Monday, April 21, 2008

Short Hits

Is anyone else out there fed up with this “elite” nonsense? Yeah I know the far-right wingnuts have latched onto it like a junkyard dog on an alley cat, but surely we can begin to neutralize it as an issue by beginning to point out that there’s plenty of elitism to go around, especially over on the dark side. Can you say corporate elite? If the Republicans want a knife fight, let’s give ‘em one: Hollywood vs. Halliburton, last one standing gets to the White House.

Over on Americans United there’s a story about an Ohio science teacher who’s refused an order to remove his Bible from his desk. This came after the guy was told to remove the Ten Commandments from his classroom door, which he did. The teacher is one of those hard-core Christians who just can’t bring himself to check his theocratic views at the door, offhandedly dissing the wall of separation and pushing so-called intelligent design on his students.
The real kicker is that this guy wants to sue the school district by saying his rights have been violated. It’s a dead-cert loser, but the Republican “qaeda” has already broken out the torches and pitchforks and are ready to ride this broke-down jalopy right over the cliff.
As a retired HS social studies teacher it saddens me every time I run across a story like this. In my psychology, sociology and history classes I was all over religion as a uniquely human experience. My kids got a good look at everything from Cotton Mather to Amazon animism, always backstopped by the idea that when you boil it down you’ll find the same archetypal human dynamics at work, and that we’re a helluva lot more alike than we think.
Then you run into a bozo like this, who brings church sermons into science class and makes a mockery of everything the human race has managed to accomplish over the past two millennia. To my mind, while the man has committed no crime his actions in his classroom border on the criminal, nothing short of intellectual child abuse.
Ah well, such is life among the deluded who say the religious right is dead. Then again, Ben Stein’s movie tanked, so we takes our small victories as we finds ‘em.

Meanwhile this old cynic still thinks this election is McCain’s to lose. Once the fear and smear machine cranks up in the general it’ll be the same-old same-old. Republicans are masters of gut-think, and they have tapped so deeply into the American psyche that it’ll take the equivalent of a political nuke to finally get us off the schneid.
On the other hand, if McCain’s down by twenty points in the polls come October, feel free to serve up my words and I’ll eat ‘em stewed, boiled or fried. Mind you I ain’t holdin’ me breath on that one.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Real GI Bill of Rights

The new GI Bill currently wending its tortuous way through Congress is of course a damn good idea, and a long time coming. Word is that the measure will eventually pass, but could face a presidential veto because in the minds of George Bush and, among others as we go to press, John McCain, the bill is too good (take a deep breath now, we didn’t make this up).

As has been widely reported, both McCain and Bush have opined that by treating our kids with the respect and dignity they most certainly deserve we’re making it easier for these service people to bail out after their initial hitch is up, thereby significantly reducing reenlistment numbers. In their minds, apparently, maintaining the status quo is more important to them than doing the right thing, so they would seem to be be content with the current regime of malign neglect and draconian indifference that characterizes the current state of affairs in the defense establishment.

And while nothing is too good for any kid who signs up to serve his/her country, an examination of the particulars of the new GI Bill becomes notable not for what it contains but what it leaves out.

From their point of view, the authors of the bill seem to have touched all the bases, and that’s a good thing. Who would argue with assuring our service people and their families of good equipment, comprehensive health care in and out of the VA, better pay, humane deployment policies and better educational opportunities?

But there’s more to this. If we’re going to erect an umbrella of protection over our service people the authors of the bill might well consider their personal and civil liberties as well.
For some time now, as anyone who has been following the story already knows, there has been an ongoing litany of theocratic coercion perpetrated by a particularly fanatical cadre of Dominionist Christians currently holding sway throughout the ranks in all our service branches. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has to date documented nearly 8,000 instances of theocratic abuse, and those numbers are growing almost daily.

Knowing this, one can only wonder why there hasn’t been an effort to protect one of our most basic of human rights, even in the military: The right to believe - or not - in any religious or spiritual faith, free from interference or reprisal by superiors or peers.

