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The Narrative of Blame: When Democrats Betray Democracy

I don’t read The Huffington Post to have my opinions challenged. I read The Huffington Post to have my opinions confirmed. Or at least massaged with a recap of the latest SNL sketch or last night’s rant from Samantha Bee. So imagine how I felt when I started reading a piece from HuffPost that began with a warning. It read:

I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, but so be it.

U-oh. That certainly did sound like trouble, now, didn’t it? Here was hard hitting journalism that refused to pull its punches. The Huffington Post wouldn’t be massaging any of my left-of-center prejudices. Not this time. Thus, I’d been duly warned. Yet I decided to ignore that warning. And that’s where my troubles began.

Well, that’s not entirely true. My troubles actually began with the piece’s title: Things I Blame For Hillary Clinton’s Loss, Ranked.

hillary-clinton

With the 2016 presidential election more than a month behind us, it is incredible that anyone’s still looking for someone to blame for Hillary Clinton’s upset defeat. Right minded liberals and progressives might instead want to fortify the castle against that fire-breathing dragon, Donald Trump. The title of the HuffPost article tries to answer the wrong question: “Who’s responsible for Hillary Clinton’s loss?” when liberals and lefties should be asking: “Why and how did Donald Trump win?”

But if we start to answer that question, well…then we might start really pissing people off. We might look back on the last year and a half and get a little introspective. We might reflect upon our own classist condescension towards all those stupid Donald Trump supporters, and wonder how we got it all wrong. We might even get a little bit pissed at ourselves.

Naah. I sure didn’t do anything wrong. Why not just point the finger at somebody else? It is time, my friends, for the Narrative of Blame.

Now, to be fair to Max Weiss, the author of the Hillary Clinton Huffington Post piss-off piece, his list of villains isn’t entirely unreasonable. In casting blame for Clinton’s loss, Weiss mentions voter suppression, without a doubt the most alarming and pernicious threat to what’s left of our tottering democracy. Weiss also blames misogyny, writing:

 …they see (Clinton) as shrill and scolding and corrupt ― not sufficiently warm, not the kind of person they want to grab a beer with.

But the article is riddled with inconsistency and laziness. For one thing, Weiss blames the election results on Clinton’s campaign, while going out of his way to let Clinton herself off the hook. This bizarrely – though perhaps unintentionally – suggests that someone other than HRC was in charge of her own presidential bid. Perhaps Hillary’s detractors aren’t the only sexists in the room.

Still, that’s just bad and careless writing, no shock to those of us familiar with the work of The Huffington Post. So where’s the piss-off? Where are the audacious and offensive claims that necessitate such a dire trigger warning? For that, I direct you to Weiss’s arch-villains, the scourges of left-of-center liberalism and spoilers of 2016:

Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.

As I told you, Weiss pulls no punches. So as I reprint his argument, let me also reprint his warning:

I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, but so be it.

 Here’s what Weiss has to say:

BERNIE SANDERS

cassidy-bernie-sanders-loud-and-clear-1200

I think Sanders, who fortified the recurring narrative that Hillary was a corrupt neoliberal and part of a rigged system, did more damage than anyone else. He turned millions of young people against Hillary — and countless independents, no doubt, too.

 Yes, he ultimately campaigned for Hillary, but did so half-heartedly, through pursed lips and slumped body language, bashing Trump but rarely praising Hillary. One could almost see the thought bubble over his head: “This should’ve been me.”

 JILL STEIN

DC: Green Party Presidential Nominee Jill Stein Makes Announcement On 2016 Race

That publicity-seeking, bourgeois woman gave disenchanted Bernie or Busters a place for their protest vote, and continued the absurd narrative that Hillary was just as bad as Trump.

 And then, just for good measure:

You’re on my list too, Susan Sarandon.

saraondon

 Let’s put aside how Clinton’s bid for the White House was derailed by Sarandon, an actress whose most recent high-profile film was a cameo in Zoolander 2. Instead, let’s look at Weiss’s principle scapegoats: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s major rival in the 2016 Democratic primary, and Dr. Jill Stein, who ran as the Green Party candidate.

If you voted for Clinton or Sanders or (psst! Don’t tell anyone, but I’m voting for) Stein, you’re probably familiar with the Narrative of Blame, which goes something like this: Hillary Clinton had a great shot at becoming our 45th president. She came to her historic bid for the job with impressive and even unprecedented qualifications. The Republican field was full of crazy, ignorant, sexist, racist, xenophobic demagogues – with the exception of Jeb Bush, the David Brooks of electoral politics. No election was more important than this one. So Clinton had to become president. Not only that: she deserved it.

But like a brood of miscreant brats at Thanksgiving dinner, the Left just wouldn’t stay at the kids’ table and shut up and behave. Led by that cantankerous democratic socialist Bernie Sanders  (not even a Democrat!), these misinformed millennials and radicals couldn’t see the big picture. Let’s look back at Weiss’s condescending language:

(Sanders) turned millions of young people against Hillary — and countless independents, no doubt, too.

sanders-rally

“Turned against” her, huh? How dare Sanders ruin Clinton’s spotless track record with the Left? If only those young people had thought for themselves. Or, better yet, thought like Max Weiss.

Continuing the Narrative of Blame: Clinton ultimately prevailed in the primaries, and Sanders begrudgingly offered up his support. But he was so half-assed. He didn’t really want her to win. And Democratic (not to be confused with democratic) victory was so important, because Clinton wasn’t squaring off against anyone. Her opponent was Donald Fucking Trump: a cynical robber baron whose exploits beggar a Warren Harding wet dream. And then Jill Stein, that “publicity-seeking, bourgeois woman,” (strike 2, Mr. Weiss: you might want to check out your own misogyny, buddy) had to come along and ruin it all by giving those bratty young Lefties someone who they actually wanted to vote for. Hillary Clinton could have won. Hillary Clinton should have won. But thanks to vote-stealing party poopers like Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and their self-absorbed, misguided followers, Hillary Clinton didn’t win. She lost.

Sound familiar? Like most compelling and persuasive narratives, the Narrative of Blame has its elements of truth. It’s also deeply problematic. Worse, it’s downright dangerous, a tragic case of Democrats betraying  their own democracy. Let’s take a look at the Narrative of Blame’s major problems:

  1. A presidential race is just that: a race. It’s a competition, not a coronation. Hillary Clinton was indeed the most qualified candidate, but that doesn’t mean that she automatically deserved to win. (Back in 2008, didn’t John McCain have more experience than Barack Obama?) So who’s responsible for Hillary’s loss? Certainly not Hillary herself. So it’s Bernie Sanders’s fault. And it’s Jill Stein’s fault. Add Donald Trump to that list and the argument makes perfect sense: had Hillary Clinton run for president completely unopposed, she probably would have won the election.

  2. The Narrative of Blame assumes that anyone voting for Sanders or Stein would have cast a vote for Clinton if only her left-leaning opponents hadn’t shown up and ruined everything. But the facts simply don’t bear out that argument. Omri Ben-Shahar of Forbes Magazine writes: “…Hillary Clinton was less attractive to the traditional Democratic base of urban, minorities, and educated voters.” In other words, voter turnout for Clinton was low. Significant numbers of traditional Democrats found staying at home preferable to voting for Hillary. Add good a old fashioned dose of voter suppression to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a Trump victory.

