Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Phrase of the Day: LAST OF THE GREATS

Over this past weekend, we lost one of the true giants in acting.  He was the last of the great actors of all time.  He was Peter O'Toole.

As with any great individual of whatever measure, there was a kind of almost mythos about the man, although he would probably say that he was just a man who lived a full life.  For starters, his birthplace:  Depending on the source, he was born in either Connemara, a small village in Ireland, or Leeds, in Yorkshire, England.  Even though he had said he had a birth certificate from both countries, many sources say that he was born in Connemara and raised in Leeds. 

He was such an actor that the mere mention of his name evoked respect and admiration.  He was such a rapscallion of a man that the mere mention of his name evoked images of wild, cavorting, bad boy behavior.  Peter O'Toole wore many hats in his lifetime.  In a commercial for the London Sunday Times in 2010, he gives what can be called a wistful (and humorous) recap of his life:

He became a newspaper copy boy in his youth, with the desire for a career in journalism.  He made the switch to acting in his late teens, saying that he preferred being the one written about, rather than the one writing about others.  His theatrical debut was at the age of seventeen.  After a two-year stint in the Royal Navy, he pursued acting again, this time by attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  Three notable classmates of his, also well-respected and Academy Award nominated actors in their own right, included Albert Finney, Richard Harris, and Alan Bates.

He honed his acting chops for several years, performing at the renown Bristol Old Vic, often referred to as simply "the Old Vic".  In 1960, he made his silver screen debut in not one, not two, but three fairly forgettable films, 'Kidnapped', 'The Day They Robbed the Bank of England', and 'The Savage Innocents' ('Les Dents du Diable').  His life would change forever as he got the opportunity for a starring role in a film being directed by David Lean.

It netted him his first ever Academy Award nomination for the iconic role, for which he is most renowned, of T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 epic, 'Lawrence of Arabia':
Scene with Omar Sharif

Oscar would come knocking again at his door just two years later for the role of King Henry II in 'Becket', in which he played opposite another fine actor who never won an Academy Award, Richard Burton:

Before the 1960's ended, O'Toole received two more Academy Award nominations, back-to-back.  First, in 1968, for 'The Lion in Winter', playing King Henry II again, and then, in 1969, for 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips':

His only Academy Award nomination in the 1970's was for the role of Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, in 'The Ruling Class':

The first and third years of the 1980's brought two more Academy Award nominations.  The first was for the role of the maniacal director Eli Cross in the 1980 film, 'The Stuntman':
Scene with Barbara Hershey and Steve Railsback
The other was for his flamboyant and poignant performance of Alan Swann, an alcoholic and swashbuckling film actor (a la Errol Flynn), who is terrified about performing in front of an audience, in the delightful 1982 romp, 'My Favorite Year':
Scene with Mark Linn-Baker

As of 1983, O'Toole was tied with Richard Burton, with whom he appeared in Becket almost two decades earlier, for the most nominations without a win -- seven.  Two year later, in the Summer of 1984, Richard Burton would die.  The tie with Burton for most nominations without a win would seem to remain intact. 

At the Oscars ceremony in 1983, he was awarded with a Honorary Oscar, which he begrudgingly accepted.  He felt that an Honorary Oscar was a sign a career was over, and he asked the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to hold off on the award until he was eighty, saying that he truly felt he could win one in his own.  (O'Toole was seventy at the time.)  The Academy went ahead with the presentation:
Apologies for the Japanese subtitles.
This was the only version I could find that included the video tribute to O'Toole.
He was gracious in his acceptance speech, although his "As I totter off into antiquity" comment was a sign of his feelings about what the award symbolized to him.  It would appear that, from an Academy Award perspective, such would not be the case.

And yet, just three years later, a role came around that had the chance to prove him right.  It was the role of Maurice, a long-forgotten actor (and proverbial "dirty old man"), who becomes infatuated with a much younger woman, in the 2006 character study, 'Venus':
Scene with Jodie Whittaker, in her major motion picture debut.
She plays Jessie, Maurice's infatuation, and he has lined up for her a modeling job.

When he was nominated for the Oscar for the film, it seemed that maybe, just maybe, he would have the last laugh.  He broke the tie with Richard Burton for most nominations without a win, now eight in all, but he did not receive the award.  It would be his last flirting with Oscar.

Last year, he announced his retirement from acting, after a career of more than fifty years: 

As I mentioned earlier, Peter O'Toole was known for his rebel rousing.  Here, he shares a story on 'The Late Show with David Letterman' during his making the rounds for promoting 'Venus', as well as what he wanted for his epitaph:

And now, I, along with countless others, mourn his passing.  A little more than twenty years ago, I tried to make a go at an acting career.  While I knew I could never achieve his abilities and stature in the world of film, he was someone to whom I looked up with great respect and great admiration.  I always looked forward to seeing him on the silver screen.  It always meant a great deal to me to see him perform, although I wish I could have seen him in person on stage.  His was an on-screen presence that I both welcomed and cherished, and I consider it part of the film reel of my life.  With his passing, I admit that it feels like a part of my "acting soul", if you will, is gone.

The current President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, was a personal friend of O'Toole's.  Upon hearing the news of his friend's death, he offered this tribute:
"I have heard with great sadness of the passing of Peter O'Toole this weekend.  Ireland, and the world, has lost one of the giants of film and theatre.  In a long list of leading roles on stage and in film, Peter brought an extraordinary standard to bear as an actor.  He was unsurpassed for the grace he brought to every performance on and off the stage."

I could not agree more.  For so many wonderful performances through the years, and for your talent, which was a beauty to behold and a wonderful gift, I say thank you, sir, so much!

Goodbye, Mr. O'Toole.


Friday, December 13, 2013


Just as news has been spreading of yet another shooting at a high school today (Arapahoe County, Colorado), a sobering report came out today from The Washington Post.  The report, titled Not Only Newtown, cites how nearly 100 children were killed by gunfire last year.  The reason for highlighting this particular number of children, and naming them in this breakdown, is their ages.  The oldest child noted was just ten years old.

Ten years old, the oldest.  Six months, the youngest.

Any unnatural loss of life, particularly as a result of violence, is terrible, but when the victims are children, it hits us harder.  At these ages, however, the feeling is almost numbing.  Innocent lives ended far, far too soon.

