04/19/13

The Missing Lines


Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

Continue reading

02/28/13

The Hobgoblins under the Lobbyist Bridge


Lobbyist cartoonLobbyist. For some, the word conjures frightening images of nefarious trolls and ogres in Armani suits lurking under the bridges and in the woods in the dark night, snatching unwary politicians and dragging them down to whatever hell the gullible and naive descend to (a hell cleverly paved with gold and champagne flutes).

The very word itself is printed in bold and in colour in some comments, just in case you might miss it and the boogeyman-thrill the hiss of the word gives. Lobbyisssst… my precioussss….

That’s in part because the popular impression of lobbying derives from watching American TV news, and sitcoms. In the USA, the lobbying industry has been likened to a shadow government, pulling the strings of the legislators while filling their pockets with cash. Lobbyists there seem to be able to buy votes with impunity and openly. It’s not the same everywhere, however.

For others, the word simply refers to someone doing a job, like a carpenter, a lawyer, a dentist… in fact a lawyer could be called a lobbyist with a law degree (we’ve seen lawyers acting as lobbyists on behalf of their clients in front of council many times). And like any other profession, lobbyists have a role to play in public life and government.

Lobbyist cartoonWhile lobbyists often get a bad rap in the media because of their association with corporate interests, they also represent many smaller commercial concerns and NGOs. Some represent non-profit groups, charities, environmental agencies, health agencies and even private schools. Lobbyists helped change the smoking laws in Ontario to prevent smoking in public places, bars and restaurants. Lobbyists helped change the pesticide use laws to prohibit toxic chemicals from being used on public property. So clearly they’re not all bad, and in fact are often important to the governance process.

Lobbyists play an important role in bringing issues and challenges to the political forefront. How much they actually influence municipal governments is difficult to assess.

“The defence of lobbying is that it is not only an inevitable part of life but a necessary and positive one. It is simply a modern professional embodiment of the ancient right of people to petition their rulers, and, by extension, to seek the advice and support of others to help them do so. Modern governments are responsible for a vast range of policy areas which involves drafting and implementing detailed and intricate laws and regulations. On their own they cannot hope to keep abreast of all the information and opinions they need to take into account. Lobbying is a means of providing them with the raw material they need to make informed decisions which reflect different interests in their societies.”
Trevor Morris & Simon Goldsworthy: PR Today, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Because of the negative connotations associated with the term, lobbyists often prefer to call themselves “public affairs” practitioners.

“There is some confusion over the terms ‘lobbying’ and ‘public affairs’. Some authorities argue that there are subtle differences between the two, suggesting the lobbying is process of speaking with political actors, whilst public affairs refers to the complete process. The term lobbyist is often eschewed by consultants because of its shady undertones. However, in this fact sheet (and all others) the terms will be used interchangeably.”
www.publicaffairslinks.co.uk/

Others try to highlight their difference with the term “advocates” rather than lobbyist. A rose by any other name… Others have called lobbying “advocacy journalism“. The American League of Lobbyists has in its code of ethics this statement:

Lobbying is an integral part of our nation’s democratic process and is a constitutionally guaranteed right. Government officials are continuously making public policy decisions that affect the vital interests of individuals, corporations, labor organizations, religious groups, charitable institutions and other entities. Public officials need to receive factual information from affected interests and to know such parties’ views in order to make informed policy judgments. In exercising their rights to try to influence public policy, interests often choose to employ professional representatives to monitor developments and advocate their positions, or to use lobbyists through their membership in trade associations and other membership organizations. Tens of thousands of men and women now are professional lobbyists and represent virtually every type of interest.

Why do companies or groups use lobbyists? Because not everyone is calm and confident as a speaker, is comfortable doing public presentations, has the time to research and meet with everyone. When you can’t do the job yourself, you hire a carpenter to fix the stairs, a mechanic to fix your car, an electrician to put in new lighting. Same principle.

The unfathomable paranoia over lobbyists is likely more driven by petty partisan politics than by any actual threat they pose to democracy. The word is used to scare small children, but like all ghost stories, it proves a risible threat in the sockdolager of rational thought.

Five years ago, Collingwood council considered creating a lobbyist registry. Staff report 2008-05 (April 7, 2008) noted

Some of the options may be viewed as solutions to problems that Collingwood, as a much smaller municipality, does not encounter.

