That’s Just the Way It Is

The representative from Tau Ceti IV had brought his own chair, one that was more accommodating to his elongated, six-limbed figure. The noise of the riots raging outside the gates of the White House could be heard faintly, but neither the representative nor the President paid them much mind.

“Our oxygen?” the President was saying. “You came here for our… oxygen?”

“Yes,” the representative replied. “Just the free atmospheric oxygen, you understand. We could hydrolyze your oceans, of course, but that takes more time and energy than we find profitable. We’ll just extract what we need for our purposes and be gone.”

“But – ” the President stammered. “that would mean – “

“The immediate extinction of most of your aerobic land-dwelling species. Including yourselves. Yes, we understand that.”

“Then you also understand that we will defend ourselves!”

“That is why we began our relationship by destroying your planet’s highest mountain ranges, Mr. President. We wished you to immediately understand the futility of your situation, and spare you needless effort. We also understand that you might desire a bit of time to reconcile yourselves to your various deities. You have something we want. We are by far the more powerful; therefore, we get to take what we want. It’s the fundamental rule across the Galaxy, as you well know, as basic as gravity…”

“We know no such thing!”

“Really?” The representative seemed quite surprised. He leaned his carapace in towards the President, his multifaceted eyes staring intently into the President’s face. The President felt his life – no, not his life – the history of his country, indeed his species, flashed before his eyes. Aboriginal peoples, nations, entire civilizations, bulldozed into the maw of Progress, time and time again.

“We have studied your history, sir. We thought you understood perfectly.”

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: THE UNENDING WAR

Maybe you remember: it was a beautiful Tuesday morning, clear and sunny. I had spent a couple of early morning hours training with my martial arts teacher, and I was headed home to start in on my day’s obligations for my telecommuting job. I stopped at a health food store in Hamlin for a beverage – and it soon became clear that something was not right. The radio was tuned to NPR and the newspeople were still on the air, though it was now way past the time for the morning news programs.

And what they were saying made no sense.

“What… happened?” I asked the clerk.

She looked at me with a strange expression. “The World Trade Center… the towers are gone,” she said. “And the Pentagon’s been attacked.”

There was not much else to say. She rang me up, and I headed towards Honesdale. There was no flood of cars on the road, no indication of panic or a disaster. My very first thought, my main concern at that moment, was simple: “Is the Internet still up?”

Somewhat surprisingly, it was – and it didn’t take long to learn what had transpired while I was training. I had been spared the live sighting of the impact of the second plane, the one that made it obvious what was happening, the one that ripped apart all our preconceptions and let us know that we were now in a strange new world. The first plane to hit the towers could have been a fluke, a horrible accident, a tragic coincidence – but that second one spoke of planning, and malicious intent, and the possibility of more to come.

Thus began one of the worst periods of my life, and probably of yours.

But for some people, it was a glorious moment. I’m not just speaking of Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the other terrorists of al Qaida. I am speaking of the people called “neoconservatives,” for whom the 9/11 attacks were nothing short of a Godsend.

The neoconservatives were (still are, though you don’t hear the term used much anymore, not in polite company at least) a group of foreign policy experts (including, among others, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz) who were strongly influenced by the writings of a fellow named Leo Strauss. A good introduction to those ideas can be found in a 2003 article by Danny Postel called “Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neocons, and Iraq.”

The neoconservatives did not see war as something to be avoided at all costs; indeed, they regarded it as actually beneficial to society. In its absence, Strauss argued, societies become too concerned with being comfortable – and turn weak, ineffectual, and decadent. (The profits to be realized from defense outlays are just so much icing on the cake, of course.) So 9/11 provided just the kind of energizing “Pearl Harbor moment” that the neocons thought America needed. “If we just … wage a total war,” Richard Perle wrote, “our children will sing great songs about us years from now.”

This fact has to be kept in mind when you hear people calling the “War on Terror” a “failure.” Consider the possibility that the goal was in fact to create a situation of perpetual war – if so, then the neocons have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. All the so-called “blunders” of American policy in the Middle East, during the Bush Regime and after, from Abu Ghraib to drone attacks, actually make perfect sense: they have succeeded in keeping the region unstable, creating an unending stream of resentment and hatred towards America and the West, and guaranteeing that for generations to come someone will have good reason to come attack us.

If you want perpetual war, after all, you need a permanent and reliable supply of enemies.

