Monday, May 26, 2008


I enjoy writing. It serves some undefinable yearning inside of me to capture the essence of what I am thinking and feeling. I also enjoy country music for the very same reason. A well-written song conveys meaning and understanding about our human condition that touches our hearts and transcends the mere words. This morning I read the article in the New York Times that follows and thought it would be nice to provide it to others who may read this with the same interest and enjoyment that I received.

May 22, 2008, 10:29 pm
The Ear of the Beholder
By Rosanne Cash

I have a friend who has two grown children. She is estranged from her son, who has many egregious complaints about my friend, and vivid tales of childhood neglect and various other appalling maternal offenses. Her daughter, on the other hand, assures my heartbroken friend that the son has an overactive imagination combined with a need to blame everyone else for his own problems and that in fact, the stories of her failings as a parent never occurred. Who owns the truth?
In my own life, there was a Hollywood movie made about my family: my father’s drug addiction, the spectacular dissolution of my parents’ marriage, the genesis of the romantic relationship between my father and stepmother, my birth and the birth of my sisters, and my father’s rise to fame. This was all covered in less than two hours. If you went through this film with a fine-toothed fact-checker, you would emerge safely on the side of a non-litigious wide release.
But is it the truth? Not mine. Certainly not my mother’s, and to some degree, not even my father’s. It’s a pastiche, an impression. An amalgamation of facts strung together, even as a poetic narrative, is not necessarily the same thing as the truth.
In my last column, I wrote about the songwriting workshop I used to teach, and how some students were so attached to the facts that it hindered the quality of their writing. I encouraged them to use poetic license, and give up the facts if they had to, to improve their lyrics. One comment sent in by a reader struck me:
…for those of us interested in becoming more honest with ourselves as we mature, I think it is more important to put away our creative fictions and cut to the soul of the matter when writing. Just because you are more interested in “rhyme scheme errors” than the integrity of the relationship between fact and expression, you shouldn’t extinguish the passion for honesty that lives within your younger, more intuitive students.
— Posted by Geoff Baker
Ouch. I have spent a lifetime in the service of creative fiction, as well as non-fiction ornamented by fiction, so let me elaborate even further. The “truth” (or “honesty”) and the “facts” are not necessarily the same, they are not necessarily equal and one often requires the suspension of the other. This may not be the case in higher math or on Wall Street (or, actually, it may work there as well, but I’m clueless about that) but it is an immutable “truth” in art and music that facts are not necessarily the best indicators of the deepest human experience.
The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy-glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels — all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.
The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything — these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury, and when you are working in rhyme, it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room. You are better off moving the furniture than you are directly analyzing the furniture maker. This is to say nothing of the fact that the lyrical content of songs is by definition wholly entwined with melody, rhythm, tone and possibly a backbeat, and these carry their own authority.
Recently, I wrote a song with Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello. It was a wild idea I had while I was lying around recovering from surgery this past winter. They are both friends — I’ve known Kris since my childhood — and Elvis and I had just written a song together by email. (He called it “Song With Rose” as a working title, and when it came time to record it on his new record, “Momofuku,” he kept the eponymous title, which delighted me). I asked them separately if they would be interested in recording together, the three of us, and they were both game.
We started talking about this in February. We found that the only day in a six-month window when the three of us would be in New York at the same time, without obligations, was April 5th. I booked the studio, not knowing what we would do. As the date got closer, I started to get a little nervous and thought maybe my initial idea of recording old songs of ours together might not have the fresh energy and originality I was looking for. Elvis and John Leventhal, my husband and frequent collaborator and producer, kept mentioning that they hoped we could write something together that day, but that also made me anxious. It seemed too much pressure for one day.
I had a song that was incomplete, but a great idea, that I had started writing when I was halfway through recording “Black Cadillac.” It never really worked, and last year John picked it up again, streamlined it musically and suggested some lyric changes — actually lyric deletions, as he thought it was too wordy. I pared the first verse down to this:
You want love
But it’s never deep enough
You want life
But it’s never long enough
You want peace
Like it’s something you can buy
You want time
But you’re content to watch it fly
I loved the song, but it was still incomplete and didn’t seem to have a home. John thought this would be a great song to write with the gents, and so I sent the first verse by e-mail to Elvis and to Kris (by way of his wife, Lisa, as Kris doesn’t do e-mail), to see if they would be interested in finishing it with us.
Elvis responded immediately, and within a couple days had e-mailed back a second verse, and some ideas for bridges. I loved his verse (“You want imagination but you cannot pretend…”), and we began a dialogue about where it should go. Nothing from Kris, who was touring in Europe.
We waited.
On April 4th, the day before the session, Lisa sent an e-mail saying, “Here are his thoughts so far…” and a verse from Kris that raised the hair on the back of my head and brought instant tears to my eyes. I sent it to Elvis, fingers shaking, and he wrote back within minutes, his excitement and exclamation points jumping off the screen. It was perfect.
It all came together seamlessly the next day, in a way that I’ve seldom experienced in 30 years of recording. It was like alchemy. It was eight hours of magic (and I never use that word). Elvis tinkered with his verses a bit, we divided up the vocal parts and the three of us stood in a circle with the three musicians — John, Zev Katz and Joe Bonadio — and recorded the song. It still doesn’t have a proper title, or a home, but it is a thing of beauty. (Regarding the title, I suggested “Free Will,” Kris suggested “Faith and Free Will,” and Elvis was concerned that anything with “free will” would remind people of a movie about a whale; so right now we’re calling it “April 5th,” because that’s when we recorded it.) A few people who have heard it have said that even though the lyrics are uplifting, even elegiac, the song makes them cry, and they are not sure why. I had the same experience, and I’m not sure why, either. There are no “facts” in these lyrics, no literal references to our lives, beyond our combined assimilated experience and unstated values.
We are so deeply limited by language, and so ennobled by it. Songs are the attempt to convey what is under and behind language, and so it is counter-productive, if not counter-intuitive, to clutch at exactitudes of circumstance that retreat further in meaning the more desperate we become to quantify them.
My friend Joe Henry says that songwriting is not about self-expression (ewwww), but about discovery. I am of entirely the same mind, which is why I recoil against the attempt to categorize “personal” songs of mine as diary pages and why I resist that niggling insistence on the facts. Self-expression without craft is for toddlers. Real artistic accomplishment requires a suspension of certitude. E.L. Doctorow said that “writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” He may not have been referring specifically to songwriting, but it applies. Great songwriting is not a poor man’s poetry, or a distant cousin to “real” writing. It requires the same discipline and craft. Bright flashes of inspiration can initiate it, but it cannot be completed that way. (That is not to say that all songwriting is important and good, just as not all fiction is important or good. I don’t think anyone would put “Like a Rolling Stone” or my dad’s “Big River” (a truly great piece of American poetry wedded to a wicked, swampy backbeat) in the same category as The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” (it is what it is).
But in the space where truth and fact diverge, a larger question arises: if the facts don’t lead us to meaning, what does? Perhaps a willingness to live with questions, not answers, and the confidence to ascribe meaning where we find it, with our own instincts as guide. I should approach my writing as if I am meeting someone for the first time, and have no idea what he will say or what kind of mood he is in. If you already know entirely what you want to say, and want to document an “honest” rehash of what happened and why, then I still maintain that you are better off taking up jurisprudence.
I appreciate my readers’ instinct to protect my songwriting students and their attempts to stay honest, but in songwriting, as in painting, photo-realism is only one style; it is not the litmus test for everything else. In many great songs a larger, universal modicum of truth is revealed and resonates on a personal level with the listener, even when the facts make no sense at all. Sometimes especially when the facts make no sense at all. And, if everything goes well, you can also dance to it.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Memorial Day Tribute; Let's Talk About Now

