Remember what I said in my recent review of Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Most of the analyses I read online consider the climax of the book to be where Winston Smith and Julia betray each other. It seems clear to me, however, that the true climax occurs much earlier in the book, when they believe they are joining the Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to opposing the ruling Party.

"In general terms, what are you prepared to do?"
"Anything that we are capable of," said Winston.
O'Brien had turned himself a little in his chair so that he was facing Winston. He almost ignored Julia, seeming to take it for granted that Winston could speak for her. For a moment the lids flitted down over his eyes. He began asking his questions in a low, expressionless voice, as though this were a routine, a sort of catechism, most of whose answers were known to him already.
"Yes."
"You are prepared to commit murder?"
"Yes."
"To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?"
"Yes."
"To betray your country to foreign powers?"
"Yes."
"You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases—to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?"
"Yes."
"If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child's face—are you prepared to do that?"
"Yes."

At that point any hope for the future is lost, those opposing evil having shown themselves to be no better than their opponents. Everything after that is dénouement.

That.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, January 10, 2021 at 7:57 am | Edit
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altNineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel by George Orwell (1949)

A friend of mine recently observed, "I re-read 1984 a few weeks ago. The first time I read it in high school, I thought it was good science fiction. Now it reads like a documentary."

So I decided re-read it myself. In high school I read both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, and about all I remember is how much I disliked them both. I am a purist for science fiction. By that I mean not fantasy, and not merely stories set in the future, but stories in which plausible future science plays a more important role than social commentary—think Isaac Asimov and early Robert Heinlein. Thus I wouldn't have called either of the above books science fiction. I personally wouldn't call them good, either. But I thought it was worth another try.

I stand by my original assessment of Nineteen Eighty-Four, though I will acknowledge that Orwell was remarkably prescient in many areas. I know what my friend meant when he said it sounds like a documentary. Just as interesting were the places he got wrong. For example, he completely missed the sexual revolution of the 1960's. He also missed computers, the Internet, social media, and the Information Age—but television served his purposes well enough for "Big Brother is Watching You."

Curiously, I found that most of the analyses I read online consider the climax of the book to be where Winston Smith and Julia betray each other. It seems clear to me, however, that the true climax occurs much earlier in the book, when they believe they are joining the Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to opposing the ruling Party.

 "In general terms, what are you prepared to do?"
 "Anything that we are capable of," said Winston.
 O'Brien had turned himself a little in his chair so that he was facing Winston. He almost ignored Julia, seeming to take it for granted that Winston could speak for her. For a moment the lids flitted down over his eyes. He began asking his questions in a low, expressionless voice, as though this were a routine, a sort of catechism, most of whose answers were known to him already.
 "You are prepared to give your lives?"
 "Yes."
 "You are prepared to commit murder?"
 "Yes."
 "To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?"
 "Yes."
 "To betray your country to foreign powers?"
 "Yes."
 "You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases—to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?"
 "Yes."
 "If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child's face—are you prepared to do that?"
 "Yes."

At that point any hope for the future is lost, those opposing evil having shown themselves to be no better than their opponents. Everything after that is dénouement.

Here are a few more quotes I found interesting.

Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the dsicipline of the Party. ... It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which "The Times" did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak—"child hero" was the phrase generally used—had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.

If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER HAPPENED—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?

As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of "The Times" had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. ... Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. ... All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means.

"The proles are not human beings," he said carelessly. "By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be."

It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreation: to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous.

What kind of people would control this world had been ... obvious. The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people ... had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition.

Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards. Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. ... The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.

What opinions the masses hold, or do not hold, is looked on as a matter of indifference. They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect. In a Party member, on the other hand, not even the smallest deviation of opinion on the most unimportant subject can be tolerated.

[The vocabulary of Newspeak] was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member would properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings.

When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one's knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, December 26, 2020 at 8:09 pm | Edit
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So, what just happened? As I’m writing, the election is still too close to call. There are still votes to count that could swing the election one way or the other. However, whoever ultimately wins, there are still some things we learned about the country on Election Day.

