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God loves America

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Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

Bob Dylan

The British journalist Robert Fisk, in his epic “The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East,” describes an interview he conducted in 1993, in Abu Dhabi, with a man named John Hurst, who was a vice president of the American arms dealer, Lockheed Martin. Hurst was representing his company at an international munitions exhibition—tanks, missiles, body armor, that sort of thing—where military officials from around the world were buying weaponry from arms sellers around the world. Hurst, who had earlier worked on developing the Pershing II nuclear ballistic missile, was now selling Lockheed’s Hellfire ground-to-air missile to “friendly” countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—yes, the same UAE that recently partied with Trump at the White House.

Fisk had seen, as he writes in his book, “thousands” of dead, torn and mutilated bodies during his years covering the Middle Eastern wars (and he was to see lots more in the years that followed). Appalled, he asked Hurst, respectfully, about “the morality, or immorality, of his work.” After all, Hurst’s descriptions of the Hellfire’s “percentages and development costs and deals” essentially “stripped (it) of politics and death.”

Hurst was thoughtful, Fisk writes. “I’ve had great debates (about that),” he replied. “On a religious basis, too.” He went on to explain his point of view. “I’m a very strong Christian. I’m Episcopalian. You can look through your entire New Testament and you won’t find anything on defending yourself by zapping the other guy. But the Old Testament, that was something different. There’s plenty there that says God wants us to defend ourselves against those that will strike us down. In the New Testament, it says the Lord wants us to preach his Gospel—and we can’t very well do that if we’re dead. That’s not an aggressive posture…the guy that wants to hurt me has to think twice…the Lord wants us to defend ourselves and arm ourselves so that we can spread his Word.”

Yes, an eye for an eye, in the name of Jesus. And there you have it: the basis for American defense [i.e. killing people] policy in the 1990s, according to Lockheed Martin, was so that America could spread Christianity throughout the world, especially in the Muslim Middle East.

Do you need me to point out the insanity of Hurst’s statement? At the very moment he was making it, Osama bin Laden was living not far away, in Sudan, planning his expansion of Al Qaeda into a terror organization. That same year would come the first bombing of the World Trade Center, as well as the ambush of U.S. soldiers in Somalia (“Black Hawk Down”), both attacks planned by bin Laden. And eight years later, of course, came World Trade Center attack #2.

And how was bin Laden justifying his attacks? “God willing, our raids on you will continue as long as your support to the Israelis will continue.” And here is what he said a few weeks after Sept. 11: “There is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots. Its greatest buildings were destroyed, thank God for that.” Can the Hursts of this world not see the irony? Hurst—echoed by U.S. Presidents—insists God is on America’s side and America is thus justified in using weapons of mass destruction against its enemies. Bin Laden insists God is on the side of the Muslims, who thus are justified in using their own forms of weapons of mass destruction to use against us. And so it goes, round and round, an insane, out-of-control merry-go-round of death, spiraling out of control.

What I’m writing here has little or nothing to do with America’s national interests. Perhaps we do sometimes have to fight “just” wars. We were right to defend ourselves after Sept. 11, and after Pearl Harbor as well. I’m not a rigid pacifist. But can we please move away from this silliness about “God”? People have differing understandings of God. No one’s view of God is better, truer or realer than anyone else’s. That should be obvious to any rational person. As soon as someone insists his “God” is the one, true God, and the other person’s “God” is a fake, we should move away from that person and not listen to him anymore, because he’s suffering from a mental condition. Yes, that includes, especially at this current time, idiots like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., who happily no longer is around to plague us because his “God” failed to warn him that having polyamorous sexual affairs would get him in trouble. And this also includes, more than anyone else, the imposter Donald Trump, a lifelong agnostic who, having discovered what useful idiots evangelicals are, never fails to hoist up Bibles (upside down) and claim they’re his favorite book.

