“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
— from President John F. Kennedy’s “Race for Space” speech delivered before students and faculty of Rice University in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1962.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the walk on the moon by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, an event witnessed on television by people around the world. The achievement after a decade of hard work and dedication by NASA personnel was enormous, of course, and as a prestigious accomplishment in science and engineering it has not been topped in the 50 years since July 20, 1969.
The feature that stands out after a half century is how little the actual landings on the moon, by Apollo 11 and by subsequent missions, has mattered in the lives of people on Earth. It was all the technological and scientific discoveries and advancements made along the way to landing astronauts on the moon which have made the most impact on the lives of many people. Giving astronauts prominence before the public and making them integral to the Apollo program garnered public support while increasing the expense and difficulty of the missions. Having the Apollo astronauts bound around the surface of the moon for a few hours and gather up some rocks made a comparatively small impact on the wealth of scientific and technical knowledge NASA reaped from the program, while keeping up public interest and support.
“Earthrise”, a photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders aboard Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968.
Of all the insights common people gained from the Apollo program, perhaps none made a greater impression overall than the famous “Earthrise” photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. In the foreground is what astronaut Buzz Aldrin would seven months later call the “magnificent desolation” of the moon, and viewed from a distance of about 240,000 miles, in a perspective never before seen by anyone on Earth, is the partially sunlit Earth, our home, appearing fragile and jewel-like in the black emptiness of space.
That picture and the emotions it stirred gave impetus and urgency to the environmental movement, and before the end of 1970 people around the world recognized the first Earth Day and in the United States the Environmental Protection Agency began operations. To strive for a decade to land astronauts on the moon, increasing knowledge and spurring progress all along the way, and then to have those astronauts turn around and look back toward the earth, sharing that view with everyone, that was perhaps the greatest legacy of the Apollo space program.
The opening sequence of the 1982 meditative documentaryKoyaanisqatsi depicts the Holy Ghosts portion of the Great Gallery pictograph in Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, followed by the liftoff of Apollo 11 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. Godfrey Reggio directed the film, Ron Fricke was the cinematographer, and Philip Glass wrote the music. The title comes from the Hopi language and the film makes oblique and direct references to Hopi prophecies, or warnings; and while the Great Gallery pictograph did not originate with the Hopi, they believe it and other pictographs in the Four Corners region are the work of their ancestors and they hold them sacred.
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
It’s been 154 years since the Civil War ended and still Southern white supremacists expect everyone else in the country to walk on eggshells around them so as not to upset their mythology or the chips on their shoulders. Yesterday, July 13, was Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee, a holiday there since 1931, when it seemed like a good idea to commemorate a Confederate general who murdered captive black Union soldiers during the war, and after it became the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Now it’s 2019, and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee‘s lame excuse for continuing the practice is that it is what’s expected of him under the law, even though he could push to have the law changed if he had the political will and courage.
All this hiding behind the disingenuous mantra of “heritage, not hate” is for the purpose of upholding monuments to and celebrations of Confederate leaders whose actions and beliefs, however much they deluded themselves and others in their own times into feeling were noble and righteous, have in the past 154 years proven to be in the service of one overriding principle – white supremacy. Dress up evil however you want, turn somersaults in logic if you like – in the end it’s still evil. Once state and local governments withdraw their sponsorship of these Confederate monuments and celebrations, individuals are still free to honor them in private if they are so inclined. No one is infringing their First Amendment free speech rights in speaking out on behalf of their Confederate idols in the public square; it’s just that everyone else no longer has to be subject to the constant looming presence of publicly sponsored monuments and celebrations reminding them to know their place, particularly if they are the descendants of slaves.
Theater poster for the 1915 D.W. Griffith filmThe Birth of a Nation. The movie glorified the KKK and set the stage for the organization’s resurgence shortly afterward.
In the past two and a half years, because of the tone set by the White Supremacist-in-Chief occupying the Oval Office (proving not all white supremacists are Southerners, by any means), more awful people have crept from the shadows into the light than many decent people were aware existed. As the specter of awful behavior grows, it is not enough for decent people to shun it and the awful people who afflict society with their malevolent derangement; decent people need to confront it, preferably without violence, but by speaking out forcefully and often in public, because otherwise a bully will always take silence to mean assent, even approval.
