Friday, February 24, 2017

Another Big Chill Weekend

“In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.” 
    – The Big Chill

Last November, just a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, a group of our oldest and dearest friends gathered for a “Big Chill Weekend” at a rustic cabin in Blackwater Falls State Park, near Davis, West Virginia.  In years past we would gather regularly at one of the state parks in West Virginia, but as we have grown older, with mounting family and professional responsibilities, these have become less frequent.  We have missed them and decided it was time to gather around the fires more often.

This past weekend we convened once again, this time at Cacapon State Park near Berkeley Springs, in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle.  It was a beautiful, late winter weekend with the temperatures creeping through the 60s into the low 70s, both at home in the environs of Washington, DC, and along the eastern Allegheny ridge lines at the northern terminus of the Shenandoah Valley.  Having endured the first surreal month of the new regime in Washington (I find it difficult to call it an administration or government since no perceptible administering or governing has taken place), all of us were more than happy to find an excuse to get the hell out of Dodge for the long Presidents Day holiday weekend.  The beautiful weather was just icing on the cake. 

Over the years we have escaped to the rural hinterlands within a reasonable day’s drive from our homes.  Sometimes it was just an escape for a long weekend.  Other times the gatherings, although happy and festive on the surface, have been tinged with anger and disappointment.  Once we gathered in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware - a Blue State - to escape DC during Dubya’s second inauguration, in January 2005.  Our gathering in West Virginia - a Red State - last November came just days after the conclusion of the most vicious national election in my memory, marked by the electoral “victory” for DJT and his minions despite the fact he lost the popular election by a few million votes (a fact which he still denies without reason or support).  We all said we would not talk about the election, yet but how was this possible?  We had all just observed a fundamental shift in the political, if not the cultural, fabric of our nation, not to mention its quick slippage into corporate fascism at the highest levels of government.   How could we ignore the fact that the President-Elect was endorsed and applauded by the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi National Policy Institute, along with other white supremacist and nativist cliques.  This alone was sobering, if not frightening in the extreme.  So we enjoyed our fires, our hikes, our books and puzzles, and our communal food and drink, as best we could.  Still, it was hard to ignore an enervating penumbra settling upon the American grain not to mention our own personal lives.

I hate to report that what we feared last November has been visited on us multi-fold since that most outlandish inaugural event just a month ago.  I won’t even begin to tick off the litany of bizarre statements and events that have been the benchmark of the last four, long weeks.  So once again we set off to distance ourselves from the craziness that is Washington these days.  What better time for another “Big Chill Weekend?”   

You may recall Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film The Big Chill starting Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, and Mary Kay Place.  Gary Susman, writing in 2013 to mark the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, claimed that it “touched a huge raw nerve in the culture and became an enormous mainstream hit as a result”.  They cast is a group of seven former college friends, now in their 30s, who attended the University of Michigan during the heyday of the radical student protests against the Vietnam War.  Some have become pillars of the establishment they once railed against.  They have gathered at the vacation home of one of their number in the South Carolina’s Low Country to attend the funeral of another who had committed suicide.  Add to their ranks Meg Tilly, the young girlfriend of their deceased friend played by Kevin Costner . . . cut from the film and uncredited; we see only his sutured wrists as the undertaker dresses him for burial.  “Amazing tradition,” the Jeff Goldblum character offers.  “They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come.”

Since their days as young student revolutionaries, some have married and grown into responsible adulthood.  Others have not.  They are a unmarried real estate lawyer who desperately wants a baby; a physician married to a wealthy business man and former classmate; a sex obsessed novelist writing for People magazine; a Hollywood television actor who cannot deal with celebrity; a maimed and bitter Vietnam veteran turned drug dealer; and an unfulfilled housewife and mother who has designs on the actor, an old college crush.  Their dead friend was a scientific prodigy and progressive firebrand who abandoned academe for social work and manual labor. . . and eventually suicide.  They talk about their former lives and their current disillusionment at what they have become, pointing out how each has sold out their old convictions and values for what seems a steady, mainstream life In Ronald Reagan’s America  . . . except for their dead friend.  “I feel I was at my best when I was with you people,” the physician played by Glenn Close admits.  They eat, drink, smoke dope, and listen to the great rock and R&B music that served as a readily recognizable benchmark of their heady student days.  There is lots of finger pointing and censuring, yet they rediscover their common bond and they all manage to kiss and hug when the weekend visit ends.  They return to their separate lives promising not to wait until the next funeral to renew their friendships.  It is a story of old friends searching for something they have lost only to discover that all they needed was each other.  “Wise up folks,” say the William Hurt character.  “We are all alone out there.

Much like the gathering in The Big Chill, almost all of us in our group came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.  We remember Vietnam although none of us were called to serve.   We were all in Washington on September 11; some of us watching the smoke rise from the Pentagon.  We understand the world in which we live.  We are a lawyer, a computer specialist, a historian and research consultant, an artist, two archivists, and a librarian.  All of us have lived and worked in the Washington milieu for decades.  Some of us have grown children; some have never been parents.  Some of us are now retired and some still get up and trudge into the crowded and traffic-choked city each morning to earn coins of the realm.  So an escape, even for just a couple days, is worth the effort.  Thankfully our weekend gatherings have never centered on a funeral or some other sad or tragic occasion although we have certainly gathered at these, as well.  And one of these days the end of one of us may bring us together much like the cast in the film.  Yet, for the most part, our gathering have been mostly happy occasions when we have managed to escape the Washington humdrum for a long weekend in the woods.  We have lounged in front of cabin fire places and outside fire rings.  We have hiked, shot trap, worked on puzzles, read, listen to and played music, and shared kitchen duties as we prepared communal meals accompanied with good drink.

The film comes with an admonition: “In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.”  We realize we are going to have to rely on each other more and more in the days, months and years ahead.   There will certainly be a need for more of these Big Chill escapes . . . opportunities to reset our compasses in search of a way out of this dark storm.  Hopefully this recent election, despite its insane and fearful aftermath, will result in a self-correction of this bizarre anomaly that has beset our nation.

We must remain confident that we will awaken from this bad dream.  In the film the former college radicals grew silent as they matured into comfortable live.  Rocking the Ship of State was no longer necessary, even desirable.  We should take a lesson in this.  Perhaps it is time for all of us, comfortable in our lives up until now, to stand up and start to rock the boat anew.   It worked before.  It can work again.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

An Executive Order Does Not a King Make - A Return to the Imperial Presidency?

                        Your king is SUPPOSED to explode?  What
                        kind of government system is that?”

                                 – Jefferson Smith, Strange Places (2014)

We have been hearing and reading quite a bit lately about the freshet of executive orders issued by DJT since January 20 (“a date that will live in infamy”).   He seems to think that all he has to do is express his will, show everyone his signature on each order he signs, and it suddenly becomes the law of the land.  Not so fast buddy! 