In other words, some members of council were looking to fix what wasn’t broken. I wrote a humorous piece about that discussion, a few days later on my old blog.

The issue brewed and stewed like a fart in a crowded elevator on a long trip to the penthouse, until June 23, 2008, when Coun. Edwards moved and I seconded a motion to dump the idea. It passed (5-4? I don’t recall – the EB story isn’t online). I also wrote about that, more seriously, on my old blog. Back then I wrote:

It was one of those ‘bubble ideas’ – ideas that sound good at election time and make great sound bites, but are fragile shells, ill-conceived plans, hollow of substance.

The idea seemed to have been buried in the post-election kitty litter with the rest of the impractical proposals, but up it came last April in a staff report (C2008-05). But that initial discussion had no conclusion (or rather debate was truncated before we arrived at one), and left to simmer for a few months.

I thought the issue had died its deserving death, but no, it continues to rise from the grave every now and then like one of those tired old internet hoaxes about Bill Gates giving you $100 to forward this email to everyone in your contact list. Someone always seems to be able to spin a conspiracy in which a lobbyist plays the role of the Big Bad Wolf. We need a website that debunks these political myths like Snopes.com does internet myths.

This is a small town. We can figure this out without the need for any more layers of bureaucracy or red tape.

We don’t need a lobbyist registry anymore than we need a spaceport, an aquarium or a bronze statue of a former mayor in front of the library. Like I wrote in 2008, this would put a wall between politicians and the people they represent, and flies in the face of the often-promised-but-seldom-delivered “open, accountable and transparent” government.

01/30/13

Musings on representational democracy


Representational democracy, says Wikipedia, is

“…founded on the principle of elected people representing a group of people, as opposed to direct democracy. All modern Western style democracies are various types of representative democracies…”

And so is Canada, and by extension so is the Town of Collingwood; small cog it may be in the great machinery of democratic government. We elect people to represent us, to make decisions for us, to debate the issues for us.

Some people mistake the point of this system. They believe we elect people to do what they’re told, to act as their delegates and represent solely their own interests rather than those of the whole electorate. We’ve seen that reaction locally.

Edmund Burke, that great critic of unrestrained democracy, was adamant that the duty of a representative was not simply to act as a rubber stamp for the wishes of the electorate, turning every demand or grumble into legislation or votes. Burke said, in a speech in 1774, that representatives owed the electorate the duty of both their conscience and their judgment – even if their views ran counter to those of the majority:

“…it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France

Burke believed representatives should be a trustee, not merely a delegate. He never advocated acting without consideration for the electorate, but he believed at the end of the day, you were elected to make decisions, and for everyone’s best interests.

While good in theory, Burke was also skeptical about how it worked in practice because democracy is fraught with challenges. As Wikipedia notes, he believed,

“…government required a degree of intelligence and breadth of knowledge of the sort that was very uncommon among the common people. Second he thought that common people had dangerous and angry passions that could be easily aroused by demagogues if they had the vote; he feared the authoritarian impulses that could be empowered by these passions would undermine cherished traditions and established religion, leading to violence and confiscation of property. Thirdly, Burke warned that democracy would tyrannize unpopular minorities who needed the protection of the upper classes.”

Things have not changed as much since Burke’s day as we might imagine. In fact, we need even more knowledge today than ever before to govern effectively. Thanks to the advent of social media, everyone is empowered to rise to the level of demagogue, and passionate – often authoritarian and intemperate – impulses rule internet forums, blogs and social media. We see some people using those tools to “tyrannize” and bully others by the sheer volume and anger of their attack.

Perhaps the difference is that today you can more easily tyrannize the majority with these methods, not simply the “unpopular minorities” Burke wrote about.

Some people … believe we elect people to do what they’re told, to act as their delegates and represent solely their own interests rather than those of the whole electorate. We’ve seen that reaction locally.

Representational democracy exists because the “direct” democracy of the Greek city states is impractical today. You simply cannot convene a meeting where every citizen has a say and a vote for every issue and you can’t have a referendum for every vote. If we did, we would still be debating the palette of colours for the heritage district, or the size of A-frame signs, and nothing would ever get done.

