Saturday, November 18, 2017

Stop the War! (1968)

Watching the 10-part (18 hour) documentary The Vietnam War on PBS, I was struck by what a large contingent of delegates at the 1968 Democratic nominating convention in Chicago raised signs in protest of the war ... and these were political party delegates ... mainstream Americans ... part of the system.

Vietnam, don't forget, was also a Democratic Party war.

What struck me was that, 50 years ago, the opposition to America's immoral (and illegal) war had definitely gone mainstream.  

And that is something that has changed dramatically in the half-century that has passed.

Americans today are far more passive in accepting an endless series of wars, known to be based largely on outright lies (as was Vietnam, which was the salient fact that was exposed in The Pentagon Pagers).  Americans are more than happy to yield their American value system (supposedly something for which they'd die) and all their civil liberties for empty promises of relief from fear.  Cowardly?  In the extreme.

Mainstream Americans today, regardless of which side of the political divide they stand, act like sheep; and neither political party has a monopoly on cowardice.  That's the one thing Americans share.

A tightly-controlled US press ensures that.

The uniformity of opinion molded by the media is reinforced through the skillfully orchestrated mass emotions of nationalism and patriotism, which paint all dissidents as “soft” or “unpatriotic.” The “patriotic” citizen, plagued by fear of job losses and possible terrorist attacks, unfailingly supports widespread surveillance and the militarized state. There is no questioning of the $1 trillion spent each year on defense. Military and intelligence agencies are held above government, as if somehow they are not part of the government. The most powerful instruments of state control effectively have no public oversight. We, as imperial citizens, are taught to be contemptuous of government bureaucracy, yet we stand like sheep before Homeland Security agents in airports and are mute when Congress permits our private correspondence and conversations to be monitored and archived. We endure more state control than at any time in U.S. history.
And yet the civic, patriotic, and political language we use to describe ourselves remains unchanged. We pay fealty to the same national symbols and iconography. We find our collective identity in the same national myths. We continue to deify the founding fathers. But the America we celebrate is an illusion. It does not exist.

– Chris Hedges

      Chicago, 1968

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The staggering cost of empire

How much does it cost the United States to maintain its global empire and domestic security state? The following table summarizes defense-related costs in the US federal budget since 2003 plus supplemental spending (OCO=Overseas Contingency Operations, basically a un-allocated "slush fund). These numbers do not include other costs (such as the Department of Homeland Security, veteran's care and interest payments). The actual amount that Americans spend on their endless wars exceeds $1.2 trillion every single year.

The real costs of these wars, though (and the US is now involved in seven), are the "opportunity costs" ... what could have been done with that money?  What good could been done with that money?

Look what a sorry return Americans got for all those lives (over 6,251 American soldiers) and dollars spent (between US$4 and $6 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan alone).  Fifteen years ago, I believe Americans chose a truly pathetic way to think and to live.  And now they're stuck with their wrong choice; the nation in involved in seven long-term wars it cannot win. Who can accept the astonishing stupidity of it, the utter mediocrity of a society that aspires to do nothing more, nothing better, with its tremendous wealth?

Maybe roads, schools, bridges, railroads, and dams don't matter as much as conquest and empire.  Maybe child development, education, old age security, unemployment benefits and health care don't matter as much as tax breaks for the ultra-rich.  But I choose to believe otherwise.  And my choice is one I can easily live with.

US Military Spending History since 2003:
FY DoD Base  BudgetDoD OCO Support BaseSupport OCOTotal Spending  
2003 $364.9   $72.5    $437.4
2004 $376.5   $91.1    $467.6
2005 $400.1   $78.8    $478.9
2006  $410.6  $124.0  $109.7   $644.3  
2007  $431.5  $169.4  $120.6   $721.5
2008  $479.0  $186.9  $127.0   $792.9
2009  $513.2  $153.1  $149.4   $815.7
2010  $527.2  $163.1  $160.3   $0.3  $851.6
2011  $528.2  $158.8  $167.4   $0.7  $855.1
2012  $530.4  $115.1  $159.3 $11.5  $816.3
2013   $495.5    $82.1  $157.8 $11.0  $746.4
2014  $496.3    $85.2  $165.4   $6.7  $753.6
2015   $496.1    $64.2  $165.6 $10.5  $736.4
2016 Actual  $521.7    $58.6  $171.9 $15.1  $767.3 
2017 Enacted  $516.1    $82.4  $175.8 $19.4  $793.7
2018 Budget  $574.5    $64.6  $173.5 $12.0  $824.6

Sunday, November 12, 2017

They took an oath to serve

A good soldier follows orders, and does not question those orders, even when those orders are immoral or illegal. They "took an oath to serve." My country, right or wrong.

