Saturday, May 30, 2015

Reading the Map

Only a small percentage of Americans opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as they occurred. We were among them, writing op-eds on the subject with the key phrase: look at the map. As early as September 12, 2001, we could see the pattern that was going to emerge, and said so: the United States would attack Afghanistan and seek to control it, then go after Iraq. In so doing, if successful, the US would have control of the nations on either side of Iran, and with Israel would also flank Syria, like hopscotch stepping stones. We would also have a clear and powerful presence along the top side of the oil rich Persian Gulf. The map was clear. Al Qaeda gave us the excuse we needed to begin a war of expansion. Were we that cold? You bet we were. Our interference in Middle Eastern politics goes way back. Did you know that the US helped finance Saddam Hussein’s war effort against Iran in the 1980’s? Hussein was our creature, and an Iraq-Iran War was a great opportunity for us to gain influence in the region. That we failed tells volumes about our mindset toward the region and its theocratic governments. In other words, it is more about our inability to understand how people in this region govern themselves than our abilities militarily. That we seem to be miserable at solving the riddles of the Middle East would seem to indicate a change of policy might be in order. Whether you agree with me that the United States planned to invade Iraq in order to secure a foothold in the region and isolate both Iran and Syria all in one blow scarcely matters. Others see the same pattern. The fact that we seem much more willing to involve ourselves where there is oil than where there isn’t, is also clear to anyone who reads maps. Suspicion of our intentions runs rampant in the Middle East, and we have become an easy target for scorn, skepticism, and even hatred. We have done ourselves no favors: in fact, we screwed the pooch in Iraq when we did invade in 2003. Even key members of the Republican Party now admit it, though in the same breath several of them clamor to make the same mistake again.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Did You Know?: Three Percent

Did you know that one out of every thirty-three people on the planet was killed during World War Two? To be exact, the exact number of casualties in that war is unknown, but the best guess is sixty million human beings, including eleven million who were murdered in concentration camps run by the Nazis. That eleven million included six million Jews and five million non-Jews. The total for all war casualties from all causes, as massive and horrible as it is, stands for three percent of the world’s population. So: one in every thirty-three people on the planet died. There were many places the war barely touched or did not touch at all, others that were horribly impacted. The United States fought on two fronts, but suffered only a handful of casualties on national soil; in all, America lost one life in every 300. Great Britain lost one in 200. One in every eight Germans died; one in every four Russians; one in every two Jews. Some estimates of overall deaths reach as high as 85,000,000, with roughly a third being combat deaths, a third being civilian deaths from combat activities, atrocities and other military actions, and another third from famine and disease. The Twentieth century stands as Man’s bloodiest in history, with the war death tally at about 187,000,000. It got a good start with World War One, in which ten million soldiers and eight million civilians were killed. You would think humans, particularly the ones who actually fought and suffered during that war, would have learned their lesson. Many did, but not the ones in power: twenty-five years, almost to the day, from the start of the first came the start of the second. It can’t be stated enough, and yet two things stand out. First, a 1/33 ratio is pretty small when you look at it that way. Second, as Joseph Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Maybe this strange statistical analysis helps explain why the United States – as a government and as a people – still believes that war is a viable means of diplomacy. Despite having fought a bloody civil war a century and a half ago, despite having lost Vietnam militarily and despite having been embarrassed by our failure in Iraq, we still clamor for more. In fact, the current fidgeting by the myriad of 2016 Republican Presidential candidate hopefuls on Iraq are proof: the majority of them are saying that, yes, going into Iraq in 2003 was a mistake, but in 2015 we ought to do it again. Lessons learned?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Young Packs and Marathons

Helpless: A few days ago, the local private schools held a track meet for all their students. Our first grade class participated, and I was lucky enough to help “chaperone” – which meant, to the best of my abilities, I helped make sure everyone stayed where they were supposed to be and went where they were supposed to go next. Mrs. Rasmussen, the teacher, was very glad that I volunteered. She said, “You get the boys.” That didn’t seem too daunting: there were only seven of the little blighters to take care of and supervise. Just seven – I coached little league, for goodness sakes! I coached soccer! But I was aware of the energy level of these young men; all seven seemed hell bent on being hell bent at all times. They got along with each other fine, but part of getting along was being amazingly physical – pushing, punching and poking each other just for the sheer joy of it. As I watched my own charges charging about, I also glanced whenever possible at the other packs of seven-year-old boys from the other schools, to discover (with both relief and alarm) that they were doing the same things. My boys were not unique in the slightest. And the thought that kept occurring to me was: this is long before the testosterone hits them! I survived. Tired but triumphant, I made it through. The boys participated in six field events, and in their off time between events they played freeze tag and other wonderful games, but at the end of the day, I was the one who felt like I’d just run the marathon.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Irish Referendum