One hundred percent participation may be democracy by strict definition, but it would veer uncomfortably close to anarchy and mob rule. The loudest voices would top the rest. That’s why we choose representatives to manage our interests: it avoids the decline into mob rule. And that means the representatives have the responsibility of listening to all voices, not just the loudest.

To prevent representational democracy from becoming a dictatorship of the elected, various laws are in place to act as checks and balances on the process and on how power is wielded. This works relatively well here in Canada, especially in our non-party municipal politics; it works rather poorly in the USA where lobbyists easily buy votes and favourable legislation. No system is perfect.

~~~~~

* The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

01/5/13

Is Tar Baby the new N-Word?


Wikipedia imageAs far back as I can recall, the term “tar baby” was a metaphor in common political parlance for a “sticky situation.” It has no racial meaning in that context, any more than saying “honey trap” or “sticky wicket.” Both have similar, but not synonymous meanings. But in the last decade, “tar-baby” has become the new N-word on the political stage.*

The tar-baby theme is common in mythology from many cultures (referenced, for example, in Joseph’s Campbell’s groundbreaking work, Hero With a Thousand Faces). It represents an apparently attractive situation that traps the beholder and, once you embrace it, the harder you struggle to break free, the more you become stuck in it. I’ve used the term in such a context in several blog posts. But recently, when I was accused on Facebook of using “racist” terms by mentioning a tar-baby situation, I was taken aback, and felt I had to disagree. And do some research.

In 2009, the use of this term in the House of Commons created a mini-cyclone of comment about allegedly racist terminology used in the House. As the blog Unambiguously Ambidextrous, notes:

A controversy erupted in the House of Commons today after Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, used the term “tar baby” in response to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s decision to back away from Stephane Dion’s unpopular carbon tax policy. I have to plead ignorance on the etymology of the noun, as I have always been more familiar with the pejorative.

“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” said Poilievre.

This was followed by MP Ralph Goodale’s objections to the term and asked Mr. Poilievre to apologize for the usage:

“In addition to being a pejorative term, which might well prove to be unparliamentary, the parliamentary secretary might consider that there are many authorities both in this country and many others that consider the term racist,” said Goodale.

Stephen Taylor provided a list of references to similar non-parliamentary uses of the term in his blog, none of which seem to have have generated the same storm of controversy. Clara Rising, writing in 2002 about collective religious consciousness, called original sin, “a cultural Tar Baby implacable and immutable, as infinite and as unavoidable as eternity.”

Back in 2006, then-governor Mitt Romney was taken to task for using the term “tar-baby” in a reference to a piece of problematic infrastructure. As a Time Magazine writer commented about the subsequent uproar:

So, is use of the term today a case of insensitivity? Or is the controversy caused by political correctness gone amok?

The latter, I suggest. True, I might not be as sensitive to it as Americans. I don’t live in the same political-racial-social milieu as most Americans; while racism exists in Canada, it is not nearly as overt in our multicultural nation.

In the USA, “tar-baby” has been used as a pejorative (and sometimes as a term of affection). Racial politics are so highly charged among our southern neighbours that it is a treacherous undercurrent in American political dialogue. As the Colorado Springs Gazette noted in this editorial:

Racism in the political sphere today has become so insulting that it makes “tar-baby” seem benign.

Even if mild, a white person calling someone of African-American heritage a “tar-baby” is considered a racist slur, and I can appreciate the sensitivity of the use. But surely there’s a difference between labelling a person, race or group with a term and labelling an issue or situation.

Just as an example, calling a woman a “honey trap” is very different from labelling a common tactic in espionage a honey trap. If I call a woman a bitch, it is very different from calling a tricky shot in golf one. Clearly context matters.

Would there be an issue if we used the metaphor of the “tar-wolf” (from James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee)? Would anyone be accused of slinging racist slurs against aboriginal First Nations people by talking about a “tar-wolf” situation? The two stories are almost identical, aside from the difference between the character molded from the tar. Both the Cherokee and African-Americans shared at least one disreputable part of US history:

If these two stories sound remarkably similar, it is no coincidence.  Before the Cherokee were relocated to Oklahoma in 1838, many were plantation owners and owned slaves.

In the heated cauldron of American politics, or in the adversarial arena of the House of Commons, people are constantly looking for ways to attack opponents for any reason, regardless of the validity or strength of the attack. Unfortunately, this also creates a situation of apparent wrongdoing by making it a focus of media attention. The perception of  racism can create the reality in the public mind that it is there, regardless any logical argument that it is imaginary. Words themselves, no matter how innocently used, become their own tar-babies.

The Denver Post commented on this flap in the US:

