Monday, August 30, 2010

Restoring Sanity

Perhaps you missed it, but there was a rally Saturday in Washington, D.C., on the very same steps where forty-seven years earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The rally, intended by conservatives to be a non-partisan gathering to talk of faith and support the troops, was merely another ridiculous trope-spewing photo opportunity. The same tired and hackneyed words wafted into the air, to fall on the heads of a crowd eager to lap them up, like fauna at a waterhole.

I do not mean to demean or denigrate those of faith, but there is a great deal of difference between having faith and restoring "faith." The faith talked about at the rally was not the faith of the individual, protected and encouraged by the Constitution, but the faith of those organizing the rally, who were more concerned with getting out their message than creating any atmosphere of religious tolerance. It was yet another attempt to assume that, in America, there can be only one faith in God: their faith.

Their premise was flawed from the beginning, as if Americans as a whole had completely abandoned faith, which is far from the truth. In fact, Americans of all faiths are equally strong and equally represented in this country. What has changed is that many no longer tacitly accept every tenet of their belief system, up to and including those who lead them. Many now shun organized worship, content is assuming and subsuming their faith for themselves. There is no shame in this, and certainly no problem with it. Each individual's faith is, in fact, theirs, even where they are part of a larger organized community. It is the individual who decides how they will express their belief in whatever system they ascribe to, even if that system says to them that there is no God.

Americans do not need to be lectured to, or whipped into a frenzy over, what God they choose to believe in. They will choose for themselves what makes the most sense, to them. Those who participated in the festivities may have been under the mistaken impression that, somehow, they were "chosen" to lead America forward, into a new age. They were wrong.

My faith remains undiminished. First, I have my faith in God, not expressed through any organized religion anymore, but by having had the opportunity to see the far-flung reaches of our solar system and our universe. No matter how the creation is expressed, by living consciousness or natural law, the mechanism of creation is a beauty to behold. It is nice to think an organized mind, similar to our own, but of greater depth and scope, set this all in motion. It may not be the case. Until there is definitive proof, I shall hold on to the idea of a conscious creation, through mechanisms we are still learning about.

My faith in humanity remains undiminished, though sorely tested at times, especially by the likes of those who attended the rally. So many seek to impose their view of the world on others, that they do not even do justice to the Constitution they claim to love, which says that no one may create a singular faith for all, or silence those who would dissent, or keep those dissenters from gathering peaceably. They would have us follow them, as if they were anointed to be our leaders. They become our leaders only when we vote them into office and hand them the power to lead, or when we surrender our reason and prostrate ourselves at their feet, refusing to question their motives and intentions. In the main, humanity moves past those who appoint themselves as "guardians" of society eventually, but the pace of progress is maddeningly slow most times.

My faith in my country remains undiminished, if, again, sorely tested. I believe the greater proportion of Americans to be decent, hard-working, and on the main, level-headed individuals, who pitch in when they must, work to provide for themselves, and maintain a healthy respect for the fellow citizens, even if they do not always agree. I believe that many of those we see on television are self-serving, self-aggrandizing, and prone to obfuscation and hyperbole as it suits their needs, more interested in creating enemies to make people afraid of, than coming up with rational and concrete solutions to problems. I would like to think that when the time is right, Americans of all stripes will stand up to those who would seek to tarnish our image at home and abroad with their blatant disregard for the liberty of their fellow citizens.

Let them not speak of faith as if there is one brand, good for all, but let us speak of all faiths and the lessons we may obtain from them. Let us find the common in them, that part that says that we must work together, help up those who have fallen, and honor each other by word and deed. It is not faith that needs restoration in our nation, but sanity; a return to reason, logic, compassion, and compromise is called for to meet the challenges we face, which are no longer simply America's challenges, but those of everyone around the globe. Let America lead the way by showing what true freedom is, and let us extend a hand to all who need it. Let the faith of Americans in themselves and their liberties become the faith of all people in humanity.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Echoes Of Katrina

It was the stark and maddening images that were hardest to take, so much like September 11th, in that you wanted to help, to reach through the screen and pull people out of the water or off of roofs, or hand food and water to those trapped at the Superdome, people pleading with the cameras for some surcease from the nightmare. It broke the heart and boggled the mind, that somehow, we could not help them fast enough.

Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call, a call we had taken before with Hurricane Hugo, but chose to ignore. We were wholly unprepared, no plan in place, and a command structure that could not seem to overcome its inertia. As the people of New Orleans pleaded for help, and as the rest of us found our generosity ramped up to new levels, the people who were supposed to be helping them were noticeable by their absence. In the days following landfall, it was the heroics of individuals, the Coast Guard, and some major corporations, that began the flow of aid to a beleaguered people.

Many throughout government, throughout the decades, had known that something like this was possible, but at no point did anyone step up and make a move to plan for, prepare for, or try to prevent it. As with many things, government simply crossed its fingers, in hopes that it would never happen. Far more important things were occupying their time.