Now you’d think something like this would be a no-brainer for anyone who purports to believe in the American way, but evidently this issue has somehow slipped through the cracks. For reasons that have managed to bypass this observer’s own logic filters, even the military reformers in Congress don’t see this as a major problem.

Ironic when you think of it, because it would seem to be counterintuitive to send our kids into harm’s way to defeat the toxic fundamentalism of well-organized religious extremists, while being led by an equally well-organized cadre of religious extremists whose own fundamentalist beliefs are all the more toxic because they’re homegrown and operating with at least the tacit approval of our current administration and their enablers in Congress.

Mind you there has been some progress, albeit fleeting. Back in ‘99 Bob Barr, then a Georgia Representative, decided to declare war on Wiccans in the military, even though the soldiers involved did their thing off-hours and off-post. Barr got pretty well smacked down on that one, but for years the Wiccan pentacle was not approved as a religious marker on military graves. That was finally resolved last year when the Department of Veterans Affairs finally gave in and add the pentacle to their approved list.

Would that this were the rule rather than the exception. Unfortunately every procedural victory such as the Wiccan thing requires a huge amount of sweat equity to make it happen. Even now there are similar cases percolating glacially through the courts, while the larger issue continues to be the elephant in the room.

What we’re talking about here is nothing less than a referendum on the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and whether the essential rights of citizens enumerated therein apply equally to our citizen-soldiers. Remember also that the tag line on the Fourteenth authorizes Congress to enforce the rules by “appropriate legislation.”

So, Congress, here’s your chance to do exactly that. And if any of your membership has actually studied US history lately, you’ll recall that it took just about a hundred years from the inception of the Fourteenth to finally enact federal civil rights legislation.

Well, people, you don’t have that kind of time any more. You might want to revisit Brown v. Board of Education and find the admonition to take care of business “with all deliberate speed.” So how about getting down to it and promulgate a GI Bill of Rights that actually includes the Bill of Rights. Anything less would be, well, un-American.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Wishful thinking

I'm one of those folks whom Keith Olbermann has characterized as voting for a tin can with a D after it come crunch time. That said, I've pretty much gotten behind Barak for both practical and ideological reasons.
As a charter member of the baby boom generation (July, '46), my political passion all but died off when Bobby Kennedy was killed, and it has yet to return. But while Barak's no Bobby, and I expect no one ever will be, he's got something that's connecting with the kids, and that's enough for me.
And for this beat-down old progressive, it's pretty obvious that Hillary has pretty much bottomed out and it's time to move on.
So as a public service, Bughouse Square offers up to the Clinton campaign my idea of a neat concession speech, to be delivered as soon after the Pennsylvania primary as possible:

Y’know, politics isn’t pretty. It’s not a game for anyone with a thin skin, and I think both Senator Obama and I have shown the nation just how tough a couple of capable and dedicated Democrats can be when the national stakes are so high and both players are all-in.
Well, we took this play right down to the river card, and it turned for my opponent, so by all that’s fair in love, war, and especially politics, it’s time for us to leave the game and help stake Senator Obama at the final table against John McCain.

Now I’d be less than honest if I said I was thrilled with the result. I know in my heart that I would have been a good president, and that I truly feel I was the best-qualified candidate in the field. Heck if I didn’t feel that way I had no business in the campaign in the first place.

But now it’s time to move on to the next phase in the campaign, the one where Democrats of all stripes rally ‘round Barak Obama and the Democratic message and do what we have to do, need to do, and simply must do to take our country back.

Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there were no second acts in American lives. Well, Fitzgerald obviously never took part in a high-stakes presidential campaign, where every day is Groundhog Day until all the parts finally fall into place. And this time around, the resolution came in favor of my opponent.

So I say to all my friends and supporters, especially the ones who’ve been with us from the jump, that we gave it our best shot but we fell a little short. And I know that many of you are upset, and that you might even be feeling, dare I say, bitter about the result. But I urge you to look past your anger and frustration and take a long look at the big picture.

