July 03, 2008

Independence Day

Tomorrow, I would recommend that you read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety. Not just the stirring opening paragraphs, which some of us may have committed to memory, or the closing words on pledging "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" to the battle ahead. It's not a bad idea, in this day and age, to read the "train of abuses" which Thomas Jefferson enumerated in order to justify breaking away from Great Britain in 1776 -- those reasons which "compelled them to the separation."

You will find in that long list an overarching theme - the abhorrence which the Founding Fathers held for tyranny in all its many guises and manifestations. Things such as abducting colonial prisoners, transporting them across seas, and holding them for "pretended offences." If that sounds a great deal like "extraordinary rendition" or the unraveling rationale for holding Guantanamo inmates without charges or a fair hearing, it's probably no coincidence. The United States has itself sunk to the level of using the tactics of a tyrant -- throwing prisoners in dungeons without recourse, never to be heard from again, all in the name of "state security."

A moment's reflection reveals that from the British perspective of 1776, tyrannical practices were advantageous. It kept the Colonies under the iron heel of the English Crown for about 160 years. What the king said was the law, and while the American colonists were granted rights such as local governing bodies, in essence any of these rights could be taken away arbitrarily, as Jefferson itemized in his "reasons." The British could quarter soldiers in your house; they could enter your house without a warrant and ransack it, looking for evidence of sedition; they could tax you what they wanted, and you weren't allowed to vote on the imposition; they could commandeer soldiers from the Colonies to fight in British foreign wars; they used Colonists to execute other Colonists for offenses against the Crown.

The Founding Fathers got mad as hell and they weren't going to take it anymore. Jefferson's magnificent bill of particulars throbs with passionate belief in the essential Rights of Man. It should make any American who cares about this country proud of his heritage, and jealous of guarding the democratic principles which these men laid down.

I just wonder, at this point, how proud they would be of us. The Founding Fathers, in 1776, put together a ragtag Continental Army to stare down the mightiest military and navy in the world. Signing the Declaration of Independence was akin to autographing one's own death warrant, and indeed a number of signers died in the war which followed under terrible circumstances because of their act of treason against England.
They thought it was worth it.

In modern America, a terrorist attack in September, 2001, knocked down some buildings and killed innocent Americans. I think it's fair to say that the openness of American society may have contributed to the feasibility of the plot organized by Saudi and Egyptian radicals. Does this one event portend the eternal insecurity of the United States, which became, in the two hundred years since the Revolution, a military power far more dominant than the British ever were? Was it necessary, in order never to expose ourselves to any threat whatsoever to pass the Patriot Act with all its violations of the Bill of Rights; to pass the Military Commissions Act with its abrogation of habeas corpus; to sanction systematic violations of the Fourth Amendment by exonerating telecommunications companies which spied on Americans? What does that say about American courage in this day and age? We'll dump the Bill of Rights if our leaders will just promise nothing will ever go "boom!" again?

I'm picturing a Signer of the Declaration in the dark days of the Revolution who has been captured by the British, as five of them were. They were tortured and horribly mistreated as prisoners of war. Yet they had the courage of their convictions. They put it all on the line, their lives, their fortunes. What would such a patriot say, returned to Earth to view modern America and the new, homegrown "train of abuses?" I think we owe it, as a matter of our own sacred honor, to do better than we've done over the last eight years, to vindicate the courage that put this great country on the map.

July 02, 2008

Faith-Based Request for Money


To: President Barack Obama
From: Henry Waldenswimmer, President, Church of Seinfeld ReRuns
Re: Funding request, 2009

Dear President Obama:

I was astounded to see that you intend to continue and expand former President Bush's program of "faith-based initiatives," particularly in light of your past work as a professor of Constitutional law. I would assume that the "Constitution" in question is that of the United States and not that of, say, Vatican City or the world's "newest democracy," Iraq, which uses Sharia as its fundamental source of legislation. That being the case, I am perplexed; is it possible that you taught only the unamended Constitution? That could explain a few things; for example, if you had gone on, you would have encountered the First Amendment, which reads as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Simple, economical language. Those guys were good, weren't they?

You know what I think they were saying? I think they were saying that the federal government should stay the hell out of religion. Period. End of story. G-Men don't go into churches or synagogues or mosques and tell the congregations how to pray; and in public school, we study science and other secular subjects and leave the prayer and "intelligent design" to the churches. There is no "national religion" in the United States. This is not a "Christian nation" despite what people like George Bush or Mike Huckabee say. The government tolerates religions; it doesn't get involved in their establishment, maintenance or practices. There are Christians in this nation, as there are Jews, Muslims, Hindus and millions and millions of atheists. The First Amendment guarantees that all are free to pursue their religions, or their irreligion, to their hearts' content. Justice Souter of the Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the principle in the case of Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994), where he wrote for the majority "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion."

You're convinced that religions are good at delivering "poverty alleviation" and other services. So they well may be. People who attend churches often do good works. They also give money, their own, when the basket is passed. The churches can use this money to alleviate poverty, run a food bank, build a homeless shelter. The federal government should stay out of it and let the churches do what they want with the money they have. If you think that the federal government needs to do more to alleviate poverty, then you can dust off ideas from the Great Society, for example, and run something called a "government based initiative." Otherwise it looks like you're just trying to buy votes from churches by promising them money. You know? A "faith based initiative" is another name for "taxpayer supported religion," and please don't pretend you don't understand that. You're way too smart. George W. Bush walked around in the world with the guiding presumption that whatever he was, whatever he believed, should work for everybody, and so if he thought that the government should get involved in the religion business, particularly
Protestant religions of a decidedly Right Wing bias, then that's okay, because "it's the right thing to do," the Constitution be damned.

