Homegrown Hollywood:  Searching for Family in All the Wrong Places showed up this morning in my Weekly Genealogist magazine.  It's a short and sweet story of a woman's efforts to learn about the grandmother she never knew.  I'm linking to it here because it epitomizes what our country so desperately needs.

A writer from Los Angeles travels to a small town in North Carolina and meets a distant cousin who might as well live on a different planet for all they have in common ... on the surface.

She welcomed us with a warm drawl and a tight hug. We sat on her couch as she told us stories and pulled out pictures. The longer we stayed, the happier I felt and something calmed inside of me.

The author wasn't the only one who'd had doubts about the cultural differences.

"Let me tell you, honey," she drawled in her thick accent. "I was nervous about meeting ya'll, but as soon as I saw you I thought, 'now there is blood kin.' And then everything was different."

The key to healing our fractured nation is real people.  Not stereotypes, not Hollywood depictions, not news stories, but real, physical people who have families and serve dinners and smile at strangers.

She was right. Everything was different.

I had been trying to reach my grandma through gravestones and houses and hats I'd put on in a dusty old attic.

But where I'd actually found her was in people like Shelvie Jean.

Hope for healing lies outside our bubbles.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 5, 2017 at 7:37 am | Edit
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A blog with a name like Unbiased America is automatically suspect in my view, since if there is anything more fictional than the idea of an unbiased blog—or for that matter an unbiased respected news source—I don't know what it is. Nonetheless, their article How Free Is Your State? has elements of interest.

Liberty is a great deal of what America is all about, or at least what it once was all about, and I believe the value still resides deeply in our hearts. How we define the concept, however, is one of the sad fracture lines that now divide our country. I rarely give much credence to other people's rankings of the best country to live in, the most child-friendly nation, the best state to retire to, etc. because my criteria for those categories are usually quite different from the ones used in the rankings.

That's the beauty of this Unbiased America site: it's customizable. Their own rankings, below, include many factors I either don't care about or actually care in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, I can look at the states I know something about and find a good deal of agreement on the level of freedom. Note, my New Hampshire friends, that you rank #1. Florida's not too bad at #8.

alt

But you're not stuck with the website's somewhat bizarre criteria. You can create your own customized version, picking which factors are considered, though you must choose from their selection and sometimes it's hard to tell what "freedom" means for a given criterion. I created my own, quick-and-dirty map, giving importance to things I care for, such as educational and food freedom (e.g. homeschooling and the right to buy raw milk), but not to things I consider more license than liberty, e.g. liberal gambling and marijuana laws. New Hampshire is still #1, but Florida has moved up to the Top 5.

alt

Go ahead, try it for yourself. You're still captive to the biases of Unbiased America, but you can skew them in your favorite direction.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, March 21, 2017 at 9:38 am | Edit
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That's quite a margin he won by.

alt

A Board of Selectmen is one of those mysterious New England customs, and the Wikipedia article doesn't exactly make things crystal clear.  But the upshot is, Jon is now one third of the three-person executive that leads the town of Hillsboro, New Hampshire.  (There is no mayor.)

Congratulations, Jon.  May you never have to hold your head in your hands and groan, "I gave up ski patrol for this?"

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, March 18, 2017 at 8:20 am | Edit
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A friend of mine taught Jack Barsky's daughter in preschool, and affirms that he is a very interesting man with quite a story.

Quite a story, indeed. I can't wait to try to persuade our library to stock his book when it comes out on March 21. Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America.

Barsky, once a bright, adventurous, young East German named Albert Dittrich, was trained by the KGB to fit into American society so well that he would be able to pass important secrets back to the Soviet Union. If the KGB's ambitions were unrealistic, Barsky's courage and spirt were not. He came into the country on a false Canadian passport, and with a few thousand dollars in his pocket, made his way to New York City and into American life.

Too well into American life, for the KGB's purposes.

Like many undercover agents before him, he began to realise that much of what he had been taught about the West - that it was an "evil" system on the brink of economic and social collapse - was a lie. ... "What eventually softened my attitude" was the "normal, nice people" he met in his daily life. ... "I was always waiting to eventually find the real evil people and I didn't even find them in the insurance company."

[That one's for you, David. He worked for Met Life.]

So he stayed. Not that it was either an easy decision or an easy process, and it cost him two marriages. But what a story! I can't wait to read it.

Those of us who are inclined to think it's too difficult to become an American citizen will do well to pay attention to Barsky's insistence that it was only the difficulty of obtaining an American passport that kept him from doing real damage as a spy.

"The idea was for me to get genuine American documentation and move to Europe, say to a German-speaking country, where the Russians were going to set me up with a flourishing business. And they knew how to do that.

"And so I would become quite wealthy and then go back to the United States without having to explain where the money came from. At that point, I would have been in a situation to socialise with [political decision makers]."

You can read a BBC story on Barsky here. 

And here's the trailer for the CBS 60 Minutes report about him.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, March 7, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Edit
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In July of 2015, the Rt. Rev. Gregory O. Brewer, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, wrote a response to the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage.  On a recent file-cleaning expedition, I came upon my copy of his wise words again, and was struck by how much this attitude is needed right now, as we face still more opportunities to respond humanely across deep divides.

Bishop Brewer's words are specifically for and about Christians, but there's much here that could be of benefit to anyone.  Since he has graciously allowed me to publish his letter in its entirety, I'll spare you my usual cut-and-paste quotations.  Context is important.