  3. The Narrative of Blame alternately assumes that anyone voting for Sanders or Stein should have cast a vote for Clinton because she had the best chance of beating Donald Trump. Well, it’s true. Clinton did have the best chance. But for some people that reason wasn’t enough. Feel free to dismiss the folks who saw HRC’s history of free trade, right to work, anti-union, pro-Wall Street, super predator, tough on crime history as the ultimate deal breaker. But if you want to defeat Donald Trump in four years? You’re gonna need those folks. Hate them all you want, but the brutal outcome of this last election prove that you’re going to need them, and in very large numbers. What’s your plan for winning them over? With dismissive, ageist prods to shut up and get with the program? That strategy didn’t work out so well this time, did it?

  4. The Narrative of Blame grabs at cheap fallacies like the ad hominem attack. It’s not enough to take issue with Sanders’s and Stein’s actions or policies. Let’s go after their corrupt motives, which we know about because…well, we just do. Was Sanders’s support for Clinton “half-hearted”? Yes, I’m sure it was. You might purse your lips if a bunch of leaked emails proved that the DNC had actively worked against your campaign. Is Jill Stein a narcissist? My god, who the hell cares? Do you know a politician who isn’t self-absorbed? You want character references? Fine, I’ll give you one: when Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, Jill Stein offered to step aside as the Green Party candidate and let him run in her place. Sanders declined, instead honoring his pledge to support the nominee for the Democratic Party. If you want to start sliming someone’s character, why not join the Republican party and start shrieking about Clinton’s emails? At least you’ll finally have the satisfaction of being on the winning side.

  5. The Narrative of Blame is undemocratic. It favors the Democratic Party over the democratic country. To decry the Electoral College while urging progressive candidates not to run, or badgering people to vote for a candidate whom they find unacceptable? That’s not just un-democratic: it’s deeply hypocritical. If your only interest is getting a Democrat into the Oval Office, that is certainly your prerogative. But at least be honest and admit that you – like your Republican enemies – are choosing partisanship over democracy.

This, then, is the final fallacy of the Narrative of Blame. It fails to recognize the greatest tragedy of 2016: our democratic institutions failed us – or more accurately, we failed our democratic institutions. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but the Electoral College – an institution created in part to protect us from opportunistic demagogues – will make sure that Donald Trump is our next president.

donald-trump

Moreover, millions of people who wanted to vote – and tried to vote – were unable to cast their ballots due to voter suppression. And after all that, the Democratic Party’s most partisan supporters continue to marginalize progressive voices and candidates who work for social justice outside of our broken two-party system. Malcolm X once said that he preferred the white conservative over the white liberal because at least the white conservative showed his teeth. If more democracy threatens you, you’re perfectly free to tear down the reputations and rights of those who dare to use their voices and votes to encroach upon your all-important agenda. But have a little integrity and start showing us all your teeth.

So yes, Mr. Weiss. Your article did piss me off.

But not for the reasons you thought.

So be it.

David Berkson

December 9, 2016

You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com or @DavidBerkson on Twitter. You can also “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook.

 

The U.S. Must Strike Now. But Not Against Syria

FlagThis week, members of Congress will make what is possibly the most important vote of their careers. They will decide whether or not to support President Obama’s call for military action against the oppressive government of Syria. It’s a momentous choice, and while some legislators have already made up their minds, for those who are still on the fence, the decision is pure agony.

It need not be. The choice is stark and simple. The United States is the world’s greatest – and perhaps only – superpower. We have an obligation to stand firm against the forces of evil. We cannot sit idly by while a nation commits human rights atrocities. America must act, and it must act now.

But not against Syria. True, its government has used chemical weapons against its map_of_syriaown people. True, its army routinely detains, tortures, beats, and kills unarmed civilians.  True, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has turned his country into a charnel house, a black hole of human rights, and an international pariah.

But there yet looms a larger threat: a rogue nation that puts our very planet on the very brink of collapse and ruin.  Aggressive and belligerent to the point of bellicosity, this country repeatedly ignores international calls for multilateralism, cooperation, and basic human decency. It chokes the world in a vice-like grip of greed and insatiable avarice. It is the number one threat to our global security, and yet accountable to no one.

It is the United States of America.

US MAP

We cannot let this stand. Americans must stand firm against tyranny, imperialism, brute force and naked aggression. Diplomacy has failed. The choice is clear. The time has come for the United States of America to take action against the United States of America.

Let me be clear: I am not asking Congress for a declaration of war. This will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Libya. There will be no boots on the ground. But the time to move is now.

Is the American public ready for this? More ready than you might think. 49% of all Americans support a strike against our own military. Besides, when it comes to right and wrong, you don’t go around asking permission. You’ve got stand tall and be tough. But if hearts and minds needs be moved, so be it. The United States has never shirked whipping up public support when it comes to demonizing our enemies. And since the United States’ greatest enemy is the United States, it’s only fair to lay before the public the worst of our government’s innumerable atrocities:

The United States is a Human Rights Pariah

The United States is one of 195 signatories to the Geneva Convention. Yet the  Washington Post identifies 367 men who are currently being detained in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. These individuals have not been formally charged with any crime, let alone brought to trial, and many have been there since the camp was established in 2003. Reports of prisoner abuse and torture are rampant. Amnesty International said: “Guantanamo has become the gulag our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law.”

U.S. President Barack Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to close the Obamadetention center. Five years later, the camp is still open.

America’s Carbon Footprint is Destroying the World

Believe it or not, the US is not #1 in everything. We rank 38th in healthcare, 17th (in the developed world) for education, and 27th in infant mortality. But as polluters, we run a close second only to China, which produces 6,018 million tons of greenhouse gasses per year, as compared to America’s mere 5,903 million tons.

But did China get there all by itself? No way, baby. Who do you think funds the activities that produce those greenhouse gas emissions? U.S. Corporations, that’s who. Every time you purchase a product with the words “Made In China” engraved on non-recyclable plastic, feel proud that you’ve done your part to contribute to that country’s sky rocketing pollution. Take a look at CNN’s staggering list of U.S. corporations that export jobs to China: Google, Apple, Target, Toys ‘R Us, Verizon, 3M – even American Greetings employs people in China. Ironic, isn’t it? But what a great way to avoid all the pesky labor and environmental restrictions that cut into these corporations’ astronomical profits. So go ahead, People’s Republic: toot your own made-in-China horn as the world’s greatest polluter. Just don’t forget the U.S. companies that help put you on top.

The U.S is a Global Military Menace

In 2011, the United States spent $711 billion on defense. That’s more than the next 13 countries combined, which spent $695 billion. Not $695 each. $695 billion combined. In this area, at least, we are indisputably numero uno.

Defense Chart

Now, you’d think that a country that spends this kind of dough on weapons would feel more secure, not less. But that’s not how it’s panned out since the end of the Second World War. From the 1940s to the early 1970s, the U.S. carried out a pointless, bloody, and unpopular war in Vietnam. The American government was a great friend and supporter of pinochetAugusto Pinochet, the infamous Chilean dictator who murdered and “disappeared” thousands of peaceful political dissidents. It also supported South Africa’s racist apartheid government, and listed Nelson Mandela’s ANC as a terrorist organization. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported right wing military juntas in Central American countries such as El Salvador and Honduras. In both 1991 and 2003, the United States invaded and waged undeclared wars in Iraq. (The pretense for the second invasion – complicity in the 9/11 attacks and a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction – proved to be one hundred percent false.)

