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.”
Despotism? Really?
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.

Friday, January 18, 2013


I just completed a trifecta. Several years ago I read Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” all 500,000 words worth. In the nineties, Nancy and I saw the Broadway adaptation in New York. Then, over the holidays, we saw the film version.

I loved all three.

Last Sunday, like millions of others, Nancy and I watched the first episode of “Downton Abbey’s” third season. We loved it and are eagerly anticipating the upcoming episodes. I’m a John Bates junkie and I hope when all is said and done he’ll be a free man.

It’s a good thing I didn’t pay attention to the critics beforehand. According to “Rotten Tomatoes,” “Les Miserables” was about as much a miss as it was a hit. New Yorker’s Anthony Lane described it as “inflationary bombast.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Clint O’Connor called it “lumbering and drab.”

Downton Abbey didn’t fare much better with some critics. The Kansas City Star’s Sara Smith had this to say: “Those who accept it for what it is — a funny, manipulative soap that relies on historical upheaval to frame its scarce plots — should be happy to hear that “Downton’s” new season is better than its last.”

Well, silly me. I liked what I saw last season and I’m eagerly anticipating the necessary plot twists it will take to see John Bates breathing the sweet air of freedom by the time this season is done.

Reading the critics’ offerings makes me wonder what might have happened if Victor Hugo or Julian Fellowes had invited Rotten Tomatoes or the Kansas City Star into their creative processes. “Les Miserables” would have been 450,000 words shorter in order to accommodate the modern attention span. It would have been far less esoteric and far more “edgy.” There wouldn’t have been time or space to explore great themes like redemption, forgiveness in the face of fanatical legalism, mercy juxtaposed against cruelty, revolution, or whether or not God is involved and active in a fallen world.  And, I can only imagine what Downton Abbey might look like if Sara Smith had been involved in the creative process. We’d never have to worry about how or if Matthew’s principles and Mary’s worldly ways could produce marital bliss. There would be no room for Maggie Smith’s very entertaining dowager or the intra-servant intrigue and in-fighting going on in the bowels of the castle.

There’s something I find very gratifying in the fact those involved in the creative arts rarely, if ever, consult the critics before they do the creating.  Walt Disney didn’t build his entertainment empire on a foundation built by critics. He once said, “We’re not trying to entertain the critics. We’ll take our chances with the public.” Brendan Behan’s thinking was a bit spicier – “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”

I suspect if one were to dig into the heart of a critic he or she would find an unrequited soul. Think of it. How would you like to spend your days hopping from theatre to theatre, then dashing back to the office to grind out review after endless review. Where’s the social utility in that? It’s not being a trash-man riding on the back of a garbage truck, a nurse in an intensive care unit, a brain surgeon, a cop on the beat protecting the public, a teacher, a librarian, a cowboy, a ditch digger, a lawyer, or an accountant. About the only kindred spirits that come to mind when I think of critics are politicians taking bribes on the side or world renowned food critics pretending they can detect exotic spices in the food they review.

I’m also glad the public doesn’t pay much attention to the critics.

Yesterday I listened to a rendition of the old American classic “Shenandoah,” sung by Tom Waits and Keith Richards. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking right now. “No way!” Well, they did it and I really loved it. They were perfect together. There’s something magical about hearing Waits singing like his mouth is full of garbanzo beans, accompanied by an old rocker who moans like he’s been hit by a freight train. Some critics may not like them, but I don’t care. I love ‘em and that’s good enough for me.

I guess that critics will always maintain their habit of looking for nuance while the public keeps looking for a good laugh or a cry. There’s just a gap between the two that’s all but impossible to bridge. The critics’ view of things is from 30,000 feet. The public’s is more down to earth. I think that probably explains why “Les Miserables” is making millions, Downton Abbey is all the rage, and the critics are frustrated.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


Another new year. I’m amazed. When I think back on my profligate youth I can’t figure out how I made it to fifty, much less seventy. It must have something to do with the way the grace of God intercepted me back in ‘67.
In a Gazette op-ed a few days ago Bonnie Erbe hammered a nail or two through the lid of contemporary Christianity’s coffin. Citing research polls indicating that more and more Americans are abandoning religious affiliation (20% of us, according to a Pew Research poll). Erbe triumphantly concluded, “One day, Christian leaders will wake up and recognize that their era is crumbling.” If the trends continue, she believes America will eventually free itself from the shackles of “oppressive Christianity.” Thus, Christianity will become irrelevant and powerless. Erbe sees this as reason to celebrate.
Should I, as a Christian, be troubled? Absolutely not! If my faith meant nothing more to me than cultural relevance or political power it would be utterly meaningless. I gave no thought to those things when I embraced faith in Jesus. In fact, I was powerless, not powerful. I was an outsider looking in, not an insider looking out. I was weak. I was lost! No amount of cultural relevance or political power could fix what was ailing me.
Nothing that I’ve seen on the political or social scene over the past fifty years has changed my thinking. Political power shifts over time. So do society’s trends. The powerful one day become the downtrodden the next. Yesterday’s chic and trendy becomes laughable as soon as the latest fashions are displayed on the runways in Paris.
There’s one thing, though, that doesn’t change with time – our search for meaning in life.
Nancy and I have seen this played out over and over again. We moved to New Jersey in the late eighties. Once we found a place to live we started looking for a church, a particular type of church. It wasn’t easy, since the prevailing religions on the east coast are humanism and mammon, and sometimes a marriage of the two. But we found it in a place called Jockey Hollow. It wasn’t a glorious place. There were no flying buttresses; there was no massive pipe organ. In fact, the roof leaked and the chairs creaked. But, over the years we found ourselves bound together in a pilgrimage with a small, eclectic band of societal castaways, nuclear and design engineers, musicians, poets, vagabonds, and a PhD chemist thrown in for good measure. We had none of the trappings one normally associates with power. We had very little money, and the little we had flowed through us. I remember a business meeting when we deferred plugging the leaky roof and gave every penny we had to missionaries in India, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Mali, and other mission posts along the world’s 10-30 corridor. I can still hear the cheers erupting as the last dollar was given.
The church in Jockey Hollow was never relevant or powerful in worldly terms, but Nancy and I experienced quiet, transcendent power in that seemingly insignificant place. The relationships and bonds of affection we developed there will last our lifetime, and beyond.
We’ve seen that transcendent power displayed in the most unlikely of places. We’ve even seen it on Memphis’s Highland Strip, in a small generation X church sandwiched between a psychic advisor and Rocky’s Tattoo Parlor. 
We occasionally reminisce about a Sunday morning years ago when we toured Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Like most that morning, we were tourists caught up in gargoyles and the gold-laden altar. We made our way around the nave, taking pictures as we did. As we moved close to the altar we noticed a small group of worshippers singing a’ Capella. They didn’t seem to take any notice of the tourists like us skulking around. My words can’t adequately describe the beauty of the polyphony. It was a transcendent moment. The twenty or so songs gathered together, became one, then rose gently heavenward, past the massive columns and statuary. The power of the experience brought me to my knees.
I often hear that Christianity has become meaningless in Europe. My experience that morning taught me that Christianity’s European presence, while small, is alive and powerful.
It’s sad, but true. Religion almost always loses its way when it becomes big, socially relevant, or politically powerful. So, Erbe may be at least half-right. Institutional Christianity may be on the wane. But, whatever happens, there will always be small bands of pilgrims searching for absolution and meaning. We may become the minority report, but we’ll still be there. As Bob Dylan put it:

 “All my loyal and much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that’s long been abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road.”