Sunday, May 29, 2011

Harold Camping & the Hudson River: the real meaning of rapture

Now that a week has passed since the day that Harold Camping had predicted that the world would end and the Rapture would take his Faithful to heaven, the time has come to confess that my wife and I, on that last, ostensibly fateful, Saturday of May 21 joined a procession of a very different sort than Camping was predicting.

Instead of some massive version of Ingmar Bergman’s wonderful, but lugubrious vision of a Danse Macabre from the finale of his film, The Seventh Seal...

The Seventh Seal, Danse Macabre

we enjoyed a few celebratory hours of mirth and entertainment at the second annual Hudson River Pageant, put on by Earth Celebrations.... 

Hudson River Pageant, River Spirits

The purpose of this event, according to its organizers, is “to restore the Hudson River and address climate change in New York City.” Earth Celebrations identifies itself as an ecological arts organization, and it managed to include all of the arts in the process of an afternoon consisting of thirteen distinct and peripatetic events, starting with a “River Spirits Initiation” at the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City Park and ending with a “Boat Dance and Harmonic Chant Concert” at the Gansevoort Street Pier on the Hudson River Park. Dance, theater, poetry, music, song, painting, and sculpture all were enlisted in the service of this celebratory event.

Rather than attempt to describe it, I will offer a few pictures that I took during the first hour (after which my wife and I went into the West Village to have a late lunch). But these photos only capture a bit of the spirit of the occasion, so to augment them, here are titles of some of the later events that we missed: “Paddle Board Dance” (with kayakers); “Oyster Planting Ceremony;” “Live Fish Release!;” “Honoring of the Lenape Indians.”

Workshops on art, ecology, puppet building and costume making began in March in preparation for this event, and given the day that it took place, it’s hard not to think of what could have been done had Earth Celebrations had a small fraction of the $100-million (a conservative estimate) that Harold Camping has received and spent to publicize his (promised) May 21 Judgement Day.

So here are a few pictures in celebration of a small segment of this wonderful world that belongs to all of us and that no self-styled scriptural misinterpreter will ever take from us:

Estuary Puppet
(one of several 15' high river species puppets)

Sea Horse & Fish

Some Processants

Procession on Hudson River Walk

Big Fish and Handlers on a break

Water Nymph (I think), gliding on skates

Personifying something specific, as they all do, but I'll just call him "Leaf Man"

River Grass Maidens
(crowns of native grass grown from seed for this event)

Sea Horse

Toxic Dumping

Toad Fish

Dance of the River Grass
(Hudson River Park, bet. Laight & Vestry Sts.)

River Rap: Sludge
(Hudson River Park, at Canal St.)

River Rap: Oil Spill
(Hudson River Park, at Canal St.)

Keep in mind that this pageant took over three hours and covered a fair distance of beautiful and inviting urban waterfront. In contrast to thirty years ago, a New Yorker today can walk or bike from the bottom of Manhattan up to, and beyond the George Washington Bridge, in fact, right up to Inwood Hill Park and the Henry Hudson Bridge into the Bronx. When a city recovers its waterfront as an amenity for all of its citizens to enjoy, it becomes more human and engages its entire community. With the building of Battery Park City and its connecting Hudson River Park, New York has opened up a place to celebrate the serendipity of life. People fish, picnic, sunbathe, bike, roller-skate, jog, play tennis, meet for concerts, talks, trysts, and even schedule pageants that celebrate the best in life and human interaction.

How much more life-enhancing was this Hudson River Pageant than its anticipated, coincident event of last Saturday--that medieval-like embrace of fear, death and cultural hysteria that took place in many pockets of this world as Camping’s deluded Followers awaited the Rapture in vain? 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Letter to Jim: Helprin’s Hillsdale Commencement Address

Dear Jim:

It’s so nice to hear from you after so many years. I got the url containing this year’s commencement address given by Mark Helprin at Hillsdale College, which you recommended that I listen to for “some of the best perceptions of our times.”

Naturally, given your recommendation, I listened to (and watched) the entire address. However, my assessment of it is rather different than yours. In fact, I was a bit appalled at both President Arnn’s introductory remarks as well as Helprin's actual address. Both were colored by a conservative bias that I would have imagined to be off-limits in the context of a commencement address at a liberal arts institution. After all, in my experience, most liberal arts colleges boast a broad cross-section of students whose politics are very likely balanced among conservative, liberal, and independent.