Early in Israel’s history, the people prayed for a King. They said that they did not want to be ruled merely by judges, but they wanted a king like other nations. Through the prophet Samuel, God warned the people that to have a king would only bring about additional difficulties and sorrows, but they pleaded with God and eventually God relented and gave them a king.

The prophet Samuel anointed Saul with great affection, praying for him and calling him “the desire of Israel” (1 Sam. 9:20). He anointed him king over Israel, all the while warning Israel that they had rejected the will of God.

I believe that the anointing of Saul as king over Israel and the legalization of same-sex marriage are analogous. While God’s intention has always been that marriage is between one man and one woman, people in our nation have, for decades, pleaded for gay people to be able to legally marry, and now, through an act of judicial activism, it is the law of the land. Some are elated. Some are weeping. Some are angry. The Church is divided over these matters, and we as a nation do not know the long-term impact of these decisions.

How are we Christians to respond?

1) For some Christians who are deeply committed to Jesus Christ, the legalization of same-sex marriage is an answer to their prayers. For other Christians, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a sign of moral decay. However, the demonization of those who support same-sex marriage by those who do not, and the demonization of those who oppose same-sex marriage by those who do [not] must not be present within the Body of Christ. Such antagonism is an affront to the Gospel and a great sin. That is not to say the matter is inconsequential. The divide between these two positions is a serious one and not to be taken lightly. But it is our faith in Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, who died for us and rose from the dead that unites us, and nothing other than this. Christians must choose to continue to work together across this great divide. It will not be easy, but it is our God-given task. Splitting into tribes of those “for” and “against” within our churches will bear no good fruit, and will only display to the world our lack of faith in Jesus Christ, who prayed that we might be one.

2) I fear that some backlash against LGBT people by those who oppose same-sex marriage could be one of the outcomes. Incidents of angry retaliation could be in the offing. May this not be named among Christians! If incidents of violence break out, Christians must be the first to rise up and publicly condemn them. If we do not love those with whom we disagree, then our witness for Christ is null and void.

Such a public witness of love means we must beg God to root out of us any anger and resentment we may be feeling because of this change in our laws. Forgiveness, love and mercy are our righteousness: and they are gifts from our God who makes rain to fall on the just and on the unjust. If we do not triumph in love, we triumph in nothing.

3) There also are some legitimate fears that the legalization of same-sex marriage will further marginalize those who oppose it and bring about a tacit acceptance of persecution of these Christians. Again, our call is to forgiveness, love and mercy.

4) Traditional Christians should continue to make the Biblical case for heterosexual, lifelong marriage both in our churches and in the public square. This is where I stand. While same-sex couples now enjoy the freedom to choose legal marriage, many will not. Those who do not marry will join the trend of many straight couples that are indifferent to marriage at best, even if they are raising children. The fact is that the practice of marriage (much less lifelong marriage) in comparison to previous generations continues to plummet. In our culture, it is not so much that same-sex marriage has triumphed, as it is that the case for marriage for anyone is failing. This is where the church must speak clearly.

5) As a church, we must choose to care for children, regardless of who their parents might be. Children should not be treated prejudicially because of who their parents are. They did not choose their parents, and our churches have an opportunity, even a divine calling, to invite these children into the Christian faith and enfold them (and their parents) in bonds of love that will bring many to Jesus. Again, the testimony of our faith is evidenced in our call to love by word and by deed, nothing else.

6) Importantly, Justice Kennedy’s opinion in this ruling places a profound connection between marriage and “dignity,” which leaves single people all the more marginalized. Many of our churches already, in their preference for married couples, place single people in a kind of “less than” separate class. Such a classification is entirely unbiblical. The goal for our churches is a missionary community, not a club for the already married. Both Jesus and Paul were single, with Paul exhorting his preference for the single life. While clearly upholding marriage, we need to find ways to see marital status as secondary to sacrificial discipleship.

We are in the midst of an enormous cultural sea change and we do not know the outcome. What I do know is that it is my responsibility to care deeply, love without prejudice, speak the truth as I understand it with boldness and compassion, and pray fervently. I ask that you join me.

Let's "think on these things" when events go against us on issues of profound importance, and equally when we find ourselves on the favored side.  Above all, let's remember Bishop Brewer's wisdom as we interact with our fellow Americans—our fellow human beings—when each thinks the other is standing on the wrong side of an apparently impassable gulf.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 17, 2017 at 7:15 am | Edit
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I've held off updating my prayer request for The Gambia, waiting for events to settle down a bit, but it seems that I can truly report good news:  Former President (dictator) Yahya Jammeh has been persuaded to step down peacefully and make room for newly-elected President Adama Barrow. He appears to have run off with about $12 million of the country's funds, and the questions of his crimes against humanity are left unresolved, but at least The Gambia has been given a chance at freedom and democracy. That's great news!

President Barrow and the country are still in much need of prayer. On the financial side, the disappearance of most of the government's treasury may be mitigated by the release of European aid funds that had been frozen because of concerns about Mr. Jammeh's leadership. That's a good thing, because I wasn't sure a Kickstarter campaign could raise 12 million dollars for them—though it would have been interesting to try.

Our friend is back from her brief exile, helping the country's best math students get their disrupted educations back on track.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 7, 2017 at 7:26 am | Edit
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Are most Americans anti-immigration? Absolutely not.