So the wind and rain came, the levees broke, and New Orleans paid, paid for American hubris and governmental nonintervention and lack of forethought. A major American city was reduced to ruins, live on TV, and when it was over, it still wasn't over, because though the tropical storm had abated, the storm surge of human misery had just begun. People were displaced, their homes submerged, families ripped apart and scattered, lives decimated amidst damp, dismal, moldy wreckage. We were left to ask: how could this happen?

It is now five years later and though New Orleans is once again a vibrant city, still flush with the victory of its beloved Saints in the Super Bowl, the home of Mardi Gras and jazz, and as pleasant a tourist destination as you will find, the echoes of Katrina still rebound from quiet side streets. A trolley ride takes you past the hundreds of homes, still abandoned, whole neighborhoods now vacant and silent still. Hundreds of thousands of people have not returned, unwilling or unable to confront the past.

So, as we watch the shows, see the footage again, and remember those horrible days, let us not assume that all is well. New Orleans lives and breaths, but her breath is short and her streets still damp, with the flood, the tears, and the blood.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Counting Chickens

Perhaps some in the Republican Party are slavering over their soon-to-be takeover of Congress, intent on more disingenuous ranting and obstructionism in the name of helping Americans. But as a sage once noted, it is often problematic to count the chicks before they hatch. Sometimes, all that happens is you get egg on your face.

The economic recovery is stalled, the job picture is bleak, foreclosures continue apace, and money continues to be tight. This is, of course, tailor-made for Republicans to point at the President and exclaim "See? See what he did? He's ruining our country!!!", assuming they are still suffering from the collective amnesia that was the previous administration's need to deregulate the "free" market, which started the economic downturn. In nineteen months, the current administration, without the aid of House and Senate Republicans, has tried to stave off a depression, and mitigate the damage done by rampant speculation and poor money management by Wall Street. All the while, as the "loyal" opposition has taken every advantage allowed them, to stall, hamstring, or outright kill legislation that would work to reinvigorate the American economy and give small businesses the needed tax breaks to help them hire people.

The chest-thumping and proclamations that issue forth from the Minority Leader's offices, and from the Republican caucuses, would have you believe that President Obama single-handedly created the poor economy and is responsible for firing everyone who has lost a job. Worse, they are pretty certain that anyone who needs to be on unemployment compensation is a shirker or layabout, obviously too lazy to keep a job where they were forced to work 60 hours per week for 40 hour per week wages. Perhaps their laziness is what forced employers to cut jobs or send them overseas, and not the need for ever-expanding profits and larger bonus packages.

While the Republican Party may wish to think it has snowed under the American populace, with the help of their friends in the news media, the sad fact is, not all of us are that stupid. We can see through the tissue of lies, the inflammatory rhetoric, and see exactly what they have done to assist America in its hour of need: nothing. Still wounded from fielding a weak and ultimately incoherent candidate in the 2008 Presidential Election, they would rather lash out, taking it out on those who did not vote for their candidates, than roll up their sleeves, suck up their pride, and get down to the business of governing a nation in crisis. It is more important for them to regain power, re-establish their hierarchy, and get their hands firmly back on the purse strings, than to remember to their solemn duty to see to the general welfare. If they can use it to their advantage, they will continue their obstinacy and hypocrisy, leaving the average American to scrape by, while they live it up in the halls of power.

One can only hope that the majority of Americans, the ones who really decide who wins and who loses an election, deal the Republicans another blow to their psyches, that they might get the message that America does not want partisanship, it wants results. If you wish to impress us, do not do so by your words, but your deeds. for words do not fill bellies or create paychecks. And to Democrats, let them use the advantage they are being handed to good use, for if they do not, then they are no more ready to govern than their Republican counterparts. Let the bickering and nattering be put aside; it is time for America to regain her footing, a task we cannot accomplish without a strong and united government.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fact Versus Fiction

It is intolerable to think that a great section of Americans are being led around by the nose, pumped full of prevarications and obfuscations, then let go to roam the streets, parroting back these talking points without having fully considered what they are saying. True, we are each responsible for how we determine what we believe and how we verify those things we consider "facts," but it is insidious and immoral, in my opinion, to go about spreading deception and half-truths, cloaking them in fiery rhetoric, and attacking anyone who does automatically swallow them whole. It seems that certain forces are at work, shaping and molding the opinions of those who choose not to think for themselves, while simultaneously waging war against anyone who shows any reticence toward the "truth" as they see it.

The examples are there every day:

- President Obama is just like Hitler: Since the countryside is not dotted with concentration camps, jackbooted minions are not prowling the streets in search of people to intimidate or arrest, six million citizens have not been incinerated in the most ghastly manner, and no small and otherwise helpless countries have been invaded since he took office, this one is easy enough to dismiss as hyperbole.

- They are building a mosque at Ground Zero: I'm pretty sure that this is being perpetuated by the media, which seems to use the word "mosque" too often in describing the proposed Islamic community center to be built two blocks from Ground Zero. The supposed "slap in the face" this represents is probably more like a tickle, compared to the iron fist in a velvet glove of greedy industrialists and real estate developers who can't wait to park a new office building on top of "hallowed ground."

