Congress CAN Come Together!

Congress actually CAN come together on a few things:

1. They approved a pay increase for themselves.
2. They agreed to keep laws allowing wiretaps without warrants.

It’s nice to see that it’s not all bickering and nonsense on Capitol Hill. Sometimes, they can come together and show the nation that on what really matters, their bottom line and increasing the invasiveness of the state, they can roll up their shirtsleeves and do what has to be done.

Divided Divided Government

Normally, in a “divided government” scenario, we see only the Presidency and one or both houses of Congress in the hands of different parties. This time around, the Presidency is in the hands of the Democrats and the House and the Senate aren’t. No party can get anything out of either house.

In the Senate, the Republicans are able to filibuster anything the Democrats suggest and the Democrats can vote down anything the Republicans suggest. In the House, the Democrats can do nothing to stop the Republicans from voting down every one of their measures… but the Republicans themselves are divided and unable to lead. All they can agree upon is that they don’t like the Democrat proposals.


Universal Health Care and the Mayan Apocalypse

Yes, they’re related. To understand this, you have to understand the Mesoamerican concept of “the end of the world.” It wasn’t a sudden cataclysm that wiped everything out. It was a process that could take a few years but, at the end of that process, the old world would be totally gone and a new one ready in its place. When the Aztecs predicted an end of the world in 1519, it showed up right on schedule in the form of the Spanish army and a smallpox epidemic. By 1521, the Aztec world lay shattered and a new world, dominated by the Spanish, lay before them.

In that new world, there were a series of devastating epidemics. The first two were smallpox, but then the Aztecs began to complain of other ailments whose symptoms were more in line with some bizarre hemorrhagic fevers from the native jungles. The reason why the Aztecs were now more vulnerable to them was because of the hard conditions they faced: poor nutrition, harsher working conditions, and general displacement. The first waves of smallpox killed 50% of the Mexican population: the succeeding epidemics killed off sufficient numbers to keep the population total of natives in 1690 roughly a tenth of what it was in 1519.

We’ve got some people now saying the end of the world will come to us on 21 December, 2012, according to one interpretation of a Mayan calendar. Maybe it will, who knows? But if the Mayans are in charge, it won’t be a massive, sudden shift. It’ll be a process. Maybe it’ll have something to do with the lack of accessible health care in the USA and the increasingly marginal conditions the people of the USA find themselves in.

Let’s face it, as long as corporate interests have their hooks in Congress, the people of the USA won’t get a fair shake on anything, and that includes health care. The food companies give us fattening junk and won’t let Congress change that situation. The drug companies will use their influence in Congress to make sure their profits stay large. Similarly, the health care industry practically wrote the health care bill passed a few years ago. It suits their needs perfectly and leaves the people in the USA that can’t access health care now forced to pay a tax for not being able to afford health care.

The banks have turned us out of our houses while the multinationals have gone Galt and enslaved other people, leaving us without decent jobs. With the trifecta of an overburdened health care system that places a priority on corporate profits, the people of America are becoming more and more vulnerable to an actual plague, let alone increasing incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

If we didn’t have a Congress beholden to corporations and if we didn’t have corporate directors that were beholden to the almighty dollar, we’d be able to do something about it. As it is, though, we’re ripe and ready for the Mayan Apocalypse, whenever it actually does happen.

Follow Your Dreams? Find Them, First.

It always drives me up the wall to see some exhortation in the media to have everyone follow his or her dreams without offering one shred of advice on how to determine what those said dreams are. Think of it: if everyone up and followed dreams right now, there would be countless broken families, empty chairs, unfilled jobs… and massive, massive lines going around the block waiting for publishers, movie producers, and other people with money to smile upon their ventures. But would they even be there, if they went off on some sudden dream quest?

There’s what we think we want, and then what we really want. What we really want may not be “living the dream”, but dealing with reality successfully. Things like raising a family, helping friends in a bind, and working at a job worth doing are what most people truly want to do. We may dream of escapes from the drudgery, but the successes in those areas can’t happen without the hard, hard work. What we really want is what we’re willing to do the hard, hard work for.

To me, “living the dream” does not mean abandoning family or friends. That means doing without certain options in my life. It doesn’t mean I’m trapped in a family or home. It means I’m doing what I really want to do. Other things are secondary. I like having time on my own, sure. Just not permanently. My wife and kids don’t hold me back – they give me strength to go on.

