Sunday, March 24, 2013

On the Tenth Anniversary of the Invasion of Iraq

It must have been around the time Godzilla leapt out of the ocean and started eating humans, cows and other pets that I went to a Hamilton drugstore to fill my boring, overpriced prescription. We only pay attention to monsters when they eat our cows, our pets, or ourselves. Otherwise we ignore them. This reaction to monsters has been genetically imprinted into our psyche since the time of wooly mammoths, sabre-tooth tigers and the Giant Beaver. After all, if a monster isn’t in the act of physically attacking us and ours, it’s a simple act of anthropocentric arrogance to ignore its existence. Who’s afraid of a Giant Beaver these days, for instance, or even acknowledges its existence? How simple is that? Ask any teabagger. They’ll agree with me. It’s a scientific fact.

While I was waiting at the counter of the drugstore, I remarked for the hundredth time the pile of small magnetic ribbons that had been sitting on this counter and countless other drugstore counters since American troops were deployed to Afghanistan four years earlier. “Support Our Troops” it declared against a simple yellow hue, and by this time, most people had one displayed on the back bumper of their fossil-belching automobile. They were ubiquitous in traffic jams.

I had resisted up til then, because I hated the wars, hated the creeps who got us into the wars. But that day, right after Katrina ate New Orleans, I decided I was ready for the plunge. I resolved that I would purchase a yellow ribbon and that I would stick it right under my “Impeach Bush” bumper sticker, in case anyone gave a damn, which didn’t seem likely in 2005.

I’d never picked up one of the magnetic ribbons before, let alone examined one closely with the intent to buy. We love our boring lives. No wars on our own home turf, thank you very much and I was bored, waiting for my overpriced prescription. So in my boredom I turned one of the yellow ribbons over and over in my hand, weighing it and wondering what these things were worth by the pound, and almost accidentally I noticed a tiny inscription printed at the bottom corner of the swirl. “Made in China”.

Having been a worker bee myself, I understand that most people who crank out factory products don’t spend much or any time thinking about the widgets they’re causing to be spewed into the environment. They’re thinking about their paycheck, their kids, their beer at the end of the day. I don’t blame them.

But some Chinese entrepreneur, with probable connections, was making money manufacturing a seemingly inert message so ubiquitous in our society by 2005. “Support our troops”.  What did that mean coming from a Chinese entrepreneur?

I thought about our troops, and the meaning of words, specifically euphemisms like "support" when connected to them. This is a simple activity, I believe, that was distinctly lacking within that now-infamous closed circle of elites who actually put those troops in harm’s way where they subsequently needed—and did not receive--all the support they could get from us. The monster, in other words, eats New Orleans, and we acknowledge that  because it's on T.V. In stark contrast, by 2005, the wars were not.

I’ll simply state, as simply as the words on the yellow ribbon made in China. “Support Our Troops”. Whose troops? Did these Chinese elites and entrepreneurs have a sense of irony? If the conversation of War is to be reduced merely to one of nation states and national interests, did these Chinese elites and entrepreneurs equate the message on the yellow ribbon with their country’s star rising to the point where their country doesn’t have to fight its own resource wars? Who’s troops did they think those American boys and girls were? Ours or theirs?

I put the yellow ribbon down, and never picked one up again, although I’ve turned the question over and over in my hand many times since then, weighing it as though I could somehow divine by such a simple act how much it's worth by the pound.

We live in the age of monsters. Beware.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Austerity for the Rich. A Good Idea

“The rich are different from you and me.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Remember the 1997 movie “The Titanic”, when director James Cameron--a millionaire--spent millions of dollars to entice us non-millionaires into movie theaters with a disaster spectacle whose core message was that, given the opportunity, the rich will indeed lock you and yours into the hold of a sinking ship while they escape in the lifeboats?

We the People love disaster spectacles, and so we lapped it up. The Cameron ploy worked spectacularly for the rich as we allowed ourselves to be bled into the disastrous Bush years, and served as a role model for all future lavishly funded disaster distractions. The most expensive blockbuster in history up to that time, “The Titanic” netted over two billion dollars of our hard-earned disposable entertainment income while simultaneously instilling in us the subliminal message to eat more popcorn and just shut up. What a bargain for the rich, and how we learned their lesson.

