altThe Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran by Andrew Scott Cooper (Henry Holt, 2016)

People were excited at the prospect of "change." That was the cry, "We want change."

You are living in a country that is one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. You enjoy freedom, education, and health care that was beyond the imagination of the generation before you, and the envy of most of the world. But all is not well. There is a large gap between the rich and the poor, and a widening psychological gulf between rural workers and urban elites. A growing number of people begin to look past the glitter and glitz of the cities and see the strip clubs, the indecent, avant-garde theatrical performances, offensive behavior in the streets, and the disintegration of family and tradition. Stories of greed and corruption at the highest corporate and governmental levels have shaken faith in the country's bedrock institutions. Rumors—with some truth—of police brutality stoke the fears of the population, and merciless criminals freely exploit attempts to restrain police action. The country is awash in information that is outdated, wrong, and being manipulated for wrongful ends; the misinformation is nowhere so egregious as at the upper levels of government, where leaders believe what they want to hear, and dismiss the few voices of truth as too negative. Random violence and senseless destruction are on the rise, along with incivility and intolerance. Extremists from both the Left and the Right profit from, and provoke, this disorder, knowing that a frightened and angry populace is easily manipulated. Foreign governments and terrorist organizations publish inflammatory information, fund angry demonstrations, foment riots, and train and arm revolutionaries. The general population hurtles to the point of believing the situation so bad that the country must change—without much consideration for what that change may turn out to bring.

It's 1978. You are in Iran.

I haven't felt so strongly about a book since Hold On to Your Kids. Read. This. Book. Not because it is a page-turning account of the Iranian Revolution of 1978/79, which it is, but because there is so much there that reminds me of America, today. Not that I can draw any neat conclusions about how to apply this information: the complexities of what happened to turn our second-best friend in the Middle East into one of our worst enemies have no easy unravelling. But time has a way of at least making the events clearer, and for that alone The Fall of Heaven is worth reading.

On the other hand, most people don't have the time and the energy to read a densely-packed, 500-page history book. If you're a parent, or a grandparent, or work with children, I say your time would be better spent reading Hold On to Your Kids. But if you can get your hands on a copy, I strongly recommend reading the first few pages: the People, the Events, and the Introduction. That's only 25 pages. By then, you may be hooked, as I was; if not you will at least have been given a good overview of what is fleshed out in the remainder of the book.

A few brief take-aways:

  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Jimmy Carter is undoubtedly an amazing, wonderful person; as my husband is fond of saying, the best ex-president we've ever had. But in the very moments he was winning his Nobel Peace Prize by brokering the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty at Camp David, he—or his administration—was consigning Iran to the hell that endures today. Thanks to a complete failure of American (and British) Intelligence and a massive disinformation campaign with just enough truth to keep it from being dismissed out of hand, President Carter was led to believe that the Shah of Iran was a monster; America's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, likened the Shah to Adolf Eichmann, and called Ruhollah Khomeini a saint. Perhaps the Iranian Revolution and its concomitant bloodbath would have happened without American incompetence, disingenuousness, and backstabbing, but that there is much innocent blood on the hands of our kindly, Peace Prize-winning President, I have no doubt.
  • There's a reason spycraft is called intelligence. Lack of good information leads to stupid decisions.
  • Bad advisers will bring down a good leader, be he President or Shah, and good advisers can't save him if he won't listen.
  • The Bible is 100% correct when it likens people to sheep. Whether by politicians, agitators, con men, charismatic religious leaders (note: small "c"), pop stars, advertisers, or our own peers, we are pathetically easy to manipulate.
  • When the Shah imposed Western Culture on his people, it came with Western decadence and Hollywood immorality thrown in. Even salt-of-the-earth, ordinary people can only take so much of having their lives, their values, and their family integrity threatened. "It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations."
  • The Shah's education programs sent students by droves to Europe and the United States for university educations. This was an unprecedented opportunity, but the timing could have been better. The 1960's and 70's were not sane years on college campuses, as I can personally testify. Instead of being grateful for their educations, the students came home radicalized against their government. In this case, "the Man," the enemy, was the Shah and all that he stood for. Anxious to identify with the masses and their deprivations, these sons and daughters of privilege exchanged one set of drag for another, donning austere Muslim garb as a way of distancing themselves from everything their parents held dear.  Few had ever opened a Quran, and fewer still had an in-depth knowledge of Shia theology, but in their rebellious naïveté they rushed to embrace the latest opiate.
  • "Suicide bomber" was not a household word 40 years ago, but the concept was there. "If you give the order we are prepared to attach bombs to ourselves and throw ourselves at the Shah's car to blow him up," one local merchant told the Ayatollah.
  • People with greatly differing viewpoints can find much in The Fall of Heaven to support their own ideas and fears. Those who see sinister influences behind the senseless, deliberate destruction during natural disasters and protest demonstrations will find justification for their suspicions in the brutal, calculated provocations perpetrated by Iran's revolutionaries. Others will find striking parallels between the rise of Radical Islam in Iran and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. Those who have no use for deeply-held religious beliefs will find confirmation of their own belief that the only acceptable religions are those that their followers don't take too seriously. Some will look at the Iranian Revolution and see a prime example of how conciliation and compromise with evil will only end in disaster.
  • I've read the Qur'an and know more about Islam than many Americans (credit not my knowledge but general American ignorance), but in this book I discovered something that surprised me. Two practices that I assumed marked every serious Muslim are five-times-a-day prayer, and fasting during Ramadan. Yet the Shah, an obviously devout man who "ruled in the fear of God" and always carried a Qur'an with him, did neither. Is this a legitimate and common variation, or the Muslim equivalent of the Christian who displays a Bible prominently on his coffee table but rarely cracks it open and prefers to sleep in on Sundays?  Clearly, I have more to learn.
  • Many of Iran's problems in the years before the Revolution seem remarkably similar to those of someone who wins a million dollar lottery. Government largess fueled by massive oil revenues thrust people suddenly into a new and unfamiliar world of wealth, in the end leaving them, not grateful, but resentful when falling oil prices dried up the flow of money.
  • I totally understand why one country would want to influence another country that it views as strategically important; that may even be considered its duty to its own citizens. But for goodness' sake, if you're going to interfere, wait until you have a good knowledge of the country, its history, its customs, and its people. Our ignorance of Iran in general and the political and social situation in particular was appalling. We bought the carefully-orchestrated public façade of Khomeini hook, line, and sinker; an English translation of his inflammatory writings and blueprint for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran came nine years too late, after it was all over. In our ignorance we conferred political legitimacy on the radical Khomeini while ignoring the true leaders of the majority of Iran's Shiite Muslims. The American ambassador and his counterpart from the United Kingdom, on whom the Shah relied heavily in the last days, confidently gave him ignorant and disastrous advice. Not to mention that it was our manipulation of the oil market (with the aid of Saudi Arabia) that brought on the fall in oil prices that precipitated Iran's economic crisis.
  • The bumbling actions of the United States, however, look positively beatific compared with the works of men like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, who funded, trained, and armed the revolutionaries.
  • I have a couple of Iranian friends who lived through those disastrous times; I'm looking forward to hearing their take on The Fall of Heaven

I threw out the multitude of sticky notes with which I marked up the book in favor of one long quotation from the introduction.  It matters to me because I heard and absorbed the accusations against the Shah, and even thought Khomeini was acting out of a legitimate complaint with regard to the immorality of some aspects of American culture. Not that I paid much attention to world events at the time of the Revolution, being more concerned with my job, our first house, a visit to my in-laws in Brazil, and the birth of our first child. But I was deceived by the fake news, and I'm glad to have a clearer picture at last.

The controversy and confusion that surrounded the Shah's human rights record overshadowed his many real accomplishments in the fields of women's rights, literacy, health care, education, and modernization. Help in sifting through the accusations and allegations came from a most unexpected quarter, however, when the Islamic Republic announced plans to identify and memorialize each victim of Pahlavi "oppression." But lead researcher Emad al-Din Baghi, a former seminary student, was shocked to discover that the could not match the victims' names to the official numbers: instead of 100,000 deaths Baghi could confirm only 3,164. Even that number was inflated because it included all 2,781 fatalities from the 1978-1979 revolution. The actual death toll was lowered to 383, of whom 197 were guerrilla fighters and terrorists killed in skirmishes with the security forces. that meant 183 political prisoners and dissidents were executed, committed suicide in detention, or died under torture. [No, I can't make those numbers add up right either, but it's close enough.] The number of political prisoners was also sharply reduced, from 100,000 to about 3,200. Baghi's revised numbers were troublesome for another reason: they matched the estimates already provided by the Shah to the International Committee of the Red Cross before the revolution. "The problem here was not only the realization that the Pahlavi state might have been telling the truth but the fact that the Islamic Republic had justified many of its excesses on the popular sacrifices already made," observed historian Ali Ansari. ... Baghi's report exposed Khomeini's hypocrisy and threatened to undermine the vey moral basis of the revolution. Similarly, the corruption charges against the Pahlavis collapsed when the Shah's fortune was revealed to be well under $100 million at the time of his departure [instead of the rumored $25-$50 billion], hardly insignificant but modest by the standards of other royal families and remarkably low by the estimates that appeared in the Western press.