Would I like to be a hugely successful artiste? Certainly, the idea of walking out on stage to thunderous applause is a tempting idea. Receiving millions of dollars for an artistic enterprise seems like a grand thing. But are any of those things worth the price if it means sacrificing my family along the way? Are any of them worth the loss of my soul and integrity?

I have to face the fact that I’m a working stiff. I can try for a grab at the brass ring of fame and fortune, but even if I lean all the way out and give up my entire base in that leap for glory, it’s only luck that determines who wins it in the end. I’ve seen successes, but I’ve also seen failures all around and behind them. Wisdom tells me that the rate of success at “follow your dreams!” is very low for people that aren’t willing to sacrifice either their souls or their integrities. Conversely, the poison-tongued backstabbers always seem to find a way to the top of the world. Funny how that works out.

But is that really success? Is that really “living the dream”? I’ve known men that died with peace in their hearts. That is part of true success in life. The other part is being able to face the spirits of the rest of the dead without shame or regret. Our ability to forgive and to find forgiveness is critical to success in the ultimate scheme of things. Our ability to be welcomed into the fraternity of the good and the wise when we are dead is more important than any song, book, film, or investment banking deal. When I’m dead, I don’t want to be sitting at a table full of Nazis, full of perfect recollection of the wrong I had done, the pain I had caused, and the mistakes I had made.

Given the complete folly of the world and the law of averages, I am firmly convinced that the smartest man that ever lived was a Chinese peasant from the 14th century, who probably narrowly avoided execution because he kept his ideas to himself. In so doing, he preserved his family and possibly also his village. I believe that the most talented musician ever to grace the earth lived in the 8th century in West Africa: he made all the children in his village laugh. Who was the greatest writer? Tough question, given that so many people that would have been in competition for that title never learned to read or write. There’s a ten-year-old child in a cave near Mexico City right now that has the greatest story ever told in his mind… it’s just that we’re not likely to ever hear it because he’s not able to get to school, let alone the means to write the book – or even land a publishing deal. The world sees him as a nobody, with nothing to offer. He can sure try to follow his dreams, but he’s got to deal with basic survival issues, first.

When I was a kid, I sometimes imagined life as a rock and roll star, going out on stage, singing songs, and having the crowd go wild. I didn’t imagine the money or the travel – just the experience of the concert. Today, I teach songs to the children at my church. I work with ages 18 months up to 12 years and I strive to get everyone to sing along with me. I’m up there, in front of them, singing songs… and the crowd does go wild, and I mean that in a good way, most of the time. They recognize me at the store and I always stop to spend a little time with my tiny fans. I find that, in keeping to my family and friends, in keeping my soul and my integrity, I have sort of stumbled into my dream.

I never was specific about the makeup of my audience. While I hoped to do rock songs, any sort of songs would do for my dream, I suppose. The stage and seats weren’t really important – just the connection with my audience, the discovery of a shared joy in the performance. This is why it’s so easy for me to do art for free – money has never really been part of my dream. My dream has been in having a powerful, positive, shared experience through art. That is exactly what I have with the 30 or so kids I work with every Sunday.

It is foolish to presume that every dream involves a journey away from something, that it might be properly followed. True dreams do not float on the wind: they get our hands dirty, make our faces worn, and bring our backs aches. They are here, where we are willing to do hard, hard work. These true dreams are worth the sacrifice, no matter what a television advertisement or banal movie platitude may say. True dreams bring us what we truly desire, not what we’re told to desire. True dreams make us heroes, even if only to one person, and even if that one person is ourself.

That Garment Factory Fire…

I remember reading about the Triangle Factory Fire in my US History. The greedy owners locked exits and didn’t keep the building up to snuff so that it would be a deathtrap for the workers. Americans were outraged at that and demanded that workplaces be safe. Now I read of another garment factory fire in Bangladesh – and it’s not an isolated incident – and realize that owners can stay greedy longer than we can stay vigilant against them.

The greatest threats to democracy, freedom, justice, and equality come from above, not beneath. It’s the people with power and money that continue to work to steal more power and more money from everyone else. If they can do one of those moves honestly, fine. If not, they’ll cheat.

Americans and Europeans and Japanese enjoy laws that require workplace safety, limits on the length of the workday, and prohibitions on the exploitation of children. Those things will make labor more expensive and will reduce overall profitability, but they serve society by not working the general population to death.