O Cassandra

Cassandra was a princess of Troy
with a face of such beauty and joy
that the great god Apollo
decided to follow
her though she was reluctant and coy

(chorus)
O Cassandra… poor Cassandra

While plighting his troth one dark night
he gave her the gift of the Sight
yes, he gave her the power
to gaze through the hours
and what she saw gave her a fright

(chorus)

Cassandra knew what fate awaited
the mortals that Olympians dated
so she took her chances
and spurned his advances
but jilted gods get quite frustrated

(chorus)

“You foolish girl, what have you done?
“Denying the god of the sun…
“My gift I won’t revoke
“But I’ll make it a joke
“Henceforth you’ll be believed by no one…”

(chorus)

And so it went on through the years
her prophecies fell on deaf ears
till a horse at the gates
sealed the poor Trojans’ fate
and confirmed her very worst fears

(chorus)

Agamemnon claimed her as his own
She said “You know, when we get home
“A most deadly surprise
“Will flash in front of your eyes
“For you’ll find that your wife’s not alone…”

(chorus)

It all happened just as she’d said
Clytemnestra struck them both dead
But as she fell to the ground
She uttered one final sound
“I TOLD YOU SO” is all she said…

(chorus)

Cassandra, I know just how you felt
No one wants to see the cards they’ve been dealt
Now the oceans are rising
And it’s not surprising
No one wants to believe that a planet can melt

(chorus)

School Lunch: Who’s Holding the Bag?

The “What’s Cooking” column is a weekly feature of the newspaper I work for, the Wayne Independent in Honesdale PA.  Members of the staff take turns writing the column, and this week (8/27/2014) it’s my turn. We don’t archive this column to our website, so I thought I’d reproduce it here for you…

WHAT’S COOKING: SCHOOL LUNCH – WHO’S HOLDING THE BAG?

For some reason, when I was a kid, I wasn’t a big fan of soups, especially tomato-based ones. So one day, when some hearty chock-full-o’-vegetables concoction was the lunch du jour at my little Catholic school in Florida, second-grade me objected.

I raised quite a fuss, apparently; I believe words like “I demand an alternative” got thrown around a bit… Needless to say, the nuns were none too pleased by my defiant and ungrateful performance.  I mercifully have no recollection of the exact nature of my punishment, but I am sure that extended contemplation – not to mention forced consumption – of said bowl of soup was involved.

Nowadays, of course, things are a bit different.  School nutrition specialists – you know, the lunch ladies – are bending over backwards and tying themselves in knots, bless their slotted spoons, trying to provide meals and snacks that (a) are sufficiently nutritious, (b) fit within tight school budgets, and (c) kids will eat without physical coercion.  The problem is that most foods seem to fit into at most two of those categories.

Complicating matters is the degree to which politics – and profits – have become involved in what should be a fairly straightforward process. Surprisingly enough, usually practical and disciplinarian conservatives (who back in the day would certainly have supported the right of the nuns to make me eat that soup) are now backing the rights of kids to exercise their freedom of choice in lunch lines and at vending machines, while also trying to whack millions off school lunch budgets.

First Lady Michelle Obama and her admirable “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity have (with the best of intentions, mind you) presented school nutritionists with difficult-to-navigate schedules of daily allowable dosages for fats, sugars, and salt.  (You can get an idea of what they’re going through by going to www.projectpa.org and checking out the “Smart Snacks in Schools Webinar.”)

Budget considerations are driven by commodity prices, which depend on the subsidies in the Farm Bill passed by Congress (under the strong influence of agribusiness and the processed food industry) – subsidies that frequently result in lower prices for the less nutritious foods while making the good stuff more expensive.  As food writer and activist Michael Pollan says in his article “You Are What You Grow,” “The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow… The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.”

So in the face of all this craziness, what are parents of school-aged children to do? In a recent conversation, Karen Carlson, Food Services Director for the Wayne Highlands School District, pointed out the obvious place to start: setting good nutrition examples at home. “If kids are throwing away apples, that’s not a behavior they’re being taught in school,” she says.  Her colleague Barbara Zeiler at Wallenpaupack Area School District agrees: “The education process has to start at home and we need to get back to basics. Families need to garden and/or support local farmers; prepare nutritious foods together; and eat together as a family unit.”

Experts also suggest discussing nutrition choices with your kids, and getting them involved from the beginning in planning – and making! – their lunches.  Encourage open-mindedness in trying new and unfamiliar foods.

Sarah Wu, blogger and author of FED UP WITH LUNCH, suggests five ways that parents can improve school lunches by getting involved: (1) Starting a school wellness committee; (2) Rallying for salad bars; (3) Requesting ingredient transparency; (4) Fighting to increase eating time; and (5) Encouraging nutrition education across the curriculum. (All three Wayne County school districts have wellness committees, by the way; information is available at each district website.)