Baghi's research was suppressed inside Iran but opened up new vistas of study for scholars elsewhere. As a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, the U.S. organization that monitors human rights around the world, I was curious to learn how the higher numbers became common currency in the first place. I interviewed Iranian revolutionaries and foreign correspondents whose reporting had helped cement the popular image of the Shah as a blood-soaked tyrant. I visited the Center for Documentation on the Revolution in Tehran, the state organization that compiles information on human rights during the Pahlavi era, and was assured by current and former staff that Baghi's reduced numbers were indeed credible. If anything, my own research suggested that Baghi's estimates might still be too high. For example, during the revolution the Shah was blamed for a cinema fire that killed 430 people in the southern city of Abadan; we now know that this heinous crime was carried out by a pro-Khomeini terror cell. Dozens of government officials and soldiers had been killed during the revolution, but their deaths were also attributed to the Shah and not to Khomeini. The lower numbers do not excuse or diminish the suffering of political prisoners jailed or tortured in Iran in the 1970s. They do, however, show the extent to which the historical record was manipulated by Khomeini and his partisans to criminalize the Shah and justify their own excesses and abuses.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, November 6, 2017 at 10:51 pm | Edit
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Today's Orlando Sentinel features, on its opinion page, a wonderful article by guest columnist James O. Cunningham: What's wrong with America? 'Dear Sir, I am'. The link takes you to the front page, from which you could click to page 12—or maybe not; it's not clear to me which parts the newspaper makes available to non-subscribers. But the Sentinel also makes it possible to clip and save articles, and this one deserves wider publicity, so I've included it below. If you find the print too small, click on the image for a larger version. (H/T Porter, who grabbed my attention by mentioning the Chesterton quote.)

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Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 17, 2017 at 10:32 am | Edit
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My father would have considered himself a patriotic man. Even though he never served directly in the military—the government having considered his engineering skills to be important for the Manhattan Project, instead—he certainly respected those who did. And he loved our country.

But I think he, along with many of his generation, knew that love of country is too important to be taken too seriously. I hope his National Anthem story makes you smile today.

Washington State being a Land Grant college, we were required to take two years of Reserve Officers Training Corps. Even though there was a war in Europe, the ROTC program was not taken very seriously.

I played in the ROTC band and we spent fall and spring practicing music and marching as we played every Friday for the ROTC parade. The hardest part of that life was playing for parading units at a rate of 120 steps per minute rather than the 160 steps per minute for the college marching band.

In the wintertime we received training in close order drill but it still was rather easy military training. Every spring an ROTC encampment was held during the daytime. During the encampment we attended no classes and went home at night. The Engineering and Infantry units spent the day with military procedures and problems and the band sat on a hillside in the shade and practiced its music. A favorite pastime was to wait until there were large groups marching and then play a waltz.

The only time there was any trouble came one time when we were serious about what we were doing. We were practicing The Star Spangled Banner. That brought down the wrath of the military people because everyone had to stop what he was doing and stand at attention.

In 1941 things became much more serious, but I was no longer involved.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 28, 2017 at 8:43 am | Edit
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Supposedly—I add the qualifier because I have so little trust remaining for news stories, even from multiple sources—supposedly, Arnold Schwarzenegger said this: If you choose to march with the flag that symbolizes the slaughter of millions of people, there are not two sides to that.