Is President Trump anti-immigration? I don't think so. It's difficult to pin down what he actually believes about anything, but being concerned about uncontrolled immigration from unstable and/or dangerous countries does not mean one is opposed to immigration per se.

I found George Friedman's take on the subject enlightening, despite missing a few of my concerns. His example of our societal attitude towards Indian and Chinese immigrants is especially interesting.

Trump has pointed to two very different patterns. One is immigration to the U.S. by Muslims. The other is illegal Mexican immigration. Both resonated with Trump’s supporters. It is interesting to consider other immigration patterns that have not become an issue. One is immigration to the U.S. from India. The other is immigration from China and other parts of Asia. Both have been massive movements since about 1970, and both have had substantial social consequences.

It is the example of the Chinese and the Indians that blows up the theory that Americans have an overarching anti-immigrant sensibility that Trump is tapping into. It also raises serious doubts that Trump is anti-immigrant. I have searched and may have missed it, but I didn’t find that Trump made anti-Chinese or anti-Indian statements, as opposed to anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican statements. If it were classic anti-immigrant sentiment, the rage would be against Indian immigrants who have emerged as a powerful and wealthy ethnic group in a startlingly short time. But there is minimally detectable hostility toward them, which means that the immigration situation in the United States is far more complex than it seems.

The issue is not whether Trump and his followers are generally anti-immigrant. The question is why they are so hostile toward Muslims ... and to Mexicans. I wish the explanation were more complex, but it is actually quite simple in both cases.

The United States has been at war with Muslim groups since Sept. 11, 2001. ... When there is war, there is suspicion of the enemy. When there is suspicion of the enemy, there is fear that émigrés might be in the United States on false pretenses. ... After 15 years of war and many Americans dead, [post-9/11 fears have] congealed into a framework of distrust that may well go beyond the rational. ... Are all Muslims warriors against the United States? No. Do you know who is or isn’t? Also no. Wars, therefore, create fears. There is nothing new in the American fear of Muslims in the context of war.

The Mexican situation is different. ... [T]he driving issue is illegal Mexican immigration. There is a great deal of homage paid to the rule of law. Congress passed a law specifying the mechanics of legal migration. Some 5 million Mexicans broke the law. Whether this has harmed the U.S. economy or not, the indifference to enforcing the law by people who are normally most insistent on the rule of law has created a sense of hypocrisy.

The anger is not only directed at the Mexicans. It is part of the rage against those living in the bubble, who present themselves as humanitarians, but who will encounter the illegal aliens, if at all, as their servants. And rightly or wrongly, some suspect that open support for breaking the law is designed to bring cheap labor to support the lifestyles of the wealthy at the expense of the declining middle class. The fact that the well-to-do tend to be defenders of illegal aliens while also demanding the rule of law increases suspicions.

At first I took issue with this, for while true, it doesn't speak for the many of my friends who count themselves "defenders of illegal aliens" but are far from wealthy by American standards. But...

As we saw with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Japanese, things that are obvious to those living decades later are not obvious at the time. Indeed, it is a failure of imagination to be unable to empathize with the fear felt after Pearl Harbor. In our time, the failure to empathize comes from those who feel immune to illegal immigration or the 15-year war. It is part of the growing fragmentation of American society that different classes and regions should experience these things so differently, and that each side has so little understanding of the other.

My non-wealthy friends may not be among the rich, but it is true that they (like me) are largely immune to the effects of both illegal immigration and terrorism. We even benefit from illegal (slave) labor through lower prices.

(In my life, it's the actually the Indian and Chinese immigrants he mentions who have caused the problems—they are the ones whose competition directly affects the Information Technology industry—but I believe that legal, controlled immigration is healthy for a country.  How could I be anti-immigrant when our own daughter is one?)

As long as illegal immigration is permitted, the foundations of American culture are at risk. It is not simply immigration, but the illegality that is frightening, because it not only can’t be controlled, but also the law is under attack by those who claim to uphold it. The fear that a person’s livelihood is being undermined and his cultural foundation is being overwhelmed creates deep fear of the intentions of the more powerful.

I want to quote a lot more, but I fear I'm pushing the edge of "fair use" for a review as it is. It's an article worth reading. I'll just make one more comment, on what Friedman calls "the refusal of the government at all levels to enforce the law."

I'm not a fan of "zero-tolerance" legal situations, which leave no room for discretion and grace. But massive discord between rules and enforcement breeds both disrespect for the law and tyranny. When a law is on the books, but not enforced, people become accustomed to violating it. This may look like freedom, but it opens the door to graft, blackmail, indifference to other laws, and some very nasty surprises.

When I was studying to pass my driver's test, there was a law on the books in Pennsylvania requiring that vehicles must slow down to 25 miles per hour when passing through any intersection. (For all I know, it's still on the books.)  Obviously that was written a long time ago, and rather than the law being changed to fit reality, it simply stopped being enforced. If I hadn't been taking a driving course, I would never have known of its existence. However—and this is the kick—the police sometimes found it to be useful: If for some reason a miscreant wiggled out of whatever they wanted to charge him with, they could usually get him on the charge of passing through (often multiple) intersections at more than 25 mph. Do you see what this does? You may go for years, casually breaking the law, but suddenly one day, when they want to get you, they've got you.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 3, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Edit
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Does having Donald Trump as President of the United States frighten me? Absolutely. He appears to be a loose cannon who might more effectively fight against the evils that assail us ... or he might turn his fire on all that is good in our country. Most likely, he will do both.