What particularly struck me about this report is the inclusion of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last year.  (The one-year anniversary is tomorrow.)  What struck me was not just the reminder of the Sandy Hook shooting, but the sheer number of those murdered.  More specifically, while the sheer number of those murdered in Sandy Hook is terrible, twenty-eight in all, the number of children murdered there (twenty) is but a fraction of the total noted in the report.

Think back to the shooting in Newtown: horrifying...saddening...angering.  So many young lives cut down.  And yet, the twenty young lives lost at Sandy Hook represents less than one-quarter of children aged ten or younger killed last year.  In fact, the actual percentage is closer to just over one-fifth of these young lives lost in 2012.

Just over one-fifth of all those killed for the entire year.

The report cites mass shootings, angry or distraught (ex-)boyfriends, angry or distraught parents, and drive-by shootings as the main settings and dynamics for these senseless deaths.  Approximately two-thirds of the shooters suffered from some form of mental illness, making arguments in favor of more steps being put in place to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally-challenged still germane, while . 

We, as a society and a nation, need to pay attention.  We need to see when someone is unstable, for whatever reason., and we need to address the issues.  We need to be open about addressing these problems, avoiding judgment and shunning.  Those in power of regulating mental health care need to step up and make a broken system whole again, just like those for whom they are meant to care.  Those in power, particularly politicians, need to get involved, and not just talk about it and put forth minimalistic actions.

This will never be acceptable and it must stop!  We must pay attention to what has gone before and we must do something to stop this epidemic.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Word of the Day: EXEMPLAR

Two days ago, the nation of South Africa lost a great man, Nelson Mandela.  One of South Africa's most-cherished sons, Mandela can be described as having lived a life that is nothing short of astonishing.  In fact, in addition to astonishing, words such as amazing, incredible, awe-inspiring, and fascinating are also fully appropriate descriptions of his life.

Born on July 18, 1918, in Mveso, a small village along the southern tip of South Africa, he was the first of his family to attend school.  Now a part of the British educational system, as South Africa was under British rule, a more "common" name had to be given to him; his teacher chose the name Nelson.  His birth name was Rolihlahla, which translates as "pulling the branch of a tree", although a much more common translation is "troublemaker".  Oh, what a troublemaker he was!

"I hate race discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations.
I have fought it all during my life;
I fight it now, and will do so until the end of my days."

Mandela was just nine years old when his father died, resulting in his being raised by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people.  Mandela developed an interest in African history, including how Africans lived in peace, cooperation, and a willingness to share, until the white people came and wanted everything for themselves.  He attended the University College of Fort Hare, working toward an interpreter or clerk career.  He joined the African National Congress in 1942, and his time was spent in peaceful, nonviolent anti-apartheid protests.  

"Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people."

Although originally arrested and jailed in 1961 for leading a three-day workers' strike, stemming from a faction of the African National Congress (ANC) engaged in militaristic uprising, Mandela and other members of the African National Congress were convicted of sabotage in 1963.  They began serving life sentences that year.  Two-thirds of his twenty-seven-year imprisonment was spent in a 56-square foot cell on Robben Island with a straw mat on the floor as his bed.  During his time in prison, he survived tuberculosis (receiving the least amount of medical attention possible) and earned his Bachelor of Law degree. 

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,
but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

By the 1980's, the pressure to release Mandela was rising not only within South Africa, but internationally as well.  Then-South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha offered Mandela freedom if he would renounce the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.  Mandela refused.  Several similar offers were made to Mandela for several years with the same result.  It wouldn't be until a stroke that caused Botha to step down and be replaced by F.W de Klerk that Mandela's release would happen.

"Do not judge me by my successes,
judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."

It was due to de Klerk's openness and willingness to work with Mandela that Mandela walked out of prison as a free man on February 11, 1990.  In addition to bringing about Mandela's release, de Klerk also lifted the ban on the African National Congress, dismantled political group restrictions, and halted executions.  Approximately fifteen months after becoming a free man again, Mandela was elected president of the ANC.  

"It always seems impossible until it’s done."

Mandela's negotiations with de Klerk did not end with his ANC presidency; in fact, they continued.  Not merely satisfied with ascending to the presidency of the organization he had joined in his youth, even though that would have been a story of success and overcoming in itself, Mandela sought free, open-to-all, one person-one vote elections.  It was a difficult road many times, with whites' willingness to share power and blacks wanting full power, as well as the murder of Chris Hani, the leader of the military faction of the ANC known as Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation").  

Despite all this, both Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Price in 1993 for their working in the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.  A little over six months after their being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first ever free and open elections took place in South Africa, on April 27, 1994.  Mandela was elected president, with de Klerk to serve as his first deputy, and he was sworn in the following month.  Later that year, Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, which he started while in prison, was released.  (A film of the same name is making the rounds now.)  The following year, he was presented with an honorary Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II. 

During his first year as president, he worked on race relations and national pride.  He sought to do this in an unusual way -- rugby.  Although the team was disliked by many, the nation's love of sports proved fertile soil to plant the seeds of mutual respect.  South Africa hosted the World Rugby Cup tournament in 1995, and its team was expected to be pushovers.  They proved everyone wrong by winning the tournament.  (An account of this can be found in the 2009 film 'Invictus'.)  In addition, he later helped secure South Africa's national economy, drafted and signed a new constitution, and created jobs, housing, and health care. 

"We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right."

Following his presidency, Mandela knew his work was not done.  He continued to support efforts to build new schools and clinics, while also writing several books about his life experiences.  While leaving public life after his presidency, it was a diagnosis of prostate cancer that changed his plans.  The cancer was treated and three years later, at eighty-five, he formally resigned from public life, returning to his native village.

Nonetheless, the spirit of doing one's life's work stayed with Mandela, and in 2007, he convened several world leaders to form what would be called The Elders, whose work would affect parts of South Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  The list of world leaders included:
Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations
Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association of India
Gro Harlem Brundtland, former first woman Prime Minister of Norway

Jimmy Carter, former U.S. president
Graca Machel, Mandela's wife and Mozambique politician and humanitarian
Mary Robinson, former first female president of Ireland, former U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights
Desmond Tutu, former Anglican Archbishop in South Africa
Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi banker and economist, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient
Li Zhaoxing, former Chinese foreign minister

The task of The Elders was to address serious issue around the world by promoting peace, promoting democracy, fighting for women's rights, responding to humanitarian crises, and promoting respect for all of humanity.  The group's work continues to this day.