First, the pollsters were wrong. The vote in places like Florida and Pennsylvania looks like it’s out of the margin of error for most polls. I think this election marks the end of polls being taken seriously. Second, voting dynamics are changing. Along many ethnic lines, Trump made inroads where the Democrats thought they were secure. This showed in places like Florida and Texas. Third, the American people have handled themselves well so far. Only one major riot in the District of Columbia. It was my biggest fear that the election would be a nail-biter, which it is, and that the nation would be at its own throat. Thankfully, the latter has not happened. These three things say a lot about the nation.

The polls have lost the pulse of the American public. This means that new ways will have to be developed, or the system reformed. The polls are yet another domino to drop in the series of declining mainstream news organizations. All of these, with the exception of Fox, are very left-leaning, and that has been the key to their downfall. Once Trump goes away, whether that’s now or four years from now, what will they talk about? But the polls are not strictly partisan. After all, Fox said the same thing as everybody else. The failure two elections in a row shows that the system is flawed. It could be reimagined, but polls don’t work as they are now practiced.

We’ve also learned that the minority support that Democrats have had locked down since Lyndon Johnson is beginning to shift the other way. Of course, the majority of the minority vote is still going Democrat, but Trump’s minority support has helped a lot. The biggest example is Florida, which he won and in which many house seats are flipping red. This puts the House in play for the Republicans. These gains were seen in Texas and Florida. The exception was Arizona, where Trump lost, and where Latinos played a large role. This could fundamentally change the future if the trend continues. I think this represents a repudiation of the pandering the Democrats have shown towards the minority communities. It turns out that there are some in minorities who just want to be treated as Americans.

Lastly, and most importantly, the cities are all intact for the time being. No more riots in Philadelphia, none in Portland, Los Angeles still stands. It is of course possible that we could go to the Supreme Court, as Michigan and Wisconsin, upon whom the election stands, are both very close. Either side will do it; Trump has already said he will if he loses. I certainly hope that we can ride out the storm without burning American cities. It may be close, and I hope that the legal system is up to the task of detecting voter fraud. Such things may be tried in all of the remaining states, as dedicated supporters of either side try to make a last push. Both parties have built this election to be a titanic clash of good and evil, with the fate of not only the nation but of the earth and human race at stake. If you believe the rhetoric, surely saving the world is worth a little voter fraud? And if worth voter fraud, why not violence? I hope that the American public won’t buy into the rhetoric, and will prove themselves intelligent enough to realize that no matter who wins, the world won’t end.

Anything could still happen. But, whoever wins, we’ve seen some trends continue, with the failure of the polls. We’ve seen some new trends, with the shift in minority vote. And we’ve seen some trends stop, as almost no rioting has taken place.  So, we have to wait and see where the votes fall, and where the inevitable legal case rules. It appears that the Republicans are going to win the Senate. The House and the Presidency are too close to call. It could be a Democratic victory, a Republican victory, or the status quo. We’d like to know more on the day after the election, but such is the world we live in.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 at 11:48 am | Edit
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[This is not the "Last Battle" series post I said would be next, but it seems appropriate.  I'm still working on the other.]

As I write this post, the presidential election results are still up in the air, though the wind direction seems clear.  It may change; it may not.  Regardless, I will repeat below the post-election analysis I first wrote after Barack Obama's victory in 2008, and reprised in 2016 for Donald Trump's.  The players and the parties change; the sense is the same.

And please remember this, victors, whoever you are:  Approximately half of your fellow-countrymen—your neighbors, co-workers, friends, and families—are genuinely saddened, frightened, and maybe deeply depressed by the results.  This is not some football game; it is our country, our world, and our future.  Exulting in the streets, or anywhere other than among similarly-minded friends, is inappropriate.  Whoever will eventually have been determined to have won the presidency, or any other office, this will not be a great triumph of good over evil.  That battle can only be won in human hearts, and kindness and sympathy for those who are feeling disenfranchised might be a great place to begin.


Note: This was written specifically for a Christian audience. Anyone else is more than welcome to come along for the ride, but be prepared for a lot of quotations from a source of which you do not recognize the authority. You may still find value in the meaning.

How We Can Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
       while in a foreign land

Psalm 137:1-4

First of all, we pick ourselves up with as much dignity as we have remaining and give respect and support to our new leaders. "Fear God, honor the king" (I Peter 2:17) applies in a democracy, too. Humor has an important place in discourse, but mean-spirited mockery does not. I'm extremely uncomfortable with the abuse heaped on George W. Bush, just as I was when it was Bill Clinton on the receiving end, and I will accord Barack Obama the respect due the President of the United States, as well as that due a human being created in the image of God.