The notion that referencing African folklore reveals inherent racism against those of African descent is bizarre.

True, the tar baby has been fundamentally misunderstood by various illiterate racists. In their ignorance of the folklore, such bigots think the term applies specifically to a black person. For example, the late comedic genius Bernie Mac wrote of being called a “tar baby” as a child. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists push us to obliterate cultural knowledge of important African folklore.

This raises the question: where does the reference come from? The Denver Post points out a bit of the history:

“Tar baby” comes from African folklore. Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term to refer to the debt-ceiling negotiations, not the president. And the nationwide smear campaign against Lamborn follows the left’s typical path of character assassination and guilt by association.
In his book, “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell writes of the “celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Campbell refers to scholar Aurelio Espinosa, who in the 1930s and ’40s gathered hundreds of examples of “the tar-baby story” from around the world, varying in detail but all about getting stuck in something.
In America, we know the story best from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories of the 1800s. But Harris did not create these stories. Instead, he took (some say stole) them from slaves, who brought the stories with them from Africa and adapted them orally.

What’s ironic is that Chandler’s stories were not seen as racist until more than a century later. They were originally treated as they were meant: records of African-American folklore.** As Wikipedia notes:

The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the “old Uncle” stereotype of the narrator, was considered politically incorrect and demeaning by many African-American people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the story’s context in the Antebellum south on a slave owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner. Nevertheless, Harris’ work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. … Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it is thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.

Wikipedia has a lengthier list of antecedents, including Cherokee and African folk tales, and mentions one researcher who identified 267 variants on the tale in world mythology.

The New Republic took up the debate, noting in 2011 when the term again raised its politically-charged head:

…the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?

Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?

In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.

As little as I respect the Republicans or Harper’s Conservatives, I doubt they would be deliberately and provocatively racist, and, like my use, meant the word as a powerful metaphor that still resounds in popular culture. John McWhorter, at the New Republic, added:

I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.

Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).

Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.

There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.

Sounds like a racist slur? Should we not judge a thing by more depth than a bad first impression? There’s a conversation in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer (played by Allen) is complaining about what he (mis)hears as an anti-Semitic remark by a TV executive:

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ And Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’ Not ‘Did you?’…JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?”

Which the audience recognizes as both comically over-sensitive on Alvy’s part, but also as a wry comment on how things get misconstrued so easily. Such is the situation with “tar-baby” today. Except not all of the audience seems to get the joke.

The Denver Post editorial concluded:

The irony is that “tar baby” has become its own tar baby, and we’re all getting stuck in it. Several media outlets reviewed my detailed blog posts on the matter, and all involved stole time away from addressing the nation’s pressing problems.

Yet there’s a reason the tar baby folktale has spread through so many cultures. It teaches us something important and universal about human nature. And that’s precisely why we ought not sacrifice the African tar baby story on the altar of political correctness.

I agree with that last line. Metaphors are powerful and memorable because they speak to something larger than just the words. Most come from storytelling and in a few words they encapsulate the entire tale – the characters, the events, the moral. The Colorado Springs Gazette suggests what I don’t believe is a reasonable solution:

Let us all stop saying “tar-baby,” for sure. For using this phrase, Lamborn will pay. He is mired in a controversy that will get worse as he fights against it. But let’s keep perspective. Relative to the racial hatred and insensitivity that permeates political rhetoric of the past and present, this should be far from a major-league scandal.

What next? Will we stop saying “slow but steady wins the race” because it comes from one of Aesop’s fables, and it might be seen as a slur against Greeks? Stop using “the boy who cried wolf” because it might be derogatory towards shepherds? Stop using the “good Samaritan” parable because it might be seen as a pejorative against Palestinians (today’s Samaritan ancestors)? Where will this nonsense end? Will we abandon all of our powerful language and chuck metaphors out the window out of fear someone won’t understand what we’re saying?

Better instead to get our head out of the politically correct sand learn to recognize the context of a metaphor. Stop treating it like a convenient one-size-fits-all racist slur that fits your preconceived political notions, and start thinking critically instead.

