Sunday, January 31, 2016

Cruz and Trump and the evangelical vote

One of the most interesting things about this interesting election year is the popularity among evangelical Christians for candidates who talk about their Christian faith but don't demonstrate it.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who has made Christian activists a key to his election strategy, makes frequent mentions of the Bible and Christianity, but his tax returns show he doesn't put his money where his mouth is. It's not just that he gave less than 1 percent of his income to charity. He gave nothing ($00.00) to his home church, where he worships (but apparently doesn't read the Scripture or hear the sermon). He explained that he had concentrated his spending on securing the future for his family. How nice. He's investing in his daughters' future. Actually, he's demonstrating to his daughters and others his selfishness. With $5 million in income, he should be able to stash away enough to get his daughters through college, weddings and all that and still have a little left over to give to the church and the less fortunate.

Donald Trump, the boastful billionaire, has also touted his Christian faith, making appearances in churches and at Liberty University. But his reading at Liberty showed just how unfamiliar Trump is with the Scriptures. Given a "favorite" reading from II Corinthians, he told the audience he was reading from "Two Corinthians." Any kid in Bible school knows the accepted reference is to "Second Corinthians." Yet, this gaffe, like all of his other miscues, has not deterred his loyal fans who praise him as a godly man and shrewd businessman. It's probably true, as Trump boasted, that he could shoot down someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and he wouldn't lose any support.

Trump's "Two Corinthians" reading was reminiscent of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean's revealing response when he was asked what New Testament book was his favorite. He quickly replied "Job," which is in the Old Testament. The mistake revealed Dean, then the front-runner for the nomination, as someone severely lacking in biblical literacy.

Maybe biblical literacy doesn't matter anymore in this increasingly secular society, but the hypocrisy of candidates who woo Christian voters and claim to share their faith but neither practice that faith nor display any knowledge of that faith should turn truly religious voters away.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Fame drives modern news judgment

I'm sorry that David Bowie and Glenn Frey died, but I can't say that I'm really affected by their passing. I have a CD or two of Eagles songs, and I'll play them occasionally and might remember that Frey is dead. I don't have any Bowie recordings. I was never that much of a fan.

I've been astounded at the outpouring of pain and grief over the passing of these two famous musicians. Yes, every death diminishes each of us, and these celebrities were part of our lives — some lives far more than others, obviously. Still, I've been surprised at the mourning and tributes to these two. 

I shouldn't be. I still remember the day Elvis Presley died in 1977. I was living in Hamlet, about 75 miles from Charlotte and reading the Charlotte Observer every day. The next day's front page was not just dominated by the Elvis obituary and tributes. The whole front page was dedicated to Elvis, as was the second page, the third and all the rest in the front section. A day later, readers received a new round of Elvis tributes and updates. And the day after that and the day after that.

I still think of that week as when serious journalism stopped being serious, and the whole country's decline into celebrity worship began. The Founding Fathers did not create the First Amendment to protect newspaper publishers' right to print all the news there ever can be about celebrity singers. The First Amendment protects the press because, in the naive world of the 1780s, it was thought that democracy depended upon an informed electorate, and a vigorous, independent press was necessary to provide the information voters needed.

And now we have "reality" shows starring celebrities who are adored because they are famous and presidential debates that are not debates at all, just entertainment for the masses who don't understand or care about the major issues of the day, but they love a good fight. Television, the medium that gave us rasslin', is now giving us presidential "debates."

Friday, January 15, 2016

Remember the Pueblo incident of 1968

We got our sailors back, so all is well. But there's a lot more to this story than the safe release of 10 American sailors who had been captured by Iranians in the Persian Gulf.

News of the capture of two U.S. Navy Riverine boats by Iran immediately brought to mind the incident 48 years ago, in January 1968, when North Korea's Navy boarded and took over the USS Pueblo. That incident also had a happy ending — sort of — after North Korea humiliated and tortured the captured crew members and exploited them with propaganda pictures and videos. One Pueblo crew member was killed as the ship was attacked by Korean ships and aircraft before it surrendered.

The crew was held captive until the following December, when a U.S. apology resulted in the crew's release. A court martial for the ship's commander was recommended, based in part on the Pueblo's failure to fight the attackers for control of the lightly armed ship, but charges were rejected by the secretary of the Navy.

