Sunday, June 28, 2015

Taking Down That Flag Is Just a Start

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Last week, an avowed white supremacist walked into the Mother Emanuel Church of Charleston, S.C., spent an hour in prayer with members of the congregation, then pulled out a gun and started shooting, explicitly stating, “I’m here to kill black people.”

This terrorist — there’s really no other word for him — later told police he wanted to start a “race war.” It’s gratifying to see that people don’t seem inclined to oblige him. Even relatives of the victims told the admitted shooter, a wormy-looking little gobshite named Dylann Roof, that they forgave him, thus showing that they’re better people than me.
That’s admittedly not a high bar. But still, it’s pretty impressive. In the wake of this terrible tragedy, there are a number of discussions we could be having. Discussions about race, of course. Discussions about the easy availability of guns to people who have so many obvious screws loose that you’re surprised they don’t rattle as they walk down the street.
Curiously, however, the issue that people seem to have fixated on is the Confederate battle flag, and whether it’s appropriate for a state government to display it. I get that it’s relevant, because Roof, like many racists, seems to have a particular affinity for the battle flag. Still, I can’t help but wonder if maybe we’re missing a chance to make a larger point.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley reversed her previous stance on her state government’s display of the flag, which was basically, “Eh, no one really cares.” Now, she’s all for moving the flag off the state Capitol grounds and putting it in a museum with other relics of the past.
She’s not alone. Even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who last week was insisting that the battle flag is “part of who we are,” suddenly realized he was going to need black votes in the South Carolina presidential primary and thus was standing beside Gov. Haley as she called for its removal.
Mississippi is reported to be considering a similar move. [note, after this column was turned in they decided to keep the flag]. I hear that our own Gov. Pat McCrory has even suggested that the battle flag be removed from North Carolina’s special commemorative license plates, and Virginia may be about to follow suit.
Corporate America, it seems, is getting on the bandwagon. Amazon.com announced it was pulling all Confederate battle flag merchandise, as did Sears, eBay and even the mighty Walmart.
All of which is fine, because like it or not, people do care. The battle flag is a symbol to an awful lot of people of a legacy of slavery and brutal oppression. You may say it’s about “heritage, not hate,” but for African-Americans, particularly in the South, that’s actually the problem. Hate and violence directed against them are inseparable parts of that heritage.
By the way, if you’d like to use this topic as a springboard for expounding about how the Civil War wasn’t “really about slavery,” please don’t even try do so until you’ve looked up the Declarations of Causes of the various Southern states, in which those states, explicitly and at great length, tell everyone that they’re leaving the Union because of slavery.
Seriously, look them up. They changed my mind on this issue, and if they don’t change yours, there’s no hope for you.
Then there’s the whole treason thing. Sorry, but there’s really no way around this: The U.S. Constitution defines “treason” as, among other things, “levying war against the United States.” The Confederate battle flag is a one under which people “levied war” against the U.S. It’s a bit strange to loudly declare your love for your country and your adherence to the Constitution and still fly the flag of the people who committed treason against it as defined in that very document.
So, if the battle flag does get taken down from every state house, license plate and Walmart and is relegated to Klan rallies and performances by third-rate Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute bands, I won’t mourn. But it’s not enough.
I’m not trying to be Benny Buzzkill here, but I’m wondering if the battle flag is being used as a sacrifice, something no politician really cared about deep down and that they’re now willing to throw under the bus to make it look as if something’s being done about racism.
When the last battle flag comes down. racism will still be here, will still be a cancer on our society — but, I fear, will still be unaddressed by the people in power, who’ll be going, “What the heck do those people want!? We stopped flying that flag like they wanted!”The battle flag needs, at last, to come down. But if that’s where the dialogue ends, then the memories of the nine who died at Mother Emanuel Church will not be well-served.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Give Yours a Hug: Great Fathers Through History

