Archive for November, 2015

Thankful for the Idea of America

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The idea that is America has never been fully realized.

It is an idea that all are created equal.  All deserve life, liberty and the ability to pursue their dreams.  People can practice their religion without fear of persecution and be free to pursue their dreams regardless of race, gender or creed.

It is an idea that government should be limited, but should also be able to act to promote the general welfare, especially if other powerful actors might subvert it.

It is an idea that does not define citizenship by race, ethnicity or place of birth.  It is an idea that welcomes all who share the idea – who want to live in freedom, be able to pursue their dreams, and not fear the state or other powerful forces.

This country has enemies, those who oppose this idea.  ISIS opposes the idea.  Racists oppose the idea.   People who hate Muslims or who want to engage in violence oppose the idea.

The idea that is America is under threat.   An anti-Muslim group in Texas publishes the names and addresses of all Muslims and their “sympathizers.”  A pundit for “World Net Daily” calls for a nuclear attack on Mecca.  Donald Trump mocks a handicapped journalist and attacks people who believe in the idea because they were born south of the border.

The idea that is America is not objectively set in stone.   We can disagree about the role of government, how active we should be in the world, and where the line between freedom and mistreatment of others lies.  The belief in equality and the freedom to prosper can lead to concerns about social justice.  These are all legitimate, it is an American value to accept and cherish disagreement – that’s the only way we learn and test out our ideas.

Yet if the core goals reflect freedom, human rights, and equal opportunity — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — we share the idea despite disagreements on what it means in diverse situations.  Conservative Republicans, liberal democrats, libertarians and social democrats share the core idea.

But it’s not enough just to be thankful.  We have to live the idea.  We have to respect and treat others right, and stand up against those who espouse anti-American values: racists, Islamophobes, anti-Semites, homophobes and anyone who wants to deny others freedom since they don’t exercise it in the way one wants.

Americans respect Islam.  Americans respect Christianity.  Americans respect atheism – the idea that is America is that one chooses what one believes, and that deserves respect.   What we don’t respect is when one uses ones’ beliefs to act against the core values of the country.

America is not a place, but an idea.  Without the idea the place is meaningless.

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ISIS is an un-Islamic Cult

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A conservative columnist calls on the US to wipe ISIS out and then nuke Mecca to prove that “our God” is powerful and vengeful than their “puny diety.”  Hmmm, sounds like the author is compensating for something puny.

Across the country people fall for a caricature of Islam, not understanding it or its teachings, instead claiming the Koran is a “terrorist manual” and that Islam is un-American.

Ignorance on steroids!   As an educator, that is depressing.  When 9-11 occurred I knew I had to educate myself thoroughly on Islam.  What does the Koran teach?  What is the history of the Muslim world?  Can the rise of extremist groups be explained.

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Islam a great world religion, just as worthy of respect and honor as any other.

What I learned was comforting.  The Koran is clear – you cannot force another person to convert, jihad is only to defend the ummah (the community of believers) and innocents who do not want to fight should not be harmed — in fact, they should be protected.  Christians and Jews are to be treated with respect as the worship the same God, even if they are (in the Muslim view) wrong in their theology.  They can live in a Muslim community if they pay an extra tax – and for much of history they could live very well!   That tolerance was extended to Buddhists and Zoroastrians as well (Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians have special representation in the Iranian parliament).

Muhammad’s biggest break from traditional Arab culture was his efforts to promote better treatment of women and the poor.  The Koran forbade treating women as property (as had been the practice in the Arab world), and nowhere are women told to be covered.  Veiling was not something women did in Muhammad’s life time.   In fact, his wife Kadija was a successful business woman, 15 years older than he was.

She married him when she was 40.  It was easy to see why she had been unmarried.  She was attractive and wealthy, but once married her husband could claim all her property as his, and then say “I divorce you” and leave her with nothing.  She realized Muhammad was a man of principle she could trust.   Muhammad was faithful to her until her death, then married only for political purposes after that.