The school lunchroom has always been a place of barely controlled chaos – but now it’s also a place where a number of critical social issues collide. What happens there not only affects our children’s health and ability to learn – and hence their future effectiveness as citizens and workers –  it’s also connected to our management of the economy and the environment, and shows us just how willing we really are to “promote the general welfare” as our Founders intended. Whether as parents, students, or citizens, we all need to educate ourselves on the issues involved and make our voices heard.


 

And in the meantime, there are all sorts of resources on the Net for making lunches that are both interesting and healthy.  Here’s an easy and clever idea, for example – a RAINBOW LUNCH BOX: Create a colorful assemblage of red strawberries, orange carrots, yellow strips of cheese, green celery sticks, and blue corn tortilla chips!

And here’s another that sounds right yummy – HAM AND CHEESE MUFFINS:

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup or honey
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup ham, chopped fine

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Combine the first 5 dry ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine.
  3. In a separate bowl whisk the eggs, oil and maple syrup and stir to combine.
  4. Add the buttermilk to the egg mixture and stir.
  5. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour and stir until just combined.
  6. Fold in the cheese and ham.
  7. Scoop the batter 2/3 of the way up into greased muffin cups and bake for 18-20 minutes (15 minutes if using mini muffin cups).

 

 

Churn, Churn, Churn

(with apologies to Pete Seeger and the Book of Ecclesiastes)

CHORUS
To everything (churn, churn, churn)
There is a season (churn, churn, churn)
And a time for every stage of the financial cycle

A time to buy low, a time to sell high
A time to invest, a time to downsize
A time to merge, a time to acquire
A time to spin off troubled divisions

(CHORUS)

A time for gain, a time for loss
A time to hire, a time to downsize
A time you may outsource
A time to refrain from outsourcing

(CHORUS)

A time to make loans, a time to collect
A time to refinance, a time to foreclose
A time to issue investor guidance
A time to restate earnings expectations

(CHORUS)

A time to compete, a time to collude
A time to lobby, a time to have lunch
A time to decry intrusive regulation
A time to demand extensive government intervention

(CHORUS)

PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: DEAR BOB

(I don’t know if Sullivan County is in the coverage area for Bob Beierly’s publication OUR TOWN, but here on the PA side of the river you can’t swing a cat without hitting one of his stands.  A longtime feature of local life in Wayne and Pike Counties, this free magazine combining right-wing politics and sometimes salacious humor has recently begun expanding its reach into Orange County, parts of New Jersey and other areas.  In his front-page editorials and stories, Bob presents himself as an unapologetic “conservative Christian patriot,” by turns sentimental and confrontational – sometimes controversially so – and judging by the number of ads he sells, his audience just eats it up.

(The “Patriot Connectors” describe themselves as an “informal patriotic discussion group” that has been meeting for the past three years or so.  They have a website at www.patriotconnectors.com. They recently hosted an appearance by Mr. Beierle, which I happened to attend, and which inspired the following.)

Bob Beierly
Publisher, OUR TOWN
Newfoundland PA

Dear Bob -

Kudos on your appearance at the “Patriot Connectors” meeting at Wallenpaupack High School on August 14.  I knew I was in for an interesting experience when we pulled into the parking lot and found it packed to the gills – clearly, many of your readers were eager to see you in person and put a face to the words they read in your publication.  You must have been very gratified by the turnout, and with the enthusiastic reception you received.  So, sincerely, congratulations.

You wouldn’t have noticed me in the near-overflow crowd … I was only one of many balding and bearded fat white guys in attendance. I saw a few younger couples, some with kids in tow, but mostly the audience was elderly. You may have noticed that rising out of the narrowly spaced seats to stand for the Pledge and the opening prayer was a bit of a struggle for some of us.

(Why weren’t there more younger people, do you think? … And can you make the kind of change you want to make without them?)

You quickly endeared yourself to the crowd, introducing your lovely wife and displaying a kind of aw-shucks humility. (Bringing your “cuss jar” on stage was a nice touch… it gave you a certain license  … though maybe you should have fed it when you got to the phrase “camel-humping” to describe the Benghazi attackers.)  As you warmed up, you touched on many standard conservative tropes – immigration, the “liberal media,” Nancy Pelosi, Benghazi – but I found it interesting that you spoke John Boehner’s name with almost as much disdain as Obama’s… and that you made few if any mentions of any of the major conservative politicians. No shoutouts to Palin, no Cruz, no Rand Paul…  Instead, if I understand you correctly, you see the conservative talk show hosts – Limbaugh, Hannity, Ingraham, etc. – as the people to lead your patriot tribe.  Or rather, you want them to take more of a leadership role; specifically, you want them to encourage a three-day occupation of Washington DC in the spring. You think that such a display – a “million patriots on the Mall,” I believe you stated as a goal – will force the politicians to pay more attention to your concerns, and you encouraged your audience to pressure the talk show hosts towards more action.  (You might recall what happened before the invasion of Iraq, when millions hit the streets not only in DC but around the world in protest, but George W. Bush blithely dismissed the numbers by saying “We don’t run this government based on focus groups.”)

