I fell in love with Penzeys Spices the first time I walked into their Pittsburgh store, many years and ten grandchildren ago. What an enormous array of herbs, spices, and extracts of excellent quality, as well as their own superb spice blends! I couldn't say enough wonderful things about Penzeys, in person and here on this blog.

You may or may not have noticed that I don't do that anymore. My interactions with the company have left a bad taste in my mouth, and when your business is selling food ... that's not a good situation.

Once upon a time I stocked up on Penzeys products whenever we visited our daughter in Pittsburgh. I put myself on their mailing list, and in between times would sometimes place an order through the mail. But imagine my joy when Central Florida finally got its own Penzeys store! We generally visited once a month, to take advantage of the free spice coupons in the catalog, and of course we almost always made other purchases as well.

Ah, the catalog. In each one, Bill Penzey wrote an enjoyable little column about spices, food, cooking, and family. I used to like reading that, almost as much as I enjoyed the food & family stories contributed by customers. But gradually, that changed. Politics started to infuse the catalog, first in Bill's column and then in the customer stories he chose to include.

Well, I don't usually discriminate against great products based on the political opinions of the company. I continued to drool over the catalog, skipping Bill's column. When I did read it, I was usually sorry I had. We continued our monthly visits to the store, where even the employees rolled their eyes at the political turn the company was taking.

And then Penzeys closed our store.

I understand that companies must make difficult economic decisions and sometimes stores must be closed. I'm okay with that, even if it makes me sad. Their lease was up, and rents are high in the area they had chosen to open their store. What my anger flowed from was the implication on their sign that they would soon be opening a new store in the area, though I certainly was looking forward to that.

You see, in his political writings Bill Penzey consistently positions himself and his company as the defenders of the common people, the little guys, the poor and needy ... you get the picture. He's always denouncing people and businesses that make decisions based on what he perceives as selfishness and greed. Yet he decided to close a store and reopen elsewhere just to get his company out from under an expensive lease, leaving his employees—the little guys, the poor and needy common people—high and dry. They could not afford to wait for the opening of a theoretical new store: they needed job. Given all Bill Penzey has said about what other people should do with their money and in their own businesses, I would have expected his company to bite the bullet, forgo some profit, and at the least not close the existing store until a new one, nearby but in a less expensive neighborhood, was ready to provide jobs for their displaced employees.

They did not. That moves the scenario from necessary business decision straight to hypocrisy. And as it turned out, it has been four years since they closed, and there is still no sign of a Penzeys store any closer than Jacksonville.

On top of that, despite my many attempts at communication—before and after this event; whether contribution, compliment, or complaint; by e-mail or postal mail—I never heard back from Penzeys. It was worse than writing to a politician and expecting communication!

Since then, Bill Penzey's political rants (which now come to me by e-mail rather than printed catalog) have gone over-the-edge extreme. The hypocrisy, the hate-preached-as-love, would almost be funny—if it weren't so sad.

The following incident did make me laugh, at least until I started wondering what tax advantage the company might be angling for. Last Friday, the mailman delivered a box of excitement: my most recent Penzeys order. Penzeys packages often come with a freebie or two tucked in, such as sample-sized envelopes of herbs or spices (my favorite) or something advertising the store or one of Bill Penzey's pet causes.  Here's one of the latter that came this time:

It's a sticker, no big deal except for the waste when it ends up in the landfill. What makes it bizarre is how it appeared on the packing slip, which you can see below, with some prices I've circled in red.

For this sticker, which I didn't order, they charged me $6.95, then "discounted" the price at the end. What kind of pricing is this? Who in his right mind would pay $6.95 for a sticker, let alone one not even worth sending to grandchildren? And what's the point? Some sort of shady accounting practice or tax benefit?

Amusing in a different way are the accolades Bill Penzey gives himself by first (1) making an extreme political statement, then (2) offering an extraordinarily good sale, 'way too good to pass up, then (3) bragging that his customers clearly endorse his political beliefs—just look at the spike in sales!