So what do all the so-called “job creators” that are throwing tantrums in the USA do? If possible, they move their operations to where they don’t have to have workplace safety, limit the workday, or worry about exploiting children. They dive right on in and re-create the terrifying conditions we revolted against. They find poor people and make slaves of them.

The solution is simple: hold those corporations responsible for the conditions they create. We already have laws that allow us to prosecute people for going overseas to commit acts of depravity that are illegal here. Extend the concept to corporations. If they want to do business in America, they have to treat their workers overseas as well as they would have to treat American workers.

Of course, that would just mean those fat cats would put more effort into less-visible illegal activities, but at least we’d be able to end our civilization on a moral high note. Because until the parasite upper class ceases to be so, we will be forever tormented by their sociopathic schemes to undermine all that is good and just in our world, that they might be able to murder to get gain.

Lighting a Candle

“Times was hard…” I’ve heard old people use those words to describe the Great Depression. I used to wonder at what they meant, but now I know. Hard times means giving thanks for things that really matter because there aren’t a lot of other distractions. Hard times means relying more on God and His blessing than anything else. Hard times means humility and quiet dignity.

I’m not saying I’ve had a bad year: not at all. But I’ve seen years for lots of people, good and bad, and there were a lot of bad years out there. I know a lot of people trapped in a part-time job with no benefits and I realize I’ve got maybe one of the last full-time jobs in America. I’ve got the pay and vacation time that goes with it, so I’m thankful for that.

I see people avoiding the doctor and home repairmen alike: there’s no telling what will need fixing, once the wall is opened up. I’m in that area. I’ve got old pipes in my house and if the plumbing job ain’t simple, then I have to ask if I can afford a complete bathroom renovation. We can’t, so I just brush my teeth in the kitchen. We can’t afford that renovation in part due to the way we afforded my oldest daughter’s appendix renovation a while back. Still paying for that one, after we discovered that our insurance was worthless. We’d been had, but at least we’re able to pay down those bills. I’m thankful for that.

I suppose I could walk away from my mortgage and default on my credit cards, but, deep down, I’m not rich enough to do that. If I had no way of paying them back, I’d default, but as long as I can pay – no matter what I may think about the man at the other end of the interest rate – I’ll pay. I’m thankful for that. I can’t be like the rich man that can afford to pay for things, but finds a way to default either through a legal maneuver or just flat-out cruelty. I once wondered what it would be like to be tempted by riches. Now I know it’s a temptation I don’t want in my life. As long as I have enough to live on, I’ll be thankful for that and any little bits of something else that come along. But riches? No. I’m thankful that I don’t have the riches that would blind me to what is important.

Am I thankful for my nation, The United States of America? Well… let me answer that by saying that when I look around at what’s going to sustain me when I’m old, I see my family, my church, and my own two hands. I don’t see the US Government in that picture, not when I’m old. I suppose hard times are here for a good, long while. They’ve always been with us, really. The hard times of the 30s made us want to borrow from the future to support the people of the present, but that doesn’t seem so possible, anymore. Well, then, I’m still thankful for the old USA. If nothing else, it incubated the church I belong to – before it persecuted it terribly – but anywhere else would have either destroyed the nascent Latter-day Saint movement or forced a Second Coming to save it, and the time was not yet right for our Savior’s return for that to happen.

I have ancestors that built and walked away from 20 complete homes in their lifetimes, each time starting over with a tent. I live in the same place I’ve lived for 20 years and even though the place needs some work, it’s a stable home that’s warm in the winter and cool in the summers. My food is refrigerated and the Internet provides me with plenty of fun so I don’t go insane from listening to the prairie wind at nights. For that, I’m thankful.

I remember one ancestor of mine, my great-great-grandfather, Edward Milo Webb, Jr.. After he fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution, he ended up in Tucson, Arizona. He got a job pulling up mesquite tree stumps. He was in his sixties, pulling up mesquite stumps in the heat of the Tucson summer. He lived in a tent that first year. While I have hassles in my job, I’m nevertheless thankful for it and, no, I would not want to trade places with my great-great-grandfather.

