Monday, July 10, 2006

What I've Learned

The author in Providence last weekend among friends and a couple of generations too.Posted by Picasa

I fell in love with the wings of birds
The light of spring on them!


In the light of flowers
I travel
Just for the sake of traveling.

---Soen Nakagawa

The mind creates the abyss, and the heart crosses it.

---Sri Nisargadatta

Some replies received to the post I put out yesterday, which was sort of about global warming but involved a sense of futility as well, have motivated me to get my act together. I didn't start out writing on the Internet about political things, but somehow or other during these Bush years, when concerns about the "mainstream media" in this country come from all sides, I started sending stuff to friends and contacts that I hoped would be helpful in keeping discussion going. I think that media problem may motivate much of the blogging revolution for people. Where do you find out what's really going on in the world? Ordinarily I sprinkle links and footnotes all over such pieces, which is how I learned to do research for social studies papers and debating. I'm not going to do that this time because I need to speak from my own history and experience. I see no other way to address those replies.

I know a couple guys online I've never met face-to-face who like to keep things jumping with really basic questions. I hesitate to summarize what they stand for...and they are very different people...but they share a sort of warrior mentality. They live in the US---I think---and seem ready to survive, if necessary, with a knife and some matches...or with nothing if those luxuries are not available. So whenever I post about a political solution to something, one or the other or both generally jump in with both feet.

One of the guys grew up in the inner city but now lives in the Arizona desert, very close to the recent fires. His nickname is Bushman, for a couple of reasons probably...but I think he is available to do landscape work and tend your bushes. He wrote back the following: "It's all right here. Cleansed by fire, again." And he included a link to some Hopi prophecies. He means he's ready to ride it out with things as they are, rather than muck about with government agencies trying to regulate everything.

The other fellow changes his nickname about once a month and currently is going by Darklander. Here's what he has to say: "Fear is a good tactic that all hierarchs love to use to keep the sheeple in line. Stop voting for these dingbats (sure doesn't do you any good!), disband the military, stop sending your sons and daughters to Moloch, quit the 501 3C 'Corporate' churches, find out who you really are... be free from the lot of the rot. Nah, easier to blame it on, ah, global warming..."

Now I like both these guys a great deal. For one thing, they have great wit and keep me laughing. Nothing is better in the midst of argument and struggle. I have a friend here in Athens something like Bushman and Darklander, who just retired from 3 decades of teaching industrial tech and intends to move into a cave and become a cannibal. What do I say to people like this...and why does it matter?

I see signs everywhere in America that we are rethinking the basics. If the Bush paleocons and neocons, or whatever they are, have done nothing else, they've forced us to do that. How did it all happen to this country? There used to be a magazine called Saturday Review. When it went out of business, we got the first hint that institutions we thought were the very foundation pillars of civilization could collapse and disappear. Saturday Review had a series of occasional articles by geezers called What I've Learned. I think those essays got collected into a book eventually. Now that I'm a geezer, I'm going to try one.

When I was a boy it was the postwar 1940s. My mother had a wringer washer and there were no driers. She washed clothes twice a week and hung them out on a clothesline. A mile east were factories and the Erie railroad. Coal was used to fire everything. We just had gotten rid of our coal furnace, replacing it with oil or gas...not sure which. But most people still used coal...or steam fired somehow by coal. Coal meant soot. In the late '40s there was soot everywhere...on windowsills (no air conditioning) which meant lots of dusting every day, and on Mom's clean sheets hanging outdoors. She cursed the darn soot...but not too much. We lived with soot because it meant prosperity and food in the fridge. We liked seeing smoke pour out of the stacks because jobs and production were going full blast. We liked the locomotives puffing through town, carrying passengers and goods alike. The sound of a train whistle still is enough to stop a geezer in his tracks!

Did anyone think about carbon emissions destroying the planet? I don't think so, and on we went into the automobile models of the 1950s. My father even got a job selling them, and so we had a brand new Mercury every year. What kind of mileage did they get? Who cared? Gasoline was pennies a gallon. Everything was pennies a gallon. Milk was delivered to your early morning door, in returnable glass bottles with cream on the top. Such a world may seem strange now, even alien...but many Americans yearn to return to it somehow. Ronald Reagan probably was such a man...and possibly even continued to live in the 1950s somewhere in his mind. Why did he happen?