We pray for Barack Obama, and for all "who bear the authority of government."  If the Apostle Paul could write, per I Timothy 2:1-2, "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made....for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness," while living under the Roman Emperor Nero, we can do the same living under an elected president who is not likely to include among his alternative energy polices the burning of living, human torches.

We attempt to live our lives in the best, most honest, most noble, and most loving way possible. Back to I Peter again (2:15-16): "[I]t is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God."  The Republicans would do well to remember that scandal and wrong-doing among office holders has done more than anything else to bring them down. Granted, it's not fair that the Democrats mostly get a pass for their equal or greater sins—although it's actually a compliment that better behavior is expected of Republicans—but the reality is that Republicans were hurt badly first by misbehavior and even more by not visiting swift and sure justice upon the miscreants. To live purely and act rightly, with justice and love and in quiet confidence, will win more hearts than the most reasoned argument.

Do not repay anyone evil for evilBe careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-18, 21)

Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe. (Philippians 2:14-15)

[L]et your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16).

We attend to the wisdom of the serpent as well as the harmlessness of the dove. Now is not the time to retreat from the political process, but to be all the more involved that we might be alert to dangers that threaten what we hold dear, and to how we might best meet those threats. History has proven that when we are caught unaware we react hastily, badly, and often ineffectively.

We don't flee to the hills, or to another country (as many threatened after losing the 2000 and 2004 elections), or withdraw from the system in sulky silence. It's not time, yet, for "those who are in Judea to flee to the mountains."  If we feel like exiles in our own land, it is time to remember what God said to his people at the time of another exile: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:5-7). We continue to live our lives wisely and without fear. The administration may have changed, but the basic rules of life have not. There's still the Big Ten—don't steal, don't murder, don't mess with someone else's spouse, and all the rest—and the sound-bite version provided by Jesus: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, [and] love your neighbor as yourself."

Many of us are accustomed to feeling alienated from the general American culture; it may even be easier—or at least clearer—when there's no pretense that "our guys" are in charge. Whether it's financial responsibility, ethical behavior, or wise decision-making, in a democracy the citizens get no better from their government than the majority lives out in their lives. True progress, then, requires that we balance a deliberate counter-cultural structuring of our own lives, families, and communities with a creative engagement of the larger culture. That is how we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Against such things there is no law.
Galatians 5:22-23
Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 at 8:21 am | Edit
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Today we tried to vote by mail. Florida has already proved that it handles that well, but just to be on the safe side, we had planned to use the ballot drop box at our local library, which is an early voting site.

For the record, on principle I don't like early voting, and would rather use mail-in voting only when I'm out of town for Election Day. But with this being such an important election, and figuring that the odds were higher in this year than most for something cropping up to prevent our getting to our local polling place on November 3, voting early seemed the better part of valor.

Here's the warning I promised in the title: Mark your ballot clearly, but don't go overboard. I filled out the first page of my ballot neatly with a fine-point black Sharpie, which seemed to be doing a good job—until I turned the page over to fill in the other side. The ink had bled through from the first side, making the second side full of those "stray marks" we are always warned against. Rather than get a new mail-in ballot, we decided to vote in person.

Porter stood at the end of the line while I took care of my business with the library itself. That took longer than expected, so I thought he would have made a lot of progress, but that was far from the case. However, he had learned about another early voting place that was reputed to be not as crowded, and was near my favorite GFS foodstore and on the way to picking up our car from getting its faulty airbag replaced ... so that's what we did.

The voting went smoothly: there were lots of people, but it was a big room efficiently run, so there was almost no waiting. They cancelled our mail-in ballots, had us sign in on the screen with these cute little disposable "pens" that looked suspiciously like fancy Q-Tips, and gave us sanitized pens for filling in our ballots.

I really do feel more comfortable watching my votes be recorded right then and there. And I'm glad to have gotten the job done.

