December 11, 2017

On Being a Proud Christian Democrat

The media often act as though “Christian” means “evangelical Christian.” When commentary on current affairs is desired from a Christian perspective, it is more likely than not that reporters will call upon someone from a very conservative Protestant denomination to deliver it. It often seems as though the media, mainstream or otherwise, are oblivious to the existence of more traditional Christian perspectives. When was the last time you heard someone interviewed who claimed to be a “liberal Christian”?

This state of affairs has bothered me for a long time, but two related matters set me off today. First, of course, is the Alabama Senate election that takes place tomorrow pitting Democrat Doug Jones against Republican Roy Moore. Moore’s strong support among “Christian conservatives” or “white evangelicals” has repeatedly (and properly) been remarked upon. Not much has been heard from Christians who not only do not support Moore but who also reject the sort of Christianity he is known for wearing on his sleeve.

The second thing that upset me today was a discussion on the WAMU program 1A, which is carried by many NPR stations.“What Roy Moore Reveals About The Religious Right” was a conversation among host Joshua Johnson and several self-identified evangelicals. The 1-hour discussion never suggested that there are other Christian perspectives that differ quite substantially from those being expressed.

I believe that evangelical Christians have given Christianity a bad name. Not all Christians read the Bible with mindless literalness, consider abortion murder, believe that the poor reap what they deserve, consider homosexuality a grave sin, and support the Republican Party no matter what it supports or what its members do. Somehow, it is difficult to communicate this fact through the media.

An essay on my modest blog will not change the public perception of Christianity, but I can stake out my own position and make it easier for others on the Web to do the same. This led me to create the graphic below. I realize, of course, that one can be a non-evangelical Christian and still be a Republican, but my picture aims to make as sharp a contrast as possible to Christians who seem joined at the hip to the Republican Party.

For the foreseeable future, my new graphic (see below) will appear on my blog in the right margin. Click on the image below for a larger view and feel free to use it elsewhere to proclaim that you are both Christian and a Democrat.

Staunchly Christian/Proudly Democrat

December 2, 2017

An Atomic Anniversary

On this day, December 2, 1942, 75 years ago, Chicago Pile-1 produced the world’s first artificial self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. CP-1 (see picture below) was built of uranium, graphite, and wood. Control rods, which were intended to prevent a runaway reaction, were fabricated of cadmium. The pile was developed under the direction of physicist Enrico Fermi and was an early part of the Manhattan Project, the secret government program to develop the atomic bomb.

Chicago Pile-1
Chicago Pile-1 (Click on this and the picture below for larger images.)

CP-1 was built under the West Stands of Stagg Field on the University of Chicago campus. By the time I entered the university, CP-1 was long gone. The site is now marked by the massive bronze sculpture “Nuclear Energy” created by English artist Henry Moore.

Nuclear Energy
“Nuclear Energy” by Henry Moore

More information about Chicago Pile-1 can be found on Wikipedia.

It need hardly be said that learning how to create nuclear chain reactions has been a mixed blessing. Its ultimate effect on humanity—indeed on the entire planet—remains to be seen. For now, the concluding words of Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body seem appropriate:
If you at last must have a word to say,
Say neither, in their way,
“It is a deadly magic and accursed,”
Nor “It is blest,” but only “It is here.”

December 1, 2017

A Commonsense Legislative Reform

The tax bill nearing passage in the Senate runs to nearly 500 pages and includes text written in nearly indecipherable longhand in the margins. Democratic senators have complained that they have had no time to read the bill. In fact, it is certainly the case that nobody has read the entire bill on which senators are expected to vote.

This reminds me of a legislative reform I have long thought appropriate. It is this:
No legislator should be allowed to vote on a bill unless he or she attests in writing and under oath to having read it all.
This is, I suggest, perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, since senators and representatives have a tenuous relationship with the truth, it would probably be necessary to give legislators a test administered by a non-partisan third party to assure that their attestations are factual.

Lacking such assurance in the present case, I suspect that many GOP senators will regret their votes when they realize what they have foisted upon the American people.

God help us!