A clip from an August 2017 episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert which aired shortly after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
After a generation has passed, will we erect monuments to the malignant culture that has grown within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol? Will we celebrate the concentration camps for brown-skinned immigrants at “detention sites” from Texas to California and elsewhere around the country? Stopping the cancerous growth of white supremacy will require more decent white people standing up to it and saying “enough already”, an outspoken attitude of noble and righteous indignation that is long past overdue, as evidenced by a state still celebrating in 2019 the hateful heritage of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees have been detaining journalists and immigration lawyers at checkpoints in Arizona and Texas and questioning them about their political beliefs. These are nothing more than intimidation tactics by government employees who don’t appear overly concerned that they work for all citizens of the United States, not merely the current presidential administration and its far right supporters.
CBP has long had too broad an authority, and particularly after World War II when Congress passed laws giving the agency the ability to regularly trespass on citizens’ rights under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1953, without public review, the Justice Department specified the zone within which CBP could operate fast and loose with the Constitution at 100 air miles of the United States border. That’s 100 miles within the United States, all around the perimeter, an area encompassing nearly two thirds of the populace.
A sign at the January 2018 Womens’ March in Seneca Falls, New York. Photo by Marc Nozell.
It’s incredible these laws and rules have stayed on the books as long as they have and have withstood review by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has often interpreted the Constitution with an eye toward sustaining the power of the government over the citizen, however, despite the recent miraculous lapse in its ruling on Timbs v.Indiana, which rescinded civil asset forfeiture, also known as cops’ legalized stealing of citizens’ property. That ruling can best be considered an anomaly, at least from the Court’s five conservative justices, who with an even more recent ruling, in Nielsen v. Preap, are back to their usual shoring up of police state encroachments on the Constitution.
George Carlin performing in 2008 in Santa Rosa, California, just months before he died. “You Have No Rights” is the closing bit, and for the album made from this Home Box Office (HBO) special, It’s Bad for Ya, he was awarded a posthumous Grammy. Warning: foul language.
Supposedly these laws are meant to be enforced against illegal immigrants, who after all are not citizens. In practice, their overly broad authority allows enough room for CBP employees with a political agenda to harass and intimidate anyone they care to, citizens and non-citizens alike. The CBP employees can always claim some legal rationale for their capricious actions, and even after offering the flimsiest excuses, they know legal redress of their abuse of power will take years, if it comes at all. This is what happens when fear guides the writing of laws, giving too much authority to law enforcement agencies, and then a lawless presidential administration grasps the reins of all that power. Meanwhile the nation’s courts have too often upheld police prerogatives over citizens’ rights, eroding the meaning of those rights and mocking their supposed inviolability.
The title of this post is of course a riff on the infamous remark made by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when he praised his appointed leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the inept Michael Brown. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September, the current president latched onto the unusually low death toll number of 16 as evidence the destruction was not all that bad and didn’t require the full measure of emergency response from the federal government. This week, a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine puts the death toll at a much higher number, possibly near 5,000, making Hurricane Maria the second deadliest hurricane to strike the United States or its territories after the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900 killed over 6,000.
A 1948 advertisement for paper towels in The Ladies’ Home Journal.
How did the number of fatalities related to Hurricane Maria climb from 16 to 5,000? A good part of those who died were victims of the dysfunctional infrastructure on the island after the storm, and they succumbed over weeks and months due to lack of power for medical equipment, poor emergency response due to destroyed roads, overstretched hospital facilities, and lack of wholesome food and clean water. Many of the dead were not accounted for in the first days after the disaster, and government officials were either negligent or overly optimistic in placing their faith in the early number of a mere 16 dead after such a major disaster. Some in government, like Supreme Leader no doubt, used the low number to justify their lackadaisical and incompetent response to the crisis.
Americans have short memories, and government leaders count on that trait in the near term after any crisis in which they might be held accountable. Put a rosy spin on things, no matter how unrealistic, and more often than not after some argument from the press the commotion will die down and eventually be almost entirely forgotten by the public. That’s how the Big Lie works. In the current American political climate, one third of the people will believe whatever lie Supreme Liar pops off, like paper towel rolls he tosses to his adoring fans, no matter how ugly and detached from reality those lies are, because they reinforce their own self-serving beliefs; another third of the people don’t care much one way or the other as long as it’s not their power that’s shut off; and the last third of the public sputters and fumes about the situation, but finds it can be an uphill struggle on a slippery slope to keep the lies in front of anyone who will listen, be outraged, and help refute them. The lies from this presidential administration keep piling up, a malodorous mountain of them, swarming with flies. It will take more than some paper towels to clean it up.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
— Hamlet to Horatio in Act I, scene v, of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.
