Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

Image result for pope francis with children          Image result for donald trump

When these two men, Pope Francis and Donald Trump, epitomize our world today, it seems we live in an era that calls for song lyrics and literary quotes to adequately describe. 

At 68, having seen what I've seen, I think "so true" when I hear the Grateful Dead sing - "what a long, strange trip it's been". I've watched my country go through so many cycles, I'm dizzy from swinging left and right. 

Charles Dickens described our time perfectly in A Tale of Two Cities - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

I'm not a Catholic and never will be again but I cherish Pope Francis' message of compassion and peace and inclusion, that's where my hope comes from. By contrast, Donald Trump's message of narrow-minded harshness and greed is the source of my despair.

I am old enough to have seen everything - cold wars and hot wars and silly wars (Grenada comes to mind). I've seen us when we had faith in science and trust in our government and the wonders they could perform together - moon landings and space capsules and cameras to Mars, eradicating diseases, technology that makes a cell phone more powerful than what used to be contained in a whole room of computers, surgery so precise it allows us to separate conjoined babies (here's to you Dr. Carson, I disagree with your politics but I totally respect your incredible medical skills), Of course, I could go on forever with the achievements we have accomplished in my lifetime.

I've seen us rise up against war. I've seen us march for equality - civil rights and women's rights and migrant worker's rights. I remember when corporations that profited immensely in the U.S. felt a sense of  responsibility to their country and their community - often helped along by the unions. I remember when, collectively, we felt compassion for the poor and discriminated against. I remember when we valued education above all else. I remember when we respected our earth and supported wetlands and endangered species and wilderness areas. 

And then the pendulum swung to the far side. We are now fine with being embroiled in endless war even though we scorn our government and believe it is worthless. How can that be? Do we trust them or not? Well, we don't protest about war anymore. I wonder why that is? Maybe because we have no draft so only one percent of our population fights our battles for us.

We pooh-pooh science. The politicians know better than the professionals, don't you know? No such thing as climate change, moron! Ignore those melting ice caps and mega-storms. 

We're sick of whiners complaining about their civil rights being violated. Obey the law and the police won't be forced to shoot you. You bring it on yourself! And we're damn sick of the poor too. The majority of them are lazy deadbeats who want "free stuff", even the little kids and wounded soldiers and 95-year-olds and the severely disabled. And we're double-damned sick of immigrants risking their lives to come here for a better one. 

We've lost our respect for education and our teachers (you know most of them are unionized, don't you?) We're letting our public schools deteriorate in favor of for-profit institutions from which politicians make big bucks. Every state can choose its own curriculum. If its more superstition than fact, well, that's okay. I think I got an excellent education when I graduated from Wabash High School in 1964 but I think many kids today are getting shortchanged. 

We've decided the earth is here for our use and if we ruin it for future generations, too bad so sad. We need the fracking and the oil spills and the bomb trains that travel through our towns to maintain our way of life. We need to drill the Arctic and to sell the Apache Holy Land to the mining company and to slice the tops off our mountains and to despoil our water sources. 

And guns, we must have more guns. We'll tolerate anything for our guns. A whole class of small children killed? Collateral damage. We just have to deal with it because....the Second Amendment. It probably doesn't matter about laws now anyway. We are awash in guns and they aren't going away.

While all this is going on, one of our major political parties has lost its mind. They compete with one another to see who can be the meanest. Who can say the nastiest things about minorities and women and immigrants and poor children and gays. They compete to see who can start more wars. They'll go to Iran on Day One and shoot the Ayatollah. They'll take on Putin bare-handed. They'll personally lead the charge against ISIS. Of course, when any of them had the chance to go to war themselves and actually face the enemy, they all declined. 

So, in America today, we are roughly divided between the Pope Francis outlook on life and the Donald Trump outlook - love versus hate, knowledge versus ignorance, peace versus war, respect for others versus contempt for others. Cherishing our earth versus abusing our earth. 