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Spanish conquistadors showed their Christian values by often killing any pagan, figuring that a pagan life was worthless. To be sure, the Church objected.

To be sure, the Koran contains battle instructions to protect the Ummah from the Quarysh, the Meccan tribe dedicated to wiping out a man whose movement was dangerous to their established wealth and power.  It contains verses before battle saying that they should “kill the polytheists” and lie if captured.  These are clearly battle instructions and not general moral principles, but Islamophobes and extremists grab on to those and try to turn Islam into something that contradicts the core teachings of the Koran and Muhammad.

Some point out, correctly, that political leaders in the Arab world used Islam to justify conquest and expansion.   Sure – just as Christians justified the crusades, the inquisition, and conquest and colonization of most of the planet.  Religions almost always get abused by political leaders who want to claim God is on their side.

 

So why are these threats emerging from the Muslim, and especially the Arab Muslim world?

Before the Ottomans, Islamic rationalism was a dominant philosophy/theology, one reason Europe was so backwards and barbaric when compared to the Islamic lands of northern Africa and Spain.  Rationalism stressed the need to interpret the Koran with the times, using human reason (as well as Aristotelian logic) and rejecting a claim that the Koran was “part of God.”  This is a progressive, tolerant theology, far beyond what Christian Europe embraced.

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Jewels like Cordoba in Spain demonstrated how much more advanced the Islamic world was 1000 years ago. One of it’s 43 libraries had more books than all of France.

Between 1200 and 1600 the roles reversed.  The Ottomans embraced the most conservative form of Islam — one that wanted society to remain as it was during Muhammad’s time, rejecting rationalism — in exchange for support from the conservative clerics.  The rationalists were executed.  Yet Islamic rationalist philosophy infiltrated Europe, along with their science and knowledge.  Thanks in part to that Muslim influence, the Christian world embraced reason alongside faith, and the path towards modernism began.  Without Islam the West might never have gone through the enlightenment.

Alas, while the West was modernizing slowly, the Arab world was stuck.  We went through radical change gradually.  When the US formed we had slaves and women couldn’t vote.   Indeed, the fight to end slavery, give rights to women, give workers the right to vote, and protect liberty was a long hard struggle against elements wanting to defend the old order.  The West also engaged in tremendous violence – Nazism, communism, the Holocaust, colonialism, wiping out of native tribes in the Americas, etc.

ISIS emerges out of a fear that the old conservative Arab set of traditions and customs is challenged by this secular, “Godless,” materialist West.  It is a reaction to the last 500 years of western progress being forced upon them within a generation.

Yet while that can explain why some Arabs might fear and oppose the West, most nonetheless correctly see violence and terror as un-Islamic and wrong.  A cult like ISIS preys precisely on young people who aren’t religiously motivated, but lack meaning in their life.  Petty criminals, drifters, or even wealthy youth who feel alienated and look for something exciting.  In that the appeal is like that of fighting the Communists in Afghanistan, which seduced and radicalized Osama Bin Laden.

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The caricatured view of the West is that we are soulless, Godless, hedonistic, materialistic, promiscuous and have no moral values. Caricatures on both sides need to end.

To defeat a cult like ISIS the short term goal must be to destroy their “state” – they need to be defeated on the ground in the Mideast.  This must be Muslim led, but the US, NATO, Russia and other state can contribute.   ISIS is weaker than many realize; a concerted effort will wipe them out.   At the same time we must avoid the knee jerk fear temptation to demonize or mistreat Muslims.  Not only would that be morally wrong, but it also helps ISIS create conditions of alienation.   They want us to hate Muslims, that makes their job easier.

The long term goals has to be to spread democracy and markets to the Mideast.   In that the Bush Administration had the right idea, but they thought they could use war to force the change.  That didn’t work.  The Arab spring started a necessary transition away from authoritarianism in favor of markets and democracy.  We can’t force change but we can support the people working for human rights and freedom.   We can avoid violence and warfare which emboldens evil.

Helping the Mideast modernize is a more difficult project but until real change comes terrorists and cultists will be able to find raw material for their vile deeds.  It’s in our interest to stop that.   And if this is truly a multinational effort of support rather than colonization or force, it can succeed.

