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Archive for November, 2006

As I’m proudly descended from three of the signers of the Mayflower Compact (Isaac Allerton, Francis Cooke, and Degory Priest), I feel obligated to bring out a post on Thanksgiving that meditates on what we may have learned from the Pilgrims, and this post is it.

Now before you accuse me of spouting some kind of packaged whitewash about the “Stern Pilgrim Fathers,” let me point out that any rational person looking at history will see that the Pilgrims were a bunch of religious mis-fits, utterly unprepared for anything that was likely to befall them in the new world, who got lost almost immediately, and when they reached their destination didn’t know where they were. Their response to almost any crisis (and they had many) consisted mainly of fasting and prayer. Those were about all they could do — they had nothing else but prayer and firewood-gathering to occupy them in a New England winter, and they were already starving. So I harbor few illusions about this group.

And yet, their experiences ricochet and echo down through time, through our public and private ethos, even to today, where their influence is yet with us in many ways. But looking back rationally, what in particular did we learn –or not learn — from them?

Well, we didn’t learn religious tolerance from them, although that’s frequently laid at their door. No, they weren’t particularly tolerant. They were proudly Separatists, who wanted out-and-done with the Church of England, which they viewed as corrupt beyond redemption. If you ever think of the Pilgrims as overly meek, I commend to your attention some of the blistering tracts, books, and pamphlets they produced in Holland attacking the Church of England. Nothing meek there, believe me. Please note also they weren’t Puritans, who thought they could “purify” the church from within. The Puritans settled in Boston and the Plymouth Colony abhored them.

We did learn, however, that there’s room enough for everybody, even regardless of their religion. After all, Boston was over a day’s travel for them (its about an hour now) and they just didn’t have the resources to deal with the Puritans. Since the Plymouth Colony was basically straining its resources all of its existence, they learned to ignore the people they couldn’t change and this set the groundwork for our national acceptance of people who are different from us, something that was (and is) really a lynchpin of our national worldview.

We didn’t learn how to get along with the Indians. Now, listen carefully — the Pilgrims got along fine with the Indians around them, probably because both groups were pretty evenly matched militarily and so they HAD to get along. It wasn’t the Pilgrims who started King Philip’s War, it was the Puritans in Boston. So we could have learned this co-existance from them, but we didn’t, sadly. But they could have taught us. See Nathaniel Philbrick’s wonderful book Mayflower for an in-depth treatment of this whole business.

We learned that individual, common people could govern themselves just fine. The first thing the Pilgrims did was draft and sign the Mayflower Compact, in which the colonists agreed that they would appoint leaders, pass laws and ordinances, and live by them until they changed them. No king, no bishop, no sweat. Now the English, of course, and many other Europeans, had a considerable measure of individual economic and political freedom, but above it all was the hereditary king and the hereditary nobility — the established social and political order. The Pilgrims proved that we didn’t need all that, that we’d do it all by ourselves. Its hard to imagine how radical an idea this was in 1620, and the idea took almost 150 years to suddenly pop up in the Declaration of Independence.

It seems likely that the Pilgrims had their own democratic tendencies considerably reinforced by their neighboring Indians, including the Iroquois, who had elected chiefs (sachems) and had virtually no hiererchy among their population, where every man (and indeed, woman) could say whatever they wanted in a tribal council, and through this process had built a relatively complex legal code that enshrined this equality before the law. So if they ever wavered in their devotion to self-government, they had only to look at their neighbors as a standard.

We learned the value of education. The Pilgrims had a commercial contract with the Merchant Adventurers in London, who fronted them the money to come to America in return for the Pilgrims shipping back furs and lumber. The Merchant Adventurers kept the books, and hence the Pilgrims felt they were being continually cheated. So once the first couple of years had passed, they called to England for a schoolmaster, and set up schools for all children, where they would be taught “reading, writing, and the casting up of accounts.” Ever practical, these Pilgrims, teach them to be accountants . . .

And finally and most appropriately, they showed us how to eat all the Indian foods. There have been whole books devoted to the foods that the Indians showed to us, but of course they include almost all the foods we prize so much at Thanksgiving: turkey, potatoes, squash, cranberries, corn, and succotash among them. Most of the Pilgrim’s food grains didn’t do all that well in the new world until they bred new varieties of wheat, oats, etc., but even if they had done well the variety and richness of the Indian diet is a marvelous legacy of both the Indians and the Pilgrims who first ate them and made them their own.

So, think about it, learn, dig in, and be in all ways thankful.

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Well, the President may have SAID that his party “got whupped” in the election, but if that statement contained any meaning to him, he and the party have not as we would say, “fully internalized it.” With the electorate up in arms over gross corporate tax breaks and corruption, with their syncophant lobbysts going to jail in droves (for example, Jack Abramoff and others), and a number of House Members and Senators the target of ethics investigations, and with Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman stating, “we rely too much on white guys for our vote,” the party elects to their key leadership positions two highly tainted — white — southern — men. You gotta ask: what are these guys smoking?  Why take on all this baggage when they could as easily choose people who would at least give a fresh, unsullied face to the party?