Do you really want the next four years to be little more than Bush Light?
Do you really want an economic policy based on tax breaks for the wealthy and sweetheart deals for the corporate elite?
Do you really want us to remain mired in Iraq while our national stature takes hit after hit around the world?
Do you really want a president who thinks a new GI Bill is too good for our men and women in uniform?

I didn’t think so. And making sure that doesn’t happen is now Priority One for every Democrat and Independent who understands that the time for change is now, and that a united Democratic party can truly deliver the goods come November.

So once again I thank you for your support and for all you’ve done for me in this campaign. But let me tell you that losing the way we did in 2000 and 2004 leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and even though it won’t be me at the top of the ticket this time around I say let’s get to it and finally put the brakes on this runaway Republican train once and for all!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

My latest windmill

As a dyed-in-the-wool civil libertarian, the attempts by people in government or government service to Christianize the country, particularly the military, frightens me profoundly. The previous post and the one following are all of a piece, with similar content but a different approach. Feel free to make of each what you will...

The Enemy Within
We all know what can happen when a heavily armed group of dedicated religious fanatics embraces a sectarian cause. Throughout history we have borne witness to the violence and carnage perpetrated by the willing minions of kings, popes, sheikhs, caliphs, sultans, imams, mullahs, tinpot dictators and born again presidents, all bound by the singular delusion that they are doing God’s work.
This is, of course, what we’re looking at today as well. The West, that is to say America with the Brits nipping at our heels, has for several years now been locked in mortal combat with the toxic fundamentalism of Islamist Wahibism, the sect that spawned bin Laden and his gang. By all accounts, at least from our perspective, we have gone to war to defend and uphold the sterling virtues of a secular, pluralistic and democratic society we the people have spent nearly three centuries trying to perfect.
So it would seem at first glance that we’re on the side of the angels in this particular conflict. After all, aren’t we the ones defending the right to think as we wish, worship - or not - as we wish, and to be safe in our homes and workplaces from those who would impose their own narrow-minded world view on the rest of us? At the same time, aren’t we also the ones who would lay down our lives to protect the rights of an individual to say or think something we might find personally or politically repulsive?
You’d think so, wouldn’t you. But what if in our own country we had a large and heavily armed group of political and religious extremists, our own Christian al Qaeda if you will, that is itself seeking to impose their own theocratic will on the rest of us? And what if, instead of these radicals operating on the fringe of society, out there on cable or cyberspace or in isolated Idaho redoubts, they were firmly entrenched within our governmental infrastructure with a virtual blank check to pursue their nefarious ends?
Wake up call, neighbors. It’s happening now, and if we’re not careful we could easily reap the whirlwind. You see, the particular bit of government infrastructure previously referred to is the United States military, and by conservative reckoning about thirty percent of it, from the highest echelons of the Pentagon to the most basic ground units, has been all but co-opted by a particularly toxic cadre of Christian fundamentalists identified as Dominionists, who are fanatically pro-Jesus and just about anti-everything else.
Now in and of itself the presence of any non-mainstream ideologues in our military shouldn’t be a concern. After all, we’re the nation of the big tent, with room for any number of faiths and philosophies, even in the service, but once the balloon goes up everyone’s on the same side. It’s an idea that worked well during the various struggles of the last century, but for some reason in this post-bin Laden age we now find ourselves being told by many of our military leaders that we’re not just fighting for the American way but we are now the spearhead of the apocalyptic holy war these brass-hat wingnuts so desperately crave.
Space precludes laying out the whole case, but consider the following, and remember that this stuff’s been well documented. We couldn’t have made this up if we tried:
Begin with the uproar over the verbal and physical harassment of Air Force Academy cadets considered “unchurched” by the over-the-top Dominionists in charge of the place. Even after the Air Force was shamed into investigating, and they were forced to admit that this was going on and that it was antithetical to everything we purport to stand for, they then turned around and issued a convoluted set of guidelines that all but endorsed the status quo.
To date the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group formed by former Air Force Academy honors graduate Mikey Weinstein, has heard from nearly eight thousand aggrieved service people who have been subjected to theocratic abuse, and that number is increasing almost literally as we speak.
There have been several lawsuits filed in federal court on behalf of some of the aforementioned grievants, but one case in particular puts the whole thing in microcosm. A young GI, a two-tour Iraq vet with an exemplary record but who is also a confirmed atheist, ran afoul of one of his superior officers when he convened an off-hours discussion group consisting of himself and fellow atheists. The officer belligerently broke up the meeting and threatened the soldier by saying he’d block is re-enlistment and bring charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), whereupon the young man filed suit.
The case is pending, and the young soldier, now back on post in the US, is living under the dark cloud of army-initiated threats of retribution and retaliation for daring to confront this issue head-on. This follows a number of death threats the soldier received while still deployed in Iraq, where the original incident took place.
So if any of this troubles you, and shame on you if it doesn’t, the face staring back at you in the mirror, the one that says I’m an American and this isn’t right, should be all the incentive you need to do what you need to do as a participant in our democracy to help take our country back.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