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American Cowards

 

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One can only shake one’s head in shame at the sight of US Governors and Congress passing bills trying to limit the inflow of refugees.  The reason?  Fear that among them might be a potential terrorist.  Paranoia rises in the wake of the Paris shootings, and when that happens people turn away from their best angels and entertain their most pathetic demons.

They have a host of Islamophobic websites designed to desecrate Islam and sow fear, feeding their hate.  In so doing, they are the useful idiots of ISIS, aiding that extremist group in trying to achieve what ISIS can’t do on it’s own – a clash of civilizations.

First the danger:  Yes, terrorists can strike,  They killed over 100 in Paris.  They could strike again in the US.  They killed 3 in Boston at the marathon a couple years ago.  It’s possible that a terrorist could sneak in with the refugees, though it’s easier for them to come in legally in other ways.

But 35,000 a year die in car accidents.   In every two days gun violence kills as many as were killed in the Paris attacks.   I could list horrid crimes of just the last week, such as the senseless mass killing of a family in Texas, that involve guns.  Yet we accept the risk – we drive cars, we don’t do much to limit gun rights.   The risk of dying in a terror attack is minuscule by comparison, yet many refuse to honor our ideals and do the right thing by helping people fleeing from a war zone.  Governor Christie says he won’t even accept three year old orphans.   When fear leads to a rejection of ones’ core values, it is pathological moral cowardice.

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To be sure, Mideast couples, even pregnant women, have often been turned away when seeking shelter – this couple here had to give birth to their son in a stable.

This is reminiscent of the bigotry and fear in 1939 when Americans overwhelmingly rejected increasing Jewish immigration – who wants them here?

But it’s worse.  ISIS is not popular in the Islamic world.  Their brand of extremism is contrary to the core values of the Koran and Islam, which is why most of the people they kill are Muslims.   (Another aside – some whiners are complaining that we’re not calling their acts a ‘genocide of Christians.’  Well, given that most deaths are Muslim and only a few are Christian, that would be a rather bizarre claim!)

They use terror, sell Muslim women into slavery, and kidnap young children in order to indoctrinate them into their world.  Syrians are generally well educated and secular – they don’t want their children taken and put into that kind of hell, they see life shatter around them, they are trying to get away from almost sure death or worse for their children.

ISIS wants us to hate the refugees.  They want us to turn against Islam so they can bill themselves as fighting for Islam vs. the West.  The Islamophobes here want the same thing.  Either misguided by their own religious extremism or in the grips of a fascist like irrational hatred, they long to close down the mosques and eliminate Muslims from their communities – something fundamentally against American values.  If they win the day, ISIS wins.

Francois Hollande

French President Francois Hollande understands that, and despite the real and present danger of on going terror attacks in France, reaffirmed his commitment to admit 30,000 refugees in the next two years.  He is not chicken, the French have more bravery and moral courage than many Americans – they will not let ISIS get them to betray their values.

If our country gives in to the paranoia, Islamophobia, and fear that people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump spew — with rhetoric not that far removed from that of typical neo-fascist parties — then we’re no longer a beacon of moral courage and human rights.  We’d be a country unwilling to stand by our values.   That kind of moral decline inevitably leads to economic and political decline.   We’re at a cross roads – fear or honor, which do we choose?

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Luckily many Americans are speaking out, including religious groups (both liberal and conservative) across the country who recognize it’s not just against American values, but against Christian, Jewish and yes Muslim values not to accept refugees.  John Kasisch, running for President, bizarrely called for a government agency to try to promote “Judeo-Christian values in the Mideast.”  Besides sounding eerily like the crusades, it’s stupid.  First, he wants to limit refugees, so he’s contradicting those very values.  More importantly the values are not Judeo-Christian only, they are human values.  They transcend our own culture, shared by Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and people around the planet.

But who are we to promote them if we don’t live by them?   Time for all of us to do what we can to prevent our country from betraying its core values out of fear, hate and paranoia.

