Tuesday, November 25, 2014

FERGUSON RIOTS



Last night, they burned the town. Thousands of people milled around in downtown Ferguson, Missouri. Many were good folks who had come to protest the decision of a grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen ager.

But some of them – indeed, many of them -- were there to make trouble. And they did. Millions of dollars of property damage. Stores looted. Automobiles and buildings torched. Shots fired. People injured.

Most of the rioters were black and  young. They had been given a pass. Responsible people, adults, even white folks, were incensed about the shooting of Michael Brown. The TV, the newspapers, the Internet were all hyped up to react to the grand jury’s decision.

And so they came. Bearing, sticks and stones. And gasoline, and guns.

Most of the Ferguson rioters had not yet been born when Detroit was burned. On a summer night in 1967, police raided a blind pig on 12th Street. The patrons refused to be taken downtown and the ensuing scuffle exploded into an uncontrolled rampage.

Four days later, 43 people were dead, 1,189 were injured, 7,200 were arrested and more that 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

In 1967, we lived in Detroit, on Berkeley Road near Seven Mile and Livernois. The stores just a few hundred feet from our back door were looted. We could smell the smoke and hear the gunshots.

Anarchy isn’t pretty. It’s scary. It’s insane.

Bron Cruz is not a white man. His name and his photo suggest that he is Hispanic. He is a Salt Lake City police officer who shot and killed an unarmed white teen ager two days after Michael Brown died in Ferguson, Missouri.

The family and friends of Dillon Taylor, the Utah teen ager, have organized several protests in an effort to get answers about Dillon’s death. South Salt Lake police have refused to comment. No grand jury has been convened. Only the local media gave the matter any real attention, and that has pretty much died down. Hardly anyone cares in Utah. Nobody cares in America.

On April 23, 2012, a 29 year old, unarmed Hispanic pedestrian named Daniel Adkins was shot and killed by a black man who was sitting in his car in front of an Arizona Taco Bell. No charges were ever filed against the shooter. In fact the name of the gunman has never been released by the police.

As far as I can find on the Internet, the friends and supporters of Daniel Adkins and Dillon Taylor have not looted any stores, burned down any buildings, overturned any vehicles or pranced in front of network television cameras.

The administration of criminal justice is not perfect. But civilization requires that we do the best we can, and that the people who are dissatisfied with the system work responsibly to improve it. 

Often protesters are not concerned about the system. They don’t object to the way we do things; they complain about what we do. No one claims that the Ferguson grand jury was tainted or improperly constituted, or that the constitutional requirement of grand jury indictment is not a valid and valuable civil right.

No one says that the grand jury didn’t hear all the evidence. No one is saying that they didn’t listen, or were in any way corrupted or compromised.

No sir, what we hear coming out of Missouri is the voice of the mob. Black or white, a mob is never rational, never reasonable. No doubt there are some protesters in Ferguson who want Darren Wilson indicted and put on trial, but the majority would not be satisfied unless Wilson is actually convicted.

One can only imagine what would have happened to Darren Wilson if he had been seen walking out of a police station or a courthouse last night.

A mob has no conscience. Black Americans should be keenly aware of the horrors of vigilante justice.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

THE NEW CONGRESS


Megan Kelly is all atwitter. Bill O’Reilly gloats. The votes are in and the GOP controls both Houses of the Congress. Now the media is awash with commentary about the need for compromise, prospects of either progress or stalemate, predictions of deadlock, impeachment, vetoes and votes to override vetoes. Bottom line, politics as usual.

In 1866, Gideon Tucker, a lawyer and newspaper editor in New York, penned these immortal words: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe when the legislature is in session.”

It bears repeating. It has become common to judge the accomplishments of a legislative session by adding up the number of bills that have been passed before adjournment.

Before we start demanding that our newly elected Congressmen and Senators get to work and start passing laws, it might be well for them to give some thought to repealing some of the laws which have already been put on the books.

If freedom is defined as the right to do whatever we want to do, without restraint by the government, it would seem rather obvious that the more laws we have to obey, the less freedom we have.