A good soldier always has the excuse that "I was just following orders." That absolves a good soldier for responsibility for his or her actions.

"Just following orders." That's the excuse that was used by the defendants at the Nuremberg trials ... that their oath of allegiance to the State, and to serve as an instrument of that state, absolved them of responsibility for their own actions.  They were hanged anyway ... the judgement of the court being that we are all, individually, responsible for our own actions.  Not the State, not the Marine Corps, the First Baptist Church, or the Boy Scouts of America.  

Moral autonomy is having the freedom and possessing the courage, and the will, to make moral decisions on one's own, individually.  It's standing on one's own two feet; and sometimes that requires sacrifice. There is no freedom without the exercise of autonomy. It is not a free nation that prohibits dissent.

Moral autonomy is at the root of what is termed "character."  Character is always individual.  You don't display character by joining a group.  Moral autonomy is the ability to choose the right course of action, by oneself, without any outside pressure or influence.

Our first allegiances, as men and women of characters, should always be to our principles, and to our families, those who depend on us, not to some oath of allegiance to a State.   To put allegiance to country above our principles is to act as a tool of an authority that seeks only to enrich and empower itself at our expense; in other words, to act as a slave, rather than a man. It is not merely a choice to act amorally, without conscience, giving over our moral choice to another; it is moral cowardice to refuse to do what we believe is right, using our "oath of allegiance" to excuse that choice.

Oath Keepers and Patriots, May 1941

Friday, October 20, 2017

Tommy Douglas, born October 20, 1904

Three years ago, in preparation for Canada's 150th birthday (which is this year), an online survey was conducted by the Canadian government, in which 12,000 Canadians participated.  They produced a list of the ten Canadians who are most esteemed by the Canadian public.   Only one of the 10 is a military leader.

When Canadians were given the chance to name the greatest Canadians ever, near the top of the list (which was headed by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the prime minister who gave this country its Charter of Rights and Freedoms), they chose a diminutive rural minister from the prairie province of Saskatchewan, a man who espoused a philosophy of collective compassion, equal access to health treatment for all, and fairness in hiring, among other things.

Tommy Douglas, the Canadian social reform politician and Baptist minister, is honoured by Canadians for one thing ... he gave Canadians universal health care.  But it is not just Canada's health care system for which Canadians honour Douglas, it is his belief that every Canadian deserves the right to have quality health care, regardless of their economic or social situation.  That has become a core Canadian principle.

Tommy Douglas was born on October 20, 1904 in Falkirk, Scotland.  If you're Canadian, please take a minute to think about how we want to perceive ourselves, and be proud of a Canada in which a man like Tommy Douglas easily ranks among the greatest and most noble citizens.

Tommy Douglas

Top Canadian Heroes

  1. Pierre Elliot Trudeau
  2. Terry Fox
  3. Tommy Douglas
  4. Lester B. Pearson
  5. Chris Hadfield
  6. David Suzuki
  7. Jack Layton
  8. Sir John A. Macdonald
  9. Wayne Gretzky
  10. Romeo Dallaire

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Howard Zinn called it "the unreported resistance"

Howard Zinn claimed that there has always been a very large group of Americans, probably tens of millions he said, who refuse, either actively or silently, to support the actions of the government.  The American electoral system is a total sham, he said, offering Americans no real choice in elections but acting together to ensure that wealth and power remain in the hands of a small group; and that Americans remain bitterly divided by narrow ideologies.

If Americans ever chose to cast aside those ideological differences and realize that they have one common enemy, the game would be up.

Zinn said that in nearly every one of America's wars, there has been a resistance that you largely never hear about. It goes unreported by the press, which acts to sustain an atmosphere of fear and hate and the official narrative that "our national security is under threat!"