If the country ever needed an abject lesson in why our founding fathers created the separation between government and religion, church and state, let's talk about now. Why is it that the mere mention of the name Jeremiah Wright causes one to shudder about the implication of a national leader being influenced by such a person. Ditto John Hagee. Ditto Rod Parsley. The reason is simple; not one of us who thinks a specific way about religion wants to be told by anyone else, imbued with the authority of government, how and what to think. Particularly when and if the consensus among most people is that the proponent of the information, or at least part of the message being conveyed, is crazy. The present religious controversies over the three men above serve to highlight the wisdom and ingenuity of our founding fathers. Among various religious groups there are subtle, and less than subtle, differences. One or the other of the over-the-top declarations by these three men without the protection and guarantees of the First Amendment could literally be the mantra of the next president forming the shape of the soul of our country. The fact that other, less radical, religious beliefs are no less offensive to peoples or other faiths, and no faith, is the beauty and purpose of the lesson and the very reason the First Amendment exists.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a national religion by the Congress or the preference of one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. Originally, the First Amendment only applied to the federal government. Subsequently, under the incorporation doctrine, certain selected provisions were applied to states. It was not, however, until the later years of the twentieth century that the Supreme Court began to interpret the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in such a manner as to restrict the promotion of religion by state governments. For example, in the Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994), Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, concluded that "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion".