The latest example of this curious quirk in our collective human nature is how a multitude of millionaire media stars (including politicians) are successfully distracting us with yet another seductive version of tragic love scenes and naked ladies known as “The Sequester”. Sounds sexy, like a zombie movie. So, as is our nature, we lap it up.

This one’s science-fiction, with the emphasis on “fiction”, and the plot-line–written by millionaires--goes something like this: The United States is about to be taken over by Evil Deficits from China. The only one who can save us is our hero, a mild-mannered used-car salesman whose secret identity is the steely-nerved, irrepressible PaulRyanMan(!) who wears full-body bulletproof spandex under his polo shirts and slacks. With the help of a growing but self-limited cadre of lesser superheroes, known to themselves as “patriots”, PaulRyanMan(!) has broken the code of the Evil Deficits’ true intentions by means of a conspiracy-revealing x-ray decoder ring, which all the “patriots” also possess.

It turns out these decoder rings are expensive. To obtain one, you have to send in two million box tops of fruit-flavored tea (from China, of course) to a secret “patriot” website that deals in fruit-flavored tea along with the accompanying conspiracy theories and decoder rings necessary to believe the conspiracy theories. The plot thickens as we find out that PaulRyanMan(!) owns stock in this corporation, which, according to plot-narrative, is an example of market-based solutions to opportunities created by self-induced mass-paranoia. A nice fit for everyone, in other words.

Unfortunately for Truth and Justice, not everyone can tolerate, let alone afford, this much tea. So this cadre of “patriots” is necessarily exclusive and misunderstood. In fact, their leader, PaulRyanMan(!), has just recently suffered a dastardly setback in an “election” on top of the Empire State Building--overlooking Wall Street--with the Evil Deficits’ minion, the seemingly-congenial NiceMan, who in reality is an alien genius who maintains a secret brain-cooking laboratory under an impregnable mountain in Kenya. Why this evil laboratory is located in Kenya is not examined in this narrative, which is a shortcoming in this otherwise-tight screenplay. But never mind. The intent of the Evil Deficits is to so muddle our sense of Truth and Justice using the hypnotic powers of NiceMan that the Deficits can scoop up U.S. citizens by the fistful and hand them over the U.N. , where they will leach every molecule of gold out of each and everyone of them by throwing them into huge vats and sprinkling cyanide on them, similar to modern gold mining technologies that PaulRyanMan(!) also owns stock in. This is the Evil Deficits’ undoing, because this leaching of every molecule of gold out of everything near and dear to us is correctly recognized for what it is by PaulRyanMan(!) and his small but growing cadre—using their decoder rings. It is the depraved epitome of Unfair Competition.

Only PaulRyanMan(!) and his “patriots” know the true identity and intentions of NiceMan, and the publics’ incredulous disbelief at their babbling in seemingly incoherent phrases serves only to strengthen their steely resolve. PaulRyanMan(!) loses the election on top of the Empire State Building, but this cannot stop him and his intrepid compadres. They, and they alone, understand that the only way to save America is to throw everyone who cannot afford the tea (from China, of course)  into the frigid waters of Austerity. This necessarily includes everyone’s children and grandchildren. There is no other way. And of course there’s a twist at the end of the story which makes us jump from the edges of our seats we’re perched on with bated breath, which is a standard trick of lavishly-funded disaster spectacles.

And I’m going to spoil it for you now. Are you ready? The twist is that at the very last second PaulRyanMan(!), at characteristic lightening speed and with no apologies, dumps a fair number of “patriots”—and their children and grandchildren--into the frigid waters of Austerity as well. Exactly why this occurred is not examined in “The Sequester” and is a shortcoming in this otherwise-tight screenplay. But never mind. The credits roll, a chill runs down our spine, and we march dutifully out of the theater, bleary-eyed and indoctrinated.

Or are we? Isn’t it another peculiar quirk in our collective human natures to learn, more or less, from our mistakes? Do we really have to be told how to think by rich folks? As all grown-ups (“progressives” in the modern vernacular) know by now, this is exactly how that movie’s gonna end. If we haven’t learned by now that “The Sequester” and it sequel “Austerity” are worn-out clichés that the corporatists recycle every time they need to cash in on us while we’re distracted, then maybe we ought to consider changing species.

