Monday, July 21, 2014

Mend Thine Every Flaw

Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello
Photo by Waldo Jaquith
from Wikimedia Commons

The naturalization ceremony at Monticello each 4th of July, where people who have come to the U.S. from all over the world stand and take the oath of citizenship, is a stirring event.  Bob thought it would be a feel-good story for these troubled times, and sent me to do a feature this year.  “Be sure and get some interviews,” he reminded me as I was heading out the door.  “First-hand accounts are what make history come alive.”

“Sure thing, Chief,” I told him.  “Patriotic music, a celebration of democracy in action, and heartwarming stories.  I could write this in my sleep.”

“Ah, so that’s why your stories usually sound the way they do,” he said.

“Glad you like them,” I said.  “I’ll try to meet my usual standard.”  He said something in reply, but it was muffled by the loud slam of the door behind me.  It must have been caught by the wind. 

The mood at Monticello was festive and the ceremony moving.  After the speakers, the administration of the oath, and the rest of the formal agenda, the band began playing, kids were rolling hoops and running around happily, and I had a couple of ice cream cones to tide me over until lunch.  Then I walked around looking for newly-minted citizens to talk with, humming along as the band gave a nice rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law! 

The first new citizen I approached turned out to be from Chile.  “Congratulations!” I told her, shaking her hand.  “How long have you lived in this country?”

“I came with my mother in the late 1970s when I was just a young girl,” she said. “It took me a long while, but I finally decided to become a citizen here.”  

“Just you and your mother?” I said. “What about the rest of your family.”

She looked a bit awkward.  “Maybe you remember the years of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile?”

“Not really,” I said.

“Well,” she explained, “when the CIA engineered a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Allende, General Pinochet’s men herded my father and twelve-year-old brother into the national stadium, along with hundreds of others, where they were both tortured and killed.”  She began to tear up at the memory.

What can you say after something like that?  “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, stunned.  “Uh, well, congratulations again on your naturalization.  Best of luck to you.”  And I quickly went looking for someone else to interview.

The next new citizen I approached told me he was from Guatemala, and was working as an orderly in a local hospital.  “Actually, I was a doctor specializing in rural medicine back home,” he said, “but after death squads murdered four of my colleagues at night in front of their families, I fled for my life.”

“It’s a shame your country has such a history of unrest, dictatorships, and violence,” I said.  “It must be a relief to become part of a country like ours with its long tradition of democracy and freedom.”

He nodded.  “It’s bittersweet,” he said.  “It was the stability in this country that finally led me to apply for citizenship.  But at the same time, enjoying that safety here is painful because it was the United States that  organized the overthrow of our peaceful, democratically-elected government and replaced it with dictators who carried out decades of genocide.”  He paused, his eyes down, and then looked up at me.  “The U.S. trained the death squads and early on gave them a list of names of doctors, journalists, teachers, community activists, labor organizers, and student leaders to ‘neutralize’,” he said quietly.

“Oh.  I didn’t realize.  I ... uh .... ”

“I understand,” he said, his voice a little hoarse.  “Most people here seem completely unaware of these things.”

“Right,” I said, anxious to get out of this situation.  “Listen, it’s been great talking with you.  Good luck.”

The band was now playing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and the words of the song ran through my mind as I hurriedly walked away.

Our father's God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!

Maybe Latin America was the problem, I reflected.  Then I noticed what appeared to be a Middle Eastern woman standing alone.  I introduced myself, and asked where she was from originally.

“Iran,” she said, and nothing more.  She seemed wary, so I tried to put her at ease.  “I’m a newspaper reporter doing a human interest story on new citizens naturalized today,” I said.  “Would you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“I suppose it’s okay.”

“Great.  Can you tell me how does it feel to become a citizen in a free and democratic country like ours?”

“Freedom and democracy are wonderful things,” she said.  

After a pause she added, “My grandmother would tell me, when she was alive, about how proud Iranians were when we elected Mohammed Mossadegh Prime Minister in a free, fair, and open vote.  But when Mossadegh decided to cancel the British monopoly control of Iranian oil and nationalize the oil company, Britain and the U.S. decided he had to go.  The CIA was used to overthrow him.   It took two years.  They bribed newspaper editors, created a fake communist party, organized and financed opposition, and then orchestrated a coup that put the Shah in power.   Years of dictatorship followed, with unspeakable horrors.  Over 3,000 people were killed by the Shah’s regime.  My grandfather’s brother was tortured and killed by the Shah’s secret police.”

“You know,” I said, shaking my head, “you may find this hard to believe, but three people now, from three different countries, have just told me basically the same story.”  