We owe these three men, all popular ministers, a hearty thank-you for the reminder during this Memorial Day weekend as to why our nation is so great.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Basic Conservative Thought

For several years I have struggled to understand the conservative movement in America. While many at this moment in time are sounding the death bell of this movement, it appears necessary to stand back and just think about the very nature of the impulse that causes people to be (or claim to be) conservative. In its main form, conservative thought centers around the role of government in our lives. Its adherents say that we are joined together by the unique writings of the U.S. Constitution and the sum and essence of the principles of that document describe and limit the function of the government, no more and no less. In trying to understand I have reduced the distinction between conservatives and non-conservatives in basic terms. This simplistic reduction says that from the conservative viewpoint, government should stay out of our lives. The government has no right or duty to assist, say, impoverished citizens. The government has no responsibility to bail out farmers whose crops fail. Activist judges do not have the right to divine some "living" meaning within the Constitution that permits a woman to choose between the life or death of her unborn child. The economic market place should be free from regulations so that the basic principles of supply and demand reign free and unfettered. Because that Constitution gives us the right to "keep and bear arms" we can keep a pistol under our pillow or tucked away in a holster somewhere on our person without fearing that the government will take it away or punish us. We can say and do what we want, subject of course, to the requirement that our actions or words don't interfere with the rights of other citizens to do likewise.
The examples given above summarize the slanted nature that the conservative implusle takes in form whereas there are whole areas of governmental involvement that are routinely ignored or exploited by those claiming to be conservative. The people who espouse such views call themselves "neo-conservatives" whereas I think the title 'pseudo-conservative" is so much more appropriate. In this analysis, I contend that a basic conservative principle is the responsibility to accept being held accountable when one's own actions harm another, a principle that is steadfastly ignored by those who espouse so-called conservative values.

As a final thought, one can have some fun planning a campaign for public office. I can imagine such a campaign in which the candidate sets forth an agenda exploiting the basic impulse of conservative thought; "There are too many laws and too many people running our affairs that tell us how to run our lives. If elected I promise to not do a damn thing."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"He Shoots. He Scores . . ."

Score one for John McCain this week in his presidential quest. As nearly every presidential candidate has noted, this campaign is about change. Which candidate will stand and be counted for the change that really matters? For years, people on welfare had served as convenient whipping boys for what was claimed to be wrong about our society. The criticism was that a segment of our society (hint; they generally have a darker skin color than the rest of us) was buying Cadillacs and living well while we hard working white people (for example, voters in West Virginia) paid through the nose for it by supporting these good for nothings on welfare. Remember Reagan's Welfare Queen? Bill Clinton firmly entrenched himself in the center of American politics in the mid-1990s by stealing the Republican's thunder on this issue and reforming welfare policies and practices. But wait, there is more. The largest form of welfare that exists in our land is the billions of dollars that are passed on each year to farmers, many of whom are in the top one percent income bracket. Congress just this week passed a new farm bill continuing this massive giveaway of our hard earned tax dollars and, perhaps, no issue symbolizes more than this gigantic largesse the need for a change in our political goals.

Sounds like just the ticket for Obama, right? Sorry, but Obama voted for the bill and, in my opinion, he has some mighty explaining to do to justify that vote. McCain voted against it saying "it would be hard to find any single bill that better sums up why so many Americans in both parties are so disappointed in the conduct of their government, and at times so disgusted by it.”

Score One for John McCain.

Monday, May 19, 2008

"Throwing the Baby Out . . ."

On its face, the massive deregulatory policy of the current administration can be considered to be a laudable goal. The thinking is that a free market tends to find its own level of 'comfort' free from governmental restrictions and that this level of comfort will be reached by the give and take of principles that are inherent in our capitalist society. Consider, as an example, the concept of price. If a particular commodity is over-priced, sales fall. The market for that particular commodity must adjust itself by one or more mechanisms. The price can be lowered, or production can be decreased. Alternatively, demand for the commodity can be generated by advertising, model improvement, etc. The give and take of the market place, free of governmental intervention, is the ideal. Were it that simple.

I spent my professional career(s) in one way or another interacting with the pharmaceutical industry. In so doing, I was forced out of necessity to develop an understanding of the relationship between the Food and Drug Administration and the industry. As a trial lawyer, there were many times that my questioning of potential jurors during the voir dire process revealed a basic misunderstanding of the nature of FDA/drug industry interaction that needed to be addressed as part of my trial proofs. The essence of this misunderstanding is the notion that the FDA adequately served to protect the public's interest regarding the safety of the industry's products. People believe that the FDA itself tested drugs for safety. It doesn't. People also believed that because a drug was approved by the FDA it meant that the drug was safe. It doesn't. I can cite chapter and verse in support of these statements regarding the inadequacy of the FDA, but to do so would be beyond the scope of this particular writing. I raise these issues only to point out that long before any deregulatory efforts by various Republican administrations, the basic inadequacy of the FDA had already established a de facto deregulatory status.