Here is what Wikipedia says about the number of federal criminal laws:

There are conflicting opinions on the number of federal crimes, but many have argued that there has been explosive growth and it has become overwhelming. In 1982, the U.S. Justice Department could not come up with a number, but estimated 3,000 crimes in the United States Code. In 1998, the American Bar Association (ABA) said that it was likely much higher than 3,000, but didn't give a specific estimate. In 2008, the Heritage Foundation published a report that put the number at a minimum of 4,450. When staff for a task force of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee asked the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to update its 2008 calculation of criminal offenses in the U.S.C. in 2013, the CRS responded that they lack the manpower and resources to accomplish the task.
In short, there are so many federal crimes, we can’t afford even to count them!

Exactly how, pray tell, can the citizens of this great land be presumed to know and expected to obey laws that are too numerous even to be counted by the government?

George Mason, one of only three delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia who refused to sign the Constitution, expressed the fear that the national government would toggle between a monarchy and a corrupt oligarchy.

Oligarchy. That’s a system of government in which a few people rule. It may be hereditary, like the Mafia, where certain families are recognized as the rulers, or it may be merely like a continuous game of “King of the Castle” in which shear brute strength or military might determines who rules until the next challenger comes along.

Our national government has become a more subtle version of oligarchy. There is indeed a strain of hereditary leadership. Debbie Dingell was elected in 2014 to a seat in Congress held by her husband and his father for over eighty years. Hillary Clinton is expected to seek the position her husband held for eight years and there is talk of a candidacy by Jeb Bush whose father and brother both served as President of the United States.

Beyond these rather obvious examples of a leadership class, there are more subtle classifications.  There is a plethora of evidence that residents of certain cities, graduates of certain universities, members of certain organizations and ethnic or economic groups have a disproportionate share of the decision making in the United States.

The people of the United States are pitifully underrepresented in the Congress. If the original House of Representatives had been based on the proportions of the present one, it would have consisted of four people. That would certainly have been considered an oligarchy.


And when two of the three branches of the federal government consist entirely of  graduates of three Eastern universities, what do you call that?  

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

PUZZLING DAY


I don’t know where it came from. Probably a Christmas or birthday gift from some thoughtful, generous and underappreciated member of my family.

Somewhere around 1,000 pieces, it was a jigsaw puzzle of the famous painting by Howard Chandler Christy depicting the signing of the Constitution of the United States. The original, thirty feet wide and twenty feet tall, with life size portraits of all fifty five delegates to the Philadelphia convention, adorns the East stairway of the House of Representatives wing of the United States Capital Building.

It was a labor of love, patriotism and dogged determination. The love of my life doesn’t do jigsaw puzzles. Especially when the pieces are spread out on the table in the basement man cave of our home.

So it sat there months on end while I nibbled away at it. Two or three pieces at a time. Or sometimes burning the midnight oil to make noticeable progress at the price of pushing bedtime back to the wee hours of the morning.

And of course there were a few spurts when the higb-spirited daughter-in -law came to visit and wave her magic wand at the reluctant monocolored pieces.

But finally it was done. A magnificent reproduction twenty-seven inches wide and nineteen and a half inches high. In a spate of unbridled euphoria I determined to keep it. I would do whatever it is that people do to turn a mundane jigsaw puzzle into a truly decorative work of art.

First, I managed to slide the puzzle off the table and onto a piece of plywood. Then I shellacked it. That was supposed to make it hang together. No such luck.

Then I decided that I had to turn the puzzle upside down, so that I could glue a backing on it. That involved covering the puzzle with a piece of poster board and taping the poster board to the plywood. It worked and shortly I had the puzzle upside down and back on the table.

Then came a trip to Home Depot where I acquired backing board, framing trim, and a diabolical form of merger called Wildwood Contact Cement.

Today was the Day. I cut four pieces of the trim in forty-five degree angles and produced a creditable picture frame.

Then I set about the fussy business of gluing a backing onto the puzzle. The directions required that I coat both the backing and the puzzle and let them sit for forty minutes. They also warned that if one of the surfaces was porous, it might take two coats. Since I was coating the backside of the puzzle, it was indeed porous and I obediently gave it two coats.

Now came the hard part. How to get he sticky backing onto the sticky back of the puzzle, exactly where I wanted it. The directions had carried the dire warning that once the two surfaces touched each other, no power on earth could separate them.

So make sure it’s a bull’s eye.

There are many times in a man’s life when getting the job done ushers in a blast of adrenaline. Making a speech. Getting married. Walking your daughter down the aisle.

Gluing the backing on a 27 by 19 jigsaw puzzle rates right up there. It was a challenge, but I did it. Hooray!