It’s fair to say most people in the Western world are more or less familiar with the Judeo-Christian Bible and the Ten Commandments in its Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, which they honor perhaps more in the breach than in the observance. There is an Eleventh Commandment which is known to few people other than some evangelical Christians, and it addresses how to treat others in what might be considered a reverse or Bizarro Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is common to many religions around the world and is stated many ways, but the formulation probably most familiar to Westerners is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The Bizarro Golden Rule, also known as the Eleventh Commandment, informs adherents to “Be mean-spirited with those you dislike or disagree with, and as spiteful and hateful in your dealings with them as satisfies your shriveled, churlish spirit.” The latest Christian conservative to scrupulously honor the Eleventh Commandment is Briscoe Cain, a Republican state representative in the Texas legislature, who, soon after the death of English physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking on March 14, tweeted the following passive-aggressive remarks: “Stephen Hawking now knows the truth about how the universe was actually made. My condolences to his family.”
Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, an 1839 painting by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863).
If there was any doubt about the veiled hostility in his tweet, Mr. Cain later took away the veil by elaborating on his dislike for Mr. Hawking’s atheism and supposed mocking of God. As egregious behavior from a mean-spirited Christian conservative, or evangelical, this is small beer. It nevertheless illustrates a mind set that has corroded civil discourse in public life, and how nothing will stop such a person from taking pot shots at perceived or imagined enemies, even the recent death of perhaps the most well-known and generally beloved physicist since Albert Einstein. Stephen Hawking’s atheism was his own concern, something he never forced on others, unlike the behavior of many evangelical Christians like Briscoe Cain. As for mocking God, even if Mr. Hawking did such a thing only in the eyes of Mr. Cain, surely God is big enough to forgive and forget.
That is not the God of Briscoe Cain and others like him, however, who apparently see in God much of what they dimly perceive in themselves: a smallness of spirit, mean, petty, and vindictive, with spite considered a virtue, and charity withheld from anyone deemed Other. One would feel sorry for such small minded people if not for the tremendous damage they do to the rest of society every day. In this material world, Stephen Hawking will be well and fondly remembered by future generations, while Briscoe Cain’s legacy will fade away except for the enduring stain of his negative contributions, may they amount to no more than his snide remarks made at the expense of a person who never did him any harm.
But in Mr. Cain’s view, it could be Mr. Hawking did do him harm by denying his God and, worse, supposedly mocking that God, which to a person with fragile self-esteem is the same as denying him, not just Him, and mocking him, not just Him. For people like that, all their sense of self worth is bound up in their God, and how their God is regarded or disregarded by others is taken personally by them. In the next world, if there is one, perhaps Briscoe Cain and his vindictive and insecure co-religionists will be fortunate and discover a God more beneficent and embracing than the God they envisioned and claimed to embody here on Earth, and inflicted upon everyone else without concern for whether others merited simple human kindness and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
― 1 Corinthians 13:11; King James Version of The New Testament.
It’s fine to believe in fairy tales as a child, at least when the belief is harmless. Children learn about human behavior, often through the actions of animal characters, and they pick up some moral lessons. Fairy tales have their place in educating children, but that place is not in science textbooks. Recently the New Mexico Public Education Department injected a dose of the fanciful in editing science standards for the state’s schoolteachers to follow in their classrooms.
Mother Goose reading fairy tales in an illustration by Gustave Doré (1832-1883) for the frontispiece of an 1866 edition of Charles Perrault’s Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals, or Mother Goose Tales.
The questionable edits dealt with the age of the Earth, evolution, and human-caused global warming. All the usually controversial subjects in the battle over teaching the nation’s youth. The standards that New Mexico’s top public school bureaucrats were altering came from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were formulated by national science and teaching associations. Editing science teaching standards appears to be another case of cherry picking facts and replacing them either with fancy or with the assertion of widespread doubt where there really is very little, along the lines of what has been happening with textbooks for years now.
Texas has long been in the news for leading the way for creationists and climate change deniers in pressuring textbook publishers to muddy the scientific waters on those two subjects, and perhaps has served as an unfortunate model in that respect for other states like New Mexico and California. The playbook borrows from the scientific method in that it adopts skepticism as a tool for doubt, ignoring the part about overwhelming evidence eventually tipping the scales to the point where continued skepticism is no longer productive without the presentation of convincing countervailing evidence. Persisting in error to that degree becomes obstructionism, and while some of it is ideologically driven, it can often serve the ends of greedy corporations, such as in the fossil fuel industry.
From the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a scene where logic serves absurdity.
