Thursday, December 26, 2013


Christmas 2013 has passed. For Nancy and me it was, for the most part, a season of quiet reflection. We did get a few gifts for my kids and for Nancy’s family, but decided against exchanging gifts with one another. It proved to be a very good decision. Our conversations were filled with meaning. Our home glowed with an aura of peace and good will, the kind the angels of Bethlehem described to the shepherds.
It was also nice to see that our media must have gotten the memo. Most of us have grown tired of the debate about what constitutes the appropriate seasonal greeting – “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” I’ve never been able to figure out why so many in the Christian community got so upset to begin with. I guess it goes to show that our media has far too much power to shape our ideas and opinions.
I’m not naïve enough to think that we don’t have detractors and antagonists. We’ve got plenty. But, there are some things they can’t change, no matter how hard they try. Jesus’ birth was very real. So were his life, his deeds, and his words. They’ll never be able to give us a world where a masterpiece like Giotto’s “Madonna with Child” becomes “Madonna without Child.” Nor can they take away the very real encounter I had with this very real Jesus in the Republic of Vietnam back in the 60’s. Nor can they expunge the experience of millions of other Christians.
Looking back at it, it was especially nice this year to be able to escape the ever-grinding gears of America’s conspicuous consumerism machine. It’s sad when you think about it. Primitive and early Christianity had nothing whatsoever to do with the consumer mindset that has overtaken us moderns. In fact, the Christianity of those times had a decidedly counter-culture flair when it came to economics. Jesus said things that run counter to modern thought, things like “Man does not live by bread alone,” “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God,” or “No one can serve two masters….you cannot serve God and money.” The early church took these words seriously, which caused them to run afoul of the commercial interests of their time. The Apostle Paul enraged the merchants of Ephesus when he preached that the silver shrines dedicated to the worship of the Greek goddess Artemis were worthless. With the prospect of shrinking sales and profits in mind, an influential silversmith named Demetrius gathered his fellow craftsmen and merchants together and appealed first to their greed, then to their moral instincts. “Our trade will   lose its good name,” he said. Artemis would be “robbed of her divine majesty.” When the merchants heard this they were furious and Demetrius got what he wanted – a near riot. For two hours, the crowd roared in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” It took the city clerk to eventually calm the crowd down by suggesting they take Paul and his companions to court.
How the times have changed. I can’t imagine today’s Christian community becoming so out of step with the nation’s commercial interests that their anti-social behavior would cause near riots in the streets.
The New Year is a few days off. The uproar about what constitutes the appropriate seasonal greeting will be forgotten. But, 2014 will bring more important, and meaningful, points of tension between Christians and their antagonists. The Supreme Court will decide whether or not David Green, owner and founder of Hobby Lobby, has the legal right to integrate his faith with his business practices.  In a world that is increasingly post-Christian, new norms will continue to be established to replace those deemed “antiquated.” The new norms will give increased power to social service agencies or government bureaucrats. There will be more and more cases like the one in which a British social service agency forcibly took an Italian woman’s child from her by caesarean section and put the child up for adoption, using their notion of what was best for the child as the justification (the Telegraph – November 30, 2013).
These, and other cases (infanticide, euthanasia) to come, will force important decisions on Christians. Will we give in to the new norms? Will we try to re-establish our norms? Or, will be seek avenues of conscientious objection?
If we accept the new norms, society will consider us to be “reasonable.” If we choose the path of conscientious objection, we can be sure of powerful societal backlash against us.
The path of conscientious objection doesn’t mean that we’ll make the rules. It does mean that our loyalty to society and its new norms and our responses to them must be guided by our faith and conscience. New and newer norms will come, but we must remain constant in faith, conscience, and our duty to say, “No!”