I have nothing against rich folks, or corporations or frigid water for that matter. And I’m all for clichés, up to a point. I’m just sayin’ to all you lavishly-funded purveyors of clichés (otherwise known as corporate scriptwriters): if you really believe that the polar plunge into those frigid waters of austerity looks good enough for the likes of me and mine, then by all means, sir and madam.

After you.

Monday, March 11, 2013

“Charter Schools” and Biblical Literalism: A Cautionary Tale

“If there is a God in Heaven it will do neither you nor your cause any good.”
                                                    Joseph Welch to Sen. Joe McCarthy, June 9th, 1954

As we contemplate the Republicans’ push for “charter schools” in the Montana Legislature, let’s not lose sight of what these folks really want for our kids. Not just for their kids, mind you, but for yours, too, paid for by you. Not them.

As all of us grown-ups (“progressives” in the modern vernacular) know by now, politicized evangelicals know no bounds. The world—including your kids—is their oyster, and with the help of their corporate enablers who are salivating over their chance to dine on our tax dollars that go to public education, they’re ready for dinner.

I wrote the following piece during the Darby Creationism Debacle in 2003-04. It’s somewhat dated, but still relevant, I think, so I’m sending it out there again.

For those who may not remember, Darby’s rogue school board, working with a few local preachers, invited the Discovery Institute[i] into our community in an attempt to blast biblical creationism into the school district’s curriculum. The Discovery Institute (D.I.) is a corporate/evangelical “think tank” that attempts to rebrand creationism as “Intelligent Design” or “Objective Origins” in order to gin an appearance of scientific disagreement of Evolutionary Theory and therefore circumvent the constitutional ban on the public teaching religious dogma. Of course no such scientific disagreement exists, any more than the thousands of bedrock discoveries and technologies based on that scientific discipline don’t exist. But never mind. Where money and faith intersect, “facts” spring eternal, and that’s what happened in Darby.

Two of the preachers in the Darby Debacle were Curtis Brickley and Harris Himes. Brickley openly told at least two Bitterroot superintendents that his intent was to topple Darby and then roll up the valley’s six other school districts one by one in D.I.’s faith-based corporate web. Harris Himes (Oh God if there is one!!) offered the legal services of a fundamentalist lawyer pool called the American Defense League[ii] to help the school fight the inevitable-and-huge legal battles these rogue trustees were inviting on the community.

And the inevitable-and-huge legal battles were what sunk Darby from the self-inflicted shot to the hull from which the entire Darby school district was sunk and has never really been resurrected. The problem is that the teaching of Creationism is unconstitutional. Everybody knows it is, even the Adherents. But as much as the Adherents tried to cover their mouths and cross their fingers when they opined that the earth was only 6,000 years old and in fact flat, the public record is replete with testimony from these conflicted folks that the very faith that led them down the evangelical road that linked them to such snake-oil salesmen dictated to them that they couldn’t deny their faith. And so the Adherents—and the Discovery Institute—played out a disingenuous performance of stellar proportions, in front of everybody, that proved--scientifically if you count human drama as a science---that their “science” was lifted right out of Genesis. It was painful and sad to watch, and the community ultimately rejected “Intelligent Design” as a legal strategy for getting God and Exxon back into the classrooms.

Curtiss Brickley left town soon thereafter to become a “fellow” at the Discovery Institute, following an apparent career path of Salary-Increase-Specialist. Harris Himes’ attempt at following a similar career path was stifled after he got caught attempting to bilk a fellow believer out of tens of thousands of dollars. This after Harris (oh that rascal!) threatened gay folks with Death by Leviticus in full view of everyone following the 2011 Montana Legislature. All I really can say to this (scientifically-replicatable) human drama is to repeat Joseph Welch question famously asked to that other famous witch hunter, Joe McCarthy. “Have you no sense of decency?”

The Discovery Institute moved on, too, and later that year convinced the Dover, PA school board to carry its water to court. That lawsuit, along with the school district, went down in expensive flames of glory in late 2005. It’s a good guess that, like Darby, it has not yet recovered its reputation as a reputable place of learning. But what’s that matter to True Believers who think your money is theirs by divine right?

