Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day Speech FPUU Kennebunk ME 5/27/12

Memorial Day speech at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Kennebunk, ME, Sunday May 29, 2012

Delivered in two parts
Part One

Ah Memorial Day weekend!
A national holiday commemorating that great national battlefield known as the Indy 500 and the day we set aside to worship the gods of American leisure: Weber, Kingsford, Coppertone, DEET, and of course Budweiser.
What’s not to like?

It’s a holiday where the greatest issue before us turns on two questions:
 “charcoal or gas?”

“potato salad or chips?”
And if you host a party you can feed people on the cheap, keep everyone in the yard, tell them to haul over their own chairs, and only clean one room in your house: the john.

And you don’t have to give anyone a gift and even more mercifully no one gives you fruitcake.
It doesn't get better than that! 

Every now and then, however, some purist or historian -- like myself -- ruins the mood and has to tell us the truth about Memorial Day – what it is we indeed are expected to remember.
Of course, you didn’t really expect to get out of here alive this morning without me doing the same thing, right?

I’m sure you know that Memorial Day, first called Decoration Day, was originally conceived to honor the nation’s Civil War dead. I’ll assume you already have a great deal of knowledge about that huge tragedy in American history. But let me see if I can shed some new light on the subject and then from there let’s stop looking backward and let’s focus on the here & now.
In terms of human treasure, the Civil War was the bloodiest war we have ever fought, not only claiming more American lives than any other war but also devastating the national landscape. The most devastating fighting was in the south and once gorgeous flourishing cities like Atlanta and Vicksburg were laid to waste. Sherman’s March to the Sea would have made many a Roman general pause.

Civil War deaths represent a larger loss of life than all the wars we’ve fought since – COMBINED – and that number is based on a death count of slightly over 623,000.
Let me repeat that number: 623,000.

Incredibly this number – 623,000 dead – is being revised upwards.
Professor J. David Hacker at Binghamton University in New York recently used 19th-century census data to demonstrate that the previous death toll of roughly 623,000 significantly underestimates the true number. Hacker’s data indicates the actual number of Civil War dead is at least 20 percent higher, putting the toll more accurately closer to 750,000 – almost three-quarter of a million human beings.

Hacker’s research is scholarly and highly credible and his research methodology demonstrates how more sophisticated data collection and modern statistical analyses allow us to revisit earlier assumptions, shedding new light on previous data. Today’s professional historians and other social scientists have tools earlier historians could never even imagine and as a group of professionals we are now able to communicate our findings in peer-reviewed formats that add to the integrity of our research and conclusions.

Hacker published his research in the December 2011 issue of “Civil War History” and his article explains not only his conclusions but also how earlier data collection was flawed. It’s compelling reading but for me the most astonishing take-away was what these same numbers – as a percentage of population – would mean to us today.
Understanding that the American population in 1860 was roughly 31 million people and realizing further that number was only about one-tenth the size of our current population, we can estimate that if the Civil War were fought today the number of deaths would total 6.2 million.
Yes: Six Point Two Million.
Can you imagine?
Think how we were rocked to our core on 9/11 – a day in time that cost almost 3,000 lives and now imagine a war fought in thousands of different places, from southern Pennsylvania to Texas; from the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and New Mexico to the Florida coast. The majority of the fighting took place in the states of Virginia and Tennessee but the Civil War was also contested on the Atlantic Ocean (as far off as the coast of France), the Gulf of Mexico, and the brown water of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
Imagine that today and think again about the possibility of 6.2 million deaths.
General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House signaled the end of the Confederacy’s attempt to create a separate nation. It set the stage for the emergence of an expanded and more powerful federal government. For a long period of time historians tended to say the struggle over how much power the central government would hold – a debate that began at the very genesis of America as a new nation — had finally been settled. This was the central issue of the Civil War: it was a fight over whether the individual states would operate as sovereign entities within a loose confederation overseen by a very small, limited federal government or conform not as sovereign entities but as interwoven parts of a large national, centralized government.
Slavery, of course, was the festering pus that forced this toxic debate to a head, bringing these two disparate ideologies to war.
Lee’s surrender at Appomattox only ended the large scale national slaughter; it ended the shooting war but left unresolved important issues that are still being fought today.
In my opinion, and the opinion of other historians, America has been, and continues to be, in a long cold civil war that is a very real continuation of old arguments about states’ rights and personal liberty.
I would suggest to you this morning that in many terrible ways, America is as divided today as it was on the brink of the Civil War 150 yrs ago.
Let’s pause here to pay homage to not only our Civil War dead but to all those Americans who have died in all American military actions. Let’s remember also the heart break their deaths brought to millions of others, to the people who loved them dearly, and to us – Americans who are also no doubt the poorer for each of these deaths.
Eva Downs will lead us in a responsive reading -- #583 on your handout -- titled “The Young Dead Soldiers” by Archibald MacLeish.
Following the reading Pat Conner, on guitar, will lead us in “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?”
Part Two