- Health care reform will include the ability to kill old people: Yes, the highly touted "death panels," which, as it turns out, did not exist, the language being nowhere in the bill. How easily funding palliative care and doctor's visits for end-of-life planning are turned into the knock on the door and the elderly being herded into vans to be disposed of in the dark of night.

- Extending the Bush tax cuts will help the economy: Far be it from me to point out that during the reign of the Bush tax cuts is precisely when the economic decline began to happen. Perhaps putting more money in the pockets of the already wealthy had the opposite effect than what was intended? Reaganomics did not work in the 80's, and it certainly isn't going to start working miraculously in the 21st Century.

- People using unemployment compensation aren't out looking for jobs; they are just lazy: Oh yes, this makes perfect sense. They were so lazy, working 60 hours a week for 40 hour a week pay, that the companies that were looking to extend their bottom line and pump up their profit margins had no choice but to lay them off, even as they shipped some of their jobs overseas and eliminated others, heaping the work on the few who remained. It's called "productivity."

- President Obama and his cronies are Socialists: Well, to a degree, that's true, just as much as the rest of us are. We share police and fire services that everyone pays for, have local governments to run things, that we all pay for, have Social Security and Medicare to support us in our retirement, which we all pay for, and we have schools to educate all the children, which we all pay for. The fact that we are called the United States of America, may, in fact, have something to do with having created our own, mutually interdependent society.

- The Federal Government is too large: How large is too large? Give me some numbers. What's that? You don't have any numbers? You just know that government is too big? Next.

- Taxes are too high and the budget deficits are too large: Try living in Europe, if you'd like to see what high taxes look like. Yes, a large chunk of what we make goes to pay the government. Well, they're responsible for protecting us and making sure the freedom and liberty of all Americans is constantly maintained. That costs money. Do they always spend our money wisely? No, but then try blaming the people who cause the problem: the elected officials you put into Congress and the White House. Those deficits didn't come around overnight, and they certainly didn't show up during only one administration. Of course, if we all did without a lot of basic services the government provides, I'm sure they could have it paid off in no time.

- The Constitution is under attack: As far as I can determine, there are no new Amendments to the Constitution currently in the pipeline. The Supreme Court is still looking out for the land -- though imperfectly at times. Freedom of speech. Yup, still available. Freedom of worship? No churches have been shut down yet. Able to carry a gun? Haven't noted any wholesale roundup of weapons to be melted down. Miranda rights? Still got 'em. Can't be forced to incriminate myself? Nope. Where, exactly, is this attack taking place?

It's far easier for people to accept statements laced with fear, than coolly delivered facts. America, it seems, is filled with Chicken Littles, fairly certain that the sky is falling, even though none of them have looked up. They are simply listening to a continuous stream of fear-mongering, panic-inducing rhetoric, which they have allowed themselves to substitute for good judgment. As they race like lemmings to the sea (a metaphor based on fiction, not fact), they cannot be dissuaded by reason. They are so certain that these maunderings are the God's honest truth, that they will not stop long enough to take a cold, hard look at them.

It is important that those of us who see that the Emperor has no clothes continue to speak up, for until the chorus of our voices is loud enough to drown out the ridiculous and absurd, we are still vulnerable to having our freedoms yanked right out from under us. It's time we started paying attention to the man behind the curtain.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hallowed Ground

The first weekend of April and October, in the middle of the White Sands desert of New Mexico, near Alamogordo, you can gain entrance to one of the most important sites in American history. Down a dusty road, and through gates, lies an area, normally inaccessible to anyone other than a member of the military, cordoned off, containing nothing more that the twisted stumps of a tall tower and a stone cairn monument with a plaque, noting the importance of the place. It is called Trinity Site, and it is the home of the first atomic explosion on Earth generated by humans. July 16th, 1945, a plutonium bomb, similar to the "Fat Man" device dropped on Nagasaki, was detonated atop a tower in the middle of the desert, as proof of concept that an atomic bomb worked. It was the moment when the genie was let out of the bottle, when Pandora's box was opened and the demons of our nature were loosed, and would lead to a tense standoff that threatened the life of everyone on the planet for over forty years. This place has been preserved, as a reminder of where our trip into the modern age began.

Go to south-central Pennsylvania, a tiny town of less than seventy-five hundred, and you find a six thousand acre park, the remains of the most significant battle of the American Civil War, when the forces of Confederate General Robert E. Lee met the Union Army under the command of General George Meade, in an attempt by the Confederacy to force the war into the North, and, possibly, threaten Washington, D.C. After three days of ferocious battle from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, Lee was beaten and forced to withdraw back over the Potomac River. Though the war would continue for almost two more years, the tide of the war began to shift to the Union, and Robert E. Lee lost some of his mystique of infallibility. It was a titanic struggle of two committed forces, determined to strike a blow against the other, and it led to around 50,000 casualties, a staggering number that was almost evenly split between the two sides. Where the Union could survive such a loss of manpower, the Confederacy could not. It was the fundamental shift that would lead, ultimately, to the end of the Confederacy and the reestablishment of the Union.