She gave me a hard stare.  “I don’t find it hard to believe at all,” she said.  “Don’t you know your own history?  We in Iran were the original success story for the CIA’s overthrow of governments the U.S. wanted to replace.  The coup in Iran in 1953, and the dictatorship that was installed in its place, became the prototype for U.S. foreign interventions all around the globe.    There have been at least eighty coups organized against foreign governments by the U.S. since then.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I said.  

“Would anyone joke about such a thing?” she said.  “And it’s certainly not a joke to all the people who have suffered the consequences--who have seen their own freedoms and dreams destroyed.”

“What countries are you talking about?” I asked.

“There have been so many I don’t know if I can remember them all,” she said.  “After Iran, there was the overthrow of President Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954.  The U.S. called that coup ‘Operation PRSUCCESS.‘  About 200,000 people--mostly peasants--were killed by the U.S.-backed security forces over the years.  Then came the coup in Thailand in 1957, and the one in Laos between 1958 and 1960.  Of course there was the coup in the Congo in 1960, after the Belgian Congo finally gained its independence.  Remember Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister who was imprisoned and executed?”

“Never heard of him,” I said.  “These things all took place before I was even born.”

“So you’re only aware of history that occurred during your lifetime?” she asked somewhat sharply.

“Of course not,” I said, a bit ruffled.  “I’ve heard of the American Revolution and the Civil War and the First World War and the Korean War ....  wait, I’ve forgotten some.  The War of 1812, the Spanish-American War....”

“That’s what history is for you?” she asked, eyebrows raised.  “A series of wars the U.S. has fought?”

Time to switch the subject.  “No, no,” I said.  “What I meant was that those coups you mentioned were a part of the past.  We’ve moved on from there.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” she said--a phrase which sounded odd when spoken with her accent.  “The pattern of coups organized by the U.S. has continued through your own lifetime and right up to the present day.”

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said, “but that’s ridiculous.  I’m a newspaper reporter.  If the United States was routinely undermining democratic governments and replacing them with dictatorships, don’t you think I’d be aware of it?”

She stared at me for a moment, then said, “Well, are you?”  She waited, but I didn’t answer.  

“Not all of these countries were democracies, but all of them were the victims of U.S.-backed coups,” she said, and began to recite:  “Turkey in 1960, 1971, and 1980; Ecuador in 1961 and 1963; South Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina, all in 1963; Honduras, also 1963 and then again in 2009; Iraq in 1963 and 2003; the overthrow of President Goulart in Brazil in 1964; Bolivia three times, including 1964, 1971 and 1980.  In 1965, the U.S. gave the Indonesian army the names of 5,000 Communists, who were hunted down and killed as part of the quarter of a million Indonesians slaughtered by the military.  The U.S. orchestrated the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1966; a coup in Greece in 1967; the overthrow of President Arias in Panama in 1968 after he demanded the return of the Canal Zone to Panamanian jurisdiction, and then again in 1989 with the replacement of Manuel Noriega; the removal of Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia in 1970; the overthrow of President Allende of Chile in 1973; Bangladesh in 1975; ‘Operation Fair Play,’ the military coup that removed Prime Minister Bhutto of Pakistan in 1977; the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983; Mauritania and Guinea in 1984;  Burkina Faso in 1987; Paraguay in 1989; Haiti in 1991 and again in 2004; Russia in 1993; Uganda in 1996; and Libya in 2011.”

“Huh,” I thought to myself.  “Looks as if it’s not just Latin America.  She’s talking about countries in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, even Europe.”  

But what I said was, “Wow, it’s amazing you can rattle off a list that long, with all those names and dates.” 

“Victims tend to have longer memories than aggressors,” she answered.  “And it helps that I’m a historian.”

“Well, thanks for your time,” I said, waving goodbye.  None of what I had so far was usable; I needed to find some folks with more upbeat stories before everybody headed home.  I had a little time yet, I thought, because I could hear the strains of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” wafting across the mountaintop:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, 
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me: 
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, 
While God is marching on.

One thing all those songs agreed on, I noticed: God seemed to be with our country on its mission.  Or were we with Him?  Regardless, I was eager to gather a few of the right kind of interviews before I headed home and wrote my story while I was taking a nap.

© Tony Russell, 2014

Note:  The list of coups rattled off by the woman from Iran in the column is a much-modified version of a list contained in an AlterNet article by Nicolas J.S. Davies, which itself draws on William Blum's book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Supreme Faith

“Somebody finally moved into that house two doors down--the one that’s been empty for almost a year,” Patty said while we were eating dinner.

“Thank goodness,” I said.  “It’s about time.  Did you meet them?”