Just about a year ago today Al and I enjoyed a fantastic visit with our dear friends Nicole and Bob Daines from San Diego. Nicole and Bob are authors, inspirational speakers, and lifelong activists for human dignity and civil rights. In the course of our many hours of stimulating conversations, Bob looked at me and asked “Maureen, why do you think you became such a liberal?”
After stumbling over some generic homage to the benefits of being raised on the north side of Chicago, attending excellent schools, growing up in an extended family of adults who were very engaged in the world around them and who were, almost to a person, lifelong Democrats, I was at a loss to pin-point any particular experience or personal influence explaining my left-leaning philosophy about life.
Rather lamely I said “I think it’s just me. I’ve just always been this way.”
Several days later I realized my answer fell wide of the mark when I had a sudden memory of an experience I’d had with my father when I was a child. The more I reflected on this experience the more I understood it was definitely my father who planted and then nurtured the seeds of my liberalism.
My father was a child of the Depression, a WWII combat veteran, and a practicing attorney and absolutely one of the most influential people in my life. A story about my father may seem more fitting for a sermon or speech on Father’s Day but my dad landed on Omaha Beach, slugged his way through the Battle of the Bulge, and his outfit helped liberate Dachau. Therefore, I believe he earned a place at this Memorial Day service – and I also believe what my father believed and what he stood for deserve to be remembered.
I was 6 or 7 and so this would have been in the late 1950s, a period of Eisenhower conservatism in a country still damaged by the paranoia and hate of McCarthyism. It was a time when being a liberal and a “pinkie Commie” were synonymous and a young Senator from Massachusetts had not yet made liberalism fashionable, let alone respectable. In a way, there are parallels to some of the uglier trends in contemporary America.
My father grew up rural. He was born on a ranch in South Dakota but after my grandparents lost everything in the Dust Bowl during the Depression they relocated to a small farm in southern Illinois. My father was one of those farm boys who once he saw the world never returned to the farm. After the war, he went to college and then law school in Chicago on the GI Bill and fell in love with both the city and my mother, a true city girl, and the rest became our history.
Dad loved museums, the Art Institute, theatre and symphonies and he introduced me to all of the culture Chicago had to offer but one of our favorite places to visit was always Lincoln Park Zoo. And this story is about one day when he promised to take me to the zoo but told me that we first needed to stop at a strange sounding place called “Bughouse Square.” 
Bughouse Square?
I didn’t much like bugs but was nonetheless interested in this unexpected excursion because I suspected it was going to be exactly the kind of place my mother would never have thought to take me.
We arrived and I was immediately disappointed. Bughouse Square was just another city park and it didn’t even seem to have any interesting bugs.
Dad found a park bench in the sunshine and together we sat.
That was all we did: we sat. And we sat some more.

After awhile I asked what we were doing, sitting on that park bench.
Let’s get on with the zoo part of this day, OK?
Dad told me to relax; he said “Shhh… be quiet; watch and listen. Tell me what you see.”
Huh? “Watch what? Who? Where?”
Dad pointed to a man who looked like a bum, armful of leaflets, preaching or ranting or rambling on and on to a small group of curious onlookers.

Then he pointed to a very well dressed man holding court elsewhere in the park, no less agitated than the other guy, but mesmerizing a slightly larger crowd.
The park was busy with cyclists, dog walkers, and probably lovers holding hands. Most paid absolutely no attention to the two very different orators and certainly no one paid any attention to us.
I was very disappointed; it was incredibly boring and I was eager to get on with the trip to the zoo. Those orators shouting and gesticulating before their small crowds didn’t interest me in the least.
I wanted to go to the zoo – NOW!
Dad replied, “But we are at a zoo; this is the Zoo of Liberty. It’s where people come to speak and be heard and even be a little crazy.”
Honest to God, he said that; that’s how my father talked to a 7 year old. Can you imagine?
As my friends often said, my dad was weird. Sometimes he embarrassed the living hell out of me. Who talks like that to a 7 year old kid?
I vaguely remember we eventually found our way to Lincoln Park Zoo but honestly I don’t remember much about the zoo that day. I loved the zoo — but something had changed in my life forever, although it would take a long time for me to realize it.