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

So here it is, Father’s Day.
As a holiday, it’s always sort of played second fiddle to Mother’s Day. In fact, while Mother’s Day has been a national holiday since Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed it in 1914, Father’s Day is a relative newcomer. Despite the fact that people have celebrated it for years, it wasn’t really officially permanent until Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972. Thanks, Tricky Dick!
A few years back, I did a column honoring history’s toughest mothers. So now, it seems only fair to talk about some of history’s great fathers:
Phillip II of Macedon: From an early age, Phillip wanted his son Alexander to be ready to take over the family business, said business being ruling the kingdom of Macedon and kicking butt up, down and all around the Aegean Sea area.
To that end, he got one of his generals, Lysimachus, to tutor the boy when he was just a sprout. Later, recognizing that there was more to being a great ruler than warfare, Ol’ Phil hired one of the greatest minds of his or any other era, Aristotle, to continue his son’s schooling.
Good education, however, doesn’t come cheap, and in order to secure Aristotle’s services, Phillip had to give him an entire temple to use as a classroom and rebuild the old man’s hometown of Stageira, which Phillip had sacked. I’ll think of this the next time I want to complain about college tuition.
Phillip also knew how to encourage his boy’s dreams. When 10-year-old Alexander realized that the “unridable” horse Dad had brought home was shying away from its own shadow, he tamed the beast by the ruse of riding him while facing the sun (at least at first). An amazed Phillip told him to “find a kingdom big enough, boy, because Macedon is too small for you.”
He also bought him the horse, which Alex named Bucephalas (“ox head”) and rode into battle for years. Even when Phillip and Alexander had a falling out (over a new wife Phillip had taken), they eventually patched things up. Alexander succeeded his dad after the old man’s assassination, after which he proceeded to conquer most of the known world and become known as Alexander the Great. That’s what good parental training can do.
Charlemagne: The Emperor of the Franks in the late 8th and early 9th centuries had either 18 or 20 children (depending on who you ask), and he insisted that all of them be educated — even the girls, which was unusual for the time.
He also declined to engage in the usual practice of marrying his daughters off to various nobles for political gain rather than for love.
Finally, Charlie was a very forgiving dad. When his firstborn, the unfortunate Pepin the Hunchback, was discovered to be plotting a revolt to depose his papa, Charlemagne allowed him to shave his head and join a monastery. Not an ideal ending from Pepin’s point of view, to be sure, but certainly better than the creatively nasty fates usually decreed for rebels and traitors in those days.
If there’s anything a good father needs, it’s the capacity for forgiveness.
Theodore Roosevelt Sr.: The father of the 26th president of the U.S. must have been one extraordinary man.
Let Teddy himself tell the tale:
“He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness. … The same standard of clean living was demanded for the boys as for the girls; that what was wrong in a woman could not be right in a man. …
“He was interested in every social reform movement, and he did an immense amount of practical charitable work himself, and his heart filled with gentleness for those who needed help or protection, and with the possibility of much wrath against a bully or an oppressor.” With a dad like that, young Theodore grew up to become a pretty amazing fellow himself: cowboy, police commissioner, governor, war hero, reformer, president — and that was all before he was out of his 40s.
Being a father is hard, sometimes scary work. Sometimes even the best dads make mistakes. But the good ones hang in there and keep trying, because that’s what the future demands.

On this day, give your dad a hug if he’s still around and let him know you appreciate that. Trust me, he’ll like it more than a tie or any other material gift you could give him.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Our Fearless Summer Vacation Guide

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Summertime again, and the livin’, as the song tells us, is easy. Let’s just run down the checklist. Fish? Jumping. Cotton? High. And so on.

With summertime comes vacation time, and with vacation time comes our sort-of-annual guide to the wonderful and weird destinations for travelers. Check out some of these attractions:
— About 15 years ago, a fellow named Otis Eldridge in Rogersville, Tenn., went to buy an old antique coffee grinder from an old country store. He ended up leaving with two flatbed truckloads of goods and equipment. So what else is a guy like that to do but build a replica of that old country store on his farm? And once you do something like that, why, you need to have a town around it, right?
And thus was born “Memory Lane,” a replica of a 1950s-era small Southern town, complete with town hall/police department/jail, car dealership, movie theater, diner, filling station, etc. It’s all authentic, right down to the restored cheesy ’50s-era signage. Think of it as a kind of Colonial Williamsburg for Andy Griffith fans.