And today? The United States repeatedly carries out drone strikes against no less than seven countries, including Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan. These attacks have killed hundreds of children. Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, describes “a whole new depth of outrage,” experienced by those on “the receiving end of the missile,” because “the guy pulling the trigger” is in a “position of safety.” Rather than keeping us safer, Bowden argues that the drone program empowers America’s to act with impunity, and is used as a pretext to commit terrorist acts against civilians. Thus, America is in the awkward position of being a threat to everyone. Even itself.

What do you want? More? How’s this: the United States is a country that spies not only on its enemies, but on its allies and even its own citizens. What does that sound like to you? A beacon of freedom and democracy? Or an eastern European Soviet backed police state?

So when the world is faced with such a monster, who is there to save the day? The United States. Only America can stop America. As the world’s greatest – and perhaps only – superpower, the United States alone has the power to degrade and wipe out the overwhelming strength of its own bloated military.

Now, I’m not suggesting this is going to be easy. As our president is so fond of saying, there are gonna be some tough times ahead. But this is a Gergensituation where America simply cannot afford to lose face. As David Gergen says, “The danger is the more reluctant you are, and the more deliberative you are, the danger is you start looking weak.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s time for us to face the real enemy. And it’s the best of all choices. Striking a blow to America’s military might will involve no collateral damage. Not one bomb need be dropped; no bullet need be fired. Such action will save countless lives  abroad, not to mention those of the brave men and women serving in our military. It is time for America to liberate America from the stifling grip of tyranny. Think about what the saved hundreds of billions of dollars in military spending could buy: affordable, single payer healthcare; new roads and bridges; well funded education; and an end to our mounting deficit. Gergen is right: we can’t afford to be weak. The best part is, we can do it without the United Nations or the help of a single other country.

Because in the end, the only one in the world who can put a stop to America’s war machine is America itself. It’s time to get busy. Please contact your senator and congressperson today, and tell them to vote “no” on U.S. military action in Syria.

David Berkson

September 9, 2013

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

The Krypton Code of Silence: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About 9/11

Man of SteelIf you’ve noticed a disturbing trend in summer action films, you’re definitely not alone. Earlier this month on Vulture, Kyle Buchanan wrote a piece that finally gives voice to our moral misgivings by asking: “Is It Possible to Make a Hollywood Blockbuster Without Evoking 9/11? ”

Using Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as his point of departure, Buchanan indicts all our summer action fests, writing, “Hollywood feels the need to out-9/11 itself. It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop.”

American movies have been serving up generous helpings of mass carnage since Gone With the Wind. What’s new is a calcifying indifference to the human cost of violence. Buchanan cites cineplex orgies such Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers, World War Z, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. But he saves his most blistering attack for Man of Steel:

(Superman) seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; Man of Steel 2similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.

Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, goes further, calling the film’s “intentional” referencing of 9/11 as “evil” and “sick.” These strong and convincing charges are made on the latest installment of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m a huge fan of this show; it’s the only podcast I listen to every week. And I’m an even bigger fan of Weldon: he’s one of the few pop culture critics out there who’ll rip into the moral core of a movie or TV show without getting self righteous. But as I continued to listen to the conversation, I realized that something wasn’t sitting right. For some reason, I had a feeling that an important part of the equation was being left out or ignored.

Spiderman 2After a while, I figured out what it was. A little later in the podcast, Man of Steel is pejoratively compared to two other superhero films that were made a few years back. Chris Klimek, a guest on the Pop Culture Happy Hour panel,  recalls two extraordinary moments of ordinary heroism dramatized in Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight, respectively. Each film has a moment when at least one non-super hero character steps up in the face of danger and chooses to do the right thing. With no super powers or gadgets to protect them, these ordinary crowd members stand up and show us that we, too, can be heroes. What makes these cinematic moments so special is that they have “nothing to do with Batman” or Spiderman, but are, as Klimek puts it, a way of saying to the audience: “Hooray for us.”

I’m not sure if this is what he was going for, but by citing these two films, Klimek takes the 9/11 theory and turns it upside down. Sam Rami’s Spiderman 2 was released in 2004, three years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight hit the theatres is 2008. Both films are much closer to 9/11 than this summer’s Man of Steel. If what we’re seeing on our screens today is the movie industry’s response to 9/11, then why has it taken Hollywood so long?

The answer is: it hasn’t. If you want to see Hollywood’s real response to 9/11, look to those earlier superhero films from the mid-2000s. To get a sense of how the attack initially impacted us, let’s look at the speech Bill Clinton made to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, while Spiderman 2 was playing in theatres:

Americans long to be united. After 9/11, we all just wanted to be one nation. Not a single American on September the Clinton12th, 2001, cared who won the next presidential election. All we wanted to do was to be one country, strong in the fight against terror, helping to heal those who were wounded and the families of those who lost their loved ones, reaching out to the rest of the world so we could meet these new challenges and go on with our democratic way of life.

That’s not to say that in the days, months, and immediate years after 9/11, contempt for human life was completely absent from the world of American pop culture. (Anyone remember 24?) But the beauty of those earlier superhero movies is that they offered us something else: hope.  It’s the real life heroism of 9/11’s first responders – the firefighters, the policemen, and the medics – that Rami and Nolan paid tribute to in their mythical metropolitan chaos. It is saying a lot that a film as grim and nihilistic as The Dark Knight could give us even one of those moments – one that Klimeck remembers as earning audience applause when it first played in theaters.

So if films from the mid-2000s represent Hollywood’s response to 9/11, then what are we to make of today’s blood free genocidal building smashing action porn? Bill Clinton’s 2004 speech gives us another clue:

(President George W. Bush) had an amazing opportunity to bring the country together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in the struggle against terror. Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice. They chose to use that moment of unity to try to push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies… (by) attacking Iraq…

Oh right. Iraq. Afghanistan. Those would be Washington’s response to 9/11. Buchanan hits the bull’s eye in his use of the term “collateral damage.” It is a well worn phrase employed by our military, the world’s largest, when referring to civilian casualties when we are the aggressors. Man of Steel and films of its ilk may think that they are about 9/11, and their use of its iconography must surely be intentional. But what the summer blockbusters of the 2010s truly represent are America’s  numbness to a perpetual state of war.

“There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them.” Kind of sounds like the American public. After all, Zack Snyder isn’t just a Hollywood director. He’s a United States citizen. That means he’s had over a decade’s worth of practice at ignoring the human cost of war.  The combined financial cost of both Iraq and Afghanistan  will run anywhere between 4 and 6 trillion dollars. As for collateral damage in Iraq, estimates range from 113,185 to 123,900 civilian deaths since 2003. For Afghanistan, the number is somewhere between 16,725 to 19,013 since the war began 13 years ago in 2001.

Oh, well.Seems like yesterday’s news, doesn’t it? With the U.S. reducing its military presence in both countries, Americans list foreign policy at the bottom of their list of concerns. How can our summer blockbusters reflect two wars that everyone wants to forget?

By helping us to forget them. By erasing the blood from the moral equation of violence. Battles don’t kill people; they just smash a lot of buildings and blow things up. Ten years ago, it was possible to believe that truth, justice, and the American Way were all members of  the same happy family. Today, a majority of Americans believe that the Iraq war was a mistake. What is the Obama administration’s most ambitious foreign policy goal? Hunting down the man who exposed its secret spy program. Complain if you want to, but most Americans support our in his quest to track down Edward Snowden and put the criminal behind bars.