After several hospital visits between 2011 and this year, Nelson Mandela died in his home in Johannesburg at the age of ninety-five.

I have, throughout this posting, posted quotes of Nelson Mandela.  At the end of this, I think one more quote of his is appropriate:
"When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country,
he can rest in peace."
Mr. Mandela, you, can undoubtedly rest in peace!

For fighting for what is right ... for standing by your convictions ... for surviving unnecessary imprisonment ... for the lack of arrogance toward your oppressors ... for the lack of smugness at your oppressors at the time of your freedom ... for ultimately rejecting revenge and embracing reform ... and for embodying compassion and grace ... you have shown us the way to live our lives.  Not only is your homeland of South Africa better because of you, but the entire world is, and will be, better off.  May we all be Rolihlahla.  

To the man who went from protestor to prisoner to president, I say rest in peace.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Word of the Day: UNHEEDED

The Native American peoples of this land have much wisdom to share.  Some of that wisdom has been heeded -- I would suggest heeded many, many, many years ago -- and some of that wisdom has been, and continues to be, unheeded.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Sioux tribes addressed the United Nations last month about the perils the world faces as a result of not heeding the warnings of a people whose connection, understanding, and respect for the earth knows few peers.  I would encourage you  to take the time and read this thoughtful and insightful address in its entirety.

By the way, the mainstream really didn't bother giving this address much attention.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013


I have no problem with buying presents for Christmas; it has been part of the Christmas tradition for a very long time.  I have no problem with wanting to save money; things are far too expensive to not care how much they cost.  I have no problem with going to a sale; gifts for loved ones can be bought while saving money at the same time.  I have no problem with businesses making money; you go into business to make money.  Fine?  Fine.

So, at this time of year, you might be wondering what my issue is.  My issue is what this time of year has become, or should I say how it has deteriorated. 

When I was wee young lad, turning the clocks back forty to forty-five years, this time of year was far, far different.  It was different at home and in the stores.  Some homes would have some Thanksgiving decorations and a few stores did as well.  Thanksgiving was an entity unto itself, and not just because it fell on a separate date from Christmas. 

Not that it's completely lost nowadays, but Thanksgiving had a meaning and held a meaning for people.  It was the day for family gatherings, family reunions, and, most importantly, for giving thanks for what you have.  Far more people and families back then, I dare say, took the giving thanks part seriously.  The mindset was different then, in that acknowledging what you have, regardless of how much or how little you had, was important.  It was not just a going through the motions, but an annual ritual that showed mindfulness and gratitude.

Christmas, on the other hand, was its own creature, too.  Home Christmas decorations were far more prevalent then than now.  I remember as clearly as it was yesterday my father taking me for a ride at night to go around and look at all the homes decorated for Christmas, and I know other families did that.  That, too, was a tradition for some.

Stores would slowly put up a few, just a few, Christmas decorations prior to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Usually it was just strings of lights, fake snow (the kind you spray on windows and spread out on shelves and displays), and maybe artificial Christmas trees for sale.  Once that Friday arrived, however, it seemed that the decorations multiplied.  I presume folks came in or stayed over on Thanksgiving Eve, after their store closed, and finished decorating the stores.  This way, the stores would appear magical when they reopened after being closed for the holiday...and they were closed for the holiday.

Thanksgiving is probably the only non-religious holiday that's specifically meant for giving thanks.  (Well, unless you count Groundhog Day, and being thankful if the groundhog does not see his shadow, meaning an early Spring.)  Christmas is a religious holiday marking the birth of Jesus.  The thing is, aside from cognitively knowing these things, maybe, you would not recognize them anymore.

Television shows for children, such as 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer', 'Frosty the Snowman', 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town', and 'A Charlie Brown Christmas', among others, never aired before Thanksgiving. Never!  Live actions shows like Bing Crosby Christmas specials, variety show specials, and Bob Hope's entertaining the troops in Vietnam, to name a few, also aired after Thanksgiving.  They were for Christmas, and Christmas comes after Thanksgiving.  It was like that for decades and all was right with the world.  The public never complained; companies never complained.

In the past twenty years or so, and even more intensely in the past ten years, a change has been happening.  I call it the neutering of Thanksgiving and the forcing of Christmas.  When a store advertised a Thanksgiving sale, the sale was over by the end of the day on Thanksgiving Eve.  Thanksgiving was a holiday, and holidays meant something to proprietor, employee, and customer alike. 

Thanksgiving is becoming just another Christmas shopping day.  There are stores this year opening as early as 6:00 p.m., on Thanksgiving night and remaining open overnight to the end of the shopping day on Black Friday.  This is after stores were opening at 7:00 a.m., then, 5:00 a.m., then midnight on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving Day has crept up from 10:00 p.m., to 8:00 p.m., and now 6:00 p.m.  How long do you think it will be before stores are open regular Thursday hours on Thanksgiving Day itself?

For several years now, a few radio stations have started playing Christmas music -- some of them playing only Christmas music -- before Thanksgiving.  That, too, never happened years ago.  This year, two stations near me began playing music around the second week of November.  I am one of those folks who really doesn't want to hear Christmas tunes until after Thanksgiving, and then I listen to them with great joy.  Television commercials with distinctive Christmas themes started airing around the same time.

Do I hate Christmas?  Absolutely not.  Granted, it doesn't hold as much significance as it did when I was much younger, but hate it?  No.  My point is that consumers and companies alike knew Christmas would get here when it got here, and decorations and sales came around in due course.

Now, Thanksgiving is just another Christmas shopping day.  (What difference does one extra day make, anyway?)  Families still gather and give thanks on Thanksgiving, but the real meaning of the day, on a broad scale, has been neutered.  The radio stations and stores that play Christmas tunes so early, since Christmas has been so commercialized, have turned those festive musical treats into clarion calls to consumerism.  That is a forcing of Christmas.