Your choice, America. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

911 - Wrong Lessons Learned


Well, tomorrow is September 11 and there are lots of "Never Forget" posts on Facebook. And, of course, we never will forget the 911 attacks because they were tragic and heartbreaking and stunning. They revealed how heroic everyday Americans can be, especially police officers and firemen and EMTs and construction workers and airplane passengers and just regular people who postponed their own lives and faced danger to help in any way they could.

Sadly, though, in a larger sense, 911 also revealed that, collectively, we are hardly the land of the free and the home of the brave, as we always proudly declare, rather, we willingly traded principles for security and bravery for fearfulness.

We created a Department of Homeland (a word I despise) Security - uber-expensive, blackly covert, mega-powerful and unaccountable. Do you know what all the DHS does? Nope, me neither and they make sure we never will.

Here's a hint though. They are working on a project called FAST, the Future Attribute Screening Technology because...terrorism. FAST will remotely monitor physiological and behavioral cues, like elevated heart rate, eye movement, body temperature, facial patterns, and body language, and analyze these cues algorithmically for statistical aberrance in an attempt to identify people with nefarious intentions. Predictive crime prevention - what could possibly go wrong? How do you prove your innocence when FAST accuses you of a crime you going to commit in the future?

After 911, we passed the Patriot Act (complete name: "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001" about a wide umbrella.

Title V was one of the most controversial aspects of the Patriot Act. Title V dealt with National Security Letters, which were administrative subpoenas used by the FBI and probably other government agencies. A NSL is a demand issued to an organization to turn over data relating to an individual. They required no probable cause or judicial oversight. In addition, they contained a "gag order, preventing the recipient from revealing that the letter was ever issued.

Fortunately, the ACLU filed suit and the courts found that NSLs were unconstitutional but the American people, as a whole were unaware of what their government was doing...and probably didn't care because we are less than concerned about government over-reach. "Just keep as safe. We'll pay any price in liberty" seems to be our mindset.

Elements of the Patriot Act were scheduled to sunset, and a few did, but gee, mostly Congress just couldn't bring themselves to give it up.

Pre-911, America's reputation was rather that of the world's moral arbiter. We stood firm (well, mostly) for civil rights and equality and justice. We signed on to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which not only required that we not torture people ourselves but we not send prisoners to other countries where they would likely be tortured. You know, like extreme rendition.

Then WE were attacked and all that high-flown moral stuff went right out the window. We could no longer afford to be honorable. So....extreme rendition and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. We slid into the black hole of shame - waterboarding and rubbing feces on people and leading them around naked by dog collars and making them stand on boxes with their genitals wired for shock. Not only did we allow and/or encourage our soldiers to do such things, they actually seemed to enjoy it.

We threw people into Guantanamo because someone said (and surely no one would have been swayed by the $5,000 bounty the U.S. paid) that they'd engaged in terrorist acts. We didn't know for sure if it was true but what the heck, better safe than sorry, right? We didn't accuse them of any particular crime, just a sort of amorphous allegation of wrong-doing. Out of the original 780 detainees, military tribunals have convicted eight of them. Hell of a success rate, isn't it? Detainee...don't you love that word? they aren't exactly convicts or inmates or prisoners....just detainees. There's charges, no trial, no sentence, no out date, no resolution. Many of them have been cleared by a commission to be released but we haven't released them. So much for our much-vaunted Rule of Law. No right to face your accuser. No right to know exactly what crime you're accused of. No speedy - or even un-speedy trial, no habeas corpus.

And we hate these guys so much that when, in desperation, they try to starve themselves to death, we stick a tube down their throat and force food down them to keep them alive. America the Merciful.

President Obama wants to close Guantanamo. For one thing, it costs about a $1,000,000 annually per prisoner to hold people there versus about $30,000 in a federal prison but here in the "home of the brave", we are afraid to so much as allow them on our soil 'cause, you know, they are just so dangerous and scary. Geez, how gutless is that?