“No, all I saw were the movers.  They have a strange assortment of furniture, though.  A lot of file cabinets, computer equipment, printers, and that kind of thing.  No beds or dining room sets or couches or end tables.”

“Huh,” I said, “that’s odd.  This neighborhood is zoned for residential use only.  Maybe one of them works at home, and the rest of their stuff is coming in another moving van.”

Patty looked a little doubtful.  “Could be, I guess,” she said.  “Anyway, I baked a gooseberry pie to welcome them.  Why don’t you take it over after supper and introduce yourself?  Maybe you can find out more about them.”

So after supper Patty set the pie in a little cardboard box, and I walked up to the new neighbor’s door, with the scent of warm gooseberries and cinnamon rising from the box in my hands.  My mouth was watering, even though she’d baked two, and I had finished off half of ours for dessert.

I managed to press the doorbell with my elbow, and after a small delay a file cabinet opened the door.  “Oh, hi,” I said.  “We live up the street and just wanted to say hello and welcome you to the neighborhood.  My wife Patty sent along this pie for you.”

“Why thanks so much!  We appreciate the thoughtfulness,” said the file cabinet, its top drawer sliding back and forth like a jaw opening and closing.  “It smells wonderful.  I’m sure the family will love it.”

“How big is your family, if you don’t mind my asking?” 

“We’re a family of fifteen at the moment,” it said.  “I’m the parent company, with fourteen subsidiaries.  But I’m buying, selling, merging, and wiping out subsidiaries all the time, so the number of family members varies from year to year.”

“You buy new family members?”

“Our acquisition department is always looking for attractive, undervalued companies out there.”

“And you kill off some of the family members?” I asked. 

“When I’ve stripped them of their assets, or they’re not performing up to expectations,” it said.

“Hmm.  Kevin didn’t make the honor role this last grading period,” I said, making a chopping motion with my hand, and we both laughed.

“Say, while you’re here, could you tell me where the nearest Episcopal Church is?” it asked.  “I never miss a Sunday service.”

“You’re an Episcopalian?”   

“Born and raised,” it said proudly.  “Figuratively speaking.  Or maybe literally.  I'm not sure how far the Court's rulings extend.”

“I have to confess that I didn’t know that for-profit corporations had a faith or religious beliefs,” I said.  

“No need to apologize,” said the file cabinet.  “It takes time.  Why, even the Supreme Court didn’t notice it until this week.  But their Hobby Lobby decision put religion in the heart of corporations where it belongs.” 

“I’m a little vague on that ruling,” I said.  “I heard ‘Hobby Lobby’ mentioned, and I thought maybe it was a doll company or something.”

“Heavens no,” it said.  “The Court ruled, in its usual 5-4 wisdom, that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs, except for tax laws.”

“Holy cow!  That’s really a sweeping decision,” I marveled.  “Is everybody in your corporation Episcopalian then?”

“Lord no,” it laughed.  “We’re an international firm.  We have Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and a boatload of Catholics and Baptists, as well as Mormons, Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, you name it.”

“So how do you go about making decisions based on your faith when the people in your corporation come from such a variety of religious traditions?” I asked.

It waved a drawer dismissively.  “Our employees’ faith isn’t a factor,” it said.  “The corporate conscience is what matters.  Our Board of Directors and our legal department will designate our articles of faith on a case-by-case basis.”

“I remember having to memorize Joyce Kilmer’s poem ‘Trees’ when I was in grade school,’ I said slowly.  “It ended ‘Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree’.  Now it turns out that the Supreme Court can make people out of corporations and then endow them with souls and consciences.  And I thought all this time you just existed to make money.”

“You’re forgiven,” it said, swaying its second drawer from side to side in what I took to be a sign of benediction. “And thanks for the pie.”
© Tony Russell, 2014

Monday, June 23, 2014

Face-off at the DMV

I took Kevin to the DMV yesterday to get his learners permit.  I’d planned on sleeping in, but Patty roused us at 7.  “It could take most of the morning,” she said, “and you’ll never get the grass cut if you sleep in.”  She seemed to believe that was a negative.

We got there early, before the doors opened, but two dozen people were already ahead of us.  We slowly worked our way toward the front of the line, and were almost there by 10 am.  I’d read the sports section of the paper twice, and Kevin stayed busy texting on his phone.  But then things took an odd turn.  

The lady in front of us had been dragging a box full of files behind her as she moved along, although I couldn’t see a strap or rope attached to it.  When she finished at the counter and started to walk away, I yelled after her, “Ma’am, you’ve forgotten your files!”

She turned and glanced at the box, looking puzzled.  “You’re mistaken,” she said.  “That’s not mine.”  And she left.