The point of all this is to express alarm at the probable outcome of a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. Recently that court granted immunity to makers of medical devices on the basic premise that FDA approval means that the product is safe. Safety has become a term of art. If one, seventy (70) or a thousand (1000) people die from a drug reaction, the drug is still safe because safety depends upon a definition that weighs the benefit of the drug to the greater good as opposed to the few who die from its use. The case currently before the court will extend that same protection to drug manufacturers much in the manner that Michigan legislation has established. Since 1995 Michigan has declared that any drug approved by the FDA is, as a matter of law, safe.

I have often used the term "psuedo-conservative" when it comes to addressing the neo-conservative ideas that attempt to bring the country back to basic constitutional values. The question must be asked; Is it not a basic conservative principle that one should be held accountable for one's own actions or misdeeds? As an example, there is a basic lack of Republican forgiveness for the little guy out there who stuck his neck out to invest in real estate and is now faced with potential foreclsoure because of changes in market conditions. The Bear-Sterns-types can be forgiven but the individual is expected to have demonstrated more responsible behavior and is, thus, left to fend on his own as best he can. But I digress. Going back to our constitution I find in the Seventh Amendment the right to trial by jury for civil redress. It is this fundamental right that the potential Supreme Court decision will destroy for the citizens of America when they are killed or damaged by a drug. Shouldn't drug makers be held accountable for unnecessary deaths or injuries when caused by their drugs? What constitutional principle justifies giving an industry blanket amnesty most particularly when the past actions of that industry have revealed a consistent pattern of deceit, fraud and misbehavior that if found among the street people of Detroit would result in long prison sentences?

Responses to "Change"

There have been some responses to my recent blog on "Change." Each of them presents a nuance worthy of consideration when it comes to selecting the next president of the United States. What I think is most refreshing is the nature of this consideration can take place in the absence of derogatory comments (e.g. 'flaming liberals') or negativity (e.g. the appeasement comment of He who would Be King which seems to be in the very nature of the man) which has characterized our political structure for the past sixteen years.

Dennis D writes "Darn those facts--I hate it when disillusionment sets in. The only good thing, given enough time the inconvenient truths do come out, eventually on all candidates. Then who do we turn to. Today I saw a clip of Obama saying he would abandon the missile shield, convince the Russians to take the nuclear missiles off "hair-trigger" status (I can agree with that)--and work for a nuclear free world. And he calls McCain' foreign policy naive."

John K writes "McCain, the best of the very, very bad options we have. Love Obama speaking of bi-partisianship. Look at his voting record. The only time he crosses the aisle is to leave the building.

"The Supreme Court is supposed to uphold the Constitution, not represent the rights of citizens. Attorneys can represent, not the Court. I do not want a court that takes it upon itself to create rights. The Supreme Court needs to protect rights. Let the legislature make law, not the court. Let the court protect the rights of the people by striking down laws that violate the protections granted by the Constitution."

Vern M says "Hi Tom, say isn't corporate America where every cent and dollar we have in our pockets/banks/pensions comes from?..........V."

Sunday, May 18, 2008


A lot has been written during this presidential primary season about change. Obama's major theme is "Yes We can," and reiterates the idea that American politics, mired for so long in bitter divisiveness, can change for the better. However, there is another kind of change that has been successfully vetted by those who seek to gain higher office. The question is what happens when politicians suddenly perceive they are on the wrong side of an issue? John Kerry was vilified by the right during the 2004 election cycle because of the changes he made on certain issues. President Bush offered the following at the time. "They're for tax cuts and against them. They're for NAFTA and against NAFTA. They're for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act. They're in favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts." The term "flip flopper" came into our lexicon embodying the notion that politicians will say and do anything it takes to win an election, principles and conviction be damned.