But, then, until today, I had not been aware of the history nor the nature of Hillsdale College. So I looked it up and discovered that the National Review had called it a “citadel of American conservatism.” How peculiar, I thought, for a college that, at its founding in 1844, was the first American college to prohibit discrimination based on race, religion or sex. I’m not sure how Hillsdale evolved from its early and most laudable progressive charter into a bastion of political conservatism, but I assume that its last two presidents--George Roche III and Larry Arnn--played some role in this movement.

I imagine that you sent me this url because you had attended the ceremony, perhaps to celebrate the graduation of a grandchild. If so, congratulations are definitely in order.

Mark Helprin’s topic, “Churchill and the Presidency,” was clearly an acknowledgement of President Arnn, who has an academic interest in Churchill and helped establish the annual Churchill dinners in Washington, D.C. I understand and applaud Helprin’s desire to introduce, and maybe even inculcate in these students, the leadership qualities of a man like Winston Churchill. However, his “exercise in the imagination [that considers] what it would be like to be blessed with someone of Churchill’s quality” in our own times leads the students down a path of indoctrination rather than stimulation. 

Once he presented Churchill as a paradigm of political virtue at its highest, Helprin wastes little time in implying that certain contemporary leaders such as Jimmy Carter, Barney Frank and Joe Biden are unworthy of their positions, because, we are to infer, they lack the necessary gravitas of a Churchill. This certainly took me aback--again, at this point I thought that I was listening to a graduation address at a more “normal” liberal arts college. I found his remarks gratuitous and mean-spirited. I also consider them wrong and conveniently myopic, especially when Helprin suggests that (possibly) only Ronald Reagan, among contemporary American presidents, exhibits those standards appropriate for a leader. Reagan was certainly as flawed as Carter, Frank, Biden, or even Churchill, dare I say.

Helprin alludes to "ill-formed, adolescent presidents of recent decades" and asks, “In a nation of more than 300 million, where are the adults?” Having already named several (democratic) candidates, he felt no need here to be specific; he knew his listeners would make the right connections. But neither Carter, Frank, nor Biden can be called childish--well, maybe except for a few of Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks. Had he named George W. Bush, certainly our most childish president ever, he may have placed himself on stronger grounds; but Helprin was intent upon defending American conservatism by simply castigating America's liberal wing.

Were this not unseemly enough, Helprin really steps off a cliff when he quotes Michelle Obama as she tells an audience what Barack Obama will ask of Americans. Given his reaction to this, one would think that no American president had ever exonerated his citizens to some higher level of awareness and behavior. Helprin uses Michelle’s speech to denigrate Obama, as if her hypotheticals of what Obama would do somehow actually meant that Obama was being "authoritarian" and was "insulting his countrymen." How duplicitous! He takes one person's statement, ignores its context, and then interprets that statement as if it represented what Barack Obama actually said and did. This is devious writing and bad scholarship. 

What was it that Michele said her husband would do, and what was its context? The context was a campaign speech that Michelle gave at UCLA on February 18, 2008. It was upbeat, inspiring , and had nothing anti-American, as Helprin would imply near the conclusion of his talk. Here is the relevant passage to which I have added two earlier sentences in order to clarify her topic:

“Change is hard; change will always be hard, and it doesn’t happen from the top down....We get change because folks from the grass roots up decide they are sick and tired of other people telling them how their lives will be. [We get change] when they decide to roll up their sleeves and work. And Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism, that you put down your divisions, that you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zone, that you push yourselves to be better, and that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed...” 

Even were these words to have come from Barack’s mouth and not Michelle’s, what, I ask, is so wrong or threatening about them? To exonerate a citizenry to roll up its sleeves and work, to shed its cynicism, forget its divisions, push itself to be better, be involved, be informed: are these not what we would want all leaders to ask of us? Would this not have been much more appropriate than when George W. Bush, after 9/11, asked us for no sacrifices, merely saying “enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed?” I played lacrosse at Dartmouth; you rowed crew there--don't Michelle's words embody exactly what you and I would want and expect our coaches to ask of us?

Far from something totally alien to Winston Churchill, as Helprin would have us believe, such exoneration is precisely the sort of thing that Churchill would embrace in an attempt to rally the people of England and the free world. Barack Obama has shown himself to be among our most adult, mature, and thoughtful presidents ever. He certainly doesn’t deserve the tawdry and unfairly biased treatment given by Helprin.

I am certain that some Hillsdale students, listening to this address with an open mind, or a few others with liberal leanings, must have felt somewhat disappointed with their graduation speaker. Moreover, I hope that you will be able to look beyond our differences--I the liberal, you the conservative--and accept my comments in the spirit of friendly discourse, as well as of certain shared experiences, which is my intention in writing this.