And so, once again, when Buchanan writes about our alter egos, he reflects a hidden and deeply troubling truth that plagues our national character:

“Only one bittersweet nod to our post-9/11 outlook remains: Action heroes used to prevent disasters, but now…

…they can only avenge them.”

infographic-afghanchildren

 

David Berkson

June 25, 2013

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Justin Bieber

 

200px-Anne_FrankJustin Bieber belongs to a class of celebrity that my friend Rob calls, “low hanging fruit.” If it’s an easy target that ye seek, then Justin Bieber is your man. Tacky, stupid, superficial, and marginally talented at best, Bieber makes old school embarrassments like The Backstreet Boys look like the presidents on Mt. Rushmore. Recently, the tween idol made his bull’s eye even bigger when he graced the Anne Frank House not merely with his presence, but his signature in the museum’s guest book.  Anne Frank’s indomitable spirit, which has transcended the horrors of death and even the Holocaust, so moved Mr. Bieber, that he was  compelled to write:

 Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.

Congratulations, John Lennon: history officially forgives you for saying “we’re more popular than Jesus.” And thanks to Justin, we can now truly comprehend the horror of the Holocaust, and realize, finally, what might have been. If only. By imprisoning Anne in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the Nazis ended not only her life, but the possibility that she might realize the fullest height of human potential by becoming a Bieber disciple.

Whatever. Like I said: low hanging fruit. Bieber is a huge and easy target, and probably not worth the time. Then again, my middle school students who have heard at least one of Justin’s songs far outnumber those who’ve read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Perhaps this fruit tree needs a little more shaking.

The advent of the Justin Bieber and Anne Frank (isn’t it weird saying those names in the same sentence?) event reminded me of an equally bizarre moment on NPR’s Fresh Air on December 17, 2012. Three days after twenty-six people were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Terry Gross began the program by saying:

Today is our first broadcast since learning about the shootings in Newtown. Our thoughts are with everyone in that community. 

 My guest today is Barbara Streisand.

StreisandOops. Oh well, what are you gonna do? Bump Streisand? Besides, how could anybody have predicted this tragedy when the interview was taped? What, are we not supposed to have fun any more? By allowing these tragedies to reduce our appetites for entertainment and leisure, we’re playing right into the hands of the murderers.

Terry Gross is a thoughtful and intelligent public figure, whereas Justin Bieber…isn’t. But like it or not, both of them missed the big picture by putting the spectacle of entertainment on equal footing with humanity’s insatiable appetite for death and cruelty.

For some reason, this Fresh Air moment haunted me when I learned of the Boston Marathon bombing. Yet another national tragedy left me outraged, but not in the way I expected. Let’s go back to the wording of that Fresh Air intro. “Our thoughts are with everyone in that community.” Months later it came back to me on the Monday of the Boston bombing as I, like everyone else, rushed to social media to find out what was happening and, more importantly, give voice to my outrage and grief. Here’s a small sample of what the America had to say:

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston.

Everyone at “Anderson Live” extends their thoughts and prayers to all affected by today’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon.

Thoughts & prayers for sisters & brothers in Boston.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all involved in the Boston bombings.

I read and heard that phrase more times than I could count: thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. I played it over and over like a skip on a vinyl LP. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Finally, I experienced the unthinkable: anger, not at the bomber, but at the grievers.

I’m not talking about the victims or their grieving loved ones. I mean people like me: long distance bystanders, members of the shocked public, numbed into impotence and horror. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Is that all we have to offer? Thoughts and prayers? Don’t get me wrong: I do my fair share of thinking and praying. (Although, to be honest, I do a lot more of the former than the latter.)

But all of these thoughts and prayers make me wonder: why are they reserved only for the victims of atrocities from which we are removed? Why is the American public not compelled to think or pray for victims of bombings that we pay for with our own tax dollars?  The United States bombed and killed five people and injured seven more in a drone strike to South Waziristan on Wednesday, just two days after the Boston bombing. Did you read about it in the paper? Did you hear about it on the news? Did Anderson Cooper send his thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers to the victims of those bombing attacks?

I suppose we can justify those bombings as the “war on terror.” Perhaps we can comfort ourselves by the fact that our tax dollars are killing people that President Obama and the CIA have labeled as “enemies” – even though none of the dead or injured received a trial proving their guilt. After all, how many thoughts and prayers can one person muster? I gotta save my compassion for the next tragedy – I’m sorry, tragedy on American soil that’s carried out by someone not wearing a uniform so I can hop on Facebook or Twitter and send out my thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers when I’m shocked by humanity’s barbarous cruelty.

Give a man a uniform (or a remote control bomber) and suddenly “insanity” and “senseless killings” are transformed into “foreign policy” and “collateral damage.” I know it’s a tough pill to swallow, but those killed by American drones (estimates range from 1,998 to 3,316) in the past nine years are just as dead as the victims in Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Boston. The only justification for withholding compassion for victims on foreign soil is to adopt our government’s rationale for the bombings: these people are our enemies, and therefore deserve to be killed. Huh. I wonder if that’s the rationale that the bomber or bombers used when planning those killings in Boston.

Thoughts and prayers and other useless gestures: they are the last refuge of an impotent public obsessed with tragedies beyond our control. Those paid for by our tax dollars are taken care of by government secrecy and (for the most part) a compliant media. Soviet era Eastern block countries suppressed embarrassing news altogether; in America, we just shove it onto page 7.

What does all of this have to do with Justin Bieber and Anne Frank? Only this: it’s all part of the same collective cognitive dissonance.  21st century Americans have no sense of our own place in the now that makes up our unfolding history. Justin Bieber trumps Anne Frank. Barbara Streisand trumps Sandy Hook. Thoughts and prayers trump meaningful reflection and action to end the violence that we pay for.

This blog has a modest readership at best, but if for some reason you are a survivor or a bereaved loved one of Boston, Sandy Hook, Aurora, or any of the like tragedies springing from our country like hydra heads, I’d like to say this: I am sorry, so incredibly sorry for your losses. I wish that I could bring your loved ones or your good health back. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that you or yours did to deserve this, and I can only imagine what courage you must be summoning at this very moment. And even though we’ve never met, I pledge my thoughts, prayers, and actions to make our world a place where violence is not welcome. The perpetrators and enablers of private and public massacre are united by a common belief: that all life is equal, but some lives are more equal than others.

How much difference can I make? I’m not really sure, but I am willing to try.  To be honest, sometimes this blog, and my own forays into social media, give me an inflated sense of my own historical importance. Call it imperial hubris. When it comes to fruit, maybe Justin Bieber’s hanging just a little bit higher than we thought.

But we all hang with him.

David Berkson

April 17, 2013

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One Teen’s Fight To Make Gay Marriage A Reality (And How You Can Help Him)

Kenneth PhotoKenneth Sergienko is 17 years old. I met him five and a half years ago when I was the youth minister at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon. Since that time I’ve directed Kenneth in two Shakespeare plays, and invited him to host or co-host innumerable fundraising events at both St. Michael’s and Northwest Academy where he studies acting. So it’s been with a great deal of interest and pride that I’ve watched Kenneth’s social conscience and activism develop over the years. Kenneth knows his stuff, and is frankly better informed and more politically active than most adults I know.