Consider the first Gulf War in 1990/1991.  I remember it quite well.  My wife and I had our first (and only) child in February, 1991.  I remember sitting in bed, every night next to a very pregnant woman, watching the early weeks of the build-up to the ground war in Kuwait on TV.  I was following the whole thing very closely.  I thought I knew all the reasons for the US involvement in the war, and the strategy as it unfolded.  I was actually following the nightly news for the first time in more than 10 years and I think I knew more about what was going on in January, 1991 than most Americans did.

But you know what?  I cannot remember seeing images of the global resistance to that war, which was quite widespread.  Was that even shown on American television?  Perhaps.  I don't think so.  It was left "unreported," I believe.

Do you remember this?

On Saturday, January 14, 1991, the weekend before the US began its aerial (and naval) bombardment (on Thursday, January 17), 100,000 people marched against the war in London, 15,000 in Manchester, 10,000 in Glasgow, 3,000 in Bristol. There were also protests in many smaller cities.  250,000 people marched in 120 German cities. Over 200,000 marched in 150 towns and cities across France. 100,000 marched in Rome, 40,000 in Brussels and 60,000 in Istanbul. More than 75,000 attended rallies in Madrid and Barcelona, which ended in violent clashes with police. There were demonstrations in Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, in over 30 cities and towns in Canada, and all across the United States.

Do you remember that?  I don't.

Do you remember that, on the weekend that followed those protests, Saturday, January 18, 1991, there were two large antiwar demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco.  The size of the protest in Washington was estimated at 200,000 people (source).  

Remember that?  I don't.

And on January 26, 1991, which was nine days after the beginning of the war, over 150,000 people marched through the streets of Washington, and they listened all day to speakers denounce the war, including actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins who were arrested. They heard from an Oakland, California woman who held up the folded American flag that was given to her when her husband was killed in Vietnam, and said, "I learned the hard way there is no glory in a folded flag."

Do you remember that huge anti-war demonstration?  I don't.

Most Americans were pretty complacent during "Operation Desert Storm", as always, but don't kid yourself ... there was a large (and, as Howard Zinn called it, unreported) resistance to that war.

And that resistance was always growing ... it was just getting started.  Considering that the protests were coordinated and organized largely with fax machines (there was no  Internet or "social media") and the entire war only lasted six weeks, I think the resistance was huge.  I think the size of the complacent, silent, but unreported, American resistance was massive.  

I'd have been part of it, if I had known it existed.  I did not.  Because my only source of information, in rural Alabama, was the news media, and they weren't reporting it.  

One more incident I'd like to ask if you remember:

Latinos have always been more conscious than other Americans of the imperial role the United States, because of US involvement in Latin and South American and the Caribbean (especially the US actions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba).  During the Vietnam War, In 1970 there was a sizeable march in Los Angeles of Latinos protesting the war.  Those marchers were attacked by police, three Chicanos were killed.  In the summer of 1990, well before most Americans had Kuwait on their radar screens, when the Bush administration was preparing for war against Iraq, thousands of people in Los Angeles marched along the same route they had taken twenty years before. when protesting the Vietnam war. They were among the first to mobilize against a war they knew was coming.  They tried to stop it.  But you know what?  That protest went largely unreported.

Do you remember that?  I don't. 

The unreported resistance.  I'm part of it.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Vietnam was a resource war

I've been pleased to see the war in Vietnam is getting more attention lately ... as a model for American's failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, it's perfectly reasonable to ask, "Why was this allowed to happen again?"

Vietnam began as a war fought to throw out a long-time colonial aggressor (the French, who occupied Vietnam for 60 years, controlling all of its wealth).  The Americans were fools to think they could take over as colonial occupiers after the French defeat by Vietnamese "freedom fighters" in 1954.

The propaganda lies used to get the American people to support a massive invasion of Vietnam are not so different from the lies that are used to support America's current aggressions.

"We can't just let Vietnam fall to the 'Red Chinese'!"  Or to the Taliban, al-Qa'eda or ISIS.  Right?

Vietnam became a war to extend and expand the American empire.  Pure and simple.  An ignoble war against a proud and noble people.  And victory went to the better protagonist.

What I could never understand, though, was why Vietnam (Laos and Cambodia) were worth going to war for?  For what natural resource?  Cinnamon, maybe?  

Not rubber, surely ... rubber had been synthesized by the 1960's.  

Guess what I learned?