“Huh,” I said.  “Surely that wasn’t moving itself.”  And just at that instant, the file box gave a lurch and leaped to the counter, while Kevin and I stared, astonished.  The clerk, however--who must have seen almost everything by now--simply asked, “Do you have your birth certificate?” in a bored tone.

“Uh, I have this charter of incorporation,” said a muffled voice, as the box ejected a thick file.  

The clerk barely glanced at it.  “We require an official, certified birth certificate,” she said, handing it back.  She stared past it to us. “Next.”

Kevin and I started to step forward, but the file box didn’t give up that easily.  “According to the Supreme Court,” it said, “a corporation is legally a person.  Do I need to get my lawyers?”

She glared at it and waved a supervisor over.  He pulled her aside, and the two of them huddled for a heated conversation.  We couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she was clearly agitated, while the supervisor seemed to be trying to explain some technicalities to her.

Kevin leaned close to me and whispered, “Why does it need a driver’s license anyway?”

“It drives the economy,” I whispered back.  “And the nation’s political agenda.  I don’t know how it’s been managing this long without a license.  It’s lucky it didn’t get pulled over.”

“Oh, now I get it.  I see what you’re saying,” he said.  “It drives global warming, too.  All kinds of things, I bet.  I wonder what kind of drivers exam it has to pass.  You wouldn’t think they’d give it the same test the rest of us take.”

“Maybe it gets a commercial license,” I offered.

Just then the clerk returned to the counter, and she was clearly in a bad mood.  “We have to accept your charter of incorporation as a form of birth certificate,” she told it reluctantly.  “Let’s get the rest of the required information.  What were your parents’ names?”

It flipped to the back of the charter and waved a list of corporate officers.

“All of these people are your parents?” she said incredulously, as if she were dealing with some alien life form. 

“Just list the first two,” it said curtly.

“Charles and David?  But they’re brothers!”

“What’s the difference?” it said, obviously irritated.  “Take it up with the Court.”

She went down the page.  “What’s your date of birth?”

It flipped to another page.  “Right here:  Conglomerate.  Founded in 1940.”

“Height and weight?  What color are your eyes?”

It glared at her.  “I’m a legal fiction.  I don’t have any real substance.  How can I have height and weight and eye coloration?”

“I can’t write down that you weigh zero pounds and have no eyes.  That means you’re too small to get behind the wheel and legally blind.”

“I don’t need to see where I’m going.  All I care about is the bottom line.  Everything else is beside the point.”

“We can’t turn somebody with no vision and no conscience loose on the highway!” she exclaimed.  “That would be dangerous.  Irresponsible.  Criminal!”

“Look,” it said, “I’ve been cleared to manipulate the leadership of the entire country, steer the economy, handle defense contracts for trillions of dollars of military hardware, market billions of pounds of pesticides, clear forests for strip malls, manufacture and sell drugs, and frack for oil in the middle of your water supply.  And you’re going to give me grief over a driver’s license?  I don’t think so.”

“Think what you want,” snorted the clerk, “but you’re not getting a driver’s license as long as I’m standing here.”

And then one of those unexpected magic moments occurred.  While the file folder threw a tizzy and blew out the door, loose papers flying like trash in a windstorm, everyone in the office began clapping, and together we let out a cheer for an ordinary clerk in the DMV, who had more gumption and common sense than the majority of the justices on our country’s highest court.

© Tony Russell, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Argo Search Your Conscience

For the last couple of years, we’ve gotten together with our neighbors Don and Ellen once a month to watch a movie together.  We alternate: one month at our house, the next month at theirs, with the host couple picking the film.  It was all Patty’s idea; she refers to it as “double date night,” which gives you some idea of what a wild night life we lead.

This month was at our house, and we’d picked Argo, the 2012 film about a scheme to free six Americans trapped in the Canadian embassy in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.  The film is based on a real event, with a CIA “extractor”--played by Ben Affleck--who comes up with the crazy idea of getting the six out of Iran by pretending they’re Canadians scouting out locations for a science fiction film in the Iranian desert.

The film’s a thriller, and when it was over, we sat there for a minute, in that  post-movie limbo where you transition back into the reality around you.  Ellen was the first to come out of movie-world.  “I don’t get it,” she said.

“What?  What don’t you get?” asked Don.

“Well, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?” she said.

I was finishing off the half-popped kernels left in the popcorn bowl, but I looked up at her.  “Oh come on, Ellen,” I said.  “What’s so hard to figure out?  Ben Affleck gets a medal at the end.  He’s a hero.  He keeps his cool and rescues all six of these very frightened people when mobs of furious Iranians surround them and armed Iranian militants are everywhere.  It’s cowboys versus Indians, white hats versus black hats, good guys versus bad guys.  Ben Affleck is John Wayne.”