Suddenly the most important public space in the world was not where living things were forced to live in cages – which of course can be a metaphor for life. I was introduced to the fascinating and radical idea that the most important public spaces were where everyone had a voice and there were no cages. I had been introduced to Bughouse Square and the Zoo of Liberty.
My father didn’t think the people in the Square that day were crazy, or if he did he didn’t say so. No, that wasn’t the message he wanted to convey.
That first introduction to the fascinating world of non-conformist discourse led to many other discussions with my father over the years.
He had opened a window for me to crawl through and I did — and I never looked back.
At some other point, however, and I’m sorry but I can’t identify it at any particular time or place, he also introduced me to the necessary twin of free speech: responsibility.
It was my father who first explained to me that there is no constitutional right that allows anyone to falsely cry “fire!” in a crowded theatre. He explained crying fire in a crowded theatre would cause a panic that could cause enormous harm and maybe even death. However, in the case of a real fire, then the necessity of crying a warning alarm could mitigate against the possible harm caused by doing so; in fact, it would be a moral requirement.
This is a lesson in responsible speech; a weighing of rights and obligations; the beginning of the critical thinking required to understand that the risk of creating unfortunate situations could be justified in order to prevent even greater catastrophes. It is the beginning of understanding that our words have consequences and we must take responsibility for them.
He also taught me that my right to wave my arm ends where another person’s nose begins but that sometimes a powerful blow to the “old kisser” is absolutely necessary.
My soldier-liberator father had seen Dachau and was no pie-in-the-sky pacifist. He understood that sometimes a powerful blow to what he called “the old kisser” was absolutely mandatory.
Some things,” he also told me, “really are worth dying for…and our duty in life is to understand which of those things merit such devotion.”
I realize that the seeds for how I think about both freedoms and duties, as well as how our speech and writings have power and are pregnant with consequences, were first planted in my mind by that fine man on a warm day in Chicago at the Zoo of Liberty, more commonly known as Chicago’s Bughouse Square.
Located across from the prestigious Newberry Library, Bughouse Square – whose real name is Washington Square Park – was the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation and a popular Chicago tourist attraction for 50 years. Bughouse Square (from “bughouse,” slang for mental health facility) was a place where orators (often called “soapboxers”) held forth on warm-weather evenings from the 1910s through the mid-1960s. In its heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, poets, religionists, and cranks addressed the crowds, but the mainstays were soapboxers from the revolutionary left, especially from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Proletarian Party, Revolutionary Workers’ League, and more ephemeral groups. Many speakers became legendary, including anarchist Lucy Parsons, labor-wars veteran John Loughman, socialist Frank Midney, feminist-Marxist Martha Biegler.
Today the Newberry Library hosts the annual Bughouse Debates as a celebration of First Amendment rights and encourages speakers and hecklers alike to join in and speak about important topics of the day. The event also includes reenactments of speeches by famous Chicagoans as well as poetry readings, music and food vendors.
One wonders how long that tradition will last.
Now what I feel necessary to add here – and this brings me to my conclusion – is that although I said the adults in my family were lifelong Democrats – and that was true – my father eventually became the only Republican in the bunch. Perhaps it was only out of loyalty for his military service in WWII – I don’t know – but Dad voted for Eisenhower and then remained a Republican until he passed away in ’78. But in one of our last in-depth conversations before he died we talked about the rise of the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell – whom he detested – and an actor from California who had presidential aspirations and whom my father called “a lightweight.” No need to mention who that guy was…
I find it fascinating that my liberalism was fostered by a man who wasn’t only a Republican voter – he also eventually served as a Republican Attorney General for the state of Illinois – and was part of the team that tackled Big Steel and made them stop polluting the Great Lakes. My father was a compassionate man who believed government should improve the lives of people, preserve our natural resources, regulate powerful corporations and special interests, and make sure all people had equal voice in the process.
Those were the days when conservatism and liberalism shared an interconnection of higher purpose.
Those were the days when what divides us paled in comparison to what unites us.

Unfortunately, I think we all can recognize that this is not how we live today; those days seem over. The question is whether this represents a temporary setback or a more profound national cleavage.
There are many reasons why I think we are in serious trouble in this country and a full enunciation of those reasons would take a much lengthier discussion than is permissible this morning but let me just say this: in my opinion, one of the greatest dangers facing us today is the failure to understand the absolute necessity of unfettered -- but also responsible -- speech. This lack of respect for both free speech and the duties and responsibilities that must of necessity accompany it are having a most dreadful effect on this country today.
I think my father would say today, as I think he tried to say over 50 yrs ago, that the harm is not done by the powerless in places like Bughouse Square. The harm to democracy is done by those with power who fail to speak responsibly and with integrity -- politicians and clergy and other public figures.
But the duty is not reserved for public figures – everyone who is educated also has a voice and a duty to speak the truth well and responsibly.
And those people are us, my friends: the duty is also ours.