Natural-rubber (latex) remains an extremely important commodity even today.  Airplane and truck tires are almost entirely natural-rubber; and radial automobile tires use natural-rubber in their sidewalls (the earlier bias-ply tires were synthetic).  No Boeing 747 ever landed on synthetic rubber tires, and none is likely to anytime soon.

Natural-rubber accounts for 40% of the world's total consumption of rubber ... and that percentage is rising (if slowly).  

Only natural-rubber can be steam-cleaned in a medical sterilizer and then, even if taken from sanitizing temperature and quickly frozen, will still remain flexible.  

The highest technology machinery all requires high-performance natural-rubber hoses, gaskets, and O-rings. 

Hospitals use natural-rubber (latex) gloves ... and you really don't want to trust a synthetic rubber condom.

Natural-rubber ... it's a resource worth ... well ... at least two million lives, right?

Learn a little history ... it's fun.

... the polyestered Kiwanis boys, the merchants and farmers, the pious churchgoers, the chatty housewives, the PTA and the Lions club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the fine upstanding gentry out at the country club. They didn't know Bao Dai from the man in the moon. They didn't know history. They didn't know the first thing about Diem's tyranny, or the nature of Vietnamese nationalism, or the long colonialism of the French – this was all too damned complicated, it required some reading – but no matter, it was a war to stop the Communists, plain and simple, which was how they liked things, and you were a treasonous pussy if you had second thoughts about killing or dying for plain and simple reasons.
Excerpted from: The Things They Carried (1990)
Tim O'Brien received his draft notice on June 7, 1968 and served his tour of duty in 
Vietnam in1969 and 1970

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Who is Joan Trumpauer?

In June 1961, Joan Trumpauer was a 19-year-old Duke University student and part-time secretary in the Washington office of Senator Clair Engle of California when she traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to take part in the Mississippi Freedom Ride which took place on June 4. Trumpauer and eight others were promptly arrested and refused bail. Trumpauer served three months in a Mississippi jail.

Joan Trumauer risked her relationship with her family, her education at Duke University, and her life (she was actually hunted by the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer) in order to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. 

She later enrolled in traditionally black Tougaloo college, which had just started accepting white students.

On the 14th of this month (September, 2017), Joan Trumpauer will turn 76. 

Joan Trumpauer is still active and travels several times a year to screenings of the PBS documentary, Freedom Riders (which first aired on May 16, 2011) at colleges and libraries around the United States, joining in interactive Q&A sessions with students.

More about Joan Trumpauer:

Just in case it isn't obvious, I greatly admire this American woman.  Hers is the kind of courage I believe we are all capable of demonstrating, and a type of courage we should all strive to demonstrate, in ordinary acts, in our everyday lives.

And to think, the act for which she was punished was simply the exercise of her American freedoms.  Her crime?  She dissented against authority and, in Mississippi, in 1961, she dissented against public opinion.

There is no freedom in going along with the crowd, agreeing with public opinion, or in supporting your government, regardless of its actions.  The only freedom is in dissent.  Dissent is absolutely necessary for freedom to exist!  Ever thought about that?

Joan Trumpauer was standing up for her own rights, when she stood up in defense of others whose rights were being violated.  That's always how we can all best defend our own liberties.  Because We defend our own rights, liberties, and dignity when we protect the rights of those who we may not even feel deserve them, especially those who are powerless to defend themselves.

Joan Trumpauer is an American hero, and one of my personal heroes.

A Jackson Police Department file booking photograph taken on June 8, 1961 of 19-year-old Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer; Photo provided by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (digitally colourized)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Story of Courage : Brooksley Born

I have been surprised at how often I identify those types of courage I admire most in women.  Not the type of heroism that makes the evening news, but the kind of courage we should all be able to exhibit and to emulate.  The type of courage we're all capable of.  Indeed, we're all called, I believe, to exhibit in our daily lives.In 1996, a powerful Stanford-educated Washington lawyer named Brooksley E. Born was appointed by President Clinton to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).  The CFTC had been set up in 1974 to regulate the markets (exchanges) for agricultural commodities.  In the 25 years that followed, the CFTC added stock index futures and currency options to its scope of oversight.  Until Brooksley Born took over, however, the CFTC had largely ignored the fast-growing markets for derivative securities.  Derivatives at that time primarily meant credit-default swaps, which were essentially insurance contracts that allowed bond investors to purchase insurance  against debt default, contracts that could later be sold to investors.  During the 2000's, the derivatives market exploded with the trading of new "synthetic securities" like the collatoralized debt obligations (CDO's) which were packages of "securitized" subprime-mortgages (very risky mortgages). 