But if you're going to vote by mail, do be careful what kind of pen you use.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, October 22, 2020 at 6:23 pm | Edit
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Having just seen most of the debate, even a member of the younger generation is shocked at just how much of a simple shouting match it is. Trump is Trump, he interrupts way too much and isn't a particularly patient man. Biden is better at not interrupting, but also told the moderator that he would not answer a question on whether he would pack the Supreme Court. Both had the opportunity to appear statesman-like, and, failing that, civil, but neither did. This debate proved that the use of actual debate of issues is, as Obi-Wan Kenobi described the lightsaber, “A more elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” This debate seems to prove that society is drifting away from civilization, not towards it. There was once a place for people to disagree but still act respectably to each other. Now, Trump calls Biden a “stupid person” and Biden calls Trump “evil” and “the worst president in history.” But it didn't start with the politicians, but with the populace.

When it becomes reasonable to insult one another on social media, do those same voters really want to watch people be civil to each other? Does the younger generation even have the attention span to watch people be civil to one another for an hour and a half? These debates are a symptom of the culture of the internet. What do I mean by the culture of the internet? That is to say that people now have the ability to communicate with people from all over the country. In the past, people haven't tended to spend much time caring about what is outside of their immediate surroundings. Why? Because they couldn't see what was going on there, and couldn't influence anyone outside of a certain area. When it becomes easier for a person to influence further afield, they often do so. With the internet, it can become intoxicating. I could go to the town meeting and speak there for a lower school budget, but then I would have to defend myself against people I can't ignore. I would suffer the consequences for whatever I said. If I have a social media argument with someone in California, who cares if they hate me? They are hardly likely to drive to New Hampshire. Thus, people become more extreme and derogatory to their opponents.

Why be moderate in your arguments when you can go to the logical extreme? In the past, people have had to be moderate so that they could cohabitate and be friendly with their family, extended family, and community. But with the ties of society like the family breaking down, so is the incentive to have a moderate opinion. Now that people have stronger ties over the internet than in their community, internet culture is becoming mainstream. So, now we have characters like Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They look for something to convince internet culture to come to their side, because they see that it is the future, and politicians always like to side with the future.

Of course, the internet is not a bad thing of itself, it is like anything from a car to a gun to a book. We can use it well, or we can choose not to. Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this. Many, especially of the younger generation, have failed the test of how to use the internet responsibly. Rather than using it, it has used them.  We'll see if they grow out of it or not.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, October 15, 2020 at 7:02 am | Edit
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Those of us who lived through what I think of as the "Carter Inflation" have a deep-seated fear of that economic disaster, and a greater fear that more recent generations don't take it seriously enough. (To be fair to President Carter, presidents get more blame and take more credit than they deserve for economic conditions. I think Carter, a good man, was a bad president with policies that made inflation worse, but it's far from exclusively his fault.)

Inflation under Carter was not a disaster for us, personally, since it was a time when salaries and investment income appeared to be increasing at a great rate. That felt good, though it only meant that we were barely keeping up with rising prices. It was not so merciful to people without good jobs and investments. We also knew enough history to fear the devastation inflation had caused in other times and places.

You might understand, then, why am frustrated when I hear reports of "inflation indices" that say we are experiencing little or no inflation—when I know darn well that prices in the grocery store have been rising steadily for a long time, most "half-gallon" ice cream packages now hold only three pints, and the price of automobiles has exploded through the roof.

I read with interest the article by John Mauldin called "Nose Blind to Inflation." It's long and gets complicated and I did start skimming as I neared the end, but it says a lot about the factors that go into determining a currency's inflation rate—and why it's so hard to come up with numbers that mean anything at all. As my economist husband says, it is important to understand that inflation is not a mathematically provable number, but rather a statistically, approximated number. Moreover, the numbers that are published are not immune to political pressure.

I'm not even going to try to guess what is going to happen to our currency now that the pandemic has encouraged us to hemorrhage money that we don't have and drive our national debt well beyond the stratosphere. Far more knowledgeable people than I haven't a clue.

But I can't resist one quote from the article, which begins the section on an inflation calculation factor called hedonic adjustment.

That’s where they modify the price change because the product you buy today is of higher quality than the one they measured in the past.

This is most evident in technology. The kind of computer I used back in the 1980s cost about $4,000. The one I have now, on which I do similar work (writing) was about $1,600. So, my computer costs dropped 40%. But no, today’s computer isn’t remotely comparable to my first one. It is easily a thousand times more powerful. So the price for that much computing power has dropped much more than 60%. It’s probably 99.9%.