Ted Trainer will now lead us in a responsive reading -- #586 on the handout “The Idea of Democracy” by Abraham Lincoln – and Pat Connor will follow on guitar with “One Tin Soldier” and then we’ll close with “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Thank you for allowing me to speak here this morning. It’s been an honor.
Washington Park Square ("Bughouse" Square) with
the Newberry Library in the background

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Happy Wednesday


       And in the meantime, this blog is under construction but I'll get back to you soon....

Have fun!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Mother's Day Special

It's Mother's Day and all over the country people are probably reading saccharine-infused fantasies about motherhood. Well, guess what? Sometimes motherhood sucks. Like when it screws with your mind, rips out your heart and just about kills ya'...

Meet Louise Farrell. Her husband, Frank, was a Chicago cop wounded in the line of duty over twenty years ago. His partner's in a grave and Frank's in a wheelchair. They have two daughters and one, Evelyn, is bat-shit crazy; the other is a college professor who teaches history (OK, so maybe Jess is nuts too). Jess is in love with Del Carter, a Chicago homicide dick... in the following scene, she and Del have informed Frank and Louise, who now live in Wisconsin, that the grandchild they adore and raised (Evelyn's daughter) is dead.

Sunny was thirteen. She was taken away from her grandparents a year earlier by the courts and returned to her biological mother, Evelyn. Evelyn, crazy as ever, took Sunny to live with her inside a bizarre religious cult somewhere in central Illinois; the cult is run by a charismastic but emotionally damaged leader and his horrifying sister, Rae Harte. Sunny ran away, was found dead inside a truck on an Illinois interstate and her autopsy revealed she slowly bled to death after she was mutilated... genitally.

The procedure, known as female genital mutilation, has arrived in the middle of the Heartland.

This is Chapter Twenty-Four. Del is up early and Louise Farrell is waiting for him. Louise is a mother who knows her children. The police are focusing on the cult's leaders and Rae Harte but Louise Farrell has her own ideas about who murdered Sunny: Sunny's own mother.

Could it be true?