David Schulz, a professor of political science at Hamline University, in St. Paul, Minnesota, who is a noted authority on public policy and administration and the author of American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research (2013), tells us that there is a Constitutional foundation coupled with legal precedents governing the issuance of executive orders.  Article II, Section I, Clause 1, of the Constitution vests executive power in the president, while Article II, Section 3, requires that the chief executive insure that all laws “be faithfully executed.”  An executive directive – now known as an executive order – is issued by the president to an executive branch department or governmental agency and has the full force of law, just as if it had been passed by the Congress of the United States.  However, an executive order has the force of law ONLY when it comports with the responsibilities and duties of the president granted to him or her by the Constitution of the United States, by federal statute, or by the US Congress.  Add to this the important fact that each executive order can be revoked or stayed by the Supreme Court or a lower federal court, if it violates the Constitution, federally mandated statutes, or any other discretionary powers granted by Congress to the Chief Executive.   There does not appear to be much wiggle room when it comes to the constitutionality of an executive order.

These orders date back to the beginning of our republic.  George Washington issued the first one in 1789 to clarify the duties of the executive branch.  Thomas Jefferson ordered the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, and James Knox Polk ordered the annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845.  Perhaps the most famous executive directive, as it was known at the time, is Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Issued on January 1, 1863 under the war powers act, it changed the legal status of slaves in the confederated states in rebellion against the United States since 1860.  Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order in 1917 in order to prepare this country for entry into World War I.  FDR issued numerous executive orders during World War II.  During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1961-1969), these two presidents issued executive orders to facilitate racial integration and to end segregation throughout the South, and to enforce civil rights across the country.   

These executive orders were designed to give the president the ability to deal with domestic or international emergencies, to clarify stated policies, to streamline existing law, or to address inadequacies in governmental operations.  Unfortunately, there are those, including DJT and many in his administration, who view these orders as a means of circumventing the legislative branch and the strict interpretation of the separation of powers.  And oddly enough, Congress does not seem to have a problem with this.  Well, the federal courts do.  The American people do.  And it’s high time DJT and his minions and Congressional cronies understand this.    

The intended purpose of executive orders, however, is not to unilaterally gut or dismantle programs and policies of a previous administrations.  That is not governing.  That is partisan retribution with no consideration as to how these changes impact the people being governed.  We have seen quite a bit of this over the past three weeks.  It makes one hark back to the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon (someone every president hopes ro emulate?) who used executive orders in his attempt to defund or dismantle federal agencies.  Thankfully the federal courts stymied these attempts. 

Since the inauguration of DJT almost a month ago I am certainly not the first to remind him that he is a president and not a king.  And as president-elect, he stood in front of the Capitol with his hand placed upon two Bibles and took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.   He seem to be somewhat confused as to what that actually means.  The dozens of executive orders DJT has signed to date appear, in almost all instances, to address matters and issues he does not fully comprehend; perhaps because he was not paying attention during all those important transition briefings, most of which he either ditched or apparently doodled and Twittered his way through.  He needs to show some due diligence before he acts and speaks.  So far this has not been the case.

Plain and simple . . . DJT does not have inherent power to issue executive orders to satisfy his personal foibles and caprice.  Their authority must come from the Constitution or laws, subject to their limitations.  I hate to rain on his parade, but hell, let it pour.

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Communities of the Just - There is No Place in America for Intolerance Against Muslims

Photograph by SallyAnn Rogers
                    Give me your tired, your poor,
                    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
                    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
                    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me . . .
                        – Emma Lazarus (1849-1885)
                           “The New Colossus”

Last week at church my pastor spoke about nourishing each other regardless of who we are or where we come from.  I thought about this over the past week, a week filled with media reports about the current administration’s banning of refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries.  The Statue of Liberty, where the Lazarus sonnet appears on a bronze plaque, does not apply to only certain huddled masses, but to all refugees to these shores regardless of where they came from or what god they chose to worship. 

In its self-professed infinite wisdom, the administration believes this travel ban would prevent “Islamic terrorists” from entering the country and doing harm to Americans.  Strange that Saudi Arabia, the homeland of 15 of the 19 September 11 terrorists, is not on this list.  It seems to me that the president is not so much interested in protecting Americans and those who reside in this country, since many affected by the ban are legal residents of the United States, and have been for year.  He is more interested in protecting Christians, both here and abroad.

After ordering the ban, and during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on January 27, the president stated that persecuted Christians would be given priority over other refugees seeking to enter this country, adding that they have been "horribly treated."   He freely admitted that others (I am assuming he means Muslims) are being persecuted in these countries covered by the ban – “they were chopping off the heads of everybody” - before he began offering up his alternative facts - “but more so the Christians.   And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them."   Where is the evidence for this?  When has this country ever given priority to Muslim refugees over Christians?   Please show me.  And how can we equate legitimate refugees fleeing terrorism with those wishing to come to this country to perpetrate terrorism?   Please, please show me!  Where are the facts?  Not the alterative facts, but the real facts?

So I thought back to last week’s lesson at church.  Nourish others.  OK, let me offer some food for thought.  True Christians – and I like to think of myself as one – live their lives in the words of Christ.  So consider what the Bible says about intolerance of others who do not necessarily share one’s beliefs.  In the Gospel According to Luke, there is the story of Jesus visiting a Samaritan village on his way to Jerusalem. “But the people would not receive him.  And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?  But he turned and rebuked them.  And they went to another village."  (Luke 9: 53-56]
Jesus had to remind his disciples that he came not to destroy the lives of others, but to give them comfort and salvation.  It was up to them whether they chose to listen.

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, in which he commented on the dietary habits of Christians, cautioned them not to offend the followers of other religions.  "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God.  Give no offence to the Jews or to the Greeks [Gentiles] or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do . . . ." [1 Corinthians 10:31-33]  Can a just society do anything but this?

And just as true Christians live their lives in the word of Christ, true Muslims honor the word of God/Allah through the message of the prophet Mohammed.  Muslims are taught to treat Jews and Christians, described in the Qur’an as “the People of the Book,” with equal justice, and with love and compassion.  In the 60th Surah - Surat al-Mumtahana - Verse 8, God speaks through Mohammed: “God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just.”
In the 5th Surah - Surat al-Ma’ida - Verse 48, God speaks again through Mohammed:
“We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.”

The values and teaching of the Qur’an hold a true Muslim responsible for treating all people, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, kindly and justly.  They are called upon to protect the innocent and those in need and live a just life "nor forget your portion in this world: but you do good, as God has been good to you, and do not seek mischief in the land.  For God does not love those who do mischief." [28th Surah - Surat al-Qasas - Verse 77)

It turns out all of us - Christians and Muslims –  have been taught the same lessons, and we want the same things in life.  There is no reason to fear Muslims, or to be intolerant of their beliefs, simply because they have chosen a different path to God/Allah.  I am happy to see Americans . . . Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists . . . it really doesn’t matter . . . standing up and marching here in Washington, and across America and the globe, speaking out as communities of the just against the myopic and xenophobic intolerance and fear-mongering of the new administration.   While it tries to seal America away from the rest of the world, it is the duty of each of us to echo the final verse of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet.  “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”  Let the light of truth shine through the darkness of hate and intolerance, and let the communities of the just have the final word.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

I Hate February . . . The Cruelest Month

OK, let's get it over with. I hate February. I always have and I always will. True, it is a short month, but not short enough. Not in my book.  It lasts only 28 days (and sometimes 29 although thankfully not this year).  Only 28 days and yet they always seem to be the longest days of the year.  I hate February.  My wife tells me to “get over it,” but it’s not an easy thing to do.  Here’s why.  It’s not a pretty picture.

