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. Br├ębeuf 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.