When she took her new position as head of the CFTC, Brooksley Born was immediately invited to a private luncheon with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan at his private dining room at the Fed building.  At that meeting, Greenspan surprised her by letting her know that she was not expected to do her job in regulating the new markets for derivatives; those markets, he assured her, were "self-regulating". In what way?  Basically, he told her that no investment broker would defraud its own clients (by misrepresenting the risks of any given investment) and if a broker did that, those clients would ensure that the broker was punished, by moving their money elsewhere.  In other words, he told her that Big Business can always be trusted to do the right thing. How foolish was that belief?  How monumentally stupid was that claim?  We know, now, don't we?  But in 1996, everyone was riding the prosperity wave. We were all going to make money without working for it; we were all going to let our money work for us instead.  No one was prepared to call the emperor naked.  No one, that is, but Brooksley Born.  She left that meeting with the full intent of ignoring Greenspan's advice which was, basically, "don't do your job – just stick to regulating pork bellies and soybeans – but you stay out of our way."

Essentially, no one wanted to question the safety or the honesty of the new and growing markets for these new securities.  No one wanted government regulators ensuring that these markets were safe and honest.  Why?  Because they were all getting rich.  In fact, they all got unbelievably rich.  The whole derivative market was designed to be too complex to be understood, much less "regulated."  What's the word they loved to use?  It was too "exotic," they said, to regulate.  The only people who really understood what they were up to were in the business of defrauding others.  And then, along came Brooksley Born.

Brooksley Born wasted no time; she began immediately studying the derivatives markets and coming to the conclusion that they were extremely vulnerable to a market collapse.  She was concerned about a lack of government regulation and a lack of transparency in the trading of derivatives. She was also concerned about the risks associated with subprime mortgages, those high-risk mortgage-based derivatives (or CDOs). Her work at the CFTC was strongly opposed by Alan Greenspan (who had blocked tougher government regulations on derivatives before she took office) and those working with him inside the government, Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary; Larry Summer, Assistant Treasury Secretary; and Arthur Leavitt, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

On May 7, 1998, under the direction of Brooksley Born, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a "concept paper,"  which brought her concerns to the public, or at least to the financial world.  The paper asked for input from regulators, academics, and derivatives traders on "how best to maintain adequate regulatory safeguards without impairing the ability of the OTC (over-the-counter) derivatives market to grow and the ability of U.S. entities to remain competitive in the global financial marketplace."  Greenspan and his cronies were livid.  Their response was immediate.  Within hours, Greenspan, Rubin and Levitt issued a joint statement condemning the CFTC for the "concept paper."  They were attacking Brooksley Born for wanted to regulate the irresponsible trading of very risky financial instruments.

Born's concept paper stated plainly that there would be no changes to existing regulatory guidelines or changes to existing exemptions from those guidelines.  The fact that this relatively mild paper created so much concern in the industry is an indication that something was terribly wrong with the markets for these new "exotic" securities, and they all knew it.

On July 30, 1998, Larry Summers (as Assistant Treasury Secretary) testified before congress that "the parties to these kinds of contract are largely sophisticated financial institutions that would appear to be eminently capable of protecting themselves from fraud and counterparty insolvencies." In other words, he echoed Alan Greenspan's claims that these markets were too sophisticated to be properly regulated and, besides, they were "self-regulating."  It was a totally bullshit claim.

They tried to challenge the CFTC on legal grounds (though they had none).  Eventually, they used their influence with the Congress of the United States to enact legislation to neuter the CFTC, first adding language to an agricultural appropriations bill to restrict the CFTC from regulating these markets; later they convinced a compliant Congress to pass the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (oh, definitely review this page if you have time, all the players are there) which basically eliminated all federal government oversight of derivatives trading.  That Act of Congress (which was passed a year after Brooksley Born left the CFTC) basically paved the way for the ramp up in mortgage-backed securities trading that led to the financial collapse of 2008. It set the stage for the financial crisis that followed later that same year.

With the benefit of hindsight, and knowledge of the events that followed, we now know that Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Arthur Leavitt misjudged the dangers posed by derivatives contracts or misrepresented those risks to Congress.  We know, beyond any doubt, that these men were wrong.  And Brooksley Born was 100% right.  

