Freed To Weed

Today I’m celebrating my freedom — specifically, my freedom to do whatever I want on Independence Day. In my case, that means weeding the side yard garden and lawn. Judging from the sheer number of weeds that have made their home there, I’m guessing it hasn’t been weeded in years. We’ve got friends coming next month for a visit and I want to give the grass a fighting chance, so now’s the time for some serious stooping and pulling..

After I dispose of a few hundred more dandelions and broad-leaf invaders, I’m going to celebrate my freedom to drink an ice-cold Allagash White.

Needless Work

The Schiller Park rec center parking lot used to have a wide open,  fan-shaped entrance.  It had a welcoming, graceful feel to it, well befitting the rambling, shady feel of the old park itself and the elegant brick houses that surround it.

But a few weeks ago a work crew showed up and ripped it out.  In its place they poured this concrete monstrosity, which blocks the entrance and sticks out like a sore thumb.  They put up a traffic sign and painted direction arrows, too, just in case drivers might not get the idea from the lanes created by the concrete blockade.

Why was this done?  I’m guessing there was an accident or two at the entrance, as a car swung too wide in entering or exiting, and somebody decided that “public safety” required that this ugly, stark roadblock was therefore necessary to protect our hapless populace from the acts of a few inept motorists.  Who knows how much it cost in dollars — but the aesthetic cost is tremendous

I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a metaphor for America writ large these days, with some faceless government functionary deciding that everyday people need to be sternly directed into precise channels of behavior.  The result is predictably hideous.

Flogging For Blogging

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in America and other countries where personal freedoms to speak, think, and worship as we choose are recognized and protected rights are just that — lucky.  Not everyone in the world is so fortunate.

Consider the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger.  He started an on-line forum called Liberal Saudi Network that sought to encourage discussion of religious and political issues in the kingdom.  Badawi wrote about the importance of moving to a more secular state and published his views on issues like the continued existence of Israel — the Guardian has a story about some of his writings — and it was too much for the Saudi government.  Badawi was arrested, narrowly avoided the death penalty for apostasy, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes — as well as a huge fine — for criticizing leading Muslim clerics and disobedience.  His wife and their three children fled the country.

The lashes are to be administered publicly at a rate of 50 each Friday until the sentence is completed.  After the first 50 lashes were struck outside a mosque in Jeddah, Badawi was so badly injured that a doctor concluded that he could not sustain another 50 lashes the following week, and the next round of lashes were postponed.

The treatment of Badawi has caused an international backlash, and now the Saudi King has referred Badawi’s sentence to the Saudi Supreme Court.  Badawi’s supporters are hopeful that his sentence will be reduced, but there are no guarantees.  Saudi Arabia has a long and brutal record of public beheadings, lashings, and other medieval forms of punishment, as well as repressive treatment of women, and its wealth and oil reserves have largely immunized it from the consequences of its conduct.

Those of us who live in free countries often take our liberties for granted.  We shouldn’t.

Protecting Girls

In Nigeria, an Islamic terrorist group called Boko Haram has engaged in mass abduction of hundreds of school girls.  The Nigerian government has said that it is searching diligently for the missing girls, and has accepted an offer from the U.S. government for military help in the search process.

Boko Haram, which translates into “Western education is a sin,” seeks to impose strict Sharia law in Nigeria.  The group has attacked and bombed churches and schools and opposes the education of girls, saying they should “get married” instead.  The head of the group says it will sell the abducted girls.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country.  It is the latest battleground in the war on girls, and education of girls, by some radical Islamic groups.  Boko Haram’s abduction of the Nigerian girls is no different in kind from the Taliban’s attacks on Malala Yousafzai, the courageous young Pakistani who insisted on receiving an education and advocating for education of girls despite edicts to the contrary.  Clearly, there is a strain of radical Islam that insists on subjugating women, leaving them ignorant and uneducated, and relegating them to submissive roles.  We all need to stoutly resist the Boko Harams of the world and their repressive ideologies, and leadership on the issue should come from within the Islamic community itself.

Nigeria is far away, and the abductions have occurred in remote areas — but that doesn’t make what Boko Haram is doing any less meaningful for the rest of the world.  If humanity is to progress, it can only be by ensuring that freedom and liberty is available for everyone.  If Nigerian girls lose their right to an education due to Boko Haram’s terrorism, that result can only embolden other radical Islamic sects to seek the same retreat from modernity in their countries — and ultimately we may find ourselves facing a repressive world that seeks to sharply limit the freedoms of us all.  We need to draw a line, take a stand, and help the Nigerian government find the missing girls and defeat Boko Haram.

 

Land Of The Free, Home Of The Monitored

Yesterday the New York Times published an excellent editorial on the federal government’s routine collection of data about everyday Americans.  As the Times aptly framed the issue, the question is whether the government should be allowed to continue to use anti-terrorism efforts as a catch-all excuse for increasing encroachments into our private activities.  In short, have we gone too far in trading liberty for (alleged) security?

