Sunday, December 1, 2013

Of Black Fridays and Red Octobers

Velikaya Oktyabr'skaya sotsialisticheskaya revolyutsiya, commonly referred to as Red October, was the October Uprising or Bolshevik Revolution, the seizure of power within the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. As most of the world knows by now, the Soviet experiment was a failed one. But over the life span of an average human being, the Soviet Union sure gave the other world superpower a run for its money.

The irony behind the blood-rich symbolism found in Soviet history is that the Union was brought down by a red bottom line: the empire essentially went bankrupt.  An Italian friend of mine once commented, as we both watched the literal teardown of the Berlin Wall, it is unfortunate that the Soviets were more concerned with control than with authentic socialist wellbeing. In his opinion, from that milestone moment on, US style capitalism would go unchallenged. The good, the bad, and the Black Thursday.

For those not familiar with the origin of the term, Black Friday refers to retail businesses going from red ink to black ink on their ledgers  in other words, profitable. To go out on a limb, the “Black” in Black Thursday / Black Friday is not where the ugliness lies. At least not until someone steps up as the leading, post-Soviet challenger to the American way of life. Many believe China, another “red state” of sorts, has been trying to fill the Soviet shoes. With its own Great Wall full of symbolic cracks and ready to come down any decade now, China has ironically been busily producing some of the stuff that Black Friday is made of. Not as much as Americans think, less than 10% in all categories, but a sufficiently ominous portion nonetheless.  So instead of aiming its nuclear arsenal at us, China is attacking the leading superpower with… stuffed toys. This would seem like a Disney-esque plot in a world power conflict, if it weren’t for one unfunny complication: merchandise coming from China is manufactured in great part by a labor force that would not be legally allowed to exist in America. We are, after all, “better” than that.

That would seem like enough of a conscience-tugging problem for the US. But wait, there’s more: the US has not merely offshored labor that it does not stomach on its own soil, it continues to rely on hyper consumption as its structural foundation. A consumption-based economy, within reason, is technically sustainable. Cyclical recessions are simply the price to pay. But hyper-consumption, consuming at a rate higher than income, savings or investments, is not sustainable. In hyper mode, it in fact becomes a pyramid scheme – an approach that in great part explains the 1% controversy.

According to a US News Money report, the US middle class peaked in 1969. That’s 45 years ago, in case some of us have lost track. An entire generation was born, graduated from high school, college if they figured out a way to pay for it, started a work career, and found themselves… worse off than their parents in one too-many cases. Of course “worse off” is a relative term, and it shouldn’t just be measured by economics. But a shrinking middle class is not exactly the direction a system that professes to be better than socialism should take. Five republican presidents and three democratic ones have presided since 1969. This is not a partisan issue – it is a systemic breakdown. It is a crack in our very own Wall Street.

I have always been a fairly skeptical person. I don’t believe in most conspiracy theories, and I am put off by agenda-driven exaggerations. Having said that, I recognize I have committed mistakes in judgment, personally, economically, and politically. Yet as we all know, learning from those mistakes is its own reward. With that in mind, it seems to me that every year the average American keeps making the same mistake: Black Friday typically comes at the expense of Red Saturday. There's a fundamental reason the great American middle class is shrinking  it is consuming more than it produces. Wall Street's perennial hunt for Black December may just take the American system to its own version of Red October.

I blogged about the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, my conclusion was that our obsession with Wall Street was not the answer. I do agree that the systemic damage being inflicted by the 1% is outweighing its “trickle-down” contributions. It’s the proverbial “taking more than you give” dysfunction. And yet, obsessing about what fat cats are or are not doing is not where the answer lies. I believed then as I still do today, every time the fat cats put cheese in the mousetraps, we only have ourselves to blame if we keep falling for the same impulse. The American middle class has in fact become addicted to consumption.

A few years ago I made a promise to myself: do not criticize without offering a solution. With that in mind, I am increasingly in search of post-capitalist – not anti-capitalist – movements to support in one way or another. Create one if I have what it takes.

One such example is the “Landfill Harmonic” project, born out of a trash landfill in one of the poorest countries in the world (watch the three-minute preview of the project below, I am confident you will be inspired by it). This project is a wonderful example of how change can happen, not by continuing the blame game against the 1%, but by curing our addiction to what they are selling. This particular project may or may not survive, but that's hardly the point: none of us do in the long run. That's where the beauty of change comes in. Change does not have to always stem from pain and fear. Smart change needs to increasingly come from inspiration.