But do you know what? I still buy his spices. Not nearly as much, not nearly as often. As I said, the company now leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But the taste of the spices is still wonderful. I don't believe boycotts to be generally useful, and in most cases I choose businesses by quality and price without asking about politics.

Penzeys' reputation for quality is no doubt why they feel they can get away with repeatedly and consistently alienating half their customer base. It puts me in mind of what a math professor friend said about Harvard University years ago: The quality of education at the school has gone down significantly; students are no longer getting what a "Harvard education" used to mean. Harvard is living on its reputation. And that will be slow to die, because the Harvard reputation will still give Harvard graduates' résumés a great advantage over others. More importantly, it will continue to attract the best students, which will give them both the "iron sharpens iron" benefit and an unbeatable network of connections for the future. You can't live forever on reputation alone, but if you have once been great, you can fool yourself and others for a long time.

I believe Bill Penzey is fooling himself. As long as Penzeys' spices are perceived as superior—and many of them really are—even the spurned, denigrated, vilified half of his customer base will not flee en masse. But many—like some students who forgo applying to Harvard—may decide that the difference is not worth the cost. The love and the loyalty are gone.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 3:05 pm | Edit
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I'd say the President and the Speaker of the House are acting like two-year-olds, but I have more respect for two-year-olds than that. That said, in their recent spat—in which the Speaker told the President that in light of the partial government shutdown he should postpone his State of the Union Speech or submit it in writing, and the President told the Speaker that in light of the same she couldn't use a military jet for her planned foreign travel but was welcome to fly a commercial airline—each made an excellent point.

The subject, "As Go the People, so Go the Leaders" has two meanings. One, that while we should be able to expect our leaders to be better in every way than the rest of us, that never happens, and can not realistically be expected in a democracy. For the record, I believe democracy to be the best form of government, and do not believe that our political system is broken, as so many are fond of saying. What is broken is our culture, especially our culture as seen through our media—and all too often we deserve what we get.

The second meaning is more to the point here. I'll give the Executive their Air Force One. But the Legislative Branch? The branch that is supposed to be made up of representatives of the American people? I'm sick of Congress exempting itself from the rules it imposes on the rest of the country, and the practices that further divide our representatives from the reality of American life. Let them fly the way the rest of us do. Preferably coach class.

And having a written State of the Union speech instead of a political grandstanding media circus? Sounds great to me!

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 18, 2019 at 6:17 am | Edit
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Some of my friends predicted a Blue Wave. Some of my friends predicted a Red Wave. Instead, I awoke this morning to a sea of purple.

I'm good with that. I'm a purple kind of person, politically. I belong to a particular party only so that I can participate in the primary elections. Yesterday I voted for some Democrats and some Republicans. I won some races and lost others. Of one thing only am I certain: the victors will be neither as bad as I fear nor as good as I hope.

I'm also fine with what they're calling a "mixed government." No party should have an easy time pushing its own agenda: we lose the checks and balances that allow the voices of the rest of the country to be heard.

However, I do have a few words for the winners:

  • If you won your race by a 51/49 margin, do not intone, "The people have spoken" and think you have a mandate for your ideas. Never forget that half your constituency do not want you as their leader.
  • If you won by a landslide, I say the same thing. A rare 60/40 victory, or even an unheard of 90/10, does not mean you have the right to ignore the minority. Never forget that you are now as responsible for looking after their interests and considering their needs and values as you are those of the people who voted for you.
  • Remember that you were elected to serve, not to be served.

That would make American great.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 7, 2018 at 6:23 am | Edit
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Today being the REAL Election Day, I voted. I can't say it was the pleasant experience it usually is. Oh, the poll workers were as friendly and as helpful as usual, but the room was chaotic and I left not feeling so confident about some of my fellow-voters. I write this now, before the results are known, so I can't be biased by the results, whatever they may be.