~~~~~

* Yes, I know “tar baby” is really two words, but calling it the new N-phrase has no cachet. N-word has a life of its own, larger than mere counting or vocabulary.

** Uncle Remus stories were still popular when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I saw Disney’s 1946 cartoon version (Song of the South) on TV that decade. Even as a child I was able to see the racial stereotypes and exaggerations. Uncle Remus tales were still available in school libraries, too, sometimes alone, other times in compilations of folktales.

Read the tale here. I wonder why the briar patch metaphor from the second half of the tale does not evoke similar revulsion among the politically correct guardians.

12/10/12

America’s Intolerant WBC Fundamentalists



I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I watched this. laugh because Russell Brand* just runs circles around these guys from the Westboro Church and they don’t seem to realize when they are being mocked. Fish in a barrel, I suppose. Cry because they obviously believe their hatred; they obviously believe that their narrow, bigoted and violent take on their scriptures is not only right, but the only one. I don’t think they got the message Brand was trying to push on them: they are too righteous in their prejudice for alternative ideas. Or maybe they do and they just don’t care because mockery doesn’t synch with their rigid ideology.

This is hardly new stuff, of course. Michael Moore did a piece on the Westboro Church’s religious hatred towards gays back in 2008, again with his usual humour and in-your-face tactics:

This morning I did some researching online. I was surprised that I knew so little about a group that has had so much attention given to it.

Before this video, I had paid little attention to the Westboro church. I had seen the name in news items, of course, but since they protest in the USA, I didn’t give them a second thought. I recall they hate Canada too, and most were barred at the border from entering this country to protest at a funeral of a man slain on a bus in Manitoba. Being kept out made the church very angry about the “faggy-Nazi regime” in Canada:

I’m not sure why the Westboro Baptist Church spews all this hatred, but there are dozens of videos about them on YouTube, including some disturbing documentary stuff. These folks are scary in the way the KKK, or the Neo Nazis and the Aryan Brotherhood are scary, but even more dangerous. They almost make Scientologists look normal, and you have to be pretty far out on the fringe to do that.

The church has long been subject to reporting, study, commentary, analysis and conjecture. And a lot of ridicule, anger and even hatred, especially online. But I didn’t find a lot that explained them.

In 2001, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote about the church’s late pastor and founder, stating that (based on testimony from his own children) Fred Phelps was abusive, violent and manipulative:

In a series of newspaper and television interviews over the years, three of Phelps’ children — the only three who are estranged from their father — have alleged that they were attacked both physically and psychologically.

Fred Phelps, they say, meant to hurt his children and to turn them against the rest of the world.

Mark and Nathan Phelps and sister Dortha “Dotti” Bird offer plenty of brutal details — details that their father has long dismissed as “a sea of fag lies.” Nathan told the Intelligence Report that he was beaten with a leather strap regularly. Then, he says, Fred Phelps switched to a mattock handle — like an axe handle — and beat Nathan until he “couldn’t lie down or sit down for a week.” The three charge that Phelps also beat their mother, forced the children to fast and more.

But Phelps’ alleged violence — which his nine loyal children deny — never really caught up with him. A child abuse case was brought against Phelps for abuse of Nathan and his brother Jonathan, Nathan says, but was dropped when the children refused to cooperate with the prosecutor, fearing their father’s reprisals.

The estranged children say that most of the family has stayed loyal because their father has filled them with the fear of God. “He would tear you down and make you feel terrible and there wasn’t any way but his way,” Dotti said.

Looking what they do to their own children in these videos, it’s not inconceivable:

Pretty sad that children are brought up like that, as the brainwashed child soldiers in a bizarre war against reason and values they clearly don’t understand. It’s clearly a cult, and the children are their hostages.

The interviewer below gets some good points that Nat Phelps can’t answer, about contradictions in how they interpret scripture:

But of course, the hypocrisy doesn’t seem to make itself through to the interviewee.

I can’t understand how they aren’t shut down for hate speech, and promoting hate crimes. If I stood on a corner spouting such homophobic drivel, I’d be arrested at least for disturbing the peace. Why aren’t they? How can hate speech be protected by the Constitution?