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Almost every day America’s airwaves and editorial pages are filled with charges and counter-charges of treason. For a while congressional Democrats were the targets of the accusations. Then it was Chief Justice John Roberts. These days it’s Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and millions of members of the Tea Party.
The more I hear the shrill talk or read the vitriolic commentary, the more I feel like I want to puke.
Treason? Do those bandying the word about so casually really understand what it means? Maybe it would help if they would actually read article 3, section 3 of our Constitution, which defines it very precisely - “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”
This current war of words and accusations has nothing to do with treason. Those leveling the outrageous accusations know it. The controversy may have something to do with a badly crafted and executed law or it may have something to do with a philosophical disagreement with our current Chief Justice. It may even have something to do with visceral hatred for a political insurgency like the Tea Party or differences of political opinion. But, it has absolutely nothing to do with treason.
The current epicenter for the accusations is Tea Party members or anyone who associates with them. The broadsides are coming from all directions, even small red state hamlets like Emporia, Kansas. Tea Partiers and those who associate with them are being portrayed as merciless traitors, bent on the destruction of the Republic. Their accusers portray themselves as loving, merciful defenders of all that is good and noble.
Is it really all that simple?
Tea Partiers are our fellow citizens and neighbors. Many of them have served honorably in our armed services. Some have “fought and bled” to defend the freedoms their accusers say they cherish. The vast majority of them are every bit as kind and compassionate as their accusers. In fact, I’d be willing to match their charitable giving and community service against their accusers’ any time. The truth is, their accusers haven’t cornered the market on kindness, compassion, service, or bleeding.
I’m not a Tea Party member, but I have friends who are. I’ve even been known to openly associate with them. As I was lobbying my fellow citizens to get the Lyon County extension issue placed on the ballot a while back, I met twice with members of the Tea Party. They showed me nothing but respect and kindness. I never heard any talk of sedition or revolution. They listened respectfully to me. Some supported me. They were even kind enough to give me a copy of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Now, if becoming acquainted with our founding documents amounts to treason, I plead guilty. If the time ever comes that I’m convicted of such a crime, I’ll gladly walk the steps of the gallows.
I do have quite a few things in common politically with Tea Partiers. Like them, I’m troubled when I see our fundamental rights under the first, second, fourth, and tenth amendments being slowly eroded by government edict and action. But, there are places where we part philosophical ways. In the current crisis, I believe Tea Partiers have made some serious tactical errors, particularly their misguided attempt to defund Obamacare. There are times when the door to disaster has to open and the chaos at its root is allowed to march through for all to see.
Economist Thomas Sowell recently cited Irish statesman Edmund Burke’s wisdom when matters of conscience and tactics collide. In 1769 Burke spoke against a bill that was weaving its way through Parliament. The long and the short of the legislation was that it would have subjected American colonists to charges of treason in Great Britain. Burke found the legislation extremely troubling, but didn’t attempt to block it because he knew its passage was certain. As he put it, I cannot support what is conscientiously against my opinion, nor prudently contend with what I know is irresistible. Preserving my principles unshaken, I reserve my activity for rational endeavours.”
The Tea Party would have better served their interests to get out of the way of the runaway train and wait for the mid-term elections. That would have been the rational choice. Unfortunately, they didn’t. But tactical misjudgment hardly constitutes treason. 
Under our law, treason is punishable by death (see 18 U.S.C. 2381).  Are the Tea Party’s accusers so convinced of their political correctness that they’d be willing to personally cast the final stone of retribution? If they are, then all I can say is “God help anyone who will eventually become their targets!”

Thursday, November 28, 2013



Philosopher/longshoreman Eric Hoffer once said that the most difficult arithmetic in life to master is “that which enables us to count our blessings.”
I like to think of it as the arithmetic of gratitude.
Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away.  While I’m grateful for the material blessings in my life, my gratitude this year centers on the transcendent blessings that are rooted in faith and my good fortune to have been born in this great country.
The Almighty has been far more kind and gracious to me than I deserve. I find that more often than I care to admit I lurch and blunder my way down the road to heaven. I’m grateful that God allows me to continue to keep lurching and blundering. I’m especially grateful that my weakness and occasional willfulness haven’t disqualified me from the journey.
This morning I tuned in to C-Span’s “Washington Journal.” The early segment was about the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The host, Pedro Echevarria, asked the audience to call in with their thoughts on the meaning they took from Lincoln’s words. I called in and was fortunate enough to actually get through. In the few minutes I had I tried my best to explain that we Americans are no more or less extraordinary than anyone else on this planet. The thing that really makes America special is our transcendent founding principles - ordered liberty and equality before the law. Lincoln outlined them beautifully early in his speech. Then he rhetorically surveyed the field where so many had died and called on his countrymen to “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” Finally, like an Old Testament prophet, he called on future generations on to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln’s inspiring words at Gettysburg came on November 19, 1863.  A month earlier he had issued a proclamation of national thanksgiving, setting aside the last Thursday in November [it’s now the fourth Thursday] as a day for all Americans to remember God’s kindness and grace to the nation. That first national Thanksgiving was celebrated on November 26, 1863. Ever since then we’ve been proclaiming our thanks for the “gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Lincoln knew that Gettysburg wasn’t going to end the war. In fact, it would rage on for nearly two more years. Thousands more would die on the battlefield, from Spotsylvania, to the Wilderness, to the battle of Atlanta. The carnage of Cold Harbor was yet to come. The brutal efficiency of Sherman’s march to the sea was still on the horizon. Yet, even in the darkest of these times, Lincoln pressed on with dogged faith, believing that the twin goals of national unity and the unshackling of the oppressed and enslaved were well worth the sacrifice.
By the time of his second inaugural in March of 1865, Lincoln was a man who had aged like no President before him, or since. The years of tragic conflict seemed to envelop him like a burial shroud. His inaugural remarks were brief. It was time for the nation to forgive and heal and it was time to reflect on how God’s hand had been woven into the great national calamity. Lincoln concluded that the war was just retribution for the national sin of slavery. As he put it,  God would  be fully justified to allow the bloodletting to continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Mercifully, the war finally ended on April 9th with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.
As I consider Thanksgiving this year I’m troubled about the country I love. America is treading a dangerous path. The nation’s political course is now polluted by hate.  Our founding principles are being slowly eroded by a growing police and surveillance state. Those who served and died so nobly at Gettysburg didn’t give their lives so that government could become our ruthless taskmaster. They served and died so that our founding principles would be preserved, protected, and defended for all time.
But I’m also thankful. America keeps lurching and stumbling, but God hasn’t given up on us. The principles of our founding are close to his heart. He won’t abandon them, or us. Somehow, some way, he will lead us to the place to where we return to those principles and to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