A short boat ride on any warm and sunny day will take you a brilliant white memorial, straddling a section of the Peal Harbor Naval Base. At the memorial site, you can look down on the rusting remains of a hulking ship, the battleship USS Arizona, lying where it was sunk in a surprise attack by the Japanese Navy on December 7th, 1941. Only the tops of the mounts where two of the main turrets were still reach up out to the depth of the harbor; the rest of it lies below the surface of the water, clearly visible a short distance down, slowly being consumed by rust and corrosion. Every so often, a dark blob breaks the surface, and spreads out as a shiny and rainbow-tinged circle. These are bubbles of oil, rising up from the ship's fuel stores, called the "tears of the ship." Perhaps the ship still weeps for all the names listed in black on the tall marble wall at one end of the memorial, a monument to the gallant men who gave their lives that day.

These places are what we call hallowed ground, places that retain a meaning beyond their mere existence, but for what happened there and what those events represent for humanity. They are preserved in as natural a state as possible, an attempt to retain a small part of what made those places important. We would not go to Gettysburg and expect to see the corpses of the fallen, or ground strewn with rifles and broken artillery; what we do see is the terrain, and the monuments that stand in for those who fell. It is up to us to go and use out imagination, to insert ourselves as best we can into these places, and try to take something away from them.

Recently, a lot has been made of the plans to build a Muslim community center near the site of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11th, 2001. There have been constant references to Ground Zero as being "hallowed ground," and claiming that building this center is some kind of besmirching of the memories of the victims of that day. The rhetoric that is flung around is far more overwrought than necessary; far from being some kind of insult, such a place would hold the potential to broaden people's minds as to the true spirit of Islam, and perhaps build bridges that could eliminate future attacks, by creating mutual respect and understanding.

The acrimony really boils down to one simple question: is Ground Zero hallowed ground? The answer, to me, is no. Ground Zero, far from being preserved as a memorial to the events of that day, was immediately subject to the forces of commerce, and its reclamation for use in building new office and commercial space on the site went off apace, with nary a voice of dissent from any of the groups now clamoring for the Islamic center to be built elsewhere. As we approach the ninth anniversary of that horrific day, the site, though the scene of much construction, still has no building there, no memorial, nothing remaining that would truly illustrate what that day meant to New York City, America, and the world, except for some large picture illustrations. Like so much of New York City, it is being consumed by the incessant need of the city to reinvent and restructure itself, swallowing up its history, and changing it into new things. The fight for preservation has been on-going for more than a century, but it sometimes cannot resist the tide of greed and money that seems to permeate everything.

For those who are outraged, to have that outrage match the actuality of it, then the site of the World Trade Center would still be a hole, filled with crushed rubble, shards of twisted, blackened metal reaching toward the sky like the fingers of the dead, attempting to reach up to wrench down the cowards who perpetrated this crime, and drag them down into the depths of Hades, to await their fate. Instead, it is a virtually empty concrete pit, cleaned and scrubbed of rubble and metal, swept free of the debris of the day, to form the base of a new, gleaming building, to rise like a glass and steel middle finger, aimed at those who would see us as enemies to their way of life. Somewhere, in some corner, perhaps some "suitable" memorial might be built, a small concession to the need to remember what happened there, but kept small enough not to take up valuable real estate.

I would ask, before another voice is raised in horror at the thought of a Muslim community center so close to Ground Zero, that the owner of that voice, and all the other voices raised in anger, take a long, hard look at the place, and ask themselves if the site is still truly hallowed, or has, perhaps, become more hollowed, stripped of everything that made it truly important to us, ruining it as a memorial to the three thousand people who lost their lives there. Perhaps they, too, wonder what we were thinking, in sweeping away the past.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Speech Is Not Free

Although we constantly talk about "freedom of speech," we have to be careful exactly what we assign to that concept. As personified in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is delineated this way:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This only states that the Federal government shall not pass laws which limit the right of the individual citizen to express themselves freely. Simply put: you can say what you like. What it does not do, is take away the absolute right to prohibit speech, as the oft used example of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater illustrates. In essence, you are free to speak your mind, as long as that speech does not directly endanger the welfare of others.

This broad scope of speech means that we are subject to dealing with people who are more than willing to fill the air with all manner of tripe: homophobia, racism, antisemitism, abject ignorance, conspiracy theories, and the like. These things may make the blood of decent Americans boil, but it is intrinsically important that people holding such socially contrary views be allowed their freedom to express them, for that is the price for our freedom of speech. We cannot, of good conscience, suppress the right of others to express themselves, then claim it solely as our own. To work, freedom of speech must apply equally to all Americans.