Brooksley Born exemplifies a type of courage we can all possess.  It's the courage to stand firm on principle when all those around us are abandoning their own.  All she had to do was "go along" like everyone else.  Pretend there was no elephant in the room.  Accept the lie and look out for number one.  She could've made a lot of money by just not speaking the truth.  Instead, Brooksley Born chose the difficult path, the dangerous path, the lonely path.  That's the very rarest form of courage -- a courage that leaves a person standing alone.  I know.

In May 2009, Brooksley Born was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in recognition of the "political courage she demonstrated in sounding early warnings about conditions that contributed to the current global financial crisis".  At the award ceremony, Brooksley Born took the opportunity to reiterate her warning that these un-regulated markets in derivative securities will ultimately lead to many more years of economic failure. JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy, in presenting the award, said, "... Brooksley Born recognized that the financial security of all Americans was being put at risk by the greed, negligence and opposition of powerful and well connected interests ... The catastrophic financial events of recent months have proved them [Born and the FDIC's Sheila Bair, with whom she shared the award] right."
Charles Aulds

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Our earth does not wobble

I remember when I saw my first iPhone (it was an iPhone 4).  What astounded me most (but seemed completely ordinary to everyone around me, even real tech geeks) was how much technology was packed inside the thing ... most astonishingly, for the cost.  The gyroscope chip inside costs about $2.60.  Adding in the cost of the accelerometer (65 cents), the spatial orientation (and changes in that orientation) is sensed and measured with extreme accuracy, for $3.25.   That's mind-boggling to someone who knew anything at all about the cost of that same technology in 1969 (the year of the first manned moon landing).

The GPS in the iPhone was itself, quite amazing, and I spent several days trying to understand (if only from a layman's standpoint) how the Global Positioning System works.  When I thought I kind of understood the basic theory of it, I still couldn't understand how a satellite, which is in a geostationary orbit around the earth, and always ... ALWAYS ... precisely above a specific point on the earth's surface could deal with the wobble of the earth.  I mean, everyone knows that the earth wobbles like a drunken sailor, right?  Isn't that why we have seasons? 

And guess what I learned? The earth does not wobble; its axis doesn't change with the seasons ... it only appears that way from a fixed point on earth. Technically, it does precess or "wobble," but that occurs in a 26,000 year cycle. Over the course of a human lifetime, the change is so small it can be disregarded; the tilt of the earth changes so slowly, GPS works well enough for most purposes (they probably correct for it mathematically).

Here's the thing:  the earth's axis points in the same direction all the time, roughly 23.5 degrees from an axis perpendicular to an imaginary plane passing through the earth and the sun.   See the diagram below, the best one I've seen to describe it.  Note, the earth is not wobbling ... the orientation of a point on the earth changes relative to the sun ... but the planet's axis of rotation remains constant relative to that imaginary plane.

And that's why geosynchronous satellites do, indeed, remain (exactly) in place above a fixed point on the earth's surface.   Because the earth's orientation relative to that satellite doesn't change.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A dream, barely remembered, but one that will never be forgotten

It was five years ago, in January 2012 that I had a very vivid and disturbing dream that affected me for days.  I wrote down the details, but told no one about the dream for two days.  Usually I try to avoid telling a dream until 24 hours have passed.  You ever try to tell a dream to your spouse when you wake up; it's still fresh in your mind, but you can't, for the life of you, convey why the dream affected you?  You just sounded silly, right? The more vivid the dream, the more difficult it is to retell. 

So, I waited two days to tell this one to my wife.

In the dream, I was employed to assist in the removal of an old woman's body from a nursing home.  She was a complete stranger to me.  My boss and I entered the nursing home and we went to her room.  There was one other person in the room, a woman who was going to clean the room when we left.  The old woman, the "deceased", was in her bed.  My boss and I took the old woman's arms, she was very tiny, frail, and her skin was so pale it was almost translucent.  We lifted her out of the bed by her arms, so that we held her upright.

When we lifted her, the woman groaned, and my boss looked at me and said, "happens sometimes."  But I was surprised when the woman looked directly into my eyes and said, "Where are you taking me?"  I realized then that she wasn't dead.

"She's alive!" I said.