Well done, Ireland! First you win the World Quiddich Cup. Now you rock the real world with a real vote on a vital issue of human rights, and, to borrow from another fiction, you chose wisely and you chose well. 62% of the voters cast their ballot in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage despite the direct opposition of the Irish Catholic Church. Ireland becomes the first nation to adopt same-sex marriage as a legal right by national election. The leader of the opposition said, simply, it’s what the young people want – and that is the best and most encouraging part. You give me hope that reason will triumph over prejudice, and the fact that such a major social change is spearheaded by the young solidifies my hope for future generations to perhaps outgrow the ancient attitudes and emotions that have plagued us. It also means that the world is NOT about to end, it is poised to flourish.

The Politics of Pacifism: I Would Rather Fail

Victor Hugo once said, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Pacifism is actually a relatively new concept. The term was coined by Frenchman Emile Arnaud in 1901, and adopted by the tenth Universal Peace Conference in Glasgow that year. The philosophy or belief that war was an evil to be avoided, even fought against, only began to take hold slowly. During World War One anyone who chose not to fight on the grounds of opposition to war and violence was treated as a coward, but as the war dragged on and the staggering death totals mounted, more and more soldiers on the Front began to question the morality, the reasonableness, and the true motives behind the war they were fighting. They began to see their leaders as either horribly incompetent or deliberately prolonging the war for their own personal gain. Soldiers “infected” by such thoughts began questioning the causes that led them to war, often publicly. Famously, Siegfried Sassoon wrote scathing critiques; all that saved him from court-martial was being declared as suffering from shell-shock, largely through the benevolent interference of his friend Robert Graves. While “recovering,” Sassoon met Wilfred Owen. Both came to oppose the war, but both were brave and honorable men who returned to the front even so. Owen was killed one week before the Armistice. One writer notes that, before 1914, no one ever associated the powerfully modern word “machine” with “gun.” But World War One changed everything. Slaughter became wholesale and glory was no longer part of the equation. Machine guns decimated the attacking British troops on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. For so many, it was no longer a matter of do or die, it was just die. The futility of that war led more and more people to believe like Sassoon and Owen, that war itself had morphed into something no one should sustain or encourage. Another World War One soldier-poet, Tom Kettle, put it best when he wrote, “If I live, I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery and I know what an outrage it is against simple men.” But Kettle did not live. He died on September 9, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Many who survived turned in earnest to the pacifist movement. The terrible war could not possibly be repeated. Unfortunately, the old men who had waged the war now waged the peace, and in so doing planted the seeds that would uproot the very peace they sought, with a vengeance. And since, war has remained a constant among human beings throughout time and space. I recognize that pacifism is an idea whose time has not yet come. But life is a continuum, an evolution. I have to believe that day is on the horizon, or just beyond its edge, and within our grasp. As Woodrow Wilson, the upstart outsider at Versailles, said, “I would rather fail in a cause that will ultimately triumph than triumph in a cause that will ultimately fail.” He failed; his League of Nations was granted no teeth. But he tried.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Armageddon on our Doorstep

The United States of America is remarkably primitive. We still believe in war. We spend more on our military than we do on education, welfare, transportation, space exploration and actual cost of running the government combined. We spend more on our armed forces than the next seven nations combined. We have around 700 bases in dozens of countries across the globe. The majority of these bases remain in areas which must be considered very low risk for invasion by neighboring countries; in fact, the face of war has changed dramatically since we invaded Iraq in 2003, yet we maintain all these sites and the military presence that they infer. Our presence does not serve as a deterrent to any existing “threat,” that I can see, but Americans love their guns and their glory. We believe in putting people to death. Be plain: the death sentence is not about justice, it is about revenge. It is also more expensive to house an inmate on Death Row for the duration of the appeals process and the execution itself than keeping him in prison for life. I have always believed that, if someone commits a crime, his or her rights are forfeit to the degree of the violation, but that the State is not the moral arbiter to decide when a life is forfeit. But, then, I believe that no one should be forced to kill for anyone, but that’s just me. We believe we are generous and helpful to others – and we are – but we can’t even fix our own infrastructures or keep our own children from going to bed hungry. We do seem pretty good at blowing things up. The truth is, we Americans love war. We have not lost our taste for it, as apparently have the nations of Western Europe and Japan. Maybe we need an Armageddon on our doorstep. I hope not. I hope we can learn from the experiences of others without repeating their mistakes. We have made plenty of our own mistakes out of that misguided love.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bonus FYI - Interesting!!!!