What many fail to realize, when it comes to freedom of speech, is that the speech is never really free. You may say anything you wish, within reason. In return, those who have heard you may say anything they wish, including professing outrage at what you said. If you accept that the First Amendment guarantees your right to speak your mind, you must tacitly accept that it also provides that right to others, especially where they want to speak their mind about you. More importantly than that, if others choose to take actions based upon what you said, unless they are civilly or criminally punishable acts, they have every right to do so.

The First Amendment's ultimate goal, was to ensure that the people could speak out against the government, without fear of reprisal. The Founding Fathers wanted the Federal Government to face the music, and be forced to listen to voices of dissent, even where those voices of dissent spoke from ignorance or prejudice. It was important to them that the voice of the American people never be capriciously silenced by a government in the throes of wreaking havoc with civil liberties and the law. That same idea was implicit in all manner of speech, whereby those who could raise their voice to expound one point of view, could not simply deny those who would oppose them a means of counterpoint.

So it happens that, when someone expresses an opinion that the public finds rude, insensitive, racist, classicist, offensive, or otherwise, there is recourse to call out these statements, exposing them as such, and allowing the rest of the citizenry a chance for rebuttal, through whatever means are at their disposal. Far from being injurious to the right of freedom of speech of the initial speaker, it is, in fact, the successful application of the principle of free speech, wherein others have the right to refute what is said by someone else.

Those who operate in the mass media (television, radio, blogging, newspapers) are not entitled to some superior form of First Amendment protection, merely because of the medium in which they operate. After all, the company that hires them is free to fire them or not renew their show; free speech is not compromised because their position is at the behest of someone else, and they are subject to other strictures. A company may seek to save its reputation, which affects the advertising dollars it reaps, by removing someone who has made controversial statements. Of course, in our current society, they are more like to hire someone because they make controversial statements, in order to attract listeners/readers.

Those who claim censorship because their statements lead to their downfall, are better off looking to the question of why their statements caused such ire in the public realm. They might discover that the reason for the outcry against them may have something to do with their narrow-minded view of society, and their lack of a true connection to humanity. Simply because a person has an opinion, does not mean the opinion is relevant, factual, or important. That someone has access to a public forum to disseminate their views, does not automatically imbue them with the gift of truth. It is as possible now, as it always has been, to open one's mouth and look the fool, rather than keeping it shut to avoid the appearance. The most important facet of freedom of speech, is knowing when not to speak.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mosque-erade Bawl

To say we would not be here without Islam is a bit of an understatement. While Europe suffered through the Dark Ages, Islamic scholars were continuing the work of ancient Greek, Indian, and Egyptian scientists and philosophers, working on elements of physics, chemistry, astronomy, geometry, and mathematics. They were responsible for bringing the concept of 'zero' as a number into the numeric systems of the time, from India. The English language is filled reminders of this time: alchemy, algebra, cipher, mecca, and the like. The knowledge harbored and expounded upon made its way into Europe, and thus planted the seeds of enlightenment that led to the Renaissance.

Islam is a distinct offshoot of Christianity, wherein the prophet Muhammad was considered to have taken God's word from the archangel Gabriel. It makes reference to Abraham, Moses, even Jesus, sharing lineage with both the Talmud and the Bible. It, too, demands a strong obedience to God, and lays down the ways to commune better with him. Everything a Muslim does is to be for Allah, nothing less. Their ways may be different than the path taken in Judeo-Christian theology, but all three religions strive for the same thing: to do good works on Earth to please God.

That there are those in the Islamic faith who would pick and choose from the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, and use it toward their own ends, is no different than those who do so in any religion. There are those who pervert the Torah or the Bible, all in the name of "proving" their faith is the "true" faith, their belief the one-and-only to be followed. Sometimes it comes to nothing harmful; many times -- as in the case Jim Jones' Guyana Cult or the Branch Davidians or al Qaeda -- the fervency of belief leads to death and destruction, the taking of lives, and incomprehensible horror.

That Muslims should be tarred with a brush dipped in the blood spilled by Osama bin Laden is a travesty. His zealotry and self-aggrandizement are affronts to the religion he supposedly holds dear, and that he would make war on innocents, condemns him for the coward he is. He will not reap the golden dreams of his beliefs, instead tasting the bitter fruit of condemnation, when his God will show him the error of his ways. We, however, cannot concern ourselves with this, for his actions have brought forth another travesty, against the United States, and not just in the senseless loss of life on 9/11, but how eagerly Americans have been willing to sell out their principles due to fear and obfuscation and outright lies.

The Founding Fathers made it clear, through the auspices of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment, that they believed religious freedom and tolerance were paramount for a nation to be successful. Enjoining the Federal government against establishing any religion as the state religion assured all Americans that their beliefs would be protected, if not always respected. It was important for the country to have people of faith, they thought, because they were more likely to act morally, and protectively, toward their fellow countrymen. This would be needed, if the fledgling country were to survive past its inception, as revolution and constitution did not guarantee that another nation would not seek to enslave the young country.