For that, and more, I’m especially grateful.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


Megalomania is one of those incurable diseases that has afflicted kings, generals, dictators, and politicians throughout history. Some historians have recorded that near the end of his young life Alexander the Great lamented that “there are no more worlds to conquer.” Caesar invaded Gaul in 58 B.C. to further his political ambitions. Napoleon was so anxious to become the emperor of France in 1804 that he snatched the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself. Near the end of World War II, Winston Churchill tried to convince Joseph Stalin to cease repressing the Soviet Union’s Roman Catholics. Stalin’s reply was an example of unbridled megalomania – “How many divisions does the Pope have?
The old idiom, the bigger they are, the harder they fall, has also proven to be true throughout history. Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world before he was thirty. He died when he was only thirty-three. Julius Caesar was assassinated on the ides of March in 44 B.C., six years after his conquest of Gaul. A bit too much Gaul, perhaps? Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 with an army of half a million men. By the time 1813 rolled around, 22,000 French survivors of the campaign limped back home in defeat, done in by the Russian army and what some historians have called “General Winter.” Stalin didn’t live to see how many divisions the Pope had, but the world did. In June, 1987, Pope John Paul, a son of Poland, celebrated mass in the city of Gdansk with its citizens and a small band of steel workers who had bravely defied communist tyranny. Over a million people, or about fifty divisions, attended. The movement for freedom grew from there. In 1989, the communists left Poland, defeated by the fasting, prayer, faith, courage, and resolve of the Polish people.
Megalomania seems to be a historical constant. It’s in the air right now and it’s contagious. Its focal point seems to be Syria, but when the layers are pulled away the current world situation boils down to a contest of two competing wills and visions. To the east, Vladimir Putin has set his sights on a new and vigorous Russia. In a 2012 address to the Russian people, he unveiled a vision of geopolitical relevance that would once again place Russia in a prominent place on the world stage.  He said, “We must not only preserve our geopolitical relevance, we must also increase it.” What did Mr. Putin mean by geopolitical relevance? He put it this way. Geopolitical relevance means the ability to build different relations with different centers of power in the multipolar world, offering them what they need.”
This clearly puts him at odds with the west and Barack Obama, who also has a grand vision and what appears to be supreme confidence in his ability to make it happen. It’s a vision of a unipolar world with him as its unelected President. He’s made it clear wherever he’s been. In June, 2008 he told adoring throngs in Berlin, This is the “moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it….” This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons…” “This is the moment when every nation in Europe must have the chance to choose its own tomorrow free from the shadows of yesterday…” This is the moment when we must build on the wealth that open markets have created, and share its benefits more equitably…” “This is the moment we must help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East…” “This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet…” People of Berlin - people of the world - this is our moment. This is our time.” When he accepted the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination later that year the theme repeated itself - This was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.”
If that isn’t megalomania in full bloom I don’t know what is! But, we decided to believe him and the flowery rhetoric got him elected and then re-elected. As the years have passed, the megalomania has become more pronounced. He has convinced himself that his intellect and charm are the trump cards in the high stakes bridge game of politics and international diplomacy. He’s decided that he, by executive decree, can “tweak” laws he doesn’t like. And in the recent debate and sabre rattling about military intervention in Syria he referred to America’s sons and daughters as “my military.” Some say it was a Freudian slip of the tongue and meant nothing. I don’t believe that for a moment.
About all that’s left for Barack Obama to do is to snatch the crown and drape the ermine robe of rule around his shoulders.
So there you have it. One man is advancing a vision of a renewed, relevant Russia. The other is trying to lay claim to the title of boss of the world.
Who’s going to win? If recent events are any indication, Vladimir Putin has a substantial lead in this race to the top.
How did that happen? Here in America we’ve been led to believe that Mr. Putin is crude, calculating, and manipulative. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has created and fostered the image of himself as the smartest man in any room at any time. The answer is clear. Appearances can often be deceiving.