Now we have John McCain whose attractiveness as a potential president is his strength of character. For years he has carefully cultivated his image as a man who would stand up for his principles and beliefs, often in the face of intense pressure from his fellow Republicans. Up until very recently, the hope I felt about McCain was that because he was a decent and honest man, he would do the right thing when the chips fell and that his statements and actions would be based upon principles. When he spoke last week about continuing Bush's policy on appointing hard line judges to the federal judiciary I became concerned. This concern was fostered by my belief that the U.S. Supreme Court has shifted so far to the right that it no longer adequately represents the interests of the citizens of the United States, but instead serves as a shill for corporate America. My concern led me to do some research on McCain's current campaign pledges. Steven Benen in The Carpet Bagger Report, April 16, 2008 has summarized the flip flopping of McCain on issues of portent during this campaign:
* McCain pledged in February 2008 that he would not, under any circumstances, raise taxes. Specifically, McCain was asked if he is a “‘read my lips’ candidate, no new taxes, no matter what?” referring to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 pledge. “No new taxes,” McCain responded. Two weeks later, McCain said, “I’m not making a ‘read my lips’ statement, in that I will not raise taxes.”

* McCain claims to have considered and not considered joining John Kerry’s Democratic ticket in 2004.

* In 1998, he championed raising cigarette taxes to fund programs to cut underage smoking, insisting that it would prevent illnesses and provide resources for public health programs. Now, McCain opposes a $0.61-per-pack tax increase, won’t commit to supporting a regulation bill he’s co-sponsoring, and has hired Philip Morris’ former lobbyist as his senior campaign adviser.

* McCain’s first mortgage plan was premised on the notion that homeowners facing foreclosure shouldn’t be “rewarded” for acting “irresponsibly.” His second mortgage plan took largely the opposite position.

* McCain vowed, if elected, to balance the federal budget by the end of his first term. Soon after, he decided he would no longer even try to reach that goal.

* McCain’s campaign unveiled a Social Security policy that the senator would implement if elected, which did not include a Bush-like privatization scheme. In March 2008, McCain denounced his own campaign’s policy.

* In February 2008, McCain reversed course on prohibiting waterboarding.

* In November 2007, McCain reversed his previous position on a long-term presence for U.S. troops in Iraq, arguing that the “nature of the society in Iraq” and the “religious aspects” of the country make it inevitable that the United States “eventually withdraws.” Two months later, McCain reversed back, saying he’s prepared to leave U.S. troops in Iraq for 100 years. [Note" Last week he reversed himself again saying that the troops would be out by 2013.]

* McCain used to champion the Law of the Sea convention, even volunteering to testify on the treaty’s behalf before a Senate committee. Now he opposes it.

* McCain was a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to illegal immigrants’ kids who graduate from high school. Now he’s against it.

* On immigration policy in general, McCain announced in February 2008 that he would vote against his own legislation.

* In 2006, McCain sponsored legislation to require grassroots lobbying coalitions to reveal their financial donors. In 2007, after receiving “feedback” on the proposal, McCain told far-right activist groups that he opposes his own measure.

* McCain said before the war in Iraq, “We will win this conflict. We will win it easily.” Four years later, McCain said he knew all along that the war in Iraq war was “probably going to be long and hard and tough.”

* McCain said he was the “greatest critic” of Rumsfeld’s failed Iraq policy. In December 2003, McCain praised the same strategy as “a mission accomplished.” In March 2004, he said, “I’m confident we’re on the right course.” In December 2005, he said, “Overall, I think a year from now, we will have made a fair amount of progress if we stay the course.”

* McCain went from saying he would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade to saying the exact opposite.

* McCain went from saying gay marriage should be allowed, to saying gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed.

* McCain criticized TV preacher Jerry Falwell as “an agent of intolerance” in 2002, but then decided to cozy up to the man who said Americans “deserved” the 9/11 attacks.

* McCain used to oppose Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy, but he reversed course in February.

* On a related note, he said 2005 that he opposed the tax cuts because they were “too tilted to the wealthy.” By 2007, he denied ever having said this, and insisted he opposed the cuts because of increased government spending.

* In 2000, McCain accused Texas businessmen Sam and Charles Wyly of being corrupt, spending “dirty money” to help finance Bush’s presidential campaign. McCain not only filed a complaint against the Wylys for allegedly violating campaign finance law, he also lashed out at them publicly. In April, McCain reached out to the Wylys for support.

* McCain supported a major campaign-finance reform measure that bore his name. In June 2007, he abandoned his own legislation.

* McCain opposed a holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., before he supported it.

* McCain was against presidential candidates campaigning at Bob Jones University before he was for it.

* McCain was anti-ethanol. Now he’s pro-ethanol.

* McCain was both for and against state promotion of the Confederate flag.

* McCain decided in 2000 that he didn’t want anything to do with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, believing he “would taint the image of the ‘Straight Talk Express.’” Kissinger is now the Honorary Co-Chair for his presidential campaign in New York.