The latest disclosures indicate that the federal government, through the National Security Agency and the FBI, obtains massive amounts of data from the servers of internet companies.  The NSA also apparently has obtained an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that requires Verizon to give the NSA on “an ongoing, daily basis” information on all telephone calls in the Verizon system, including calls that are entirely domestic.  That court order runs from April 25 to July 19, and will provide information on millions of calls — including mine, because Verizon is our cell phone provider.  (Nice to know that, somewhere deep in the bowels of an NSA supercomputer, data about my calls to Kish telling her I’m on my way home from work will be preserved forever, available for use by whatever government functionary cares to access it!)  And, of course, we know that in most metropolitan areas video surveillance cameras surreptitiously record our movements.

For decades, the argument in favor of enhanced government police powers has been that law-abiding citizens have no cause for concern, because only criminals would be targeted.  That argument doesn’t wash when information about the personal activities of millions of Americans is gathered indiscriminately.  Whatever you might think of your fellow citizens, we aren’t all terrorists.  By what right does our government collect information about our telephone calls, our internet searches, and our daily movements?  Shouldn’t anti-terrorist activities be focused on terrorists?

As the Times editorial linked above notes, the Obama Administration’s response to such disclosures has been to offer bland reassurances that systems are in place to prevent abuses.  Those reassurances ring hollow in the wake of incidents like the IRS scandal or the Department of Justice targeting of journalists, where the President and other high-ranking officials disclaim any prior knowledge of classic examples of overreaching by faceless government employees.  So, where are the systems that we are supposed to trust?  With respect to many of these governmental intrusions, it appears that there is no control from the top and — if the statements of press secretaries are to be credited — no meaningful decision-making by anyone who can be held accountable to voters.

Under President Obama, the government’s ever-growing appetite for collection of data about average, taxpaying Americans seems to be on auto pilot.  That is a very scary proposition.

What To Do On A Bright, Sunny Sunday?

Normally my autumn Sundays are pretty regimented.  I play golf in the morning, get home and have lunch, then watch the Browns.  By the time the Browns have lost — again — it’s just about dinner time, and the day is close to being done.

Today is different, however.  The golf course is closed for a special tournament.  The Browns have already played — and lost — so four hours that would have been spent in speechless rage and agony are now available for more pleasant pursuits.  As a result, a day that is typically heavily scheduled has no schedule at all.  The sense of liberty is exhilarating.  It’s a free day, one where I can do whatever I want.

So far this morning I’ve done some chores and caught up on various tasks that have piled up during the busy period.  Now the chores are done, the tasks are completed, and it’s time to enjoy myself.  Nothing sounds better than camping outside, enjoying the cool weather, bright sunshine, and autumn colors, sipping on a steaming cup of black coffee and digging into my book.

The patio beckons, and its allure is irresistible.

How To Respond To Muslim Lectures, Edicts, and Bounties

The Muslim world has been giving the United States a lot of advice and information lately.  No doubt we’ll hear more thoughtful recommendations and guidance in the next few days, as Muslim leaders come to New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.  America needs to decide how to respond.

In Egypt — where only days ago raging mobs stormed the U.S. embassy and ripped down our flag — the new President, Mohamed Morsi, says in an interview with the New York Times that the United States needs to fundamentally change its approach to the Muslim world and show greater respect for Muslim values.  In the meantime, the head of the largest fundamentalist Islamic party in Egypt, which supported Morsi, is calling for U.N. to act to “criminalize contempt of Islam as a religion and its Prophet.”  And in Pakistan — a supposed ally — the government Railways Minister has offered a $100,000 payment to whomever kills the makers of the YouTube video The Innocence of Muslims and called upon al Qaeda and the Taliban to help in murdering the videomakers.  (Fortunately, the Pakistani government says it “absolutely disassociates” itself with the comments of its Railway Minister.  Thank goodness!)  And we haven’t even heard yet from the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will be speaking to the U.N. General Assembly, too.

It’s heartening to hear from the enlightened leaders of a region that is widely recognized for reasoned discourse and thoughtful consideration of opposing viewpoints.  But I’d like to see whoever speaks for America at the U.N. General Assembly share some of our views with the assembled Islamic leaders — and do so in pointed terms.  We should say that we relish our First Amendment, and we’re not going to change it no matter how often Muslims go on murderous rampages at some perceived slight.  We should say that will fight any effort to criminalize speech and will veto any ill-advised U.N. resolution that attempts to do so.  We should emphasize that we think that the world needs more freedom, not less, and that we stand with the forces of liberty.  We should tell the Muslim leaders that their real problems are not with freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but with tribal-based, anti-female societies that crush individual initiative, medieval economies that leave huge swathes of the population unemployed and ready to riot at any moment, and corrupt leaders who are more interested in amassing their own fortunes than helping their people realize a better way of life.  Oh, and we should make clear that we won’t do business with government where ministers are offering bounties on the heads of filmmakers.

I’m tired of our simpering, whimpering approach to defending our fundamental freedoms.  It’s high time that we stood up for what we believe in and told the Islamic world that they can riot all they want:  we aren’t going to back away from our liberties.

