Friday, May 28, 2010

To Dad on Memorial Day

In the right drawer of my desk there is a picture of my dad in a US Army uniform. He’s about 30 years old in the picture and he is looking straight at the camera with a clear, steady, unflinching gaze. He reminds me of my youngest son. The same steady gaze, the same full lips; and, as Nathan humorously reminds me, the same hair pattern. "Thanks Grandad," Nathan smiles ruefully, rubbing his balding head.

The year the picture of Dad was taken was 1944, the year of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last chance to push back the Allies and to obtain a negotiated peace. Americans sustained seventy-five thousand casualties.

The Germans fared worse.

Innocently enough, my dad had kept ahead of the draft because of the number of children he had. But at last even my folks’ dedication to the Genesis mandate to replenish the earth was not enough to keep the Army at bay.

But Dad wasn’t drafted as an Army regular. In fact, he wasn’t drafted at all. He was tapped as a civilian advisor. Plucked from his job at All American Engineering, he was to head to England to coach Royal Air Force and American pilots on how to employ an invention he had helped develop. It was designed to pick up soldiers stranded behind enemy lines.

Dad had wanted a way to serve his country, and he was determined to go, despite leaving his pregnant wife and four kids behind. He knew, Mom was later to tell me, that he might not come back, but his love for his country drove him on. My father, a man of few words, would not often speak about his stay in London. But for the rest of his life, the sound of warning sirens would make him turn white.

As fate would have it, the plane that was to bear him East to England burst into flames on the runway at Newfoundland. Everyone got out safely, slightly singed but none the worse except for some smoke inhalation. But the plane burned up along with all its contents, including Dad’s uniform, which was that of an Army Captain. Back to New York for another flight and another uniform; then off to England, this time safely.

Once in England, Dad faced the last gasp effort of the German Wehrmacht to destroy London. Germany’s silent and deadly V-2 rockets smashed into the city day after day and night after night. In some ways, he was later to say, the V-2 rockets were worse than the bombs of the initial blitz, because of the silence; the dreadful silence. You could be standing in the street and hear absolutely nothing, know nothing, suspect nothing until you felt the earth shudder and saw plumes of dirt and rubble rise and fall like reversed waterfalls in the dank, dusty air.

In spite of the fear, the risk of death and not knowing when the war would ever end, Dad never forgot to write a daily letter to Mom. They were always brief and to the point, Mom remembers. Dad was a man of few words; and, as he was later to tell Mom, he didn’t want to worry her. He would tell her he loved her. He would tell her he believed he would return to her and us kids. Then he would sign the letter, "Forever yours, Frank."

And he was forever Mom's faithful and true love. His fellow soldiers attempts to get Dad some romance on the side fell flat. You're in England, three thousand miles away, they would say. "I love Dottie," he would say. My thrice married Aunt Ruth would later say, "Frank is the only man I know who actually would stay faithful to his wife."

Dad returned within four months when the war suddenly ended. He did not come home a hero like his kid brother Joe, who as a dashing pilot, became an Ace. We have a picture of handsome Joe in his leather bomber jacket and rakishly dashing cap, smiling at the camera. Thankfully, Joe came home, too. My grandmother wept tears of joy.

But while he never considered himself a hero, Dad’s invention did save the lives of downed airmen and stranded soldiers. But Dad, being a quiet man, never even mentioned that.

This weekend, I’ve thought Uncle Joe's and Dad's older brother Jack, who wanted to serve but was too advanced in years at age 38 to go. I’ve thought about my brother-in-law Leonard Bird, shot down in his jet at age twenty-five in Vietnam, leaving behind a grieving bride married all of six weeks. I’ve thought about my cousin Ruth Stonesifer’s son, downed in his helicopter in Afghanistan, his blue eyes closed forever.

I’ve thought of the rows and rows of crosses and stars at cemeteries here and abroad.

But most of all, I have been thinking of my quiet, self-effacing and humble Dad. He loved his country. He served her with the skills he had. And he helped saved a few good men.

Thank you, Dad.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Surely one of the finest essays ever written about the deadening effects of bureaucracy was written one hundred and fifty years ago by an Englishman by the name of Richard Simmons.

The entire essay is uncannily pertinent to the American dilemma today. With a few changes to make it entirely contemporaneous, it is applicable word for word to the increasing power of bureaucracy over the lives of Americans.