I suppose we can grant him a little leeway for artistic license. It's hard to be nuanced in a sound bite. But the ignorance of history represented by such a statement is frightening. If you're going to ban flags that have overseen mass slaughter, you need to take a much more thorough view. The U.S. flag cannot be excepted. According to Dante, even the flag of peaceful, neutral Switzerland, which I proudly wear this morning, bears its share of guilt.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 21, 2017 at 8:01 am | Edit
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Here's a warning for those travelling to Canada:

I was prepared for the border agent to ask if we were bringing firearms with us into Canada. I was surprised, but not unduly so, when he asked if we had any alcohol. (Oops. I neglected to tell him about the 2 ounces we had in the first aid kit.) But I was flabbergasted when he asked if we had any knives, including jackknives. It's a good thing we weren't planning a picnic. I'm also glad I had left my larger jackknife behind (prescience?). Fortunately, my Swiss Army keychain with its one-inch blade (which the TSA thinks is dangerous) was allowed to pass the border, but he did examine it thoroughly. I was shocked.

Does the Second Amendment cover knives? Not that those who wrote it would have dreamed anyone would object to a knife, which in their day even small boys carried with impunity. (Before you jump on me, I KNOW our Constitution doesn't matter in Canada. But if the Canadians are freaking out over knives, can the U.S. be far behind?)

I had expected more hassles crossing back into U.S., but it was a piece of cake. She looked at our passports, asked us where we were coming from, where we were going, and how long we had been in Canada, then wished us well.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 8, 2017 at 10:10 am | Edit
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I highly recommend Jack Barsky's essay on a great danger facing America today:  The Biggest Insider Threat. It's a short piece and worth reading in its entirely.

Given my background as an undercover agent, I often warn about the insider threat when talking about cyber securityI believe that we are currently witnessing the biggest insider threat this country has seen in a long time – and this threat is us.

I am distraught at the internal bickering that has grown to a cacophonous ear-splitting crescendo loud enough to echo around the worldNot only is US credibility and leadership damaged by this, it also takes our focus away from extremely important issues of national securityThis feels like watching a cartoon, except this cartoon is not funny. Are there any responsible adults around?

This selfish political theater must stop – it endangers our very foundation. 

Barsky is short on answers, but the problem needs to be stated and restated until we come up with some.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 16, 2017 at 9:56 pm | Edit
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altDeep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky (Tyndale Momentum, 2017)

Back in March, I wrote a bit about the story of former KGB spy Jack Barsky. (See The Spy Who Stayed.) At the time I was eagerly awaiting his soon-to-be-published book. Rather than wait for the library to get a copy (which it now has)—and also to support the first book of a "friend of a friend"—I purchased the Kindle version to take with me on our recent cruise. I know, I haven't written about that yet, but it will come. Believe me, the irony of reading the story of a KGB spy while in Cuban waters was not lost on me.

Deep Undercover is well worth reading. It's 352 pages but reads very quickly. It is competently, though not excellently written. I hate to admit it, but I've been sorely disappointed by the quality of writing coming out of many Christian publishing houses; I'm happy to say that Barsky and Tyndale have done far better than average on that score. Besides, the imperfections give me more of an impression that I'm hearing the voice of Barsky, not of some ghostwriter. After all, chemistry, espionage, and information technology don't teach you all the nuances of storytelling. 

The story itself is riveting. First, because it is true. This is the real story of a brilliant young East German, born just three years before I was, who was recruited as a KGB spy, infiltrated American society, and ended up sending his daughter to the small, Christian school in upstate New York where my life-long friend had been principal for decades. I wanted to know how he got from Point A to Point B.

Because we are nearly the same age, it was especially interesting to see the contrasts between Barsky's childhood and my own, and to know, more or less, what was happening to and around me during the times he describes. There's a reason the Communists thought of Americans as lazy, undisciplined, and soft. It's a pity that self-discipline is so much harder to acquire when we're not under duress.

It's also sobering to realize how vulnerable the United States is to infiltration and attack. With money, skill, discipline, and smart young people who believe they are fighting for a great cause, it's apparently pretty easy to take on a country primarily committed to liberty and what it considers humanitarian virtues—especially if its people are also soft, materialistic, and somewhat lazy.  The KGB had all of that—and, I may point out, so does ISIS, among other scary entities. Barsky's activities were pre-9/11, but I'm far from convinced that infiltration and more dangerous nefarious activities would be that much more difficult now.

Be that as it may, it was their failure to understand American culture that undid most of the Soviet Union's efforts in America—just as America has been undone by our cultural misunderstandings in Vietnam and in the Middle East. Barsky found an America that did not fit what he had been told all his life.

It didn’t take long for me to see a wide gap between the Communist saga of the exploited worker in a capitalist society and the reality as I experienced it. For some reason, insurance companies were always near the top of the list of capitalist villains in Communist propaganda. But I never felt I was being exploited. Instead, I was quite comfortable in my job, everyone treated me well, and the paternalistic culture of the traditional mutual insurance company was very appealing to my statist roots. The chinks in my ideological armor began to grow into wide-open cracks.