All of this is also a devaluing of the family.  Make a holiday for thanks into another work day: your family can wait.  Make the consumerism aspect of Christmas extend earlier and earlier into the year: so what if family members are out shopping or too tired to fully engage in family functions (or run the risk of getting trampled on)?

There are a few exceptions to all of this that deserve highlighting.  On the positive side, one is P.C. Richard & Son, the largest chain of privately-owned appliance and electronics stores in the United States, even with stores in only four states: Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.  This is its eighteenth year of taking out ads slamming retailers who open on Thanksgiving, citing that it is a "show [of] no respect to their employees".

Another positive example can be found in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  Those three states have blue laws which ban stores to be open on Thanksgiving Day.  In addition to those states and P.C. Richard & Son, five other major retailers that do not open on Thanksgiving are Burlington Coat Factory, Costco, Marshalls, Nordstrom, and TJ Maxx.  Kudos to them all.

Some get it, others do not.  A negative example is a story of a Pizza Hut general manager in Indiana who wanted to
close his restaurant for Thanksgiving.  (Seriously, who thinks of Pizza Hut for Thanksgiving?  Anybody?)  His superiors told him to keep his restaurant open or leave his position.  The general manager said he was let go; a Pizza Hut representative said he quit on his own accord.  Either way, it is another example of the devaluing of the family.

The sad truth is that there will be a day when Thanksgiving is just another work week Thursday... 

...and people will be standing in line for Labor Day Christmas sales.


Friday, November 22, 2013


A sunny Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas.  Crowds line the streets.  A presidential motorcade goes by.  Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson sit in the third car with Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough.  Inside the first car sits the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline, Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie.  

A large crowd has assembled for a luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart, awaiting the President's arrival to give a speech.  He would never arrive to deliver that speech.  

At 12:30 p.m., local Dallas time, three shots rang out in Dealey Plaza.  It would be approximately a half-hour later that the President was officially pronounced dead, and Governor Connally wounded.  

Kennedy became the second president assassinated in the twentieth century, and the fourth president ever assassinated.  Before Kennedy, William McKinley was assassinated in 1901; James Garfield was assassinated in 1881; Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

Radio stations first broke the news of the shooting.  This is the first radio bulletin:
Here's how the three major television networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC, broke the news:

I'll preface this next thought by saying it is not a case of the American public getting used to assassinations, but the first three assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley) took place within a span of thirty-six years.  The span of years between McKinley's and Kennedy's assassinations was sixty-two years.  In addition to many more failed assassination attempts, the American public was more than a couple of generations removed from such shocking news. 

As President Kennedy has been referred to as the "first television president", the television coverage brought the horror directly into peoples' homes.  No one will forget the images of the basement of the Dallas police building with the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald...
...Jackie Kennedy kneeling next to John Kennedy's coffin as he lay in state...
...and JFK, Jr., saluting his dad.

The sorrow that gripped the U.S. and even around the world resulted for a number of reasons.  One would clearly be how young and vibrant he was.  Much like those who died far too young in their lives, Kennedy's death was far too soon; he was only forty-six years old.  Another was that he was perceived as a good man, a man who wanted to change things for the better.  Another was that he challenged us to dream big and to try big.  Yet another was the promise for a better tomorrow that he represented...a promise unfulfilled.  

It's that promise unfulfilled that still lingers even today.  It is always better to look at what is and what will be than what could have been, but that could-have-been is where the sorrow lingers.  While many not-so-pleasant pieces of information about Kennedy's life has come out into the open over the successive decades, those shortcomings are unfortunate expressions of his humanity.  It is still important to remember that the potential of which I write rests solely in the doing for others.  

How different this country, and perhaps the world, would have been had he served his time in office, we will never know for certain.  Mere speculation attempts to fill that hole.  It was this event that spawned the conspiracy theory era -- remember, this occurred before the Gulf of Tonkin "event" during Johnson's administration was exposed as a hoax -- and it is an era that still exists today.  No amount of speculation will bring back John F. Kennedy, however, but the distrust remains.  It was an assassination of both a man and of hope.

One big thing that John F. Kennedy represented was hope: hope in ourselves, hope in each other, hope in our government, hope in humanity...hope that a better tomorrow was not just possible, but actually achievable.  Such hope cut short so abruptly and so violently is a huge jolt, and it might be argued that it is a jolt from which this country has not fully recovered.  

In the successive decades since Kennedy's assassination, and particularly as we have entered the twenty-first century, such expansive hope is hard to find...certainly almost impossible to find in government.  The kind of hope Kennedy embodied was not a kind of digging our way out of a hole, but of challenge and potential.  What hope we have now is the kind where we hope we get dug out of a hole.  It is a very different kind of hope...from empowerment to angry wistfulness.

Certainly, it is not the hope Kennedy wanted instilled in us all.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013


From 1861 to 1865, the United State was at war with itself.  It was the American Civil War, fought on its own soil.  At the beginning of the war, thirty-four states comprised the United States, with two more added by the war's end.

Three key issues were at the heart of start of the war: slavery, states' rights, and westward expansion.  With tensions between northern and southern states increasing, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who was openly anti-slavery, caused seven southern states to secede from the union (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas).  That number increased by four (Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia) after the battle at Fort Sumter, the war's start.  The eleven states were known as the Confederate States of America.  The War Between the States, as it was known, not only pitted militias from states against one another, but also, literally, brother against brother.  Nearly one-quarter of all those who fought in the war died.  

At what would eventually become the midpoint of the war, a special dedication ceremony took place.  The Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania -- a cemetery for Union soldiers, that even has monuments to both Union and Confederate soldiers -- was dedicated on November 19, 1863, roughly four-and-a-half months after the Union victory at the battle of Gettysburg. 

The main speaker at the cemetery's dedication was Edward Everett, a former Secretary of State as well as former Massachusetts Governor, Representative, and Senator, among many other notable accomplishments.  His speech, in terms of time, eclipsed Lincoln's remarks.  Everett spoke first, for two hours; Lincoln spoke second, for just three minutes.  In terms of remembrance and broadest importance, however, the 272 words Lincoln spoke have eclipsed Everett's lengthy oratory for a century-and-a-half.

His words spoke of the young nation's history to the testing of its mettle with the war; to honoring the war dead to what their sacrifice meant; to the continuing work of a greater good to the perseverance of a nation.  It has been noted that Lincoln may have been interrupted as much as five times in his three minute commentary.  