To be sure, Vladimir Putin is an autocrat. He’s also ambitious, calculating, and manipulative. But he’s also an extremely intelligent man. While it’s true that he served in the Soviet Union’s K.G.B., it’s also true that he earned a law degree from Leningrad State University with an emphasis on international relations. His doctoral thesis – “The Strategic Planning of Regional Resources under the Formation of Market Relations,” is far from being the work of a village idiot.
Barack Obama does have his credentials. He graduated from Harvard Law School. He was the president of the Harvard Law Review. He worked as a community organizer and as a civil rights attorney. He taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Not too bad.
Unfortunately for us, the bloom has come off the rose of Barack Obama’s superiority.  Vladimir Putin has taken the measure of him. It started with Edward Snowden. Mr. Obama mismanaged that affair with what poets sometimes call the greatest of skill. When Snowden sought refuge in Moscow, Putin let the President twist in the wind before giving Snowden a year of breathing freely. In the end, Vladimir Putin, the autocrat, became a champion of free expression and Barack Obama became a K.G.B. like despot. Now we’ve got Syria. The President has been banging on the war drum (a tin one at that) for weeks. Then, thanks to a slip of the tongue from our Secretary of State, Vladimir Putin stepped into the gap, offering a peace proposal. The opening was wider than the hole the Kansas City Chiefs line opened with the sixty-five toss power trap in the 1970 Super Bowl. So, in addition to being a champion of free speech, Vladimir Putin, the cold, calculating autocrat, can now lay claim to being a man of peace and a significant player in world affairs while Barack Obama, the peacemaker, has become the trigger happy war mongerer. How the President allowed that to happen is almost beyond comprehension.  But he did.  
The President’s ambitious plans, grounded in his belief that no one can match his intellect, have gone up in smoke and flames, as Washington Post columnist George Will noted a few days ago:
“Barack Obama’s foreign policy dream – cordial relations with a Middle East tranquilized by “smart diplomacy” – is in a death grapple with reality. His rhetorical writhings illustrate the perils of his loquacity. He has a glutton’s, rather than a gourmet’s, appetite for his own rhetorical cuisine.”
It’s sad. It’s like watching a cat tease an unfortunate mouse or bird just before he eats it. Not long ago, Peggy Noonan put it even more succinctly in her Wall Street Journal column:
“A serious foreign-policy intellectual said recently that Putin’s problem is that he’s a Russian leader in search of a Nixon, a U.S. president he can really negotiate with, a stone player who can talk grand strategy and the needs of his nation, someone with whom he can thrash it through and work it out. Instead he has Obama, a self-besotted charismatic who can’t tell the difference between showbiz and strategy, and who enjoys unburdening himself of moral insights to his peers.”
I think this has rankled Mr. Obama. His ego’s been bruised. The crown’s been tarnished and the bloom really is off the rose.
Things are so bad that people are beginning to see the real Barack Obama. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson recently observed that  After five years of this, the world caught on, and sees juvenile and narcissistic petulance in lieu of statesmanship—and unfortunately a sinister Putin takes great delight in reminding 7 billion people of this fact almost daily.”
Even reliable media allies are turning on the President. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, for example, poured this salty tidbit into the festering wounds:  Unlike Bill Clinton, who excels at boiling down complex arguments to simple ones, Obama prefers to wallow in the weeds, reminding people that he’s the smartest man in the room and expecting their support because he feels he is only doing what’s complicated and right.”
We’ve had many warnings about the dangers of this kind of megalomania in the past. One that seems appropriate right now comes from the pen of John Jay (Federalist 4, written in the late 1780’s):
“Absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition… These and a variety of other motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.”
John Jay knew what he was talking about. He and his fellow American colonists had just defeated the mighty British Empire in our Revolutionary War. If only King George III and the British parliament had seen it all coming. But, it was close to impossible. Megalomania tends to blind one to reality.
At the end of that war, tradition has it that the British played an old tune titled “The World Turned Upside Down,” a stanza of which follows:
“If buttercups buzzed after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside-down.”
The world does occasionally turn upside-down. Empires fade; new empires supplant them. “Wise” men are proven to be fools. Are we witnessing such a turning now? It’s early and the geopolitical wheel’s still spinning, but things aren’t looking good for the smartest man in the room.
What does all of this mean to you and me? Will sanity prevail in the end? Sadly, it all seems to depend on the whim and will of Barack Obama. That, and his hubris, have made these times that really do “try men’s souls.”