All that was left was to remove the poster board on the other side of the puzzle. It wasn’t glued on. Just flip the thing over and pull it off.

Not so easy. Here is where Murphy’s Law comes into play. Unbeknownst to me, some of the Wildwood miracle Contact Cement had seeped between the pieces of the puzzle and taken hold of the innocent poster board.

After a fruitless half hour of trying to separate the inseparable, I gathered up the puzzle and delivered it to the trash bin in the garage.

Some days s—t happens. Probably no one will read this blog, either. Maybe tomorrow will be better.



Friday, October 31, 2014

HOUSTON HUBBUB


         It’s funny how stories get garbled in the retelling. Someone asked me the other day if  I had heard the news about the City of Houston passing an ordinance requiring all clergy in the city to file copies of their sermons with City Hall.

         That sounded pretty preposterous to me. Certainly it would be an ordinance which would be challenged by the ACLU.  And by just about everyone else. If there is any place where freedom of speech should be sacrosanct, it would be in the pulpit.

         It turns out that the facts are not quite so far off the wall. Here’s what happened: The Houston City Council passed an ordinance they call the HERO – an acronym or Human Equal Rights Ordinance. It contains a long list of categories which may not be discriminated against in places of public accommodation. Included on the list is a category called ‘gender identity.’

         The ordinance bans discrimination in the use of public toilets, showers, dressing rooms and the like. Needless to say a number of the folks in Houston took issue with the wisdom of HERO in that regard, and they promptly circulated petitions asking for a referendum to revoke the ordinance.

         The City fathers, and mothers, pushed back and refused to put the issue on the ballot, claiming that the petitions were irregular for various reasons.  In essence, they claimed that the petitions were forgeries, or were not properly certified by the people who circulated them.

         Predictably, the petition circulators started a lawsuit asking the court to require the city clerk to put their issue on the ballot. This is where the story gets garbled. The city attorney apparently believes that the petitions were fraudulent, that they were manufactured by a few dissidents who signed multiple voters’ names illegally. He also believes, so it seems, that a number of local pastors not only preached against HERO, but actively encouraged their congregations to circulate petitions and perhaps to manufacture illegal petitions.

         And so the City subpoenaed the sermons, writings, letters, notes, etc. of number of activist pastors, in the hopes of turning up evidence that the petitions were forged.

         Frankly, that was not a wise or even practical thing to do. Checking the validity of petitions is essentially footwork or clerical work. It involves comparing the signatures on the petitions with the signatures of the voters in the City Clerk’s office. If they don’t match, you go out and ask the voter if he or she signed the petition. If they didn’t, you get an affidavit and take it to court.  

          Anyway, the demand to hand over the text of their sermons gave the opponents of the HERO a First Amendment issue which quickly went viral as conservatives delighted in telling how liberals were thwarting the First Amendment.

         It seems that, in these partisan times, there is an oversupply of credulity toward anything that, if true, would embarrass or diminish the other side.

         I recently received an email asking whether a story published by the Daily Currant to the effect that a Muslim shopkeeper in Dearborn was requiring his employees to wear hijabs and threatening to cut off their hands if they steal any of his merchandise, was actually true.

         I had never heard of the Daily Currant, but the story seemed so egregious that I looked it up. Turns out the Daily Currant is a satirical newspaper that delights in making conservatives look foolish.

         I should have known.  The word “Current” is often connected with newspapers, since they report current events. A currAnt, however, is just a kind of fruit.

         The latest fruity offering from the Daily Currant is a satire describing an executive order by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie imposing a “Holloween Quarantine” based in the ebola scare, threatening to arrest kids who go begging tonight.

         Funny stuff, especially if you are a Democrat. Funnier yet when some of your Republican friends believe it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

MY BACK ACHES


Just finished a Spider Solitaire game. It must have taken at least an hour. Leaning over a computer so long makes my back hurt. But, hey, I finished the damn thing, and once you get into a Spider Solitaire game, you have only two choices: beat it, or start another game.

It’s a numbing way to spend a Sunday evening. The girl of my dreams is upstairs watching football. She has become an NFL junkie. I can’t eat that much popcorn.

The day began well enough. Sunday Mass, then to Stafford’s for their marvelous Sunday brunch. After which I promised her a surprise. Polly loves surprises. Keeps asking questions, looking for a hint. I don’t budge. Just grin and say, “You’ll see.”