No words I have can match those of Mr. Lincoln.  There are several versions of the text, but the words below are those that are most often cited and which appear on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. 

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

His words signal the cost of liberty and how high that cost can be; they remind us of the sacrifices made in the name of establishing this country...and, for us in 2013, how such conflict must never come to pass again.

Mr. Lincoln, we still remember and still note with reverence your words for this nation, seven-and-a-half score later.


Friday, November 1, 2013

Term of the Day: WEDDING DAY

Today, two friends of mine got married.  Now that, in and of itself, might not necessarily be noteworthy for a blog posting.  One notable thing is that they wanted to go ahead and do this for a long time.  Another notable thing is that they are both in their sixties.  They have been together for thirty-four years.  Yes, thirty-four years!

Another notable thing still is that they are gay.  

Both my friends and I live in New Jersey, where gay marriage was given the final green light last week.  A number of years ago, when civil unions were approved here, they went and had a civil union ceremony.  The problem, however, is that civil unions nationwide, not just here in New Jersey, do not allow the same benefits as marriage.  Thus, there was no equality.  Gay couples could have the ceremony (that is, in those states that allowed civil unions) and the paper to prove it, but they did not have the same rights as heterosexual married couples.  Is gay marriage a civil rights issue?  You bet.

All of the arguments against gay marriage are based in religious beliefs.  If that is what you believe religiously, that is your right, but it grants you no right to stop others.  If you are against gay marriage, then don't marry someone of the same gender.  Legalized inequality, like the lack of marriage equality, is not a religious issue; it is a legal issue.  Many people had argued about the term "marriage" for gay couples.  Personally, as a straight ally, I didn't see the need for the haggling.  Call it "marriage" or something else -- the main issue is legal equality.  The moniker is not what's important; equality is what's important.  Inequality is intolerable.

New Jersey became the fourteenth state in America that allows gay marriage, making gay marriage legal in twenty-eight percent of the country.  

After thirty-four years of being together, their commitment is clear.  All they have ever wanted was to be treated equally under the law -- nothing more, nothing less.  I am so happy for my friends and wish them all the best into their thirty-fifth year together and beyond.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Phrase of the Day: BAND-AID ON A BROKEN LEG

Well, it's over.  It's finally over.  The sixteen-day partial government shutdown of 2013 is over.  The Senate and the House of Representatives passed a bill late last night and President Obama signed the bill just after midnight this morning.  Many federal employees are back to work today.  National parks and attractions, such as the Smithsonian Institute, are open again.  The threat of the shutdown's effects expanding even further has been averted.  All is well, right?  No, not really.

If you think doing things piecemeal is doing things well, then you might say this shutdown was worth it.  If constantly delaying issues so that you have to re-deal and re-deal and re-deal with them again and again is doing things well, then you might say the shutdown was a good thing.  If you think holding the Congress and the entire country hostage while acting childish is doing things well, then you might say the ends justify the means.  I could not, no matter how hard I might try, disagree with you any more strongly.

Just imagine if any of us performed our jobs in the manner Congress has performed during this shutdown.  Would any of us still have our jobs?  

To be clear, I am happy that the shutdown is over, but that is where my happiness ends.  The result and how it was reached is ridiculousness ... and it is ridiculousness repeated.  Two weeks ago, my blog posting summarized the government as useless.  To expand on my earlier question, any one of us would be considered "unproductive" or "uncooperative" performing at our job in a similar manner, thus likely necessitating our boss firing us.  While the term "useless" may or may not be used, we could be considered useless, or at least unhelpful, in terms of achieving the goal of desired productivity.  How can Congress be considered useful or even productive when all they have done for the past several years is "kick the can down the street"?  Temporary fixes of a few months, six months, or a year are no way to operate well.  It is an example of operating poorly.  It is estimated that the shutdown cost this country around twenty-four billion dollars ... and this same debate comes up AGAIN in a little more than 100 days.

When I worked at a company that did a whole bunch of temporary fixes as a result of piecemeal decision making, I called it putting a band-aid on a broken leg.  In other words, yes, you tried to help, but it did little to nothing to address the bigger problem.  The job was in Information Technology and there were a number of programmers working there.  Temporary "patches" on a program were not unusual, but an eventual final fix of the issue in question was always sought.  The overall culture at this job was putting band-aids on broken legs.

Congress thinks it has an indepletable box of band-aids, while the American people are fed up watching it go to the medicine cabinet.

To call what has happened this time around, as well as all of the other right-up-to-the-cliff moments (i.e. fiscal cliff, sequester, debt ceiling), political theater would be correct.  (Have you noticed how they generally keep getting closer and closer to a deadline with nearly each successive manufactured crisis?)  Moreover than just political theater, it shows a huge lack of interest in fixing larger problems once and for all.  It shows an inability or a lack of desire to solve problems.  It shows a culture of abdication. 

This culture of abdication continues to be cultivated today by such things as members of Congress still getting paid during this debacle.  Their staffers did not get paid, mind you, but the members of Congress themselves did.  Since both a sense of duty to follow their oaths and a sense of general decency are in such short supply that they are negligible in Congress, there is no incentive to do better.  Nether dutiful carrying out of their oaths nor a sense of decency would require any outside incentive; the incentive is inherently within those things.  

It appears that this Congress, as well as its successive predecessors, is unwilling to change for the better.  The numbers of those who want to change for better are too few to be persuasive.  Can they change?  I do not know, quite frankly.  Maybe they can, but Congress needs to stop breaking legs and to stop putting band-aids on those broken legs.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Phrase of the Day: THE MORE YOU KNOW

Today's posting stems from an odd combination: a visit to a children's playground and a book about genes.

I finished reading a book I've had for several years, but only just recently got around to reading.  The book is The Divine Code of Life by Dr. Kazuo Murakami, Ph.D.  Dr. Murakami is a geneticist who  decoded the genetic makeup of the enzyme
renin, which is responsible for high blood pressure. 

Dr. Murakami's position is that genes can be "turned on" and "turned off", in opposition of the long-standing theory that genes are fixed and cannot be changed in any way.  There is also a minor spiritual element to the book, in that Dr. Murakami states that the complexity of genes points to a non-human creative force; he calls this creative force "Something Great".  Although some of the science presented in the book went over my head, I found the book to be a fascinating read.