What seems obvious to me is that the proponent of the Straight Talk Express is just another politician who will say and do anything for votes. I find myself feeling sad about this situation for, as an independent, I truly admired the guy and seriously considered voting for him. There are several possible explanations for what is happening to him. Either he is not the man of principle he appeared and claimed to be, he is getting bad advice from his staff, or the rigors of a presidency campaign are too much for him. I strongly suspect that it is a combination of all three factors.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Wind Beneath My Wings

There are several lines of thought that have formed the basis for the nature of my belief system of a God that is more existential than, for example, the beliefs of mainstream America. The first, and perhaps foremost, is the observation that much harm has been caused by organized religion, both historically and presently. I believe that the freedom to exercise one's religious beliefs is a personal and private one. I believe that each person on this planet contains within themselves the inherent spirit that forms the basis for a belief in God. It seems to me that people who would accuse me of secularism, based upon the disparities of science and old time religions, do so because I am thinking my own thoughts and coming to my own conclusion, rather than accepting somebody else's conclusion at face value. When religion in its various forms gets too big it begins to demonize those who, for one reason for another, do not accept the beliefs of that particular religion. Consider the Crusades as an historical example. The ostensible purpose of the Crusades was to expand Christianity by means of force, or conquest, of non-believers. Go our way or die. A more subtle, but no less damaging, example of this group intimidation is the pressure to force prayer into the public school system. The predictable reaction to this week's approval of gay marriage by the Republican dominated California Supreme Court is another example. Groups are lining up to change this result via a constitutional amendment in the state. Their insistence is that traditional marriage requires a male and a female is religiously motivated. From my viewpoint, if that is what an individual chooses to believe that is wonderful. But because they believe as such does not give them the right to seek to impose their values on others, less orthodox in their approach to human contacts, than the religious groups teach. Granted, this is soft stuff but lets move to Iraq where one religious groups (either Sunni or Shiite) kill members of the other group (as well as Christians) at will. Let's move next door to Afghanistan where the Talibani will cut off a hand or stone a woman to death for talking to an unmarried man, all acts done in the name of religion. This type of damage, incessant, wearing and wearying, forms the basis for my belief that religion is harmful. American Christians will not cut off my hands, but they sure as hell want to tell me what I should think, do and wear and how I should act.

Because I am an old dog I have inevitably found myself in situations which have exposed me to a variety of churches arising from weddings, attendance at Sunday services with family and friends, etc. I have been impressed nearly uniformly by these exposures about the element of fear that is brought to the messages offered. I am bad. Apparently all people are inherently evil. I find that I cannot accept these ruminations. I believe that all people are inherently good, including myself. Each individual group thinks its brand of religion is best and that everyone outside of that group are non-believers, pagans, heretics, Satanists (choose your own word). The various levels of control religion seeks to enforce over the individual within that group, and outsiders, is an indicator of the need to modify and correct these negative qualities in humans that religious thought and belief brings to human life. At this point I find the need to apologize to anyone reading this who might be offended, but I quickly discard this notion. These are my beliefs, not yours and I would no more seek to enforce my beliefs on you than permit you to enforce yours on me.

I can give an example of where I am coming from. I ride a bicycle almost daily as a part of my conditioning regimen. Occasionally, I ride with a group and, naturally, the group forms an echelon. The lead rider (which changes frequently) in the echelon sets the pace and provides a buffer, if you will, to the wind resistance for the rider immediately behind. That rider provides the same buffer against the following riders and so on. The net result is that the group functions together in an inherent unit of efficiency (and beauty). Individual riders participating in the echelon can ride 20% faster at substantially less effort than if they were riding alone. It is the most basic example of how aligning oneself with the principles of the universe makes things better, not only for the individual, but for others. If one were to stop here and say 'this is the beauty of the group' and claim that it underscores the need for a group to work together, it would be correct, but there is an additional factor. The ease and grace of the group dynamic is as a result of a universal scientific phenomenon. One has only to look up in the sky and observe groups of migrating birds in their echelon formations to understand the universality of this principle. It is my belief that man's function on earth is to seek to continuously align oneself with the principles of the universe. If I understand the science of the echelon, I understand how to promote this efficiency and assistance to others better than I can if I just ''wing it." Sorry about the lame metaphor. If I ignore the findings of science I do so at my own risk. If I get hung up on the issue of how many angels are on the head of a pin I risk missing the obvious. The echelon functions efficiently if the individual riders are black, gay, Russian, Iraqi, male or female.

Friday, May 16, 2008

More On He Who Would Be . ..

