Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Saturday, April 27, 2013
It’s been about a week since I got back from my latest trip to Mexico. I’ve gotten past the travel fatigue, but I’m still walking in the afterglow of the sights, sounds, and experiences.
When you mention Mexico to most Americans, the images usually conjured up are gleaming white beaches, the plush resorts to be found in Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, casinos, spas, or golf courses. That wasn’t the Mexico I saw, or have ever seen. The Mexico I’m acquainted with is gritty. The people I’ve met and have come to know live in crude cinder block homes that sit atop huge landfills, which in turn are primitive attempts to mask the smell of tons of rotting garbage that’s been dumped beneath them. The people somehow manage to live on pennies per day, doing work that no “self-respecting” American would ever consider doing. Their intestines are filled with worms and parasites. Their afflictions are many.
That’s the Mexico I know. In many ways, it’s the Mexico I prefer. I prefer it, not because of its problems, but because it’s real and the people living in that reality respond to love. The Mexico of the resorts and casinos seems empty and plastic to me. The more I think about it, the more I’ve come to believe that sitting by the pool, praying for 11 red or 34 black to magically appear on the roulette wheel, or anticipating the turn of a card to fill in a straight flush is about as futile and meaningless as life can get.
For four days our group of nineteen went from site to site, diagnosing, prescribing, dispensing, touching, hugging, playing, and praying. There were more than enough needs to keep us fully occupied for twelve hours or more each day. The work was occasionally interrupted by laughter or spontaneous cheers as something beyond our ability to explain occurred. There were moments when the overwhelming nature of the people’s needs would reduce us to tears.
The doctors, nurses, and pharmacist who were part of our team took care of the medical needs. They did an amazing job! The rest of us did the touching, hugging, playing, and praying. I especially loved being around the children. And, they loved being around me. I became quite good at face painting. I drew a mustache and goatee on a boy who appeared to be about eight years old. I nicknamed him “Snidely Whiplash.” I was quite proud of my work. I found a couple of small water pistols and engaged in mock gunfights with the boys. Every time I did my imitation of John Wayne’s walk they would laugh uncontrollably. That, in turn, gave me the opportunity to soak ‘em real good. I challenged a couple of six year olds to arm wrestling contests, which they won. Even teenagers gravitated toward me. I adopted two, calling one Butch Cassidy and the other the Sundance Kid. I think that surprised some of our group. Over time, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for being a small town hair-shirted prophet. They didn’t realize that even a dour old man like me has his soft spots. On the way home, one of the team members expressed his surprise. I told him I was beginning to work on my epitaph. My first draft reads something like this:
“Kids loved him.
Politicians hated him.
All in all, a well-lived life!”
We saw things in Mexico one doesn’t see very often on our side of the border. I saw hundreds of lost souls saved. I saw a lame woman come into one of the meetings, struggling to move with the aid of a crude, home-made cane. I saw her leave without the cane. The joyful expression on her face was the only explanation I needed.
One of the beautiful things about Mexico is that the social environment seems far less rigid than ours. Everything’s done in the open. I saw an Aztec shaman trying to cleanse some demons from a guy in Mexico City’s downtown park. I passed by the “church of death” one day and lifted a drive-by prayer of exorcism as I did.
The openness of the environment makes the fight very easy. One knows what he’s up against. Our north-of-the-border demons are much harder to see. They wear a cloak of respectability and can be found in corporate board rooms and legislative chambers. They often wear Brooks Brothers suits. They have names like greed, envy, and lust for power. They have a tender touch, but they’re deadly.
The afterglow of Mexico remains, yet I know her needs are still acute. But, I also know there’s hope for Mexico’s poor and needy. As it’s written, “God chose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?”
Saturday, April 13, 2013
The memories of when I first I met my wife, Nancy, are fresh in my mind these days. I met her twenty-seven years ago, right about this time of the year. God’s timing was perfect.
It didn’t seem that way when 1986 began. I’d been through a particularly difficult divorce a few years earlier. Career wise, I was at a dead end. Former “friends” from the church I’d attended were sending me occasional pieces of prophetic hate mail, usually prefaced with the words, “I knew what you were like all along. I knew you were nothing but a failure.”