Kenneth supports the legalization of gay marriage, which comes before the United States Supreme Court on March 26 in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry. This case is important enough to Kenneth that he created a petition on the White House website asking it to File an Amicus Brief supporting the freedom to Marry in Hollingsworth v. Perry. As a supporter of gay marriage, I signed the petition myself – something that I’m encouraging you to do right now.

When Kenneth agreed to allow me to post the link to the petition on this blog and write a piece about it, I wanted to get a few words from him about why this particular issue is so crucial. I e-mailed him: “You appear to be concerned about a wide range of political issues. Why is the Hollingsworth v. Perry case so important? What about the case put it on your political radar?” About an hour later, I received this response from Kenneth, which I present to you in its entirety:

David,

In 2008 the California State Supreme Court decided that same-sex marriage could be allowed under the state constitution. After that decision California voters approved Proposition 8 by a 5 point margin. Proposition 8 amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. After voters approved Prop 8 a lawsuit was filed challenging its constitutionality.

This case is important because it has the potential to be the Brown v. Board of Education of the Gay Rights movement. When this case was first decided by the San Francisco District Court the Judge found Prop 8 unconstitutional on a broad basis. He ruled there was a constitutional right for same sex couples to marry. In finding Prop 8 unconstitutional he also found any other state ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

When the Ninth Circuit took this case on appeal they ruled on a narrower level. They found that because the California Supreme Court had granted the right to marry for Gays and Lesbians, California voters could not take away that right without a compelling reason. The Ninth Circuit found Prop 8 unconstitutional, but only with the specific events in California.

This case is so important because it’s an “all or nothing” case. The question presented for argument is broader than one might think with the narrow ruling of the Ninth Circuit. The main question presented to the court is:

“Whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”

With this question, the court could issue a broad ruling, finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage under the Fourteenth Amendment. This would nullify all 31 bans on same-sex marriage in the US. The Court could also follow the narrow Ninth Circuit ruling or reverse their decision entirely. If the decision was reversed Prop 8 would stand, and Gays and Lesbians in California and across the country would still be unable to legally wed.

This case is on my radar for a few reasons. The two attorneys arguing the case are David Boies and Ted Olson, the lawyers who argued against each other in the forever infamous Bush v. Gore. Those two coming together to argue a substantive equal protection question is the stuff of a Stephen Spielberg biopic. The reasoning, evidence and law behind their arguments also interest me greatly. It’s one thing to feel that something is right. It’s another thing to be able to cite a mountain of evidence to prove that it’s right. I also have a personal stake in this case.

As a Gay person I have a deep desire to see justice done. For me, for my friends and family and even for the thousands of kids like me living in California awaiting the outcome of this case.

On one level the issues presented in this case transcend law. When the Supreme Court rules in June, to many it could be a landmark victory for Equal Protection and constitutional principles. To many more it could be a defining moral statement. An affirmation that Gays, Lesbians and their relationships are normal, healthy and worthy of acceptance. One some level the court will rule on whether or not Being Gay is OK. That’s not only huge for the adult plaintiffs who wish to marry today, but to the thousands of kids like me who wish to marry in the future.

Kenneth

Well? What are you waiting for? Sign the petition! Circulate it to others via e-mail, Facebook, or any other means at your disposal. Please do it now: a total of 25,000 signatures are needed by February 10. Filing an amicus brief (literally “friend of the court”) in this case would demonstrate that the Obama administration is serious about its support of gay marriage. Anyone familiar with our current Supreme Court knows that its bent is conservative; this case could go either way. An amicus brief from the White House would remind potential swing justices such as Roberts and Kennedy that their votes are being viewed by not only the public, but history itself.

I believe that when he reaches adulthood, Kenneth has the right to marry whomever he chooses. More importantly, he believes it, and is pulling the levers of participatory democracy to make our government recognize that right. Won’t you invest five minutes of your time to help him? It seems to me that more is at stake than gay marriage. When young people put their faith in the system, we owe them our support. It is often said that “our children are our future.” What’s so often ignored is that young people are also our present, and they have to forge their own future from a harsh reality so carelessly tossed in their laps. As our country embarks upon the warm and fuzzy, self congratulatory ritual known as “MLK Day,” I hope you’ll take a moment to honor Dr. King’s legacy of equality for all, and work for the future of Kenneth and millions like him: make a defining moral statement that can change the law, and ultimately transcend it.

David Berkson

January 20, 2013

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Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

An Open Letter to America’s Gun Rights Advocates

My Dear Fellow Americans,

When it comes to being a gun control advocate, I am a living stereotype. Take every preconceived notion you have of what a blue state left-winger might look like, and you’ll pretty much wind up with me. I’m a vegetarian who lives in Portland, Oregon. Like most vegetarians who live in Portland, I voted for Barak Obama. And like most vegetarians who live in Portland and voted for Barak Obama, I have a predictable set of opinions on a number of well-worn issues. I’m concerned about climate change. I obsessively recycle. I drive a fuel-efficient car, but not on the days when I bicycle to work.  My job should come as no surprise either: I teach English Humanities and Theatre at a private 6-12 school located in downtown Portland. I am pro-choice, pro-taxes, pro-government, pro-union, pro-Obamacare, pro-anything on that list that you’d expect from someone who shares my demographic profile. My political biography reads like a checklist; everything on it will fail to surprise. Even my former job as a Christian youth minister fits into the blue state liberal mold: I served and still attend a  church where many of our clergy are openly gay. In September, our rector was married to her partner by Oregon’s bishop within the very halls of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.

Knowing all of those things about me, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine my response to Friday’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children between the ages of five and ten were shot to death with a semi-automatic rifle. 6 adults were also murdered in the massacre. As a west coast liberal, I did everything that you’d expect. I got angry. I got outraged. I got sad. And I cried. I posted on Facebook. I read what other people posted on Facebook. I asked myself how could this happen? I’m not sure if it was the size of the massacre, the age of the children, or the fact that I’ve lost count of the number of American shootings this year (the last one was less than five miles from my own home in Oregon)…

…but, whatever it was, something made the public response to Friday’s events play out with nauseating predictability. At least that’s how it seemed to me: I no longer felt like my own person, but a background character in a sickening tragedy of which I was both participant and observer. Everything that I said and did, and everything that I heard and saw, played out as if written in a script. Then again, I shouldn’t complain: my nine-year old son is still alive. So are my students. In the shadow of all of our massacres, every child I know has somehow, miraculously been spared.

And so I am free to play my scripted part. Even writing about Friday’s tragedy feels like a cliché, including this blog, which is, at best, read by a modest number of people, most of whom (I’m guessing) share my outraged feelings. What are the odds that this message will reach its intended conservative audience? There is, of course, no way of telling, but my hunch is that those odds are incredibly, depressingly slim.

But when faith is all there is, what else can we do but grab? That is why I am writing this letter not to my fellow lefties, but gun owners, and especially gun rights activists like members of the National Rifle Association – anyone, really, who has a stake in keeping our nation’s gun laws exactly the way that they are.

I am not looking for debate. I am not asking you to give up your guns. I am not asking you to stop supporting or defending the Second Amendment. And I’m most definitely not asking you to embrace a left wing ideology that would rob Americans of the right to shoot, hunt, or defend themselves. I am asking for one thing, and one thing only.

I am asking for your help.