By Way of Introduction

Welcome to Bughouse Square. The name of the site is taken from a speakers park on the near north side of Chicago which, for more than a century, has hosted anyone with the wherewithal and the lung power to mount the rostrum and hold forth on just about anything they feel like.
For a dozen years, beginning in 1993, I had the opportunity to hold similarly forth in a regular column in my local weekly, The Ware River News. Everything was fair game, from politics to life with my kid as a single parent. During the course of this run, the column received a couple of awards from the New England Press Association.
Lately, however, I've been looking for a way to get the word out beyond the handful of western Mass. towns our paper serves, so I resisted my luddite ways and opened up shop in the blogosphere. From here, who knows. But if you happen to run into this space in your cyber-travels I hope you find the stuff herein worth the visit.
Peace, y'all...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mikey's War

Mikey’s War
Most of you probably haven’t heard of Mikey Weinstein, and in these perilous times such an oversight begs remediation.
Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Air Force Academy and old school Republican, served his country as an Air Force JAG attorney, not to mention the Reagan administration, with distinction and honor. His family, past and present, is military to the bone, and has been for generations. It’s the kind of family a nation like ours has relied on since its inception to watch our backs in troubled times.
Yet if one were to mention Weinstein’s name in certain quarters of the defense establishment and the Bush administration, their reaction might not be as magnanimous as one might think.
You see, Mikey Weinstein has gone to war against the very institution he and his family have freely and solemnly sworn to uphold and defend since anyone can remember. Yet this particular war is not being waged with weapons but ideas, most especially the idea that religious liberty ought not be surrendered when an individual joins the military or enters a service academy.
Weinstein’s war began in 2004, when he began hearing from simpatico officials at the Air Force Academy that the brass had all but ordered the corps of cadets to see Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ." Then it got personal the following year when his son Curtis, an Air Force Academy cadet, told his father that he had been verbally and physically harassed by officers and fellow cadets for no other reason that he was Jewish and had no desire to be evangelized or proselytized by a large and vociferous cadre of heavy-duty Christians at the Academy.
Regrettably, it turns out, this was not an isolated incident. Several other cadets and even a couple of Academy chaplains who actually get it also came forward, causing the Air Force to investigate and eventually confirm young Weinstein’s and others assertions of mistreatment and rampant and pervasive fundamentalism reigning unchecked at the Academy.
Up to now, though, the Air Force has pretty much blown the whole thing off, their tepid response to date being that it’s okay to evangelize but not proselytize and if we spin around and click our heels three times it will all just go away.
Meanwhile, as Weinstein kept on looking into the matter, he began to see a pattern of similar abuses throughout the military, causing him to form the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which has become the spearhead of a rapidly expanding national watchdog movement dedicated to aiding aggrieved service people and identifying individuals and groups in the Pentagon and the ranks whose over-the-top fundamentalism continues to make a mockery of the First Amendment.
Over the past few years, Weinstein has heard from thousands of military folk, most of them Christians, expressing their concerns ranging from excessive proselytizing to outright intimidation in their respective units or within the Pentagon.
Most recently, Weinstein filed an amended lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a young GI, a two-tour Iraq vet and confirmed atheist who ran afoul of his commanding officer when the soldier tried to convene an after-hours discussion group consisting of himself and fellow atheists. The kid was verbally harassed and even told that the officer would block the kid’s re-enlistment if he insisted in expressing his seemingly heretical views.