I’ve met men who escaped the terrors of the Khmer Rouge murderers. I’ve taught children that were born in sniper-targeted hospitals in Sarajevo. I’ve seen the faces of people that won’t say a word about the horrors they knew back in Sierra Leone, Liberia, or Darfur. They knew some hard times to beat all. The fortunes of my life didn’t have me sharing those experiences, but my path crossed theirs at some point. Because of that, I want to be a source of hope. I’m thankful that I have reservoirs of hope, sufficient to share.

My hope is not in the triumph of a grand ideology or nation-state or economic philosophy. My hope is in the ability of man to be most compassionate and loving when in the humblest of circumstances. We are greatest when we share what we have, so that there are no poor among us. I still remember the report I once saw of a Haitian village where the people were so poor, they ate cakes made of butter, salt, and dirt. One of the families there purchased a can of beans. And what did they do with those precious calories and grams of protein? They invited over their neighbors, each to share one spoonful of the beans.

That same spirit is in each one of us, if we choose not to extinguish it.

Behold, do men light a candle and put it under a bushel? Nay, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light to all that are in the house; therefore let your light so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven. – Jesus of Nazareth

Libya, Syria, and Iran, Oh My!

The ancient Zoroastrian scriptures encourage mankind to think good thoughts, to fight against lies and chaos. I feel that’s an appropriate introduction to an essay on how I tried to make sense of the latest messes in Libya, Syria, and Iran.

First, Iran. It’s a nation of Shi’a Muslims and its leader, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, hates Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel. Netanyahu hates Ahmedinejad right back. The Sunni Arab states in the Gulf region hate the Iranians because they’re Shi’a. Don’t worry about the differences between the two branches of Islam: they are sufficient enough for radicals on both sides to want to kill each other. Israel and the Gulf Arabs have common cause to want to see Iran rendered incapable of exerting influence in the region.

Next, Syria. While most Syrians are Sunnis, the leadership has come from Alawites, who are kind of like Shi’as. That’s why Iran has supported the Assad regime. If Assad falls, then Sunnis take over and Iran loses an ally in the region. Moreover, the Shi’a Hezbollah in Lebanon would lose a major backer. Israel hates the Hezbollah, so it’s a big win for them to have Assad lose power. Even if radical, anti-Israel nutjobs took over in Damascus, Israel would cut them to ribbons on the Golan Heights and they’d be more likely to wage war on Hezbollah for control of Lebanon. Divide and rule.

Now, Libya. This hits close to home because of the recent loss of the US Ambassador there. To make sense of that nation, we need a bit of history. Back in 2011, that nation rose up in revolt against its dictator. Like so many other dictatorships, this dictator drew most of his support from his tribe. That meant the revolution devolved into tribal warfare, with a range of tribes allying together to overthrow the dictatorial tribe. In the wake of that overthrow, they fell upon each other. Libya remains a lawless, dangerous place where there’s been a wave of bombings since August 2012 and an actual mini-war around the town of Bani Walid – Moammar Qaddafi’s base of support – during the month of October.

So, when people ask in the USA, “If there’s a spontaneous demonstration, do you bring your rocket launchers and automatic weapons?” the answer is “Yes, if you’re in Libya.” In August and September, there were a number of political and military assassinations to go along with the militia clashes. The place is practically a Somalia on the Mediterranean. Government control there is collapsing, with two governors of the Benghazi region having resigned – the people claimed they were incompetent and corrupt, while the governors claimed they had no money or support forthcoming from the central regime in Tripoli.

In that mess of Libya, particularly in Benghazi, someone – terrorist, militiaman, whatever – killed the US Ambassador. Given the chaos in Libya, I can perfectly see it as an unpremeditated crime of opportunity. Given the chaos in Syria, I can also see it as blowback. In Syria, the saying goes, “If you feed a scorpion, it will sting you.”

Many of the fighters against the Assad regime are foreigners, and many of them are Libyan. There may be actual pro-democracy men in the anti-Assad resistance, but most of them are rabid, atrocity-inflicting, card-carrying Islamist extremists. That’s why they’ve been able to match or beat the rabid, atrocity-inflicting, card-carrying Assad extremists. Those anti-Assad forces need weapons, and Libya is a ready source of undocumented weapons that can be shipped anywhere without regards to niceties like proper paperwork or Congressional approval.

The weapons and the fighters flow across the border with Turkey. Turkish towns were shelled recently – while the Western leaders tried to blame Assad, the Turks in the area blamed their own government for using those same towns as staging grounds for aid to the Syrian rebels. When the shelling of Turkish towns failed to produce a massive response, Israel began reporting Syrian shells landing on the Golan Heights, and duly responded in kind.