So it has been for over two hundred years, that individuals have had the right to worship as they chose, and establish houses of worship. There has always been a sense that rather than dividing us along the lines of belief, this would make us strong through our diversity. Now, that strength is being threatened, by fear-mongers, ideologues, and sycophants, who seek to confuse, alarm, and terrify the citizenry with Muslim cabals and the threat of terrorist training centers in their midst. They have latched onto a project a few blocks from Ground Zero, wherein a 13-story Muslim cultural center will be built, as their proof that Muslims are going to begin their takeover of our nation, tearing down the Constitution, and implementing their law, subjugating us all.

It would be laughable, if their cries were not in earnest. Some of the biggest names in politics have spoken out against it: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, etc. Families of 9/11 victims have called it a "slap in the face." The Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has been supportive, as has President Obama, citing the principle of religious freedom in the Constitution. The whole issue has taken on a dynamic that is akin to a tornado of conflicting emotions and religious prejudice. Battle lines are being drawn. Chaos is sweeping over downtown Manhattan.

As someone who was in New York City on September 11th, I have to say that I have a certain amount of sympathy for those who view the area as hallowed ground. Every visit there evokes strong emotions in me, and I am often brought to tears, recalling the events of the day which I watched from a distance, though was close enough to see with my own eyes. It speaks to me of innocence, misery, suffering, bravery, and hope. I am more appalled by the thought of a new tower being built there, instead of a park with two black marble walls outlining the spaces where the Towers stood, inscribed with the names of the fallen. Commerce has its way; hallowed ground is about to become an office building. Why that is not more of an affront to the families, I cannot say, but it is definitely an affront to me, almost like putting a riverboat casino on the site of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

I do not wish to insult those who suffered the greatest losses that day, the loss of a loved one, but to claim this cultural center somehow denigrates the memory of 9/11 is rank hypocrisy. A mosque already exists near the site, which was operating before the Twin Towers were even open; no one has complained about it. This is only a cultural center, a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, that will not even been seen from it, blocked as it will be by two city blocks full of taller buildings. It may, in fact, revitalize a dying part of town, as the area around there still suffers the scars, with abandoned buildings and empty shop fronts, a job that was supposed to be done by business interests and/or the government.

This cultural center is only an issue because powerful forces, aligned against Islam since that day (and even before), have determined to make it their mission to bring the religion down in America, violating the principles of freedom we hold dear. In raising this fuss over an innocuous and potentially useful building, they play right into the hands of the extremists they so want to keep out, who can use this news as a recruiting tool in their war against America. Rather than dealing terrorism a blow, they are instead handing them ammunition, as Muslims who see this will gladly donate to, or join, the cause. We have shouted for years about our democratic principles and their superiority, and now we show how hollow those words are, for we are ready to toss them aside, to the delight of our foes, who can then point to our hypocrisy.

If anything, we need this cultural center. We need it to create greater understanding of Islam and what it stands for. We need it to be a place of peace, in a community that is still reeling from a vicious and unprovoked attacked. We need it to show that we, as Americans, will not be cowed by our adversaries into abandoning that which makes us fundamentally Americans. We need it, to build a bridge toward greater harmony. We need it, to prove once and for all, that we are worthy of the sacrifice made by so many to forge this nation. We need this cultural center, because until we can see past our hate, until we can let go of our desire for revenge, until we can stand up and prove that we are better than our enemies, who are so completely intolerant of those things that do not conform to their zealotry, we stand to be dragged down into an infernal abyss. America must show our enemies, as we have so many times in the past, that they are wrong about us, and that their error in judgment will cost them everything, in the end.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Some Say By Fire

Fire can be capricious. It can heat you home... or burn it to the ground. It can provide light and warmth when camping... or reduce the forest to smoking ash. It can be used to cook our food... or to char the innocent into unrecognizability. It can drive away the night... or hasten its approach. What we do with it determines whether it will aid us, or consume us.

Fire has always been the weapon of choice to prove a point, usually that one group has control over another. It was the very first terror weapon, a raging, snarling monster capable of devouring everything that was precious to anyone. When turned from its pedestrian uses of heating and cooking and lighting, it was a formidable enforcer. And still is.

This is no doubt why, in fits of rage, crowds take to fire as an instrument of that rage. The movie stereotype of the villagers wielding pitchforks and torches is not far from the truth, for in our hearts, we know that to apply the power of fire to something is to erase the thing, to make a statement that we will not be controlled or frightened by it. And so, the mad scientist's creation is set ablaze... or a witch is cleansed... or books with contradictory knowledge are placed upon a pyre... or a family is forced to watch a cross burning on their lawn. Yes, fire is the instrument of our anger, and the symbol of the loss of control, for while fire may do our bidding, it is not so easily tamed, and can as easily set about its own work as do ours. To play with fire, is to play with imminent destruction.

Nero fiddles, Rome burns.