Alas, we missed it this year. Memory Lane is open to the public only once a year, on Memorial Day weekend, when Mr. Eldridge hosts a classic car show on the property. So mark your calendar.
— Who among us does not love possums? Well, me, for one. But apparently, the little town of Wausau, Fla., self-proclaimed “Possum Capital of the World,” is quite fond of the weird little beasts. They even have a “Possum Monument” right downtown on the edge of the swamp.
The true possum fan, however, will want to be there the first Saturday in August, when they hold the annual Possum Festival. The event is widely regarded as a “must-attend” event by Florida politicians and other dignitaries, because, lets’ face it, Florida’s kind of bonkers. Be sure to have a heaping helping of their signature dish, possum hash. Mmmm-mmm-good!
— Famously eccentric actor Nicolas Cage may not actually be dead, yet it’s still possible to visit his tomb. It seems that in 2010, Mr. Cage bought the last two unclaimed plots in New Orleans’ famous and crowded St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, final resting place of such historical figures as “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau and Etienne de Boré, the city’s first mayor.
Cage, apparently not wanting to get caught unprepared for his eventual demise, scandalized New Orleans traditionalists by constructing his mausoleum in the form of a nine-foot cement pyramid bearing the inscription “Omnia ab Uno.” This means, “All From One,” and not, as you might expect, “I Have More Money Than Sense and Soon Will Have Neither If I Keep Up With This Nonsense.”
If you want to observe some wretched rich-person excess and don’t have ready access to a Kardashian, check this one out.

— South of the border, down Mexico way, you’ll find the Isla de las Munecas, or “Island of the Dolls,” which has to be, bar none, the creepiest thing that I have ever seen described as a “tourist attraction.”
All over the tiny island south of Mexico City, the trees are adorned by dolls and doll parts. Arms. Legs. And of course disembodied doll heads, with those cold dead eyes that seem to follow you as you walk by and oh my God I think I saw that one move, run run run GET TO DA CHOPPAH!

Sorry. But we really are talking El Creepo Grande here. It seems that the old and possibly deranged fellow who once served as the islands caretaker was distraught at finding a young girl drowned on the beach. With the kind of logic that can only be achieved by living alone on a deserted island for many years, he decided to pay a tribute to the dead girl’s spirit by hanging a doll in a tree. Then a few more. Then a lot more. After the old man’s death, locals, then tourists, began bringing their own additions.
Did I mention it was creepy? If I ever find myself paying a visit to this place, I am definitely finding a new travel agent.
“The world is so full of a number of things,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, “I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” Whatever things your travels may lead you to see this summer, I hope all your trails are happy ones.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Different Bush, Same Mistakes

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion


Recently, the man they call JEB! faced off against a 19-year-old college student. It didn’t go well for him.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush was at a town hall meeting in Nevada the other day when he was confronted by political science major Ivy Ziedrich, of the University of Nevada at Reno. Ms. Ziedrich reacted to a statement from JEB! claiming that ISIS was created by Barack Obama “retreating” from Iraq.
“We had an agreement that the president could have signed,” Bush had stated, “that would have kept 10,000 troops, less than we have in Korea, that could have created the stability that would have allowed for Iraq to progress.”
Actually, Ms. Ziedrich argued, the problem goes back farther, to the time when the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority decided to disband the Iraqi military, a time “when 30,000 individuals who were part of the Iraqi military were forced out — they had no employment, they had no income, and they were left with access to all of the same arms and weapons.”
She wound up by concluding, “Your brother created ISIS.”
It was a scene reminiscent of the time Joe the Plumber, the belligerent bullet-headed dude-bro from Ohio, became a hero to the rubes and ignoramii by getting in candidate Barack Obama’s face and claiming Obama’s policies would make his taxes go up. The difference between Ivy Zierdich and Joe the Plumber is that Ziedrich actually knows what she’s talking about.
Disbanding the Iraqi forces and leaving thousands of armed and angry young men with nothing to do but form insurgent groups is now regarded by most historians as the second biggest blunder of Dubbya’s Wacky Iraqi Adventure (the first being starting the bloody thing in the first place).
The most compelling evidence that that decision led to disaster is that no one, including Dubbya himself, will now admit to being the one who made it. Colin Powell, who said it was a mistake, denied ever being consulted, as did Gen. Peter Pace, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Condoleezza Rice claims it was a complete surprise. Dubbya told biographer Robert Draper, “The policy was to keep the army intact; didn’t happen,” adding, “I can’t remember; I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy. What happened?’”
Stirring leadership, that.
So how did this become an issue now? Probably as a result of JEB!’s first, but almost certainly not last, gaffe of his campaign-that-is-not-yet-a-campaign-except-everyone-totally-knows-it’s-a-campaign. Asked by Fox News if “knowing what we know now,” would he have decided to go to war with Iraq, JEB! said he would — “and so would Hillary Clinton.”
On this last part, he may be right, even though Clinton at least admits her vote was a mistake.
Sadly, the Fox reporter did not follow up with the obvious questions like, “Would you also have put an entirely unqualified campaign donor in charge of FEMA, and then watched as he massively bungled the relief effort after a major hurricane before telling him he was doing a ‘heckuva job’? Would you have ignored a daily briefing titled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.’ 36 days before the late Mr. bin Laden did just that?”
JEB! later began furiously backpedaling, claiming he thought the question was “knowing what we knew THEN, would you have gone into Iraq?” Only problem with that defense is that those of us who knew what we knew THEN thought it was a terrible idea. And guess what? We were right.
Finally, JEB! threw in the towel, sulkily declaring that “knowing what we know now, I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.” In other words, JEB! was retroactively for war in Iraq before he was retroactively against it. There’s that Bush leadership again.
Oh, and as for that claim that we had an “agreement that would have kept 10,000 troops in Iraq”? Politifact rates that as “mostly false,” adding:
“Obama inherited a timeline to exit Iraq from George W. Bush and followed it, but there was no agreement to leave a large force behind. The Obama White House considered 10,000 troops for a short time but ruled it out, suggesting a much smaller force. Negotiations with Iraq broke down, however, and there was no agreement that met conditions Washington wanted.”
Those conditions included immunity for American troops from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
So let’s review: JEB! said he’d make the same mistake his brother did, then said he wouldn’t, then lied to try to shift the blame for the current disastrous aftermath of the Iraq War away from the president who started it in the first place.