In a chapter titled 'Life Lessons from the Lab', Murakami draws a distinction between what he calls "day science" (i.e. classes, class-related lab work, lectures, etc.) and "night science" (i.e. intuition, chance-taking, etc.).  He argues that most scientific discoveries stem from "night science" -- sometimes out of sheer curiosity, sometimes out of sheer frustration.

His furthering of this distinction can best be described by the phrase "ignorance is bliss".  He cites a conversation between him and Masaru Ibuka, one of the founders of Sony Corporation regarding the secret behind his success.  He quotes Ibuka as saying:
      "In retrospect, I think that I was lucky not to be an expert.  If I had fully understood tape
      recorders or transistors at the time, I would have been far too intimidated to attempt such
      a thing.  When I learned more about them later, I was aghast at my own foolhardiness."(pg. 85)

Murakami argues that too much "day science" can get in the way of "night science".  In other words, too much scientific knowledge can actually be a hindrance to scientific pursuits.  One example was his entering into research of the enzyme renin.  He states that his students with higher grades were far more resistant to this pursuit because there was so much uncharted territory.  He does not suggest that those with lower grades or lower intellect are more open to new ideas, but rather the accumulation of massive amounts of knowledge can persuade one to be less curious and, by extension, less persistent.

Murakami answers the question of how excess knowledge can sometimes be a hindrance:
      "It is not that information itself is inherently bad; rather, knowing more than others can
      delude us into believing our judgment to be superior.  Overdependence on knowledge
      dulls our intuition and can make us look too far ahead.  When an endeavor does not
      proceed smoothly, excessive knowledge can cause us to jump to conclusions; the
      conclusion reached in such a situation is likely to be pessimistic; and we assume the
      project is doomed to failure when there is still a prospect for success." (pp 87-88)

Here's where my visit to a children's playground comes in.  I was at an outdoor crafts festival last weekend and it was sunny and hot.  The area the festival took place was out in the open.  The only shade to be found was just outside the festival space.  A friend of mine, who I had not seen in some time, and I sought relief from the sun on a bench blissfully engulfed in shade next to a playground. 

While we sat on the bench catching up the other on the goings-on in our lives, we watched the children playing.  I thought of their sheer delight and pure abandon while climbing steps, sliding down slides, swinging on swings, etc.  I thought of how we, as adults, for the most part, lose that sheer delight and pure abandon.  Certainly, many of us engage in recreational activities in which we can experience such things, but we have to plan when it will happen (i.e. weekend, days/nights of the week, vacation).  (No argument here about planning, as long as you can find the opportunities to feel that delight and abandon.)  All a child needs is a parent or guardian willing to say, "Let's go!"

Children come by such things so much more easily, don't they?

Obviously, it is because of their age, which means less responsibility and less knowledge than an adult.  Then, "growing up" -- not getting older, but "growing up" -- happens.  We have to go to school; we have to try and get good grades; we have move out on our own; we have to go to work; we have to meet responsibilities, such as doing out job well, paying our bills, saving money, and so on.  If marriage is in the cards, we have to be faithful to our spouse and meet familial responsibilities.

During this time, we also add to our accumulated knowledge.  We learn the proverbial "readin', writin', and 'rithmetic"; we learn chores are a part of family life and how to do them; we learn going to bed late when you have to get up early is a really bad idea; we learn how to do the duties of our job; we learn that frivolous and unrestrained spending leaves little to no money for paying bills and that not paying them is a big problem; we (hopefully) learn that money does not grow on trees; we learn to love and that love can be as beautiful as it can be hurtful; we learn the value of truthfulness, honesty, integrity, and loyalty, etc.

We also learn the down side of humanity and of life.  Life is hard; life is not always fair.  People can be helpful; people can be hurtful.  

Just as Dr. Murakami finds excessive knowledge a hindrance in science, so too we might say the same, to a degree, in terms of life itself.  If I was playing in a playground and the size and height of the equipment were adjusted for adults, I might to be so keen to try some things.  Why?  Because I might not have the abandon because I am aware that could get hurt, like landing funny and injuring a foot or an ankle.  Keep the equipment kids' size, I'd be more apt to climb on board.  Knowledge (i.e. an injured foot or ankle hurts a lot) is a hindrance.  Not necessarily a bad hindrance, in terms of caution and safety, but a hindrance of sorts.

Just as those who have a fear of failure, the same may be argued.  Someone who has tried a similar course of action(s) and failing at them, whatever failure would mean, might be less likely to try again because of their knowledge of their past experiences.  Similarly, someone who has never tried a particular course of action being afraid to try is likely basing it on his/her knowledge of failure as a whole.  Neither past experiences with one result nor the general knowledge of failure are logical reasons to not try, but those forms of knowledge, in addition to fear, of course, become hindrances.

If you are familiar with the phrase "the more you know, the less you know", you may have guessed that was where I was going with today's posting.  It would seem that Dr. Murakami's corollary to that adage would read as "the more you know, the less you're likely to try".

Smarts are one thing.  I would not trade the knowledge I have gained through life experiences and formal schooling for anything, and am truly grateful for them.  I try to not let that accumulated knowledge get in the way of experiences.  I admit I do not regularly engage in a lot of "jumping off cliffs", but I try to at least push myself to try new things and, possibly, to learn new things along the way.

It is not hard to imagine the scientific discoveries that would have been abandoned had it been that knowledge held scientists back time and time again.  The same can certainly be said for ourselves in our day-to-day lives.  We are not meant to simply learn and apply knowledge.  We are meant to engage and to experience new things.  In other words, do not let the more you know keep you from the more you can try.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Word of the Day: USELESS

Two days ago, after much political maneuvering, the U.S. government was shut down.  Once again. 

This is not the first time a government shutdown has taken place.  The U.S. government has been shut down a total of eighteen times, including this shutdown, over the past thirty-seven years.  While polls, for what they're worth, show that most Americans blame the Republican party for the current shut down, it is easy to make an argument that such a move is usually mostly one or another party's fault.  Such an argument is easy and lazy.  Historically, it is a mixed bag.  Ten out of the eighteen times, the President has been a Republican, while Democrats have controlled the Congress half the time during shutdowns.