There is a movement to mark the next anniversary of September 11th, 2001, by burning copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, in protest. There is another movement scheduled for the next day, to burn the Rebel Flag, symbol of the Confederacy, to show certain elements in this country that we are not frightened of them. Suddenly, it is no longer the 21st Century, but the 17th Century, or perhaps the 11th; in any event, in a time for the possibility of communication and conversation, we are reduced to the age-old tactics, as if, somehow, the fire will cleanse rather than scar. What is to be gained in either case, save to inflame passions, to ramp up rhetoric, to reinforce the walls that stand between us? Nothing concrete can be gained by these actions; they are the extension of our primitive animal selves, not the enlightened and thinking species we can be.

If there is ever to be true progress for humanity toward something better, if we ever are to enjoy the fruits of liberty and freedom, then we have to put down the weapons and rein in the dogmas of the past. We must stop giving in to our animal passions, for down that road lies the consumption of our species in an orgy of destruction. Better to be wiped out by an asteroid or solar flare, than to do ourselves in, tearing ourselves apart in our own ignorance and lust for blood.

Let us quench this fire, stanch the flow of intolerance, by showing that we need not fall back upon the mindless behaviors of our ancestors. Let those of us who value society show that we are better than that, that we will not be dragged into the muck that settles to the bottom of our species. We need not heap fuel upon the fire; we can, instead, call forth the rain, and stamp it out. To do so proves that we are ready to move out of the shadows and into the light.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fear Factory

Fear is a great motivator. It will take the timid, the weak, the ignorant, and the faithless, and whip them into a frenzied mob, easily led by the mountebank willing to stoke them with the fire of inflamed rhetoric and subtle prevarication. It easier to point to the ills of the world and claim they emanate from a source other than the individual, to a person, or group, or government that is callous or unresponsive or traitorous. It is far easier to spread lies and deceit, than to sow seeds of compassion and compromise.

We live in a time where, given the situation in the world, the turmoil we see, and the information so readily available, that the fear mongers and hate baiters can take their messages of discontent and fury to a wider audience, an audience soaked and steeped in the ichor of marketing, which tells them what they should have, what they must do, and how they must not think about things, but "take our word for it." Generation after generation, as education continues to fail to teach the basic skills needed for critical reason and common sense, when parents have children merely because they are told "that's what society/god wants," and we are told we are not good Americans unless we mortgage ourselves to afford bigger houses, cars, and televisions, the idea that the words uttered by anyone should bear closer scrutiny is as foreign a concept as the idea of the tall sailing ship or the horse and buggy.

So, the fear merchants peddle their talking points in the common market, a new and insidious form of Town Crier, who, rather than seeking to inform, is trying to inflame. The crowds gather around their glowing boxes, bombarded by light that does not illuminate, does not educate, but does prevaricate. Facts, even where they are evident, are glossed over as inconvenient, or flawed, or "propaganda." Those who seek to warn the town of the approach of the wolves are merely "trying to scare us." There are no wolves we are told; only sheep with different haircuts. How can they harm us?

The wolves are not the sheep -- we, the Americans, are. Meekly, we accept, without reservations, the fiery oration of others as gospel, checking our curiosity at the door, placing our common sense in abeyance, chalking up any lingering doubts to random thought. We do not question, do not confront, do not interrogate those who seek to tell us how we should act and what we should do and what we should think. We accept that, somehow, their judgment is greater than ours, even though there is nothing upon which to base such a thought. We would be led, en masse, to the slaughter, none the wiser.

If we do nothing else, we must awaken, must set forth with hungry eyes and hungrier minds, to test the words of these purveyors of "truth." Truth in and of itself, is an ephemeral concept, subject to interpretation, but facts are in evidence, capable of rational analysis, and subject to scrutiny. We must ask ourselves the tough questions. Does the thing harm me? Are we as beset as they would make us out to be? Have we lost anything tangible in the way of rights? Where did they come by their information? How credible is it? Have they lied to us before?

Until we decide to loose the chains that fetter us to the unreal world of fear, hate, and ignorance, and soar up to the heights of human intellect, to think for ourselves, and challenge those who simply believe we have no choice but to believe them, we will be forced to muddle around in the dark, forever the sheep to be shorn by those who would buy the wool and burn it, rather than clothe all humanity in it. We can no longer afford to be complacent -- the future of us all depends on it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ignorance In The Time Of Knowledge

The oddest part of humanity's march into the 21st Century, a time of global telecommunication and the interchange of knowledge, is the growing prevalence of ignorance in society. Not the simple ignorance of not knowing things, which is the root of curiosity and the quest for answers, but the ignorance of fact and reason, the actual gainsaying of established convention and lines of thought, which were the basis of the very revolutions that brought about the Industrial Age, the Space Age, and the Information Age. The negation of that which is known, that which is verifiable, repeatable, and fundamental to the operation of the universe, is a conundrum; that so many would profess their disbelief in such things so publicly, an enigma.