Waiting for “Tax Reform”

As I write this, I am waiting to see if there are at least two Republicans in the Senate who will vote against the “tax reform” bill that is a giveaway to the rich and to large corporations. I am not hopeful. Despite the concern of the so-called deficit hawks and the plea for “regular order” from Senator John McCain (who has indicated he will vote for the bill), I expect that the bill will pass in the Senate, perhaps tonight. I pray that it will not, but integrity seems to be in short supply among Republican senators.

It is likely that no senator has read the bill being voted on in its entirety. There have been no hearings where interested parties could express opinions on what should be in a tax bill. There have been no contributions from Democrats. All the independent analyses of the bill say that it will do little to increase GDP and will greatly enlarge the federal deficit. But GOP leaders are marching forward knowing that most voters opposed this bill. The bill is, however, the darling of big Republican donors and the ignorant know-nothings who are Trump’s base.

God help us if this execrable bill passes. That would not make it law, but it would move the process along of writing it into law.

Below is my take on how bills become law in the Age of Trump. It is a sad process. (Feel free to use this graphic elsewhere. Click on it for a larger version.)

How a Bill Becomes a Law: 2017 Edition

November 25, 2017

Support Our …

It has become commonplace for politicians to talk of “supporting our troops.” My own church even prays each week for “those in the armed forces and uniformed services,” presumably our own. Additionally, people have been encouraged to say “thank you for your service” when encountering someone in uniform. (This was said to me for the first time the other day while I was claiming a 10% month-of-November discount at a local restaurant. I protested that I had only been an Army bandsman.)

It isn’t really clear what “support” means or whether ordinary civilians have concrete ways of effecting it. Most of us are not sending care packages of cookies to soldiers or performing for the troops with the USO, though some people do provide monetary support to organizations that help wounded veterans.

I don’t know exactly when we began talking so much about supporting our troops. During World War II, when our troops were truly defending our nation to the death, we supported the war effort by buying bonds, displaying stars in our windows for the fallen, and going without so our troops could have what they needed to fight. Supporting our troops was not so much a slogan as a way of life.

I suspect that the Vietnam War had much to do with the popularity of expressing explicit support for our troops, as the conventional wisdom asserts that we showed disdain for soldiers as pot smokers and baby killers during that war. An unpopular war, somewhat unfairly, made our fighters unpopular as well.

Speaking of supporting our troops focuses attention on those who fight because they are ordered to do so and diverts attention from the policies that cause those orders to be delivered. It also assuages any guilt we may feel resulting from the fact that few us actually serve in the military. All this serves the purposes of politicians.

President Trump seems to have a love-hate relationship with our military, calling it inadequate and its leaders incompetent in one minute and confidently threatening to use it to destroy other nations in the next. In the end, though, the military, to our president, is a major tool of foreign power to back up his own bluster and intimidation. Trump wants billions of dollars more for the military, while his secretary of state, the inexperienced Rex Tillerson, asks less for the State Department, which he is rapidly depleting of its diplomatic resources.

Neither Trump nor Tillerson seems to understand or appreciate diplomacy. This administration seems to have disdain for diplomacy unless it is carried out by its principals. After all, it has the military as backup for any diplomatic failures.

Americans are growing tired of our ever-expanding wars, however, and wondering if our troops are truly engaged in protecting our nation. Why, for example, are we in Afghanistan, where we are in the middle of an apparently unwinnable civil war? What does it mean to support our troops in Afghanistan?

At a time when the world seems increasingly dangerous, why does our government have so little regard for negotiation? Why, for example, does our president insult and attempt to bully Kim Jong-un and effectively refuse to talk with North Korea? Saying that we won’t negotiate with North Korea until that nation does what we want from it gives Kim little incentive to come to the bargaining table.

We should certainly appreciate the sacrifices and made by our troops, but using our military is always a sign that diplomacy has somehow failed. As we watch this administration slowly destroy our diplomatic capabilities, we are more likely to call upon our troops in desperation.

Trump sold himself as a consummate negotiator. In fact, he is a consummate con man and bully whose fatal flaw is his susceptibility to flattery. Trump needs a more realistic evaluation of his negotiating skills, along with a willingness to avail himself of what expertise may be left in the State Department.

Given current circumstances, we should be talking less about supporting our troops and more about supporting, enhancing, and appreciating our diplomatic corps. The Web should contain more graphics like the following:


Feel free to use it elsewhere. Click on it for a larger version.

November 21, 2017

Are North Koreans Terrorists?