Am I panicking? Absolutely not. Frankly, I would probably be more afraid if it were Hillary Clinton in the White House, because she's a well-entrenched part of the system and would quickly settle into the job-as-usual. As happened with President Obama, Big Things Would Get Done.

I am not a fan of Big Things Getting Done when they are issues on which the country is deeply and closely divided.

Maybe with Republican control of both houses of Congress there might have been effective opposition to Mrs. Clinton, but I doubt this election could have produced that situation without also putting Mr. Trump in the White House.  Even now, that control is tenuous.

I find a recent George Friedman essay to be somewhat comforting. Once again he points out the limited powers of the president, especially an unpopular one.

[The American presidency] is the most noted position in the world, imbued by observers with all the power inherent to the world’s most powerful country. Everyone is now trying to understand what Trump intends to do.

At the same time, the American president is among the weakest institutional leaders in Euro-American civilization. He can do some things unilaterally, particularly in foreign policy, but Congress can block them. He can do some things by executive order, but the Supreme Court can overrule them. He can pass certain programs that require cooperation from states, but the states can refuse to cooperate. At every step, as the founders intended, his ability to act unilaterally is severely limited.

[The defection of only three Republican senators would] make it impossible to pass any proposed legislation. As such, any Republican senator who can position himself as a potential defector will be able to negotiate for the president’s support on any number of issues. The president will either be forced to compromise or risk having the legislation defeated.

Senators are not free actors. They need to be re-elected. Their calculation on whether to oppose a Republican president will depend heavily (if not entirely) on whether the president will help or hurt them in their re-election bids. That depends on the president’s approval ratings, particularly in the senators’ home states.

Trump’s approval ratings are unlikely to fall below [the current] 37%, but to be effective, he can’t stay at that level. Republican senators will look at the president’s negative ratings in their states and calculate whether supporting his programs might lock 50% of voters against them. It is important to recall that constitutionally, a senator is supposed to serve the people of his state, not the president.

I confess I'm not completely comfortable with that much "power to the people"—largely because approval ratings give more power to the loudest and most obnoxious among us. But there it is. Speak up or be left out.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 27, 2017 at 8:08 am | Edit
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When it comes to paying out money, I know who "The Government" is.  That's you, me, and all other taxpayers out there.  Including those overseas who bear the burden of paying taxes to the Federal Government even if their money was earned totally outside of the United States.  But that's another issue.

Even as our family watches carefully how our personal money is spent, so we try to be careful that the government's money is spent wisely.

Thus we were concerned when we received a bill from an insurance company we'd never heard of, for a health insurance plan we had not signed up for, assuring us that we owed $0.00 and the government had already paid the full premium of $1375.36 for the first month.  I will spare you the details of all the hours Porter has spent on the phone trying to get this cleared up.  How do you cancel a policy that can't be found in the system, but for which the government is paying out at the rate of over $16,500 per year?  Finally, he wrote an e-mail to the Inspector General.

Mr. Inspector General Levinson,

I am not sure you are the correct person to send my issues to - but hope your office can point me in the right direction if you are not the appropriate channel.

I have two issues, one involving money paid out by the government incorrectly and one involving the difficulty in pursuing such questions via the healthcare.gov team and system.

First, I received a bill from "Florida Health Care Plans" for an ACA plan that I never signed up for, but rather was assigned to automatically by the ACA computers.  No one at "Florida Health Care Plans" can tell me how this came to be.  Further they say they cannot cancel the policy under the law as they can only do that if healthcare.gov sends them a notice to do so.  Further they have no connecting key that can be used by the healthcare.gov team to show how this policy came into existence.  When I called the ACA they could not find any trace of this policy with "Florida Health Care Plans."  The only policy they show for me is the CORRECT policy I signed up for myself with "Florida Blue," an entirely different company despite the similarity of their names.

The bogus bill shows that the government will pay "Florida Health Care Plans" $1375.36 per month for each month in 2017.  I will owe nothing.  In other words my payments are to be zero each month.  This is the rub.  If a "policyholder" does not pay his premium his insurance is cancelled - and the payments from the government to the insurance company would at least stop.  However, since I owe nothing each month on this policy there is no trigger to automatically stop payments!  The government will be out over $16,000 by the end of the year paying on this bogus, useless policy.

Second issue.  Healthcare.gov is not following the ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) standards.  I understand that all federal computing systems are supposed to follow ITIL.  When I was a consultant for IBM on the Fannie Mae account this was certainly the case.  ITIL provides that all issues should be recorded and a ticket or issue number assigned to them.  Further, this ticket number should be given to the person who reported the issue.  In my case I should have been given a ticket number so I could reference it in future calls.  I was told by the supervisor of supervisors (which was as high as I was permitted to go in my telephone inquiry with healthcare.gov) that no ticket numbers are ever generated, but rather I should wait for a call back from the "Advanced Resolution Center" in 5 to 7 days.  I am very doubtful this will happen as in 2016 I got an incorrect "Corrected" 1095a and went through the same process without ever getting the issue resolved.

Please advise how to proceed with these two issues.

Or, I should say, he tried to write the Inspector General.  But having sent this to their published e-mail address, he received it back with the following explanation:

Delivery has failed to these recipients or groups:

hhstips@oig.hhs.gov
Your message couldn't be delivered to the recipient because you don't have permission to send to it.

Ask the recipient's email admin to add you to the accept list for the recipient.