I had to work my way out of the pit I was in, so I began attending a downtown Kansas City church. One of the first things I remember was a presentation one of the members made about a trip she’d taken to India as director of a charitable foundation called Wellspring. I wanted to talk to her after the service, but she was surrounded by lots of others who’d also been moved by what she shared. I went out to the vestibule and asked someone about her. “Everyone here knows Nancy,” he said. She’s “someone very special.” I decided I had to meet her face to face.
That time did come. We were both chosen to be representatives on a Biblical literacy team the church was developing. By the time the spring of 1986 came along, all my bells and whistles were going off. I’d never been around someone quite like her. She was an immensely gentle soul, a tender flower, yet she was full of the kind of conviction that adds strength and depth to the gentleness.
In time we found ourselves outside the church long after the classes were done for the night. We talked about our respective dreams and visions. I began to sense that our souls were being knit together. But, when I was alone I wrestled with my fears. What could a man like me, with a track record of brokenness and failure, possibly add to this relationship?
There was a bridge for me to cross and it was paved by love. I fell, head over heels. I was like the cartoon character whose heart pounds out of his chest on the end of a spring when his love is near.
That was twenty-seven years ago. It really does seem like yesterday.
There have been so many wonderful moments between then and now. Even today, in this quiet time, I can still feel the power of Nancy’s touch as we looked out our kitchen window in Montville, New Jersey. She saw a flicker making its way up a tree trunk. She whispered softly as she grasped my hand. “Oh, Phil, look….It’s the flicker!” The voice was soft, but the grip was supernaturally powerful, revealing the depth of what was going on in her heart.
There was a morning at a bed and breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey. I don’t know why she asked me the question. Maybe she sensed that I was, for the first time, feeling my age and coming to grips with my own mortality, and hers. “What will you do, Slick, if I die before you?” I became indignant and refused to answer the question. If I remember it right, I sulked all the way home to Denville. Later that night I came to my senses and saw why she’d asked that question. C.S. Lewis answered it better than I ever could – “Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not an interruption of the dance, but the next figure. We are ‘taken out of ourselves’ by the loved one while she is here. Then comes the tragic figure of the dance in which we must learn to be still taken out of ourselves though the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very Her, and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow.”
It was hard to see it that morning, but I believe Nancy was trying to tell me, in her gentle, yet powerful way, that I needed to be taken out of myself. I treasure that lesson as the most valuable I’ve learned in this life.
So, I love the memories, but I know there are even more memories to come, more experiences to share, and more lessons to learn if I’m willing to be taken out of myself. And, amazingly, there will come a day when I will see God in all his glory, Nancy clothed in hers, and even greater memories than this beautiful, yet transient life, can possibly offer.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Senator Rand Paul spoke for as long as his aching feet and stretched-to-the-limit bladder would accommodate. Some of us now know what had gotten him so lathered up. For over a month he’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the Justice Department to answer a couple of fundamentally important questions. First, is it legal to use drones to kill American citizens on U.S. soil without due process? Second, “Can the President have the power to decide when the Bill of Rights does or doesn’t apply?”
Attorney General Eric Holder finally responded earlier today. “No!” he said, to the first question. He offered no opinion on the second.
As Senator Paul filibustered, wolfing down on occasional candy bar between words, a group of Republican senators were being wined and dined by the President at the Jefferson Hotel, feasting on Maryland blue crab risotto, Colorado lamb acai, lobster thermidor, prime beef, and heart of guana chocolate tart. Two of Senator Paul’s colleagues who attended the President’s dinner weren’t amused with the filibuster. Senator John McCain called his concerns “totally unfounded.” Senator Lindsey Graham, who had been a Brennan opponent, told the news media that the filibuster had changed his mind and then declared himself to now be a Brennan supporter. Even some of the good senator’s normally reliable friends in the media scolded him. The Wall Street Journal said that his reasoning didn’t come close to matching his showmanship.
What’s next for Senator Paul? Some are saying there’s a Presidential bid in his future. I honestly doubt he’s thinking about that. He’s more concerned the future of our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The political establishment believes it has settled things. They’re reminding us of 9-11, as if we need reminding. They’re telling us that we’re the good guys. We’ve got a President who’s very bright. He can even be charming when he puts his mind to it. He’d never entertain the thought of abusing political power. Therefore, Rand Paul must be paranoid.