The first government shutdown was in 1976, during the Gerald Ford administration, and lasted ten days.  In the 1970's, the average length was around eleven days, with a total of six shutdowns.  In the 1980's, the average length was roughly two days, but the number of shutdowns increased to eight.  The 1990's saw only three shutdowns, but the average number of days went up to ten. 

The 1990's average is so high with the fewest number of shutdowns because that decade saw the longest government shutdown in history, three weeks, running from mid-December 1995 to early January 1996.  This number is often coupled with an earlier shutdown in mid-November 1995 that lasted for five days. 

The 2000's saw no government shutdowns, but the same is now no longer true for the 2010's.  The current shutdown is in day three as of this posting.

This shutdown is based on House Republicans wanting to attach a defunding or delaying of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to a spending bill that would also raise the debt ceiling.  A short, pointed statement by President Obama on the afternoon of September 30 did nothing to stop the shutdown from happening at midnight that night.  A meeting at the White House yesterday between the President and congressional leaders to find a way to end the shutdown proved fruitless, with some news outlets saying it did nothing but cause both sides to dig their heels in deeper.  It is being reported today that President Obama issued a challenge of sorts to House Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote on an already-Senate-approved spending bill which has no strings attached to the Affordable Care Act.  My speculation is that Speaker Boehner will not bring the bill to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote.

If nothing is done soon, the benefits and government employee paychecks that are cut-off will be added to by Social Security benefits not being paid out as well as other services being stopped.  (Let's not forget that the Congress recently voted to cut billions of dollars from the food stamps program.)  With my mother on Social Security, living on a fixed income, I do not want to see that happen.  A CNN online article hihglights that members of Congress -- not their staffers, just members of Congress themselves -- still get paid, no matter what.
        "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives,
        shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened."
That is the 27th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it means any change in congressional pay cannot happen until the mid-term elections in 2014. After that, it cannot happen again until the presidential election year of 2016.

Minnesota Representative Rick Nolan has introduced a bill in Congress which would stop congressional pay during the entire stretch of a government shutdown, calling for common sense to be used in governmental operations.  I think it is a great idea, but it cannot be implemented until at least next Fall at the mid-term elections.

Now that I have presented all this, let me get down to brass tacks.

As great of an idea Representative Nolan's bill is, do you think it has any chance of passing?  Seriously, do you?  Politicians agreeing to have their pay stopped?  Politicians willing to accept their "just desserts" and operate under the same standards as you or I do?  Politicians working around the clock to fix a manufactured crisis that they themselves manufactured?  I could say that I would believe it when I see it, but that seems pointless.  I doubt Representative Nolan's bill, or any bill similar to it, will get anywhere in Congress.  If it does, there will be so many additions, exceptions, loopholes, and conditions included within that it will be watered down from the get-go.

I ask you, is it a sensible expectation that those who hold the power to screw over the American public without any likely repercussions to themselves, other than possibly not getting re-elected, are completely willing to do the right thing all the time, or completely willing to admit they screwed up and to fix it, and completely willing to restore the integrity of government that government had generations ago?  My response is it is not a sensible expectation at all.

Again, for what polls are worth, the public's congressional approval rating is down to a pathetic 9-10%, depending on whose information you read.  Whether it is that low or even a little higher, it is clear that Americans hate Congress and it job it is isn't doing.  I cannot blame them; I wholeheartedly agree.

Are you as sick and tired of hearing terms like debt ceiling, fiscal cliff, sequester, defunding, and delaying, year after year, as I am?  They are nothing but advertising buzzwords for ideological squabbles and agenda advancements at the expense of the American.

This is the oath of office taken by U.S. senators and representatives: "I do solemnly swear/affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God."  How does this shutdown support or defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies?  (Is President Obama the enemy or, more importantly, are the American people?)  Are we to assume that the shutdown is an example of discharging the duties of office well and faithfully?  (Are ideological battles and agenda advancements part of those duties?)  And they want God to help them benefit themselves while allowing Americans to suffer?  (What does that say about their religion and their personal religious beliefs?)

It is not hard to imagine those in politics for centuries have received perks that they should not have or that they have made deals to benefit themselves.  This is not to say doing that is okay, but it has been even more obvious for many years that the benefit of themselves, and their business interests, is standard operational procedure.  That increased obviousness has led to an increase in America's dissatisfaction and disillusionment with Congress.  It may or may not be hard to accept that those in power receive perks, but the willful intent to do so is not part of what those in Congress were voted in to do.  

However, I find it unacceptable to engage in obstructionism and see it as what those voted into office are supposed to do.  I find it unacceptable that a faction of one of the two political parties controls that entire party, and even steers the entire country directly toward actions like a government shutdown, is what those in office are supposed to do.  I find it unacceptable that those who can take paychecks and benefits, as well as access to public places and health care, away from both federal and non-federal employees suffer no consequences for their actions is the way that things are supposed to be.  And yet, these are the things that have been, and are, happening.

Therefore, Congress is useless.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Phrase of the Day: PLEA FOR CAUTION

[The following is the Op-Ed letter posted yesterday in The New York Times newspaper and on its website from Russian president Vladimir Putin.  What do you think?]

A Plea for Caution From Russia

What Putin Has to Say to American About Syria


Published September 11, 2013 

MOSCOW — RECENT events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders.  It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies. 

Relations between us have passed through different stages.  We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together.  The universal international organization -- the United Nations -- was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again. 

The United Nations' founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter.  The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades. 

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage.  This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization. 

The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders.  A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.  It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.  It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance. 

Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country.  There are few champions of democracy in Syria.  But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government.  The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations.  This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. 

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern.  Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?  After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali.  This threatens us all. 

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future.  We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.  We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today's complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.  The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.  Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council.  Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression. 

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria.  But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.  Reports that militants are preparing another attack -- this time against Israel -- cannot be ignored. 

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States.  Is it in America’s long-term interest?  I doubt it.  Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan "you’re either with us or against us."

But force has proved ineffective and pointless.  Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw.  Libya is divided into tribes and clans.  In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes. 

No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect. 

The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security.  Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you.  We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded. 

We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement. 

