clear to me,” said Kevin, glancing up, “that going to war doesn’t ‘cut off the chain of hate and evil in the universe’ through love.  And he uses that idea of violence being a downward spiral over and over again.”  He went on to the second passage.
There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet.  Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it.  For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, "This isn’t the way.”
“This is from later on in the same sermon,” said Kevin.  “The reference to Gandhi is important, because King learned a lot about dealing with political problems nonviolently from Gandhi.  He wasn’t just talking about person-to-person nonviolence, but about dealing with major conflicts within a society or between nations.  And when it comes to war, he believes that Jesus is telling us ‘This isn’t the way.’”
“You’re doing pretty well so far, Kevin,” said Patty. “Do you have more?”
“Sure,” said Kevin.  “If you weren’t positive that the quotations above were talking about nonviolent action as an alternative to war, these passages are from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964.”
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.
“And this.”
I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.  "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid."  

I was impressed.  “Those are really powerful passages,” I said.  And there’s no doubt what he was talking about.  What was that phrase again?  ‘Nonviolent redemptive goodwill’?”
“Right.  I’ll just read two more,” said Kevin, who was getting into it.  “These are from his 1967 speech Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam.” 
The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies.  It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat.  The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.
“You see how he contrasts freedom and democracy with violence and militarism there?” asked Kevin. 
Patty and I nodded.
“Listen to this last one,” he said.  “The final sentence is the famous one that gets quoted so often, but it seems to me a lot of its power comes from the sentences before it.”
This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
We were silent.
I finally broke the silence.  “You know, I’ve never heard any of those things,” I said.  “All I remember ever hearing was clips from the I Have a Dream speech, year after year.”
“I see why you got so angry,” Patty said.  “You read them to us in chronological order, and if anything they became more firmly opposed to war and militarism, and more steadfast in calling for love as an essential element of freedom as time went on.  To pretend that he would have supported our current wars is...”  She groped for the right words.  “It’s repulsive.  It’s an abomination.  And it’s a common propaganda technique.  You don’t have to prove your point; you just have to make it look as if there’s a debate about whether something is true.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Kevin, curious.
“Because most people won’t research it,” answered Patty, “and a lot of people end up thinking you could legitimately argue it either way.  Anyone who reads Johnson’s speech carefully, and then reads some of King’s work, as you have, will quickly see that there’s no doubt that the Pentagon’s claim is sheer balderdash.  But how many people will take the time to do that? ”
“It’s just not right!” said Kevin, frustrated.  “What can we do about it?” 
Patty laughed.  “Good for you.  That’s King’s question, isn’t it?  You don’t just take the evil and take it and take it because you’re nonviolent.  You make sure your heart is right, and then you act.”
That sounded like my cue.  “Well, if we’re done,” I said, “I want to finish reading about the Patriots game.”  And I picked up my section of the paper.
© Tony Russell, 2011

Monday, January 03, 2011

Remember Why They’re Out There

       Steve Spurrier, while  football coach at Florida, telling  
        Gator fans that a fire at Auburn's football dorm had
        destroyed 20 books.  "But the real tragedy was that 15
        hadn't been colored in yet."

Reporter #1:   “Ozzie, you said that poor conditioning was a factor in your decision to make a coaching change.”
AD: “That’s a good question, Greg.  Well, not a question, just a restatement of my statement, but it’s a good one.”
Reporter #1: “And your answer to your statement?”
AD:  “Oh, yeah.  I firmly believe that players representing our great university ought to have the stamina to remain awake and upright for the full two hours of commercial breaks during a football game.”
 Reporter #1: “Are you saying that your team isn’t prepared to stand around for four quarters?”
AD: “Our players haven’t been adequately conditioned to spend endless minutes doing nothing.   Opponents have consistently outstood us in the second half.  By the fourth quarter, our guys’ legs are gone.”
Reporter #2: “What do you base that on, Ozzie?”
AD: “Come on, Mickey, you’ve seen it yourself.  We have players tweeting, other players checking their iPhones and Blackberries for messages, guys posting on Facebook, some guys listening to hip hop with their headphones.  But at least those guys are awake.  After we kicked a field goal in last night’s game, seven members of our kickoff team lay down on the turf during the five-minute commercial break, and three had to be awakened, including our kicker.  Imagine how embarrassing that was on national TV.” 
Reporter #2: “More embarrassing than the score?”
AD: “No question, Mickey.  These guys have to remember why they’re out there.”
Reporter #3: “To play the game?”
AD: “Come on, Jack.  Your average game broadcast is three-and-a-half-hours long, for a game that takes 60 minutes to play.  Commercials have a two-to-one edge in screen time over game action.  You tell me which is more important.”
Reporter #2: “Help me out here, Ozzie.  Are you embarrassed that the game has become nothing more than a vehicle for commercials, or what?”
AD: “What. Our conference has a new 15-year $2.25 billion contract with the network, and our school’s cut will be roughly $17 million per year.  Our guys are out there to attract viewers for commercials.  What kind of statement does it make when they doze off during the fourteenth run of an ad for Sprint?”
Reporter #4: “But there’s no financial incentive for the players in that arrangement.”
AD: “We think our quarterback and tailback are compensated as well as any players in the country.  That’s off the record, of course; officially, they play for pride.”
Reporter #3: “Your new hire, Coach Hooker, has a reputation as a no-nonsense guy.  Do you think he can turn this team around?”
AD: “They don’t have to be turned around, Jack.  They just have to stand there.  But Coach Hooker is an innovator.  His teams have been at the top of the ‘standings’ everywhere he’s been.”
Reporter #4: “How does he do it, Ozzie?  Has he developed some special drills or exercises?”
AD: “Coach Hooker is an ‘opportunist‘ in the best sense of the word, Mike, if there is a best sense.  He takes his guys to the Post Office to mail packages.  Has them  wait to checkout at Sam’s Club.  Get in line at the Social Security office.  Try to change a course during registration each term.  Check on their scholarship at the Financial Aid office.  At the end of six weeks of these drills, his guys stand as if their shoes were glued to the turf, their eyes vacant, their minds going nowhere.”
Reporter #!: “So they’ll be prepared for life after football, if they don’t make it to the NFL?”
AD: “No doubt about it.  Our guys will be ready for the unemployment line.”
© Tony Russell, 2010