December 17th
            Del woke about the same time Brownmiller was sneaking back to bed. He quickly shit, showered and shaved and walked into the kitchen about 5:30 to brew coffee, fill his small thermos and hit the road. He was surprised to find Wolf eating a bowl of oatmeal and Louise sipping coffee.  
            “What’s this?”
            “Welcome to the Early Risers Club.” Louise nodded to Wolf who was happily slurping mush out of a large bowl on the floor, “Maple-flavored oatmeal; he loves the stuff.  That’s his second bowl.”
            “I know he likes bacon and eggs. Never saw him eat hot cereal before.”
            “Too bad.  This is much better for his cholesterol.”
            Del didn’t know dogs had cholesterol. Interesting.  
            He poured a cup of coffee and explained he was heading back to Illinois and didn’t know if he’d be back for a few days. She understood, Frank told her last night.  
            “Want some oatmeal?”
            “Is there any left? Or did Spoiled Monster Dog get it all?”
            She laughed. “I put some aside special for you; thought I’d send you off with a warm breakfast.” She plunked a large bowl of oatmeal in front of him, piping hot, before he could blink an eye. Then she poured him OJ.
            “You want a glass of milk, too?”
            “No, this is fine. Just great,” he said, adding teasingly, “you’re a really great mom, Louise.”  
            Del regretted his words the minute they came out of his mouth; Louise visibly flinched, as if he’d slapped her.   
            “I tried.  God knows I tried.  We both tried.”
            “Louise, forgive me.  I didn’t mean anything by that remark.  And you were – you are -- a very good mother.  My God, look at Jess.”
            “Oh I know. Jess is almost perfect. Ironically, we don’t deserve her either,” Louise laughed ruefully, “she’s the other extreme. Thank God she doesn’t hate us.  She doesn’t hate us, does she?” Louise eyed Del with a concerned eye.
            “God, no, of course not!  She loves you both. And Evelyn loves you too, she’s just very troubled.”
            “Evelyn always hated us. Right from the beginning. She said so enough anyway.”
             “Louise, she’s troubled, probably very sick, but she doesn’t hate you.” He didn’t know what the hell else to say.  
            “Well, that’s nice of you to say but I know better.” She sipped her coffee. “She was as hard to raise as Jess was easy. Polar opposites.  I never left them alone together. Evelyn always hated Jess, just like she hated her father and me. She did mean little things to her. Hell, she did mean big things, too. It was so odd, so unnatural.”
            “Jealousy?  New kid in the house?  That’s normal.”  Del was struggling to be comforting.  
            Louise looked at him long and hard.  “It’s a nice thing to say but it’s not true. A mother knows.  It was frightening.  It was there, long before her father was shot.  I’m not sure if Jess even remembers.  Better she doesn’t.  Sunny took after Jess.  Resilient, forgiving.  Thank God.  If Jess wasn’t that way, well, we’d probably have two screwed up daughters I guess.”
            She poured herself more coffee.  “I never told anyone this except the doctors, not even Frank.  Evelyn was four years old when she set Jess’ crib on fire.  Jess was still young enough to be sleeping in a crib, nine months old.”
            “Yeah.  Christ is right. We had a Border collie, Dixie Belle, and she alerted me.  Came running, barking, and almost knock me over, then she grabbed my pant leg and tried to drag me out of the kitchen, up the upstairs. I got the hint immediately and went running.”
            Del was speechless. 
             “It was a slow smoldering fire; lots of acrid smoke, but no flames. I had a plastic bumper guard around the inside of the crib to protect the baby’s head.  I can still see it. All Disney characters.  Real cute.  Anyway, it burned slow but the smoke could have been as deadly as the flames, of course.”
            Del was chilled to the bone. “Of course, sure. Smoke is very, very toxic.”
            Louise sighed. “So-called ‘accidents’ like that were a way of life for us. We lived with an elephant in the living room and tried to act like everyone had one too.  Funny what you can get used to; just amazing, really. Frank never came into the house with his gun. Can you believe that?  A cop afraid to have a gun in his house. He never mentioned where he kept it and I never asked.  When I got the call about Frank and Jimmy my first two thoughts were: one, did Frank forget to take his gun with him and is that why he was shot? And then two, and more chilling, I wondered if Evelyn shot her father and Jimmy.”
            Del could hear his own heart beating. Good sweet Jesus.
            “Honest to God, Del, that’s true.  I thought she killed her father and Jimmy because I knew she was mad as hell at him. Frank grounded her the day before and she screamed she wanted him dead. Do you know what she said?”
            Del shook his head and in a whisper said, “No, what?”
            “She told her father that if she had any money she’d pay someone to kill him.”
            “Jesus, how old was she?”
            “Twelve.  Twelve years old and three months. Can you believe it?”
            “Damn, Louise, I’m so sorry.” The oatmeal was going down like sour milk and Del pushed his bowl aside. Louise stirred her coffee and buttered cold toast.   
            “Did you ever get a diagnosis on her? Anyone ever tell you what was wrong with her?”
            She laughed bitterly.  “Oh, we had plenty of those. The doctors were all big on diagnoses, short on hope. They ranged from the ordinary to the extreme.  I heard them all: schizoid, borderline, sociopath, narcissist, hedonist, bipolar, passive-aggressive, the whole megillah. A few said it was hard to diagnose children and refused to even try. ‘Don’t want to label’ they said. I asked everyone in the family, both sides, Frank’s and mine.  I begged for answers, some explanation why, but there were no hidden skeletons, no weird uncles or cousins, no Lizzie Bordens or Sybils, no bad seeds.  Not even much of the usual garden variety neuroses or eccentricities. There was mean Uncle Ted but he wasn’t blood so he didn’t count and we never dropped her on her head or caused any trauma that we could figure out.”  She handed him a piece of toast and passed the jelly.
            He waived it off.  “No, I’m fine.  The oatmeal’s enough.”