A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days.  The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction.  Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action. 

I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria.  We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations. 

If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust.  It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues. 

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust.  I appreciate this.  I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday.  And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is "what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional."  It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.  There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.  Their policies differ, too.  We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.


Friday, September 6, 2013


I have been watching with great interest for the past two weeks the developments in Syria.  I have also been watching with great interest the response by President Obama to those developments.  To say that he has been banging the war drums would be an understatement.

The premise is based on the following: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is alleged to have launched a chemical weapons strike on his own people on August 21.  This was the latest action by Assad's regime against his people as part of the Syrian civil war that has been going on since 2011.  The civil war broke out as a part of the Arab Spring, which began back in 2010.  The Syrian people want political reforms, reinstatement of civil rights, and greater freedom.  Assad and his representatives have been repeatedly stating publicly that the fighting between government forces and rebel forces is due to outside involvement.

After the August 21 attack, President Obama began to call for military action against Syria.  Not all U.S. politicians were convinced.  Not all world leaders were convinced, either.  In the ensuing two weeks since the attack, the rhetoric has been ratcheted up by President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, directed to U.S. politicians and world leaders.  President Obama drew a proverbial "red line" that Assad has crossed, only to later roll back that comment by saying, "The world set a red line."

President Obama's argument is partly on moral grounds.  (More on that later.)  He has stated that several nations agreed to find the use of chemical weapons as unacceptable under international agreement.  The result of the Chemical Weapons Convention was an arms control agreement, first drafted in September of 1992, signed into ratification in January of 1993, and took effect in April of 1997.  The agreement, in effect, outlawed the use of chemical weapons, as well as their production and stockpiling, in addition to regular monitoring and inspection of chemical plants and military bases.  To date, all but seven U.N. member states have signed the agreement.  Syria is one of the seven, along with Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, and South Sudan.  

The rhetoric being used sounds very similar to that was used in the lead up to the Iraq War.  We are certain ... We have proof ... We are convinced . . .   Britain just released a report that said clothing and soil samples taken from a patient treated for apparent chemical weapons exposure last month near Damascus showed the presence of sarin gas.  Interesting about Britain, though, was a vote in British Parliament on August 29 that was against the use of military force in Syria. 

It seemed to many observers, as well as current Prime Minister James Cameron, that it was a foregone conclusion that Britain would stand side-by-side with the U.S. on this matter -- considering former Prime Minister Tony Blair's walking in lockstep with former President George W. Bush regarding Iraq -- but they did not.  (At least for now.)  France seems to be the closest ally to the U.S. on this matter.  (Considering the past historical relationship between France and the U.S. on matters of military engagement, this is quite the historical development, in and of itself.)  

The talk of coalitions has resurfaced.  It has been mentioned by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry that all of those who signed the Chemical Weapons Agreement are in opposition to Assad's actions in Syria.  Thus, they are part of a coalition.  If so many other countries and nation-states are against what's been happening in Syria, then why aren't any of them stepping out to the forefront on this matter?  It has been suggested that the U.S., being the superpower that it is, should take the lead.  Okay, fine.  The U.S. has taken the lead on this and, so far, no one is else, save for France, is jumping on the bandwagon.  So, where is the coalition?  If President is at the G-20 Summit in Russia attempting to drum up international support, then where is the coalition?  The pushback and lack of gung ho attitude in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives shows that Iraq is still fresh in peoples' minds.

Let me return to the idea mentioned earlier of attacking Syria as the morally correct thing to do.  That is a tricky argument, at best.  Yes, the use of chemical weapons is immoral.  No, it should not be treated with impunity.  Yes, the use of chemical weapons is an act of aggression, but so is the use of any weapons.  I do not find merit in the use of missiles fired by U.S. warships as a deterrent to the use of chemical weapons fired within Syria, since both are weapons of mass destruction.  Or do the American people think (or do our politicians want us to think) that only countries that are not our allies possess "weapons of mass destruction"?  Not to mention the civil war going on, and how likely we are to get embroiled in that, as well as the likelihood of Iran jumping into the fray.

I do not believe our military involvement is warranted here.  Something needs to be done, but not militarily.  To that end, let me posit the following scenario: (You can use 9/11 or the attack on Pearl Harbor for an example, if you wish, but I mean this in the broadest possible sense.)  We are attacked by another country's missiles.  Wouldn't a likely response be retribution?  Wouldn't we see that as an act of war against us?  Of course we would.  

If our government used chemical weapons against us and another country was thinking about bombing our country, albeit military and chemical locations, would we, the masses, see that as an act of war?  Some would; some would not.  (Depends on where the bombs and collateral damage end up.)  Would our government see it that way?  Of course it would.  

The point is not that President Obama is using chemical weapons against U.S. citizens, just as Syrian President Assad is doing against his people.  The point is that any government, attacking its citizens or not, is going to see this as an act of war.  Yes, they are 100% in the wrong and on the side of immorality in the Syrian government, but their government will still see it that way, just as our government would.  (In both cases of 9/11 and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the actions of Al-Qaeda and the Japanese were seen as acts of war.)

I am not siding with Assad.  The reality is that those doing such immoral atrocities don't want to be found out and attacked themselves, and those not doing such immoral atrocities have no reason to be attacked.

I have learned how our government got us into the Vietnam War, to my chagrin.  I saw how our country was viciously attacked on 9/11, to my chagrin.  I saw how our country destroyed the goodwill shown to it in the shadow of 9/11 by engaging in an ongoing "war" against an ideology, including the use of preemptive strikes, to my chagrin.  

If Syria has not attacked us and has not said (or it hasn't been discovered) that these attacks are a precursor to attacks on the U.S., then where is the imminent threat to the U.S. that could lead to a military response?  In short, a bombing campaign that sounds as though it might rival "shock and awe", even if intended for military and chemical locations, will have collateral damage.  There is no such thing as a "surgical strike"!  I am unconvinced to the merit of President Obama's argument, except to the military industrial complex.  (And even if Congress votes against action, the President is likely to proceed, anyway.)  Sadly, very sadly, Eisenhower remains 100% correct.

My plea is for restraint in the midst of this crisis.  We are becoming what we stood against for generations.  In addition to being seen as such, our military action will be an act of war.