Gay men and women aren’t their only target, either (although they are certainly the top of the hate list, but the list is long: it basically includes everyone not within their own church circle).

Jews are given time on the hate roster and may be a close number two:

Catholics are targets. So are American soldiers. The church eagerly and joyfully pickets funerals of American soldiers who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, glorifying in their deaths because, as their church teaches them, these deaths are punishment for Americans being lenient towards homosexuality. “Soldiers die, God laughs” say their signs.

They also carry signs that read, “Thank God for 9/11,” celebrating the deaths of workers in the Twin Towers. They’ve protested in front of girls’ schools, too, with anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-Obama signs. They delighted in the destruction and deaths caused by Hurricane Sandy, calling it the “wrath of God” in tweets from their new leader, Shirley, daughter of the late Fred. They celebrated the deaths of miners in West Virginia as sign of their deity’s displeasure.

They glorified the shooter at the Batman movie for killing members of the audience and picketed the prayer service for the slain. Tweets from church members after the massacre read, “God is at work in Colorado” and used the hashtag #ThankGodForTheShooter. They protested at Whitney Houston’s and Steve Jobs’ funerals. (ironically tweeting about it from their iPhones…).

Any and every death, tragedy, natural disaster and accident in America is cause for them to openly and loudly celebrate and express their hatred. Pretty sick, pretty twisted by any standard within a wide range of normal.

Every documentary about the church amazes and disconcerts me:

Look around 12:40 and 14:40 and see brief clips of film from the church about Jews that is almost identical to those produced by the Nazis prior to WWII. And how is this not hate speech?

Now, I’m not an expert on Christianity by a long shot, but when I look at their posters lauding death for American soldiers dying in the Middle East, and hear their comments about how they hate America and American soldiers, I think of Islamist radical fundamentalists, rather than Christians.

I think of similar comments I’ve heard and read in the past from Al Qaeda, from the Taliban, from Hamas, from Hezbollah, from Fatah, from Iranian clerics and leaders. The only difference I can identify is that the Westboro group says they are Christian, not Muslim.

Maybe it’s all play acting. Maybe they are an Al Qaeda cell disguised as Christians trying to infiltrate the religious community and get publicity for their cause. It’s easier to believe that than to believe these people are in any way Christian, at least according to what I think of as Christian teaching (compassion, sharing, caring, tolerance).

Or they could be a cell of Satan worshippers trying to discredit the Christian faith by showing it as a malign, unpatriotic voice of evil?

Of course there may be another explanation. This church consists mostly of members of a single, extended (and rather prolific) family from small one part of Kansas, and I can’t help but wonder if inbreeding plays a role in their collective mental development. That’s also not a new idea – just Google it and read any number of conjectures about the family being inbred.

Freedom of speech is a right, but it has to come with responsibility, too, otherwise it can become mere hate-mongering. You shouldn’t be able to say just anything you want – but these folks can, apparently. They can make the most horrific, nasty, demeaning, bigoted and malevolent statements without fear of legal or social retribution.

In 2006, they picketed the funeral of Matt Snyder, a US Marine killed in Iraq, with their horrific signs saying “Matt in Hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The upset father sued the church, and they were found guilty of hate speech not covered by the First Amendment. The court ordered the church to pay $10.9 million to the father.

The church used the judgment to get more publicity, then appealed. They won their appeal in 2011 on “protected free speech.” The Supreme Court then ordered the bereaving father to pay the church’s legal bills.

That is a stunning injustice and condemnation of the First Amendment

Subsequently, 42 states have put restrictions on picketing at funerals to prevent them from getting so close again. Meanwhile, they use the internet and social media increasingly and with greater sophistication to spread their venom.

But it’s not all mockery and derision on social media and YouTube. The video below is the first of an eight-part documentary on the family and the church, and it’s actually quite chilling to watch. Hannibal Lecter was easier to view onscreen, at least from my perspective. Perhaps that’s because I knew he was just an actor, but these people are real, yet more twisted than I could have ever written about in fiction.

Watch all the parts. Each one will reveal to you yet another disturbing facet of their madness. In part three, around 2:30, you’ll see them protesting a local hardware stores for selling Swedish vacuum cleaners, because Sweden allegedly jailed one of their supporters. Try to unravel that logic.