My boss looked at me and said, "No, she's been examined and declared dead.  She's dead.  What you're seeing is an autonomic response; she's gone."

I couldn't believe it.  "Listen, the woman knows what we're doing.  She's alive."

My boss said, "Let me put it to you this way: she is officially and unquestionably dead.  I have seen the death certificate.  It's not our job to question that; it's our job to dispose of the corpse."

"Ok, I'm not arguing with that," I said.  "I agree, she's officially dead.  I'm not arguing with that. I'm just saying that she's not physically dead."

So my boss says, "Well, I'm telling you that's she's physically dead, ok?  Are you going to argue with me?"

I thought about it and said, "No, I'm not going to argue that point.  I'll concede that she's officially and physically dead.  I am not going to dispute that, but I am under no moral obligation to assist you in what you are doing, and I will not.  What happens now is on your conscience."  And I turned and left the room.

I woke the morning after the dream with a vivid recollection of it in my mind.  I felt really good about it.  The dream confirmed my decision to stop fighting against forces I can't change, and to concern myself only with preserving my own individual sense of honour; my individual sense of morality, decency and humanity.  I can't dedicate myself to the impossible; changing the world, or even changing other people around me.  I'm only responsible for me.  And that's where I draw the line.

But when I told the dream to my wife, she had a completely different reaction, and her response was immediate.  She said, "No, you had more than a moral obligation not to participate.  You were supposed to do all you could to help that woman.  You didn't go far enough in the dream.  You had an obligation to fight for her, regardless of whether or not you could win that fight; because she was helpless to fight for herself."

You talk about being drenched with cold water.  My wife was right.  And that hit me hard.

We fight, not for ourselves only; but for those who cannot fight for themselves.  Morally, we cannot abstain from that fight.  Morally, we cannot choose to leave the room.

But there is only so much, and it is so little, that any of us can do to change the direction of world. None of us can (or should) spend our days picketing outside a military base, or marching with protestors in city streets.  If you have voiced your concerns to others who know and trust you, quietly, privately, but resolutely, expressing your opposition to the systematic reduction of liberty in America (the foundation on which the nation claims to stand), and to the growing acceptance of xenophobia and intolerance,  I believe you've done all that any of us can do.  

When you speak up to haters, no matter how quietly; when you offer an opposing position, no matter how tentatively ... you have done your part; you have sowed a seed, because you have shown others that there is another side, equally as strongly felt, and usually better grounded in reason.

Your silence, however, will almost always be interpreted as tacit agreement.  There's never going to be any way to measure the effectiveness of your dissent.  Never.  Do it anyway. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

I love the Dixie Chicks

On March 10, 2003, in London, at a promotional concert for the Dixie Chicks' "Top of the World Tour", only nine days before the US-led invasion of Iraq, lead vocalist Nathalie Maines told the audience: "We don't want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas". The reaction to this statement from the British audience was a huge wave of applause.  

The reaction in the United States was completely different.  There were immediate radio boycotts, bans of their recordings, and organized burnings of the Dixie Chicks’ music.  Their lives were threatened.  By whom?  By weak-willed rightwing authoritarian followers eager to prove their slavish devotion to their master.  That's who.

It was thought, then, that Nathalie Maines' criticism of America's foolish, headlong rush into war would end her career and that of the Dixie Chicks.  It didn't happen that way.  
Months later in the tour, as the Chicks’ closed a show with their first hit song, "Wide Open Spaces", Natalie Maines told the audience: "You know, they said you wouldn't come. But we knew you'd come because we have the greatest fans in the whole wide world."  The crowd went wild with its enthusiastic applause. And you can hear that on the 2nd CD of Top of the World Tour: Live.

In 2007, they won five Grammy Awards for their album Taking The Long Way (which included the song Not Ready to Make Nice which was a response to their critics).  That album, their first studio album since the 2003 controversy, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 2.5 million copies in the US.

The Dixie Chicks were vindicated.  Quite simply, they stood by their principles, when all around them were acting hysterically; they acted courageously, when all around them, Americans folded, giving their allegiances to anyone who made promises of safety and security.

At a time when the world was looking for real American leadership, one of the few places they could find it was in three country music performers from Texas.  


L-R: Emily Robison, Nathalie Maines and Martie Maguire, the Dixie Chicks (at Madison Square Garden in June, 2003 on the Top of the World Tour