            “I told one doctor that when she was two and a half she saw our beloved cat, Tigger, get run over by a car and, oh boy, he really keyed on that.  He sure was disappointed when I explained Evelyn laughed.  Up until then I’d never heard my little baby girl laugh but she sure found humor in my sweet little dead cat.  I worried about Dixie Belle but she was smart; that dog wouldn’t let my daughter near her. She slept on Jess’s bed and Evelyn couldn’t get near either one of them. Wolf reminds me of Dixie Belle,” she said fondly. “Sometimes I even think Dixie’s come back to us in him, sort of reincarnated.” 
            She felt a little embarrassed to say it and added, “I know that’s weird.  You think I’m crazy.”
            “No, no I don’t.  Wolf’s an old soul, as they say.  My Grandmother talked like that too about people, about animals. She’d understand what you meant.”
            “I kind of feel it sometimes, the way he looks at me, the way he looks at Jess. Particularly the way he looks at Jess.”
            “She saved his life.”
            “Yes, and he knows it. And Dixie saved hers once, too.”
            “I don’t really know what that is,” she said, “but I sometimes think animals are our angels.  They’ve come here to keep tabs on us, report on us. God help those who abuse them.  That’s going to get back to St. Peter one day, big time.”
            Del laughed. “Yeah, can’t you just see it now, the Golden retriever sitting next to St. Peter, giving him the thumbs up or the thumbs down, all these cats and birds and other animals sitting around watching justice being doled out. Can’t you see it?”
            Wolf walked over and rested his massive head in her lap; Louise stroked his muzzle tenderly. “I like it.  It’s a nice thought.” They sat in silence for a few minutes, each in their own thoughts. Louise ate a little more toast and topped off the coffee in their cups. Her mind was still on Evelyn.
             “Del, I used to think we took the wrong kid home from the hospital but she’s a dead ringer for a Farrell and you can see plenty of O’Reilly and Smith in her. She had a horrible fever once, only eight months old, scarletina, and I used to think that’s what harmed her poor little mind. The doctors said no.  I wracked my brain for reasons, clues, anything.  I was a health nut when I was pregnant, ate great, took vitamins.  Didn’t smoke or drink.  Frank and I were never into drugs.  We didn’t have venereal infections. Beats the hell out of me.”
            She stood up with her coffee and walked to the sink and stared out the window, into the yard.  “I’ll say this: if children are a gift from God, then a kid who’s mentally ill is the Gift that Keeps on Giving.”
            She sighed deeply. “We should have fought harder to keep Sunny. We made a horrible, dreadful mistake.  I will never forgive myself.”
            “Louise, even knowing what you learned from Benson about Rae Harte wouldn’t have prevented the court from awarding Evelyn custody, even if you’d been able to get it into evidence, which you weren’t.”
            Louise returned to the table and sat across from Del. She stared at Del with a puzzled look.  “You don’t get it, honey. Rae Harte? I’m not talking about her. I’m talking about Evelyn. I don’t know that other woman from Adam and no file could ever tell me anything near what I already know about my own daughter.”
            The light suddenly went on and Del understood but Louise continued, “Del, it’s Sunny’s mother who’s the real monster; Evelyn’s the monster. You understand?  Unless you can tell me my Evelyn’s dead, that’s what I’m gonna’ think because if she’s still alive and living inside that goddamn cult after what happened to her daughter then I know she agreed to what they did to Sunny. She would have had to and I’m telling you, as God is my judge, that if someone tried to take a razor or a knife or a scissors, or even a belt or raised a hand one way or another, to one of my children that sonofabitch would be dead or I’d be dead because, by all that’s holy, I’m telling you I’d goddamn die trying to save my kids and no one better get in my way.” Louise slammed her fist on the table so hard the dishes and cups jumped. “I swear to Jesus, that’s a fact.” 
            Tears streamed down her stricken, tortured face and Del flew to the other side of the table and wrapped his arms around the trembling, devastated woman as she rocked piteously back and forth, crying over and over again in heart wrenching anguish, “Oh God why?” and “Sunny, baby, baby, forgive me.” An alarmed Wolf searched Del’s face for clues about what to do and then tried to nuzzle his way into Louise’s lap.
            Del whispered “Shhhsh, shhhsh,” and “it’s not your fault,” and let his strong sheltering body sway back and forth rhythmically with hers, his chest and arms willing to absorb some of the shock waves of her incomprehensible pain.  
            “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I have to be strong. I have to be strong for Frank. For Jess. I’m so sorry, Del, so sorry. I don’t want you to see me this way. Forgive me.”
            “Shhhsh, shhhsh… it’s fine to sometimes let it all out but don’t go so far you can’t come back, OK?  We all love you, we need you Louise.”     
            He looked up, surprised to see Jess in the doorway.  She was rocking back and forth too, arms wrapped tightly around her body, tears burning rivers down her face.  Her heart was broken, smashed like fine china thrown against a cement wall, but at the same time it was stronger than ever, expanding to the point of bursting, filling to overflowing with unbridled, unconditional, infinite love for the greatest man in the world -- a man so strong he could cry and grieve with a broken soul like her mother and it only made him look more powerful, more extraordinary, more masculine. The kind of man who should have children, lots of children. Jess knew the world needed more people like Del.
            Frank showed up thirty minutes later, surprised to see everyone quietly sitting around the kitchen table.  He spotted the box of tissues on the counter, the used tissues littering the table, several dirty cereal dishes, and a quarter cup of strong cold mud at the bottom of the glass coffee pot. “What did I miss?”
            “Nothing. I’ll make you a fresh pot,” Louise said.
            Frank looked at the clock and it was after eight.  “Del, you still here?  I thought you were hitting the road early.”
            Jess kissed her father good morning. “You snooze, you lose Dad,” she said playfully.
            “Jesus.  I guess so.”