Teaching children falsely, either by substituting fanciful notions for facts or by omitting facts altogether, results in ignorant adults who are poorly prepared to manage real problems. Insisting children believe in fairy tales to the exclusion of understanding how the world really works will only reinforce the continued destruction of the environment and the misunderstanding of our place in it. Instructing children in dominion instead of husbandry replaces a clear-eyed view of what is and has been with what never was nor will ever be.
The crudity and vindictiveness of Supreme Leader’s response to criticisms of his lackadaisical leadership in disaster recovery efforts for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria has been startling even for him, a crude and vindictive man. Certainly racism and sexism play a part, as they do in much of his behavior, but in this case there is the disquieting sense there is something more at work, and as is often the case, it helps to follow the money.
The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow, a 1905 painting by Howard Pyle (1853-1911) used as an illustration in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates: Fiction, Fact & Fancy Concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main.
Supreme Leader dropped the clue himself when he referred to Puerto Rico’s high debt load, adding that the Puerto Ricans must nonetheless continue to repay their debts despite their currently dire situation. What an odd thing to mention in discussion of relief efforts for a population struggling for survival! Did he mean those words to be taken to heart by the Puerto Ricans, who now have more pressing worries? No, not as much as he meant his words to reassure the holders of Puerto Rico’s over 70 billion dollars’ worth of promissory notes on Wall Street.
At the 18th hole of the AT&T National Pro-Am Tournament in 2006, Supreme Leader (not his title then) leans on his golf club. The pirates have exchanged their muskets for golf clubs. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.
Puerto Rico has no representatives in Congress and no votes in the Electoral College. It is a territory, and while its people are citizens of the United States, they have no say in federal matters relating to their island. On June 11, 2017, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood, but the decision to make Puerto Rico a state still resides with Congress. Most Puerto Ricans identify as Democrats, and since both house of Congress currently are controlled by Republicans, it is unlikely Puerto Rico will see a change in its political status anytime soon. The island’s people are effectively second-class citizens; to become first-class citizens, they must either make their island one of the United States, or entirely independent.
Mainland political interests are against Puerto Rico statehood, and there are also economic interests against it, such as large corporations and Wall Street banks that seek to continue plundering the island, an activity made easier by Puerto Rico existing politically between the devil and the deep blue sea. Who cares if the Puerto Ricans are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which have piled on to an economic recession which started for them over ten years ago and has continued to worsen? Certainly not sociopaths like Supreme Leader and his economic advisors Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, both formerly of Wall Street.
The damage caused by Supreme Leader, Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, and other members of our ruling class is far more deplorable than what Monty Python depicted in this TV sketch, but still it helps to ridicule them.
It’s not as if Puerto Rico has 38 electoral votes like Texas, where Hurricane Harvey landed, or 29 like Florida, where Hurricane Irma continued its devastation after leaving the Caribbean islands, or even 3 votes like the District of Columbia, with its population otherwise shut out of federal representation but for those 3 measly electoral college votes. Puerto Ricans have zero votes. Not one vote in the electoral college, in the House of Representatives, or in the Senate. No one speaks for them. Thanks to its colonial relationship to the United States, however, there is money to be pillaged from its poor and working class people, and what’s left of its dwindling middle class. That’s why Supreme Leader acted the way he did, and tweeted what he tweeted, because he was looking out for himself and his cronies, and that’s his real constituency. Why would he care one way or the other about the Puerto Ricans?
The American system, and perhaps the American character as well, has always favored coping with the damage from disasters as they come over doing all that can be done beforehand to mitigate the severity of damage. The insurance industry is aligned toward dealing with the aftermath rather than encouraging preventive measures, as is the government, which tends to label regulations designed for prevention as socialist intrusions. It’s the same philosophy that guides the economic system, which is all for free market capitalism on the front end when businesses are making profits for the few, but resorts to socialism on the back end when things go sour and losses are then spread out among the many. “Heads I win, tails you lose,” says the Wall Street tycoon, and friends in government chime in “Yea, verily.”
Unrestricted urban and suburban development covers acreage that drained itself adequately with concrete and asphalt that does not absorb water. That seems obvious, and the necessity for a drainage system capable of handling all the runoff also seems obvious. Certainly there are some events, such as the unprecedented rainfall in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, that would stretch any drainage system to the breaking point. Extraordinary events require extraordinary preparation, a methodology well known among engineers, who are trained to design and build structures and systems to withstand the extraordinary. Engineers’ best efforts can be hamstrung, however, by ideologically and greed driven government leaders and business executives, the effect of which can be seen when disaster strikes and destruction of life and property is greater than it needed to be.