Freedom Of Movement

Often we Americans take our easy, seemingly limitless freedoms for granted.  I was considering that reality this week, as I bounced on the springy seat of a rental truck and we moved Richard from Chicago to Columbia, Missouri.

We rented a 10-foot truck from Budget Rental Car Company that was perfect for our needs and reasonably priced.  We plopped down our credit card, dealt directly with the friendly woman (with two office dogs!) at one of Budget’s Chicago outlets, drove the truck away, immediately loaded it ourselves, and then steered the truck onto superhighways that allowed us to drive the hundreds of miles separating the two cities in a few hours.  We unloaded Richard’s stuff in a Columbia apartment he arranged through the internet and were done in one day.

We didn’t need to get governmental approval for our rental or Richard’s move.  We weren’t required to hire designated movers to load the truck or drivers to drive it.  We didn’t need to buy a special operator’s license, or slip a corrupt government bureaucrat a few bucks to get on our way.  We didn’t pay tolls to use those well-paved, safely designed superhighways.  Richard didn’t have to register for housing and then wait months until a unit opened up.  All of those things that didn’t happen might easily be required in many of the nations of the world.

But not here.  One family, one truck, one hard day’s work and driving, and a move of hundreds of miles goes off without a hitch.  It’s just one reason why this is a great country.  We shouldn’t forget that.

(Not) Secure Beneath The Watchful Eyes

Recently the Federal Aviation Administration released a list of 63 authorized sites at which the military, government agencies, towns, universities, and other entities can launch unmanned drones within American borders.  These domestic launch sites are located in 20 states — including one for a small college in Steubenville, Ohio.

Our inability to police our borders is cited as justification for use of drone aircraft by the Border and Customs Patrol and the military; the advocates argue that we need the monitoring to enhance our security.  Then, as those initial uses become rationalized and accepted, “drone creep” occurs, and more agencies and entities discover a purported need for the devices and the ability to monitor the population from the skies.

The reality is that we are an increasingly monitored society, whether it is through the use of unmanned drones or security cameras mounted on the corners of buildings or cameras attached to traffic lights that are supposed to catch scofflaws who run red lights.  The monitoring is always justified on grounds of safety and security, as in the classic British poster touting the presence of closed-circuit TV cameras on British buses.

We are supposed to be trading our freedom and liberty for security — but that notion presupposes that the people who are doing the monitoring are truly motivated by security concerns and are capable of doing something about what they see.  The recent performance of our government raises, I think, legitimate questions about the accuracy of both assumptions.  Is the primary motivation for traffic light cameras security, or finding a cheap way to collect fines and add much-needed revenue to the coffers of hard-pressed local governments?  How much of this monitoring is really to protect us from terrorists and invading criminals, and how much is to give a government that increasingly wants to control how we live our lives a platform to insure that we are complying with their edicts?

Message to the World !

See full size image

If you sift through the political comments when you click on the link below you will find a wonderful story about the Heartsong Church in Memphis who have loaned their church to worshippers building an Islamic Center across the street.

The brief dialog between Pastor Stone and Dr Bashar Shala is more of what we need in this day and age, not hateful and fearful dialog, but dialog of freedom, religious tolerance and loving one’s neighbor. This is the America I know and love.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3096434/#39069769

I am sure there are other stories like this one that the media could report on, but unfortunately they don’t drive up the ratings like the Quran burning church in Florida or the construction of a Community Center a few blocks from Ground Zero.

Weighty Taxes And Personal Freedoms

This is a predictable (and predicted) development:  people are now advocating levying hefty taxes on foods and drinks that contribute to obesity in order to help pay for health care.   The underlying concept is that obesity has contributed mightily to increasing health care costs, so behavior that contributes to obesity should be discouraged.  Taxes on cigarettes — which are now being viewed as a principal reason for the decline in cigarette smoking — are cited as a model to follow.  Experts on taxes and behavioral modification argue that, to be effective, the taxes should amount to at least one-tenth to one-third of the item’s total cost.

I’m skeptical of taxes as a tool for behavioral modification because of their inefficiency, but I think the notion of “weight taxes” is pernicious for another reason.  Any time the government gets to decide what kind of otherwise innocent conduct should be discouraged, we have given up significant freedoms.  I enjoy a Butterfinger Blizzard now and then during the summer months.  Why should I pay additional amounts in taxes simply because some bureaucrat has decided that ice cream is a significant contributor to obesity?  If statistics show that joggers are more prone to sudden heart attacks, should athletic shoes be taxed?  If mountain climbers are more likely to be caught in an avalanche, precipitating massive manhunts and search efforts, should mountain climbing be massively taxed to discourage such potentially costly behavior?

Let’s not kid ourselves — if the health Nazis ran the world, we would all be eating raw vegetables and participating in mandatory walking clubs and “wellness” counseling sessions.  Do we really want Big Brother to decide what we should and shouldn’t eat and drink, how we should spend our leisure time, and generally how we should live our lives?  I think a world without bacon double cheeseburgers and Frosted Flakes would be pretty dull, and I’m willing to put up with a bit of obesity to avoid that grim scenario.