Doggone these liberals! When are they going to stop blaming George Dubbya Bush for the things he actually did?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

In Which I Take the Side of Ted Cruz

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

By now, I assume most of you have figured out that I’m not a huge fan of Sen. Ted Cruz. I’m even less of a fan, however, of what passes for journalism in this country these days, by which I mean the shallow, image-driven, trivia-obsessed folderol that seeks to find the “gotchas” in the most ridiculous things.
Did Obama ordering orange juice on the campaign trail mean he’s not a “regular guy” who can relate to the kind of simpletons these overpaid celebrity journalists assume we are? Did Hillary Clinton not tipping in a diner mean she’s insensitive to working people, or did her overtipping mean she’s a “limousine liberal” who’s insensitive to working people? And on and on.
One of the most obnoxious practitioners of this kind of “celebrity” journalism dressed up as political analysis is Mark Halperin, who goes out of his way to prove that being a “senior political analyst for Time magazine, Time.com, and MSNBC” (according to his Wikipedia entry) does not mean you’re not a shallow, clueless hack.
This became painfully clear from viewing Halperin’s latest atrocity, an interview with Sen. Cruz for Bloomberg.com that was so embarrassing (not to mention more than a little racist), it actually made me feel bad for the candidate. Yes, you heard that right. I actually felt bad for the “Green Eggs and Ham” guy. It really was that awful.
The interview started off with Halperin asking Cruz, who’s Cuban-American, if he thought Hispanics would vote for him. This was bad enough. It became truly cringe-worthy when Halperin prefaced his next line of questioning with “people are interested in you and your identity.” Oh, dear, I thought, this will not end well.

Halperin asked if Cruz listed himself as “a Hispanic” when he applied to Princeton and to Harvard Law School. Of course, Cruz responded, that’s part of his heritage. Then the wheels really began to come off. Halperin began grilling Cruz about whether he had an “affinity for or connection to, anything part of your Cuban past.”

He asked such hard-hitting questions as: Does Cruz have a favorite Cuban food? Does he like Cuban music? Could he identify his favorite Cuban singer? And then, as I watched in fascinated horror, Halperin hit rock bottom — and started to dig.
“I want to give you the opportunity to directly welcome your colleague Sen. Sanders to the race,” he said, “and I’d like you to do it, if you would, en español.”
To his credit, Cruz declined to be Halperin’s dancing Cuban pony. “You know,” he said, “I’m going to stick to English, but I appreciate the invitation, Señor.” It may shock you, but I will give the senator mad respect for not saying, as I did while I was watching this train wreck online, “Mr. Halperin, what the [bad word] is wrong with you?”
I mean, really. Can you even imagine asking Hillary Clinton, “So, who’s your favorite white musician? Do you like mac and cheese? Say something white to welcome Sen. Bernie Sanders to the race!” Or, for that matter, asking Sanders, “So, how about that Jewish food? Gefilte fish, am I right? Do you have a favorite klezmer band? While we’re at it, can you say something in Yiddish to Hillary Clinton?”
One thing is for sure: We need to keep Mark Halperin as far away from Dr. Ben Carson as we can.
Look, there’s a lot to criticize when it comes to Ted Cruz. I’ve done it recently, and I’m sure that before this whole long electoral nightmare is over, I’ll do it again. But I really do not give a rat’s wazoo about the music he listens to or whether he eats the food of his forbears. And I don’t think the vast majority of the American people do either, just as they are incredibly uninterested in the dining, tipping or musical inclinations of JEB!, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, et. al.
Ask them how they’re going to deal with the rapidly growing income gap in this country, if they plan to at all. Ask them about how they’re going to fix our crumbling infrastructure. Ask them about their position on warrantless surveillance, assassination by drone, or nuclear proliferation.
In other words, Mr. Halperin and others of your ilk, do your freakin’ jobs for a change.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