Stafford’s is closed. Breakfast only at this time of the year. We go to Pallette Bistro, which lets you make your own Bloody Mary. Back on track, we talk some politics, prompted by the church bulletin, which reminds the faithful that good citizens always vote. Still no hints from me. She’s like a college girl on a date. I love it.

About twenty minutes drive in the Autumn countryside, and I turn onto a driveway that leads to a charming farmhouse. It’s obviously a working farm. Chickens, horses, a big red barn plus three or four assorted outbuildings. Everything as neat, clean and untidy as country living requires.

One knock on the front door is enough to bring Doug Melvin and his wife Carol, smiling to greet us. Introductions all around. Polly still doesn’t know the surprise.

It only takes a minute. Doug leads us through the house, identifying the many paintings and other works of artistic skill that adorn the walls. All the while, we are bantering about our mutual enthusiasm for the Spartans of Michigan State. Doug and Carol went down to East Lansing for the Big Game yesterday. We couch potatoed on the fifty yard line.

Portraits, landscapes, a couple of slick, professionally designed and constructed soap box derby carts, even a small painting done with Q tips, merited oos and ahhs from my date. Soon enough, Doug was showing us the barn, a magnificent structure built exactly as the red barns of the nineteenth and twentieth century were structured. Except his is new.

Then came the piece de resistance – the junk sculpture. Not quite finished, this one, but a dawning beauty it is. A horse, actually a Shetland pony, made entirely out of scrap metal. A shovel blade here, an old pipe there,  some rusty scraps of this and that, somehow bent and shaved and twisted into the recognizable features of the animal.

Doug has made a number of them, a couple proudly displayed on the front lawns of upscale suburbanite homes in Bloomfield hills. I can see why they call it art.

That was most of the surprise. The rest of it was that I want Polly to pose for a portrait. Doug says he doesn’t do many women’s portraits. They’re never satisfied, says he. Something about the variance between image and self image.

I told him I thought he could do something she would be pleased with. At least it’s worth a try. I have a number of treasured pictures of my darling wife, one a chalk drawing done by a sidewalk Rembrant in Florida maybe fifty years ago. I remember that beautiful woman.

Still, she has a charm in these later years that deserves being memorialized. Her grandchildren call her Pookie. She’s the one who knows all the birthdays and sends them each a dollar on Valentines Day. I want very much to give them a portrait of the lady they have known so well and loved so much.


She’s calling me for dinner. Wants to talk about the portrait. Sounds like cold feet. We’ll see.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE ISIS PROBLEM



In January of 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Anfa Hotel in Casablanca, French Morocco. The meeting lasted ten days, and produced what was later called the Casablanca Declaration.

It is remembered best for being the genesis of the Allied decision to prosecute World War II to an unconditional surrender of the Axis powers.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about that policy. It was primarily Roosevelt’s idea, Churchill claiming to be a “lieutenant” at the meeting. Stalin wasn’t there. Stalingrad was under siege and he stayed home.

One of Roosevelt’s reasons for announcing the policy was to keep Stalin from making a separate peace with Germany.

Still, there were voices both in and out of government which expressed fear that the policy would stiffen the resistance of the enemy, and eliminate any possibility of a negotiated peace.

V-E Day came when Hitler committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin. V-J Day celebrated a radio address on August 15, 1945 in which Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of the Japanese to the Allies.

Now, more that half a century later, the Japanese and German people are viewed as our friends and trading partners.

I have been musing about those things of late because of the current warfare in the Middle East. A movement known as ISIS – the Iraq and Syria Islamic State – so called, has surfaced as a powerful force in those two countries, and is viewed as determined to create an Islamic Caliphate over the entire region, usually described at the Levant, which includes Lebanon and Israel.

Technically, a caliphate, is a nation ruled by a religious authority. As a practical matter, the powers of the religious leaders and secular leaders may overlap. Iran, viewed by many as an Islamic caliphate, has a President, Hassan Rouhani, who was elected. He answers, however, to the ‘Supreme Leader’ of the country, Ali Khamenei. The Supreme leader is chosen by the Council of Experts, a group of 88 elected Islamic theologians.