It’s people like this—the militant preachers, the sociopathic politicians—who keep getting us into trouble. This election is about a lot of things, but to my mind one of the biggest is that it represents a chance to begin to isolate these warmongering religious frauds. If we can’t get rid of them entirely—and I guess we can’t—we can at least make them irrelevant.


Why I weep

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I cry easily these days. There’s so much to cry about. The pandemic, and the lives upended, the economic pain it’s brought to so many of my friends and my city. And I cry because of Trump, and the stain upon our country and the presidency. I’ve been reading biographies of great Presidents lately: Robert Caro’s “The Path to Power,” the story of Lyndon Johnson’s later career, and David McCullough’s “Truman.” Those books make me cry, too. Reading of those men, who did so many great things, who worked so hard for liberal democracy, it’s almost impossible to comprehend the mediocrity currently in the Oval Office, doing his best to undo it. Then, too, the history of those presidents echoes my own history. As I grow old, and peer into the grave, it gives me comfort to revisit my past.

Caro writes with great power and vividity of the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy, when LBJ ascended to the presidency. Caro’s description of those four days in 1963—Friday Nov. 22, Saturday Nov. 23, Sunday Nov. 24 and Monday Nov. 25—the four most tumultuous, horrifying days in American history–the flight of Air Force One from Dallas to Washington, D.C, with two Presidents, one dead, the other living, and the slain President’s widow—the arrival of Bobby and Jackie, in her blood-splattered pink suit at Andrews Air Force Base, with the coffin—the insanity of Oswald’s murder by Ruby, live on T.V.—and the funeral procession itself, the grandest State event in American history—I, along with everyone else in America, watched nonstop on television. I cried then, and I cry now, 57 years later.

I went to YouTube to relive that experience, not from any ghoulish interest in the macabre, just…because. And more tears. They came unbidden. The sound of the muffled drums…in relentless, repeating cadence…from the White House to the Capitol, and the next day, to Arlington…the drums, and the clip-clop of the horses on the cobblestones, including the riderless steed Black Jack, with empty saddle, and boots reversed in the stirrups…and the steady, mournful tread of thousands of uniformed sailors, soldiers, marines, and air men in somber, grievous march…not a sound from the crowd of hundreds of thousands lining the wide avenues, except for an occasional sob…but those muffled drums, stately, filled with pathos, like a beating heart. And I cried.

Why do I weep at something from so long ago, something that, to millions of Americans, is as distant, as buried in history as the death of Davy Crockett at the Alamo? I weep, because those muffled drums beat, not just for John F. Kennedy, but for me, and for all of us…for America. The flag-draped casket, drawn on the same catafalque that had carried Abraham Lincoln’s, contained, not only the mortal remains of the President, but my heart, and the hearts of the world. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee…Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

This is why I cry, so many years later. John F. Kennedy brought us what is best in our lives. Now, instead of gallantry in the presidency, we have greed. Instead of courage, we have corruption. Instead of heroes, we have a hooligan. I cry, too, because old men weep, as they realize their lease on life will soon expire. None of us has the luxury of knowing the moment of our death. But as the death of John F. Kennedy, at such a young age, at the height of his promise—as that reminds us, our demise might meet us at any moment. Now. A minute from now. Without warning. And so old men cry.

At JFK’s funeral, and at Jackie’s request, a military band played the official U.S. Navy hymn (Kennedy had been in the Navy), “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (you might recall it from the movie, Titanic):

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee 
For those in peril on the sea.

As I was walking in Oakland yesterday, pondering these thoughts, I passed a bookstore with a shelf out on the sidewalk: paperbacks $1 each. The first one I saw, literally, was Profiles In Courage, JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-wining 1956 book. These things are never coincidences. The book was a 1964 reissue of the original, but with a twist: Robert Kennedy wrote the new Foreward, on Dec. 18, 1963—less than a month after his older brother had been killed. The still-grieving Robert wrote, in words that are as alive today as then:

“[John Kennedy’s] life had import, meant something to the country while he was alive…It was his conviction that a democracy…must and can face its problems, that it must show patience, restraint, compassion as well as wisdom and strength and courage, in the struggle for solutions which are very rarely easy to find.”