My father was a simple man. His family circumstances during the Depression made something like college unthinkable. He had to help support his family and went to work, and continued to work until he couldn't anymore and was content to get a week or 2 off a year for vacation. I don't believe he ever made more than $10,000 a year. In the 1960s and 1970s, when my father was heading into retirement, young people just starting out got $20,000 a year at least. Inflation. But Dad's Social Security check was based on $10,000 a year in a world where everybody needed $20,000 a year. Republicans blamed Democrats for causing the inflation and Reagan won. My father voted for him.

Some say the inflation was caused by big government. There were regulatory agencies that sucked up your income and they had to be dismantled. The Bush people are completing that job at the moment. Others said corporations were passing their labor costs onto the public by raising prices of goods all the time. People blamed the unions for this and even the working man believed it and turned against the union movement. I must say I was startled when I did some factory work in the mid-'70s to see high school dropouts making more money on a machine than I had made teaching school with a college degree. But part of their wages were going to pay for the new medical benefits that came with the job. Why in the world did companies start up benefit packages like that?

One answer I heard was in the late 1940s there were price controls. The Truman administration may have tried that approach to inflation. I've always liked the idea of price controls as a way to control corporate excess...but they have significant disadvantages. One is that a company has a hard time attracting the best workers if they can't offer higher wages than the next guy. To get around it, companies began to offer benefits other than money. An insurance plan shared by the company workers, with premiums paid by the boss, did the trick. Did anybody think eventually your part of the medical premium out of that paycheck would amount to hundreds of dollars a month?

Let's talk about schools. In my hometown of 40,000 people in the 1940s and 1950s, there were 6 elementary and 3 junior high schools. You walked to them everyday, came home for lunch, and walked back for the afternoon. Out in the rural areas, they were starting to shut down the one-room schoolhouses, where my aunt had taught all alone, and build central schools. They had something called schoolbuses out there and sometimes even a lunchroom. I never saw a schoolbus in town except for those few that brought country kids into our high school. Gas was pennies a gallon.

During the 1960s, for a number of reasons including civil rights, school systems in the US started buying whole fleets of buses. That meant hiring a lot of drivers too. At the same time we decided to build cafeterias and hire cooks and servers to be sure everybody got good nutrition. (Checked a school menu lately?) Food and transportation now have become huge budget items...and of course gasoline is forcing teachers out of work. Why didn't anybody foresee these problems? Can we go back to the old way? Those schools have been converted into housing units for the elderly by now. Privatize? Do away with public education?

You see what I mean...and of course Bushman and Darklander are way ahead of me here. These problems of environment, oil prices, education, and the health system are so gigantic few political leaders seem able even to talk about them. Yeah, flagburning is an issue we can get our heads around. I know the idea of government agencies and bureaucracy is loathsome and there is waste galore. I did some of that work in my time too, and I can tell you there are plenty of workers and administrators alike who drink lots of coffee everyday and do little else. But the work of regulation and services that don't make the kind of profit that interests Republicans is necessary work I say, and watchdogging those agencies can be done. Agencies are easier dogs to watch than these corporations we have around it seems. Unless the agency is locked up in secrecy---which is another problem the republic faces.

What I've learned is mistakes have been made. They're gigantic and some may be reversible and some may not. What many think now is calculations were made too. Maybe that inflation that brought Reagan to power was planned out. Maybe the banking system is corrupt beyond repair. Lawyers are to blame. All I know is I don't want to bide my next 2 years either hoping Bush will croak or somebody will blow the ultimate whistle to expose the whole mess. I don't want to look in vain for a politician to dare to speak out either. But I have faith people can wake up and come together and build something sensible and lasting. I'd like to think there can be more to life than building a fortress around your own little campfire. Let's talk about it.


jazzolog said...