Several people seemed to be having procedural compliance issues.  Now the voting procedure in Florida is easy: be registered, and show up with an acceptable photo ID with signature. There are other ways, such as a photo ID without signature plus some other ID with signature. Or voting a provisional ballot and having your signature matched with your voter registration signature. They really bend over backwards to make voting easy here. They also make it very clear before you go to vote what you need to bring with you to the polling place.

For just one example of the confusion, the man in front of me was insisting that they accept his driver's license. Normally, that's the easiest way: they can scan your license and you're in. But this man's license was from another state.

Poll worker: When did you move here?

Voter: Eight months ago. And I registered to vote.

Poll worker: But you didn't transfer your driver's license. You must do that within 30 days of moving here. This license is not valid.

Voter: Why should I get a new license? This one hasn't expired yet.

(In case you are wondering, this wasn't a language issue.)

At least those who believe that the mere act of voting is meritorious in and of itself will be happy. With all the other ways Florida has of casting one's ballot, and the fact that I usually vote mid-morning, the polling places are usually pretty empty when I arrive.  Not this time!

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, November 6, 2018 at 9:44 am | Edit
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I was taught to view voting as a civic duty, and have always believed that. I still do. It's almost a civil sacrament, the "outward and visible sign" of good citizenship. With that in mind, I have observed that Americans have made some of the same mistakes with regard to voting as the Christian Church through the ages had made with its own sacraments.

Ideally, the sacraments are made available to all Christians ("citizens") who are deemed to have sufficient understanding of and respect for what they are doing. Different churches disagree considerably on what constitutes sufficiency, but that's the general idea. Two extremes may be noted, however.

  • Some churches, especially in the past, have greatly restricted the sacraments: to those of their own church, those who are of at least a certain age, those who have undergone sufficient instruction, those who have been thoroughly examined and been found to be fit, etc. They take very seriously the Bible's admonitions not to partake of the sacraments lightly—but by doing so have excluded many who should be welcomed.
  • Some churches, taking seriously the idea that the effectiveness of the sacraments is based on God's grace, have thrown wide the doors with no concern that the participants have genuine faith or knowledge of what they are doing. Historically, this has resulted in politically- and economically-motivated, or even forced, "conversions," to the great detriment of the Church (not to mention the individuals involved).

As regards its secular, civil religion, America has certainly been guilty of the former. Today, however, we appear to have veered crazily toward the latter. The effectiveness of voting in and of itself is touted as enthusiastically as in the most egregious historical misuse of ex opere operato by the Church.

Everywhere, I am surrounded by the admonition to VOTE! Not a word about being educated on the issues and the candidates, not a word about considering the needs of others and the good of the country rather than one's own self-interest, not a word about casting an intelligent and wise vote—simply VOTE! Cast your ballot and let the magic of voting do its work.

Baptize a man against his will and he becomes a Christian. Require a man to attend Mass on Sunday, and it doesn't matter if he's a Mafia Don.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, November 5, 2018 at 7:20 am | Edit
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Quiz: How well can you tell factual from opinion statements?

This isn't one of those silly Facebook quizzes, like the one that purports to tell you what voice part you should sing based on personality questions—the one that told me I should be singing low bass. It's from the Pew Research Center, and consists simply of 10 political statements for you to classify as factual or opinion. I thought they were all obvious and scored 5/5 on the factual statements and 5/5 on the opinion statements. Alas, the "nationally representative group of 5,035 randomly selected U.S. adults surveyed online between February 22 and March 4, 2018" did not do so well: only 26% had a perfect score on the factual part, and 35% on the opinion section.

If you take the quiz (which does not require an e-mail address, signing in, or anything else intrusive), you'll get to see not only your results but a breakdown of the people who answered each particular question correctly, based on political party affiliation and how much they trust national news organizations. The first is particularly interesting, if somewhat depressing. Unfortunately for partisans, there's no evidence that Democrats are smarter than Republicans, or vice versa. Sometimes one party fared better, sometimes the other. What is clear is that both parties have a strong tendency to label statements consonant with their own beliefs as fact, and statements that they disagree with as opinion. This despite the clear instructions: 

Regardless of how knowledgeable you are about each topic, would you consider each statement to be a factual statement (whether you think it is accurate or not) or an opinion statement (whether you agree with it or not)?