Sense of decency? Sons of bitches. Here’s from my archives:

January 1st, 2004
I attended two recent public-comment meetings held by the Darby School Board concerning whether to approve Intelligent Design being taught in their science classes and I offer the following observations.
            How many times, when a controversial issue is before this community, have you seen those who hold the nominally unpopular view belittled and dismissed by reactionary elements slinging juvenile taunts at public meetings?
The Discovery Institute, an out-of-state, right-wing, 'think tank', was invited here by at least one member of the Darby School Board expressly for the purpose of wedging religious dogma into Darby's science curriculum. The website of the Discovery Institute is full of fundamentalist Christian rhetoric and absolutely vacant of any reference to peer-reviewed scientific literature supporting their claim that Intelligent Design has any standing within the scientific community. Yet, in the fine tradition of snake-oil salesmen with a hidden agenda they claim that ID has nothing to do with religion and that ID is an accepted scientific theory worthy of countering evolutionary theory. Of course that didn't stop many people who gave public comments from sticking soley to hard-line fundamentalist doctrine without ever touching on the stated issue of whether ID had any scientific standing, or whether Darby could lose its accredidation for teaching it. The simple unhidden fact was that there wasn't a person in the Darby gym both nights I was there, including members of the school board nor the preacher who 'presented' ID to that board, who had any doubt that Religion was the issue. It's bad enough to witness a board charged with respecting the public trust participating in such a dishonest debate, and considering that these dogmatic diatribes were aimed at a School Board who invited such comments, scary besides.
            But the worst part (as always for me) was the dismissive labels bandied around with the encouragement of Discovery Institute, and I think the disrespect and intolerance implied by such behavior is the real issue for our communities. 
I've been labeled many things over the years by people who don't know how to discuss their differences of opinion civilly, but the label offered up by the Discovery Institute to describe anyone who doesn't like religion being taught in public schools floored and entertained me at the same time. I'm not just a politically-correct secular humanist namby-pamby. I am now that most hateful of creatures (according to the Discovery Institute) gumming up the skids for the proper upbringing of God-fearing fundamentalists. I am now a Fringe Darwinist.
I've long told my friends on all sides of these issues that if you let it slide when it seems you're with the majority, the same reactionary elements will turn on you when your turn comes to be in opposition because you didn't defend the minority when you thought you weren't in it.
            So if you find yourself on the 'politically correct' side of this issue and you're not used to it, I would ask you to please recognize the common intolerant root from which these attacks always come from, and to heed the Discovery Institute's shot across our bow well. How's it feel to be summarily dismissed by those who feel they have the power to ignore you and yet don't have their facts straight?
            The Discovery Institute accepted the invitation to come here because they thought the Bitterroot was an easy target to advance their divisive agenda. Curtiss Brickley, the minister who picked Darby for the thin edge of the creationist wedge he’s marketing, openly said as much to several superintendents in the valley. We’re going to move up the valley one school at a time, he told them. Openly.
This should be scary to reasonable people concerned with issues rather than dogma, especially those who justifiably fear intrusive government. I've found that reasonable people of all political persuasions in Montana have much more in common than they have differences. So I'd ask any of you who usually feel you're in the majority to consider more actively defending the dignity of those holding the minority view as a general principle, so that when those reactionary sights turn on you--and they certainly will if you’re a reasonable person--you won't be such an easy target.

[ii] The ADL describes itself as "a servant organization that provides the resources that will keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel through the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values". No secret handshake there. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Q. How Does the Montana Republican Party Spell “Democracy”? A. “T-H-E-O-C-R-A-C-Y”

“If the lesser party dissenting…still persist in dissenting, then doe the major part judicially admonish them, who being thus under censure, their voice is now extinct, and made voide. And so the rest proceed to vote.”        
                                                                      Puritan voting doctrine, ca. 1630s.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, and you live in Montana, you’ve probably been following the doings of the A.L.E.C. sponsored NASCAR race otherwise known as the Montana Legislature[i].  And if you want a refresher course on exactly what flavor of religious control freak our founders framed a constitution around to limit the damage that religious control freaks always inflict on societies, John Barry’s latest book, “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul” is a good read for you.

