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