Thursday, August 29, 2013


I’ve heard that Newfoundland has the worst roads and the nicest people on the planet. Like so many things I’ve heard it’s only half true. Anyone who’s ever driven on New York’s Major Deegan Expressway or taken a tooth-rattling jitney ride down into Utah’s Monument Valley knows this. But, while she doesn’t have the worst roads, Newfoundland can lay legitimate claim to being the home of the world’s nicest people. I speak from experience, with a bit of personal bias mixed in. My mother was born in Newfoundland, which means I have maritime blood coursing through my veins.
What makes Newfoundlanders so nice? I think it’s the weather. A hundred and seventy some odd inches of annual snowfall and 102 days of blowing snow have mellowed them. Newfoundlanders take life in its stride.
I had the good fortune to be stationed at Ernest Harmon Air Base in Newfoundland from 1964 to 1965. The assignment gave me the opportunity to explore my DNA in depth. I spent as much of my off duty time as possible finding my way to McIvers Cove to visit my mother’s family. I met them all and they were wonderful, but there was one uncle who became very special to me. His given name was Fiander (pronounced Fye – ander), but everyone called him Fye.
I’ll never forget the morning I first met him. I had just finished breakfast at my Uncle Billy and Aunt Mabel’s. “Oooohhhh, Philip,” Mabel exclaimed. “Your Uncle Fye is a comin’ down the road to see ya.’ He ‘pears to be full of excitement.” I looked out the window and there he was. He was tall and lanky. His gait was like a hippity-hop. In a strange way it reminded me of Charlie Chaplin’s alter-ego, the Little Tramp. Fye was tall, well over six feet, which made the gait even more amusing to watch. He was wearing a burgundy cardigan that he’d buttoned up unevenly. His head was crowned with a well weathered golf cap. I heard him squeal with delight as he swung the door open. “Is this truly our Susie’s boy?” Once he was assured that I was he hugged me for what seemed like hours.
Three day passes and leaves from Harmon came and went and so did my time in McIvers. Every time I was there Fye would take me under his wing and we’d flit from place to place around the cove, drinking tea and gathering gossip like a couple of bachelor gadabouts. I didn’t notice till my third visit that Fye only had one tooth, a lower right incisor. By the time of my sixth visit I’d read Richard Brautigan’s “A Confederate General from Big Sur.” One of Brautigan’s characters was an off-center relic named Lee Mellon, who, depending on the day might have one tooth, or three. The teeth seemed to magically appear or disappear. From that point on I always found some discreet way to stare at Fye to see what was going on. I’ve never known whether it was my imagination or some sort of counter culture magic, but Fye’s tooth seemed to move like Lee Mellon’s. One visit it might be an incisor; the next it might be a canine.
I developed a deep bond of affection for Fye. About two months before I shipped out for Vietnam I spent a night in his cabin. We talked a lot about the bonds of family. And, there was small talk. I noticed a twelve volt battery sitting on the floor next to his bed. When I asked him what it was for he said that he had plans to get a TV, a hand crank, and a wife so that he could wire the battery to the TV and have his wife turn the crank to generate “lectricty” while he watched the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I couldn’t tell whether or not he was serious, although I did detect the hint of mischief in his eyes.
I thought often of Fye while I was in Vietnam. I sometimes wondered whether or not he was addled. I took a while, but I came to see that he was far from being addled. Fye just took the world in its stride. He didn’t need much to make him happy. 
Looking back on it now, I see that those days with Fye were the launching point in my quest for faith and belief. The warm memories of his simple ways slowly melted away the despair gnawing on me.  I’ll always be grateful to Fye for that.
I’ll see him again someday, dressed in that burgundy cardigan and golf cap. Maybe he’ll even have a full head of pearly whites, although there’s a part of me that’s hoping that I’ll get to see whether that incisor I saw last has once more magically become a canine.

Thursday, August 01, 2013


“Well, you’re on your own, you always were
In a land of wolves and thieves
Don’t put your hope in ungodly man
Or be a slave to what somebody else believes…
If you want somebody you can trust, trust yourself.”

-       Bob Dylan – “Trust Yourself” (1985)