Imagine a President whose life has import. Imagine a President with wisdom, strength, compassion and courage. For that reason, too, I cry.


A Democratic Presidential candidate speaking on civil rights for Black Americans:

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“Not all groups are free to live and work where they please or to improve their conditions of life by their own efforts. Not all groups enjoy the full privileges of citizenship…The Federal government has a clear duty to see that the Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws are not denied or abridged anywhere in the Union. That duty is shared by all three branches of the Government, but it can be filled only if the Congress enacts modern, comprehensive civil rights laws, adequate to the needs of the day, and demonstrating our continuing faith in the free way of life.”

What sorts of “civil rights laws” did this man envision? In the words of an historian, he “called for a federal law against the crime of lynching…effective statutory protection of the right to vote everywhere in the country, a law against the poll taxes…the establishment of a Commission with authority to stop discrimination by employers…an end to discrimination in interstate travel by rail, bus and airplane…”. And beyond the details of civil rights, because he believed that without additional freedoms America would never realize its full potential, he called for “a national health insurance program, a massive housing program, increased support for education…the conservation of natural resources, and a raise in the minimum wage…”.

Most of these things never came to pass, when the man became President. Why not? “Southern congressmen lashed out” against it. A Texas Senator called the proposals “a lynching of the Constitution.” A South Carolina Senator said he and his wife would never sit next to “a Nigra.” And those two were Democrats.

Who was this Democratic Presidential candidate? Harry S. Truman, who was running for election in his own right in 1948, after having inherited the presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt three years previously. And who was it that denied Truman his victories in the Congress, when Truman was famously elected, against the predictions of all the pundits, in his race against Thomas Dewey? Southern Democrats—“Dixiecrats”—who, not much later, changed parties and became the “Solid South,” the Republican red wall the South largely remains today…the same South that has consistently opposed civil rights, and all the other progressive achievements Truman fought for…the same South that voted for Donald J. Trump.

Some things never change. Truman’s issues are our issues today; the same bloc, or mentality that opposes them, is the stumbling block today to progress. Republicans, or, to put it more accurately, that conservative, reactionary mindset that has always opposed progress in any form, continue on their path of obstructionism, delay, obfuscation, appeals to hatred, and preachings of authoritarianism, resentment and white supremacy—even though the number of Americans who subscribe to that belief system continues to shrink. And that is why Republicans must prevent universal voting, at all costs, no matter what it takes—even if it means shutting down the Post Office. If everybody voted, as Trump himself said, no Republican would ever again be elected to national office in the U.S.A.

We look at Harry Truman’s words, from more than 70 years ago, and shake our heads in wonderment. Civil rights…universal healthcare…housing for all…conservation of the environment…a fair minimum wage…the right to vote…better public education…why are we still having to fight for these things, when by every yardstick of common sense and decency they’re the right things to do?

Because we still have Republicans in power. But we can change that, starting with the November elections. We can make Harry Truman’s dreams…and John F. Kennedy’s, and Lyndon Johnson’s, and Jimmy Carter’s, and Bill Clinton’s, and Barack Obama’s dreams come true. Will that usher in a new Valhalla of Justice, Peace, Prosperity and Fairness for all Americans? No. Nothing ever will. But it will get us closer to it.


They tried to ban the Beatles, too

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Most of you aren’t old enough to remember the “Ban the Beatles” movement here in America. It was the summer of 1966; the Beatles were at the height of their fame, having just released Revolver, which at that time was the most progressive of their LPs. Earlier that season, John Lennon had given an interview to a London newspaper, in which he said—pretty much casually—what a lot of people were thinking: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples his were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

By early August, protests in the Bible Belt had reached fever pitch. Led by Christian radio DJs, people at anti-Beatles rallies were burning Beatles albums, tearing up Beatles posters, and of course the Ku Klux Klan got involved. Christians waved signs that said “JESUS LOVES YOU, do the Beatles?” and “Thou shalt have no other GODS before Me.”