The supreme leader of the ISIS or ISIL, as it is called, is a man called Baghdadi. Here is what Wikipedia says about him:

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known to his supporters as Amir al-Mu'minin, Caliph Ibrahim is emir, proclaimed as caliph, of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL is an Islamic extremist group in western Iraq and north-eastern Syria, self-described as the "Islamic State".
He was formerly known as Abu Du'a. Claiming descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad, he is called, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Al-Husseini Al-Qurashi.
On 4 October 2011, the US State Department listed al-Baghdadi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and announced a reward of up to US$10 million for information leading to his capture or death.[12] Only the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, merits a larger reward (US$25 million).

Baghdadi has a B.A., an M.A. and a Ph.D from the Islamic University of Baghdad. He is apparently considered to be a theologian by his followers.

So here is my quandary: The ISIS or ISIL fighters are followers of the Islamic faith. Admittedly they are extremists. We are assured that the broad generality of Muslims do not subscribe to the blood thirsty, terrorist strategy of ISIS fighters.

Still, they are believers. They have a common understanding of the origins and destiny of the human race. They all have the same view of life and death. They pray together, they fight together, they kill together.

Our President has announced that his policy is to “degrade and destroy” ISISL. I suggest that “degrade and destroy” is an objective substantially beyond “unconditional surrender.”

Short of an Islamic pogrom of massive proportions, there is simply no way to ‘destroy’ a movement which is based upon religious fervor, no matter how theologically misguided.

The Middle East has been a bloody battleground for more than 4,000 years. The Jewish scholar, Maimonides, asserted that in every war, the Jewish soldier fights for God. Muslims, Christians and Jews have slaughtered each other as far back as history is recorded in defense of their respective belief systems.
And we are going to ‘degrade and destroy’ those people?
Not likely. In the first place, we have no stomach for it. Nobody I know wants to send a son or daughter back to Iraq. We have all seen enough heart-wrenching commercials for Wounded Warriors to dull the national enthusiasm for making the world safe for democracy.
Currently, we are committing expensive airplanes, piloted by expensively trained pilots, to drop expense bombs on places where we believe the ISIL fighters are to be found.
But the Internet is replete with videos of those men shooting up neighborhoods, ducking behind and between buildings, wheeling around in cars and trucks. The idea that enough of them will gather in one place and stand still long enough to get killed is patently absurd..
Do we really want to slaughter them on their on their prayer rugs or in their Mosques? Should we respond to their atrocities by beheading Muslims on Internet videos?
In the 11th century Pope Urban II called on Christian men to mount a crusade to occupy the holy places of the Middle East. Pope Francis has issued no such call. But he and other Christian leaders are torn by the horrors and sufferings of their followers in Iraq and Syria.
Surely Francis prays every morning and night. What would Jesus do? What is the Christian response to evil, to hatred, to terrorism? Are we to turn the other cheek?
In 1634 the Iroquois, while fighting the Hurons, captured French Jesuit Jean de Brebeuf. Brébeuf endured stoning, slashing with knives, a collar of red-hot tomahawks, a “baptism” of scalding water, and burning at the stake. Because he showed no signs of pain, his heart was eaten by the Iroquois, who admired his courage.
How many years, how many wars how many murders had to occur before the descendants of those Iroquois would live in harmony with the Jesuits and enjoy the dividends of multi million dollar casinos?
It has been de rigueur to suggest that our military commitment to the Middle East is founded on the humanitarian desire to assure that Arab women are educated and freed from the virtual slavery endorsed by fundamentalist Islamists.
It used to be said that our military expeditions were actually in pursuit of winning the minds and the hearts of the people over there. If so, it was a fool’s mission. You don’t win minds and hearts with AK 47s and napalm.
And what exactly does the United States of America offer to the minds and hearts of the people in the Middle East? Hollywood? Twitter? Wall Street? Gay Marriage, The NFL?
Or can we expect them to embrace our notion of constitutional democracy when our Congress has the support of only 9% of our people?
France didn’t set out to degrade and destroy the Iroquois in 1634. Perhaps we should honor James Foley as a martyr and let the unhappy people of the Middle East fight their own battles and choose their leaders in the same bloody way their fathers, grandfathers and ancestors have been doing for so many centuries.
Winning the minds and hearts of people takes wisdom, patience and compassion. And lots of time. If our civilization is better; if our ideas of right and wrong are more enlightened than theirs, our best course is to stick to our principles. The notion of killing people because we are afraid they may want to do us harm is not only unjust, un-Christian and un-American, it is cowardly.