The Landfill Harmonic Project

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Pursuit of The Stuff That Buys Happiness

I don’t have time to read about philosophy. Unlike you, I don’t have the luxury of pondering the pursuit of happiness.”  I remember the first time I heard those words. Struck me as very odd. I mean, the Dalai Lama may be a peculiar old man, perpetually sporting a Hare Krishna fashion statement – before AND after Labor Day. But my American friend was ignoring a simple fact: the pursuit of happiness just happens to be center stage within the constitution of the United States – a country many Americans profess to love. Unless... they have bought into an unquestioned code: that the word "happiness" in the preamble to the constitution of the United States is a prime directive code for economic wealth. 

In my travels around the world, I have observed two approaches to the pursuit of happiness: one is a conviction that it can only be achieved through relentless hard work; and the other, that working too hard yields precisely the opposite of happiness.

So let’s take a scale from one to ten, for simplification: one being minimal or practically no work, and ten being work almost all the time. You would think that striving for a 5 would be a healthy balance. Perhaps, but there’s that pesky conventional wisdom that has tainted that middle score as the pursuit of mediocrity

The thing about work is that it has two separate realities: one is the work itself, and the other one is its compensation – primarily the economic kind. In theory, it’s entirely possible for someone to be the happiest worker on earth, with very little compensation – and vice-versa (the most miserable worker, with the highest compensation). And so, just to play it safe, many people find themselves wondering every now and then if we're stuck in the pursuit of mediocrity.

Here’s the catch: we only have one shot at this life. There comes a time when we need to be as clear with ourselves as we demand the world be with us. If you are in the pursuit of compensation, then just say so and move on - don't hide behind the words "hard work". However, if and when your thirst for increasingly higher compensation comes at the expense of happiness, yours or others, then you need to be as accountable towards your poor choices as you preach to those who are not in pursuit of compensation.

As for the ones at the other end of the spectrum, those that find themselves pursuing work because they love what they do, regardless of the compensation, I only have one thing to say: well done you. To paraphrase the peculiar man with the contagious smile, happiness is the highest form of success.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Apartheids: "Zona Sur" ("Southern District", 2009)

Sundance award-winning Zona Sur is director Juan Carlos Valdivia’s fourth film, a production that he's proud to say has given him a lot of satisfaction. Which just so happens to be a feeling that eludes practically every character in the story  like in all good dramas. So far, muy bien

The movie is shot almost entirely in the wealthy residence of an upper crust Bolivian family, within one of capital city La Paz’s most affluent neighborhoods (Zona Sur / Southern District). It is a story of a decadent but not entirely self-destructive family, headed by a strong matriarch-divorcĂ©e (“Carola”). Set in modern-day Bolivia, Valdivia’s slow and continuous camera-panning technique is symbolic of the slow-cooking, social and political changes that Bolivia itself has been undergoing in recent years. While the vast majority of the country is of native Andean heritage, Zona Sur zooms-in on the remnants of a white minority, an unblended European aristocracy that has been gradually losing political, economic, and social relevance – intensified by the rise to power in 2006 of the country’s first native Aymara president (Evo Morales).

Carola lives with her three children, older teens Patricio and Bernarda, and young grade-schooler Andres. Live-in house servants Marcelina and Wilson are natives, often heard speaking to each other in the native Aymara language. Carola, on the other hand, can sometimes be heard calling out Wilson’s name in true Tom Hanks form, recalling that famous scene in Castaway (“Wilsoooon!”)

Patricio and Bernarda are oozing sexuality through their pores, Patricio on a decadently straight path, and Bernarda on a genuinely lesbian one – yet another interesting contrast in this story of contrasts. Meanwhile, young and curious Andres offers a neutralizing element of innocence to the story. With his rooftop and treehouse escapades, along with his imaginary friend SpielbergAndresito ironically provides some grounding to an otherwise flighty family. For her part, Carola always seems to be a heartbeat away from a breakdown, as much as she manages to maintain a front of strength in a vacuum of values. Her relationship with Wilson the butler-cook-chofer-nanny is borderline surreal: she scolds him liberally, has not paid him in six months, asks him to raid her son’s piggy bank to go buy bread, all the while ignorant of the fact that Wilson bathes in her bathroom, uses her towels, and treats himself to Carola’s expensive facial skin creams.