What happened in the Persian Gulf was not as egregious as the 1968 incident, but there are parallels. The Riverine crews apparently made no efforts to fight the Iranian attackers, either because of a command decision or equipment failure. The boats admittedly were in Iranian waters, reportedly because of navigational error; the U.S. still claims the Pueblo was in international waters.

Navigational error suggests the crews were taking sun shots with a sextant to determine their position. That was logical in the 1800s; not today. Modern GPS navigational equipment pinpoints the exact longitude and latitude of a vessel, down to a few feet. The Navy has some explaining to do about how a navigational error could have sent the boats into Iranian waters unknowingly.

Secretary of State John Kerry says closer diplomatic dialogue with Iran made it possible for the crews to be released within 24 hours — but only after Iran took advantage of every propaganda opportunity with videos of the submissive U.S. sailors and close-ups of the sailors' identification cards.

Kerry may be right about this positive outcome, but the Navy hasn't told the whole story yet.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Why $1.5 billion is not a good deal

At about 11 o'clock tonight, someone will win $1.5 billion. Maybe. The Powerball drawing will take place, and it is likely someone — or several people — will win. There is a 1 in 292 million (or something like that) chance that I will win. I'm not counting on it. I expect to be sound asleep when the winning numbers are counted. 

But I do have a ticket (just one), not because I think I'll be lucky but because it seems worth it to risk $2 on a 292 million to one shot at $1.5 billion.

I spent several years railing against a state lottery in North Carolina during debate over the issue. I still think it's bad public policy and a terrible way, bordering on unethical, to raise money for the state. A decade into this "voluntary taxation" experiment, all of the arguments against the lottery offered by critics have come to pass. Lottery income is replacing tax dollars, not supplementing tax dollars, in the support of public schools. Since the inception of the lottery, tax appropriations for public schools have fallen on a per-pupil basis, and teacher salaries have stagnated. The poor are the biggest buyers of lottery tickets, either from desperation or from ignorance of just what a one in 292 million chance really is. As critics claimed during the lottery date, a lottery is a tax on the poor and ignorant. And that's no way to fund public education or any other state function.

Who is winning the lottery? The big companies that make lots of money creating and operating the lottery games. A few jackpot winners get a lot of easy money, but the life stories of most lottery winners are not appealing.

I still believe North Carolina's joining other states in operating a lottery is bad public policy. Nevertheless, if I happen to beat the 292 million to one odds and win $1.5 billion, I won't refuse the prize. I'd like to think I can do some good in the world with that kind of money. But I won't be proud of how I gained my wealth. It will have had nothing to do with my abilities, persistence, industriousness, talent or determination. It will have been sheer, unearned, undeserved luck.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Insurrectionists are not patriots

The standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is surely one of the strangest media events of the century. A group of armed men have taken over a wildlife refuge, claiming the federal land for local residents. But the gunmen claiming the land are not local residents. They come from several states away, and they are not exactly being welcomed by local residents, who generally support the wildlife refuge.

The gunmen claim they are "patriots" and demand a return of the land to "rightful" owners under "constitutional" law. None of those adjectives fairly describe these actions. Patriots (from the Latin patria, meaning "native country") support their government; they don't try to overthrow the rule of law by threats of violence. These are the actions of insurrectionists, not patriots.

Rightful ownership of the refuge has been established for generations. The land is federal land, owned by the federal government in trust for the public. A strong argument can be made that many western states have far too much land locked away by the federal government, but the place for that argument is in a court of law or in Congress, not behind the muzzle of a gun. As for constitutionality, nothing in the Constitution gives title to land to people who simply want it; title to land is established by purchase or inheritance or, in some instances, by the government's right to eminent domain — obtaining title to the land through legal due process and payment of fair market value to the owner. In the 19th century, the federal government owned all the land of western territories and gave away parcels of land to homesteaders willing to live on it and improve it. If ownership is disputed, the courts are capable of sorting out rightful ownership.

This confrontation between gun-toting insurrectionists and so-far patient and cautious federal agents and Department of the Interior employees is as frightening as it is surreal. Overheated language in protests and civil disobedience — cries to "take back" the city or the state or the country and shouts of "Whose university? Our university!" — could devolve into armed confrontation. A victory by the insurrectionists in Oregon could encourage other aggrieved "patriots" to try to overthrow the courts and the government of a city, state or nation.

For this reason, the federal agents cautiously watching the actions at Malheur Wildlife Refuge cannot afford to be too patient or too lenient.