Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scaring Children To Jesus

The American evangelical Christians have crossed the line. Their new tactic in saving souls is to scare the shit out of their children. Halloween time is upon us and churches across our fair nation are taking advantage of the opportunity by holding large-scale attractions called “Hell Escape,” costing up to $40,000 to produce and enlisting between two and three hundred church members. They are designed to emphasize the importance of a religious life, with Satan’s voice booming from the shadows, taunting children about their eternal damnation.

With regular haunted houses, which we love so much, there is a sense of suspended reality, because we all know that it is make believe. The difference here is that the parents are telling their young and impressionable children that the scenes they will be seeing in these productions are real and will happen to them if they don’t accept Christ for their salvation. The scenes are therefore more startling to the children, because it actually could happen to them.

Jerry Farwell’s Liberty University in Virginia has been running these things since the early 70’s, offering vignettes that include a gay wedding, date rape, satanic drug orgies, and ultimately, hell. Lately, the churches that have adopted this tactic are also focusing on newer issues such as teen abortion, drunken driving, on-line predators and spousal abuse. This often comes complete with an exceptionally realistic bloody surgical table and tiny replica of a fetus. (Remember—this is for the kids) According to Pastor Rick Lewis, from the Shelby Church of God in Ohio, “There’s a lot of rooms that are kind of violent.” His rational for the realistic violence is, “We’ve seen it touch a lot of people’s lives.” I guess so, when you see eight year olds coming out looking as if the blood has drained from their bodies.

My first thought, about all of this, was to remember an old skit from SCTV (that great comedy series from Canada) where a father (Joe Flaherty) scares his kid literally to death when telling him a ghost story.

Here we have parents telling their kids (instructed that these things actually happen) about school shootings and the funeral of a gay AIDS patient overtaken by demons. How irresponsible can you get? Don’t kids already have enough anxiety about school shootings? As for AIDS patients being tormented by demons, all I have to say is, “F**k You! How dare you! Try telling that to all the families who have lost loved ones to this disease.”

Now here’s the kicker—these religious leaders believe that THE END JUSTIFY THE MEANS. Pastor Greg Griffith of the Willard Church of God in northern Ohio said, “The church doing the outreach must come to terms with that and have a clearer understanding that the message and methods justify the end result—a person who has made a decision to change a lifestyle.”

One definition of child abuse explicitly includes any, “Harm or threatened harm to a child's health or welfare that occurs through nonaccidental physical or mental injury, or maltreatment, by a parent, a legal guardian, or any other person responsible for the child's health or welfare, or by a teacher or pastor.” This also includes, “Any form of cruelty to a child, which includes not only physical cruelty but mental cruelty.” Scaring the shit out of your kid, to me, falls into this category.

According to Kyla Ward, “It's not as though producing scary stories for children is a new idea. Fairy tales were not designed for children. The collections made in the 1670s by Charles Perrault, and the 1830s by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were for adults, reflecting in each case an upsurge of interest in the national folklore. When fairy tales began to be considered childish, they were carefully reworked into what was considered suitable for children, by adults.” There is no doubt that in our culture, children are routinely scared by the most responsible of guardians in order to inculcate them to the principles of it's bad to steal, or lie, etc. But it is done responsibly and not to shake them to the core. We don’t tell our children that they will be damned for the things all children do, as part of being inculcated into the society.

The idea that deliberately scaring children is in some way immoral seems to run deep in the consciousness of the main culture in America. We’re not talking about the kind of “horror,” where there is distinct line between reality and fantasy. It is a real horror. I just hope that the rest of us will find this intolerable and hideous.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I have just been informed that there is a new phenomenon overtaking America: the Pirate re-enactors. Due to the Disney pirate movies with Mr. Depp, those in need of grease paint and pantaloons now have an outlet. Arrggh, is the mantra--so avast yee maties and start sharpening your cutlass. Now you want to board ship before the Jimmie Buffet-Barmy-Army beats you. There’s nothing worse than joining a new fad after it has become homogenized by the “followers” of fashion; after they think it is safe and coalitional (grandparents and children in tow).

Sorry Jimmy—the music was great and the shows were cool, before the all the squares started drinking the Kool-Aid!

The investiture today is disposed toward the Keith Richards/Johnny Depp transliteration of history. But I’m sure that before long, the costumery will be available at concession stands: tee shirts, beards, hats, and cutlasses. Get the Kool-Aid ready.