These Beatles haters were the forebears of fascist-clerical conservatism yet to come: the marriage of Republican politics with evangelicism, the election of Ronald Reagan, the Tea Party and, yes, the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism. We’ve always had that rightwing fringe of Christian paranoia; sometimes it’s at low ebb, as it was for most of the middle of the 20th century, and sometimes it flares up, as it did starting around 1980 and continuing today. But it’s important to realize it never quite goes away. If we’re to have any success combating it—and we need to combat it—we have to understand its etiology.

There are a lot of photographs of the Ban the Beatles people, and they look remarkably similar to the “re-open” people and MAGA-rally people. Granted, the haircuts are different, and they’re fatter today than they were in the Sixties. But the people themselves are of a type: Caucasian, often young, their faces twisted by hatred. It’s not hard juxtaposing the Klansman throwing Beatles records onto the “Beatles Bonfire” with the open-carry freaks who closed down the Michigan statehouse last week.

Why do they never go away, these religious bumpkins? America was founded on principles of the Enlightenment, of secular humanism, of “All men are created equal” and the Constitution, which was drafted to create “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Such noble beginnings. How is it possible that, despite all our progress, we still have this canker of religious whackjobs?

Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the Catholics are right: humankind is essentially damned, incapable of rising above its primitive beginnings. Maybe the Hindus are right: these rightwing zealots are living out their awful karma, and have no control over themselves. Whatever the explanation, it’s sad to realize that for every positive step forward we take—and The Beatles represented a huge positive step forward for America and for the world—there’s a sizable group of uneducated yahoos who wants to drag us backwards.

What do they really want? It’s unlikely they understand history, since their schooling is limited. They seem to want a return to when societies were ruled by Christian prelates, who enforced their rule through the systematic use of clerical armies, who had few compunctions against torturing or murdering apostates and heretics. History does record at least one such time in the West: the Dark Ages, which extended into the 1700s as witch burnings and other forms of ecclesiastical punishment continued even in America.

Good times, the Dark Ages! People knew their place. Women weren’t uppity like they are now. Men who performed abominable acts with each other knew they had to keep well-hidden, or pay for their sins with their lives. The local seigneur or lord of the manor was the absolute law, responsible only to his King and his Christian God. Nobody had rights. Society didn’t change from century to century, for a thousand years in a row—and that is exactly how the rulers of society wanted it. Change is bad, dangerous. Thought is dangerous. Too much thinking might lead people to wonder if every word in the Bible really was true, as they were told. Thinking therefore had to be eliminated; hence, witch burnings, excommunications and banishment and other forms of religious punishment. Hence, by 1966, the album burnings. The Beatles made people think, and for Christian conservatives, that was the most dangerous thing that could happen. Thinking people might decide that religious superstitions are hokum. Therefore, they must be ruthlessly expunged. Hitler and Goebbels knew this as well as anyone. So, too, do modern theological autocrats, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and their leader, Donald J. Trump.

The good news is that the Christian radicals were unsuccessful in stopping The Beatles. They’re more popular than ever; their influence on culture is ongoing. But the radicals never stop trying; everytime they look around, there’s a new threat to their desired theocracy: Obama, or Hillary, or Gay marriage, or immigrants, or Democrats and liberals, or scientists. There will never be an absence of threats to religious extremism because the human intellect will never die, no matter how much it’s suppressed by dictators; and the human intellect is the dragon-slayer of religious fundamentalism. So when you’re feeling blue, think of the irrepressible vibrancy of enlightened intellectual progress. It’s what makes us as the human race go forward. The temporary emergence of a Donald Trump is awful, but just like Dr. King said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.


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Early in the 18th century, while the Spanish Inquisition still raged, the Catholic Church fathers declared an 18-year old girl guilty of heresy, and they did to her what they had done to thousands of others over the previous 200 years: They burned her at the stake.