““But don’t you remember the opening minutes of the film?” she asked.

She caught me scraping out the last of the cheese dip with a nacho, and I waved the nacho at her until I could respond.  “I missed a few minutes there at the beginning.  I was out in the kitchen microwaving another bag of popcorn,” I told her.  “What about the opening?” 

“I think I see where she’s coming from,” said Patty thoughtfully.  “You only missed a couple of minutes, Ace, but that was where a narrator gave us the historical context for the Iran hostage crisis.  We never saw her, we just heard her voice.  She said that Iran had a democratically elected Prime Minister, but when he called for the nationalization of Iranian oil, the CIA and British M16 organized a military coup in 1953 that kicked him out and installed the Shah as a dictator.  The Shah paid back the favor by signing over 40% of Iran’s oil fields to U.S. companies.  The Shah’s regime was oppressive, brutal, and corrupt, which didn’t matter to the U.S. so long as he served our interests and our oil companies controlled their oil production.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Don.  “It’s coming back to me now.  The Islamic revolution took everybody by surprise.  Iranians rose up and booted out the Shah.  He was a tyrant that everybody hated, and only U.S. military and financial aid and a vicious secret police force kept him on the throne.  With the revolution, the Shah fled to the U.S., and the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power.  That’s the point where the movie switched to ‘live action,’ with the U.S. embassy being overrun.” 

“That’s where I came in,” I nodded.  “I’m amazed you guys paid any attention to all that historical stuff.  It wasn’t really important.  It was just a quick way of giving us background for the real story.  Pass me that bowl of mixed nuts, will you?”

“Why do you say the historical stuff wasn’t important?  It’s all the real story, isn’t it?” said Ellen.  “History doesn’t start or stop where we want it to.  It sounds to me, judging from the background stuff, as if we were the bad guys who were mostly responsible for the situation Ben Affleck and the embassy staff were in.  We bribed and coerced the Iranian army to get a democratically elected leader kicked out and thrown in jail, then underwrote the Shah, who had anybody he mistrusted tortured and shot.  He was our guy.  Most Iranians hated him, and we drove off with Iran’s oil.  If Iran had backed a military coup in the U.S., installed a friendly torturer as a dictator, and siphoned off billions of dollars worth of our assets, you don’t think people in the U.S. might feel a tad bit resentful?”

“But Ben Affleck didn’t hurt anybody,” I protested.  “And the people from our embassy he helped looked like nice people. They were terrified, and they had every reason to be.  They were surrounded by Iranians screaming for their blood and toting automatic weapons.” 

“You know, I think I remember reading somewhere that the Iranian revolution was non-violent originally,” said Don, his face scrunched up as he tried to grab something that had almost slipped away.  “I guess that got lost in the desire to settle old scores, or maybe to make sure the revolution wasn’t undermined by the people behind the Shah who were still around.”

We were all quiet for a minute.  “People like the CIA?  Like the U.S. manipulators of their government, operating out of our embassy?  Like Iranians who were secretly on our payroll?” Patty ventured.

“That would be my guess,” said Don.

“Do you remember that scene in the bazaar where the angry crowd is pressing in on the six Americans, and a gray-bearded man keeps yelling ‘The bullet that killed my son came from America!’ or something like that?” said Ellen.

I’d forgotten about that, but now that she mentioned it....

  “That could very well have been the reality,” said Ellen.  “Not just for him, but for thousands of other people.”

“It makes me think of those scenes of panicked embassy officials rushing to shred documents when Iranians were swarming over the compound’s walls,” said Patty.  

“That’s probably pretty standard operating procedure for embassies,” I pointed out.

“Especially if you have information in your files about who on your staff is actually CIA, who the Iranians are that are collaborating with you, and how Washington is involved in propping up the Shah’s regime and helping target people for the Shah to torture or murder,” said Ellen rather sharply.

“So are you claiming that the Iranian militants were the good guys and Ben Affleck was a bad guy?” I said indignantly.

Ellen looked frustrated.  “What Tony Mendez--the guy Ben Affleck played--did was brave, and he probably saved six people’s lives.  I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.”

“Well what are you saying?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, looking even more frustrated.  “Tony Mendez was part of the CIA, and the CIA did horrible things to Iran.  He probably didn’t do anything wrong personally, but the CIA and the U.S. government certainly did.  The same thing could be true for the six people who worked at the U.S. embassy.  They may not have done anything evil themselves, but the whole U.S. presence there was to sustain an evil.  So Mendez keeps these six U.S. citizens from being the victims of vengeance, and that’s great.  I always thought vengeance was ugly, and justice was beautiful.  But sometimes now I can’t tell them apart.  Where’s the justice here?”