Lets start with the Senate. Sliming his way back to Washington from the swamps of Mississippi comes — you guessed it, Trent Lott. Huh? Yes, THAT Trent Lott, who used to be the majority leader in the Senate until his 2002 speech in which he stated that “if only Strom Thurmond had been elected President in 1948, things would be a lot better now.” For those of you too young to remember, Strom Thurmond was a racist southern senator who ran for President on the Dixiecrat ticket because he thought Harry Truman was a leftist patsy. He almost won. So here we have old Trent, who pines for the days when black people could be referred to in public as “niggers” and “coons” and their children as “chocolate drops,” and thinks this sort of thing would be an improvement on the world today. Trent Lott, friends, is the new Minority Whip of the Senate — not the leader of the minority party, granted, but its enforcer. So sad to see the party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, come to this.

Moving onward to the House, the slime trail leads to Roy Blunt of Missouri, now the Minority Whip of the House. Where other Republicans may have a taste for Congressional pages, or for overlooking other Members’ taste in pages, Roy Blunt is interested in one thing: money. He is a pure disciple of Tom DeLay, and no one has done more to turn the Republican Party, through its control of the White House and Congress, into a fountain of literally billions of dollars of corporate tax breaks, lobbying payments, PAC contributions, and fire-hoses of insider influence. As the Abramoff et.al. scandals continue to unfold, look for Roy Blunt’s fingerprints all over them — which makes his elevation to this post such a total mystery.

So rather than listening to the mood of the country and learning, the Republicans have voted a resounding “aye!” to continuine business-as-usual: all the things that have revolted the electorate and kept the Ethics Committee and occasionally the Federal Courts busy over the last several years.

What ARE they smoking?

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That’s right, I totally refuse to do any post-election analysis or speculating or anything else. The votes have been cast and counted (however flakily) and I really don’t have much of anything to add.

But now that you guys are in there, I’d like some action. Don’t talk, Do. Show a little leadership, since the Prez doesn’t seem inclined to do any leading. Here’s my work list, if you are confused as to what your plan should be:

Get us disengaged from Iraq. They say this is what the election was about, and it was, so get busy. The not-country Iraq is degenerating into civil war and we are in the middle of it, in everybody’s line of fire. The war was a mistake to begin with, and now its unwinnable in any use of the word that’s meaningful to us. As was the case during my tour of duty in the Army during Viet Nam, the only question is now many more of our soldiers will have to be killed and maimed before we figure out how to leave. The end is not in doubt, just the date and our death toll.

Go get the war profiteers. Nothing, nothing at all, is as slimy as the sole-source contracts that have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to various presidential-crony firms such as KBR for shoddy, inadequate, and uncompleted work in Iraq. I’m a taxpayer, I want my money back from them. Reauthorize the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and start pressing charges.

Give us back Habeas Corpus. Repudiate our use of torture. Let us hold our heads up in the world again.

Balance the budget. Either cut the spending, or raise taxes, or likely both. Help the electorate see just how much Iraq is costing us. And don’t forget to factor in the lifetime disability payments to all these veterans who have sacrificed their limbs and health on our behalf.

Work day and night to give us a new centrist, bipartisan working coalition that will work over the long haul to find actual solutions to such thorny problems as immigration reform, fiscal entitlements, and national security in these days of terrorist attack threats.

That enough?

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Real Muslims in America

As I look back on a year’s posts, I note that one of the themes I have been addressing is the nature of Islam in a modern society. I object to the broad-brush tarring of Islam as some kind of horrible, backward, medieval, violent religion that is populated by angry ministers who breed hordes of fanatically suicidal followers who are dedicated to the overthrow of everything we hold dear. My own experience with Muslims I have personally known, and with Muslims in other cultures I have had contact with, is very much the opposite of this. Granted there are raving maniacs in every religious group, but its a great mistake to confuse the politico-cultural Islam of the middle east with the underlying religion of Islam. They are intertwined but far from coterminous.

In Minneapolis, we have now elected the first Muslim in history to the US Congress, and of course this raises a lot of vaporous local discussion of “how he will perform in the House” “as a Muslim.” Sadly, I remember in 1963 how all the discussion was about whether a Catholic (e.g. Kennedy) could be a suitable President. Would he call the Pope every day, I heard otherwise rational people ask. Well, I guess it’s progress that now we accept that Catholics can fully participate in the political process, hopefully this will extend in another 40 years to Muslims.

Here’s an antidote to the xenophobic chant of Muslim = terrorist: a podcast produced by some young Shia Muslims in Washington DC, talking mainly to each other on what it means to be a young Shia in the United States (and in the West). These are all patriotic Americans, but they are also Muslims, young people, from a wide variety of national backgrounds via their immigrant parents, and at various stages in their theological development. These are reasonable people, very much mainstream educated citizens, working to figure out how they fit as individuals and as a faith community within our broader society. Their discussions are not unlike what I read between the lines of the letters of my Swedish grandparents. To those who would criticize them for sometimes using foreign languages in their services, I would point out that my grandmother’s confirmation book, used at a church in Minneapolis, is in Swedish.