What I find find disturbing is the apparently lack of understanding that a statement of fact can be wrong. "I have red hair" is a statement of fact—one that happens to be false. So is "I like to eat liver" (also false). The latter statement is factual, not opinion, even though it states my opinion of the taste of liver. "Liver is disgusting" is an opinion statement, and my agreeing with it does not make it factual.

It seems we have carried "I'm right, you're wrong" to a whole new level.

Take the quiz yourself here.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, October 27, 2018 at 6:41 am | Edit
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In one of the early episodes of the TV show Monk, Adrian Monk's assistant, Sharona Fleming, explains, "I never vote; it only encourages them."

I believe that informed, intelligent voting is the duty of citizens in a democracy. I really do. But having arrived at (primary) Election Day, I'm inclined to sympathize with Sharona.

Take the school board race, for example. I don't need anything more to make me over-the-top thankful that my era of intimate involvement with the public schools is long over, but the priorities of this year's candidates reassure me that I would still be bashing my head against the wall it it weren't.

What are the hot-button issues for the candidates in our safe, mostly suburban school district? School safety, mental health counselling, vocational education, and getting rid of standardized testing. They're so consistent on this that the one guy who is a little different may well get my vote—despite his bizarre rant about how he doesn't want to carry a gun, as if he can't tell the difference between allowing someone with a carry permit to bring his own gun onto a school campus, and somehow requiring all teachers to carry guns.  (To be fair, teachers are asked to do so many things besides teaching these days, I can understand his paranoia a little.)

I'm all for vocational education—in which America as a whole needs to do a much better job—but could we not have at least one candidate who is concerned about academics? Who will make a priority of offering our students a first-class, high-quality education? If their top concerns for our schools are safety and mental health issues, then it's not an educational institution we're running. I don't know what it is, but it's not a school.

The other races aren't much better. Looking through their campaign literature is an exercise in, "Nope, not that one. Not him. Not her. Certainly not that one. Oh, look, one who doesn't completely vilify her opponent, how refreshing."

If it's my duty to vote, isn't it someone's duty to provide candidates worth voting for?

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 28, 2018 at 4:34 am | Edit
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I try hard not to judge a president, for good or for ill, until years after his term has ended. History does much to clear the clouded lens of the present, and more than once a person I've judged as good has turned out to be a lousy president, and vice versa. But I think I can say that if Americans, and the American media, are waking up to the fact that danger from Russia did not go away with the end of the Cold War, that's a good that might last. We need do the same with China and a few other countries, too.

Does that mean we should hate these countries and view them as our enemies? Of course not. On the personal level, meeting, loving, appreciating, and valuing other people and cultures is the road to peace—not to mention to learning, growth and a lot of fun.

But at the political level, it's important never to forget that other governments, even at their best, have the interests of their own people in mind, not ours. And that's a good thing; that's their job. It's our government's job to look to the interests of our country and our people, and that is the messy business of diplomacy—including but not limited to economic policy, military strength, espionage, cyber security, foreign aid, political rhetoric, looking for the win-win even with our enemies, compromise, and all the complex art of statecraft.

Does that mean we should give our government a free hand to use whatever tactics will get the job done? Absolutely not. Free and democratic countries must face the world with one arm tied behind their backs, not resorting to immoral behavior even if it's used against them, just as the police are not allowed to use criminal behavior to catch criminals. It does mean, however, that we must be the more vigilant and active to use all legitimate means to further our goals.

It is what Scottish author and philosopher George MacDonald called, "sending the serpent to look after the dove," a reference to Jesus' admonition to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). Innocence with knowledge and wisdom is strong.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 14, 2018 at 6:55 am | Edit
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I'm currently in the third of Isaac Asimov's four-book American history series, which I will review later. I'll throw out the hint that I highly recommend it despite some obvious biases on the author's part (fairly mild, and unavoidable; that's why we need to read history from several sources). These are adult books, but easily accessible for literate middle schoolers; Asimov has the gift of speaking clearly to those without much knowledge of the subject, while not being in the least condescending—a skill all too few of us possess.