While it makes no sense at all for Assad’s forces to be provoking both NATO and Israel to unleash an American intervention in their nation, it makes perfect sense for hawks in America, Israel, and the Gulf Arab states (who fund those Islamist extremists) to create false-flag provocations to trigger a conflict that reduces Iran’s influence in the region. This brings me back to that Syrian saying… Osama Bin Laden was killed in May, 2011. The Libyan rebels didn’t enjoy major victories until some time after that – when al-Qaeda men were reported to be in the mix. al-Qaeda men are now reportedly all over Syria right now. Is it a coincidence that the decapitation of al-Qaeda’s leadership was followed by their participation in operations that benefit US-Israel interests?

At any rate, the tragedy of a US Ambassador in Benghazi now serves as a distraction to the larger series of tragedies in Libya, Syria, and – possibly in the near future – Iran.

The Creepy Side of the Petreaus Investigation

One day, Jill Kelley started getting threatening emails from an anonymous person. She reported those emails to an FBI friend of hers. The FBI not only determined who was sending the emails, they went and found all the emails that person sent. It was at that point that they discovered the affair between the sender, Paula Broadwell, and former CIA head, David Petreaus. Why didn’t the FBI just determine who sent the emails and tell her to quit? We’ve got lots of people with bitter breakups that only get a lousy restraining order. Why did this investigation have to go beyond that?

It’s because it was yet another opportunity for the FBI to flex its muscles, that’s why. The FBI took down Richard Nixon when the #2 at that organization got passed over to lead the FBI when Hoover died. We like to think Woodward and Bernstein did all the investigating of Watergate, but they were acting on information supplied to them by a bitter FBI executive that wanted revenge. Now we’re seeing an FBI investigation go too far into personal lives to dismantle the power of the man at the head of the CIA.

The FBI didn’t have to go that far. Once they determined who was sending the emails, they had all they needed for a criminal case. Motive? Rivalry, plain and simple. Broadwell’s not even being charged, even though it’s an open and shut case. She sent threatening emails, and that’s against the law.

Petreaus didn’t have to go out in shame, either. The president could have been informed of the situation and then quietly asked for Petreaus’ resignation. Petreaus could cite either family or health concerns like every other executive surrounded by scandal, and that would have been that. There would have been whispers of infidelity here and there, but the stock story would be the aforementioned, lame, tired yarn about family or health concerns. Instead, the whole thing is public and Petreaus is taking all kinds of flak over it.

How did the affair come to light? Eric Cantor found out about it and raised a stink back in October. How did he find out? An FBI agent informed him and – oh, wait, we’ve heard this story before…

Once again in America, our secret police have demonstrated their ability to take down a powerful opponent, this time the head of our spy networks. Bureaucratic turf wars are one thing… power grabs are quite another.

Paralysis and Shock, Part II

I earlier posted that paralysis can lead to the breakup of a nation or increased authoritarianism. There is one other path, rarely taken, but highly successful: a constitutional convention. The French have done it, as have the people of the USA under the Articles of Confederation.

But what to include in a possible new suite of amendments or a rewrite of the constitution?

Eliminate corporate personhood. Corporations are not people, and that doctrine was based upon perjury.
Eliminate corporate donations to candidates, parties, and advertising. They’re not people, so they should not have civil rights or civil liberties.
Eliminate the electoral college. Elect the president with a national vote. This reduces federalism, but it makes individual votes matter more.
Stipulate that corporate directors have a duty to community that supercedes fiduciary duties: the corporation needs to be the servant of society, not the master.
Allow for federal and state money to support religious schools’ education activities, as is done in India. That will keep the anti-science fundamentalism from imposing their will on science education in the USA.
Specify rights and clarify them, as is done in the Swiss constitution.
Limit the ability of the government to tax and spend. Emergency allowances have to be watched carefully, as well. The Swiss constitution places a limit on the power to tax. We have to have provisions to require the government to pay back what it owes when times are good so that it can be ready to deal with bad times when they hit.

That’s a start, but it can give us a renewed hope for the future. A new set of rules gives us a fresh start. They can be corrupted in the future, but that process takes time. This also sets the precedent to reset the system periodically in order to give the nation a new lease. My ideas are not entirely new: some are as old as Jefferson and Locke.