Jesus and Hitler
The classic case for separation of church and state
© Bryan Zepp Jamieson

Der Spiegel magazine had a piece last spring about a 70 year old church in Berlin that was in need of some renovation and financing. Nothing too extraordinary about that, except that this was Germany’s only remaining “Nazi-era church.”

The piece, by David Crossland, described the “Martin Luther Memorial Church” in vivid terms, noting the black Iron Cross chandelier, and that “The pulpit has a wooden carving of a muscular Jesus leading a helmeted Wehrmacht soldier and surrounded by an Aryan family. The baptismal font is guarded by a wooden statue of a stormtrooper from Adolf Hitler's paramilitary Sturmabteilung (SA) unit clutching his cap.”

I bet the “muscular Jesus” looked very Aryan, much like the blond-haired and blue-eyed image the Mormons claim to be the true image of Jesus, with little about him to suggest that his mother was Jewish.

The church isn’t unchanged since the war. The bells, according to Crossland, were melted down for the war effort, and the swasticas removed after the war when the symbol was declared illegal.

The resident Dean of the parish, Isolde Böhm, isn’t unreservedly enthusiastic about his church’s legacy, and Crossland quotes him as saying, “When you hold sermons in this church your words clash with the symbols around you. It's hard work talking about human dignity when you're constantly aware that your surroundings evoke a system that trampled on dignity. Sometimes I had the feeling that the symbols overpowered the words.” Despite that, Böhm wants to see the church preserved, both for its historic interest, and as a warning to future generations of what happens when political madness and religious belief combine.

Just as well they removed the swasticas. They don’t really convey a message of peace, love and compassion, do they?

That many German Christians – and their churches – in the 1930s were locked in an enthusiastic embrace with Hitler and the Nazi party is no secret, of course. Hitler represents a failure of German Christianity as much as it represents a failure of German culture and the German people themselves.

But Hitler recognized that by embracing Christianity and making it his own, he could easily alleviate moral qualms that his vicious policies might incur in the German people. Thus, he deftly equated loyalty to him and his party not only with patriotism, but with godliness. Saying “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator; by defending myself against the Jews, I am fighting for the Lord.” made him, not a hater and a murderer, but a mere instrument of the lord’s will. “Loyalty and responsibility toward the people and the Fatherland are most deeply anchored in the Christian faith.” ensured that it was ok for ordinary German citizens to become instruments of that same will.

Christianity didn’t cause Hitler’s ascendency and the moral collapse of German culture, but the nature of organized religion – any organized religion – certainly enabled it. Any group of humans can be swayed and led by demagoguery, but religion is particularly susceptible because of the strong constraints that religion necessarily has against challenging authoritarian pronouncements. It’s much easier to oppose a poisonous politician than it is to oppose a politician who, according to both himself and the authorities of your own church, is carrying out the will of god.

Can it happen here? Of course! Some people – myself included – believe it is happening right now. And yes, it could be as evil. Read the writings of Ann Coulter, and any place she uses the word “liberal”, replace it with the word “Jew” and see if you can tell any difference between her and Adolf Hitler.

Ann Coulter, in her latest book, characterizes all liberals as being “Godless”. Presumably godless means evil, and therefore, it’s ok to kill them. You may have noticed that while elected Republicans aren’t waving her book in the air and cheering, they aren’t lining up to condemn it, either. Attacking Coulter would be like attacking Jesus because the people Ann doesn’t like are godless.

The religious right has always been a threat to American freedom. Clear back in the early 1950s, Robert Heinlein postulated that America would fall – in the year 2000 – to a repressive police state that carried religious and state symbols side by side, a merging of the two. Bertrand Russell considered it necessary to divide the two because politics was the art of the possible, with ever-malleable truths, whereas religious was the art of what is, with unchanging truths. Each would badly corrupt the other if merged.

But it predates Heinlein by over 150 years. The founding fathers saw the implicit threat religious fervor presented to freedom, and took the strongest steps they could to avoid it. Most people know of the most frequently cited example of this. That would be the First Amendment – Jefferson’s “wall of separation”.