As I said, this isn't a review. But this morning I came upon some passages from a chapter on Andrew Jackson that I thought worth sharing.

The gradual democratization of the voting process had removed barriers and increased the numbers of those eligible to vote. ... The era when elections were in the hands of the educated and comparatively well-to-do was over.

This meant politicians had to vie for the votes of the uneducated and unsophisticated, and that, in turn, meant that wild accusations, exaggerations, and outright lies could be used profitably.

The 1828 elections were the first to involve the kind of dirty campaign tactics that the United States has been accustomed to ever since. [John Quincy] Adams, for instance, one of the most honest men ever to be in public life, was charged with all kinds of corruption by men who knew they were lying when they made the charges.

Jackson's inauguration marked a strong break in American tradition. Until then, the presidency had been held by men of the upper classes, bred in the cultivated tradition of the coastal regions. In the forty years since the Constitution had been adopted, the office had been held by men from Virginia for thirty-two years and by men from Massachusetts for eight years.

Jackson was from Tennessee and had been only sketchily educated. Violent and tough, he was widely known as "Old Hickory," indicating that he was as hard and rugged as the wood of the hickory tree. He was a great believer in the common man—which meant he had a certain suspicion of the educated man. Where earlier presidents could boast of family, Jackson was born in a log cabin; his success (and the growth of the voting population among the less well-to-do) made it virtually obligatory for politicians to boast of humble origins and to disclaim any pretensions to education and refinement. (Wealth was all right in itself—politicians could be rich, as long as they were crude.)

In fact, the Jacksonian Democrats' contempt for education was such that the embittered National Republicans took to symbolizing the Democratic party with a donkey, and that symbol has remained to this day.

Jackson was the first colorful president of the United States. Before him, presidents had been inaugurated in dignified seclusion; Jackson, however, invited the public into the White House to help him celebrate, and in their enthusiasm, the shouting, liquor-filled men completely ruined the furnishings.

Nor did Jackson stand on his dignity and serve merely as the grave executor of laws passed by Congress. He actively pushed for laws he wanted and unhesitatingly vetoed laws he didn't like; he was the first president to be the kind of powerful and active leader we have grown accustomed to these days. He knew he had the people with him, and he relied on them to back him against Congress and even against the Supreme Court.

Another aspect of the new democracy came about with Jackson's belief in the average man. It seemed to Jackson a matter of little importance just which man filled which governmental job. Since all men were equal, any man could do the job, so why shouldn't it go to a friend rather than to an enemy?

Until Jackson's inauguration, presidents had, more or less, followed the principle of allowing men to stay in their government jobs unless and until they displayed incompetence. ... This way of looking at public office as booty rather than as responsibility has ... been called the "spoils system" ever since. ... Jackson actually used this system only moderately, but he established the precedent.

Asimove wrote those words more than 40 years ago, but he could have penned them last week.

Here we are, nearly 200 years after the opening of the first American public high school in the United States, exactly 100 years since education became compulsory in all states, in an era of unprecedented levels of college attendance—and what have we gained? I see a few possible conclusions.

  • The American public education system has failed utterly to create a general population sufficiently educated to resist the political tactics developed specifically to appeal to "the uneducated and unsophisticated."
  • Despite the enormous portion of our young days given over to the educational system, that system has proved insufficent to counter other, more powerful forces that shape our national character.
  • Educated, intelligent, civilized, and responsible behavior is subject to its own form of the second law of thermodynamics, and will always disintegrate into chaos without the expenditure of considerable energy.
  • Asinine behavior is by no means limited to the party that first earned the donkey label.
  • It's time our politicians started raising the bar, and treating the electorate as the educated populace we ought by now to be.
  • It's time we starte behaving, in our political lives, like the educated populace we think we are.
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, June 3, 2018 at 9:20 am | Edit
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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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