I am asking because I believe that it is wrong for children to be murdered. Especially in large numbers in a place of public learning. More than that: I believe that there is something deeply immoral with a country where this kind of atrocity is even remotely possible. My son could have one of those victims. Or one of my students. Or one of your kids. Or you, or me, or anyone who ventures out into the public space that all Americans share. For all that divides us, we are still human beings: fragile, mortal, and deeply connected to the people who surround and love us.

So believe me when I say that I have no interest whatsoever in changing your mind about gun rights. We’d be wasting each other’s time with a comment-section-shouting match that would just make both of us angry. I don’t know about you, but after this last election, I’m exhausted from the political sissy boy slap fighting. Not just exhausted, but depressed, almost to the point of despair, with this nagging and awful suspicion: that in the echo chamber of what passes for civil discourse in this country it is impossible to change anyone’s mind about anything, anything at all.

So let us agree to disagree. We don’t need to argue about gun rights. But maybe we can discuss safety. Let’s take a moment to pretend. What if you and I were on a boat in the middle of a very deep lake? Imagine that the boat had a leak, and began to fill up with water. What would we do? Call me crazy, but I’m willing to bet that we wouldn’t start to argue about your right to own some of the lake’s water. My guess is that you and I would start working together to get that water out of the boat as quickly as humanly possible so that the two of us didn’t drown. We’d get a bucket and start bailing, and try like hell to patch up that hole with anything we could find – sweatshirts, wine corks, chewing gum, anything – to keep that water out in the name of our own survival. And I’ll bet we’d work even harder if there were children on that boat. Because we’d both have a responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to the young, helpless, and vulnerable. Afterwards, there’d be plenty of time for the two of us to be enemies again. Once we’d plugged the hole, and got the little ones safely ashore, you and I could argue ‘til the sun went down about taxes, charter schools, state’s rights, you name it – and believe me, I’d get right in there with you. There is nothing wrong with a good argument, or even a bad one. I like to argue; I enjoy it, and as my wife and I so frequently point out to our son: there’s a time and a place for everything.

But not if we’re starting to sink. And after Friday’s shooting, I think we can agree that America is now a rapidly sinking ship. It’s time to put aside our differences and start to work together.

Now there is a lot that I’m willing to give up. For starters, I’ll give up my dream of a gun free society, which is what I really want. Seriously, if I had it my way, we’d live in a left wing utopia. I would abolish the Second Amendment. I would cut America’s defense budget by more than half. I would outlaw the death penalty, and help our president create a massive stimulus program that focused on mental health and education, because I believe that it’s by underfunding these areas that we create our mass murderers. Trust me, if I had it my way, I would embark upon a program of social engineering that would shock even Paul Ryan.

But guess what? I have to live in this country with other people. People who hold radically different opinions than my own. Some of those people are gun owners like you. Some serve in our military. Some hold deeply held convictions that granting more power to the government is a slap in the face to our constitutional liberties. And because I live with other people, I cannot have all of the things that I want. It’s part of being an adult; there are some things you just have to give up. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

What about you? As a gun owner, and defender of the Second Amendment, what are you willing to give up to help ensure that a tragedy like Friday’s never, ever happens again? And please don’t say it’s impossible, because you know in your heart that it’s not. So much has happened during the span of my life that was once the stuff of dreams. Computers were transformed from science fiction oddities to commonplace household appliances. An African American was elected president of the United States. A man walked on the moon. At the core of the American Dream is the belief that nothing is impossible. Nothing. We would still be British subjects were it not for the temerity of a few determined colonists with an unshakeable belief in the power of radical change.

So to quote from one of my favorite movies The Untouchables (which has more than its share of bloodshed and guns): what are you prepared to do? You want your Second Amendment? Fine. Do you need to own a shotgun? Please, go ahead, be my guest. Shoot all the animals you want. I don’t like it, but I’ve had to sit through enough Thanksgiving dinners to understand that I’m in the minority when it comes to the lives of non-humans. You feel like you need to own a handgun? Let me be honest, that’s a little harder. I agree with Bob Costas: “Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it…”

But it appears that Mr. Costas is not made himself any friends with his reasoning. Fine. Why don’t we argue about that one later? After all, we’re in a sinking boat; now is the time for action. So let’s cut to the chase and talk about semi-automatic weapons. Like the ones that were used in Newtown and Aurora. Can we please agree to legally ban all firearms that were designed for the sole purpose of killing a whole lot of people very, very quickly? Make no mistake, I am talking about legislating an outright ban on semi-automatic weapons. Is it possible to agree upon that? Even if you don’t like it, would you at least give it up as a compromise? An area where we can work together? Think of it as a small stick of gum to stick in a hole so the boat doesn’t sink to the bottom.

I wonder what you felt when you read and heard about the Connecticut shooting. In particular: what was your first response? The one you had before you started talking, or posting, or blogging, or even forming an opinion. Weren’t you horrified? Didn’t you feel incredible anguish, pity, and agony? Did you for a moment (as I did) imagine your own child, or a child you knew, as one of the twenty murdered school children? Didn’t it feel as if the world had been turned upside down, that you were caught up in a never ending nightmare where any tragedy of any kind could happen to any person at any place or any time for no apparent reason? And in that wave of horror did you not, at least for a moment, feel in some sense of responsibility?

I did. I still do. Call it a guilt complex, but I blame myself for what happened in Connecticut. And Clackamas. And Aurora. I blame all of us. If the Nuremberg Trials of Germany and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa teach us nothing else, it is that we are responsible for what happens in the world – and especially the countries in which we live. Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

It is time for us to be grownups. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but it seems to me that the ultimate character of a civilized nation is measured in how it treats its children. This week, we allowed twenty of our own to be murdered at the point of a gun. Have we passed the test of civilization? Or have we failed? If you want to end a nightmare you must start by waking up.

Back in August, I got into an argument with a Facebook friend about the movie theatre shooting in Aurora. He felt that the answer was more guns, not less. He believed that had the employees of the theatre been armed they might have prevented the midnight bloodshed. Perhaps that’s your answer to massacre in Sandy Hook. Maybe you believe that every K-5 teacher needs to be armed and fully loaded. Maybe you’d like every principal in America to have an arsenal of weapons in his or her office. Perhaps you’re in favor of private security firms patrolling the classrooms where kindergarteners play with their toys and draw with their crayons.

If that is your answer, if your solution to this crisis of violence is more guns, not less, if you would like to see firearms in our places of learning, if you truly believe that what’s needed to save a sinking boat is just a little more water, then I just have to ask you:

Really?

Is that any way for a child to grow up? Is that the way you grew up? Or your parents? Or your grandparents? If you call yourself a “conservative,” what is it that you wish to conserve? What part of the past do you want to hang on to? What childhood traditions do you find worth preserving? What kind of an educational environment is best for a little boy or girl learning to read, write, solve math problems, and discover wonders of our planet? What can we really do to protect them, not just from becoming victims, but future perpetrators of these horrific, ugly, and inexplicable crimes?

As the father of a third grader, I am willing to do a lot. I have already started (and it’s only a start) by demanding that both my president and legislators take immediate legislative action. What are you prepared to do? After all, I’m just a blue state blogger from Portland, Oregon. I’m pretty much playing by the script. But I wonder what would happen if you wrote a letter or your own blog, or called a press conference, or posted a video on YouTube, and said these words to the world?