You can read a larger sample of January Moon, as well as its 5-star reviews on and Barnes & Noble.

Please go to my WEBSITE and listen to my two radio interviews; you can also see a video trailer about January Moon and read print interviews. And here's another interview at Glenn Gamble's blog.

BTW: there are many maternal themes in January Moon. I never thought about it much until I spoke at a book club where its members pointed out all of the many mothers in the book and their impact on the lives of their children. Louise and Evelyn Farrell are just two mothers but there are many others... women who defend their children stoically and women who have destroyed their children, and even their grandchildren. There are women who are not technically mothers in the biological sense but who also act as mothers.

Please be sure to let me know your thoughts about how motherhood might be a central theme throughout January Moon. I'd love to hear from you!

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Now have a nice Mother's Day!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Starve the Beast Theory – Part Two

In my previous column (“We are the beast that would be starved”) I described starve-the-beast theory and how this pernicious economic theory has become Republican ideology. I explained that President Kennedy’s tax cuts, passed after his assassination, reduced the highest rate of 94% to 70% and Americans were delighted with that reduction. I also wrote that the economist John Kenneth Galbraith warned, way back in the early 1960s, that deep tax cuts could become a permanent ceiling on government spending so let’s start this column by returning to Galbraith.
In 1965 Galbraith spoke before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and his words are amazing in retrospect:
“I was never as enthusiastic as many of my fellow economists over the tax reduction of last year. The case for it as an isolated action was undoubtedly good. But there was danger that conservatives, once introduced to the delights of tax reduction, would like it too much. Tax reduction would then become a substitute for increased outlays on urgent social needs.”
How prescient!
In 1981 Ronald Reagan reduced Kennedy’s tax cuts further, reducing the highest personal rate for the very wealthy from 70% to 50% and in 1986 he reduced it even further to a very low 28% so that in only six years personal income tax rates for the very wealthy plummeted from 70% to 28%. Reagan gave the head’s up about his strategy in the 1980 Presidential Debate: “John Anderson tells us that first we’ve got to reduce spending before we can reduce taxes. Well, if you’ve got a kid that’s extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker.”
Reagan was brilliant at reducing complicated issues into irrelevant analogies and false equivalencies. Americans love this kind of brainless nonsense; we scarf up rhetorical inanities like salted fries at McDonalds. Clearly, Reagan’s analogy was junk food for the lazy mind; it was also condescending and paternalistic. Americans are not wayward, irresponsible teenagers and the national budget it not an allowance meted out to reward for good behavior.
Reagan’s analogy eventually became a more cogently developed theory when a Reagan staffer described “starving the beast” to a Wall Street Journal reporter and by 1985 Republicans were publicly embracing starve-the-beast theory as brilliant economic policy. George W. Bush supported it; under him there were three major tax cuts. The 2001 tax cut created a new 10% individual tax rate and phased in the lowering of individual tax rates. It also phased in an increase in the child tax credit, marriage penalty relief provisions, an increase of the estate tax exemption, an increase in the IRA contribution limit, and the repeal of limits on itemized deductions and personal exemptions. The 2002 tax cut was chiefly aimed at business, creating 30% expensing for certain capital asset purchases, extending the exception under Subpart F for active financing income, and increasing the carryback of net operating losses to 5 years. Finally, the 2003 tax cut lowered the top individual income tax rate on dividends and capital gains and accelerated most of the phased-in provisions of the 2001 tax cut.
George W. Bush boasted that Republicans created a “…a new kind [of] fiscal straightjacket for Congress.” Since then many other Republicans, including one of the greatest ninnies of our time, Sarah Palin, have openly embraced starve-the-beast theory. Palin said “please [Congress], starve the beast, don’t perpetuate the problem, don’t fund the largesse, we need to cut taxes.
People like Palin are totally ignorant about how the current tax rates are the lowest in our history; but it doesn’t matter because their greed and self-aggrandizement are so pathological that they will not be happy until they can live in a country (which they profess to love so much) where they and the corporations they hold so dear have a free ride.
The truth is that people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about have a vastly different opinion about starve-the-beast theory. Economist Bruce Bartlett called “starve the-beast” theory “the most pernicious fiscal doctrine in history.” Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has also criticized starve-the-beast theory and he has said the “…beast is starving, as planned…”
Remember: you and I and millions of other Americans are the beast.
Next week let’s look at how the states, including Maine, have embraced starve-the-beast theory and how Paul Ryan’s proposed Congressional budget brings this theory to full fruition. While we’re at it, I might throw in a few words about Hitler’s infamous phrase “useless eaters” because once you really understand starve-the-beast theory you’re going to start asking some hard questions about what’s going to happen to the “beasts” that some people seem so willing to starve.
Published in my OpEd column at the Journal Tribune May 2nd:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Starve the Beast Theory - Part One

Have you heard the expression “starve the beast” and, if so, do you know what it means? Originally, “starve-the-beast” was an economic theory reserved for arcane discussions in academia; however, over the last 30-plus years this theory morphed into a political fiscal strategy to create or increase budget deficits by drastically cutting taxes in order to justify a radical evisceration of American social programs that are anathema to social and fiscal conservatives.