Now, this is not anything new; human history is replete with such stories, of philosophers challenging conventional wisdom of their age, decrying the intervention of all-too-human gods, or coming up with simple and rational explanations for natural phenomena. Archimedes, Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Darwin, Bohr, Einstein... the list of scientists and thinkers who have endured the questioning of their precepts and theories in the face of indisputable evidence or, at the very least, plausibility and potential confirmation through further experimentation, is very long. Those who challenged the status quo, who tore away the curtain to reveal the true operation of the world, separate from the machinations of angels and demons, were reviled in their day, marked as charlatans, and, even when their predictions came true or their theories confirmed, still challenged by those who would not so easily let go their grip on cherished beliefs.

Yet, in an era when so much of what has come before is comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of knowledge, there are those vocal critics who would seek to rewrite the operating system of the universe, to dismiss the operations that are fundamental to its existence, and claim that they know the true intention or methodology of the creator. The look at theories, which are so in name only now, and claim that they are merely "theories," contradictable by "evidence" that is as plain as the nose on your face. What is most astonishing, is how easily that skein of unreason is picked up by the general populace, having apparently been conditioned not to think for themselves, but to regurgitate the missives of others.

The fault lies in ourselves, as does so much of what is wrong in the nation, the world, and the human race. Specifically, in America, education has taken a back seat to so many things. Curricula are still enforced by the States, each with a very different take on what parts of math, science, history, and English are important, constantly changing their criteria, and forcing children into rote memorization of incomplete and often erroneous information, simply because that is what is printed in a text book. The art of teaching is being reduced to ruins in the hands of administrators who are busy collecting the perks of their position, even as teachers are sacrificed on the altar of reduced school budgets and funding. Teachers can no longer teach, but must instead prepare students for unending series of standardized tests, which can no better assess a child's learning ability than an actual teacher. We have slowly taken away the core and fundamental skills of logic, reason, experimentation, and curiosity, and replaced them with pat answers, Internet searches, and performance evaluations.

That we seek to dilute knowledge, can it, prepackage it, and cover it in half-truths and obfuscations, is a reprehensible use of the intellect that humanity has developed over millions of years. While many might shudder to think of themselves descended from apes, they are hardly bothered by the idea that human society is regressing toward their primitive ancestors, by giving up, wholesale, the very advantage that put so much distance between us on the tree of life. That these purveyors of ignorance are given unfettered and unchallenged access to the world, and that there is no hue and cry loud enough to drown them out, may prove to be our epitaph.

As always, hope springs eternal. While the majority may choose to wallow, the edges of humanity continue to move forward, to learn new things, explore new places, and bring us closer to an understanding of the creation of our universe. Science does not seek to replace God, only allow us to read his mind, tease apart the puzzle that has been left for us, and to make our own destiny. In seeking truth and knowledge from the depths of atoms to the distant reaches of the cosmos, we are not forsaking the creator, but delighting in the creation, seeing what a wonderful and marvelous place we live in. If our ultimate goal is to be closer to the source of the all, then science is the light that leads the way. There is no profit in denying the truth or misspeaking the facts; to do so only condemns us to an ignominious end. To broaden our horizons, to spread our minds across the stars and down into the heart of everything, is to enrich us, to let us grow, and to bring us closer to ultimate truth. Isn't that what we want, ultimately?

Friday, August 6, 2010


Today marks the 65th anniversary of the Enola Gay's historic flight, to drop an atomic bomb upon the unsuspecting inhabitants of Hiroshima. In a flash, energy like that found in star, was unleashed over a city, obliterating it and incinerating a large number of its residents, who became mere piles of ash, and leaving still others to suffer the effects of radiation poisoning for decades to come.

A great deal of time and effort has gone into debating the use of the atomic bomb to end the war. Some say it was barbaric and unnecessary; others point to the fanatical zeal of Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the potential horror of an invasion of the Japanese home islands as a good reason to end the war then and there. In a way, it is useless to debate the issue, for it has happened, the events were set in motion, and so many decades removed, the dry words of reports and history books cannot fill us with the urgency, the horror, the blood, and the pain of WWII to more than a peripheral degree. We were not there, at that time, had not suffered through the horror of what seemed like a never-ending succession of fights to the death.

Still, the immensity of this moment, when the most horrible of weapons was unleashed, cannot be over-looked, for it changed the world in ways we could not fathom at the time. It may have ended a hot war quickly and efficiently, but it also triggered a cold war, whose heat lay festering below the ground in silos, in the air aboard strategic bombers, and below the sea in ballistic missile submarines. The world after the end of WWII was a place of high drama, fear, panic, and tension, with the potential destruction of the whole world one flock of geese or one nervous leader away.

Let us pause to remember the needless deaths of Hiroshima, from the standpoint of a war the Japanese need not have fought, and the United States needed to end, but perhaps not in such a way as this. We cannot rewrite the pages of history, undo the moment, resurrect the dead, but we can remember all that came and passed at that moment, and use it as the fuel to vow that we will never allow conflict to attain that level again, and we will strive to whatever lengths we must to maintain peace. Let this anniversary serve as a re-dedication of our efforts to bring humanity together as one, to live in peace and harmony for all time.