Some pertinent quotes:

"The men of a bureaucracy...set [themselves] up as critics and guides of life, and therefore [see themselves] fit to direct the life of the nation."

"A bureaucracy is not fulfilled till we add the pedantic element of a pretence to direct our life, to know what is best for us, to measure out our labor, to superintend our studies, to prescribe our opinions, to make itself answerable for us, to put us to bed, tuck us up, put on our nightcap, and administer our gruel."

"The bureaucracy of lawyers is the universal pattern of all...The civil law takes the entire man under its tutelage, and sets itself up as the mundane providence...Never was this exhibited more clearly than in the Convention of French pettifoggers, where Robespierre declared, "We will have an order of things where all base and cruel passions are chained up, and all beneficial and generous passions aroused, by the laws; and where St, Just pretended to change, by a violent dose of legislation, the morals and manners of a nation, and to reform the human heart." (Italics mine.)

"Suffice it to say, that the great characteristic of true bureaucracy is the intimate conviction of its conductors that the provisions made by them adequately cover the whole area of human life and thought, or at least the most important parts of it; therefore that all other provision are superfluous, and, if contrary to their ideas, noxious, and as such, to be done away with as soon as possible, so as to leave a clear field for the regenerating action of their beneficent influence. Hence the intolerant, monopolizing, intrusive character of all true bureaucracy..."

"But as the state increases, and most in the classes that require to be administered, administration must increase likewise; the number of employees must wax greater and greater, they must be organized, and with their organisation the classification of the people whose affairs they have to administer must keep pace."

Simpson has wise and powerful insights into the shortcomings of a universal, government controlled educational system; the dangers posed to a democracy by bureaucratic control, and the solution to bloated bureaucracies; one of which is namely, to keep it small.

But there is much else to glean from his amazingly prescient essay, linked here:

Brilliant; absolutely brilliant!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Gospel According to Bishop Pelosi

In 1934 Germany, the only structure to oppose the supremacy of the Third Reich was one segment of the Christian church. Hitler had already castrated the Roman Catholic church by forcing it to sign the Concordat of 1933, in which the Church, with certain guarantees of limited autonomy, agreed its bishops, upon taking office, would swear an oath of fealty to the Reich as follows:

"Before God and the Holy Gospels I swear and promise, as becomes a bishop, loyalty to the German Reich...I swear and promise to honor the legally constituted government and to cause the clergy of my diocese to honor it. In the performance of my spiritual office and in my solicitude for the welfare and interests of the German Reich, I will endeavor to avoid all detrimental acts which might endanger it."

By acceding to the concordat of 1933, the Church effectively allowed the Hitler regime power over it. Their capitulation, which was complete, was to have disastrous results for the Church and for Christians and Jews living under the Nazi regime.

In protest, the leading German theologians of the day, Karl Barth and Hans Asmussen, formulated and published the Barmen Declaration in protest against the theological claims of the state. Those claims included demands to "Aryanize" the Church, expel Jewish Christians from the ministry and to accede to the "Fuhrer Principle" as the chief organizational impetus for church structure. The end goal of the Nazi regime was to subsume all churches under state control as well as to use the churches to proclaim and reinforce the existing regime as above the authority of the Church. The Church was to persuade the congregations to adopt Nazi legislation. An auxiliary goal was to have the pastors preach Nazi race theory as a revelation equal to that of the Bible.

Barth, Asmussen and the great martyr to the Christian faith Dietrich Bonhoeffer protested the intrusion of the Nazi regime and its agenda into church affairs in no uncertain terms, completely and decisively rejecting the "false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God (Christ), yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God’s revelation."

They added that they also rejected the idea that "there could be other areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords....We reject the false doctrine that the Church [must hand over] its the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day."

The theologians concluded that neither special leaders such as the Fuhrer nor the government itself were vested with ruling authority over the church. They rejected absolutely the idea that the State "should become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfill the vocation of the church as well."

Today in the United States of America, we are once again revisiting the manifold issues of the authority of Church and state which forced the Reformed and Lutheran churches of Germany to take their stands against the force and power of the state government.

One of the most egregious examples of the intrusion of the United States government into church affairs was articulated recently by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who declared concerning Roman Catholic bishops’ stance on the passage of the administration’s immigration bill, "But I say I want you to speak about it from the pulpit...I want you to instruct...the people [who] oppose immigration reform and are sitting in those pews...that this is a manifestation of our living the Gospels."