Many of us turned on all Muslims. Can't trust any of those rag heads, sand jockeys and those are the nicest descriptors. We were outraged that they'd dare to put a mosque anywhere close to Ground Zero....sort a "kill them all and let God sort them out" mentality.

We went to two wars because of 911. In the first, Afghanistan, we were there to try to get the perpetrators. Okay, that is a valid reason but 15 years later, Osama bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is scattered across the middle east....but we are still in America's longest war. Does anyone know why?

And our second war, Iraq, was a farce from Day One. It was based on lies and secret agendas and revenge and oil and egos. And, despite George W standing on a aircraft carrier with a Mission Accomplished banner across his head, it was a disaster and the mission, whatever it was supposed to be, was never accomplished. This after ten years and trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives lost and we are still there too, facing an even deadlier enemy that we created ourselves in ISIS. And we're left with many more thousands of grievously injured warriors who will need care for least, those who don't commit suicide.

So, no, I will never forget 911. I will remember the actions of the valiant but I will also remember how badly we failed this horrendous test. We are less free and less brave and less honorable now. I guess that's what the terrorists were hoping for.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

How My Son's Death Changed Me

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In the last year or so before he died, my father told me more than once that he was tired. He loved me and mom and my son but he was just tired. He said that one night, he would go to sleep and my Grammie would be standing with her hand out and when that time came, he was going to take her hand and go with her. He didn't want me to be sad, he said, because he was ready.

He died in his sleep, peacefully. His heart simply stopped. My fond belief is that when he closed his eyes, Grammie was standing there with her hand out.

My son's most loving supporter throughout his life was my mother, his Grandma. In the same way as my Dad, my dream, hope, fantasy, call it what you will, is that when his heart stopped, Mom was standing there with her hand out. Whether that's the case, I don't know....yet.

Having said all that, my son's death did not turn me toward religion. I am somewhat spiritual but not religious in the traditional sense of the word. I don't claim any particular faith or denomination. I do not have a personal relationship with god. I don't even know if there is a god. I call myself an agnostic in that I don't know the answers and I don't think anyone else does either. The only tenet I try to live by is the Golden Rule, not because I'm afraid of going to hell, but because that what makes me feel good about myself.

I always have to smile a little when I hear or see people speak after they've experienced a tragedy and say things like,  "it was my faith in God that got me through it." It's not true, of course, though they may believe it. People like me, who have no particular faith, survive just the same. It is what people do. They endure the immediacy and gradually, the pain eases, not completely, but enough to be bearable.

So, John's death didn't change my religious views. Instead, what it brought me was a mild feeling of being disconnected, rather as if I'm in a hot air balloon floating slightly above life, more like a watcher than a participant.

There is also a sense of peace, in a way. Life has done its worst. Nothing else that ever happens can compare so there is no longer anything to fear. I don't have to worry anymore because there is no thing or no one to worry about. (Don't take this to mean there aren't still people I care a great deal about). John's theme song should have been, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". He struggled to find where he fit in and never did. I pray (yes, I do - you can be uncertain and still pray) that he's found those answers.

I'm not depressed although sometimes when I least expect it, the realization that he is gone punches me in the gut. I expect that will always be the case though it may happen less often as time goes on.

I still love NASCAR. Go, Jimmie Johnson! I still love reading - thank you, Andrew Vachss and Diana Gabaldon and so many more. I love the Outlander series and can't wait for the new season to start - Sam Heughn as Jamie - yes! I still love music - rock and roll, country, blues, blue grass, David Garrett's classical violin. I love throwing money down the slot machines at a casino. I love admiring my flowers and playing with my pets and traveling and sharing good times with my friends.

I still care passionately about politics....but it is in a different way, a more detached way, one step removed. I will always debate on Facebook and certainly I'll always vote for who I think will do best for America but it is less personal for me now with the awareness that it is up to others to decide and there is nothing I can do but watch from my hot air balloon.

It isn't my children and grand-children and great-grandchildren who will pay the price or reap the benefits of what mankind finally decides to do with his earth.

The answers are out there....somewhere....but not yet.