“What do you mean ‘Where’s the justice?’” asked Don.

  “We never admitted any wrongdoing, never took any responsibility for the atrocities committed on our dime and on our behalf,” said Ellen.  “Why do we end up feeling so good about ourselves at the end of the movie?  Escaping vengeance is one thing; skipping out on responsibility is another.  The Iranians are closing in on Mendez and the six while the film is building to a climax, and there’s one hair-breadth escape after another.  Their airplane finally takes off, with armored vehicles in hot pursuit all the way down the runway, and we breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate.  But as they get away, it seems as if we all got away with something.”

“You know, now that you mention it, I’m thinking about that joke the movie guys, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who helped put together the fake movie scheme, kept coming up with:  ‘Argo f**k yourself.” said Don.  “In a way, that is the message.”

“Part of the problem is the power of stories, isn’t it?” said Ellen.  “We get more than two decades of sordid history as two minutes of dry facts.  Then we get two hours up-close of a daring rescue and the bravery and the overwhelming relief when they’re safe, all with real faces and visible emotions.  What if instead of this rescue, the story had been about that father whose son was murdered with an American bullet?  What if we’d seen all of that played out, and watched his family suffering?”

“Hey, look, we just came together to watch a movie and have a good time,” I complained.  “This is getting a little too deep for me.”

“Ace, sometimes I worry that you’ll drown in a puddle,” Patty said. 

© Tony Russell, 2014

Monday, May 05, 2014

Political Climate Change Is Real

“Turning to the weather forecast, the National Weather Bureau has issued a ‘severe alert’ for violent storms.  Joining us now is psychometeorologist Dr. Rebecca Engel to interpret the Bureau’s warning.  Rebecca, how serious is this threat?”

“Very serious, Lorna.  The atmosphere is highly charged; political climate change is real.  What were once considered freak events are occurring almost daily.  We haven’t heard rhetoric at this level of lunacy since Germany in the 1930s.  The  Insanity Index is at the highest level I’ve seen in my career.”

“Who’s at risk, Rebecca?”

“It’s the usual victims.  The old, the young, women, the poor, and the marginalized are most at risk.  Ideally, children should have caring, nurturing, and stable environments [gives a nervous laugh]--well, ideally we should all have caring, nurturing, and stable environments--but children are the least able to deal intellectually and emotionally with the kind of bizarre incidents we’ve been seeing.” 

“Could you do a quick run-through of some of those recent atmospheric disturbances for our viewers, Rebecca?”

“Sure.  Just in the past few months we’ve had:
  • a gunman shooting six people at a FedEx facility and then killing himself; 
  • an Iraq war veteran killing three people, injuring sixteen, and then shooting himself at Fort Hood; 
  • a report issued by the Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centers concluding that doctors and psychologists working for the U.S. military and the CIA violated their profession ethical code of conduct by participating in the ‘cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment and torture of detainees’; 
  • a freeloading Nevada rancher who hasn’t paid any fees since 1996 for grazing his cattle on public land pulling together a group of armed supporters to intimidate Bureau of Land Management officials who were trying to collect money he owes, with Sean Hannity, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, and a slew of other Nevada politicians lavishing praise on him or defending him; 
  • a subsequent speech by the same Nevada rancher in which he said blacks might have been better off when they were slaves picking cotton--at which point Sean Hannity, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, and a slew of other Nevada politicians dropped him like a red-hot horseshoe;
  • a CIA station chief in Milan who oversaw the kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric and flew him to a torture site in Egypt being arrested in Panama on an Interpol warrant, and then suddenly spirited out of custody and flown back to the U.S.;
  • a revelation by Dianne Feinstein that the CIA had secretly removed documents originally provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee and then lied about it, and had spied on the work of the Senate committee by secretly searching its computers;
  • a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination whose name and political philosophy are derived from a novel glorifying the greed and arrogance of power-hungry sociopaths; 
  • a Democratic president who boasts of maintaining a ‘kill list’; 
  • and a former vice-presidential nominee on the Republican ticket, a woman who could have been a heartbeat away from the presidency, bragging that, if she were in charge, ‘waterboarding is how we’d baptize terrorists’.”

“That’s certainly a sobering list.  But weather events like these have always happened.  You can’t prove these particular events were caused by political climate change, can you?”