A little over four years ago, Barack Obama spoke at the National Archives. He began by chiding the previous administration for setting aside Constitutional principles as “luxuries” and employing an ad hoc legal approach to fighting the war on terror. He decried the use of warrantless wiretaps, military tribunals, and the Patriot Act. It was a great start. If only he’d stopped at that. But, then he launched into the deep, describing his new program of “prolonged preventive detention” to incarcerate anyone who “might” engage in some loosely defined future act of war against the United States. How would this be done? By constructing a “legal regime” and “reshaping the standards.” Apparently the Fifth Amendment and the old notion of due process were too confining. The litmus test became the possibility that someone “might” do something.
That was four years ago. It’s gotten worse over time. The abuse of the Espionage Act of 1917, a kill or capture list that he personally reviews every day, drones, programs like Ragtime P, and expanded surveillance of innocent American citizens are all part of our new reality.
How does he get away with it? Barack Obama is endowed with an unusual blend of gifts. He’s charming, intelligent, and wily. He has a special gift for making the road to perdition seem like the primrose path, using clever catch phrases like “we’ve got to protect the American people.”
Unfortunately, it’s an all too familiar historical refrain. Politicians often abuse power. When Andrew Jackson didn’t like a Supreme Court decision, he told Justice John Marshall “You have your decision, now try to enforce it.” Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court. When asked about his criminal activity by David Frost, Richard Nixon said, “If the President does it, it’s not illegal.”
But there’s more to it than Barack Obama’s wiles and charms. It has a lot to do with us and our collective frame of mind. While the back room shredding of the Constitution is going on, many of us seem preoccupied with whether or not Beyoncé lip synched. And, didn’t we love seeing the First Lady, flanked by the palace guard, announcing the Oscar for best picture. Style, it seems, is far more comforting than substance.
We’re living in a precarious time. Power’s being abused, we’re complacent, and few are willing to stand in the gap for the people. German academic Milton Mayer described this social confluence as: “the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand.”
Thankfully, Rand Paul stood in the gap. Some say he was driven by paranoia. If he was, we need to pray for a lot more like him.
Thursday, February 28, 2013
On February 7th, the Gazette reported that three recently elected county officials, Tammy Vopat, Jeff Cope, and Vicky Lopez, voted themselves significant pay increases. One elected official, Dora Hartig, decided not to take an increase, citing two reasons – “it is so very true that the taxpayers elected me to have their best interest at heart” and “With the economy and budgets the way they are, I just couldn’t do it.”
The rationales used for the increases were varied. Ms. Vopat cited concerns that longevity increases, etc. had put her department in a place “where there are employees that are making almost what the elected officials are making, and they aren’t department heads.” Jeff Cope cited comps with other law enforcement agencies. At the time the article was written Ms. Lopez was not available for comment.
Public reaction to the news was swift, particularly in local watering holes. The Gazette described it as a “public lashing.” KVOE conducted a poll, asking the question “Do you agree with the decision of several Lyon County elected officials to grant themselves pay raises for this year?” As of this morning, about 85% disagreed with the decisions the officials made. It’s clear that the decisions were extremely unpopular. It’s also clear that more than just a few revolutionaries in our pubs didn’t like the decisions.
Why is the public so against the decisions? Is it because the people of Lyon County are mean-spirited skinflints? Is it because the people don’t understand market forces? Is it because the people have personal axes to grind?
The answer to all of those questions is a resounding NO!
The people of Lyon County have been very generous to their public officials. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, the average individual in Lyon County makes $18,898 per year. The average Lyon County household brings in $37,954. And, Lyon County’s poverty rate is 21.2%, ranking it one of the highest in Kansas. With the pay increases these elected officials approved for themselves, their individual incomes are now about three times higher than the average citizen they serve. Their individual incomes are even higher than our average household incomes. If that isn’t generosity, I don’t know what is.