 

 

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What If?

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It was a hot August day in Washington, and President Bush was annoyed.  Saddam Hussein and Iraq had just invaded Kuwait, something the CIA assured him would not happen.  “Now what?” the President asked.  “We said this was an Arab-Arab matter, but an invasion?”

Defense Secretary Cheney laid out the options, saying a force of about 150,000 could remove Saddam from Kuwait if the US wanted to use force.  This would be best with UN approval.   National Security Council chair Brent Skowcroft had sent his assistant, Robert Gates to talk to Colin Powell, head of the Joint Chiefs of staff.  Powell, along with regional commander Norman Schwarzkopf, was skeptical of the US taking too big a role.  Gates agreed.

“Maggie insists we not let this stand,” Bush said, referring to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  “We’re entering the post-Cold War era, what we do will determine the future.   What if we show that we’ll have a new world order, one where force can’t determine outcomes, and the UN can act to assure international law?  Wouldn’t that be a great legacy to leave going towards the 21st Century?”

Vice President Quayle nodded.  “Makes sense,” he said.  Cheney agreed, “we can do it.”

Skowcroft spoke up.  “That’s a nice dream,” he said, “but here’s the reality.  Saddam stands in the way of an expansive Iran.  The Soviets are wounded but not dead – Gorbachev could be removed by a coup at any moment.  Get rid of Saddam and what if the majority Shi’ites take over – they’d naturally ally with Iran making the strategic situation worse.  We spent the last decade trying to assure Iran couldn’t expand.   We don’t want to give them an Islamicist Shi’ite Iraq!”

“Tell me about the Shi’ites,” Bush said, trying to get the details straight.  “We have to get this right.”

Cheney sighed.  “60 to 65% of the population is Arab Shi’ites – the same sect as the Iranians, though Arab rather than Persian so they’ve also got natural divisions.”

“So Saddam’s base is only about 35-40%?”  Bush asked.  “What about the Kurds?”

“They’re Sunni, and are about 15% of the population.  Saddam’s base is less than 30% – the Sunni Arabs,” Cheney continued.  “Get rid of Saddam and there could be real sectarian violence and even an extremist revolt.”

Gates walked in, sitting down next to Skowcroft.  “Powell thinks using US military force in the region is very dangerous; if we do, he wants us to build up a force of 500,000 in Saudi Arabia.”

Cheney whistled slightly, “That brings its own set of problems.”

CIA Director William Webster spoke up, “The Saudis have a problem with this millionaire’s son, Osama Bin Laden…”

“Who?”

Gates interrupted, “part of the Arab mujaheddin that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.   He was radicalized and now may be looking for an enemy.”

Webster looked at Gates cross eyed, “Excuse me,” he said, “Unless you want my job let me continue.    Yes, and he’s telling the Saudis he can remove Saddam – and there’s a chance he could become a problem for us in the region.  Moreover, with all due respect to the iron lady, she’s not likely to last the rest of the year in power, there’s a revolt brewing against her in her own party.”

Bush frowned.  “I can’t buy this ‘new world order’ thing.   This region is too tricky, what’s our best strategic move.”

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Skowcroft nodded at Gates who spoke up.  “We make a deal with Saddam. The Kuwaiti government is one of the most hated in the Arab world, it’s a small clique of people who can trace their lineage back to living there in the 1920s.  They hire Arabs and Pakistanis at very low pay to do most of the work, they’re arrogant and obnoxious.   Convince Saddam to leave Kuwait, but in favor of a democracy.  Give him some of the northern oil fields as well – that’s where the slant drilling took place.  Forgive Kuwaiti loans.”

Cheney leaned in, “So let him get away with it?  Is that smart?”

Skowcroft continued, “War would be too risky – Iran would probably gain the most, and they’re the real regional threat.   Powell agrees.  This way we can turn up a PR campaign against the Kuwaiti royal family and bill this as progress – a new democracy.    Saddam wants US support, he wants to replace Iran as our ally in the region to assure stability of the Persian Gulf oil supply.  Let’s give him that.”