Yours truly, Tyko

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Un-American Accusations, Part 1: Big Oil

On Thursday, Big Oil executives appeared before a Senate hearing on a Democratic proposal to eliminate an annual tax break of $2.1 billion that the five regularly receive (ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron). In anticipation of this hearing, ConocoPhillips issued a news release the day before which headlined “Un-American Tax Proposals” in its title.  ConocoPhillips’ CEO, James Mulva declined to apologize for this public statement when given the opportunity to do so by Senator Robert Menendez (D, NJ), the bill’s chief sponsor.

It’s one thing to toss out an accusatory adjective like “un-American” in the heat of a political discussion, say;  it’s quite another thing use it in a carefully-considered public statement intended to be put out in print.  It is also quite another thing for the fifth largest private sector energy corporation in the world, and one with worldwide operations (even if headquartered in Houston, Texas) to tell American Congressmen/women that they are being “un-American” when they are working in earnest to reduce our deficit and, in the case of the House version, also to provide money for alternative energy programs.

Just think of it: the CEO’s of these corporations (and if not them in person, certainly the Republicans who agree with and support them) are the same people who we once heard constantly grousing about “Welfare Mothers.”  Orrin Hatch (R, UT), for example, scoffed at the hearings this week, calling them nothing but a “dog and pony show.”  Yet, only last year, he still was criticizing welfare recipients--or to be more precise today, those eligible for public assistance or unemployment benefits.  He is insisting that they have mandatory drug tests.  He also states that Welfare must be only a transitional program for any recipient.

With this in mind, let’s go back six years.  Oil was nearing $60/barrel, and CEO James Mulva and other top oil executives then told a Senate committee that they didn’t need these tax breaks to keep exploring for oil.  Today, with oil just over $100/barrel, they need these breaks even less.  Additionally, as a New York Times editorial today points out, “the Big Five earned a robust $35 billion in the first quarter of this year alone,” and so the impact on oil industry profit of eliminating the tax benefits “would be trivial.”

In as much as these Big Five oil corporations are among the wealthiest corporations in the world, why not apply to Big Oil Senator Hatch’s stipulation that welfare be only temporary--a way to “help families achieve self-sufficiency” and avoid “welfare dependency?” Big Oil certainly has achieved self-sufficiency.

But now Big Oil whines that weaning them from the dole is ‘un-American.”  As the Times editorial puts it, “one has to wonder why the oil companies are fighting so hard for a comparatively small amount of cash, at least for them. The only explanation we can come up with is that they have always gotten what they wanted and expect to do so now, so why not?”  In other words, to return again to Orrin Hatch, we have failed Big Oil by encouraging in them a form of “welfare dependency.”

The withdrawing of subsidies to large corporations is not “un-American.”  As the Times editorial stated, the complaints of the Big Five CEOs is “utterly absurd.”  But then, distortion of thought (or absurd thinking) is typical to addicts (i.e., those with a dependency).  They begin with the conclusion, “We need to retain these subsidies,” and then build a case for that conclusion, “Taking away our subsidies is un-American, it’s discriminatory.”  This is the logic of the addict.

In conclusion to this first part of my topic, "Un-American Accusations," I invite you to watch a You Tube video, “Richard Dreyfuss On Being An American,” from the documentary film, 18 in ’08 by David Burstein.  It’s a powerful, and short, piece in which Dreyfuss addresses the mandate for being a good citizen and emphasizes the fact that we all must sacrifice for the good of the country. He ends with this gentle warning:

“But don’t rest on hearing these nonsensical phrases that we hear, like ‘tax relief‘ which is a pretty stupid phrase, and misleads you about what your responsibilities are about running your country. You have to pay for your country or else you don’t have one.” 

Dreyfuss has offered a different version of President Kennedy’s inaugural address in which the latter says, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

What can BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Shell do for our country to demonstrate their respect for America and its representatives, rather than resorting to childish, absurd and indefensible name-calling? 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Permanent Republican Majority, Election Fraud, & Our Democracy


For a variety of reasons, I have fallen behind in submitting my next blog post: first laid low by a pesky stomach virus; then royally entertained by a visit from granddaughter Tallulah and her parents; finally concerned about being perceived as some crazy conspiracy theorist because of my topic. But now, I put these excuses aside and launch, or maybe lurch, on.

The Post: 

One recurring echo from the last decade has been a reference to the creation of a “permanent Republican majority,” a phrase attributed to Karl Rove. Rove has denied using the word “permanent,” instead recalling his use of the word “durable.” But even if Rove’s phrasing has been misinterpreted by the many commentators writing about a “creation of a permanent Republican majority,” Rove, better than most of us, knows how the mere repetition of a statement enough times helps it attain a status similar to truth.