For more information, see DSN 5.7.129 Errors in Exchange Online and Office 365.

So he respectfully requested to be added, using the e-mail address postmaster@oig.hhs.gov—the sending address for the above rejection.  The reply?

alt

How much time would you spend trying to save the United States $16,500?  How many bogus charges like this do you think are being made?  How many of the people in whose name the government is being billed will put any effort into trying to correct a bill on which they owe nothing?

Stay tuned.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 24, 2017 at 6:13 am | Edit
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We're back again to another George Friedman essay, this time on Nationalism, Internationalism and New Politics. It's not new; it's been sitting in my "Drafts" folder for a while.  But it's good.  Some excerpts:

The world is experiencing a shift from the old liberal-conservative model to an internationalist-nationalist model. Nationalist challenges against the internationalist model have moved from the margins of the political system to the center, winning victories in the United States and the United Kingdom, and rising in strength in other countries.

What began as a lesson learned from World War II and a prudent response to containing the Soviet Union became a moral orthodoxy and a moral imperative. In many ways it buried political distinctions. All major parties were internationalists.

In 2008, the underside of interdependence showed its hand. Capitalism is prone to financial crises, and one occurred in 2008. In a nationalist environment with barriers between countries – from tariffs to currencies – a financial crisis in one country has the strong potential of being moderated in other countries. The crisis of 2008 tore through the world.

The 2008 crisis clearly revealed the core weakness of the interdependent system. But the very success of interdependence had been gnawing away at the system for decades. It is true that barring serious malfunction, intensified international integration can increase economic growth on the whole. But human beings cannot make a living off economic growth “on the whole.”

It was discovered that with interdependence and integration, individual nations had lost control over their destinies. An impersonal system that seemed to be uncontrolled determined the fate of nations and their populations. It also was discovered that the idea that nations were obsolete might be true for elites, who followed capital where it went, but being Greek was very different from being German, and being Chinese was very different from being American. The nation mattered because where you lived determined how you would experience life.

What followed was an attempt by the internationalist state to suppress what it saw as parochialism, and what those who had benefited least from internationalism saw as the fabric of life.

The battle is in the first stages, but it is a battle that was inevitable. The world is vast and humanity is an abstraction. My place in the world, my town, my culture and my nation are conceptually more manageable. The core principle of liberalism is the right to national self-determination. The instruments of internationalism ... ignore the nation and the right of citizens to govern their nation.

As in all things, the issue is not simple. Internationalism has been dramatically successful in enriching the world since World War II. Its problem is ... that only part of the population has enjoyed this wealth, and there are things more fundamental than wealth such as cultural identity and differences. Internationalism is tone-deaf or hostile to cultural identity, which is its weakness.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, January 16, 2017 at 6:09 am | Edit
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I've said it over and over again this past year:  Good people don't necessarily make good presidents, and vice versa. Lo and behold, George Friedman said the same thing today, only he said it much better and gives plausible reasons for why that's true. Some tidbits:

The idea that policy optimization is at the core of the presidency is incorrect. The president is not the U.S.’ chief administrative officer. He is a leader and manager of the political process. His job is to be a symbol around which a democratic society draws the battle lines of who we are. He must express his vision as something aesthetic, not prosaic. The president cannot spare time from his real job to craft policies. Successful presidents know that and hide it. Trump doesn’t try to hide it.

No U.S. president has the ability to comprehend the vast array of policy issues that face him, nor can he grasp the depths of any single issue. Some presidents have tried. They generally did not do well.

Presidents who succeed have certain characteristics. They can lead. They provide the public with a sense that they understand what is needed and how to get it done, and that they care deeply about those who are hoping problems will be solved. They rarely take office with that ability, but rather gain it in the course of balancing things that cannot be balanced. In many cases, their ability to lead is best seen after they leave office.

Reagan was charged with being detached. Jimmy Carter was praised for his deep involvement in the details of governing. Carter was defeated after his first term. Reagan won two terms and has become an iconic figure. Some defend Reagan by claiming that he was far more involved in policymaking than it appeared. That may be true, but Reagan knew something Carter didn’t. Making policy is not a president’s central task, except in crisis. Presidents should be leaders who create a seductive image of what the country should be like and allow the love and hate of a country to focus on them – by allowing themselves to become a battleground that drives the country forward. Carter created an energy policy. He could not lead, seduce or accept his role as an icon. He missed the point of the presidency.

Trump’s supporters expect him to be extraordinary. His opponents believe he will be a disaster. From my point of view, he will be the 45th president of the United States, the 45th man whom some imbued with the powers of the messiah and others saw as the devil incarnate. I doubt he will be either. He will not spend his time making policies. He will be too busy doing what other presidents do: making calls pleading with obscure congressmen to let his bill out of committee, with very little to offer or threaten. He will bargain away many things to get a little of what he wants.

The whole article is worth reading, at least if you are as ignorant as I am about the political process.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 9:44 am | Edit
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One year ago we were five days away from embarking on our Gambian Adventure. (Yes, I'm all too aware that I still have most of that trip to write about.)  If our trip were this year instead, we would have had to cancel it.

The Gambia is poised on the brink of real political reform, but it may not come as easily nor as peacefully as originally hoped. From a New York Times article two days ago, emphasis mine:

The longtime leader lost a Dec. 1 election to opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow. Jammeh initially conceded, but later called for a new vote. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and others have united in criticizing him.