Dynamiting through a levee during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to create an artificial crevasse at Caernarvon, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, 14 miles below New Orleans. The crevasse was created to take pressure off levees at New Orleans. Archival photography by Steve Nicklas.
The acknowledged masters of hydro engineering,the Dutch, have recently changed their philosophy about coping with excess water from staving it off to flexing with it. Bend, to keep from breaking. That has always been the way with nature, of course, where coastal wetlands have served to absorb the brunt of ocean surges, and where floodplains served as safety valves for swollen rivers. Holding water back with fortifications has always been expensive and unreliable. Water is relentless, and it will find a way.
A flooded town on the lower stretch of the Mississippi River in 1927. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Creating concrete and asphalt jungles willy nilly without regard to anything other than the almighty dollar is foolishness, and ultimately a price will be paid. In the American system, unfortunately, that price is often borne by the society as a whole, and especially by the poor, but certainly not by the wealthy or by the government leaders who created the mess. Breaking up the concrete and asphalt jungle with permeable pavement, a construction practice that has been around for over fifty years and needs to be used more widely, is one way to forestall some urban flooding. Installation costs for permeable pavement are higher than the traditional kind, but it has other benefits and cost savings that offset the higher up front price tag. It’s not a perfect solution, but nothing can be. It’s a step in the right direction.
One of the arguments some business people and their mouthpieces in government often advance against green methods applied to development are that they create too much red tape, leading to a bad environment for business and a net loss of jobs, besides being downright socialist, which of course is an accusation that is supposed to make all the Greens (environmentalists, tree huggers – choose your own epithet) run away and hide themselves in shame. Too bad. If the true costs of bad environmental practices were borne by the businesses and governments that engage in them, they would change their tune.
A 1974 song written and sung by Randy Newman about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and about American society.
If businesses paid their workers a living wage, fewer of those workers would need to rely on government assistance to make ends meet. If businesses that made money here and took advantage of the national infrastructure were required to have corporate offices here, and therefore required to pay their fair share of taxes to help support infrastructure improvements, then maybe the country wouldn’t be falling apart while a select few get obscenely rich at the expense of everyone else. If, in other words, we stopped allowing some businesses and their allies in government to slough off hidden expenses on society at large, we could make progress toward a less dangerous future. But it’s going to take a change of heart, of character, to turn this backwards system around and look at green development as the only sensible way forward for everyone, instead of being led by the nose by those whose view of development looks backwards and serves only themselves.
Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm at landfall in Rockport, Texas, on August 25, has moved on finally after causing catastrophic damage, mainly due to flooding, in southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana. Following on Harvey’s heels is Hurricane Irma, currently a category 5 storm entering the Caribbean Sea, with many Caribbean islands, large and small, in its sights as it makes its way to Florida later in the week. Beyond that Irma’s track is uncertain, and it could affect communities anywhere from the eastern Gulf Coast to the southern portion of the Eastern Seaboard.
With the various early warning detection systems in place today and improvements over the years in computer modeling of forecast tracks, predicted landfalls of hurricanes has become better than guesswork and moved on to science. Until the World War II era and the development of radar, detection of hurricanes and predictions about their track relied largely on observations made by knowledgeable shipboard weather watchers reporting to shore stations and the tracking by shorebound observers of weather systems that might influence a hurricane as it approached land. Early warning of hurricanes in the first half of the twentieth century was limited to a few days, with an uncertain track left up to guesswork until practically the day before landfall.
View of the eyewall of Hurricane Katrina taken on August 28, 2005, as seen from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) WP-3D Orion hurricane hunter aircraft before the storm made landfall on the United States Gulf Coast.
Before the twentieth century, prediction of hurricanes was further limited to personal observations of weather conditions as the storm approached, because ships at sea were largely driven by wind power and were not as likely as coal, steam, or oil powered ships of later times to arrive in port well ahead of a storm and warn of its approach. People relied on observations of certain types of clouds and of the drop in barometric pressure, however they measured it, to give them indications of an approaching storm. Residents along the shore might have a day or two warning to head inland for higher ground. Absolute amount of fatalities could be high during the storm because of the short notice, but values of property damage were low because there were fewer people living along the coast and because they had not invested millions and billions of dollars in homes, hotels, and infrastructure to be destroyed.
USA hurricane weather warning flags. Drawing by Herostratus.