Zona Sur stands on its own merit, you do not need to be a connoisseur of all things Bolivian to experience its human side. Having said that, a little historical background adds a layer of intensity to the experience. So with that in mind, indulge me for a moment as I slowly pan my review into a related commentary... 

The film's trailer mentions an interesting word at one point: "apartheid". While the word is not actually used in the movie, there is a clear and underlying theme of classism and racism. Bernarda utters those same two words in one scene, as she accuses her mother Carola of being both a classist and a racist. But there is a danger of extrapolation here, for audiences that are not intimately familiar with Bolivia's history and social reality. The house in the story, as a "bubble", can give the illusion that the Bolivian native population is suffering from white European oppression in the same way historically found in South Africa, the U.S., or even other Latin American countries like Mexico and Colombia. To be sure there will always be some parallels there, of course. But there is a unique circumstance in Bolivia that makes this story wonderfully different: if you don't pay close attention, you will miss the point that the apartheid here is in a way a "reverse" apartheid.

The part where you have to pay close attention may be considered a “spoiler”, so continue to read at your own risk (personally I don’t think it is a spoiler in the classic sense, but I’ll let you be the judge of that). It could be said that the climax of the story takes place when Carola is visited by two native Bolivian women, dressed in typical native garb. One of them is wheeling a large suitcase, and they are both accompanied by a third woman dressed in business attire. Carola is courteous with them and invites them in for a refreshment. What Carola doesn’t realize is that the two native women are there to buy her out of the house, and the suitcase contains $250,000 in cash. In the other countries I mentioned earlier, such a scene would raise eyebrows and would leave the audience thinking that the natives must be crooked. But outside of our house bubble in the story, Bolivian natives have slowly been taking back their region, politically, socially and economically – since as far back as 1953 (the Agrarian Reform law).

To be clear: “reverse apartheid” taken literally is too strong of a statement, in the sense that the unblended white population of Bolivia is not being forced into basic labor with few or no benefits, or forcibly segregated. My point in this commentary is not to make a political statement as to whether there have or have not been a certain amount of injustices committed by both sides – or who is “winning” that pissing contest. The only point I am trying to make here is that, in a world where stories of revolution and oppression have almost always been clearly delineated along obvious economic and/or racial lines, the social revolution twist in Zona Sur is almost Hitchcockesque to the impartial observer. An appropriate analogy, by the way, if you are familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s extended/slow panning camera technique, most notably used in his masterpiece Rope


Zona Sur Trailer

Monday, March 18, 2013

Getting Shot In America: A Tale Of Two Cities

Sitting at the surgery trauma waiting room at UC Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, I couldn’t help but notice two separate realities. The good news is, the divide was not racial. The bad news is, it was painfully economic.

There was a prison inmate in the room, shackled and leg-injured, with a sheriff on one side and his girlfriend on the other. His girlfriend was arguing with him, he kept asking her to leave. There was a little old lady, black and cute as a daisy, whom I wanted to adopt as a grandmother. What struck me as odd and a little heartbreaking is that she seemed to be there alone, and disoriented. A nurse came by to check up on her. There was a middle-aged white woman in a wheelchair, who looked all of sixty-five but my bet is that she was no more than forty-five. She was accompanied by her daughter, stunning looks and looking all of thirty, though my bet is that she wasn’t more than twenty. Growing up fast is an expression of bittersweetness on the right side of the tracks, but on the wrong side it is just another battle wound.

I was there because a friend of mine had been shot. Twice, once in the leg and once in the abdomen. The leg shot had shattered his femur. He was ambushed at midnight in what turned out to be an armed robbery, and as he wrestled for his life the gun went off twice. My friend is in his mid 20’s, but I’ve known him since he was 14. He was “assigned” to me in 2003 by an organization that works closely with the division of Children Services at Hamilton County. I was his Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

Sydney (not his real name) had landed in “the system” after he ran away from home. His life -- or “file” as the system prefers to call it -- was a textbook case of child neglect and abuse. The complication is, once you dig in beyond the surface, it really does get complicated. Sydney’s mother was a product of the system herself. 

I remember when I first met Sydney, at a foster home. His foster mom seemed nice enough, the home was clean and well-furnished. I could tell Sydney sized up all of us rather quickly: the foster mom, as much as he seemed to respect her, received a subsidy from the government for taking care of him; the social worker from Children Services did not interest him in the least. But he looked at me up and down more than once, almost as if to say: what does he get out of this? It was emphasized more than once that my role was strictly a volunteering one.