Jammeh's party filed a petition to the country's Supreme Court against the election, and a key court ruling is expected Jan. 10.

What might follow the court ruling is anybody's guess. Civil war could erupt. Most Gambians are happy with the regime change, but not all. The Gambia's neighbors have not ruled out military intervention if necessary, and even diplomatic and/or economic sanctions could devastate the Gambia's shaky economy.

The uncertainty has already disrupted the educations of those who are the country's best hope for progress, and it could get much worse.

In recognition of the solidifying crisis, the United States on Saturday advised American citizens not to travel to Gambia "because of the potential for civil unrest and violence in the near future."

The U.S. State Department also ordered relatives of diplomats and embassy staff to leave Gambia and warned all its citizens to depart now, saying those who choose to stay should "prepare for the possible deterioration of security."

Per these recommendations, the Gambia's Most Awesome Math Professor is away on what she hopes will be a short visit out of the country. But of course her home, her job, her beloved students, and our new Gambian friends are left behind.

Please pray that the transition will be smooth and the disruption short-lived. If all goes well, the new president should take office on January 19, and the Gambia will embark on a new, democratic path of reform. It will be a difficult road—the Gambia is desperately poor and lacking in resources—but a hopeful one.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, January 9, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Edit
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altInto the Atomic Age: A Plan of Action for Canada Now edited by Sholto Watt (Montreal Standard Publishing Company, 1946)

This, the fourth of my father's collection of early post-Hiroshima books (see here, here, and here), is as fascinating as the others, although the fascination has less to do with atomic energy and atomic bombs than with the immediate post-war culture.

The Greatest Generation was, in a word, terrified. For the scientists who developed the Bomb itself, the politicians attempting to address the consequences of its very existence, and those whose business was social and political commentary, these were "what hath Man wrought?" times, just over a century after Samuel F. B. Morse's famous telegraph transmission.

In 1946, The Standard, a Canadian national weekly newspaper, published a series of essays on the subject of atomic energy. The contributors were diverse, from military men to scientists to politicians to prominent men from a variety of fields, whether or not they bore any relation to atomic energy. (Contract bridge, anyone? Ely Culbertson was one of them.)

In the early years of my adulthood, I remember hearing people express great fear that we were headed towards a "one world government."  They were suspicious of the United Nations, and viewed every international agreement through the lens of how it might affect our national sovereignty. I confess I gave them little respect, because I saw not a shred of evidence that anyone was interested in forming a unified world government.

But I was young. Even if I did grow up with "duck and cover" drills in elementary school, and spent time pondering the feasibility of building a fallout shelter in our backyard, I was blissfully ignorant of the politics of it all. Almost to a man, the writers of these essays were convinced that the only alternative to nuclear annihiliation was for all nations to give up their sovereign rights to an international government—either entirely, or "only" in the right to maintain armed forces and to wage war. The United Nations was brand-new in those days, and much hope was expressed that it would become the entity that would rule the world.

Fear makes people do crazy things, and put up with crazy things done by their leaders. It wouldn't surprise me if more freedoms have been lost through fear than through outright conquest. Fortunately for us, the one-world-government crazy idea never made it off the ground, though we've certainly lost plenty of freedom through fear—the Patriot Act and the bailout of companies "too big to fail," for example.

Be that as it may, here's a sampling of what people were thinking 70 years ago in response to what they perceived as the world's biggest threat. Text in bold is my own emphasis.

The picture of the next war thus becomes one of surprise, of sudden and unannounced aggression, of an “anonymous war,” in which the aggressor leaves no traces, mobilizes no armies, proclaims no hostilities.” A city might explode one night, another the next. In one night, a flight of rockets might demolish 20 cities and kill 40 million.

“This is the one-minute war of the future,” the scientists state. “This is the war that will be hanging over the heads of the nations of the world when all have possessed themselves of atomic explosive and sit in fear and trembling, wondering when their neighbor—or a country on the opposite side of the globe—may press the fateful key. … This picture is not projected a century or even half a century into the future; it is a possibility five years from now, a certainty in 15.”

To every man and woman it may be said with certainty that to secure a world authority is now part of the business of personal survival.

The more deeply one ponders the problems with which our world is confronted in the light … of the implications of the development of atomic energy, the harder it is to see a solution in anything short of some surrender of national sovereignty.

We are afraid that the understanding and sympathy that binds us together may not be as strong as the conflicts of national interest and the dark hates that threaten to separate us. Atomic energy in itself does not endanger us. It is the possible use of atomic energy by persons and nations motivated by hate that causes our fear.

The establishment of this world government must not have to wait until the same conditions of freedom are to be found in all three of the great powers. While it is true that in the Soviet Union the minority rules, I do not consider that internal conditions there are of themselves a threat to world peace. (Albert Einstein)

That one is evidence, as if any more were needed, that intellectual brilliance and practical sense do not necessarily reside together.

The scientists give us five short years in which to save ourselves and the world…. Five years in which we must build out of the present infant United Nations organization a world government capable of outlawing wars and the causes of wars. Five years in a world in which, from the dawn of Christianity from which our own democracy stemmed, it took nearly 2,000 years for our democracy to develop. Five years in which to project ourselves 1,000 years in maturity, in understanding, in social development.

But not to worry. The public schools can fix the problem.