The people of Lyon County also understand that market forces are all too often grinding on them. They know that our incomes are unacceptably low and that our poverty rate is unacceptably high. They get their tax bills every year and see that the cost of supporting our government enterprises is going steadily up. They see their tax bills doubling while their incomes and prospects remain stagnant. The news of neighbors losing jobs when Dolly Madison recently closed isn’t dead letter to them. They’ve seen it up close, in a very personal way. They’re not fools. They know that almost anything can be “justified” by manipulating numbers or making incomplete or selective comparisons to other Kansas counties. They know all too well that our individual and household incomes are lower, often by double digits, than Crawford, Franklin, Geary, and Harvey counties. They also know our poverty rate is higher, most often by 10 percent or more. They know that in the end the justifications will mean that the guys in the corner offices get double digits while the folks in the third line trenches get rice and beans.
The bottom line is this. The people of Lyon County understand the metrics of this situation quite well. They understand all of this and more and they’re feeling a bit angry. Their anger is justified.
And it’s not about personal vendettas. Most of us voted for these folks and we like them, irrespective of their decisions. My personal interactions with Tammy Vopat and her department have always been cordial and professional. I’ve only spoken to Jeff Cope a few times and our conversations have been quite friendly. I don’t believe I’ve ever had the opportunity to speak with Vicky Lopez, but I know her husband and we’ve always had a good relationship. He’s a good man and I assume that his choice of a life partner means that, like most of us, he married up in life.
No, this isn’t about personal vendettas. It’s about wisdom and timing. It’s mystifying to me that some of our elected officials seem to know so little about the day to day struggles of their constituents and the impact their decisions have on those struggles. And, it’s even more mystifying to hear that if we don’t like the decisions we can vote them out of office in the next election cycle. The sound of the insensitivity is deafening. The wisdom deficit is startling.
Is there a way out? Perhaps it’s too late, but I think it would be refreshing to hear that our elected officials have heard the people and decided to reverse course.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
The great Swedish actress Greta Garbo didn’t like her privacy invaded. She protected it so well that the Hollywood press of her time linked her to a now famous line from the film “Grand Hotel” – “I want to be alone.” Upon her retirement, Garbo claimed she’d actually said, “I want to be let alone.” That one added word, she said, “made a world of difference.”
Garbo was absolutely right!
A couple of weeks ago I expressed my displeasure with what I see as the dangerous possibility of government bureaucrats electronically snooping around in my house without my permission and without cause. The Attorney General gave them permission to do it, but I didn’t. I believe in the old adage that a man’s home is his castle. I was so frustrated that I penned a couple of complaints to Senator Jerry Moran and Representative Tim Huelskamp. I’m hoping they agree with me.
Earlier that same morning I had the opportunity to express my feelings on C-Span’s “Washington Journal.” At about 7:25 I spilled my guts to Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University. I went through my list of complaints, then closed with a crescendo. “I just want my government to leave me alone.”
I wasn’t sure how Professor Turley would respond. He’s politically liberal and I had told him that I I’m conservative in my approach to life. I was pleasantly surprised. “You’re quite right to be concerned,” he said. “It’s also interesting that you said that you wanted to be left alone. In the 1928 Olmstead v. United States case, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, unequivocally, that you had the right ‘to be left alone.’”
Unfortunately, Justice Brandeis was relegated to writing the dissenting opinion in the Olmstead case. But, his dissenting words proved to be prophetic – “The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man's spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred against the government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” In 1942, Justice Frank Murphy, citing James Madison, John Adams, and Brandeis’s dissent, took up the mantle and argued that the right of privacy is “second to none in our Bill of Rights.”
But, Constitutional rights don’t seem to matter! The snooping is going on. Furthermore, the National Security Agency is building a million square foot facility in Utah to gather and store all the data, yours, mine, our neighbors’. When the facility is completed in September of this year it will have what has been described as a sea of routers and servers capable of storing anything we communicate, including private e-mails, Google searches, cell phone calls, and other sorts of data, like parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, or anything else we either receive or disseminate.
The fact the Government is spending at least two billion dollars on this facility underscores the seriousness with which they are approaching this task.
I believe we need to express our displeasure with this madness in an equally serious manner.
I’m a loyal American. I served in our military for over eight years. I spent a year of that time in harm’s way. I don’t say that to boast. A lot of Americans have done far more than me in their service to the nation. Many have given their lives in defense of freedom and our basic Constitutional rights. None of us, living or dead, served so that a fundamental freedom could be taken away from us with the stroke of the Attorney General’s pen or the all-seeing eye of a massive security apparatus.