Four years later, with a few visits to juvenile detention centers in between, I found myself in court for Sydney’s official “release” from the system – on his 18th birthday. It seemed a bit surreal to me, as there was a strange assortment of people present: a lawyer from the CASA organization; my CASA supervisor; Sydney’s 3rd social worker (I had been his only CASA throughout the same period of time); a lawyer from Children Services; Sydney’s biological mother; and me. Sydney chose to sit with me, not surprising given the revolving door cast of characters. The judge went around the room, asking everyone for their comments. The social worker was issuing a somewhat defensive statement, sprinkled with local politics, occasionally glancing at the lawyer from the county. The judge interrupted her a bit impatiently, looked at me and asked for my thoughts. I looked at Sydney, then back at the judge and said, “All I can say is that in these past four years I thought it was Sydney who was hopefully going to learn something from me. Instead, I believe I have learned more from him. I am thankful to him for that.”

In the ten years that I have known Sydney, I must have traveled between the west and the east side of Cincinnati over a hundred times. The West Side, while it does include a couple of middle class and affluent neighborhoods, is primarily blue collar or poor. The East Side is the exact opposite – a couple of blue collar and poor neighborhoods, but primarily middle, upper middle, and highly affluent neighborhoods. There are awkward jokes in Cincinnati about which side of town you are from – usually in the form of "where did you go to high school?". As a permanent outsider no matter where I have lived, the jokes struck me as odd. People from the East Side and the West Side have no more in common with each other than people I have met from opposite sides of the world. So if by “which part of town” they really mean “which part of the planet” – I guess I could join in the nervous laughs.

I have traveled the road from New Delhi to Agra; north and south through Port-au-Prince Haiti; through the slums of Bogota, Rio, Manila, and countless of other "third world" cities. I have wined and dined in London, Paris, Munich, and other “first world” cities; and I have driven through Cincinnati’s Indian Hill neighborhood over a thousand times. Indian Hill is not only one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest neighborhoods on the East Side, it is home to one or two king makers. During my thirteen years in the city, both US presidents have paid multiple visits to the neighborhood. Given all of these contrasts, I can safely say from all of my travels that a common name and adjacent proximity does not a single city make. Neighborhoods, and their economic realities, are the only relevant segments of society.

Sydney was released from the hospital within a few days of being shot. It was much too early a release, but it is common for someone without health insurance in the US. I also learned that you don’t just drop off someone without health insurance at a hospital for a follow-up: you are expected to wheel him from one section to another, help him up on the x-ray table, get him down, hold him up while they remove his staples, wheel him from one doctor to the other, and beg for him to be given painkillers.

As I drove Sydney from the hospital to his sister’s house on the West Side, I realized he was in significant pain. Yet he had already reprimanded me once at the hospital for demanding that someone get him painkillers. He explained, half-groggy from the pain, that all I was going to achieve was get the nurses to entrench against getting him meds, since there are so many junkies that try to play the system. I asked him if there was a rash of cases with junkies shooting themselves in the stomach and shattering their femurs for free painkillers. That was a wiseass reply that I probably shouldn’t have made, given his state of pain.

Sydney mentioned something I’ll never forget, and it had to do with his ambulance ride to the hospital -- “the longest ride of his life”. Paramedics are trained to keep such victims conscious, even though all they want to do is pass out. But in describing what he remembers looking out of the ambulance, some of the words he used seemed very familiar to me. I had to look them up when I got home, but it didn't take long for me to recall where I had heard a similar thought:

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.”

- Sydney Carton, “A Tale of Two Cities” (Charles Dickens)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Inconvenienti Veritas

My view of St. Peter's cupola in 2011.

I don’t usually retain many Latin expressions, but for some reason the inscription inside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome made an impact on me when I first saw it as a teenager in the mid-70's.  I can recite it from memory to this day:

"TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM"  ("You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.")