Starve-the-beast theory zealots have made the “beast” their euphemistic word for the terrifying image of a ravenous out-of-control “big” government -- but the reality is that the “beast” is you, your parents, grandparents, kids and neighbors. (Yeah: you’re the beast and you’ve been pigging out at the American chow line. Shame on you.)
How do you starve something or someone? You cut off the food chain. In starve-the-beast theory the food chain contains all those social services funded by government tax revenues, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP - “food stamps”) that Gingrich so shamefully demonized. Social Security, Medicare and even public education are also programs that feed the beast and need to be discontinued.
Starve-the-beast theory is an article of faith among Republican lawmakers. Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget is an excellent example of starve-the-beast policy at the federal level. It’s also prevalent across the country. Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Walker engineered a budget deficit by slashing taxes in order to justify his attack on labor and social programs. Many other Republican governors, such as Kasich (Ohio), Daniels (Indiana), Scott (Florida) and our own LePage, have embraced scorched-earth fiscal policies.
The extremely wealthy are immune from starve-the-beast policies because they’re not dependent on the social services the middle-class and poor desperately need. Their immunity is all the more secure because deep tax cuts for the very wealthy and an unfair Tax Code benefit them and their corporations in greatest measure and Republicans have vowed to do nothing that would alter their privileged tax status. Starve-the-beast adherents also fight cuts in the military budget or prison spending. 
As a metaphor “starving the beast” has been around for a long time but it was the economist John Kenneth Galbraith who unwittingly inserted this theory into political discourse during the Kennedy Administration. Kennedy and the nation wanted to reduce taxes but Galbraith warned policy wonks there might be a permanent downside to the belief tax reductions for the rich would benefit the economy.
Galbraith warned that tax cuts could become a heady habit that could create a “permanent ceiling on spending.” This wasn’t popular thinking in the early 1960′s because by the time Kennedy became president the Internal Revenue Code’s tax rates for the wealthiest Americans had been driven to exorbitant levels. Taxes had been rising for two decades in order to pay for WWII, the Korean War, and war recovery efforts.
When JFK took office in January 1961 the wealthy were being battered by a tax code that taxed personal income at a rate of 94% under some circumstances. Yep: 94%.
Clearly, a tax rate that could soar as high as 94% was outrageous and required adjustment. Further, the middle-to-upper middle class were also taxed at an onerous rate that was sometimes as high as 50%. Yep: 50%.
In a televised national address two months before his assassination, Kennedy said:
A tax cut means higher family income and higher business profits and a balanced federal budget. Every taxpayer and his family will have more money left over after taxes for a new car, a new home, new conveniences, education and investment. Every businessman can keep a higher percentage of his profits in his cash register or put it to work expanding or improving his business, and as the national income grows, the federal government will ultimately end up with more revenues.”
Kennedy was looking for a reasonable adjustment across the boards -- not just tax reduction for the wealthiest and most privileged Americans – but a reasonable adjustment for everyone.
So when you hear Kennedy argued for one of the largest tax reductions in U.S. history you now know why. JFK knew that a rate that could soar as high as 94% for the wealthy and hovered at 50% for the middle-class was contrary to the best interests of the nation. Republicans and Kennedy-haters love to look back on the Kennedy era tax cuts and claim Kennedy was taking care of his own and no friend of the poor – which is an excellent example of how one can parrot the facts but be ignorant of the larger truths behind the facts. Congress passed Kennedy’s tax bill after his assassination and this lowered the highest tax rate to 70%.
That’s right: 70%. And do you know what? Americans were delighted. 
Next week we’ll look at Ronald Reagan’s tax record. 
Published in my OpEd column at the Journal Tribune April 24th:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Note to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops

I posted this at the website of the Catholic Bishops, offering my services: (now the ball's in their court)

"I'm a historian (modern Europe & U.S.) with in-depth training in fascism, Holocaust studies, and communism and so I am offering my services as an educator in those areas (pro bono) to the Catholic Bishops because they have repeatedly demonstrated a colossal and breathtaking ignorance about the Church's persecution under both Hitler and Stalin.

The repeated comparison of President Obama to two of the most heinous dictators in modern history demonstrates either profound stupidity or craven disregard for responsible honest speech. If these idiotic comparisons are the result of legitimate ignorance, which is hard to believe when dealing with allegedly well educated people, then we can correct that ignorance by a course in historical truth. I am willing to work with the Bishops to that end. However, if the Bishops do not accept this offer to educate themselves and persist in making ludicrous comparisons then I will be forced to conclude that they have deliberately chosen to speak falsely and irresponsibly without any regard for the consequences of such sins.

I've conducted many educational seminars on The Holocaust and will gladly put one together specifically for the Catholic Bishops any time. Just let me know when and where. Thank you."