They Love Our Troops, Except When They're Terrified of Them

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

It’s been said that everything’s bigger and better in Texas. They claim their beer is colder, their women are prettier, and even the nighttime stars are brighter.
Well, I don’t know about all that, but I can tell you this: their wingnuts are wingnuttier. And apparently, they’re running the state.
Seems the U.S. military is planning a large-scale training exercise called Jade Helm 15. JH15, as we’ll call it, is a “challenging eight-week joint military and interagency (IA) Unconventional Warfare (UW) exercise conducted throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado,” which is scheduled for this summer.
Sounds OK, right? Similar to the sort of exercises run around here all the time from Fort Bragg.
OK, that is, except to the paranoid, conspiracy-mongering right, to whom no move by the government, even by the military, is anything less than a harbinger of The Death of Freedom.
Someone got hold of a map that identifies Texas, Utah and a small patch of Southern California as “hostile” territory for purposes of the exercise. To wingnuts, this could only mean one thing: The United States was preparing to invade … itself.
“I’ve hardly ever heard of something joint like this unless they’re planning an invasion,” asserted Alex Jones of the online nut-farm Infowars. Except for, you know, the dozens of other joint exercises the military has conducted on American soil.
Aging martial arts star and conservative icon Chuck Norris joined in, writing for World Net Daily: “What’s under question are those who are pulling the strings at the top of Jade Helm 15 back in Washington.” Poor Chuck. All those shots to the head he took from Bruce Lee are finally taking their toll.
It just keeps getting crazier and crazier. Walmart had to publicly deny that recently shuttered stores are going to be repurposed as prisons for people on a so-called “red list” of dissenters (all red-blooded conservatives, naturally) who’ve been pre-targeted for arrest when the Evil Obama Administration brings the hammer down. Or food distribution centers for Chinese occupation troops. Or something.
This sort of lunacy would have been no reflection at all on the current state of the Republican Party had not the governor of Texas his own self, the Hon. Greg Abbott, decided to buy into it, or at least pretend to. He’s asking the Texas State Guard to go down to the area of the exercise to keep an eye on things and make sure our military doesn’t get out of line, freedom-wise.
“It is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed,” Abbott wrote in his letter to the commander of the TSG.
Huh. I thought the Republicans believed that’s what our troops were for.
It should be noted that the “Texas State Guard” is a different organization from the National Guard, and appears to be mostly concerned with things like disaster relief.
Sorry, but if the government really was executing a military takeover and the TSG was deployed to stop them, they’d barely register as a speed bump as the Army rolled into Austin.
With Abbott standing tall, other Republican pols just naturally had to weigh in against the imaginary plan for the Kenyan Islamocommiefascist Usurper to put Texas under martial law.
Loony Louie Gohmert, the Texas congressman and teahadist mullah who’s taken over the coveted Michele Bachmann Chair in Bat-Spit Craziness, said he was “appalled” by the map, especially “that the hostile areas amazingly have a Republican majority.” He demanded that the “tone of the exercise” be changed “so the federal government is not intentionally practicing war against its own states.”
Even presidential candidate Ted Cruz allowed as how he had “no reason to doubt” the assurances of the military, but he understood “the reason for concern and uncertainty” because that Obama is just so very, very awful.
Poor wingnuts. Their ideology so often requires that they hold two diametrically opposed ideas in their heads at once. They have to revere the “troops” and the police while at the same time being terrified that those organizations are going to impose martial and/or Sharia law any minute.
They have to love their country while maintaining a big ol’ cache of weapons at all times in case they have to make war against it if they lose an election (which would also include firing on those same soldiers and cops).
It’s no wonder some of them go insane. But it’s a pity that some leaders of the GOP feel like they have to don the tinfoil hats of the conspiracy theorists to pander to the party’s lunatic fringe.