In any civil society trust should be the coin of the realm. Without interpersonal trust our families and communities can easily wither and decay. Without institutional trust, particularly at the government level, society breaks apart at its seams, piece by piece. When trust is in short supply, so is justice. And, as it goes with justice, so it goes with truth. As the prophet said, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets.” Objective standards become obsolete. They’re replaced by government decrees, executive orders, or outbursts of civil rage and popular demands for retribution. It’s not far from that point till it all becomes every man for himself.
This is the course our leaders have chosen.
I’ve been trying my best to speak out about the dangers of the surveillance state for months. In some circles that marks me as the village idiot.  That’s alright. I’ll keep plugging away.
I thought a month or so ago I’d seen it all, but I was wrong, as evidenced by the Obama administration’s latest attempt to plug leaks and “keep us safe and secure.” On July 9th, McClatchy News Service revealed that the executive branch rolled out a program called the “Insider Threat Program.” The long and short of the President’s order is for federal employees to spy on their fellow employees¸ looking for potential security threats. Some civil libertarians have dubbed the executive order “Barack Obama’s national neighborhood watch program.”
This program, along with the massive data gathering operations, prosecutions of whistle blowers, I.R.S. targeting operations that now appear to reach to the highest levels, and executive branch programs that profile American citizens who have hosted international students or have travelled internationally, has made being an American citizen an increasingly risky proposition.
I don’t consider myself to be a political libertarian, but as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser) I’ve become increasingly libertarian. How did this happen to someone who invariably tears up when he hears “God Bless America?” It all boils down to the word trust.
A few years ago I became acquainted with the work of economist Robert Higgs. I read his “Crisis and Leviathan” and found it fascinating. I don’t always agree with him, but I have always found him to be thought provoking. An extended excerpt from a recent essay he did on the surveillance state follows. I’m including it because I believe what Professor Higgs says is really important:
“How many individuals cannot be blackmailed by someone who knows everything about their personal affairs, much less by someone who also controls enormous surveillance agencies, police forces, and the courts? With the information now in their hands, state authorities will be well-nigh certain to augment their powers by using this information to deter or cripple political opponents, to coerce unwilling cooperation (including false testimony) by others, and to silence anyone who might be tempted to criticize or expose their misfeasance and malfeasance. To suppose that American state officials will not act in these ways is naïve in the extreme. These politicians are not angels; on the contrary. And their newly acquired treasure trove of information places a resource of heretofore unimagined power in their hands. To trust that they will not massively abuse their control over this resource flies in the face of everything we know about the kind of people they are.”
I have to admit that I was one of those naïve people. I just didn’t think when I first started digging into this sordid mess that our government could do the sorts of things they’re doing to us now. But, the more I dug, the more angry and libertarian I became.
Misplaced trust in any human institution can be foolhardy. As Bildad told Job, “What they trust in is fragile; what they rely on is a spider’s web. They lean on the web, but it gives way.  They cling to it¸ but it does not hold.”
As I see it, there are only two ways out of this mess. First, we need to scream bloody murder. We need more village idiots! For folks in these parts it means that Jerry Moran and Tim Huelskamp are only a phone call or an angry e-mail away. It means we need to flood the President’s in box or his voicemail with our expressions of outrage. Second, we need to heed the poet’s words. We need to trust ourselves Trusting in our government is misplaced. It’s become everything it shouldn’t be. It has become a fool’s errand.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Nancy and I just got back from Lake Tahoe. We’d gone to attend the wedding of Corina Nour, a young Moldovan woman who’d first come to live with us about ten years ago to attend Emporia High school as an international exchange student.  
I was the “officiant” at the ceremony, thanks to a gracious invitation from Corina and her fiancé, Sherwin Sheik. It was one of the great honors of my life.
Looking back on things now, it’s clear to us that God has had his fingerprints all over the plan for Corina’s life.
It all began quietly. Nancy and I had just gotten back from a short getaway to Chicago. As soon as we got home, Nancy went upstairs to her office and began catching up on all the news here in Emporia. She browsed through the back issues of the Gazette and read a short blurb from Glen and Carol Strickland about their need for a host family for a young woman from Moldova. Nancy was intrigued and suggested we consider contacting the Stricklands. I wasn’t too sure at first, but Nancy convinced me that hosting a student would be a healthy exercise for us.
Corina left Moldova sometime in early August. She spent a couple of days in New York, thanks to the big east coast blackout of 2003. When she arrived in Wichita she looked like she’d been through the mill. After finding out that their airline had lost her luggage and then making arrangements to get it to Emporia when it was found, we headed home.
It took her a few days, but Corina plowed her way through the early problems she faced. It wasn’t long from there till she was thriving in an atmosphere where opportunities were ever-present
As the weeks and months passed, Nancy and I came to see how special our relationship with Corina had become. It never became a parent-child relationship. We saw from Corina’s life that she had wonderful parents in Moldova. There was no need to reinvent the parent wheel. We felt strongly that our best role was to be Corina’s friends and that, at the appropriate times, to be advisors and confidants.
She excelled in everything she tried, whether it was languages, history, literature, or debate. The reports from the school validated what we’d come to know. Corina was one in a billion.
Her year in Emporia was over in a flash. As we got her to the departure gate in Wichita we were all overcome with emotion. Was this to be our last time ever seeing each other? And what of Corina’s life? How would all her incredible potential be fulfilled?
The years passed. She did quite well back home in Moldova. She went to Romania to do her undergraduate work in finance. When she was close to graduating we saw a new door of opportunity we could make available to her – a masters’ program at E.S.U. We were confident that she understood how to take advantage of the opportunity. She accepted and came back.
The next four years were a whirlwind. She parlayed a 4.0 G.P.A. and her work ethic into a job at the Granada Theatre and another as a graduate assistant at the university. By the time she was in the throes of her last year the big opportunity came – an internship at Cisco Systems in San Jose. She completed the internship, came back, graduated, and was then offered a full time position with Cisco.
But it doesn’t end there. She met Sherwin, the man who is now her husband, in California under the most incredible circumstances. There’s not enough space to write about it now. Suffice it to say that it was truly a match made in heaven.
How do these incredible things happen? Chance? Luck? The only explanation that I find satisfactory is the grace of God. What else could explain the tight connection between a young woman from a liberated Soviet republic and two American retirees who answered a last minute call for help? What else could explain the fact that Sherwin’s family had come to the California to escape the clutches of the Iranian revolution?  And, the timing of the internship at Cisco? It was perfect.  
As I watched Corina come down the aisle with her father to take her vows I had to fight back the tears. I was awestruck by her stunning beauty, but I was even more amazed at how God had taken such disparate pieces, cultures, and events and stitched them together with such love and care.
We’re back home now, settled in. In quiet moments we occasionally find ourselves wondering how Corina and Sherwin’s dreams will be realized. However that plays itself out, we’ll be eternally grateful for being a small part of setting it all in motion.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