February is not quite winter, and nowhere close to being spring.  A dreary month indeed.  Tomorrow we observe Ground Hog Day when the critter interrupts its hibernation to emerge from his hole to see his shadow or not, and to decide how much winter remains before returning to his slumber.  Is it possible he looks out and realizes “Holy shit, it’s February,” and sees no reason to stay awake?   I know the feeling well.  “Hey,” says Lewis Black looking down at his wrists in February.  “Maybe I should slit 'em to see color!”

There is nothing to looks forward to forward to in February.  But what about Ground Hog’s Day?  It’s just a reason to remind you how much February sucks.  But what about Valentine’s Day.  Originally a Christian liturgical feast day, it has morphed into a highly commercialized franchise (run by a big eastern syndicate, you know).  Cards, candy, expensive dinners, and rose petal strewn sheets on a heart-shaped bed in some bungalow in the Poconos (too much information?) . . . it has become my Scrooge “holiday.”  A “bogus holiday at best” to once again quote Mr. Black [].  I love my wife of 42 years for 365 (and sometimes 366) days a year, and I don’t need a special day . . . least of all one in February (you will see Mr. Black put it more succinctly if you click on the link) . . . to demonstrate that fact.  Does that make me a Scrooge?  If so, so be it.  Bah, humbug! 

When I was a kid we celebrated both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and George Washington’s (February 22) as public holidays, although today only a few states recognize Lincoln’s birthday as a separate holiday.  Washington’s birthday is a federally recognized holiday, but now it is celebrated on the third Monday of February (this year on 20th) and is more popularly known as Presidents Day.  Now we are obliged to celebrate all presidents, whether they were born in February or not (besides Washington and Lincoln, only Ronald Reagan and William Henry Harrison were born in February).  So now we are called upon to celebrate the likes of Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S Grants . . . . oh, the list goes on right up until today.  I don’t want to celebrate these guys, and I certainly don’t want to do it in February when everything already seems grim and hopeless.  Sanctuary now!

Come to think of it. why are the prettiest young ladies on the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar always consigned to the February???  It’s just not right.  So my apologies to any of my readers, friends, or family who were born in February.  I know it is not your fault.  You can’t help when you were born.  Still, couldn’t you have been early or late.  Babies are always early or late.  So, in some small way, it's really your own damned fault.  Even I, whose timing is not always the greatest, managed to hold off until March.

I told you it was not a pretty picture.  So yes, I hate February.  I always have and I always will.

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Year of the Cock

Well, that title must have caught your attention.  One can also say it is the Year of the Rooster, or, more correctly, the Year of the Chicken, since the Chinese word applied to this particular lunar new year cycle is not gender specific.   But I got your attention, right?

The cock, or rooster, is an energetic creature and very aggressive.  It is not monogamous, preferring to stand guard over several hens and their general nesting area while attacking any other cock that attempts to encroach upon its territory (hence the term “cockfight”).  Cocks also strut as they exercise their dominance over their female broods.  

The Chinese New Year 2017 – the Year of the Cock – begins today, which corresponds with the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice.  Usually falling between mid January and mid February, this ancient ritual celebrating the spring renewal is the longest of the traditional Chinese holidays, dating back to circa 2600 BCE.  It will last for six days, until February 2.  It is said that the Taoist sign of the cock – a yang symbol that is the tenth sign in the twelve year cycle of Chinese zodiac – represents an observant and quick wit suggesting practical solutions through hard work, punctuality and fidelity.  It predicts a time of rebirth, transformation and growth; a year to renew and to restore, to replace the old with the new.  A cock with new plumage as it were.  It is the only fowl to be represented in the Chinese zodiac, last appearing in 2005.

Although modern China uses the international Gregorian calendar today, it still observes the traditional lunar calendar.  And this year the Chinese New Year is getting a lot of attention both home and abroad.  The Economist is reporting that China’s largest festival is going global in a big way, and the government hopes that Chinese communities around the work will ramp up the festivities.  Other countries throughout Asia celebrate the lunar new year in their own unique way, but the Chinese version is probably the best known and most widely celebrated as a result of the widespread Chinese diaspora going back to the 19th century.  An aggressive celebration of a new year represented by an aggressive, and yes, sometime vain cock.  Is this a cautionary tale perhaps?

This year’s celebration in China includes a faux panegyric to our fresh-baked Chief Executive . . . something I am quite certain he will enjoy and take in the spirit it was intended . . . or not.  A large statute of a white cock, this one adorned with his golden coiffure representing what was once described as “the furrowed wake that a speedboat would leave on a lake of orange sherbet” . . . “a mullet that died in some horrific accident.”  Oh, I could go on and on.  One of the statue’s feathered “hands” gesticulates our Dear Leader’s omnipresent lecturing finger, the other accentuating his “AOK” sign formed with his thumb and middle digit (the guy really needs new shtick, I think).  This statue was recently erected outside a shopping mall in Taiyun, the capital of a northern Shanxi province, and it has become the subject of a media frenzy.  Since then a factory located in Jiaxing, near Shanghai, has been manufacturing and selling dozens of giant inflatable presidential cocks, some as high as 15 feet, to shopping malls across China.  Photographs of these statues have been popping up in the international media and have gone viral on numerous social media platforms. (I wonder if DJT will demand more photos to prove that there are actually more presidential statues than were actually manufactured and sold?)  You know you cant trust the media, or so he wants us to believe.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to share this with you.  Have a Happy Lunar New Year!!

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Monday, January 23, 2017

An Appetite for Destruction?

Human brutes, like other beasts, find snares and  poison in the provision of life, and are allured by their appetites to their destruction.
    – Jonathan Swift, circa 1765

We can only hope.  I will continue to write and post here and elsewhere about the new “administration” [sic], but I will never use that man’s name, nor will I post his photograph.  Yet you will surely know who I am writing about.  He likes to see his name in print.  His day is brightened each time his visage appears in the media.  But not here.  Ever!! 

To quote Ruth Marcus, writing in The Washington Post on January 20, 2017 . . . inauguration day; “he has triumphed despite his dishonesty, his vulgarity, his addiction to social media, his lack of religious faith, his many wives, all of the elements of his character and personal history . . . . ”  He is a “man incapable of confessing error and constantly compelled to counterpunch . . . . “

He will find no sanctuary here. I refuse to nourish his puerile appetites.  We can only hope they will lead to the ultimate repudiation of the man and his vision of America.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

We Still Have A Dream - A Women's March on Washington and Beyond

This is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of  democracy like I’ve never seen in my very long life.
   – Gloria Steinem

It was a foggy, rainy morning today here in Washington, DC.  I dropped my wife at a friend’s house before they assembled with others at a local church to be shuttled to the Washington Mall in busses provide by Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer (who also happens to be the House Minority Whip).  They would add their bodies and voices to the hundreds of thousands of women and men who had assembled there in a call for universal human rights, civil rights,  and gender equality.  Although the primary goal of the march was to show solidarity on these key issues, it was also an orderly groundswell protest against the xenophobic policies and comments of a new president and the ill-advised and dangerous direction in which he wants to lead this country. 

I had hoped to join in the march, but with the ever expanding schedule of events and speakers, and an extension of the original march route, I soon realized my back and hip would never hold up.  But I was there in spirit, listening to live streamed speeches throughout the day while checking out all the photos and texts being posted on social media platforms.  It is too bad the weather was not more cooperative, but it did not prevent the messages from getting though loud and clear.  This is my personal contribution to that effort.