Some of my friends have taken issue from time to time about my assertion that Bush be designated as "He who Would Be King." Imagine my delight this morning when an editorial in the New York Times quotes John McCain asserting as such. The Times writes "Mr. McCain said in a speech that if elected, he will end the war in Iraq by the close of his first term; work in “concerted action” with other nations to counter the nuclear threats of Iran and North Korea; and eliminate a tax meant for the rich that is crushing the upper-middle class. He promised to not “subvert the purpose of legislation,” as Mr. Bush has done, with signing statements; and to not seek to create, as Mr. Bush has done, an imperial presidency accountable to no person or institution. “The powers of the presidency are rightly checked by the other branches of government,” he said.

To bastardize an old phrase (but with a silly grin on my face as I do so) it's nice to be important, but it's more important to be right.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Doing things Because It Looks Good

The news today is that Cindy McCain has rid herself of investments in the Sudan. Because of substantial evidence that "acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity was occurring or immediately threatened," in 2004 the U.S. government determined that genocide had been committed in Darfur. In January 2005, the UN Commission of Inquiry concluded that "crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed in Darfur and may be no less serious and heinous then genocide." In March 2005, the UN Security Council asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the Darfur situation.

The big question, of course, is why it took so long for the companion of the man who is seeking the world's most important post to "get religion," so to speak, about the Sudan's nefarious activities which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of planned deaths. Mrs. McCain has made it clear that she is not going to turn over her income tax returns because she is a wealthy heiress and she and her husband file separate returns. That is her right. But it is another case where politicians seek to have their cake and eat it too. The New York Times reported the sale of her Sudan investments on May 15, 2008, more than four years after the government (John McCain is a senator in that government) declared that genocide was being committed. Brian Rogers, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, confirmed the sale. “As soon as she was made aware, she sold it,” Mr. Rogers said. “Senator and Mrs. McCain are committed to doing everything possible to end the genocide in Darfur.” The reported amount of the investments was two million dollars. As an obvious observation the sale was done to avoid criticism during the presidential campaign, but to seek to capitalize on this tardy gesture as a humanitarian effort is offensive.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

You Can Have Your Cake . . .

Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too. First, let me say this without appearing immodest. I am grounded, well grounded, in the sciences. To me, evolution is a fact of life. As quick as one can say 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' I can summarize my thinking about man's level of understanding about his station in the universe. That magnificent phrase captures the essence of evolution in that it (simply) describes the known fact that every living human being follows a developmental path similar to, if not identical, to every other mammal. In other words, we are not unique in terms of how we got here. The 'how' and 'why' we are here is because we are simply animals. Science teaches us this and for some, it is a bitter pill to swallow. Most of the misunderstanding appears to come about from the failure to appreciate the meaning of the word 'theory' as it is used in science as opposed to its common meaning. Wikipedia describes the difference:

"In science a theory is a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation. It follows from this that for scientists "theory" and "fact" do not necessarily stand in opposition. For example, it is a fact that an apple dropped on earth has been observed to fall towards the center of the planet, and the theories commonly used to describe and explain this behavior are Newton's theory of universal gravitation (see also gravitation), and the theory of general relativity.

"In common usage, the word theory is often used to signify a conjecture, an opinion, or a speculation. In this usage, a theory is not necessarily based on facts; in other words, it is not required to be consistent with true descriptions of reality. This usage of theory leads to the common incorrect statements. True descriptions of reality are more reflectively understood as statements which would be true independently of what people think about them."

The rubber hits the road (sorry about all the cliches this morning) when certain religious beliefs cross paths with scientific truisms. Science tells us that we are born and we die according to a genetic code that mostly resembles apes and other (ahem) lower forms of life including rats, pigs, dogs, cats, horses, etc. While on this planet we are subject to the same forces of altered life that dictate our individual fates. Like a dog or a cat, if we get hit by a car we die. The cells in our body react to noxious stimuli to result in infection, malignancy or worse according to the same principles seen and studied in lower mammals. There are many loving people throughout the world and the United States who resist the notion that we are animals subject to the same scientific principles as every other genus and species on this planet. Early in life, they have been imbued with religious knowledge that is at odds with what is known from science. The first chapter of the Bible teaches that man and woman were created by God. The widespread inability or unwillingness to accept the reality that our common ancestor walked a forest somewhere in northern Africa has created the tension that now permeates religious belief and thought. Scientists who spout such nonsense are labeled 'secularists' and it becomes impossible for people on both sides of this illusory schism to avoid name calling.