A few years ago Nancy and I spent part of our vacation in Normandy. We had a wonderful time. The people of Normandy are especially gracious. I think the graciousness stems from the deep sense of appreciation the people of Normandy have for those who gave their lives to liberate them back in 1944.
This sense of appreciation is especially evident in the tender care the people of Normandy give as custodians for the cemeteries and monuments that dot the landscape. I remember passing through the American Cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach. As I weaved my way around the white crosses or the stars of David that mark the final resting places of the brave souls who gave their lives I could see that there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place. It’s a reflection of the love the people of Normandy have for those who died liberating them.
While in Normandy I took part of a day to walk up Omaha Beach. I started at the water’s edge and made my way slowly up the beach. As I did I occasionally looked up, trying to get some sense of what things must have been like on June 6th, 1944. I came to the conclusion that everyone who embarked from the landing craft must have reckoned themselves to be dead men before they ever set foot on French soil.
Why would so many men risk what must have seemed like certain death? Did they all have death wishes? Did they enjoy the inner feelings of terror they must have felt? The only answer that seems satisfactory to me is that they loved liberty, their own and that of others, more than they loved their own lives.
Nine thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven Americans are buried at the American Cemetery in Normandy. They lie peacefully, cared for lovingly and tenderly by the people of Normandy.
The 4th of July is just about upon us. Fireworks are already on sale her in Emporia.
I doubt that I’ll be lighting up any bottle rockets, I’ll try to celebrate, but I’m going to have a hard time. It’s not because I don’t understand what liberty is all about or because I don’t appreciate the sacrifices so many Americans are still willing to make to preserve liberty. I’m having a hard time because I believe many of our leaders have lost their way. They have forgotten.
Maybe if I remind them they’ll listen. Maybe they’ll realize that liberty’s timeless voices need to be heard these days.
In his “Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law,” One of our Founding Fathers, John Adams, said, “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.”
In August, 1776, Samuel Adams had this to say to American loyalists who valued security under the tyranny of King George more than liberty – “If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.”
On March 23rd, 1775, Patrick Henry¸ speaking at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, uttered these now famous words – “Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Speaking to the ratifying committee of the Virginia legislature in June of 1788, Patrick Henry warned, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
In his 1838 Lyceum address, Abraham Lincoln answered the question of what might ever destroy the American union with these stark words – At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
In 1787, James Madison warned “The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.”
And finally there’s this timeless wisdom from a James Madison to Thomas Jefferson letter penned in 1798 – “Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged against provisions against danger, real or pretended from abroad.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


“They own your every secret; your life is in their files
The grains of your every waking second sifted through and scrutinized
They know your every right. They know your every wrong
Each put in their due compartment - sins where sins belong”

 -Meshuggah – “The Demon’s Name is Surveillance” (2012)

I’ve been writing about the dangers of the surveillance state since February. The responses I’ve gotten so far have been very interesting. Some friends, particularly those within the faith community, think I’m a bit over-wrought. Some openly wonder about my loyalty to our way of life. Others from within the community at large have dubbed me a conspiracy theorist.
I’m grateful that Nancy and the critters still see fit to let an enemy of the people like me live under the same roof.
Actually, it’s my critics who have the problem. I’m right and they’re wrong. Our executive branch is building a massive security apparatus manned by a growing army of bureaucrats. They’re well educated. They’re brilliant.  C.S. Lewis once described their ilk as “quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.”
The N.S.A.and the Justice Department are grinding the troops out faster than some of our diploma mills can cast their unsuspecting graduates out into the cold, cruel world. And, they’re building a multi-billion dollar facility in Utah to house them and the deadly tools of their trade.
My critics can deny it till all the cows come home, but the headlines and bylines bear me out:
“U.S. is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls” (The New York Times – June 5th)
“Author of Patriot Act Says NSA Phone Records Collection ‘Never the Intent of Law’” (Fox News – June 6th)
“President Obama’s Dragnet” (The New York Times editorial board – June 7th)
“Lawmakers Dispute Obama’s Claim They Knew of Tracking” (Newsmax – June 8th)
“The Constitutional Amnesia of the NSA Snooping Scandal” (John Judis – The New Republic – June 10th)
“NSA Building Huge Data Farm” (The Daily Kos – June 11th)
“Privacy Isn’t All We’re Losing” (Peggy Noonan – The Wall Street Journal – June 14th)
“James Clapper’s ‘Least Untruthful’ Answer” (Ruth Marcus – The Washington Post – June 14th)
There are times I get frustrated with the way some people react to my concerns. I’m not at all what they claim. First, I’m far from being over-wrought. In fact, I think they’re the ones who may not be concerned enough about what’s going on all around them. Our Constitutional rights are being eroded and they just turn a blind eye and say, “This is all being done to keep us safe.” I’d be willing to be they know more about what’s going on with Lindsay Lohan or Jodi Arias than they do about our Constitutional rights.
Second, I’m no conspiracy theorist. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe Roswell was clever marketing, not reality. I don’t believe the World Trade Center towers were brought down by a C.I.A. missile or some nefarious Jewish cabal.  Enough said!
Third, I’m as loyal as any American can be. I believe in the American ideal. I believe in our way of life. I believe in the principles that undergird that way of life, particularly our Constitution and Bill of Rights. When I was a young man I joined the military. On the day I enlisted I raised my right hand and swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” I would gladly take that same oath today. But, I don’t believe that my government has the moral authority to send me or any of America’s sons and daughters out the front door to defend liberty and then reward us at the back door by shredding the first, second, fourth, and fifth amendments to the Constitution by deceit.  If that marks me as disloyal, then their claim about me is nothing more than Orwellian claptrap and the word loyalty itself has no meaning.
If I’m guilty of anything, it’s believing in the principles that made us the envy of the world. If I’m wrong, then so are millions of oppressed people around the world who have fought and won the right to breathe the sweet air of liberty.  If I’m right about the surveillance state, we’ll all have to learn to live in an America where everyone is a suspect.
We’re treading on a dangerous path. Peggy Noonan put it this way: “Too many things are happening that are making a lot of Americans feel a new distance from, a frayed affiliation with, the country they have loved for a half a century of more.”
We dare not tread another step further. To do so would be to invite disaster.