My interest lies not in the source of this phrase, however, but in its implication for our democracy. When there are only two viable political parties, as is the case in our country, the attempt to kill one or to make one irrelevant threatens democracy itself.

There is no way for a country as diverse as ours to thrive under a single, dominant party, and we all should take comfort in the regularity with which the party out of power gains seats during mid-term elections. We may not like it, as we see our favored party lose seats, but, almost like breathing itself, these electoral “readjustments” are dynamic indicators of a healthy political balance.

But what if some Republicans have actually accepted the “truthiness” of a permanent majority? How would they accomplish it? The most obvious answer would be through election manipulation. And because this past decade has provided us with several prominent examples of questionable elections, along with a new system of casting votes, we can wonder if some Americans are not, indeed, attempting to manipulate a majority through election fraud.

We expect and accept certain forms of electoral manipulation. Gerrymandering, or the redrawing of electorate boundaries usually to favor the group in power, happens all the time. Manipulation of demography, in which a group is moved into a district in order to affect its vote, or denied the vote because of no fixed address (as with students) is also quite common. Disenfranchisement (done in a myriad of ways), voter intimidation, vote buying, misinformation, or misleading ballot papers unfortunately also are commonplace.

All of these violate our democratic principles to some extent and, in an ideal world, would not exist. Any of them may even skew an election. But, because they all are fairly transparent--people witness them, report them, and even investigate them--we have some confidence that we can adjust and insulate future elections from their effects. In a sense, this activity of adjustment, too, is part of our democratic process.

On the other hand, more heinous mechanisms of voting manipulation, such as ballot stuffing, mis-recording of votes, or the destruction of ballots, are activities that we--or certainly I--consider completely undemocratic and rare in American politics.

Rare, at least, until this last decade. The Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 were characterized by irregularities and disputes that have badly stained American democracy, and the introduction of electronic voting machines (especially those that don’t provide a paper trail) has added a layer of mystery and opacity to the entire process of how a vote is cast, processed, and tallied.

Florida, 2000: 

The Florida vote in the 2000 Presidential elections was characterized by Linn Washington, Professor of Journalism at Temple University, as “the greatest voter fraud in recent history,” and he cited the improper purging of over 50,000 voter names from the ballots. As Washington observed, “remembering that George W. Bush won Florida by a mere 534 vote margin in 2000, simple math exposes that GOP disenfranchisement fraud as demonstratively more devastating than some (alleged) fudging on registration forms.”

Because Washington had the benefit of hindsight, having written this article in October of 2008, we might write off the Bush victory over Gore to the misfortunes of the pressures of time and the need for a quick decision. However, on the day after the election, Washington Post political reporter Dana Milbank, already noted enough of a vote discrepancy to have given Florida (and the election) to Al Gore. As he wrote, “Something very strange happened on election night to Deborah Tannenbaum, a Democratic Party official in Volusia County. At 10 p.m., she called the county elections department and learned that Al Gore was leading George W. Bush 83,000 votes to 62,000. But when she checked the county's Web site for an update half an hour later, she found a startling development: Gore's count had dropped by 16,000 votes, while an obscure Socialist candidate had picked up 10,000--all because of a single precinct with only 600 voters."

Almost two years later, on October 24, 2003, this specific voting fraud in Florida was exposed through Diebold memos--a second memory card had been installed in the Diebold machines, causing the disappearance of 16,022 votes on election night from precinct 216 in Volusia County, and then the original memory card was put back into the computer so that the fraud could not be detected.

2004 Presidential Election: 

In the 2004 Presidential election, Florida announced another voter purge, and the state government initially attempted to keep the list secret. As Wikipedia writes, “when a court ordered its release, it was found to contain mostly Democrats and a disproportionate number of racial minorities. Faced with media documentation that the list included thousands of errors, the state abandoned the attempt to use it.”

However, we now know that, elsewhere, in Nevada and Oregon, a company hired by the RNC solicited voter registration forms, but was accused of filing only the Republicans’ forms and shredding those completed by Democrats. In Michigan, state legislator John Pappageorge was quoted in the summer of 2004 as saying, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election."

But then there is Ohio, which brings us to the really disturbing issue not only about this election but also about electronic voting machines. Walden W. O’Dell, a longtime Republican, member of President Bush’s elite “Rangers and Pioneers” who have raised at least $100,000 for the 2004 race, and participant at election strategy meetings at Bush’s Crawford, Texas home, wrote a letter in mid-August, 2003 inviting 100 wealthy friends to a fundraiser at his home outside Columbus, Ohio, stating: ''I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.''