Listen to them! Listen to an episode of their podcast, it will change how you see at least this part of the Muslim world.

www.qunoot.org/

“a platform for Muslim youth to articulate their political, ideological, socioeconomic, ethnic, and gender-related perspectives on both the Shi’a community and the Muslim community at large

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You can find a lot of discomforting things about the policies of the Bush Administration in many sectors of interest, but perhaps none so basic and so far-reaching and so disturbing as their attack on the US Constitution. Using the ramrod of the “war on terror” they have mounted what appears to be an all-out assault on some of our most basic freedoms. It seems that we are saved from the specter of another Caesar only by their astonishing military incompetence, which may yet lead to their wick being trimmed in this upcoming election.

I have before me, and I recommend to you, a report of the Cato Institute on the Bush Administration’s record on Constitutional matters, and it’s not a pretty read. Note please that the Cato Institute is not exactly a hotbed of liberalism, and one of the authors of this report had previously published a book entitled “Arrogance of Power Reborn: The Imperial Presidency and Foreign Policy in the Clinton Years.” So when these guys take on the current administration, it’s a real sign.

I can do no better than to quote from their summary. They conclude that we are faced with:

  • “a federal government empowered to regulate core political speech—and restrict it greatly when it counts the most: in the days before a federal election;
  • “a president who cannot be restrained, through validly enacted statutes, from pursuing any tactic he believes to be effective in the war on terror;
  • “a president who has the inherent constitutional authority to designate American citizens suspected of terrorist activity as “enemy combatants,” strip them of any constitutional protection, and lock them up without charges for the duration of the war on terror— in other words, perhaps forever; and
  • “a federal government with the power to supervise virtually every aspect of American life, from kindergarten, to marriage, to the grave.”

I guess its the near-discarding of the Great Writ, the writ of Habeas Corpus, that bothers me most. And make no mistake about it, they now have the legal authority to ignore habeas Corpus whenever they choose to do so.

What’s the solution to this? As I’ve watched this unfold over the last 5 years I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that the President is nothing more than a two-bit tyrant-wannabe surrounded by a great lot of drooling sycophants who think its great fun to play at government. They have distorted our economy by giving tax breaks during a war, and by allowing record-setting amounts of war profiteering by their corporate friends, debased our image as a beacon of freedom and liberty throughout the world, and now are attempting to strip us of the very liberties we are supposedly in Iraq and Afghanistan to defend.

They should be thrown out, the lot of them — the administration, the congress, the whole bunch. We would be better off with legislators chosen via a random draft.

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Sorry to have another post on our national election problems, but here it is anyway.

In my post below, I quote the Diebold folks saying that any “unlikely” problems with their failure- and hacker-prone election machines can be fixed by “just” implementing “appropriate manual controls.” Well, just in time to take care of that fantasy, two independent study groups have issued reports totaling over 500 pages analyzing the performance of the procedures surrounding the May primary election in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which used the Diebold machines. There is an article summarizing the findings in Wired.com, and for the stout of heart it links to the original reports issued by the Cuyahoga Election Review Panel and the Election Science Institute (which had been hired by the Cuyahoga County Board of Commissioners).

Wired says, in part:

“The reports, totaling more than 500 pages, paint a disturbing picture of how million-dollar equipment and security safeguards can quickly be undone by poor product design, improper election procedures and inadequate training. From destroyed ballots and vote totals that didn’t add up to lost equipment and breaches in security protocols, Cuyahoga’s primary is a perfect study in how not to run an election.

“The findings have ominous national implications. Cuyahoga County could play an important role in deciding two races in next week’s election that will help decide which party controls the Senate and House. But one of the reports concluded that problems in the county were so extensive that meaningful improvements likely could not be achieved before that election, or even before the 2008 presidential election.

“Moreover, few voting activists and election experts believe the problems are unique to Cuyahoga.

“‘I suspect that Cuyahoga County may be below average (in terms of how well it ran its election), but if you lift up the rock and look at election administration across the country, you’ll see the same thing elsewhere,’ says David Dill, Stanford computer scientist and founder of VerifiedVoting.org, a proponent of paper-verified elections.

So much for manual controls saving the day, even presumably with Diebold helping them do it right. Note that Cuyahoga County is a relatively large and well-funded county in a relatively wealthy state; we’re not talking East Nowhere, Idaho here.

The Path to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions, as they always say, and here you have it. A powerful corporation smelling profits does a half-brained job cobbling together equipment that it foists off on county boards, who are not exactly equipped to assess either the risk or implement the appropriate mitigating controls. And we, the electorate, are thus fed to the wolves.

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