For you civil libertarians out there such lawsuits are old news in the continuing struggle to rescue the country from our own homegrown Christian Taliban, but in this case the ante was dramatically raised when news of the lawsuit went public and the kid suddenly and without exaggeration found himself in fear of his life. In the United States of America. On a US military post. And you wonder why Mikey Weinstein has chosen this particular windmill with which to do battle.
Weinstein himself has not been immune from the tender ministrations of these Christian soldiers and their fellow travelers. His house has been vandalized any number of times, and the line forms around the block for all the death threats he and his family have received. But Weinstein is first and foremost a soldier and a patriot, one who, befitting his legal background, chooses his battles wisely and judiciously. And from this one he will most assuredly not back down.
So just who are these military people Weinstein has chosen to confront? They are a particularly dedicated group of Christians he has identified as Dominionists, fanatically pro-Jesus and just about anti-everything else. Conservative estimates have placed their number at right around thirty percent in the military and twelve percent nationally, and their numbers are growing. One can easily liken them to the Islamist Wahabi sect that spawned bin Laden and his gang. About the only difference between them is their respective choice of deity, and the chilling reality that the Dominionists have chosen the military as their staging area for the apocalyptic holy war they so desperately crave.
And one of the ways they’re making it work is by exploiting an acute shortage of military chaplains. It has been reported for some time that evangelical pastors are being actively courted by the services with the implicit promise that they’d be all but written a blank check to proselytize in the ranks.
Despite all this, Weinstein’s issue isn’t with religion per se. He firmly believes in the importance of the chaplaincy in the military, and the free and open exchange of religious ideas and philosophies within the ranks. But Weinstein persuasively argues that the particular strain of malignant fundamentalism currently infecting the military subverts and undermines the true position of moral and philosophical rectitude all that we as Americans have worked so hard throughout our history to achieve.
Now, with such a volatile and contentious issue as this spreading virus-like through our military culture you’d think the mainstream media would at least be making an effort to cover the story. Not so, says Weinstein, and extensive web searches seem to bear this out.
Not only that, Weinstein maintains that most progressive vet groups are too preoccupied with their own parochial concerns and fundraising to even consider coalescing and speaking with one voice on their wide-ranging panoply of concerns. But Mikey being Mikey, he has accepted this self-defeating balkanization of concerned vets, marshaled what resources he can and is prepared to soldier on.
In a brief interview, Weinstein laid out his case, his gatling-gun delivery compressing a wealth of information into just a few minutes. He closed with what has become his mantra, one he has frequently invoked in any number of forums: “The United States military is actively engaged in a pernicious and pervasive pattern and practice of unconstitutional rape of of the precious religious freedoms of our honorable [service people] and veterans. This evil is a noxious, institutional force-feeding of of fundamentalist Christianity by our nation’s military command in complete defiance of the United States Constitution.”
And while you’re letting that sink in, bear in mind that, despite the growing anti-war movement, the reality is that we will continue to have a large force of young people under arms for some time to come. The least we can do as citizens is to send these kids into harm’s way secure in the knowledge that the institution to which they’ve pledged their loyalty and their lives reflects all the best of what it means to be American.
For Mikey Weinstein, that has become his life’s work, and once again, as it has been for generations, the Weinstein family is watching our collective back. Mikey's militarist ways may be off-putting to some, but his message is so compelling that we, all of us, might take to heart the observation from “Death Of a Salesman:” Attention must be paid.