The economists pull the same slight of hand with automobiles, and television sets, and any product in which it is claimed that you are getting more value for your money, and therefore it shouldn't count as a price increase. Which is utter nonsense. (I put the point a little more strongly when I first read about the concept.)

Sure, I often like the "improvements" that have supposedly added value to the item I am purchasing, but the real value of a car is that it gets me from A to B, and why must I pay for all the extra bells and whistles if that's all I want? It reminds me of a housing developer I know, who was chided for not providing more "affordable housing." "I could make housing affordable for everyone," he replied, "If people were willing to live in the kind of homes their grandparents did. But now that won't even begin to pass code."

So sure, go ahead and make things "new and improved." But if I can no longer buy the original version, don't try to sell me the bill of goods that when the price goes up it's really a price decrease.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 20, 2020 at 7:30 am | Edit
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I read and reviewed The Fall of Heaven in 2017, having no clue at the time how much closer America would come to this perilous situation in just three years. It's time to revisit that review.

Please read this book. It was recommended to me by two Iranian friends who suffered through, and escaped from, the Iranian Revolution. Thus I give it much higher credence than I would a random book off the library shelves. If they say the reporting accords with their own experiences, I believe them. They are highly intelligent and well-educated people.

I cannot overstate how important I think this book to be for here and now in America. Who our Ruhollah Khomeini might be I do not know, but I look at the news and am convinced that the stage set is a close copy of that in Iran 40 years ago, and the script is frighteningly similar.

Those who are fighting for change at any cost need to consider just how high that cost might be.

 


 

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, inaccurate, 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 of this book, 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 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 Saturday, August 22, 2020 at 12:30 pm | Edit
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This more recent (primary) election left me seriously wondering, for the first time in years, if I need to switch parties.

I picked up one candidate's material, which said (roughly) "My opponent is a totally despicable jerk, who if elected will do terrible things." So I picked up the opponent's material, and saw "My opponent is a totally despicable jerk, who if elected will do terrible things."

Hmm. So I dug deeper and looked at the positive side, what they had to say about themselves, what they were bragging about.

And concluded that each was correct in his assessment of the other.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 20, 2020 at 9:11 am | Edit
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For tomorrow's primary election, I voted by mail.

Rather against my better judgement, I admit, as I far prefer in-person voting and that only on the "real" election day. I did "early voting" once and it felt so false I never did it again.

I have voted absentee before, and felt okay with that. In fact, that's why I had a mail-in ballot for this election: given our schedule—or what used to be our schedule, pre-pandemic—I didn't want to find myself disenfranchised by being out of town. What I've done before when I have been at home on Election Day is to vote at my local polling place and have them nullify my mail-in ballot there.

I've voted in person once already during this COVIDtide, and felt at least as safe as I do grocery shopping. But this time, I figured it would be good to practice the new system when it barely mattered—the Democratic primary for a few local seats. I have to say it's more complicated and a whole lot less fun than going in person and chatting with the precinct workers, but it seems okay.

If people are honest.

I know mail-in voting somehow works well in Switzerland, but it still makes me nervous to rely on it here on a large scale. Election fraud is nothing new, and is possible no matter what system you use. My father used to tell stories of the days when votes were openly bought. But mail balloting does seem to me to be more open to fraud—particularly to coercion—than in-person voting. You can force or trick someone into voting a certain way a lot more easily when you can see what they're marking—or even mark it for them and force them to sign—and mail the ballot yourself, than in the privacy of a voting booth. How do we prevent that? Don't tell me there aren't plenty of unscrupulous people with that kind of power over others.

Our registration procedures have become very lax in recent years. According to a poll worker I know and trust, one person in his experience was mailed a ballot to vote in Florida, and was at the same time registered (and planning) to vote in New Hampshire. She had no idea she was even registered to vote in Florida; the best guess is that it happened automatically when she applied for a Florida driver's license. I see nothing in the process that would prevent her from voting twice, except her own honesty. I also don't see how it happened, since Daniel Webster (who is my favorite congressman because he was instrumental in making home education legal in Florida decades ago) assures us in this op-ed article that, unlike some states, Florida only sends mail-in ballots to those who request them. But something went wrong for this woman, and I foresee a lot going wrong all over the country, both by accident and by malicious intent.