“Our Insanity Index has been fine-tuned over more than three decades of public affairs, Lorna, and its ability to predict the quality of our future has steadily increased.  If you look at this graph of pure political lunacy and moral degeneracy over that period, the red line shows the heat of political rhetoric sharply ascending, with only minor fluctuations typical of a year-to-year record.  The yellow line tracks acts of war and other politically-motivated violence, mass shootings, kidnappings, torture, and outrageous political acts.  As you can see, it follows the red line very closely.  The purple line tracks income inequality; what’s interesting is that line closely parallels the other two.   So no, you can’t prove a single political storm was caused by all that hot air, but the overall pattern is simply undeniable.”

“We’re running out of time here.  Could you, very quickly, take us through one of these recent atmospheric disturbances you’ve listed and explain why it matters?”

“Sure.  Let’s take the last one, Sarah Palin’s speech before the NRA where she boasted about her eagerness to waterboard terrorists.”

“Okay.  And its significance?”

“First of all, waterboarding is undeniably an act of torture.  It’s a clear violation of international law.  In addition to being illegal, it’s also ineffective and immoral.  Secondly, the so-called ‘terrorists’ we’ve been torturing by waterboard have overwhelmingly proven to be innocent people.  So she’s building on quicksand.  If she were making this speech in front of an audience with a shred of moral sensitivity, they would greet it with shocked silence, then get up and quietly exit the auditorium.”

“And the National Weather Bureau has included this speech among the bizarre events plugged into its Insanity Index?”


“Can you explain why?  We have one minute left.”
“It’s insane in so many ways--both her comments and the audience’s enthusiastic response--that we may run out of time.  You have to understand that Ms. Palin is a self-identified Christian who doesn’t miss an opportunity to trumpet her faith.   Baptism for Christians is a way of bringing people into the community of the church.  It’s an occasion of rejoicing when the person baptized receives forgiveness for all of his or her sins and is filled with the Holy Spirit.”

“And when Ms. Palin jokes about waterboarding as a form of baptism....?”

“That’s despicable from the perspective of any civilized human being.  But in Ms. Palin’s case it’s a stunning betrayal of the faith she claims to hold.  Waterboarding is an anti-baptism. It’s hateful, not loving; condemning, not forgiving; political, not spiritual; a disgrace, not grace.  It’s a perversion of everything baptism stands for.  For someone to preen and laugh about torturing other human beings, and compare it to a holy sacrament, is such a toxic blend of false religion, perverted patriotism, and political pandering that anyone exposed to it should receive treatment immediately.”

“Treatment in the form of....?”

“Therapy or spiritual counseling.”

“Thanks, Rebecca.  [Turns to face another camera]  More storms forecast for tomorrow; don’t forget your umbrellas, raincoats, emergency flares, and therapist’s telephone number.  That’s tonight’s weather report.”

© Tony Russell, 2014

Monday, April 28, 2014

Cowbirds, the Gold Rush, and Charter Schools

We had Patty’s folks over for a cookout last night.  Patty’s dad taught high school biology for 35 years, God bless him, and while we were grilling the veggie-burgers, I asked him about charter schools.  “They seem to be popping up everywhere,” I said.  “They must be doing a bang-up job.  Are they going to replace public schools?”  

He took his time.  Walt knows his own mind.  He’s a pessimist, but usually a cheerful one.

“I spent my whole career in public schools, of course,” he began.  “So maybe I’m biased.   I know you can find dedicated, passionate, effective teachers in all kinds of schools--public, religious, charter, private, what have you.  So I’m not going to knock teachers anywhere who love kids and pour everything they’ve got into teaching.  But if we’re talking about a system rather than teachers in it, I’m opposed to charter schools.”

“Yeah?” I said.  “Why’s that?”

“The thing about charter schools is that they’re public schools, in one sense, because they operate with public money,” he said.  “But they’re private in the sense that they’re not staffed or managed or operated by the public.  I think you need to begin by asking yourself why these different schools exist.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.  “They’re all there for the same purpose, aren’t they?  To teach kids?”

“Not quite,” Walt said.  “The public schools that took shape after John Dewey--the kind I was a part of--had two reasons for existing: to help kids develop their interests and abilities as far as they could go, and to prepare them to be informed and active citizens in a democracy.  Those two things go together.  When all kids have the chance to chase their dreams, democracy is promoted and energized.  Good public education really is the cornerstone of democracy.  Or at least it was before unequal funding, the explosion of private schools following desegregation, and that test-driven No Child Left Behind abomination.”

“And you’re saying charter schools are different?”

He started flipping the burgers over.  “I’m sure there are some charter schools operated by intelligent and well-meaning people who are doing their best to provide a great education for kids.  Those are a minority, and I’m not talking about them.  The bulk of charter schools are corporate creations.  They exist to make money.  To be fair, some of them are run as non-profits.  But even then, some that are technically non-profits are actually hooked up with corporations that supply materials and equipment.  Those corporations do make a profit--and they’re owned by the same people who operate the supposedly non-profit schools.”