I'm no pacifist, and acknowledge the need for governments to use all legal and ethical means to protect their people. Just being nice won't do. "Be wise as serpents" was uttered in the same breath as "[Be] harmless as doves."  Nevertheless, as far as what ordinary Americans can do, I really think kindness is our best defense. Barsky didn't abandon his mission for political or philosophical reasons. And while I'm not denying the importance of his religious conversion, that came much later. Barsky's heart was turned by the ordinary people he met while living an apparently ordinary American life, and it was the innocent vulnerability of his little daughter that broke through both his harsh upbringing and his hard-hearted training.

So if you fear your next-door neighbor might be a Russian agent, or a potential ISIS terrorist, be smart. Don't give him your housekeys. But genuine kindness might change someone's path for the better—even if he's just an ordinary American neighbor.

I didn't pick out many quotes from Deep Undercover, but here are a few random ones that caught my eye. (The bold emphasis is mine.)

Every evening, without fail, I spent an additional half hour listening to words on a phonetics tape and repeating them— listening and repeating, listening and repeating—ad nauseam. When it comes to basic life skills, repetition is the midwife of excellence.

The Moscow Metro is an example of the greatness that can be achieved if a dictator spares no expense to build a monument to himself.

“This is the final step in your preparation. We think that three months in Canada would be an excellent opportunity for you to practice your English and familiarize yourself with the culture and the way of life over there. After all, Canada is a lot like the US, only colder and with fewer people.” 

While walking between classes one day in early 1982, I saw a bulletin board notice for a current affairs group meeting, and I signed up immediately.

Led by history professor Selma Berrol, the group of about twenty students met on Wednesdays at lunchtime to discuss current world affairs and American politics. For purposes of these discussions, I positioned myself on the left of the political spectrum, with some sympathy for the Western European brand of socialism, but firmly anti-Communist.

Over the next couple of years, this group provided great insight for my reports to the Center about the mood of the country—particularly in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet fighter jet reignited tensions between the US and the Soviet Union that had largely diminished during the period of détente in the 1970s. There was widespread concern in our group that Reagan might push the world to the brink of nuclear war with his aggressive approach to international diplomacy.

Only one person in the group, a guy named Fred, sided with Reagan. Fred was ultraconservative, and the rest of us would chuckle or roll our eyes when he started on one of his rants. “I’m telling you, the Russians are deathly afraid of Ronald Reagan. We need to show them that we are serious. Historically, appeasement has never worked, and it will not work today. And if the Russians try to keep up with us in this race, they will simply go bankrupt.

In his own way, Fred actually expressed historical truth before it became evident.

It is my personal belief that the Russians’ irrational fear of President Reagan contributed significantly to the eventual fall of the Soviet Union—an event that was not yet foreseeable in 1984.

Here's a short video (8 minutes) in which Barsky is asked about Russia's influence on the past election; what strikes me as most important is his take on the clear and present danger of cyber warfare.

And here's an interesting interview that covers some of the stories in the book.  It's long (nearly an hour) but worthwhile, at least if like me you can listen while doing something else.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 4, 2017 at 8:29 am | Edit
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It all depends on whose ox is being gored....

I first became aware of how much a U.S. president can do by executive order when Barack Obama made such lavish use of that power. Mr. Obama's supporters were quick to point out that he was hardly the first president to do so.

President Trump is doing the same, and the complaints are now on the other side.

Me?  I don't want anyone's ox to be gored. The fact that one president's executive orders can be undone by the next president only shows why legislation ought to be done by ... the Legislature. You want change to happen, make it work through Congress. Is that too difficult? Maybe there's a reason—maybe it should be hard. If you're trying to accomplish something that half the country is against, maybe you need to rethink and rework and renegotiate.

There's a reason some religious denominations wait for full agreement before making major decisions. There's a reason a jury's verdict must be unanimous.

I'll grant that agreement on anything by everyone is impossible in a country as diverse and cantankerous as ours, but moving forward on important policies without the support of a healthy majority—and without provision for the protection of the minority—is death for a democracy.

"It's my ball now, and we'll play by my rules" isn't working very well, and it's making a lot of people unhappy.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 28, 2017 at 6:00 am | Edit
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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