That’s because the Montana Republican Party has devolved into a marriage of convenience between the John Birch Society[ii] and the Montana Constitution Party, both of whom trace their pseudo-legal “patriot” tenets back to the Mayflower Compact, which they insist was “holy writ”. They further insist that since the pilgrims' witch-hunting brand of “democracy” has been in America since its beginnings, they are entitled to beat you over your believing or non-believing head with their god's brand of witch-hunting.

I’m talking about voter repression, but lest we lose sight of the Big Picture, let’s step back for a minute and ask ourselves incredulously…What??!! The Republican Party? Hijacked by archaic jokes like John Birch Society and that “sovereign-citizen” outfit founded by a man who was involved in a bizarre conspiracy to kill county officials in Kalispell[iii]?! How in Pilgrims’ Hell can that be?!?!

How indeed. But before I get back to witch hunts, if you don’t believe me about the Montana Republican Party, read their platform[iv] and while you’re doing that, consider its context. The “patriot” tenets within that document were promoted by such domestic terrorist outfits as the Montana Freemen, Posse Comitatus, David Burgert[v], Militia of Montana (M.O.M.) Cal Greenup and gang, and a fistful of other groups and individuals who were deemed so extreme even ten years ago that no mainstream party would have dared touch their tenets with an eleven-foot pole, let alone enshrine them in a platform. Now let’s take a look at what’s in there:
·      County Supremacy? It’s in there.
·      Jury nullification? It’s in there.
·      Sheriff’s First/ Oathkeeper dogma? It’s in there.
·      Fear-based science-bashing such as creationism and global-warming-denial? It’s in there.
·      Paranoid anti-U.N./Agenda 21 conspiracy theories? It’s in there.
·      Even something as whacky and arcane as a bill which would censure the Montana University Board of Regents for not allowing students to carry guns to class??!! You guessed it. It’s right in there, in black and white, in the Montana Republican Party Platform.

In other words, ALL Montana Republicans, in the legislature at least, run on an extremist platform that Timothy McVeigh could have run on and, given that M.O.M. has a sitting senator in the current session[vi], maybe could have won. What a difference a corporate-funded tea party can make, eh?

This isn’t a book review, but to restate, John Barry’s excellent and detailed account of 17th century religious bigotry in the English Colonies is important when we consider the wreckage that is the modern Republican Party. To them, Cotton Mather was one of our “founders” and they’re exactly correct when they thump their chests while claiming that their Old-Testament God has been here since the Mayflower. They simply fall overboard when they further insist that since this is so then case closed, mind dismissed. It’s true. The Intolerable witch-burning God has been present since the founding of the original colonies. But, as Barry describes and American history screams, so has His opposition.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a personal stake in this argument of whose god is bigger. My grandma always told us that our ancestors came over on “the second ship after the Mayflower”, and I’ve tried to trace that family story back to its source ever since. But as all of us grownups (“progressives” in the vernacular) know by now, American history, as written by Americans, is replete with omissions, including the fact that the Mayflower was only one ship of many crossing and recrossing the Atlantic during that period for a wide variety of reasons, a relatively minor one of which was the transportation of Puritans to a less-and-less spanking-new World.

Maybe my grandma's quip was just a time-worn folksy saying by the time I heard it. Be that as it may, by 1640 the Halseys were indeed in New England being “Pilgrims”, and that same year the family patriarch, Thomas Halsey, sailed down from Connecticut to Long Island, then “owned” by the Dutch. There his small party bought some land from the Shinnecock tribe (who actually did own the land) and helped found Southhampton, the first permanent English settlement in what we newcomers now call New York.

It so happened that a lot of other “pilgrims” were heading south or west about the same time, including Roger Williams, who bought land from the Narragansett tribe, effectively founding Rhode Island. Many were simply seeking out new lands for their expanding populations. But many, like Williams, were escaping the extreme religious intolerances of the original Plymouth, Salem and Massachusetts Bay plantations[vii]. In other words, it seemed that the Puritians’ core intent in founding their American “city on the hill” after being mercilessly persecuted in England was to transform themselves into merciless persecutors on their own terms, which terms they deemed divinely-ordained.  This they frankly stated again and again over the decades of settlement in the 17th century and again and again through the ages and up to our present tea-soaked time.