It’s worth noting the phrase "But I say..." as it is the very phrase Jesus used when asserting his moral authority. Always the phrase was used to insist on the transcendent moral authority of the Kingdom of God, an authority never subsumed under any earthly government.

The Church has always held to moral autonomy derived from its belief that the kingdom of God informs and suffuses earthly structures, not vice versa. Ms. Pelosi has by her statements reversed that order, putting the political agenda of the state above those of the church. In a shocking reversal of authority similar to that Barth and Bonhoeffer faced, she has put the state above the Church. She has elevated the political religion of progressivism above the Church, trashing the Church’s historic claims to be free from the authority of the kingdoms of this world.

A powerful political leader has once again presumed to tell the Christian church what the political ramifications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ should and must be. Effectively, she has said, "This is what you are to believe as the Gospel, and therefore this is the legislation you are to support and help pass."

She has thereby declared the state the ultimate conscience of the Church and thus has eradicated the lines between Church and state. Barth, Asmussen and Bonhoeffer would have revolted against Ms. Pelosi’s presumption. They would have excoriated her, realizing the Church is not regarded by her as an institution with a sphere of influence that must not be superceded or informed by the demands of the state.

The implications, much less the consequences, of her statement and attitude are indeed eerily similar to those which face the German Church in Nazi Germany. Religion disappears under the aegis of the all powerful and all knowing state. The Church merely ratifies the a piece of legislation important to the agenda presently defined by a powerful state official as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Were Ms. Pelosi alone in her desire to make the Church the vehicle for actualizing the latest political agenda, she could be dismissed as an anomaly. But she is joined by many others, including many within the Church, who in their desire to effectuate social justice, are in danger of giving over the unique and transcendent authority of the Church to the state by doing the state’s bidding.

The Church needs to understand, reclaim and effectually utilize its role as the conscience of the state. It must vigorously and decisively and reject becoming a tool of the state. Catholic bishops need to refute Bishop Pelosi’s infallible declaration of a manifestation of the Gospel of Christ emanating ex cathedra from her secular seat in the hallowed halls of Washington. That refutation should go out form Church authorities with vigor and unmistakable force and clarity.

In the case of immigration, as in much else that needs the concentrated attention of the Church, it needs to come up with a plan on its own based on the scriptures and traditions of the Church lest it become the mere rubber stamp for federal state immigration legislation–the rubber stamp Bishop Pelosi apparently would like the Church to be. The Church needs to lead, not to follow.

Both Catholic and protestant churches must rise up in outraged protest against the intrusions of the state as propounded by Nancy Pelosi and others. Top theologians need to come together as Barth and others came together during the Third Reich in order to articulate, publish and disseminate another Barmen Declaration. They need to assert with vigor the separation of Church and state and to resist with all their might the assertion of state control over the Church in whatever form it manifests itself. This they must do so lest the Church continued to be crushed and subdued by the state. This they must do lest the Church become a mere tool of the state used to reinforcing state authority.

This they must do in order to remain free to proclaim the historic Gospel of Christ in all its manifestations in accordance with their free conscience.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

True Multiculturalism: AAP Advocates Female Circumcision

So this is where embracing multi-culturalism eventually takes us: Even the morally repellent ritual of female genital mutilation gets the nod form the American Academy of Pediatricians, which in the last few days has come out with advocacy for "federal and state laws [to] enable pediatricians to reach out to families by offering a ‘ritual nick,’ such as pricking or minor incisions of girls’ clitorises. In other words, the academy is advocating female genital circumcision "lite," supposedly in order that worse mutilation, available abroad, does not occur.

Lest anyone think the subject is a rarified and indelicate procedure confined to some farflung and remote outposts of the world, it is worth noting the problem of FGM is on the rise in the USA, particularly among Muslim immigrant groups, though not confined exclusively to them.

[You can read the full story, including protests from the World Heath Organization and International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics here:]

As the linked article points out, "mothers who have until now resisted community pressure and not subjected their daughters to FGM in the U.S., in part because of the anti-FGM law, could be forced under the AAP guidelines to ask pediatricians to "nick" their daughters’ clitorises if it is [now] legally permitted."