I am optimistic enough to think that, with success in the intermediate and short-term period, we have a margin of twenty years in which to work. The long-term programme, the twenty-year programme, is the establishment of world government under principles of law, justice and human freedom. Such a world government cannot be imposed by force. It cannot be successfully negotiated by the statesmen of the nations of the earth. The plain fact is that world government requires as its foundation a moral and psychological sense of world community, and that foundation does not exist. To impose or to negotiate world government under existing conditions of prejudice and hate would do nothing more than set the stage for world civil war. The minds and hearts of men are not yet prepared for a world of law, justice and mercy.

We in North America are not prepared. Too many men despise women. Too many women despise their servants. Too many white men despise black men. Too many Christians despise Jews. This lack of sympathy and respect extends not only across group lines, but also within the groups themselves.

I feel that with twenty years to spare, the moral and psychological foundation for world peace can be laid. The hope is not that hundreds of years of history, tradition and custom will automatically and suddenly change their direction. The hope lies in the fact that it takes only a period of about a dozen years to implant a basic culture in the minds of a man—the period of childhood between the age of two and the age of 14.

The following may sound absurd now, but I know for a fact that Kodak built a special bomb-proof facility in Rochester, New York so that they could continue to manufacture paper in the event of nuclear war.

Drastic changes in defence measures would be called for, including the abandonment of all large cities, the decentralization of communications and the placing of all important factories far underground.

Not everyone was all gloom-and-doom. Some were downright science fiction in their ambitions.

The world-shaking discovery of atomic power, the greatest since the discovery of fire, can have only one of two end-results: either the unparalleled shattering of our civilization through atomic blasts, or an unparalleled era of peaceful science and mass happiness.

We have now within our grasp the means for creating an abundant life for all peoples of the world. Even before the development of atomic energy this was true, but now that we have tapped this tremendous new source of power, perhaps within half a century all nations can be raised to the same economic level occupied by the most advanced nations today.

There has never before been a discovery equal to that of atomic energy. The greatest discoveries of the past have advanced the material aids to humanity but a few years, but the forward move in the development of atomic energy must be measured in centuries. It can open the door to an age of plenty without revolution or war. It can make equality of opportunity a reality in our day. It can give the backward areas a chance to reach equality with others.

Some were downright nuts.

Why go slowly shepherding great liners through the locks on either side of the Culebra Cut when you could readily use atomic energy to blast a sea-level canal from ocean to ocean? (You would, of course, have to arrange for the temporary evacuation of all the population of the canal zone, but that, in these days of mass transfers of population, is perhaps not impossible.)

How many people realize that we could alter the entire climate of the North Temperate zones by exploding a few dozen or at most a few hundred atomic bombs at an appropriate height above the polar regions?

As a result of the immense heat produced, the floating polar ice-sheet would be melted; and it would not be re-formed. It is a relic from the last Ice Age, and survives today because most of the heat of the sun is reflected from its surface.

If it were once melted, most of the sun’s heat during the polar summer would be absorbed by the water and raise the temperature of the Arctic Ocean. Ice would form again each winter, but it would not cover nearly so large an extent as now, and would be thick enough to be melted in the succeeding summer.

As a result, the climate of Scandinavia would become more like that of Southern England, and the climate of Southern England would become much like that of Portugal.

As usual with all grandiose projects, there are snags.

Thus with the northward movement of the warm temperate and cool temperate zones, the arid zone would move too; and the countries which had the prospect of being turned into the Sahara of the future might reasonably object!

Perhaps it would be best to begin in a small way, by melting a small chunk of the ice-sheet with the aim, say, of slightly ameliorating the climate of Nova Scotia and Labrador, and seeing what happened elsewhere, before attempting anything further.

And we think we have climate change problems now.

Some writers had a better grasp of political realities than others.

We should do well to take stock from time to time of our original purpose in establishing the UNO [United Nations]. What was that purpose? The commonest reply perhaps would be, “To preserve peace.” For many years statesmen have been in the habit of saying, “The greatest interest of our country is Peace.” They have said that usually with complete sincerity and in bad confusion of thought.

For it is not true.

Any nation which suffered invasion would fight if it could. That is to say, it would sacrifice peace for the purpose of defending its national independence. Which means that we do not put peace first; we put defence first: the right to existence, national survival. And no international organization can succeed if it ignores this truth that defence, security, the right to life, must in the purpose of men come before mere peace. We could have had peace by submission to Hitler and Hirohito; we refused it on those terms.

But that brings us to the question: “What is defence? What rights of nations must an international organization defend if its purpose is to be fulfilled? Russia declares that its rights of defence must include “friendly” governments in the whole of Eastern Europe. What precisely does “Friendly” mean? More than once Russia has described Switzerland as “unfriendly and semi-Fascist.” On one occasion Russia refused participation in an international conference on aviation because Switzerland was included. If each nation is to claim in the name of defence conformity with its own special views to the extent which Russia seems to claim that conformity, a workable international organization for collective security is going to be extremely difficult to establish.

No kidding.

Despite the book's small size, there's a lot more to Into the Atomic Age, from following a spelunker deep into a cave in search of a place to set up an underground factory, to the convincing argument that there is no effective way for international inspections to prevent a country that has nuclear energy from also being able to make nuclear bombs. I wish those who negotiated our treaty with Iran had read this book.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 29, 2016 at 7:10 am | Edit
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Why do people hate the rich?

Perhaps it's simple jealousy, especially since we tend to define as "rich" anyone who has more money than we do ourselves. Differences in wealth and power have been around forever and likely always will be. Jealousy and resentment have plagued us at least as long.