I respectfully suggest that people of religious persuasions who find it difficult to accept evolution and the other disparities between so-designated religious beliefs and science need to develop an understanding about the very nature of science about which little is heard. Science is humble. The required humility of science is, to me, a required spiritual belief in the orderliness of the universe. The great men of the various religions, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, shared a common humility in their teachings which exactly replicates the principle of science. In science, a possible explanation for an observed phenomenon is made and then scientists immediately set out to disprove the explanation. The scientific method adheres to the following steps:
Define the question
Gather information and resources (observe)
Form hypothesis
Perform experiment and collect data
Analyze data
Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
Publish results
Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

The notion of forming a potential belief (hypothesis) about something that has been observed in nature and then setting out to disprove it strikes me as exactly the individual mind set one needs to reduce the chaos of life into a happy organized life. It is my opinion that there is a divine sense of order to the universe and my spiritual beliefs require me to ascertain the nature of that order and live my life according to its dictates.

Monday, May 5, 2008

"Walk Quietly, But . . ."

Is ruthlessness a desirable presidential trait? The rise of HRC in the past few months suggests that the answer to this question is yes. One of the spokespeople for her campaign has gone so far as to label Obama a "pansy". Her "I don't know if Obama is a Muslim or not" innuendo is a typical example. Her unabashed claim to Michigan and Florida votes after agreeing not to participate in either of the state's primaries is another. Her intimation that she would use nuclear power to annihilate Iran suggests to me that she has a poll result that shows how appealing the confrontational trait of "shoot first, ask questions later" is to the blue collar workers of America. This ruthless and relentless quest for votes apparently signals to many that she is tough enough to be president. Looking back four and eight years, it was probably the "I'm a cowboy" mentality that put He who Would Be King in the presidency. What her campaign's three o'clock call in the early morning really symbolizes is that she would be ready to order a nuclear attack vaporizing portions of our civilization without apparent hesitation. Personally I prefer the more nuanced approach. Talking and listening are not two cities in China. They are a means of establishing dialogue and understanding among peoples and countries of diverse systems. As a young boy, growing up in Michigan, I was mightily impressed with the statement of Teddy Roosevelt that a president should "walk quietly but carry a big stick". Teachers would suggest that this maxim was a way that one could live a life based on principle and courage without resorting to violent means. I prefer this quality in a president rather than someone who would push everyone out of the way to get to the head of the line.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Do As I Say . . .

Do as I say, not as I do. I was thinking about this adage this morning after I read that there is not one black Republican in Congress, not one in the 247 Republican members of either house. My mind juxtaposed this fact with the antics of Rush Limbaugh and Joe Scarboro, not to mention other prominent Republicans and the sly Hillary machine, in seeing to it that Obama is continuously "vetted" (the new politically correct word for denigrating someone). Let's talk about the old Weatherman from forty years ago as an example. He is Obama's neighbor and apparently they serve on the board of some local organization together. Now the real scandal (remember I am doing this from memory which is why I cannot remember the guy's name) which has Obama having dinner with the man. A classic case of guilt by association, but these people have a job to do and they know their target audience very well indeed. They know that in this white man's world there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people just waiting for Obama to screw up somehow so they can justify not supporting him as a presidential candidate. Need any further proof? How about the media reaction to Reverend Wright?

I can hear the wheels churning which say that the relationship between Obama, his associates and his minister are important considerations in evaluating the character and integrity of a presidential candidate. But consider this question; have the same standards of accountability been applied to the other candidates? Consider the Rev. John Hagee for example. This man is a major televangelist reaching millions of people every week with his version of the gospel, a man who John McCain sought out to obtain his endorsement. Before he was contact by McCain the man publicly declared that God had smitten New Orleans via Katrina because it was a sinful place. In an interview with a conservative talk show host in the past two weeks, Hagee repeated his charge:

HOST:I’m only trying to understand that in the case of New Orleans, you do feel that God’s hand was in it because of a sinful city?
HAGEE: That it was a city that was planning a sinful conduct, yes.

Hillary had an interesting exchange with Obama in one of the early debates regarding Louis Farrakhan who, as I understand it, has made some anti-Semitic remarks. I guess Hillary's reasoning was that because Obama's minister likes Farrakhan, some of that has got to rub off on Obama. She made a big deal about the difference between Obama's denouncing (which he did regularly and convincingly) the remarks of Farrakhan and his rejecting Farrakhan's support. Hillary was supported in her attack on this issue by Tim Russert who seemed not to be able to let the issue alone.

The details of the various exchanges discussed above, while illuminating, are not the reason for this brief essay. The reason is to truly contrast the hysterical reactions to Obama with the near total silence regarding McCain. I don't want hate, expressed or hidden, to determine the next president of the United States.