That formula has been steadily turned upside down through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Property damage amounts from hurricanes have skyrocketed due to the enormous increase in development close to the sea, while fatalities in proportion to total population have dropped dramatically due to warning times of several days to a week or more. Even if people do not evacuate the area entirely, they have sufficient warning time to load up on supplies and defenses to help them weather the crisis in place. In the past, shore residents did not have that luxury. To find a similar situation today of short warning of dangerous weather contributing to high fatalities, one would have to look at tornadoes, a highly localized phenomena when they do crop up.
No one who has ever survived the experience of a hurricane or a tornado or other severe weather disaster can ever dismiss the further possibility of such events lightly. They know in their guts how frightening and life-changing those events can be. The poor especially, as they do in all things in life, suffer disproportionately. The poor cannot afford to flee to higher ground. The houses the poor live in, where they might choose to shelter in place in order to ride out storms, are often flimsily constructed and the first to be destroyed by high winds or high water. Tornadoes are not magically drawn to trailer parks, it’s just that there is where the damage happens that draws the rubberneckers running the local television news stations.
We live in an age when severe weather events are becoming more common, regardless of whether or not an ideologically motivated minority continues to argue the point without reference to facts. Preparing for severe weather, however, has never been a better proposition for most of humankind over what it was in past generations. Ironic that our reliance on technology, which has brought us to the brink of climate destruction, could also serve to save us from its worst effects, at least in the short term.
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” ― Jesus Christ, quoted in Matthew 22:21 (King James Version).
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . “
― excerpt from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The two quotes above seem straightforward in their meaning, even if some people with self-serving agendas insist there is room for interpretation in both. Some religious groups, but by no means the majority, chafe at the straightforward interpretations and would rather see the federal government allow them to get involved in partisan politics while maintaining their tax exempt status. They applaud any effort to roll back enforcement of the Johnson Amendment to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code, which forbids charitable or non-profit organizations with tax exemptions from directly endorsing political candidates. In May, the current president signed an executive order relaxing those restrictions, essentially directing the IRS to use discretion in enforcing the Johnson Amendment. Since the law would have to be changed by Congress, court challenges to the executive order will probably crop up, though none have as of yet.
The simple solution for religious groups who want to submerge themselves in the American political process is to forgo tax exempt status. That appears not to be an option they care to consider. They want their cake, and to eat it, too. The Johnson Amendment, added to the IRS code in 1954 by Lyndon Johnson, at the time a Democratic senator from Texas, has always been laxly enforced by the IRS, revoking the tax exemptions of only the most egregious violators. That’s not good enough for some people. They want the wall separating church and state torn down.
President Lyndon B. Johnson hosts the President of Mexico, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, at his Texas Ranch in 1964; photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
But not necessarily torn down completely. Muslims, in the view of the Christian Right, should probably not be included in a law respecting an establishment of religion by allowing them to funnel their congregants’ money to chosen political leaders, just like their Christian counterparts. Not so sure about the Jews, either. Catholics? We’ll have to think about that one. Once we start making exemptions for the exemption, we have to decide who gets it and who doesn’t. What would Jerry Falwell do? His son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty University President and leader of the evangelical Christian Right, believes the Johnson Amendment has to go because it infringes on the free speech rights of religious leaders.
In this scene from the 1980 film Caddyshack, Bishop Pickerling, played by Henry Wilcoxon, plays golf during a thunderstorm, with groundskeeper Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, serving as his caddy. The Bishop exercises his free speech rights at the end, with consequences. Note that the music quotes the score from the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.
That argument ignores the reality of religious leaders already expressing themselves freely, just not being allowed to funnel money to candidates while maintaining their own tax exempt status. What religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., really appear to mean is that the Johnson Amendment is an infringement on their free speech rights in the sense that was addressed by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United decision, which found that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) was violating the free speech rights of corporations, both for profit and non-profit, when they limited campaign contributions. Money talks. Now some religious groups, such as Mr. Falwell’s, want the same kind of special dispensation, while also maintaining their exemption from paying taxes. That’s called the Sweet Deal!
George Carlin, a man who really did “tell it like it is”, in a bit from his 1988 performance What Am I Doing in New Jersey? Warning: foul language.
For the week beginning August 21, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is organizing what they call Hometown Congressional Visits to express support for the Johnson Amendment. This is a country of many faiths and to allow one vocal minority – regardless of it’s billing of itself as “The Moral Majority” – to usurp the voices of the many would be not only wrong now, but unconstitutional from the founding of the republic.