I am a gun owner and a conservative. I love, cherish, and support the Second Amendment. I believe that it is my God given right to own and carry firearms. As an American, I treasure this belief, and I will carry it with me to my grave.

And now, I’ve had enough. No belief of mine is more important than the life of an innocent child. I am ready to do everything in my power, exert every effort, and make every sacrifice necessary to be sure that nothing like the Connecticut massacre ever happens again. I will be introspective. I will lay down my arguments. I will work with my enemies. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But now, I’m no longer a child; now, I’’m an adult, and a protector of children. It is time to for me to discern the difference between my needs and “rights” from the time honored prerogatives of my selfish desires.

As a gun rights activist, imagine the power those words, or something like them, might carry coming from your own keyboard or mouth. Trust me: people would listen. And while I’m sure you’d piss off a lot of your friends and neighbors, in exchange you’d receive the freedom of spirit that only comes to those of us who have taken that blinding fall on the long hard Road to Damascus.

Or, for those whom I’ve offended with my liberal quoting of scripture, let me bring you the words of a modern day prophet named Dr. Phil. “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” I don’t know about you, but the prospect of being right is becoming a whole lot interesting. And I’m certainly not happy, not after Friday. It’s simply unconscionable for us to be screaming at each other while children are being slaughtered. The time has come for America’s Truth and Reconciliation. Like I said, I am willing to be reasonable; I’ll give up a lot. But it is simply illogical, and ultimately barbaric, to pour water on a ship that’s already sinking.

There is nothing that can bring those twenty kids back to their families and loved ones. Our collective failure to fashion a responsible society has robbed those children of their lives and futures. It’s the kind of failure that cannot be ignored. It demands deep and painful introspection, followed by profound acts of contrition and atonement. What are we prepared to do, to sacrifice in wake of this bloodshed? Our acts in the next few days, weeks, months, and years will shape how future generations judge our civilization. More importantly, our actions can make damn well sure that we don’t murder the lot of them first.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

David Berkson

December 16, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

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The Real War On Christmas

o'reilly xmas“You Killed Jesus.” Guess what group is being targeted in this spiteful piece of holiday vandalism. Could it be pagan imperialists of the 1st century? The descendants of Pontius Pilate? The ghost of a Roman centurion? Nope. Want to know who killed Jesus? I’ll tell you: it’s the Jews. All of them. Past, present, and future; orthodox, conservative, and reformed; Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, and Sephardic. You name it; they did it. All must bear the shameful stain of this unforgivable act of historical deicide.

Welcome to the Season of Hate. On December 1, Chabad House’s enormous seashell dreidel and menorah were vandalized in Miami Beach, Florida; the aforementioned three-word indictment was scrawled in black paint on this beloved Hanukah display.  That same weekend, near Palm Beach, a swastika was painted at Temple Beth Torah; the accompanying anti-Semitic rhetoric was so offensive that the networks chose not to quote it. Even though Pope Benedict XVI – himself a former member of the Hitler Youth – assured his flock as late as 2011 that Jews in fact are not responsible for the death of his beloved Messiah, there are some medieval customs that just won’t die. Have a Merry Christmas, America, and long live the pogrom.

Now you’d think that with his staunch commitment to “Judeo-Christian culture,” a guy like Bill O’Reilly would be warning us about a “War on Hanukah.” Yet a mere five days after a local Fox affiliate had reported the “You Killed Jesus” story, O’Reilly asked us: “Is there a growing anti-Christian bias in America?” as the intro to one of the network’s innumerable reports on The War on Christmas. Jeanine Pirro and Gretchen Carlson, O’Reilly’s fawning sycophants for the day, all but drooled in their mikes as they answered the affirmative: apparently there are some people who just don’t like Christmas.

Like everything else on Fox, this piece would be funny, except that it isn’t. I think my favorite part is Carlson’s outrage over the City of Santa Monica’s ban on nativity scenes public parks, which she claims (without citation) arises from complaints of “less than one percent” of the population. “I don’t remember any of these complaints growing up!” she wails indignantly, “I don’t remember any of them!”

Gretchen 2

 Yes, Ms. Carlson, it’s true. Even though you are paid by Fox to think and act like a child, as a 46 year old woman, you are no longer a child. The halcyon days of the mid-1970s have fallen like leaves from the tree, a civilization gone with the wind. But like Scarlett O’Hara before her, Gretchen is not going down without a fight, and neither are her offspring:  “What will my children be fighting for?” she cries. “I already have to say, ‘Hey! Way off in the back seat, waaaay off yon in the yonder you can see baby Jesus.'” Those poor children are so religiously oppressed that they are now forced to seek out salvation in the backseat of Gretchen Carlson’s car.

What the former Miss America and Fox don’t mention in their fact free piece is that when it comes to the attack on Christianity, it’s coming from inside the house! In America today religion itself is on the decline. According to the Pew Research Center, one in five American adults claim no religious affiliation at all. While the numbers of atheists and agnostics are on the rise (hey! did I just write a headline for Fox?) they remain statistically insignificant at 2.4% and 3.3%, respectively. It turns out that the largest share of religiously unaffiliated Americans aren’t even comfortable with the term “agnostic”; 13.9% opt for the category of “nothing in particular.” Does that mean that America is becoming more secular? Not necessarily. 68% of the unaffiliated express a belief in God, and 58% describe “a deep connection with the Earth.” At issue, then, is not the concept of a higher power, but with how current religions define it:

With few exceptions…the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

But O’Reilly and his fellow culture warriors can comfort themselves with the fact that 73% of the American population is Christian. That’s pretty good, isn’t it? Not if you look at the trends. That figure represents a 5% drop in a period of just as many years. You want a Fox News headline? Try this: Christianity in America is Shrinking.

And yet the yuletide continues to thrive. “There’s a ‘War on Christmas’? Somebody tell Thanksgiving!” rails The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “Because this year Black Friday…got moved back to Black Thursday, or as we used to call it Thanksgiving. Christmas is so big now, it’s eating other holidays.” Stewart then launches into one of his glorious litanies, demonstrating the obnoxious ubiquitousness of America’s favorite holiday:

(There are) Mormon Christmas specials, country-western Christmas specials, chipmunk Christmas specials, otter Christmas specials, bear Christmas specials, cat Christmas specials, large headed child Christmas, gay Christmas, Jewish Christmas (in a nod to Neil Diamond), Christmas underwater, Christmas from the future, pre-historic Christmas. That’s right, there’s a Christmas special that celebrates the birth of Jesus…thousands of years before the birth of Jesus.

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-december-3-2012/the-war-on-christmas–friendly-fire-edition

FlinstonesStewart’s last mention of The Flintstones Christmas hearkens back to an earlier joke in the segment. “For Fox News, the war on Christmas has become a rote observance devoid of all its original spiritual meaning.” Ever since Charlie Brown bemoaned the holiday’s commercialization, people have been saying the same of the Christmas itself. And yet we continue to buy. In the face of boycotts and protests, Walmart claimed “busiest ever Black Friday.” The National Retail Federation estimates an overall 4.1% increase from last year in holiday sales, projecting $586 billion in overall revenue. That’s an awful lot of Hanukah candy.