And they were not marching just here in Washington!  There were reports of over 600 “sister marches” across the nation.  I have friends who were marching in New Hampshire and Maine . . . in Florida, Chicago, Toronto, Montréal. Cincinnati, Denver, and New Orleans.  They also marched in Seneca Falls, New York, in Helena, Montana . . .  and in Berlin, Germany.   There were marches in Mexico, Australia, London, Paris, and Capetown.  Too many to list here (see map).  They were even joined by a small international group on board an expedition ship in Paradise Bay, in Antarctica.  Voices were raised across the planet since the demand for universal human rights and gender equality are global issues, not just American ones.  And these are not just women’s issues.  "We cannot all succeed,” Malala Yousafzai tells us, “when half of us are held back."  Women and men were marching together in solidarity.  And isn’t this the way it should be?  We are all in this together.  We will all suffer if we are not heard and respected.

What happened today here in Washington and across the globe cannot end today. “The end is not near,” film maker Michael Moore told a reporter.  “The beginning is near.”  But there is still a great deal of work left to be done.  It will not be easy; it will be a constant struggle.  That said, however, it is no Sisyphean ordeal.  Gloria Steinem hit the nail on the head.  "The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving."  Let’s ALL keep moving forward, pushing forward . . .  even if it is an uphill battle at times.

Tonight the streets of Washington are quiet again, but the demands for a commitment to universal human rights, to gender equality, as well as for economic and racial justice . . . for everyone . . . will continue to echo far and wide . . . IF we continue to stand in solidarity with one another.  To quote Ms. Steinem again in conclusion: “Whenever one person stands up and says, ‘Wait a minute, this is wrong,’ it helps other people do the same.“

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day - A Descent Into Mediocrity . . . or Worse

                        Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.
                            – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have gone dark today . . . except for writing this.  It is a dark day for America and I have no interest in what that man has to say. There is no resonance of truth in any of his many boasts and claims.  A liar, a narcissist, a sexual predator, a mediocrity of the first order as he respects no one more than himself.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got it right.

The new president (a lower case president to be sure) seems to bask in his ability to remain detached from the world we live in.  He does not read or attend intelligence briefings.  He considers it a badge of honor that he does not read books.  He speaks in cliches, catch phrases, and self aggrandizing encomia.  Soft skinned to the extreme, he cannot tolerate dissent or debate, maintaining he already knows everything he needs to know.   So how can I celebrate the next chapter in the history of our republic when it looks more like an epilogue?  And a sad and disheartening one at that.  I cannot bring myself to acknowledge the pomp and circumstance playing itself out today less than three miles from where I sit in my home study writing this.  I see no reason to celebrate.

Instead, I have just re-read “Les Amis du Président,” William Styron’s essay based on his July 26, 1981 account - “A Leader Who Prefers Writers to Politicians” - published in The Boston Globe after he returned home from attending the inauguration of French president François Mitterrand two months earlier.  Styron (1925-2006) spent a great deal of time in Europe, especially in Paris, and was among the founders of the seminal Paris Review, in 1953.  Mitterrand would later name Styron a Commandeur in the French Légion d'honneur.   He was among seven writers . . . three of them American . . . personally invited by the newly elected President to be among the fewer than 200 in attendance for the actual ceremony at the base of the Arc de Triomphe on a gray day threaten by rain . . . very much like today here in Washington.  He joined Arthur Miller, Elie Wiesel, Gabriel Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, Yachar Kemal, as well as the widow of Pablo Neruda..  There were no heads of state, no diplomats . . . “very little pomp and circumstance.”  Yet there were the writers!

Styron sat next to French European Commissioner Claude Cheysson (1920-2012), soon to be tapped as the new French foreign minister, at a luncheon at the Elysée Palace after the ceremony.  When asked what he though of the invitation, Styron told Cheysson it was a rare honor; “Writers were very rarely accorded this kind of recognition, especially in the United States . . . and that it was fun to help celebrate this day with a president who was so obviously and passionately in love with the written word.”  Mitterrand, in Styron’s eye, was “perhaps alone among the chiefs of state of our time, who cares for writers more than the members of any other profession – more than lawyers, more than scientists, more than politicians . . . . “  And when the new French president and his party processed down the broad boulevard Saint-Michel, on the Left Bank, on their way to the Sorbonne after the luncheon, he was accompanied by Styron and the writers invited to the ceremony.  “A concern for culture and the intellect is not mere style with Mitterrand,” Styron writes.  “But central to his being.”

As far as I can tell, not one Republican president has ever invited a poet to read at his inauguration, to celebrate the rich heritage and diversity of our nation.  In 1961, John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost.  Jimmy Carter invited James Dickey sixteen years later.  Maya Angelou and Miller Williams were on the dais when Bill Clinton took the oath of office.  Barack Obama invited Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco.   Once again there was no poet in attendance today.  I would hardly expect one to show up even if she or he had been invited.  Language, culture, intellect means nothing to the man now ensconced in the White House, a man who has called for the elimination of both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities?  He should not find much objection from the conservative Republican in Congress (is there really any other kind?).  Instead, former US poet laureates Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will join American poets of every stripe and color to protest today’s inauguration with “Writers Resist” rallies around the country.

Finally, should not leaders of their peoples and nations be among the smartest people, the most engaged people their nation has to offer?   I am reminded of John F. Kennedy, one of our more intellectually and culturally astute leaders, who while speaking at a White House dinner celebrating Nobel laureates, in April 1962, called the assembly “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”  Think back to Jefferson and our other revolutionary founders – Washington, Adams. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.   Add to them John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.  These men all understood how one governs properly.  That said, there have been other presidents who were less than stellar – Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and Richard Nixon.  All of them mediocrities on their best day.  In 1980, and again in 1984, American elected a mediocre movie star.  Now they have elected the former host of a “reality” show with absolutely no government experience.  No idea how governing really works.  He is also the first president in 25 years without an advanced degree who seems only interested in himself.  Americans seem to idolize celebrity over intellect.  But are we prepared to pay the price for our failure to elect a qualified leader who understands the nuances of governing?    

A mediocrity pure and simple now captains the ship of state.  Should we not be raising the bar instead of lowering it?  America certainly deserves better than it is got today.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Today is Not Just Another Day Off

Today we commemorate and honor the life and legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). We have been doing this on an annual basis since 1971, and this year it is of the utmost importance that we do so. Yes, it is a holiday and most of us are enjoying a rare three-day weekend with family and friends. But it is critical that we remember Reverend King and what he stood for. Let his wisdom and words guide us as this country enters a period of uncertainty when our people seem more divided than ever before in recent history.

Reverend King reminded us that we should never be silent . . . that we should stand up for what we believe in and speak out against injustice in every guise. "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." As we observe the transition of power in Washington this week, we should not look at it as the end of what was good, but as a clarion call to rise up and speak out for what we believe in. We will not be intimidated. "In the end," Reverend King warned, "we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."  Don’t let this happen!

Fifty years ago this country appeared to be coming apart at the seams. Our cities were burning and we were divided over a war so many of us opposed. It was a time when some of us found our own voices for the first time and finally stood up to say we would not be dictated to. We fought to take our country back and put it on a path on which we could all enjoys peace and the pursuit of happiness. Today we find ourselves divided again. It is time to speak out again. Do not be silent.  Let your voice be heard.  "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people," Reverend King told us a half century ago.  Words of wisdom we should never forget.