I guess what must have made an impression is that, when I glanced up inside the basilica and saw the inscription, I actually understood what it said. I was thirteen, and that sense of awe that everyone gets when they first walk inside St. Peter’s basilica must have struck me as well, particularly as one looks up and sees the dramatic ray of light that enters through the cupola and spotlights the floor of the basilica. Which prompted me to conclude, my God, I can speak Latin! Well, not quite. It turns out that if you speak Italian you can almost get by on reading basic Latin.
Five years and three popes later, the Vatican had become more of a backdrop for me. I had in fact become a local in Rome, the kind that walks past St. Peter’s as if he might be walking past a McDonald’s. Perhaps with the occasional rolling of the eyes, when you become aware that there is a small fleet of tourist buses unloading Japanese, Chinese, Israeli, and Saudi Arabian, um, pilgrims.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not particularly religious. OK, who am I kidding – not at all. What I am is respectful of the essence behind all major religions. But my patience ends once you wander much beyond the essence. I believe the common denominator of all major religions is the prioritization of love, understanding, non-judgment, sacrifice, and humbleness.  When you start dragging the essence of religion into politics, greed, hyper-judgment, superiority, terrorism or war -- that's where you lost me.

With that in mind: considering that Roman Catholicism is the largest church within Christianity, and that Christianity has the most followers on our planet, then the “McDonald’s” I was frequently walking in front of in Rome was in retrospect no ordinary place. There's a picture somewhere of me shaking hands with a future saint -- Pope John Paul II -- which I realize is not the same as shaking hands with Ronald McDonald. In fact, I actually liked the old Polish pope, the first non-Italian in one million years (give or take.)

When John Paul II was succeeded by yet another non-Italian pope I thought the Vatican was just maybe turning a corner. Maybe the church had decided to get back to its more universal roots – and who knows, maybe to its essence. As coincidence would have it, I was back in Rome for a few days on business during that particular transition. I had the best seats in the house actually, as one of my high school buddies was NBC's Vatican correspondent at the time, and he invited us to his report on the same rooftop from where NBC is reporting the transition these past few days. Which brings me to the developments of a few weeks ago, when Pope Benedict announced he was resigning. Once again, I was cautiously optimistic: leadership is not something one should take into senility, it is something one should pass on selflessly.

O Tempora O Mores!

My optimism was soon enough tempered by the child abuse sex scandal that has dogged the church for so many years. I had two completely different personal experiences on that subject, one direct and one indirect. Indirectly speaking, I grew up in a home with a parent that always hinted at personal knowledge of sexual misconduct within the church while growing up. Yet my direct experience was quite the opposite. The years I spent under the wing of a Catholic school took place not far from the Vatican, literally just down the road. Part of my primary and all of my secondary education was completed at an American boarding school in Rome, run by Brothers of the Holy Cross (of Notre Dame fame in the US). I often credit the brothers for the only amount of respect I still have for the Catholic Church. They were a very good example to me, spiritually and intellectually.

So I will try hard not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”, as the Catholic Church has offered the world many great things. It has provided refuge for persecuted peoples, food and shelter for the homeless, care for the sick; it has educated billions of people, something not many institutions can boast; and it has taught the great teachings of Jesus Christ, the “baby” in our baby and the bathwater analogy.

The “bathwater” was not exactly holy, historians have made sure we’re all aware of that fact. From the crusades to the inquisition, you can’t help but wince as a Catholic when you think about the overwhelming power-driven contradictions. Yet if power is something that the Vatican finally had to give up a long time ago, money is something they quietly continued to pursue. Which bought them  a different kind of power, with a behind-the-scenes stability perk. Sooner or later, never mind outsiders, intelligent insiders were bound to notice the proverbial elephant in the room. From a simple economics perspective, there is nothing humble about the Vatican. When the pope’s home looks more like Buckingham Palace than the much glorified humble beginnings of Christianity’s founders, there’s a disconnection. When an ex-pope is whisked away in a helicopter to a castle on a hill where he will retire, there’s a disconnection. But when an ex-pope and the school of cardinals he leaves behind seek immunity from prosecution in a massive child sex abuse scandal, there is a major problem.

I realize some Catholics have reconciled these contradictions, but I suspect too many are not even fully aware of them. My belief is that many Catholics have turned a blind eye towards these fundamental contradictions, which they may be confusing with turning the other cheek. I also believe too many Catholics are subconsciously proud of the grandiosity of the Vatican, almost as if it gives them a sense of historic validity and moral strength. To my knowledge, that is not what Christianity’s founder had in mind when he talked about strength.

The strength I interpreted, as in the rock mentioned on St. Peter’s cupola, was the strength of character, of sacrifice, and ultimately of love. That “rock” is what a child looks up to when he or she trusts an adult. But when the adult lays his hands on a child for his own sexual pleasure, the rock has been covered in slime. Estimated cases are not insignificant, in the tens of thousands (over 4,000 reported cases alone in the US). Pope Benedict’s attempt to underplay the abuse scandal in a speech he gave during Christmas of 2010, by implying that the modern world's moral relativism was at fault, was the last straw for me. In that speech he said, "In the 1970s, pedophilia was seen as a natural thing for men and children…" While he goes on to essentially confirm that he does not believe pedophilia is morally defensible, his mixed signals were reminiscent of the logic some politicians have used on the subject of rape: society’s at fault, everyone carries some blame.