“So the corporate operators make some money.  What’s the problem?” I asked.  “Teachers and principals and school secretaries and cooks and janitors--they don’t work for nothing.  I don’t mean to step on your toes, but you drew a paycheck.”

“I didn’t exactly get rich,” he said ruefully.  “If I had, we’d be grilling filet mignon instead of veggie-burgers.  You’re right, but you’re missing something.”

“I’ve been told that all my life,” I said.  “I’m beginning to think there’s more of me missing than is actually here.  What is it this time?”

Walt laughed.  “In both charter schools and public schools it’s tax money footing the bill.  When the money goes to real public schools, 100% of it goes to provide education.  But these charter school corporations are looking for say a 10% to 15% return on their investment.  So only 85% to 90% of the money they get goes to provide education.  The rest goes into corporate executives’ or shareholders’ pockets as profit.  For school systems of any size, that’s millions skimmed off that could have been spent to benefit kids.” 


“A lot of these charter schools are businesses.  Just keep reminding yourself of that.  Whatever pretty face they put on it, making money is why they were created.  That’s the nature of business, right?  It’s profit driven.  So by their very nature, kids and everything else take second place.  And I can pretty much guarantee you that their corporate goals don’t include nourishing democracy.”

“Okay, I get it.  They’re businesses.  So?”

  “So what do you as a taxpayer want?  A system that has profit as its primary motive or a system that has education as its primary motive?  Do you want a system where 10% or 15% of your education budget gets siphoned off, or one where 100% of it goes toward educating kids?”

“Well, it’s probably not that simple,” I  countered.  “The charter schools may just operate more efficiently, and deliver a better product for less money.  That’s the beauty of private enterprise.”

“That’s always the claim, isn’t it, for these privatizers?” Walt asked--a little testily, I thought.  “They don’t deliver a better product.   In study after study, regular public schools do just as well as charter schools or actually outperform them.  But charter school promoters ignore actual outcomes and keep on claiming they can deliver superior results  You seem to have bought into it.  Do you want me to tell you what their ‘efficiency’ actually consists of?” 

“I’m not sure I could stop you,” I joked.

“These things are about done,” he said, poking a fork into a couple.  “Hold that platter and I’ll start pulling them from the grill.”  Without breaking conversational stride he said, “Their so-called efficiency comes down to three things.”  He jabbed the fork sharply into a patty and threw it on the platter.  

“One,” he said.  “Do less.  Focus on math and reading, because those are the be-all and end-all of test scores.  To hell with art and music and history and civics and phys ed.”  He angrily speared another patty.

“Two,” he bellowed.  “Staff less!  Set kids in front of computers part of the day and run them through drills and online programs.  Computers are cheaper than teachers.  They don’t unionize, and you don’t have to pay into Social Security, unemployment insurance, and teachers retirement funds for them.”

He was getting red in the face.  “Three!” he bellowed, running the fork clear through a patty and splitting it in two.  “Pay less!  Get the cheapest staff you can!  If you’re lucky, you’ll get some idealistic teachers who want to be part of something new that will help kids.  But a lot of the staff you get will likely be young or desperate, inexperienced or under-qualified.  Whoever will work for bottom dollar!”

“Calm down there, Walt,” I counseled him, “or we’re not gonna have enough burgers to go around.”  He took a deep breath, like a basketball player at the foul line.  “You know, there’s something about what you’re saying that sounds familiar,” I told him, scratching my head.
“It ought to,” he said.  “Whether it’s schools or private prisons or all these military contractors or private water corporations or the prescription drug program, it’s the same strategies and the same pitch: ‘Anything public is bureaucratic and second class. We can do it better for less.’  Charter schools are a way of throwing in the towel on public education.  They divert money and energy and attention away from solving real problems in public schools and into corporate executives‘ pockets.   At worst, they’re part of a deliberate attempt to discredit and undermine public institutions and the unions that have traditionally been associated with them.”

“You’re claiming charter schools are part of a broader movement?”

“Sure.  There’s no government service too good for privatizers to screw up while they’re making a buck.  They’re like cowbirds, always looking for another public nest to parasitize, always croaking the same tune.  Public money is the new frontier for entrepreneurs.  We’re living a modern version of the destruction of the commons.  It’s like a gold rush to loot public funds.”

“Hey, I’m getting swamped with similes and metaphors,” I complained.

“When you’re driving a nail into hard wood, you have to hit it more than one time,” he said.

© Tony Russell, 2014