So stand up, speak your mind, and let your voice ring out loud and clear!

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Time to Sweep 2016 Under the Rug . . . And Don't Put Away That Broom Yet!!

It is said that on December 31, 1943 the monks at the Benedictine abbey situated atop Monte Cassino, in Italy’s Liri Valley southeast of Rome, wrote in their log: “A terrible year has ended.  God forgive us our errors.”  Not that the monks had any say in the death and destruction brought to Italy that previous autumn.  Over the next several months the abbey became the focal point of a life and death struggle as the Allies tried to capture Rome, liberate Italy, and expel Nazi Germany from the soft underbelly of Europe.  It was a pile of rubble when it was all over.

So there have been many bad years throughout history.  Yet this past year has sucked in so many ways and on so many levels.  And honestly, given the present circumstances, I do not hold out much hope that 2017 will be any better.  Already this morning a major terrorist attack in Istanbul has claimed the lives of dozens of innocent holiday revelers.  Come this time next December, we might all look back on 2016 as the “Good Old Days.”  I might be wrong, but I am guessing I’m not. 

There have been heartfelt losses every year, but 2016 seems to have been particularly cruel in robbing us of so many impressive and talented people.  In no particular order there are those heroes who worked hard to preach peace instead of war, who struggled to make this world a far better place in which to live and love: Elie Wiesel, Simon Peres, Umberto Eco, John Glenn, Boutros-Boutros Ghali, Tom Hayden, Daniel Berrigan, and my old boss Janet Reno; those whose music were benchmarks in the late 20th century and into the 21st: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey, Keith Emerson, Merle Haggard, Bobbie Vee, George Michael, Paul Kantner, Leon Russell, and George Martin; those who entertained us on stage, in films and on television: Alan Rickman, Garry Shandling, Patty Duke, Gene Wilder, Florence Henderson, Abe Vigoda, Michael Cimino, Edward Albee. Peter Schaffer, and now this past  week Carrie Fischer and her mother Debbie Reynolds, and in the waning hours of 2016 William Christopher; there are those who amazed us in sports: Mohammed Ali, Arnold Palmer, Ralph Branca, and Gordie Howe; and the writers and journalists whose work set the highest standards for a free expression of ideas: Jim Harrison, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, Alvin Toffler, Gwen Ifill, Morley Safer, and John McLaughlin.  May they all find peace in whatever lies beyond this mortal coil.  There are also many who have left us to whom I say good riddance.  The world is better off without them.  Even better had their lives never shadowed our threshold.  I won’t even utter their names.  Unfortunately the good often die young, or before their time, and far outnumber those who have outlasted their welcome.  That will never change.

Another loss we cannot even begin to measure is our cherished democracy here in the United States which is quickly slipping through our fingers.  After what Dave Barry has called “the grim death march that is the modern American presidential campaign” Americans have elected - or should I say a group of less than 600 men and women chosen by the individuals states to serve in the long obsolete electoral College have elected - a new and hopelessly naive president-elect who seems to bask in his ignorance of the very real problems facing this nation and its people . . . especially the most disadvantaged among us.  And he apparently had the Russians’ help in the process.  What is wrong with this picture?

Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and our president-elect tweets while ignoring those who can advise him well.  He eschews intelligence briefings while claiming he already knows what is best for America.  Does he?  On top of it all he pledges he will be unpredictable.  "No one is going to touch us, because I'm so unpredictable."  The conservative writer Charles Krauthammer tells us that this pathological narcissist has gone “beyond narcissism” exhibiting an “infantile hunger for approval and praise” as he lives in “a cocoon of solipsism.”  This does not bode well for America and the many challenges we face in this fast paced world.   The presidential historian Joseph J. Ellis reminds us of a historical truism . . . . “that inherited circumstances define the parameters within which presidential leadership takes place - that history shapes presidents rather than vice versa.”   An individual can make history yet this same individual will never fully understand the ramifications of the history she or he has made. This is a lesson the president-elect would do well to heed.   But it does not look like he got the memo, or he failed to read it, if he did.

Since his election in November the president-elect has gone out of his way to appoint individuals to his cabinet and administration who seem hell bent on destroying the very departments and agencies they have been asked to lead. The CEO of Exxon/Mobil and a good friend of Vladimir Putin, the fascist thug trying to make Russia great again, has been tapped as Secretary of State; a former governor of Texas and presidential candidate who threatened to eliminate the Department of Energy (although he could not remember what it was called during a debate) chosen to head that very same department; a rather dim-witted neurosurgeon to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development despite the fact that he admits he knows nothing about its responsibilities and has never held a government position in his life; a Wall Street hedge fund manager with no government experience to be the Secretary of the Treasury although the president-elect railed against these “hedge fund guys” during the campaign and has indicated he wants to get rid of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform legislation; a supporter of private and charter schools over free public education to lead the Department of Education; a vocal opponent of Obamacare without an alternative plan to oversee Health and Human services; an attorney general designate who failed to win confirmation as a federal judge due to his poor civil and human rights record; a fast food executive who opposes a liveable minimum wage to head the Department of Labor; a supporter of unlimited drilling and a climate change denier to head the Department of the Interior; retired generals to oversee Defense and Homeland Security and to serve as National Security Advisor (after the president-elect claimed during the campaign that if elected he might fire some of the top generals now running the military); a billionaire investor who opposed existing trade agreements to head the Commerce Department as the president-elect has pledged to eliminate the Consumer Protection Act; a billionaire corporate raider to be Special Advisor on Regulatory Reform; a former head of World Wrestling Entertainment to run the Small Business Administration; a supporter of the fossil fuel industry to head the Environmental Protection Agency; and the wife of the Senate Majority Leader as Secretary of Transportation.  Add to these a white supremacist and nationalist as a senior White House advisor and strategist.   And the president-elect is not yet finished with his appointments. How is this going to make America great again as he has promised?   He hasn’t really told us how yet and I suspect he doesn’t really know.  Are you scared yet?

On top of this the president-elect wants build a wall to keep out browned skinned people from Mexico and beyond.  We wants to bar entry to any Muslims trying to enter the country and to register those already here . . . much like the Nazi’s registered and tattooed the Jews and other undesirables.  He wants to put all mosques under surveillance.  He wants to deport millions of immigrants illegally living in the United States. He wants to eradicate health insurance, especially for those who need it most, while offering nothing concrete to replace it (although he tells us it will be “terrific” when he does).  He wants to defund Planned Parenthood while pledging to “take care of women” (we all know what that means, right?).  He has made fun of physically challenged individuals for a cheap laugh.   He has bragged about grabbing women’s pussies just because he can.  He wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and strip away environmental safeguards through ignorance about the science of climate change.  He wants to gut the legislation that has taken years to clean our water and air.   He wants to start a nuclear arms race.  He wants to return American to its former isolationism that made it possible for despots and demagogues of the past to force the world into wars that this country eventually had to fight.   That said, he wants to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” while authorizing the killing of family members of suspected terrorists while authorizing the use of waterboarding and other torture. He wants to expand military spending for weapons and military adventuring while gutting the Department of Veterans Affairs.  He has at one time or another pledged to take the United States out of the UN, NATO, NAFTA, and the TTP.   Why not make them better?   He wants to end the exploration of space.  He wants concealed-carry permits recognized in all 50 states and he has claimed he would get rid of gun-free zones at military bases and in schools despite the plague of mass shooting in this country.  He is a racist, a misogynist, and a sexual predator.  And all of this is somehow going to make America great again?