Now I know quite well that this family doesn’t represent all of America, doesn’t represent all Christians, and doesn’t even represent most fundamentalists. They only represent themselves and their twisted, malevolent, diabolical views. Still, I’d have a lot more respect for American fundamentalist Christians if the rest of them collectively disowned this group and made a public statement that Westboro is a cult. It is neither Christian nor their ideologies supported by other Christian groups.

~~~~~~
* Because I watch so little TV, I didn’t know who Russell Brand was before I saw this video. Thanks to my Facebook friends for enlightening me. I also read the Wikipedia entry about him. I have to admit I’ve never seen any of his movies or his TV shows, with the exception of 3 Lions (which I bought in London last fall…) And yes, I know of Katy Perry, his ex-wife and I’ve even heard some of her music, but I’m completely out of the loop when it comes to what or who the glitterati are doing, so I didn’t make the connection with her until I read the article.

12/9/12

Tax the Rich – a video



You really should watch this video. It explains in clear, simple terms the argument of the billionaires and the rest of us. I like it because – while it’s simplistic – it is succinct and presents its argument in a powerful story. It also clearly underscores the very polarized US arguments about both taxation and wealth.

This was commented on the Daily Kos as well. Amusingly, it was immediately pounced upon by the rightists as “socialist” propaganda. Sean Hannity, talking head for the uber-right Fox News, was apparently “outraged.” It was titled “Villifying $uccess.”

That they would associate success with money (the $ sign) identifies the basic flaw in their argument. Money, in their simple minds, is merely a measure of itself. Unless that money has contributed beyond mere accumulation – created jobs, built economies, served a greater good such as education – it’s merely a measure of greed. So the video vilifies greed, not success. A person can be successful without accumulating millions or even billions of dollars.

That’s a typical conservative canard – the idea that any challenge to unrestrained (laissez faire) capitalism or suggestion of taxing the wealthy is a socialist plot to enslave America. The real villain here is not money per se, but how a series of US governments has failed in its responsibilities to oversee and manage capitalism. They have allowed the money to shift from productivity, manufacturing, creativity and jobs to the gambling system called Wall Street. They have allowed shareholder profits and executive salaries and benefits to become more important than jobs, local economies, businesses and overall wellbeing. It’s a sad condition when the CEO of Wal-Mart, Mike Duke, makes more in one hour ($16,827) than his typical employee makes in a whole year (average annual wage in the US for a Wal-Mart employee: $13,650).

For the ultra-conservatives, any attempt to rein in the excesses of capitalism is to raise the spectre of that political Cthulhu – socialism, a truly misunderstood word for most Americans. There is an irony here, since the US oligarchs are mostly living in states of entitlement not unlike that of Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s politburos under Communism. Communism may have fallen as an economic system, but its class system still thrives in modern America.*

These conservatives believe the market – that is, the economy – will best regulate itself, much the same way your cat will choose the best vet for its care, or your children will choose the healthy, steamed and unsalted broccoli over the sugar-saturated, heavily advertised junk food for dinner. But if you associate success with mere wealth (as, it seems, many conservatives do), then the greedier the person, the greater his or her success. And thus you get the mess the US economy is in, with jobs going overseas in order for CEOs to be able to afford another yacht, with home foreclosures for the the recently-unemployed middle class while billionaires thrive after having gutted the factories and sold off the assets (Mitt Romney for president, anyone?).

Okay, that’s another simplification, but one only needs to look at the economic figures to see how crazy this has become. Capitalism is a wondrous system for growth, but it needs the government’s hands on its rudder to keep it off the shoals of madness. And it’s been without a captain for many decades now, at least in the USA. In most other Western nations, at least a modicum of control has been provided (Canada, for example, avoided the worst of the recession not by being smarter than Americans, but because we have more stringent controls on our banking and financial sectors).

So government intervention helps capitalism, helps strengthen it, helps build economies, by preventing the excesses it is capable of, from happening.

The Young Turks throw in this comment about the difference between cutting services and social support versus taxing the rich, with some counterpoint:

And James Galbraith, of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, makes some cogent points about the US economy in this video:

~~~~~

* The other irony is that many of these conservatives claim – rather loudly – to be Christian, yet they act in a very un-Christian, even anti-Christian manner, towards their fellow Americans – again like the politburo.