Now you're doing it. This is the way that a bad idea, a clearly unconstitutional idea, becomes standard operating procedure. The same kind of thinking led to the repeal of the Fourth Amendment. If the President does something long enough, like illegal spying, and Congress is "in on it" and does not draw a distinct line early, it becomes the new normal, and the process of devolution then begins from there with the new administration.

But if you're going to give religions money to do government work, then give me some too for my Church of Seinfeld ReRuns. We watch Seinfeld "religiously." It is true that the characters in Seinfeld ReRuns don't practice religion; in fact, they don't appear to believe in anything. They are all post-modern Existentialists who depict the other great trend in American culture, the one that isn't about End Times and the Rapture and the rest of it. The trend toward mindless narcissism, materialism, rejection of normal family life, lack of connection. As American as apple pie, really, and to give money to the local Baptist Church for their do-good projects while leaving out our group is "preferring religion to irreligion" in contravention of Grumet, supra.

I know what you're thinking: We're a decidedly irreligious group and perhaps for that very reason should not expect a government hand-out. Yet when you think about it, that can't be what Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams, et al. had in mind - why should we be the ones who are disfavored? The federal government is supposed to be neutral on the question of religion. Why don't you give us a try? If you're going to violate the First Amendment as official policy, at least make it worth our while.

June 30, 2008

Tom Friedman: On the Case!

The text for today's sermon is derived from Thomas Friedman's most recent column. As you probably know, Mr. Friedman is the award-bejeweled star pundit of the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. Pulitzers drip from his masthead like bling. He is the Voice of Authority. And he's figured out something very important which you would be wise to heed. To wit:

"I do not believe nation-building in Iraq is going to be the issue come November — whether things get better there or worse. If they get better, we’ll ignore Iraq more; if they get worse, the next president will be under pressure to get out quicker. I think nation-building in America is going to be the issue.

"It’s the state of America now that is the most gripping source of anxiety for Americans, not Al Qaeda or Iraq. Anyone who thinks they are going to win this election playing the Iraq or the terrorism card — one way or another — is, in my view, seriously deluded. Things have changed."

Wow. Now that's chutzpah. You see, among Mr. Friedman's other titles is Chief Neocon Cheerleader for the Invasion of Iraq (sorry that doesn't work out as a cute acronym, but it's Monday morning). He is the inventor (perhaps discoverer, depending on whether you believe it existed in nature before his description) of the Friedman Unit. The Friedman Unit is six months. Mr. Friedman, at any point in the ongoing train wreck which is the U.S. occupation of Iraq, has counseled that six months are needed to determine whether a "decent outcome" is possible in Iraq. Unkind kibbitzers have pointed out that Friedman, in fact, has advised waiting a Friedman Unit about 13 times, which if linked together actually exceed the length of the U.S. occupation to date.

I think his tune has changed along with "things." Tom believes that anyone who now thinks that Iraq is the key issue for current America is "seriously deluded." Not just "deluded." "Seriously deluded." Let's look up "delusion" in the American Heritage Dictionary and figure out what Tom is calling people. "Delusion: a false belief held in spite of invalidating evidence, esp. as a condition of certain forms of mental illness." I cheated a little by leaping to the third definition, the one I liked best. But Tom Friedman cheats all the time. The way he's cheating you now is by jumping to a place in front of his new parade and pretending that Iraq-as-a-bad-idea is a brand new issue for Mr. Friedman to instruct you about. Instead of, say, devoting his next twenty columns to a detailed apology for the horrendous course of action he and a lot of other Makers of Fashionable Opinion enabled back in 2002-03.

Iraq was a tremendously bad idea in 2003, too. For exactly the same reasons, those "things" Friedman refers to. Those things include (a) America's bankruptcy and (b) economic destruction. In 2003 the United States was in no shape to invade Iraq. It doesn't matter if toppling Saddam Hussein was "the right thing to do." It doesn't matter if one hundred years of war in the Middle East, against one country after another, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, might finally produce stable democracies so we could finally quit worrying about losing another couple of skyscrapers to our own commercial jets. We never had the wherewithal to mount a big invasion and a long occupation in a distant Third World desert, spending $12 billion a month and breaking down the military, and allowing this one foreign policy project to dominate all national discourse and the attentions of Congress.

Because now look where we are. We have run deficits (as measured by growth in the National Debt) of a half trillion dollars per year, and the debt will be $10 trillion when Bush leaves office. The Dow Jones is now lower than during the Clinton Administration. The dollar has lost 40% of its value against the euro. Unemployment is on the way up. Consumer spending is on the way down (masked briefly by Federal Bribes financed by borrowing more money from foreign creditors, but that won't last). The banking system is teetering on the brink of insolvency. Unaffordable gasoline. A cratering real estate market. Mr. Friedman and many others like him who were so gung-ho for this war because it gave them something glamorous and adventurous to write about would have you believe that these developments fit into the neat confines of their perceived "news cycle," which is perhaps even shorter than a Friedman Unit. That America woke up one morning and said to itself, hey, we've got problems here at home, too. Maybe a constant fixation on violence in Iraq as a spectator sport is a diversion we can't afford any longer. We don't make our livings writing about the Iraq War. We have to participate in what you might call the "general economy," and the general economy sucks.

So yeah, Thomas Friedman, you might be right. Anyone who thinks Iraq is the major issue facing America is seriously deluded. And has been for at least five years.