The Greatest Library Did you know that the greatest library that ever existed was built before Christ was even born? It was built in the city named for Alexander the Great, Alexandria, in Egypt at the mouth of the Nile River. Along with the great lighthouse built there, the library was truly one of the wonders of the ancient world. The materials collected within its walls numbered so many that no human being ever could learn all its contents in a dozen lifetimes. Yet all it took was a random spark to destroy Man’s greatest treasure ever assembled. After Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, his main opponent, Pompey, fled to Egypt. Caesar pursued him, and a major naval battle ensued just outside Alexandria. A single spark from one of Pompey’s ships landed on the structure housing the library; the resulting fire burned it and its contents to the ground.

Memorial Day 2015: On God and War

On this Memorial Day, I find myself reflecting on the words of Country Joe McDonald, the Vietnam War Veteran turned 1960’s rocker, who said, “Hate the war, not the warrior.” Let me be clear: I support our troops. I believe the best support we can give them is to bring them home. There is plenty to do right here to make America safer. My least favorite people in the world are the ones who invoke God to justify murder. “God is on our side,” they say. “It is God’s will.” “God wants us to punish the evildoers.” “God bless us and be with us as we undertake this difficult task.” We presume to understand the mind of God. We further presume that the righteousness of our cause means that God automatically must be on our side of the conflict, which means, of course, that we presume our cause is righteous and further, that being righteous matters more than logistics. Almost half the world is comprised of “children of the book,” who share a common conceptualization of what and who God is, replete with His teachings handed down centuries ago through Moses to all Muslims, Christians and Jews. He made it clear then where He stood when He forbade us from killing each other all those years ago. There were no exclusions, no fine print, no escape clauses, no ambiguous legalese. Four words: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Article five of the covenant. It would seem to be simple enough. But if it went without saying, He wouldn’t have had to say it. So we must not embarrass ourselves. We must not blame God for what people do. We must not assume victory is guaranteed because God is on our side; He is not. He’s off doing some creation work on a distant moon in another corner of the galaxy. He’s far too busy to go around picking sides among us. He doesn’t even bet on the Super Bowl.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Super Rich

State of the Super Rich Some time next year, the wealthiest one percent in the world, the richest billionaires and millionaires, will control over half the world’s wealth. With about seven point three billion people in the world, one percent is about seventy-three million – which is less than the number of humans who will be born in the first half of 2015. The rest of the world gets to share the 49.9%. For Corporate America and the rest of the world’s corporations, profits are up, and salaries are down; profits are up because salaries are down. But it’s a house of cards. This is nothing new: the rich have always exploited the rest of us. It’s how they got rich in the first place, and how they keep getting richer. God must be so disappointed. We kill each other in His name, even though He said, “Thou Shalt Not.” We treat each other with disrespect and cruelty even though He told us, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We let poverty dominate the planet, even though He said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren you do to Me.” It indeed would be difficult for a rich person to walk in the shoes of a poor one, if they had shoes to walk in, plastic bread bags not withstanding. The millionaires and billionaires don’t care. They want you to earn less and spend more, increasing their sales while lowering their costs – always improving the bottom line. And if you have to use credit to buy all that stuff they will cheerfully extend it to you at an interest rate ranging from seriously to exorbitantly above Prime. They use technology to try to convince us to buy the latest gadget the day it comes out. It used to be that our needs dictated what manufacturers made or improved, and what technology needed developing. Today technology dictates to the consumer what he or she “needs.” But philanthropy lives! Yes, there are some among the Super Rich who genuinely try to help. The rest want us to help them. When they give, they think of it as paying another tax. One in three citizens of the world lives on less than the cost of a latte at Starbuck’s per day, less even than the price of a party size bag of potato chips. One in three. I think even the most die-hard Calvinist Republican would have to admit the poor didn’t choose their poverty. But we don’t see them, so they don’t exist. It’s just a number: two and a half billion. That’s about 3,400,000 for every single member of the One Percent. Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” He was a man who did not flinch at the deaths of millions. His power was all that mattered to him, and he would do anything to promote and preserve it. To say he was not a nice man is an understatement. His grip on reality was cruel but it was accurate. I do not see a change in attitude among the majority of the wealthy; the statistics they care about are economic, and humanity is damned to continue down the same road, listening to the echo of Stalin’s iron boot or, perhaps, a more subtle boot made by Ferragamo.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Education Rag Redux