Why, in some states, are people being mailed ballots who did not request them? All those extra ballots floating around is just asking for trouble. Really, if people are willing to go to work, and the grocery store, and doctor's offices, and restaurants, and bars, and parties—why are we pushing vote-by-mail instead of in-person?

In Florida, anyone who wants a mail ballot can request one, and I appreciate that service, but I am strongly convinced that the normal path for voting, the one that should be encouraged above all others, is in-person, on Election Day, where photo-identification and private booths do their best to ensure that a legitimate voter is casting a secret ballot.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 17, 2020 at 5:44 pm | Edit
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Up front disclaimer: I write with little knowledge of the details of recent events in America. What I say comes from more than half a century of observation and analysis, including the intense conversations and scrutiny that came from being a high school student in the mid-to-late 1960's. The extent of my own, personal participation in physical, political activism was one political campaign demonstration and one anti-abortion event.

One of the most common questions I have heard coming from people observing riots and violence from the position of outsiders is, "Why are these people burning their own neighborhoods and destroying the very businesses they depend on?"

The answer, of course, is that "they" are doing no such thing.

Peaceful protests are turned into riots and looting when people get involved for whom riots and looting are IN THEIR OWN INTEREST. The community is not turning against itself: intentional agitators—those opposing the protesters along with those ostensibly supporting them—well-meaning but ignorant outsiders, and the guy who just wants that large screen TV, do not think of the neighborhood as "their community." They see civil disorder as opportunity, and don't hesitate to make opportunities happen for their own benefit.

That's the foundation for a riot. What happens next depends on how we react to those provocations. By "we" I mean anyone involved, from law enforcement to the original protesters to innocent friends and neighbors.

Unfortunately, it's all too easy for people who are scared, hurt, or angry to get pushed in a violent direction, or simply caught up in a mob, against what would be their better judgement in cooler times. Have you seen what cities look like after the home team wins a World Series or a World Cup? And those rioters are the HAPPY WINNERS.

I don't agree with the adage, "any publicity is good publicity," but I understand the unfortunate situation that peaceful actions do not generate the same kind of media attention that anger and violence do. If the protest in Minneapolis against the death of George Floyd had stayed peaceful, how many media outlets would have covered it? Would it have remained headline news to this day and spread its message all over the country, and the world? Would we still be talking about George Floyd and why and how he died? Sadly, we know that would not be the case.

Even if you believe the destruction was acceptable collateral damage in the quest for justice—which, I hasten to add, I do not—the job of getting out the word is done. NOW STAY HOME. (Aren't we supposed to be doing that anyway?) It's time to stop the violence, to stop spreading COVID-19 in areas already especially vulnerable to the disease, to heal and to build up the devastated neighborhoods, and to take advantage of opened pathways of communication while people are still willing to listen.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, June 1, 2020 at 10:15 am | Edit
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I have plenty of opinions on just about any subject, and if you're reading my blog, you know I don't hesitate to make them known. However, I rarely like to discuss politics directly. I also believe strongly in the institution of the secret ballot. Sometimes I don't even tell myself whom I'm voting for until I actually put pen to ballot.

So you won't know for certain whether or not I've voted for Bernie Sanders in the upcoming presidential primary, but I think he just said he doesn't want my vote, and who am I to deny him that privilege?

My Sanders-supporting friends can jump in here and tell me I've misunderstood him, or have heard only out-of-context quotes that aren't as bad as they seem.

But what I hear is Bernie Sanders, loud and clear, insisting that there is no such thing as a pro-life Democrat.

I've been a Democrat all my voting life, and campaigned for Hubert Humphrey even before I could vote. I vote my conscience—Democrat, Republican, sometimes parties you've never heard of—and let the chips fall where they may, but I've never seen any point in changing my party affiliation.

But I'm most definitely against abortion.

Actually, I'm pro-choice in most of life. Even in medical decisions, especially in those soul-wrenching decisions about when to withdraw life support. Our family has been there more than once, and I'm certain that loved ones are better equipped to make these choices than any doctor, judge, or regulation.

But the deliberate taking of the life of a healthy, innocent human being? That can't be anything other than murder. And, freedom-loving creature that I am, I acknowledge that laws against murder are a good thing.

Which, according to Mr. Sanders, is grounds for excommunicating me from the Democratic Party.

Fortunately, the Party is not a church, and he's not a priest. I'm still planning to vote in the primary.