Another consequence the article doesn’t point out, but one which would be equally serious, is that all US pediatricians, under the pressure of multi-cultural assumptions that FGM is a culturally mandated procedure not subject to Western medical ethics, might be forced against their consciences to perform a non-necessary and deforming medical procedure that does their female patients harm, thus violating the Hippocratic Oath.

Western women’s organizations should be up in arms over the AAP’s accommodative stance. While prominent women’s organizations such as NOW may be officially opposed to FGM, they have been preternaturally quiet. It is time for them and for women’s religious groups as well as for leaders of churches and synagogues to speak up.

The AAP must be pressured to reverse its morally offensive endorsement of unnecessary, psychologically, emotionally and physically harmful procedures which permanently scar young girls..

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Standing at the Schoolhouse Door

No one who lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960's will ever forget the sight of a grim faced, tight lipped George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, standing at the door of Foster Auditorium, University of Alabama. He stood there in order to block the entry of two black students, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood.

The governor took the opportunity to give a speech on states’ rights, which for him were exemplified by the phrase "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!"

Wallace had ignored Alabama Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach’s demand he move from the school house door. But when General Henry Graham, backed by the National Guard, commanded Wallace to step aside, saying, "Sir it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the order of the President of the United States," Wallace reluctantly complied.

Wallace’s intransigence concerning segregation and his coupling resistance to federal authority with an appeal to states rights as defined by the "right" to maintain segregation were part of a more than century long struggle to define the limitations of federal power. But from the beginning much of the rationale behind the attempt of states to maintain the constitutional balance of power between the federal government and states’ rights was based along morally reprehensible and completely unsustainable ethical fault lines.

So entrenched was the alliance of states’ rights with what amounted to maintenance of apartheid that some Southern Democrats attempted to found a short lived split-off from main stream Democrats who supported Harry Truman in 1948. Dixiecrats, as they were popularly termed, were white supremacists who believed in segregation, opposed racial integration and wanted to retain Jim Crow laws.

However, the renegade Dixiecrats managed once again to succeed in portraying anyone who believed in states’ rights and limits to federal power as inherently racist and without any moral or political credibility. Though they seized the party apparatus of several Southern states, their efforts were short lived.

That the ethical fault line was not consistently addressed by the writers of the U.S. constitution remains one of the tragedies of our great nation. For had the founders dealt with the issue of slavery and heeded their own call to universal human rights without making exception to that call, tacit and overt, the century and a half struggle for racial equality that followed their lapse in judgment might have been far less bloody and divisive. The states’ attempt to establish a balance between federal and states’ domains might have not been defined again and again by struggles over race. That this unsustainable ethical fault line existed and was reinforced well into the 1950's is a travesty.

But, also tragically, as the examples above illustrate, for well over a century and a half, the fight for states’ rights was often based on racial discrimination in varying forms. Starting with the defense of slavery, followed by the establishment and defense of Jim Crow laws and ending with defense of segregation of the races, many states found themselves on the losing side because of the immoral bases they chose for establishing and maintaining states’ power. Much of the time, the federal government had the moral high ground and stormed the states’ weak and shabby moral defenses.

How shabby and indefensible those defenses have been are summed up in a statement by the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, who speaking for states’ rights, stated the rationale for secession in the following fashion:
The cornerstone of our new government rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. Our new government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.

The brilliant and prescient John Emerson Dalberg-Acton, an Englishman and a contemporary observer of American politics before, during and after the Civil War, on reading Stephens defense of states’ rights, accurately noted in his essay The Civil War in America: Its Place in History:

Here, then, was a society adopting inequality, not as the natural product of property, descent and merit, but as its very foundation...The Southern slave-owner was in contradiction to the two principles which animated the Democracy of the Northern States. He denied the absolute essential equality of all men in civil rights; and he denied the justice of the doctrine that the minority possesses nothing which is exempt from the control of the majority, because he knew that it is was incompatible with the domestic institution which was as sacred to him as the rights of property.

But Acton went on the identify something else other than the moral indefensibility of the establishment and maintenance of slavery as a basis for states’ rights. He correctly identified the fact that while the Southern and other slave states sought under faulty moral premises to protect themselves from federal expansion of power; the federal government, regardless of the high moral ground it occupied, did wish to expand its power and to make itself superior to all restraint by the states. States’ rights and true federalism, Acton noted, were noble concepts apart from the evils of slavery. The rights of self-governance were still worthy of protection. Otherwise, he wrote, Liberty would no longer consist of exemption of control but would "come to mean the right to exercise control."