President Trump has returned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. (See New York Times story here.) From any other president, this would seem an odd move. From this president, it’s par for the course.

Mr. Trump is obsessed with North Korea and frustrated with his seeming inability to affect that nation’s course of weapons development. Severe sanctions have been applied to North Korea to no conspicuous effect. Even China has been coöperated in this project, despite concerns that a collapse of the Kim regime would flood China with refugees and put an American ally on its doorstep. What more can the U.S. do?

The answer is not much. But officially labeling North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism allows the president to imagine that he is doing something significant.

DPRK flag
He is not. Not only will the designation have little effect North Korea’s ability to function, but the president’s action degrades the significance of the terrorism list itself. At least as far as the public knows, North Korea has done nothing in years that can be called terrorism. The administration cites the assassination of political enemies on foreign soil and the development of weapons of mass destruction. These are not acts of terrorism, which are acts designed to terrorize a population. If what North Korea has done are acts of terrorism,  the United States is also a state sponsor of terrorism. The CIA has carried out assassinations; President Trump himself has as much as threatened to unleash nuclear weapons on North Korea.

Mr. Trump had no reason to label North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism. He was simply running out of insults to heap on the Kim regime and thought branding North Koreans terrorists was a clever next step. He thereby has called into question whether the designation of North Korea (or any nation) as a state sponsor of terrorism means anything at all.

November 9, 2017

Diocesan Convention Ignores the Needs of the Handicapped

It’s convention time again for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. I have been attending these annual events every year since 2002. The diocese’s 152nd annual convention will be held tomorrow and Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh’s North Hills. I'm not looking forward to it.

Diocesan seal
The venue (or venues) for the annual convention varies from year to year, and some facilities work better than others. When since-deposed Bob Duncan was the bishop, at least in the later years of his tenure, the location of the convention was apparently chosen from among churches whose congregations were sympathetic to his theological proclivities. Such preferences led to meetings in churches that were ill-suited to hosting a convention.

Happily, since the departure of Bishop Duncan and his sympathizers, the annual convention has been held in churches that, in large measure, are suited to the purpose to which they are being put. The last five conventions have been held either at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh or at my former church, St. Paul’s, in Mt. Lebanon.

Which brings us to this year’s convention. The last diocesan gathering to be held in North Hills was that of 2011. I have certain negative associations with that church, as I broke a laptop screen at that convention due to my own stupidity, but the church is not responsible for that. However, Christ Church used its basement as well as its worship space. Most notably, the Friday night meal was held in the basement. I was attending with someone who was wheelchair-bound. Although the church proper is handicap accessible, a person in a wheelchair cannot reach the basement from within the building. Access to the basement is provided by a door that opens to the parking lot. An exceedingly steep temporary ramp placed over a series of steps leads down to basement level. Transit over this ramp in a wheelchair is best described as scary as hell.

In the six years since the convention was last held at Christ Church, one might have imagined that either the church would have provided more appropriate access to the basement or the convention would be staged elsewhere. I was told that the church is running a capital campaign which, I assume, will rectify a serious access issue, but the issue remains for this convention.

Why is our church not more sensitive to the needs of the handicapped? The convention need not have been held at Christ Church. I suspect that the fact that the rector of Christ Church is Secretary of Convention and responsible for much of its planning is not unrelated to this year’s choice of venue. That is a poor excuse for making attendance at the convention so difficult for the handicapped.

The 152nd convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh should have been held elsewhere.

Update, 11/12/2017. Convention at Christ Church, North Hills, was even worse than expected for the handicapped. Some of the breakout rooms were totally inaccessible to persons with mobility problems. Displays, refreshments, and box lunches were in the basement (undercroft) reached by temporary ramps. The ramps were solidly built but were nonetheless inadequate. To reach the basement, one had to negotiate two ramps placed over sets of stairs. The ramp from the parking lot to the first landing was outrageously steep and could not be negotiated by someone in a wheelchair without help. Going up alone would simply be impossible—this required two strong helpers—and going down alone could only be done if one had a strong death wish. The second ramp, from the landing to the basement itself, was gentler, if not ADA compliant. It included a surprise at the lower end. A wheelchair invariably ran into a post at the end of a ramp if the notch at the bottom of the ramp was encountered unexpected. My wheelchair-bound friend vowed never to set foot (or wheelchair) in Christ Church again.