I agree with you on some points – I, too, think the nation is headed in the wrong direction, though we disagree on what direction would be right, and on who’s really guiding the deterioration of the country and its democratic institutions. I agree with you that our political system has become largely unresponsive to the needs of ordinary citizens – though I note that you didn’t talk much about the moneyed corporate interests that government does respond to.  I agree with you that direct action, and increased citizen involvement and participation, will be necessary to get things back on track – but why not start locally, in counties and states? You have to climb some hills before you scale those mountaintops you spoke of so passionately – why not occupy Harrisburg first, or for that matter Honesdale? Can your movement really deal with the realities of governance, in the diverse, polycultural, interconnected America of today?\

I’m very glad that I went to your talk, and I’m looking forward to more dialogue. Next month, I understand the Patriot Connectors will host independent Congressional candidate Nick Troiano. Maybe I’ll see you there.

All the best, your pal,
Skippy

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES – RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, RELIGIOUS FAIRNESS

The folks at Hobby Lobby (which apparently is an evangelical ministry disguised as a craft store) took out a full-page ad in the papers recently, touting the notion that the United States was from the outset intended to be a “Christian nation” (whatever that is supposed to mean – but that’s another column). I guess they were reveling in the heady feeling of victory, following the Supreme Court decision that recognized their right to apply their religious beliefs to the benefit package that they offered their employees. Many liberals and progressives were upset by the decision, but not me.

It was just the opening I’ve been waiting for.

You’re probably aware that members of the Religious Society of Friends (“Quakers”) like myself are pacifists, and oppose military spending. You might not know that some Quakers (and members of other “peace churches,” like the Mennonites and Brethren) take this matter so seriously that to avoid paying for war they withhold some or all of their Federal taxes – with all the consequences that you might expect, from garnishment of wages to actual imprisonment. It’s called “war tax resistance,” and I wrote about it in this space some years ago. (To learn more about war tax resistance, see http://www.nwtrcc.org, or http://www.warresisters.org/wtr_menu.html.)

American law has long recognized the right of citizens to refuse to participate directly in war, when that refusal is based in religious or moral belief (you might remember the phrase “conscientious objectors”). I have maintained that we should also be able to direct our tax dollars away from war, or from any government activity, that violates such beliefs. This is a principle that transcends denomination, though – that is to say, it’s not just for us peaceniks. Conservatives should have a similar right – and it is precisely that right that the Supremes have brought to the fore in the Hobby Lobby case.

So what I want is simple enough. All taxpayers should be able, by means of a simple checkbox on the tax form, to tell the government where not to spend our tax contributions. For me, that means defense; for a conservative Catholic, that might mean family planning. I don’t know how far people might go – would an orthodox Jew or Muslim object to pork subsidies? Would vegetarians prefer to not support the USDA meat inspection program? – but it’s not our place to judge the sincerely held beliefs of others. Religious freedom, right?

Please note a couple of things. My proposal would not affect actual expenditures at all. (The small-government people don’t like this part.) The same amount of money would be spent as Congress appropriated; the money would just be drawn from different sources. It’s a mere matter of bookkeeping, one well within the capabilities of current systems. Indeed, we do something similar already with the Presidential Campaign Fund check-off.

It would also not affect an individual’s overall tax liability, and it says nothing about the government’s right to levy and collect taxes. (This is the point in the argument where the anti-tax activists turn away.)

Finally, this right would not be a trivial thing to claim. Conscientious objectors to military service had to go through a fairly rigorous process of documenting their beliefs, and a similar process should apply here as well.

I doubt that legislation to implement such a proposal would be passed, so I’m thinking a lawsuit would be the way to proceed. A class action against the Department of the Treasury and the IRS, to be exact.

So, if you’re a lawyer with experience in tax law and/or religious freedom issues, or if you know someone who is, or if you’d like to be part of the class, or if you have any suggestions or reactions to my idea, drop me a line, would you please? My email is smendler@yahoo.com, or you can comment below…