What makes America great is building on what has made us great in the past; not to reverse or destroy it just because someone else came up with the idea first. The president-elect must be comforted by the realization that he knows what is best for this country and its citizens. Unfortunately, history is full of narcissistic demagogues who convinced themselves that they had all the answers.  And they somehow convinced their citizens to believe them, to trust them, to follow them to greatness . . . usually by finding a scapegoat on which to blame their nations’ ills.   It never ended well and these “leaders” saw their creations cast onto the ash heap of history at the cost of millions of lives.  Is this how we want to make America great again?   I don’t think so.  I never thought I would ever find myself quoting Ronald Reagan, but maybe I should since many who voted for the president-elect see him as a natural successor to Reagan and his vision of America.  “Someone once said that every form of government has one characteristic peculiar to it and if that characteristic is lost, the government will fall. In a monarchy, it is affection and respect for the royal family. If that is lost the monarch is lost. In a dictatorship, it is fear. If the people stop fearing the dictator he'll lose power. In a representative government such as ours, it is virtue. If virtue goes, the government fails. Are we choosing paths that are politically expedient and morally questionable? Are we in truth losing our virtue? . . . If so, we may be nearer the dustbin of history than we realize.” Unfortunately Reagan did not follow his own advice and his warning proved true.  Still, maybe the president-elect might want to sit up and take note . . . to learn from history?   But I doubt he will.  He and his cronies know what is best for us, right?

 All of a sudden 2017 is not looking very bright or promising.  And it all begins with Santa Claus murdering dozens of holiday revelers celebrating the arrival of the New Year. 

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

This is the End of 2016 My Beautiful Friend, the End

It’s New Year’s Eve and we gather together or sit alone and say good-bye to the year past while welcoming the new year full of unknown potential for good and bad.  It should be a time of fanfare and fireworks.  Not this time.  Looking back over 2016 I can only say “good riddance!”  Burn it down!  Looking forward to 2017?  Anyone’s guess. 

I certainly did not accomplish everything I had hoped to do this year.  But does one ever?  There were a number of research projects keeping me busy, and there were always the various writing projects - a novel, a novella, some short stories - that moved forward although not as quickly, and often not as satisfactorily as I had hoped.  Still, I persevere.  It’s what writers do.  Be happy with what you get down on paper.

I have not posted here very much this year.  I guess my mind has just been elsewhere.  There were none of the usual “Dispatches from Maine” during the summer months.  Distractions.  Everyone seemed to have them as we watched our politicians (I hesitate to call them leaders) eat their young during what had to be one of the most divisive national elections in our history.  It just seemed easier to submerge myself into the fictional worlds I have created.  There is a satisfaction even if the work goes slower than one had hoped.  So I will persevere.  There is still much work to do.

Tomorrow I will take a look back at the year we are thankfully leaving behind.  Every year comes with loss and disappointment, yet 2016 had more than its share.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Celebrating Our 42nd Anniversary Today!!

               Photo Taken December 27, 1974 in Pensacola, Florida.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A True American Hero in Every Sense of the Word

I have just learned that John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962, passed away today at age 95 at the Ohio State University medical center in Columbus.

Glenn was the last surviving member of the original Mercury astronauts who also later flew on the Space Shuttle in October 1998, becoming the oldest person ever to fly in space at age 77. That should have been enough to make him a hero in anyone’s book. Yet he had the right stuff long before he became an astronaut, flying 59 combat missions as a Marine pilot in the South Pacific during World War II after enlisting in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He later flew 90 combat missions over Korea during two tours of duty in that conflict. He was a man who never walked away from danger in the service of his country. For his bravery he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and many other honors.

It seems these days the label "hero" is thrown around too easily, affixed to any individual who is simply doing his or her job. But John Glenn was so much more than that. He always did far beyond what was expected of him, and often at great risk of physical harm or death. That is a hero in my book. There aren’t too many out there anymore, and it is always a sad day when one leaves us behind.

John Glenn led a long and honorable life . . . a heroic life. He has slipped the surly bonds of earth for the last time. May he rest in peace.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Happy Holiday Greetings!

Wishing everyone a very festive holiday season and best wishes for a return to sanity in 2017!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Eight Years and Counting!!

Today marks eight years I have been posting blog entries at "Looking Toward Portugal." I thank you for your support over the years . . . over a quarter of a million hits.

For those of you who have followed my blog postings I must apologize for my silence over the summer when I was taking a deep look inward.

But I am back to posting and i hope you will continue to read and support my blogspot.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Why I Write What I Write and When

Not long ago a friend and fellow blogger posted an interesting comment on Facebook – “Where I Get My Blog Post Ideas.”   So it got me to thinking.  Why do I write what I do and when?  It has never been that much of a problem.  Since I first began this blog eight years ago today, I have posted 381 times.  I have written about whatever strikes my fancy at any particular moment.  Sometimes it is something I read or heard.  Or perhaps a commentary on a recent road trip or some place I had visited.  A recollection of some event in my earlier life.  Maybe a response to something I ate or drank.  Or perhaps something purely whimsical.  Some posts were outlined before they were written; others have been raw and spontaneous.  This is what makes a blog so interesting and challenging.  You write what you want, when you want, and there is no editor to tell you "No thanks."   This is why, until now, I have called these postings "random notes from the edge of America."  I have always thought of the edge of America in geographical terms, writing as I am most of the time along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.  I was always Looking Toward Portugal in the quest for something new and interesting to write about.

On rare occasions I have proffered a political or cultural commentary.  I have tried to steer clear of these as much as possible; I don’t expect my readers to believe what I believe or think what I think.  I simply want to expand civilized debate.  But every once in a blue moon I can’t help myself.   Something so egregious occurs that there is no place for debate.  Evil in every guise requires a full throated condemnation.  No mincing of words.

More recently these censures have addressed the growing attacks on free speech in Turkey where journalists and secular politicians have been jailed or worse.   Here at home there have been the broadening attacks on the LGBT community in North Carolina and elsewhere.  Many of you may have noticed a rather atypical silence during my long annual summer hiatus in Maine this year.  I took a deep look inward as I observed the vicious election rhetoric coupled with the rise of authoritarian populism (Fascism for a lack of a better term) and demagoguery throughout Europe, as well as here in the United States.  How am I to respond to these disturbing developments?  And should I do so here?

Perhaps this is no longer a time for random jottings about everything or nothing at all.  Times have become too uncertain . . . even dangerous . . . .to entertain whimsy.  And now, as I look at the turn of events in my own country following the recent election, I recognize the need to speak out clearly about injustices and cultural crimes emerging from the shadows here at home.  I wish this were not the case, but the future does not bode well for democracy in the American republic.  Now I suddenly find myself on the cultural and political fringes of my American homeland when my own rights, and those of many of my friends and colleagues, are being infringed upon and threatened from within.  