Bush sighed.  “But the Saudis…”

“The Saudis will go along if we grant them assurances,” Cheney continued.  “They’ve been allied with Saddam the last decade.   We need someone to broker a deal, maybe the Vice President.”

Bush looked at Quayle.  “No f-ing way,” he thought silently to himself.

Gates interjected.  “Someone with experience, how about tapping Rumsfeld?”

Bush looked agitated, “that son of a bitch!  He’d double cross me.”

“We can use him,” Skowcroft countered.  “He’s wanting back in the game, he can show his usefulness.  It’s in his interest to be loyal.”

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Rumsfeld proved his loyalty, brokering a deal between Saddam, the US and the Saudis.

They kept talking.  The deal would be to tap Saddam as the new American ally, thus containing Iran.  They’d work with Assad in Syria and the Saudi royal family to create stability.  A new Kuwait would be dependent on the US and thus accept the concessions to Iraq.   The Saudis would be encouraged to “deal with” Bin Laden.   Saddam’s Iraq would quietly accept the existence of Israel and pressure the PLO to make a deal.

By January 1991 all was in place, and on January 16, 1991 the Iraqis signed a friendship treaty with the US, setting out the public terms of the deal, including the creation of a new Kuwaiti democracy.   President Bush would visit Iraq in March, and be warmly greeted by a smiling Saddam Hussein who said, “together we will assure stability in the region.”

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(Mubarak, Saddam and Arafat would represent a new stability in the Mideast)

On September 11, 2001, the PLO and Israel agreed to a final deal.  President Bush, standing next to Saddam Hussein who helped broker the deal, thanked the Iraqi leader as well as former President Bill Clinton, whose work started the process leading to this agreement.   The region was stable and at peace.  The Saudis had ferreted out the Bin Laden organization, killing its leader.  Saddam ruthlessly pursued Islamic extremists and would be terrorists, promising that modernization was the goal for the region.

Yet…when the 2011 Arab spring protests spread from Tunisia to Syria and Iraq, the US role in supporting brutal dictators like Saddam led to widespread distrust of the US, leading many to wonder “did we do the right thing in 1991?   Should we instead have gone to war and not made a partnership with a tyrant like Saddam?”

 

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Benghazi and 9-11

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For those of us who have been following terrorism for decades, the existence of al qaeda and the attack on the US on 9-11-01 was not a surprise; indeed, when it happened I felt a bit of relief that it wasn’t nuclear.  President Clinton and his team were obsessed with al qaeda and Bin Laden near the end of his term; those in the know had feared a major al qaeda attack for years.

A new article in Politico (the above photo is from that Politico piece) details just how much was known, with quotes from Cofer Black and George Tenet.  By May they knew something big was going to happen.  Plans were drawn up to “decapitate” al qaeda ahead of time.  In July the threat was seen as intense.  9-11 was no surprise, our intelligence did not fail.  Our political leadership simply didn’t react and were caught flat footed when it happened.

If the Democrats had really dug, and if they forced all of these facts out in the open (though Woodward’s books hinted at them as early as 2006), they could have had a REAL scandal over the administration’s mishandling of intelligence, failure to act, and culpability for the events of 9-11.   Compared to what the Republicans have on Clinton over Benghazi – which is really nothing (they’re down to hoping for collateral damage of something embarrassing from her e-mails) – there is a stark contrast between how the two parties handled these terrorist attacks.

The Democrats after 9-11 refrained from criticizing the Bush administration for inaction; indeed, it would have been political suicide to ruin the solidarity the country felt after the attacks – anger at al qaeda, sorrow for the victims.  A bipartisan 9-11 commission was formed not to go after Bush, Powell, Tenet, or anyone in his administration, but to find out what went wrong on how to fix it.  The thinking: this is a new kind of threat, of course we weren’t ready.  But we have to learn.

Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, smiles during a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. Clinton said that she accepted responsibility for a lethal 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya and that she sought afterward to improve security for State Department workers abroad, as the House Benghazi panel investigating the incident began a hearing that may prove a turning point for her presidential campaign. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hillary’s expression suggests she knew the Benghazi testimony was doing more good for her than for the GOP.   Photo: Andrew Harper/Bloomberg via Getty Images and Huffington Post

After the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, the response of the Republican party was to politicize it immediately.  Rather than treat it as a national tragedy, like the Democrats did for 9-11, this was a potential embarrassment for the President, who was running for re-election.  And if they couldn’t sink Obama, then they could go after Hillary, who might run for President in 2016.  The result was a fishing expedition and cascade of rumors and innuendo that for awhile did hurt Secretary Clinton’s credibility.

Ultimately, though, she came out on top.  After numerous hearings and investigations the Republicans looked to be grand standing as Clinton answered each question with substance and conviction.   The most damage comes from something unrelated to the Benghazi attack – the fact she used a private e-mail server for some of her communications.  But that looks more like difficulties in navigating the nature of the new information revolution than anything nefarious.

Although he would be later vilified for the Iraq war, the country came together under President Bush after 9-11, refusing to politicize a national tragedy

Although he would be later vilified for the Iraq war, the country came together under President Bush after 9-11, refusing to politicize a national tragedy

In retrospect, there was a lot more smoke to suggest incompetence and wrong doing from the pre-9-11 Bush Administration than Clinton’s state department in 2012.  However, I don’t think it would have been right to go after Bush, Tenet and the others in 2001.

They were in their first year in office, handling a myriad of threats from the Chinese forcing a “spy plane” down to daily concerns about terrorism.  Many thought Clinton’s team over-estimated Bin Laden, and a new administration takes awhile to figure out procedures and priorities.   Indeed, Bin Laden picked the perfect time to plan and strike – after a transition of power in the US.  That is when we are most vulnerable as a new team is still getting its bearings.

Add to that the fact that threats seemed ubiquitous but their reality meager.   Until it happened the warnings were possibilities – and there are thousands of warnings that failed to materialize for every one that is spot on.   Even the worst interpretation of Clinton’s activities on 9-11-12 show far fewer problems than the Bush team had a decade earlier.

9-11 inspired a unity of purpose that has since been lost

9-11 inspired a unity of purpose that has since been lost

So why the double standard?   Democrats might want to claim that they showed superior ethics in not politicizing a tragedy and looking to learn rather than score cheap points.  But they knew that if they had tried to do that in the years directly after 9-11 it would have been political death.  President Bush enjoyed high approval and people felt we should come together and handle what happened.

By 2012 America had changed.  The tea party had arisen after President Obama and the Democrats pushed through health care reform, and political divisions became as intense as ever.  Obama was demonized as being an “un-American socialist” and an “us vs. them” mentality arose in American politics.  In that context, it was a no brainer for the Republicans to seek to create a scandal after 9-11-12, something Kevin McCarthy seemed to even brag about last month.  Rather than see this as a national tragedy that we need to learn from, it was “this happened on Clinton’s watch, let’s see if we can string her up over this!”

Ultimately, though, that failed.  Not only was nothing (or very little) there, but by the her testimony last month Benghazi had already become a joke.  The effort to use it against her started to look not only politically motivated, but rather pathetic.  Simply, the Republicans had jumped the shark on Benghazi.

As these new details about 9-11-01 come out, and we see just how warned we really were, both parties should approach this with humility.  The world is a complex dangerous place, and administrations deal with multiple threats every day.  Rather than trying to crucify an official or President over something gone wrong, we should look to see why things went wrong and learn.

It may be that there were lapses in judgement in Clinton’s use of her own e-mail server that ultimately hurts her quest for the White House.  But when we consider Benghazi in 2012, or the attack on the US in 2001, let’s stop trying to politicize these tragedies and play gotcha games.  We responded correctly in 2001, even if there is more than enough evidence that they “should have known” and “acted differently.”  The Benghazi hearings were a mistake, and the GOP should drop them.

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Christmas better without presents!