The pictures below will make clear how difficult entry was.

Ramp from parking lot
Steep ramp from parking lot to landing

Ramp to basement
Ramp from landing to basement, which necessitates a 90° turn

Sign above long ramp
Sign above ramp to basement (where I hit my head only once)

Bottom of ramp to basement
Notch at bottom of ramp to basement guaranteed to snag a wheelchair wheel

October 18, 2017

The Vietnam War in Four Pictures

Like many Americans, I watched all 18 hours of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War. Many have commented on the PBS program, so I won’t try to evaluate it here. Instead, I offer some very personal observations.

I lived through all of America’s involvement in Vietnam, so much of what I saw was familiar. Like any good documentary, The Vietnam War clarified chronology and, to a degree, motivations. I didn’t learn a lot, but there were revelatory moments. I didn’t know how much we had helped the French. I didn’t know that Lyndon Johnson knew before the election that Richard Nixon had discouraged Vietnam from participating in peace talks. I didn’t know much about post-war Vietnam. I was happy to have watched The Vietnam War, but I felt like I was getting my life back when it was over, having been relieved of so much obligatory TV viewing.

A few turning points in the Vietnam War are particularly memorable—Walter Cronkite’s commentary on the futility of the conflict, Lyndon Johnson’s pulling out of the presidential race—but the war, for me, was really captured in four photographs. Those photographs do not summarize the war or present a coherent or chronological picture of it, but they stick in my mind and tell compelling stories. (Click on photos for larger images.)

Execution on Saigon street
Eddie Adams, The Associated Press
This picture was taken by Eddie Adams in Saigon on February 1, 1968, the second day of North Vietnam’s Tet offensive. It captures the summary execution of ­Nguyễn Văn Lém by Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnam police. Adams had not anticipated that Loan would pull out his .38-caliber pistol and shoot Lém through the head. Lém was a Vietcong prisoner who allegedly had led a squad of Vietcong that had killed the family of a friend of Loan’s. The photograph, which won a Pulitzer Prize, emphasized the brutality and lawlessness of the Vietnam conflict.

Kent State shooting
John Paul Filo
This photograph was disturbing is a way that not even pictures of the war itself were. It was not taken in Saigon, but in Kent, Ohio, by photojournalist student John Paul Filo. The date was May 4, 1970. National Guard troops had been called to the campus of Kent State University, site of student protests against the Vietnam War. Ostensibly, the troops were there to disperse protesters. It is unclear why they carried loaded rifles and even less clear why they fired on unarmed students, killing four and wounding 9. Filo’s photo shows 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the slain 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller. This photo, cropped and edited—the fence post over Vecchio’s head was removed—also won a Pulitzer Prize. John Filo brought the increasingly unpopular war home to the United States and raised questions of free speech and assembly under the Nixon administration.

Napalm attack victims
Nick Ut, The Associated Press
 On June 8, 1972, a Vietnam Air Force plan dropped napalm on a group of Vietnam civilians and soldiers mistakenly assumed to be enemy combatants. Nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc was among the victims of this attack. She tore off her burning clothes and was photographed running naked by Nick Ut, who took her and other injured children to a Saigon hospital. Kim Phúc survived, and her picture is seared in the minds of all who have seen it. A cropped version of this photo ran on the front page of The New York Times and subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize. The picture illustrates the horrors of war and, especially, the ghastliness of the use of napalm. (I feel a special connection to this photograph, having written a poem about an adult Kim Phúc,)

Saigon evacuation
Hugh van Es, Bettmann/Corbis
 Long before anyone in the government was willing to admit it, it was clear that the United States and South Vietnam could not win the war in Vietnam. The U.S. turned the war over to the South Vietnamese not really believing that the South could hold against the North. The situation was even worse than we believed, however, and the U.S. embassy was caught off guard when, on April 29, 1975, North Vietnamese soldiers were about to overrun Saigon. A chaotic evacuation of the embassy and of Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans was quickly arranged. The above photograph shows an Air America (i.e., CIA) helicopter taking evacuees to safety on waiting American ships. An expensive, ill-conceived, and insincere war had come to an end, but other such wars would follow.