I understand my obligations as a citizen as well as anyone. I take them seriously. My eyes get moist when I hear our national anthem. I do my best to serve the community where I live. I pay my taxes. I admit that I don’t tap dance up to the County Courthouse when I pay them, but I do pay them. I’m loyal to this country and always will be.
I also know we’re living in very dangerous times, but I think our government would do well to spend more time attending to Al Qaeda and less time on you, me, and millions upon millions of loyal citizens. I may be a fool, but I believe our government can deal effectively with our enemies without stripping us of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
I hope you feel as strongly about this as I do. If so, express your outrage to our elected leaders.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
A couple of weeks before Christmas, investigative journalist Julia Angwin uncovered a government program that puts millions of innocent American citizens in the cross-hairs of our executive branch’s massive security apparatus. She described it as a “dragnet.”
The program was just a proposal in in mid-March. Once Attorney General Eric Holder approved the proposal, it became a functioning program.
Prior to Holder’s approval, a nebulous government group called the “National Counterterrorism Center” was prohibited from storing and analyzing any information about American citizens unless there was sufficient evidence of terrorist activity. Now, with the newly approved rules, our government can gather, store, and analyze data on any American citizen, keep it for up to five years, and see if there are “suspicious patterns of behavior.”
What are they sifting through? Whatever they want! This little known agency has access to flight records, the names of American citizens who have hosted international students, the health records of patients at veterans’ hospitals, the financial records of Americans who have applied for federally backed mortgages, and God knows what else. Further, this secretive agency can share this information with foreign governments.
I don’t know where you, the reader, fit into these hit lists. I’m on at least three. Nancy and I have hosted international students from five countries – France, Moldova, China, Vietnam, and South Korea. Over the past six years we’ve racked up lots of frequent flyer miles, including trips to the Middle-East and four former Soviet satellites in Europe. I also include among my friends a citizen of Israel, a Palestinian, and a Pakistani. I even met a cab driver from Afghanistan in Kansas City a few months ago. Every year, like clockwork, I get a physical at a Veterans’ Administration facility. A few months ago I met a friend roaming around the halls at the Eisenhower V.A. Center in Topeka. I wonder if someone in the government catacombs is scouring through our data right now, looking for suspicious activity like eye exams or colonoscopies.
I’d be willing to bet Chris Walker’s presses there are some reading this and thinking, “Dillon is a paranoid right-wing fool. Doesn’t he know that we’re the good guys and that our intentions are always the noblest?” Maybe so. But, if I am paranoid I have at least one left-wing ally, the New York Times’ Bill Keller. Like me, he calls the idea that law-abiding Americans have nothing to fear from government snoopers a myth. In a January 13th op-ed he cites the following from George Washington University professor Daniel Solove: “That’s exactly what Bush said. And it’s also the same thing that any despot says.”
Some of our greatest political saints have done despotic things. Abraham Lincoln suspended the constitutional right to habeas corpus during our Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt had loyal Japanese-American citizens rounded up and placed in detention camps during World War II. Recently, Thomas Drake, an analyst at the National Security Agency, was threatened by the Obama administration with prosecution and imprisonment for up to 30 years under the umbrella of the Espionage Act of 1917, which makes it illegal to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” What had Drake done that made him so dangerous? He’d become a whistleblower trying to save money being spent on an ineffective government program. When all was said and done his only out was to agree to a lesser charge of misusing a government computer. He was dead broke and lost his job. That’s a very steep price to pay for doing the right thing.
We might be careening over the fiscal cliff in about a month. Given that, the fact that a few government bureaucrats are digging up a bit of dirt might seem unimportant. But I find it very troubling. Poverty is tough; I’ve been there. But, the prospect of government analysts skulking around in my home without my consent is absolutely intolerable. It violates my Fourth Amendment civil right, which guarantees “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Our Founders understood human nature and built a system of checks and balances to protect “the People” from government ambition and tyranny. James Madison put it this way (Federalist 51) – “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
Unfortunately, I doubt that those sifting through the data are thinking about our Bill of Rights. They’re probably too busy digging.
If the Fourth Amendment can’t protect us from this kind of despotism, what can? The best ways to protect ourselves are to turn on the spotlights, scream bloody murder and threaten to vote them out of their tax paid perks! If we do that, they will listen and dismantle this unseemly program.