So I beg your patience if and when such polemics rise to the surface.  I will try to reign in my horses as best I can, but sometime things need to be said as directly and to the point as possible so that there is no confusion as to where I stand.  Again, I offer these to you only as food for thought.  Nothing more.  Take them for what they are worth.

As I noted in my Thanksgiving greetings yesterday, I shall continue to strive to share my impressions of those things that bind us in the American experience; places and events that exist regardless of one’s political sentiment.  We still have that in common . . . at least for now.  Let us pray no one tries to take this from us.  That is when we will man the barricades and the real revolution will begin!  

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Wishing Everyone a Blessed and Happy Thanksgiving

Today we gather together with family and friends to give thanks for the what we have, whether it be much or little.  Regardless of what you might think of Eckhart Tolle, the German-born spiritual thinker, I have to agree with him when he wrote in his 2005 book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose: “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”  Despite the uncertain times we live in, when it seems that we as a people are recklessly casting aside the gifts afforded us as Americans, let us be thankful for what we do have and pledge to ourselves that no person or group shall deprive us of what is fundamentally ours as sisters and brothers in the human community.

Today let us give thanks for what is still good and promising - those things that bind us in the American experience; people, places, and events that exist regardless of one’s political sentiment.  Let us build on our common bonds and renew our willingness to do everything in our power to insure that these are not usurped. 

So let us give thanks today for what we have and what we share.  “Hem your blessings with thankfulness so they don’t unravel.” 

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Donald Trump - Making the Know Nothings Great Again

I have long tried to steer clear of political subjects and partisan rhetoric.  But with this country and the rest of the world descending into insanity, I find it more and more difficult to get a grip on my horses.  I feel I must speak my mind on what I consider to be one of the gravest threats to the continuation of the Great American Experiment set in motion 240 years ago by our Founding Fathers.

I never thought I would see the United States of America descend into fascism.  I was wrong.  I am not the first person to coin the term “the American Mussolini.” That distinction belongs to Dana Milbank, a opinion writer for The Washington Post, who affixed the moniker to Donald Trump back in early December 2015 when he pointed out that the candidate was “pulling the party to the black-shirted right by playing on fears of foreigners and racial and religious minorities.”  He refers to Trump’s physical and behavioral similarities to the clownish and bullying former Italian dictator who coupled his own fate with that of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime in Germany . . . his “chin-out toughness, sweeping right-hand gestures,” his ego and his fondness for pointing out the stupidity of his opponents.  Some have been quick to compare Trump’s overt fascism to that of Adolf Hitler.  Having long been a student of fascism and that which results from it, I have been guilty of this myself.  But Hitler, despite his inherent evil, was no fool.  Mussolini was.  And so is Donald Trump.  He is a fool and a fascist.  Furthermore Milbank points out that Trump is quick to show contempt for facts while feeding on the “pervasive sense of fear and overwhelming crisis” of his followers who, in my own humble opinion, show their ignorance more than their apprehensions.  Trump, like Hitler and Mussolini, finds a scapegoat for all that is wrong in America . . . usually foreigners and Muslims both foreign and domestic.  I have to agree with Milbank.  It is “necessary to call Trump the racist, bigot and demagogue that he is.”  Milbank’s assessment was repeated a month later by Andrew Roberts in The Telegraph (UK) who claimed to be dumbfounded and embarrassed by Trump’s “egotistical vulgarity” and “obscene self-regard,” finding Mussolini as perhaps “Trump’s secret template.”  Their words, not mine.  But I can’t help but agree.

This is a sad day for American democracy and the fate of our republic.  America is no longer a beacon to the world.   The rest of the world is laughing at us.  None of us will be laughing for long.

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

East Germany Redux? - Boycott North Carolina !!

A couple days ago North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory announced the creation of a 24-hour “Offender Hotline” enabling individuals to report others whom they consider “gender suspicious” and possibly in violation of the provisions of the recently enacted HB2 - the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act” - which prohibits transgender individuals from using a public bathroom other than the one corresponding to the gender assigned to them at birth.  I recall living in Asheville, North Carolina in the early 1960s when visiting a public bathroom was determined by the color of one’s skin.  How can we step backwards now?  This new state law supercedes any local non-discrimination laws and ordinances to the contrary.  “We need our state to unite as one,” the governor’s office announced, “if we’re going to keep our children safe from all sexual predators and other aberrant behavior that is out there.”  The governor seems only interested in the “gender suspicious,” and those found in violation of this law, the foundation of which is hate and ignorance.  If they are, he assures them the will “see jail time.  What about the heterosexual pedophiles and rapists who are more likely to commit a crime in a public bathroom?  Why stigmatize and punish someone who simply wants to pee in private?

This hotline also leaves it to an individual’s discretion to determine whether an individual is “gender suspicious.”  What are these snitches looking for in order to make a hotline report?   This is all strikingly reminiscent of life in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) where the Ministry for State Security, popularly known as the Stasi, relied on regular citizens turned "unofficial informants" [inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IMs) in order to protect its surveillance state and support the repression of the privacy and civil and humans rights of the citizens of the GDR.  Once denounced by an IM, whether the allegation or report was accurate or not, an individual would have a record that would follow her or him for the rest of their lives.  How is this different from what Governor McCrory is rationalizing with the passage of HB2 and the formation of a state sanctioned system of informing on the citizens of North Carolina?  And, in this instance, an individual will have been outed (whether she or he is actually a her or a him) in violation of their God-given right to privacy and security protected by US Constitution . . . the same rights the State of North Carolina claims it is protecting.  I don’t think so.

It is time to stand up and tell Governor McCrory and the state General Assembly and Senate that decent Americans will not tolerate this naked dispossession of an individual’s basic human and civil rights.  The citizens of East Germany stood up to repression and their state withered and collapsed.  The citizens of North Carolina must do the same.  Governor McCrory signed HB2 into law last month after it passed the General Assembly and state Senate which codified fear and ignorance by a vote of 82-24 and 32-0 respectively (the Democrats walked out refusing to vote in protest).  Since then thousands of jobs have moved out of state, and numerous companies - Facebook, Apple, and Paypal to name just a few - have warned that they intend to cancel plans to expand into the state.  Entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Ringo Starr, Bryan Adams, and the Cirque du Soleil have also canceled their concerts and performances in North Carolina to boycott the law.  These boycotts have already cost the state upwards of $200 million dollars in revenue.  Keep the pressure on!  Money is the only thing these people understand.   It was a stupid thing to do, and more importantly, the new law is unconstitutional and violates the Bill of Rights as it deprives individuals of their blessings of liberty and their privacy and right to be left alone while impinging on their right to be “secure in their persons” while subjecting them to “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The actions taken by the North Carolina governor and the state legislature have brought shame and ill repute not only on themselves as representatives of a pariah state, but also on the entire United States.  Our oldest and most loyal ally, the United Kingdom, has now issued travel warnings to its citizens, cautioning them about possible risks traveling to North Carolina and other southern states, including Mississippi where legislation adversely affecting the LGBTQ community will take effect in July.  (If it does, it will be time to boycott that state as well).  The director of Human Rights Campaign Global cautions that these discriminatory laws are “causing serious damage to our nation's reputation, and the perceived safety of LGBT people who travel here."   The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association highlights countries with legislation targeting the LGBTQ community.  The United States joins countries such as Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Nicaragua, much of northern Africa and the Middle East, some of which punish homosexuality with death.  Not very esteemed company for the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