Are these the photographs you remember from the Vietnam War?

Clueless Comcast Technical Support

People seem to love to complain about their cable company. Admittedly, cable service seems universally too expensive, a fact that is causing many to abandon cable for other sources of entertainment media. Price aside, however, I have been very satisfied with the functionality of Comcast’s Xfinity X1 platform, which provides both my cable TV and Internet service. Additionally, I have been generally satisfied with Comcast’s technical support. In my experience, telephone technical support has been provided by savvy technicians who are knowledgeable and patient. In-home service technicians have gone the extra mile to assure that my service was up to par.

Either I had an uncharacteristically bad experience last night or Comcast has decided that providing excellent telephone support isn’t important enough to justify its cost.

I am a fan both of baseball and of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. Particularly during the fall playoffs, this presents a dilemma. Last night, for example, the Dodgers-Cubs game began at the same time as Rachel Maddow. My DVR is set to record all the Maddow shows, giving me the option to watch at a later time (often the next day). What I planned to do last night, however, was what I have often done when Pirates games conflict with my favorite political show, namely, watch the game on the television without sound while watching Maddow on my phone or tablet. Last night, I got error messages on my phone and tablet when I tried to access the Maddow Show. I also had this problem the night before as well and had simply put up with it. (I viewed Maddow after the game.) I had encountered this problem some time ago and remember a technician walking me through a fix. Unfortunately, I had forgotten what the fix was, so I called Comcast to solve my problem.

Things went badly from the beginning. In the past, it was reasonably easy to get connected to a technical support person. Last night, however, I was immediately connected to someone who spoke barely intelligible English and who didn’t seem to understand my problem. I asked where he was and was told that he was in the Philippines. We didn’t communicate well, and, without my requesting it, he soon connected me to a woman who seemed to be an American.

After listening to a description of my problem, this next person put me on hold for a while. When she returned several minutes later, she assured me that the problem was an outage in my area that had begun that morning. I asked if the error code I had received indicated an outage and what the nature of the outage might be, since my TV and Internet services were working fine and had been all day. I received no satisfactory answers to my questions and asked to talk to a supervisor.

It took a few more minutes to speak to a supervisor, who, I was told, was helping another customer. After yet another explanation of my problem, I was told that, in fact, the system would not allow me to do what I was trying to do. I could not watch a program on my tablet that was currently being recorded on my DVR; I had to wait until the entire program had been recorded. (Meanwhile, I was missing Maddow and the baseball game, as the telephone call was requiring all my attention.) I protested that what I “couldn’t do” was something I had done many times before. My protestations that I most certainly could do what I wanted to do fell on deaf ears. The supervisor seemed as technically clueless as the last two Comcast employees I has spoken to. At this point, I gave up and said that, no, the supervisor couldn’t help me with anything else.

I looked forward to the telephone quality survey in which I had agreed to participate at the beginning of my call. When I received the automated call-back, I, sadly, was asked only two questions: Was I the person who had called for support? How would I rate the service on a scale from 1 to 5? The answers were, of course, yes and 1.

After my DVR finished recording The Rachel Maddow Show, I again tried to view the recording on my tablet. I received the same error message. About 20 minutes later, however,  I was able to begin viewing my recording on my tablet. However, about 40 minutes in, the recording repeatedly reverted to a position about a minute earlier. I had never seen this behavior before. I finished watching the Maddow recording on my television.

I decided to document the fact that the supervisor didn’t know what she was talking about. I arbitrarily chose an in-process program to record. The program was Ink Master: Angles (whatever that is) on Spike. After a couple of minutes, I brought up the recording on my phone. I then took the pictures below of my phone and TV.

TV and phone screens showing that program is being streamed
TV and phone screens. Ink Master: Angles is being recorded (indicated by the red bar under
the top left image) and being streamed on the telephone.

TV and Phone Screens Showing Same Program
TV and phone screens. Ink Master: Angles on TV screen and being streamed on the telephone.
(TV and streamed content are never perfectly synchronized.)

Clearly, Comcast technical support is clueless and needs to be improved. The people I spoke to last night seemed to be consulting documentation of some sort in an attempt to respond to my problem; they didn’t appear to understand what was happening or what was possible. The next time I call Comcast, I hope I get one of the technical people who knows what he or she is talking about.