Of course we all carry some blame – understanding that is part of the essence of Christianity. But pointing that out should not come at the expense of another inconvenient truth: accountability. When an adult implies to a child that what another adult did to him was partly his fault, the child no longer feels he is standing on solid ground -- the proverbial rock. If there is no rock, there is no Catholic Church. It is time for the Catholic Church to undergo some serious soul-searching. It cannot possibly continue to look at Jesus Christ on one hand, the Vatican popes on another, and reconcile the two.

Friday, February 1, 2013

God And Country

In the United States we often look up to our founding fathers with a respect that you don’t always see in other countries. In fact, the one thing most Americans agree on is that the founders were great men -- then it all goes wrong from there. Not always of course, Americans pulling together have undoubtedly accomplished great things. But to tackle at least one of the elephants in the room: the Civil War was definitely not a high point in U.S. history.  It was the mother of all pyrrhic victories if there ever was one, with approximately 625,000 self-inflicted deaths. That's over 50% higher than the American casualties of World War II -- and therein lies the elephant: it seems the enemy within is always the toughest foe.

Which is why our founding fathers must have had their fair share of existentialist dilemmas. Fighting a tyrannical government requires a well-armed militia -- until the tyrannical government is defeated. Then all of a sudden you are the government of a well-armed militia with an itchy trigger finger.

Our second president and founding father John Adams tackled the militia dilemma this way: “Never judge a king until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” I’m kidding, of course. He might as well have said that, but what he actually said was, “To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.” (From “A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States 475 (1787-1788)”)

As if that table-turning moment wasn’t enough for John Adams, the matter of God and King -- sorry, God and Country -- must have caused some heavy soul-searching for him. The original U.S. Constitution only had one reference to religion, and it was a limiting one at that [Article 6]: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Even 100 years later, the original Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the words “under God”. That was inserted in 1954 by Animal Farm’s Napoleon.  But in the pig’s defense: why on earth would our founding fathers, surely God-fearing men themselves, go through such trouble to keep God and religion out of the Constitution? Enter stage yet another foul-smelling animal: a doctrine known as The Divine Right of Kings.

In the 1500’s, over three hundred Protestants were burnt at the stake in England under "Bloody Mary" -- a Catholic-based persecution of Protestants, essentially because God told Queen Mary he was cool with it. When Thomas Wyatt the younger instigated what became known as Wyatt's rebellion, John Ponet, the highest-ranking ecclesiastic among those escaping persecution, allegedly participated in the uprising. He escaped after the rebellion's defeat, and subsequently published A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power. According to John Adams, Ponet's work contained "all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke", including the idea of a three-branched government.

And there it was, humanity’s first notion of an accountable government had been conceived. The proverbial over-the-head light bulb had switched on for great thinkers, starting with Mr. Age of Enlightenment himself, John Locke. Opposition to the Divine Right of Kings spread like lit gunpowder, from John Milton’s The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates to Locke's Essay Concerning The True Original Extent, and End of Civil-Government.  But the mother of all declarations against tyranny, divine or otherwise, was finally written by one Thomas Jefferson and his lesser-known collaborator, John Adams. Jefferson and Adams were indeed God-respecting men; but they left us with no doubt that what they did not respect was the idea of men governing with claims to God’s will.

Four score and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg Address, did in fact say “this nation, under God”. But he also made certain that those same words were immediately followed by words that could have just as well been written by Jefferson and Adams: “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Yes, we may not like the people, sometimes. OK, who am I kidding, most of the time. In the words of Helmut Schmidt, (West) Germany’s Chancellor during the late 70’s: “The Americans are what they are, but they are the only Americans we have.” I will trust imperfect Americans to govern over me, even if I don’t always agree with them. But I will line up behind enlightened men in revolution against tyranny, if our leader or leaders one day declare they’re on a mission from God (with all due respect to Jake and Elwood Blues).


“The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles?”

- John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, June 20, 1815


I know it will give great offense to the clergy, but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.

- Thomas Jefferson

The Living Hell of Half-Assed Democracy

"For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy t...