I just don't know for whom.

I only know my choice is looking less and less like it will be Bernie Sanders, much as I think that if I actually knew him, I'd find enough reasons to like him as a person. Isn't politics depressing?

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 14, 2020 at 11:25 am | Edit
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Socialism.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I'm not here to define socialism. I'm here to point out that no discussion makes sense when we haven't defined our terms. Or worse, when we all think we have defined them, and don't realize how different our definitions are. 

   vs.  

When you consider the merits and evils of socialism, it makes a great difference whether your image of a socialist country is Sweden or Venezuela. For example, I have recently seen these comments, and others like them, on Facebook:

I am too old to live under socialism. I am addicted to luxuries like toilet paper, electricity, food, clean water and shoes.

I don't understand why Bernie Sanders supporters are so upset about the Iowa caucus. You wanted more socialism. Last night, you got more socialism: Third world tech, missing vote counts, chaotic rules, rigged elections. The only thing missing: food shortages.

Clearly the people who have posted these are operating under the Venezuelan picture of socialism. Knowing someone who is from Venezuela and still has family there, I'm with them.

However, this is a completely ineffective way to reach anyone who is operating under the Swedish picture. Whatever the reality of life in the socialistic Scandinavian countries is, the image of that life in many American eyes is idyllic. 

Not, I hasten to add, for me. The high-taxes, high-services model can, perhaps, work pretty well when you have little government corruption, and—most important—a strong monoculture. When one is even a little different from the majority, it can be disastrous. Sweden is now having to acknowledge that their system cannot seamlessly absorb large quantities of people who are culturally far from Swedish, but even before the current influx of refugees, socialism was crushing Swedes whose beliefs did not fall in with the majority.

For example, many people praise Sweden's approach to day care, education, and parental leave—but it greatly favors conformity to the two-income family model, passing the costs on to those who are already sacrificing to live on one income so that their children can be reared directly by their families instead of through state services. The system will even take children away from parents who dare to challenge the government's educational services model. This is an unacceptable, basic human rights violation, but largely invisible to those who benefit from conforming to the system's expectations.

I personally fear Swedish socialism more than I fear the Venezuelan model, largely because I think it more likely to be implemented here. Certainly we are already well on that road. Even the socialist systems that work well enough—as long as one conforms to a certain culture—rely on a set of circumstances not easily duplicated. The Scandinavian socialist countries are wealthy, their governments are stable and relatively honest, and their culture has a strong history of Protestant-work-ethic values. There are many more countries and societies in which socialism has failed spectacularly than in which it has succeeded. For Sweden, or the United States, to descend into a Venezuela-like disaster is not impossible.

Be that as it may, when we try to argue with those who are pushing for more socialism in the United States, it's counter-productive to bring up Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, or the former Soviet Union. They will only see that as a straw man fallacy. That's not what they mean by socialism, only perhaps failed socialism. What they want is what they see as successful socialism, and the only meaningful arguments can be to show where socialism is failing in the countries Americans admire. Most Swedes have toilet paper, electricity, food, clean water and shoes. What they lack is freedom.

Similarly, if you wish to argue that socialistic policies are a great idea, you must take into account all the places where it has failed and explain how that can be avoided. Otherwise you will be written off as simply ignorant.

No matter how good an argument may be, if it doesn't address what the other side sees as the real issues, it won't be effective.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 11, 2020 at 8:46 am | Edit
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Ramblings inspired by a glass of milk:

America, the land of Liberty. New Hampshire, the state with the motto, Live Free or Die. Sometimes I wonder what our Founders would think of our current willingness, even eagerness, to give up essential freedoms for (supposed) safety. But then I realize that people are much the same in every generation, so I'm sure they had to deal with plenty of the same kind of opposition.

Am I going to complain about the current attacks on our Second Amendment? Not now, even though I—with a lifelong dislike of guns—find the attempts to disarm American citizens appalling and frightening.

Not this time. Right now I'm standing up, as I have before, for the freedom to enjoy flavorful foods.

I insist that one culprit in our "obesity crisis" is that Americans are unconsciously craving the flavor of normal, healthy food. Food such as the "farm milk" we drink when we are in Switzerland: fresh from the cow, unpasteurized, unhomogenized, just real milk. Real milk that bears only a superficial resemblance to that of the same name purchased in an American grocery store.