A new study came out on math and science skills nation by nation, world wide. It is the most comprehensive study so far. The results from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study were released this week. BBC America reports that the top five countries on the list of achievement for fifteen year old students in math and science are: Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Finland is the first Western nation on the report, with a respectable 6th, and my native country, the Netherlands, ranks ninth overall. Great Britain ranks No. 20, and the United States ranks No. 28. I mention this study because we keep deluding ourselves in this country into thinking we are the best in the world when, clearly, we are not – and in education, we should be if we want to justify our high opinion of ourselves. The fact is that we are being far outstripped by others in both science and math, which is why we are finding ourselves bringing in foreign scientists and engineers to help us keep up, and outsourcing so much of our business. Dangerous trade agreements aside, where America should be focusing its energy is in educating its young and encouraging them to be bold, innovative, imaginative and experimental. We have to stop lying to ourselves. We have to realize that our security as a nation – as who we want to be – depends less on bullets and more on mechanical pencils, less on test results to “prove” learning and more on learning with a free hand to try and fail and ultimately succeed; less on learning how to answer questions and more on learning how to ask them. some would call this the scientific method; I prefer to think of it as common sense.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I Saw It on Fox News

Did you know that more people watch Fox News than any other 24-hour cable TV news station, more in fact than MSNBC and CNN combined? Fox is very proud of this, but the statistic is deceptive. There are few alternatives for conservative viewers, and there are liberal viewers who check in with Fox on a daily basis to “understand the enemy.” In fact, a third of regular MSNBC viewers also watch Fox, and conversely, an almost equal number go the other way. Keeping things relative, network news (NBC, ABC and CBS) far outstrip Fox, which draws slightly less than three million viewers a day. One in four Americans watch cable news, although they are likely to watch for twice as long as network-only viewers. From my understanding, 29% of cable news viewers watch Fox, which means that 71% don’t. That’s roughly the ratio of land to ocean on the planet Earth, except for California, where there is no water left. All this gives me hope for America, but, of course, Fuller House is coming, with John Stamos taking over for Hugh Laurie in the title role. And if you believe that, you probably saw it on Fox News.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Cold Hard facts: Freezers and Kings, oh my

It is a beautiful day up in the Flathead, perfect for Sunday chores. I treated our lawn with weed n’ feed day before yesterday and am thoroughly watering it today. Meanwhile, between relocations of the hose, I am defrosting our freezer. It’s old. It was cheap and it gets the job done, but it builds up frost on the inside to rival the old freezer my parents had back in the 1950’s, when I was a child. I spend a couple of hours coaxing the ice to melt or break away because, one, I’m impatient and don’t want to just let the thing drip, and two, all that dripping makes a bigger mess than I want to clean. So defrosting the freezer is a labor-intensive proposition. That’s okay: much cheaper than replacing the box with something more efficient and big enough to hide the bodies. And while doing this I thought – oddly, I suppose – I bet Henry VIII never had to defrost a freezer. He had minions. He might have used one or two to hide some bodies, but if I remember my history, he never worried too much about killing people in secret. And, besides, there weren’t any freezers in his day, but if they were, ol’ Hennery would not have been caught dead scraping ice off the shelves with his bare fingers. I’m sure of it.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Published in Clever - check it out

Hey, fans! Dianne Kochenburg announced the publication of her online magazine, Clever, today. The summer issue is here! Yours truly is represented: Dianne reprinted two of my blogs, "Cassandra Goes to War" and the light-hearted "Confessions from a Treadmill." There are plenty of other clever pieces by talented and clever writers in the issue. Just keyword Clever Magazine in your search engine or follow this link: -- please check it out! We starving writers feast on your attention!

Blokker for President 2016

Hat in the Ring: May Day! May Day! America is in trouble! I hear you, America! I hear and obey! After much careful consideration, I have decided to declare my candidacy for President of the United States. I have had great and varied experience in fully discussing and finding solutions for the problems of the world on numerous occasions, with a wide variety of individuals and groups, and maintain close contact with many important people throughout the world. I have worked both sides of the aisle – the grocery aisle; being taller than some, I have often helped the vertically challenged attain their top shelf ambitions. I have even found my own Supper Pact – my pledge to have dinner with anyone who will support me (and pay for the meal). I would vote for me. I therefore offer an alternative to politics as usual: a candidate with no funding, no super pack, no unnamed super-rich backers, not even a Party to call my own, though I love parties, especially intimate dinners with a handful of friends, my wife’s fine cooking and a nice bottle of Malbec. I know that I was not born in the United States, but, hey, that’s not stopping Ted Cruz.