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I do have lots of happy Christmas memories.  Lefse eating contests, drives to look at lights around town, the songs, the parties, the ideas of peace, love and good will toward others.  The movies can be fun – whether one of the timeless variations of “A Christmas Carol,” the classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or more recent fare such as “Family Man.”

But not the presents.

I hate Christmas presents.

Oh sure, as a kid it was fun to have the anticipation – though usually the anticipation was greater than the actuality.  Indeed, three or four days after Christmas the presents were already old, and the cool toys didn’t seem to work like they did on the TV commercials.  But my real dislike of presents came about when I was nearing adulthood.

Some of it comes from my own inadequacies.  I put off buying presents until the last minute and my wrapping skills are atrocious.  Once when my son was six I wrapped a present for  him to take to a birthday party.  Apparently the mom there was so impressed she said, “Oh, I see you wrapped this yourself!”   No, he’d not have created the mess that dad did!

I hate shopping at Christmas.  I hate the feeling I have to buy something.  Not because I don’t want to buy something for others, but that I don’t want it to be blah, substandard and not really wanted.  I want to find the perfect gift, the right one.  So I wander through stores, get increasingly dissatisfied with what is available, resent the marketing and end up buying something I could have just grabbed five minutes into the whole debacle.  I first noticed this back in college.  I had scoured stores for days trying to find something good for my mom and dad.  Finally, on Christmas eve only the liquor store remained open so I got my dad a bottle of scotch and my mom a bottle of vodka.  At least it was something I knew they’d use!

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I’m sure dad enjoyed it, but it wasn’t really the gift I was searching for…

I know my choices of what to buy others don’t reflect what they really want (or if it does, it’s only because I got a list and was less buying a gift than doing someone’s shopping).

I’m not just being bah-humbug.  I actually LOVE the spirit of Christmas.   Giving is a grand thing – if done from the heart in a way that helps those in need.   But when it’s part of a grand dance of buying and giving gifts out of a sense of duty (kids expect it, you might insult loved ones if you drop it) it seems more a subsidy to corporate consumerism than any true nod at Christmas spirit.

Oh I know – some people have the superhuman strength to rise above such pettiness.  Some will overlook how lame a gift is because they really feel loved and heartened that someone thought enough to buy them anything.  Others give very thoughtful gifts – my ex-wife was good at that for all 16 years we were together.  But most of us simply get substandard stuff, give substandard stuff, and then pay bills as the leaders of Walmart, Target and corporate America sigh thankfully as Christmas season saves their profit margins once again.

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Black Friday: the Christmas spirit!

What if we just said “enough of this consumer oriented materialist anti-Christmas spirit bullshit!”   No presents this year.   OK, my kids would stage a revolt and I’d end up being tossed outside naked in the snow (they’re getting big enough to do that), so I would have to give them something.   But what if in general we decided that Christmas is about ideas like love, faith, imagination, good will to all, peace and forgiveness?  That’s something all people, Christian or not, should be able to get behind.

What if we came together with friends not to exchange consumer products but just to be together?  And if a gift is to be shared, have it be something self-made and personal, given not for its monetary value or use, but as a thought?   What if the money wasted on gifts that people don’t really want were given instead to charity, maybe helping feed the world, clothe the poor, or allow local organizations like, say, the Children’s Task Force, helping local children who are otherwise lucky to get a meal for Christmas?

So am I a bah-humbug scrooge?  If so, it’s only to the extent that consumer excess obscures the real meaning of Christmas.  Only to the extent that our rush to buy gifts, get the Black Friday deals and dash out mass produced Christmas cards (I don’t do those anymore either, by the way) drive me crazy.

What if we focused on what matters?

I can hear the bankers and merchants saying, “that’s exactly what we are doing – focusing on the bottom line, that’s what matters!”   No, that’s what is wrong!    Let’s all – Christian and non-Christian, agree that values of love, forgiveness, peace and good will transcend all material aspects of this holiday and embrace those.   Let’s spend time on those, and not on the stress ridden Christmas shopping consumer marathon that Christmas has become.

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