What most people don’t know is that there is one sentence in the Constitution that, by its very wording, is not subject to the mechanisms available for amending the rest of the Constitution. The founders realized that America would change, and outgrow the original document, and that the document would need to be flexible to adapt to those changes.

With one exception. There was one standard that the founders held that should never change, and that would be the need to keep religion and state carefully apart. So, on a nearly unamimous vote, they agreed to Madison’s wording in the penultimate sentence in the Constitution: “[...]No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

What did Madison have in mind? The following quotes of his are illustrative:

“And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Govt (sic) will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

“It was the Universal opinion of the Century preceding the last, that Civil Government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment; and that the Christian religion itself, would perish if not supported by the legal provision for its clergy. The experience of Virginia conspiciously corroboates the disproof of both opinions. The Civil Government, tho' bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success; whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the TOTAL SEPARATION OF THE CHURCH FROM THE STATE.”

Madison didn’t just want no law saying only Episcopalians could run for office; he wanted a system whereby a candidate for office should not reveal what, if any, religious beliefs he held!

The founders, by a huge margin, agreed with him. Even those who didn’t like it agreed to the necessity. The Reverend Isaac Backus wrote, “And let the history of all nations be searched, from that day to this, and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world. And I rejoice to see so many gentlemen who are now giving in the rights of conscience, in this great and important matter.”

It’s fashionable among the religious right to say that America was meant to be a Christian country, and that the founders didn’t want government without Jesus. That is utterly false. They had seen what a government “with Jesus” was like, and after 300 years of carnage in Europe, they wanted no part of it. And they created a nation that was noticeably freer of pogroms and religious persecution than any in history.

The religious right also like to pretend that patriotism is valid only if it includes a higher power. I would like to invite them to go and visit Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin, and gaze around and see what a blending of patriotism and godliness leads to. Not “could lead to” – “WILL lead to.”

The founders knew that. That’s why the “religious test” clause, uniquely, contains the word “ever”.

And that’s why, on this holiday of American Independence, it’s so important to remember that one of America’s greatest strengths and greatest glories has been, and hopefully always will be a strong separation of church and state.

"Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so"
-George W. Bush, April 20, 2004

Not dead, in jail, or a slave? Thank a liberal!
Pay your taxes so the rich don't have to.

~~~Despite the link at the top, it appears Zepp has not posted this essay at his site yet.

jazzolog said...

Three topics of recent entries have been of great concern to this writer. However, each of them brings happy headlines this morning~~~

Most sensationally, Valerie Plame and her husband have filed suit against Vice President Dick Cheney, his indicted chief of staff Scooter Libby, and Karl Rove, who often is referred to as President Bush's brain. More officially Rove was Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff, heading the Office of Political Affairs, the Office of Public Liaison, and the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the White House. "The suit, filed in U.S. Federal Court yesterday, alleges that White House officials attempted to 'discredit, punish and seek revenge' on the couple after Ms. Plame's husband, former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, disputed the Bush administration's contention that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger for its weapons program." The suit also charges 10 unnamed "senior White House officials" in the conspiracy and followed by one day a column by Robert Novak in which he named Rove as his SECOND source. His primary source remains undisclosed. Novak appeared with Sean Hannity on FoxNews to talk about it, and the transcript is here,2933,203423,00.html .

The second story of good news is the passage by the House of Representatives of the renewed voting rights act. Several representatives raised objections and amendments yesterday and debate raged all day. The same arguments are expected when the bill now moves into the Senate. But the vote in the House was overwhelmingly in favor of continued federal watchdog of how the states run their elections. FoxNews gives plenty of space to the opponents,4670,VotingRights,00.html .

The third story has to do with Bush's secret eavesdropping on American citizens---just to make sure we aren't terrorists seeking to undermine his tremendous programs of citizen security. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had planned hearings on Bush's operations which of course the White House opposed. Specter now says, after a month of "tortuous" negotiations, Bush is agreeing to legislation requiring judicial review of White House spying. Notice Specter is announcing it, not the White House, but it's progress.