Friday, June 07, 2013


We have a new addition to our menagerie. Her name is Katt. With a name like that, you’d think that Katt would be a cat. But she’s not. Katt is actually a dog. I gave some fleeting thought to changing her name, but after a day or two the name grew on me. So, the matter is settled. My dog, Katt, will forever be Katt.
Almost every time I call her name I chuckle. I find the idea of calling “Katt” and watching a dog appear quite amusing. It reminds me of Eugene Ionesco and the theatre of the absurd. In one of his plays, “Rhinoceros,” there is a conversation between a logician and an old man. The logician begins the conversation by observing that “cats have four paws.” The old man responds, “My dog has four paws.” The logician, believing that his logic is impeccable, proudly declares, “Then your dog is a cat and the contrary is also true.” I now find myself occasionally muttering “My dog is Katt…and the contrary is also true.”
It’s only been a few weeks, but she’s already wormed her way into my heart. I assumed that she would bond to Nancy since she’d been owned by a woman, but to my surprise she’s bonded herself to me and my buddy Ranger the sheltie, the only two men in the house. She’s especially fond of me and follows me everywhere, upstairs, downstairs, out to the back yard. When I sit in my recliner she tries to climb up with me, pawing incessantly as she does.
She looks like Jack, but she’s not like him. She’s not overweight like he was. She’s never learned any tricks. She doesn’t seem inclined to chase rabbits or squirrels. She just dotes on me. I think she knows I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.
We’ve already had the adventure of a lifetime. Last week we took her and Ranger to our crash pad in Kansas City. On Sunday afternoon I took them for a walk around the River Market. We were having a great time until we got to the “Max” bus stop. A couple of young girls got Katt excited and she started jumping up and down. Somehow she managed to slip out of her collar. The girls lunged at her and she bolted. She ran out into the street and nearly got hit by a car. I started running to get her, with Ranger in tow. She panicked and started running down Grand Avenue. It all looked hopeless until a homeless man saw my plight and started running along with me. “I’ll get her for you, Mister,” he reassured me. The chase was on. For the next fifteen minutes we ran, following cues from people pointing us in the right direction as we did. Then we lost her trail. It looked like all was lost. But, the homeless man refused to give up. “I’m gonna’ get her for you. Don’t you worry.” Then, as suddenly as she’d disappeared, Katt reappeared. She ran past us and several other people and stopped in front of a man and his wife. From outward appearance, they appeared to be well heeled. “Grab her,” I pleaded. For some reason the man decided some more fun was in order. “Let’s see how far we can make her run,” he said as he very deliberately chased her off. Thankfully, the homeless man refused to give up. Somehow he managed to catch up with Katt before she got to Interstate 70. As he handed her over to me I thanked him profusely. I gave him twenty bucks for his kindness. As he walked away I noticed that his eyes were tearing up.
It was quite an adventure. As soon as we got back to Emporia I went to Wal-Mart and got Katt a harness to replace the collar she’d slipped out of. There will be no more unplanned escapes for Katt.
The adventure also taught me a very important lesson. Life is sometimes like the theatre of the absurd.  Appearances can be deceiving and logic often fails. You’d think it would’ve been the well-heeled man who rescued me instead of some homeless man. You’d think that a well-heeled man would’ve been full of the milk of human kindness rather than the homeless man.
How do all these things get sorted out? What’s the reward in the end for being kind? What’s the penalty for being downright mean? Is it like the story of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man? Was that homeless man a Lazarus of sorts? Will he, like Lazarus, find himself in Paradise some day? And how will the story end for the well-heeled man? If his actions that Sunday afternoon are any indication, he may be very thirsty.