This new law was passed and signed by a bigoted governor and legislature who are supposedly acting in the name of the people they represent.  It is time for the good people of North Carolina, like the East Germans before them, to stand up and take their state back.  If they do not, then they are equally culpable and should suffer the consequences of their inaction and silence.  Until this hateful and ignorant law is overturned, all people and organizations of good conscience should boycott North Carolina by refusing to visit or do business in the state.  If you have to drive through the state, gas up, eat, and lay in road snacks before you arrive.  Do not attend concerts or other events.  Don’t visit its beaches and mountains.  Quite simply, stay away and spend your dollars elsewhere.  Show North Carolina there is a price to pay for its intolerance.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Je Suis Erdoĝan? - Shame on Angela Merkel

Shame on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union party for bowing to the pressure of the impervious and incredibly thin-skinned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan.  He has demanded that the German government, under an obscure German law, criminally prosecute Jan Böhmermanm, a German television satirist and comedian, for allegedly insulting him during a recent Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen (ZDF) broadcast.   Böhmermanm, jabbing at Erdoĝan’s authoritarian rule in Turkey while pressing the envelope of free speech in Germany, read a doggerel and sexually explicit poem in which the Turkish president was prominently featured.   It was more than Erdoĝan could tolerate.

This is not a strange demand coming from a man who oppresses his own people, stifling dissent whenever it surfaces, while throwing journalists in jail if they dare question him or his policies.  Almost 2000 cases have been filed in Turkey against citizens of that country who have in some way insulted their president.  The definition of what constitutes an insult remains unclear.   And not just in Turkey.  Erdoĝan’s security thugs roughed up protesters and journalists during a recent official visit to Washington, DC under the protection of diplomatic immunity.  On American soil!  It is one thing to stifle free speech and expression in Turkey, but now Erdoĝan wants the German government to assist him in his dirty work while chastising it for allowing these insults to occur in the first place.  The German ambassador in Ankara was called in for a harsh lecture in the wake of the Böhmermann affair, and an ARD (German public broadcasting) correspondent was taken into custody upon his arrival at the airport in Istanbul.

Article Five of the modern German constitution protects the freedom of speech.  Interestingly enough, Germany has an obscure and archaic lese-majeste law originally drawn-up to prevent the insulting of the reigning German monarch - now the revised Paragraph 103 of the federal penal code-making it a criminal offense to insult a foreign head of state, or a representative or organ of a foreign government, although the prosecution of such an offense must be supported by the current German government.  This law is popularly known Germany as the “Shah Law”, because the former Shah of Iran tried to bring a prosecution under it in 1967.  Erdoĝan has insisted that the Merkel government prosecute Böhmermann to the full extent of the law.  Given Erdoĝan’s record at home, the Chancellor and her government should have risen above the fray.  Instead, Frau Merkel granted the Turkish request, agreeing that the insult was clearly intentional and clearing the path for criminal proceedings in Germany.  The courts will be left to decide Böhmermann’s fate.  If convicted, he could face a prison sentence from three months to five years.  The courts should not be allowed to define free speech which is protected by the German constitution, and certainly not at the behest of a foreign government that does not honor nor protect free speech.  Böhmermann is now under German police protection should Erdoĝan’s thugs try to take justice into their own hands like they did in Washington, DC.

Granted, Böhrmann’s anti-Erdoĝan commentary and poem were puerile and obscene by American standards.  Still, the German government and its parties across the political spectrum have never seemed terribly insulted when they were the target of Böhmermann’s invectives and satire.  Yet the insulting of Erdoĝan has somehow ventured beyond the pale of what is acceptable.  How is this possible?  You do not have to agree with what Böhmermann said, or how he said it, but if freedom of speech and expression are to exist, he must be allow to say it without the threat of legal action and prison.  It is up to the Turks to decide what Erdoĝan can get away with in their own country, but Germany should not be playing Erdoĝan’s nasty little game.

Recent German polls show that only 28%, mostly fellow members of Merkel’s CDU, support her decision to permit the prosecution of Böhmermann under the archaic provision of German law.  Opposition from the Social Democrats (SPD), her coalition partner, also threatens the stability of her government.  Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), the foreign minister, held a press conference opposing Merkel’s decision, and Heiko Maas (SPD), the justice minister, has now  drawn up legislation to immediately repeal Article 103 which he plans to quickly put before the Bundestag, the German parliament.  Frau Merkel’s decision is hard to decipher when one considers that her government continues to chide the Turkish government to respect free speech and judicial independence and had already announced plans to scrap Article 103 before this recent flap with Erdoĝan.  So why would the Germans choose to enforce it now?  Even if the German legislation passes, Böhmermann will remain in Erdoĝan’s cross-hairs.  The Turkish leader has also filed a private defamation complaint in the German courts. 

Frau Merkel’s once impressive personal approval rating is also declining, due in large part to the growing unpopularity of her open door policy toward the massive influx of refugees into Germany and the surging political power of the extreme right wing.  It is therefore strange that Frau Merkel would take the side of an oppressive regime in Ankara over the basic rights of a German citizen.  Why?

The answer is simple.  Germany needs Turkey as a partner in order to stem the tide of refugees and other migrants escaping from Syria via Turkey and entering the European Union in Greece.  Freedom of speech is no longer on the table when negotiating with the despot in Ankara to protect the European Union’s migrant deal in which Turkey has agreed to allow Syrian refugees to remain in Turkey while taking back many now housed in transit camps in Greece.  Some might recall how the United States tried to prevent the filming of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” in 1938 when Nazi Germany threatened economic sanctions.  Political and economic realities often trump the preservation of civil and human rights.  Others have even compared Merkel’s decision to the appeasement offered up to Hitler to spare Europe from war.  We all know how well that worked out.

Frau Merkel, in the face of this growing opposition at home while watching her popularity decline, has now admitted that errors were made; it was a mistake to characterize Böhmermann’s poem as “intentionally insulting” [ "bewusst verletzend"].  Yet she stands by her decision to allow the investigation and possible prosecution against Böhmermann to continue.  This seems a high price for Merkel and Germany to pay to prop up the autocratic Erdoĝan who now seems unsatisfied only to hush opposition at home.  There are a number of reports circulating that Turkish diplomatic posts are searching social media for items appearing to insult Erdoĝan.  What next?  

I guess I am safe here in the United States where one of the leading presidential candidates has insulted just about every foreign leader he can name.  I am not taking any chances of visiting Istanbul any time soon.  I saw “Midnight Express” and I am quite certain the Turkish penal system has not improved under this new Sultan of Kasimpaşa.   

Shame on Frau Merkel for taking the easy low road.  She was once in the front ranks of world leaders marching in solidarity through the streets of Paris decrying terrorism aimed at the free expression of idea in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo massacre.  Much of the civilized world was crying out “Je suis Charlie Hedbo.”  Free speech, for which so many died in the offices of Charlie Hedbo, has fallen victim once again a pawn where despots call the shots.     

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sunrise Over Chesapeake Bay

Sunrise over Chesapeake Bay this morning.  I can hear the oysters settling into the silt as the blue crabs scurry over the sea grasses.   And there are rockfish out there wondering "Where is he?" Patience.