Now that we’ve fairly and “judicially” eviscerated the Republican Party platform to resemble the marginally-edible dogfood pulp that it is, let’s look at that Puritan quote from the top one more time.

“If the lesser party dissenting…still persist in dissenting, then doe the major part judicially admonish them, who being thus under censure, their voice is now extinct, and made voide. And so the rest proceed to vote.”

Sound familiar? If you’re following the Montana Legislature and the plethora of anti-voters’ bills sponsored by A.L.E.C. lap dogs with short choke collars (Republican ALL), who in turn cloak the venal obfuscation of their handlers with tax-wasting witch-hunting expeditions, it should. Voter-nullification that would do Cotton Mather and Jim Crow proud? It’s in there.

As for myself, I have no way of knowing whether my ancestors were merely looking for land when they settled Long Island or, like Roger Williams and many others, were part of the migration away from the mirror-image of the bigotry and brutality they had left England to escape. But as Montana poet Dick Hugo used to say, “You owe the facts nothing. You owe the Truth everything”. So, since I’m related in word (my grandma’s), deed (westering hippy) and seed, now that I’ve read Barry’s book, I’ve decided that my ancestors were indeed fleeing the Fundamentalist Diplidons[viii] whom my ancestors would be damned if they were going to let jack them around with their snake-oil magic. Furthermore, the democratic test tube we call the Constitution borrowed as much from the Iroquois Confederation as it did from the European Age of Enlightenment. Therefore, We the People (“progressives” in the modern vernacular) have been here since before the God some of our intolerant and intolerable citizens ardently believe they're pledging allegiance to. That’s my story from now on, and I’m sticking to it.

Excerpt from the Montana Republican Party Platform:
“The Montana Republican Party supports efforts to return control and authority to local units, as the government closest and most responsive to the people.”
“We recognize the destructive and insidious nature of the United Nations Agenda 21 and hereby expose to the public and public policy makers the dangerous intent of the Agenda 21 plan.”
“We encourage the State of Montana and its political subdivisions to engage in the coordination process with all federal government agencies that adopt policies.”
“Although the Montana Constitution gives the Board of Regents “full power” to “supervise, coordinate, manage and control the Montana university system,” it does not give the Board of any authority to amend, alter, or abolish the Montana Constitution, nor does it give the University System the authority to deny citizens of Montana the rights they have reserved to themselves from government interference in the Montana Constitution, including the right to keep and bear arms.”
“We affirm our belief in traditional family values and support the preservation of innocent human life at every stage of life beginning at conception through natural death.”

“We support the right of parents to choose the way their children are educated through public, private, church, charter, virtual and home schooling or any combination of those, and through funding which more readily follows the student.”

“Parents shall be allowed to reasonably discipline their children, without legal consequences.”

“We support requiring judges to fully inform jurors of their constitutional rights and responsibilities.”

“We support the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as ObamaCare.”

“We hold…that the States not only have the right, but also the duty to nullify unconstitutional laws in order to protect their citizens.”

“We call upon our Congressional Delegation to urge strong states’ rights policies governing the use of public lands and resources in the West.”

“We oppose any extension of federal or regional bureaucratic control over water originating in Montana and consider any such action an infringement on states' rights.”

“The Sherriff is the chief law enforcement officer of the county. We support the requirement that a federal officer may not arrest, search or seize in Montana without the advanced, written permission of the elected county sheriff.”

“We oppose the federal government yielding to any international pressure to oppose any regulation on domestic energy production or consumption. We oppose any classification of CO2 or other greenhouse gasses as dangerous gasses or pollutants.”

“We oppose the federal government and any foreign or international entity, such as the United Nations, exercising authority over domestic land use decisions.”

“The Montana Republican Party opposes the creation of any additional wilderness areas." 

[ii] Co-founded by A.L.E.C. founders’ “libertarian” father, Fred C. Koch

[vii] One of the reasons that the Dutch were more tolerant in the 17th century Culture Wars was their nature. They were simply much less concerned about the pilgrims’ infatuation with ghosts and witches and much more infatuated with America’s other emerging god—money. In fact, by the 1640s they were very active enshrining their deity of choice behind the walls of New Amsterdam along the base of which actual wall sprang the avenue ever-after known as Wall Street.

[viii] An extinct human species that, like zombies, can never die.