He pointed out that Daniel Webster laid down the premise that the Union was not a covenant between the States and the federal government, but an unbreakable bond that could not be severed under any circumstance. Horace Greeley, editor of The Tribune, and a leading abolitionist went even further, proclaiming the doctrine that "The Union is not worth supporting in connection with the South." Webster’s and Greeley’s concepts permanently took away states’ rights of redress against incursion of the federal government into state affairs.

Acton concludes the stronger minded Republicans like Webster and Greeley "resolved to make themselves masters of the central government, for the purpose of coercing the south to submit to their political opinions. He noted the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts confessed that ‘the object to be accomplished was this, for the free states to take possession of the government."

In other words, the immorality of slavery, the odium of Jim Crow laws and the apartheid of segregation, all civic moral problems which begged for moral solutions, became not only grave moral issues needing redress, but political tools in the hands of the central government to expand its power and to override the concept of states’ rights inherent in the Constitution–states’ inherent rights regardless of any faulty foundational arguments. Because of the treading on states’ rights, the doctrine of federalism suffered almost irreparable damage as moral authority buttressed by raw federal power destroyed states’ autonomy and much of self-government.

In sum: The issue of race would take precedence in the struggle of the states against the overreach of federal power and would become for the central government a virtually unassailable moral bastion which served a dual purpose: the righteous purpose of providing equal rights to all US citizens regardless of race and the purpose of expanding of federal authority while crushing states’ rights.
Part II: The Distortion of the Moral Imperative of Racial Equality
Part III: Racial Equality and Immigration

Monday, May 3, 2010

Miss Oxford Diner

The Miss Oxford Diner has always had an American flag out front. It’s that kind of place.

Traditional. Very traditional.

The diner is one of the vanishing breed of restaurants that popped up all over our country as imitations of railroad dining cars. Swathed in shiny chrome and faded pink striped siding, it still has the original swivel bar stools and quilted stainless steel backsplash along with tableside juke boxes with Chubby Checkers songs still on the labels.

It’s traditional.

So traditional that menu changes are not appreciated by the locals, who want their chipped beef and biscuit breakfast special to be served any time they are in the mood for it.
Don’t expect menu lite at this place, where meatloaf, mashed potatoes and cole slaw have been on the menu for as long as I remember, and my memory goes back a long way to when I was a twenty-two year old teacher at Oxford High School and a customer every Wednesday night for the Blue Plate Fried Oyster Special.

Yes, it’s traditional. It’s as American as apple pie. And so are the people who drop in to eat. Weary truckers wheel in for fried eggs, bacon and biscuits at all times of day and night. Locals pop in for corn chowder and cole slaw to catch up on the news. Hard working waitresses with tired, lined faces still call customers “Hon.”

People know each other at Miss Oxford. They have an invisible, intuitive grapvine that signals when they know you’re not from their part of the country. But they're not unfriendly, Just watchful and curious.

And they’re traditional. Very traditional.

My sister and I stopped in for lunch today. While we were waiting, we noted two American flag placards nailed to the walls inscribed, “God Bless America.”

I thought to myself, well, I guess these folk are the ones our president was talking about when he said there were a lot of bitter people who clung to their religion and guns. I thought about it a while. It made me sad.

My sister must have read my thoughts, for she gestured toward the flag pole outside. I looked, expecting to see the American flag that always had hung from it. But the flag with the stars and stripes was gone. In its place was a bright yellow flag with a coiled snake on it. Below, an inscription, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

My sister and I exchanged a meaningful gaze and I caught the look on our waitress’ face. She saw our looks and she was calmly smiling.

Well, I thought, what a significant change. The people who run Miss Oxford Diner and their customers didn’t miss the insults to them and Americans like them. And they have responded in their own way.

They weren’t at Miss Oxford Diner engaging in outraged political discourse. They were eating their meatloaf, mashed potatoes and cole slaw. They were scarfing down chipped beef, biscuits and gravy. But they had spoken nonetheless, and they were angry.

They are sending a message that will no doubt be heard from now to this coming November election and beyond:

“Don’t Tread on Me.”