So what’s wrong with having a little fun? Well, nothing really. I just wish that people wouldn’t wait till it has become sanctioned. I remember trying to get my father to listen to Jimmy Buffett for years, but it wasn’t until my cousins and his sister-in-law (well beyond middle age) jumped on the “parrot head” band wagon that he started to listen to the music. He fell in love with it. I guess my sentiment was too aboriginal for him. It had to become rudiment ally tenable.

Which leads me to…

I spent a lot of time in my youth in the West Indies. If any pirate movie has any relevance to me, it would be “A High Wind in Jamaica.” This movie captured what a pirate’s life would be like better than any other pirate film could. Every time I see it, it activates my memories of sailing from island to island on a three mast wooden ship (all true), with dolphin riding the bow wake and flying fish scampering over the water as if racing us onward. My childhood retrospection includes sugar mills, mongoose, and chewing raw cane for the liquid extract. When on the island of St. Lucia, my friend Craig and I would swim across Marigot Bay to climb on the large fiberglass snail shell (left behind by the people who filmed the movie Dr. Doolittle there).

On the island of Barbados, we took a day trip to the south side of the island to visit Sam Lord’s castle. He was a real pirate who would hang lanterns in the coconut trees around his estate, to lure passing ships far out at sea, thinking that it was the port city of Bridgetown and would sail towards the reef. The ships would wreck on the reef. Sam Lord and his men would then board the ships and steal the riches. I remember the house well. It had a large turtle pond that I was convinced had something to do with a hidden treasure. I would walk off paces from the well toward the pond, sure that I could figure out the hidden location of pirate booty. Remember, I was just a kid. A kid in the Caribbean, though.

Back, to recommending music. I still have a record that I bought when I was kid. It is called “Caribbean Treasure Chest,” by the Merrymen--featuring Emile Straker, Robin Hunte, Stephen Fields, and Chris Gibbs. One of their songs is called, “The Legend of Sam Lord.”

He used to hang de lanterns
On de coconut trees
And lure the ships upon de reef
And when de sailors thought
They’d sighted land,
Alas they ran aground
Alas they ran aground!

I have no idea if this record can be found anywhere. My copy is from when I bought it in the 60s. Emile’s voice is one of the best I have ever heard, especially on “Cu-Cu-Ru-Cu-Cu Paloma.” The record is one of the few that I used to pull out of the stack, in the past, when three-sheets-to-the-wind and lying on the floor (Semi-comatose) listening to music. The steel drum songs remind me of the same one’s I was introduced to on Barbados--when I first saw those old Pan-Am barrels played on for my first time.

If you can find it, tape it (or whatever it is they do these days) and bring it with you poolside on your next Caribbean vacation. The Jimmy thing is passé. Show off your new retro-calypso-chic music, that is the real-Caribbean deal.

Lastly, I hate to put Jimmy down. It’s the “Parrot Heads” I can’t stand! I still love “Barometer Soup.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Spreading the Wealth

There are only a few days left till the Presidential election. But until it’s over, I have a bone to pick with John McCain. He has been saying in his attacks against Barrack Obama that he (Obama) wants to “spread the wealth”—as if this is a bad thing.

Wait a minute! I thought that was what America was all about. Everybody gets the opportunity to better themselves.

It seems that John McCain has become the poster boy for John Edwards’ TWO AMERICAS. The conservative policies of the Bush administration, which McCain has voted for 90% of the time, have left an exceptionally high poverty rate, particularly among children. These policies have obviously made things worse than when Bush came into office. Changes in marginal income tax rates in the US combined with cuts in programs targeted on the most needy have reduced the tax burden of the very wealthy while leaving the poor worse off.

In Bush’s America the top 1% of American households is doing especially well. They have taken home more than one-quarter of all household income. They receive more than 63 times the average after-tax income of the poorest fifth. This means that the richest 3 million Americans earned more than the least well-off 100 million. Leaving markets alone to address people’s needs has only driven incomes further apart.

It has taken a banking collapse to bring the discussion back to our heritage of imposing limits on the inequality resulting from unequal market incomes. After all, that was what the welfare state was all about. From the late 19th century up to 8 years ago, the US adopted spending and taxing programs to mitigate capitalism’s worst effects. It was a system that helped provide poor parents jobs and income and support services they needed to keep them and their children out of poverty.