We don’t know what heresy the girl was accused of. Possibly she was a Jew who had refused to convert to Catholicism under orders of the Inquisition. At any rate, they subjected the girl to the auto-da-féthe “act of faith” by which the flames that consumed her body also would purify her soul, so that it could enter into Heaven cleansed of sin, and sit forever at the side of Jesus.

Even as the Inquisition was expending its last energies in Europe, a new movement was arising: The Enlightenment. Led by men such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Spinoza, Hobbes and Locke, the new movement sought to overthrow what it perceived as the brutal and irrational cult of religious-Christian superstition which had dominated European thought for a millennium, and replace it with what we might today call “secular humanism”—an approach that emphasized the worth of the individual mind and conscience, stressed the importance of science over superstition, and was based upon Greek and Roman philosophical notions of freedom, truth, reason and beauty.

The 18-year old girl’s horrible murder did not go unnoticed. Just to the north of Spain, across the Pyrenees in Bordeaux, Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu, was a wealthy lawyer who had left that profession in order to devote himself to philosophical studies. (Montesquieu’s essays about man and reason became powerful influences on our American Founding Fathers, especially James Madison). How Montesquieu learned of the girl’s death, we do not know; but he wrote about it, in a work in which he assumes the guise of a Jewish man speaking to the leaders of the Inquisition.

In his remarks, Montesquieu—the consummate humanist and rationalist—is scathing concerning the Church’s “crimes.” The Roman Church, he thunders, had become “incorrigible, incapable of all enlightenment and of all instruction; and a nation [i.e. Spain] is very unhappy that gives authority to men like you.” He has a particular message for the murderers who lit the girl’s pyre: “We must warn you of one thing; it is that, if someone in the future ever dares to say that the peoples of Europe had a police in this century in which we live, you will be cited to prove that they were barbarians, and the idea one will have about you will be such that it will stigmatize your century and bring hatred on all your contemporaries.”

By “police,” Montesquieu referred, not to our modern notion of a civic police force, but to older Latin concepts of policy, or politics: the idea that a rational people will tend towards justice and reason, if governed correctly and educated in a rational, scientific way. He meant, in other words, that there apparently was no such moral force in Europe in the 18th century—at least, not in Catholic Spain. If you think about Montesquieu’s warning, it’s clear that it has come true: we look back at the Inquisition, at the psychotic Church “fathers” who burned little girls at the stake, and we indeed do stigmatize them and hate what they did and what they stood for.

A modern version of Montesquieu’s warning might well be adapted for the evangelicals and others who form the base of the modern Republican/Trump political party. Like the Inquisitors of Spain, they too believe they, and only they, know the word of God, and that God has instructed them to do what has to be done in order to carry out that word, and hasten the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Like the Inquisitors of Spain, they harbor no doubts about the correctness of their actions. Like the Inquisitors of Spain, they too engage in heinous acts. Perhaps they no longer burn people at the stake, but they indulge in hateful actions and speech against people whom they consider their enemies, and they enable a president who, by his words and deeds, causes pain, suffering and death. And like the Inquisitors of Spain, they gaze upon that pain and suffering and death and see that it is good, because it is the will of their God.

So here is Montesquieu’s warning, recast for 21st century Republicans: “if someone in the future ever dares to say that the Christian Republicans of America had a moral imperative, you will be cited to prove that those dreadful people, the evangelicals, were barbarians. And the idea one will have about you, and about your leader Trump, will be such that it will stigmatize your century, your political party, your false version of religion, and bring hatred on all your contemporaries.”

It’s too bad that we People of the World can’t get rid of these strains of superstitious bigotry and stupidity forever, so that Reason, and Reason alone, will rule. There seems to be some metastasizing corruption that keeps spurting out of some humans, in the guise of “religion,” so that for every two steps we take forward, we’re tugged one backward. The new Inquisition has become Republican evangelical Christianity, its Grand Inquisitor Donald J. Trump. And we know exactly how history will treat it, because we’re writing that history right now, and you’re witnessing it.


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