What is problematic about this is that O’Dell was the CEO and chairman of the board of Diebold, Inc. Diebold, based in Canton, Ohio, was the largest manufacturer of voting machines in the USA. This, at the least, constitutes a glaring conflict of interest in that such a rabid political partisan also was supplying the machines that would be entrusted with the counting of votes.

Diebold (now Premier Election Solutions): 

Diebold machines had been cited for various design and performance flaws over the past decade. California decertified them, Maryland’s House of Delegates voted to ban them, and Georgia discovered that patches had been sneaked into their machines. Nevertheless, because of CEO O’Dell’s partisan political largesse, his Republican beneficiaries regularly disqualified Diebold competitors when purchasing voting machines.

So it was that, after Katherine Harris left as Florida’s Secretary of State and Supervisor of the 2000 Elections, Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood took over; she ordered Diebold voting machines, even though many advised against this. The result, according to writer Leigh Lundin, was that 20,000 votes were not counted in just one congressional race in the 2008 elections.

In fact, not only were the votes not counted, but the software could delete the audit logs that would have indicated a problem. These were among many problems that Diebold knew about for years.

This is a picture of the inside of a Diebold Touch Screen electronic voting machine. We are looking at a “boot area configuration chart” painted on the system board, allowing easy access to a switch (or switches) that enable one to override a certified set of files in place of an illegal, uncertified code. The system then can be reversed in a matter of minutes to conceal these illegal actions. 

As Open Voting Foundation president, Alan Dechert, writes, “This may be the worst security flaw we have seen in touch screen voting machines....with the flip of a single switch inside, the machine can behave in a completely different manner compared to the tested and certified version.”

Now, showing my age as a 70-year old, one-time greaser, I may still be able to re-assemble a Ford flathead V-8 engine blindfolded, but this sort of electronic circuitry is a total mystery to me, which of course makes me even less trusting of these devices. Give me a hanging chad any day; it’s mechanical, and I know exactly how it occurred as well as how to improve the machine in order to avoid future hanging chads.

But with the proliferation of these new, electronic voting machines, and with many Republican lawmakers even refusing to agree that such machines also need to provide paper receipts, I must admit that my long-held faith in the democratic power of the vote in America is wavering.

Watch, for example, computer programmer Clinton Eugene Curtis admit how easy it is to rig elections using electronic voting machines, and how he programmed machines to do just this for Republican Tom Feeney in October of 2000, then speaker of the Florida House, now a US Congressman. Curtis is speaking on oath before the US House Judiciary Committee’s Public Hearings on Election Irregularities on December 13, 2004.

Or read Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman on how the Democrats have lost Ohio--and the presidency--for 2012 because “Ohio's nontransparent computerized voter registration books and [Diebold] voting machines are solely controlled by partisan, private vendors.”

Or again, read how non-transparency in New Hampshire, where the first-in-the-nation presidential primary will take place in 2012, may take away the public’s right to know what actually occurred at the ballot box.

And once you do this, please reflect upon what you think it means to be an American, whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, or some form of Independent. Think about what our country would be like were we to have a single, dominant--and dominating--party.

And then consider how such an America would appear to the rest of the world. Our recent voting “irregularities” should give us pause as we consider their global ramifications. Their domestic ramifications are worrisome enough, as they suggest an undermining of a main pillar of our democracy. But in this year of 2011, the global ramifications of a less-democratic America are even more troublesome. With Bin Laden now dead, we have an opportunity, greater than ever before, to encourage real elections and democratic activity in many of the Muslim countries of the world. But if our own democracy is being called into question by voting fraud, voter intimidation and voting machine manipulations, how can we promote the sort of transparency, progressive politics and constitutional democracies that we would like to see take hold in the countries of the middle east?

We seem to have lost some perspective on who we are and on what America is. When major political players promote election fraud in order to “win;” when they “win” governorships and then turn vindictively on groups of their own people, even on government workers; when they use their newly-gained political office (however acquired) to undermine government itself and to privatize government assets, they have forgotten what America is about. They can no longer see the forest through the trees. As Mark Crispin Miller wrote in an article titled, “None Dare Call It Stolen,” an article on Ohio and the election of 2004 in Harper’s Magazine (August, 2005), “This democracy can survive a plot to hijack an election. What it cannot survive is our indifference to, or unawareness of, the evidence that such a plot has succeeded.”

And so it is with the hope of promoting an awareness that we are losing our democracy, that the politics of the ends justifying the means is corroding our electoral process, that I here venture--with some trepidation--into a topic that many Americans as well as the American press, consider taboo: the topic of major election fraud. It is taboo because it is “un-American.” But it is happening. And at present it is, unfortunately, hidden from view.