The hatred seems particularly virulent these days, however, especially among those who are themselves wealthy beyond the dreams of most of the world, both now and throughout history. It has bubbled up recently in the idea that being rich somehow disqualifies many of the people whom Donald Trump has chosen for his Cabinet.

I hate conspicuous consumption, and I despise waste even more. Most of all, I grieve that the lifestyles of the rich and famous, fueled by unwise use of money, consumes their souls like an aggressive cancer. But as Scottish author George MacDonald—himself often desperately poor—takes pains to make clear, the love of money destroys the souls of those who have too little just as surely as it destroys those who have too much.

But through the years I've come to respect most rich people and see their importance to all of us.

Rich people get things done.

We all know spoiled "rich kids" of any age who have inherited their wealth and done nothing to earn it, nothing to increase it, and nothing good with it. But by and large, people become wealthy because they make things happen. They work very hard, too—but hard work alone is insufficient. The same character traits that enable some people to get rich often also enable them to accomplish great things. Sure, there's some luck involved, but it takes something else to make that luck work in your favor—a something else most of us do not have. (One of my favorite quotes, which I learned thanks to my friend the Occasional CEO, is J. Paul Getty's secret to success: 1. Get up early. 2. Work hard. 3. Strike oil.)

The neighborhood we live in would probably be considered lower middle class. There are people of all classes in the huge—over 900 homes—subdivision, but on average I'd say lower middle class covers it. Our kids go to the same high school as kids from some very wealthy neighborhoods, and there's certainly some resentment over their cars and fancy clothes. But when it comes to doing things for the school, the wealthier parents—at least those wealthier than us—lead the pack. And when a planning decision at the school board level threatened to split up our school, it was people from the rich neighborhoods who saved ours along with their own, because they had the experience, the knowledge, and most of all were willing to put in the time and effort, to propose and fight for an acceptable alternative plan. The rest of us cared, but the wealthy made it happen, not because they were rich, but because they knew what to do and worked till the job was done. Frankly, I'd consider that an asset in any Cabinet position.

Our recent trip to New York City, with its museums, big and small, public and private, also showed me the advantage of having rich folks around. Where would high culture be without the wealthy? Not only do they support art, music, and theater by commissioning works, but they collect, preserve, and protect works of art—art that the rest of society may not fully appreciate for a century or so.

Not to mention the fact that rich people create jobs for the rest of us. Even those fancy cars, ridiculously large yachts, and over-the-top opulent houses provide work for a whole bunch of people. Most important of all is that the people who have the qualities that enable them to become rich are the ones who create the industries that we depend on. Would I rather see a rise in family-owned industries, small farms, and sole proprietorships, in which more people work for themselves rather than for someone else? Sure. But not everyone can do that, and not everyone wants to. Someone like me can give an poor person a handout, but a rich person can provide a job that will give him self-respect and lift him out of poverty.

We don't have to approve of everything about the way rich people behave to recognize their value to society—and to a government. Would you be happier if John, Robert, or even Ted Kennedy were in one of the Cabinet posts? Take a closer look at some of that family's behavior, and especially how they amassed their fortune.

Are many wealthy people being irresponsible with their money? Certainly. Aren't we all? It's a disease as widely distributed as the common cold, afflicting businesses, institutions, and governments even more than individuals. But that issue is completely irrelevant to someone's fitness for a Cabinet post.

Envy is an ugly trait, and a terrible advisor.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Edit
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George Friedman has written a clear explanation of why we have the Electoral College. It's worth reading if you're one of those who want to dismantle it—or one of those unsure if it's defensible.

I understand, and agree, that a direct democracy is not necessarily the best political system. Pure democracy, after all, is another word for the tyranny of the majority—or worse, if the choice is not binary. I also agree with the assertion that at least some form of free market is necessary to make a democracy fair, because without economic freedom all other freedoms go out the window. What puzzles me is Switzerland.

In the European Union, equality and unanimity between members is critical, but the United States chose a much more sophisticated system, combining a deep democratic process, with mediating layers to limit or block public passions.

The United States is a vast nation with highly differentiated interests. From the beginning, the founders were forced to face the fact that holding the nation together required concern for the interests of all states, and not only for those densely settled. A pure democracy would consider the nation’s interests as a whole. The founders were aware that the nation was not a whole, although all regions were needed.

The United States is a geopolitical invention. The 13 original colonies were very different from each other. As the nation expanded westward, even more exotic states became part of the union. Constantly alienating smaller states through indifference could undermine the national interest. The Senate and the electoral college both stop that from happening, or at least limit it. Any state can matter in any election.

You might charge that this is undemocratic. It is. It was intended to be. The founders did not create a direct democracy for a good reason. It would have prevented the United States from emerging as a stable union. They created a republican form of government based on representation and a federal system based on sovereign states. Because of that, a candidate who ignores or insults the “flyover” states is likely to be writing memoirs instead of governing.

I get it. It makes a lot of sense. But Switzerland, though much, much smaller (about half the size of South Carolina), comprises 26 cantons that are at least as diverse as the American states. Think four official national languages and cultures, and that doesn't even count the dozens of different forms of German. Moreover, its individual cantons have much more independence than the states of the U.S. 

Yet Switzerland is both a direct democracy and a very stable union. Is it the size that makes the difference?  Or something else?

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 15, 2016 at 9:58 am | Edit
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