What we have ended up with though is a rise in unemployment and stagnation in family incomes. At the same time, the top 1% of households are getting one third of the benefits of Bush’s pro-investment tax cuts. These are the same policies that John McCain has proposed recently, saying that these tax cuts would increase public spending. But what we have seen for the past eight years is actually less spending, not more, yet still skewing the payout to the very wealthy. And let’s not forget, that the current fiscal nightmare in which any future effort to reduce the burgeoning deficit will only lead to demands to increase taxes on the working and middle classes.

While millions of working Americans are struggling to find adequate food, health care and housing for their families, the pay for wealthier Americans has risen dramatically—all fueled by growth in salaries, exorbitant bonuses, stock options and other compensation. This is while wages for millions of lower-wage workers has dwindled. Many find themselves unable to earn a living wage, and many have resorted to food banks and community centers for help.

We have just been educated to the excesses of the rich, while watching the nation’s CEO’s trying to explain their compensation to the people (In Congress and to the media). In the US the richest 0.5% of the population spends around $125 billion a year. This is equal to the total household expenditure in Italy. Steve Forbes has said that the rich have never had it so good. “These are the richest years in human history.”

Remember the term—Rich as Rockefeller? Well, John D. Rockefeller’s fortune of around $900 million, which many analysts thought would never be topped in real terms, wouldn't (in today’s money) even get you near the Forbes Top 10.

So, to John McCain, spreading this wealth around is a horrifying prospect. I guess the fact that he owns seven homes might indicate where his heart really lies.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Killing Whales for National Security

On Thursday, some of the judges of the US Supreme Court indicated that they favored slapping down a lower court ruling that would curb the use of powerful sonar in US Navy training exercises off the southern California coast. They stated that even if the sonar harmed the sea mammals, national security would take priority.

This has touched off a controversy over presidential power and the military’s obligation to follow environmental laws which require federal agencies to consider and mitigate the environmental impacts of their activities. All the while, the Navy plans to conduct a series of 14 submarine hunting exercises using its active sonar.

The World Conservation Congress has said that the underwater cacophony caused by military ships has become so intense that it is killing whales. The sonar used by the Navy is so powerful that, “a whale can be killed outright by the shock,” said Carl Gustav Landin, head of marine programs for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Eighty-five decibels can cause permanent damage to the human ear. The sonar used by the Navy can exceed 230 decibels in volume, and can be deadly within a one or two kilometer radius.

The problem is only getting worse, since the acidification of oceans caused by rising sea temperatures reduces sound absorption in the water by up to 40 percent. This means that noise will only travel much farther.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and five other environmental groups filed suit, saying that the Navy had failed to properly assess the potential impact to marine mammals, which was in violation of federal environmental laws. A California judge, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, agreed with the claim. She issued a preliminary injunction, which ordered the Navy to restrict the power and location of its sonar testing. The Bush administration then moved to exempt the Navy from any environmental laws by stating that the sonar training exercises were essential to national security.

The Navy has repeatedly downplayed the impact of active sonar on marine mammals even after they found concerns when they completed their own environmental assessment. According to Robert Kendall, the attorney representing the National Resources Defense Council, that assessment predicted the sonar exercises would disturb or injure an estimated 170,000 marine mammals, including permanent injury to more than 500 rare beaked whales.

Unfortunately for the Navy’s and the President’s vanity, whales and dolphins have much larger frontal lobes than they do. Whales are highly social beings and have a highly complex form of communication with each other. This can only be described as language. They even address each other by name. They are intelligent beings.

My grandfather had a record, back in the sixties, which was a recording of whale “sounds” (as they called it back then). He loved to listen to it. He was one of our country’s leading men of science (as head of Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio), and he was certain that it was a language, long before science caught up.
As far as I’m concerned--killing a living, intelligent mammal is the same as killing a human being.

The claim that the exercise is necessary for national security is based on the obvious contribution to readiness and strategic access. But it also provides political and diplomatic returns. Exercises demonstrate US resolve and capability to project military power anywhere in the world in support of US national interests and in support of US allies.

Does this mean that we need to have “death causing” military exercises in our own waters and on our own soil?

Just recently, the mayor of Toledo, Ohio told a battalion of armed Marines to get out of his city. He ordered about 200 Marines who traveled from Grand Rapids, Michigan to halt their military exercises and leave his city. The armed Marines—members of Company A, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, had showed up to participate in an urban warfare training exercise, one of several planned across the nation by the Pentagon.

Whales can’t shoot back. But I’m sure if the Marines showed up in one the hollers, here in southern Ohio, they might get some real training. We’re armed in these hills.