At home, I love milk, and drink a lot of it. But I can only drink skim; whole milk sticks in my throat. Except in the form of hot chocolate, which is best with whole milk, even in America. In Switzerland, farm-fresh whole milk is absolutely delicious without any chocolate at all. (Granted, with a piece of dark Toblerone on the side, it is even better.)

There's no comparison between "real food" and that which comes from the average grocery store. Not only is grocery store food highly processed, but it is also deliberately homogeneous, so that there's no variation in flavor—milk is milk, orange juice is orange juice, apple juice is apple juice, chicken is chicken—instead of celebrating and enjoying nature's bountiful variety.

Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of benefit that comes from our mass-produced food, including lower prices. It is, indeed, what they call a First World problem. My objection is not to the availability of such food, but that it is crowding out the small, the local, the variety, the food of tremendous flavors. Worse, the awesome food—food that was plentiful as recently as 30 years ago—is now often illegal in America.

As with many roads to hell, this one is paved with good intentions. Safety is not the only issue—profit is another, as is the fickle American public—and safe food is important. But our approach to safe food reminds me of that old Chinese proverb, Do not remove a fly from your friend's head with a hatchet.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, September 20, 2019 at 2:23 am | Edit
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The school lunchbox is dead in Italy.

The Italian Supreme Court has ruled against parents who want to send lunch to school with their children. Their logic? Not eating the school-provided lunch is "a possible violation of the principles of equality and non-discrimination based on economic circumstances."

Even the United States isn't that crazy—yet—despite pushes in that direction by busybodies experts who worry that food from home might not be "good enough," and school-lunch providers who have a deep financial stake in forcing parents to buy their product.

Parents, naturally, are not happy.

Lorenza, who has two children at a Turin school, told a local TV station she spent more than €2,000 (£1,823) on school meals, more than her monthly salary. "My older daughter was not happy because the quality of the food didn't justify the cost, and also because of the hygiene issues with the canteen. "She would often complain that the cutlery was dirty, that the glasses were not particularly clean, or that there would be hairs on the plates," she said.

As with many news reports, this paragraph does not give enough information for us to know just how outraged we should be. Over what time period did this mother spend $2200 dollars? One month, as implied by the comment that the cost was "more than her monthly salary"? Annually per child? Over the entire school experience of all of her (possibly, though not likely, many) children?

Never mind. It doesn't matter. Even if the meals were totally free (where by "free" we mean paid for by other people, of course), it would still be an outrage.

School lunches may be a necessity for some children, who would otherwise not eat—though I've never been able to answer satisfactorily a friend's question, "Isn't that what SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) and WIC programs are all about? Why do we also need free school lunches?"

School lunches are certainly a convenience for busy parents—though there is no reason why a child of school age shouldn't be able to pack his own lunch.

But there was never any doubt in my mind that my own packed lunch was vastly superior to what was offered in the school cafeteria, and apparently our children thought so, too. Even if they often traded their carrot sticks to other children for cookies—at least some child was eating healthful food. I'm reminded of one family I know who qualified for free meals for their children. The children gave it a try, determined that the food at home was better tasting, more nutritious, and even more plentiful—and wisely opted out. At least here they had that option.

More to the point: whatever the Italian Supreme Court may say, being able to feed our children as we think best is a basic, human, family right—right up there with being able to birth, educate, and otherwise rear our children as we think best. As all totalitarian governments know, once you come between parents and their children, most other freedoms become meaningless.

For those families who cannot or will not handle these responsibilities on their own, we rightly make assistance available. That's called charity. But forcing that "assistance" on those who do not want it? That's called tyranny.

And the "principles of equality" the court found so important? Should we make everyone feed their babies formula because some mothers can't or won't breastfeed? Dumb down the school curriculum to the lowest common denominator? Put every child in daycare because some families need that service? Force every child into public school because some parents can't or won't provide private or home education? Make every woman give birth in a hospital because some babies need a doctor's care? Ban unpasteurized milk, orange juice, and cider because not everyone has access to safe sources of these delicious drinks? Forbid handmade clothing because not every mother can sew? Put handicapping weights on the feet of the best dancers to eliminate their advantage over the klutzes?

Oh, wait. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 20, 2019 at 5:23 am | Edit
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