In reality, the war is not on Christmas, or even Christianity, but on the birthday boy himself. I realize that questions such as “What Would Jesus Do?” or “What Would Jesus Think?” may seem all but impossible to answer, but a cursory look at the Gospels gives us a pretty clear picture of His view on material wealth and the lust of acquisition:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10: 17-22)

 And just in case we’re confused about it, Jesus spells it out just a few verses later: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10: 25)

Yeah, but guess what? I’m not rich. I’m middle class.

Well…it turns out that I’m not. According to the website globalrichlist.com, I’m in the top 4.62% of income earners on the planet. The fact that I have a home, running water, a TV set, automobile, several pairs of clothes, healthcare, and an expendable income that allows me to buy Christmas gifts makes me an incredibly wealthy man. (Check out the site to see how rich you are.)

The next time you’re online or out at the mall looking to buy yourself some Brut aftershave or the Angry Birds Star Wars Jenga Death Star Game or the Nikon 1 J1 camera or the iPad mini or the Kindle Fire HD (with its gazillionth chapter of The Game of Thrones series) or the Enzo Anglioni Women’s Vicso Riding Boots or a polyester backyard pink castle princess tent or the John Travolta Olivia Newton-John album, you might want to ask yourself: what does any of this have to do with Jesus?Here’s a guy who spent his entire life working with the deeply impoverished. Jesus healed the sick, and made sure that hungry people had plenty to eat. Luke’s original Christmas story itself is a parable of hope against cruel, unimaginable poverty. Jesus’ origins were so humble that once, when trying to preach, he was berated with the catcall: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” His antagonism to religious displays of wealth was so intense that less than a week before his execution, he disrupted the commerce of the merchants in the temple, Jerusalem’s holiest of holy sites, by turning over the very tables where they sold their precious wares. It is the only time Jesus ever used physical force. I guess he must have been pretty upset.

So Happy Birthday, Jesus! As a way of saying thank you for being the savior of mankind, I’m giving my sister in law $50 gift certificate to Bed Bath and Beyond. What do you think; is that too tacky?

To say that the holidays have become too secular entirely misses the point. Christmas is the holiest of holy days for America’s number one religion: capitalism. Even the left wing social engineers like our president extol the talismanic “power of the free market.” Our belief in capitalism’s virtue is so paradigmatic, so deep and unshakable, that we can not even bring ourselves to ask our government to follow most European countries, and do what Jesus did almost every day of his life: provide free healthcare.

Christians often forget that Jesus himself was a Jew. As for those particular Jews who wanted him dead, they were Roman collaborators, a fact that secular history and the canonical Gospels make abundantly clear to anyone who cares to read them. Crucifixion was a special and unusually grizzly form of public capital punishment. And whatever role “the Jews” may have played, Caiaphas, Annas, and even Herod didn’t have the authority to put a man to death. That task fell to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, second in the region only to Caesar. Jesus was killed by the Romans, and drew his last breath as a Jew.

There’s a curious moment at the end of the Fox segment. Just as O’Reilly and Carlson are about are about to end the piece, Jeanine Pirro, the network’s, um…legal analyst, blurts out a non-sequitur she appears to have been bottling up during the entire analysis. Apparently the First Amendment’s separation clause regarding religion and state applies only to Christians

If you add a menorah, the Supreme Court says that’s ok! 

pirro

It’s an ugly moment, not to mention entirely unsubstantiated, one that O’Reilly and Carlson leave lie when signing off. I’d like to think that their silence signifies an a private disagreement with this slur, but I suspect that it’s something more sinister. Last year, Fox Latin America had to apologize for an online poll asking, “Who Do You Think Is Responsible for the Death of Jesus?” Responders were given a number of choices, one of which was “The Jewish People.” Complaints from the Simon Wiesenthal center helped trigger the poll’s removal.

While there is absolutely no evidence, and virtually no probability, that anyone on The O’Reilly Factor created this defamatory poll, Pirro’s remarks at the end of the program bring us back to the place where we started. Jews get special privileges. They are not persecuted, we Christians are. The Jews get things that We don’t. They are the beneficiaries of a system that is incomprehensibly stacked up against Us. When it comes to the War on Christmas, there is surely an Axis of Evil, and on one of its points is a pernicious special interest group hell bent on persecuting Christians.

The Jews did not crucify Jesus, but the bigotry and hatred  of Florida’s vandals and the folks at Fox News are killing him every day. I don’t know the names of the people who damaged the Hanukah displays. But since Jeanine Pirro trumpets her Christian faith from the hilltop of Fox News Studios, I have, for her and her many followers, this special yuletide greeting:

Repent. Cast off the wickedness of your false idols and craven images. Fall upon your knees and beg forgiveness from your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Renew the vows of your baptism by rejecting Satan and all of his works. Love the Lord your God above all others, and love your neighbors – Christians, Atheists, and even Jews – as yourself. Practice kindness, compassion, and patience. Renounce the path of hatred, and joyfully proclaim the Good News of Christ’s love and redemption throughout the whole of all mankind.

And if not, please do us a favor and shut the fuck up. Stop pretending that you’re being persecuted. You’re part of the dominant culture; enjoy it, for God’s sake! Use the salary that Fox so generously pays you and buy your family Christmas presents – tons of them. And be grateful that you live in a country that gives you the freedom to worship in the religion of your choice. Use this time of Christmas to pay homage to the godheads of Commodity, Profit, and the almighty Power of the Free Market – America’s lords and deities, gods and rulers of The Autumning Empire.

David Berkson

December 11, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

American Intervention: Why The United States Needs A 12 Step Program

Let’s start with George Carlin. For a guy who repeatedly said he couldn’t understand America, he sure got an awful lot right. Like the phrase: Proud To Be An American. “What the f#@% does that mean?” Carlin asked. “That’s like being proud to be 5’7”, or proud to have a pre-disposition to colon cancer…Pride should be reserved for something you achieved or attained on your own, not something that happened by accident of birth…if you’re happy with it, that’s fine. Put that on your car: Happy To Be An American.”

 

But there’s a reason why you never see that slogan on the bumper sticker of an automobile. Americans are not happy. Maybe that’s why we feel the need to be proud; it’s as if our American pride masks something dark, bizarre, and unfaceable. If 2008 was the Year of Hope, then 2012 is the Year of Fear. Barack Obama will destroy your business. Mitt Romney will take away your reproductive rights. Quick! Fact check that lie and get it out on Facebook before all the people who probably agree with you anyway start to believe in something that simply just isn’t true. And don’t forget the Supreme Court! And the Deficit! And the Unemployment Rate! And Iran! And Benghazi! And I stood upon the sand…and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.

With all this surplus of information and opinion, you have to wonder if there is a single national problem that Americans are failing to discuss. The truth is, there are many. Like characters in the world of Harold Pinter, our major presidential candidates distinguish themselves primarily by what they aren’t saying. Perhaps it’s because we just won’t let them. “Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary,” writes Scott Shane in The New York Times. “It is impermissible to dwell on chronic, painful problems, or on statistics that challenge the notion that the United States leads the world…” Shane goes on to demonstrate how far behind we are:

  • In regards to childhood poverty: “…of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania.”
  • Shane asserts that, “…contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.”
  • Our infant mortality is high; 48 countries have lower rates than ours, among them Singapore, Guam, South Korea, Croatia, and Serbia.

The candidate planning to bring any of those facts up in the next debate might as well book a lunch date with Michael Dukakis. No. America must be Number 1. (And we actually are number one when it comes to incarceration, obesity, and energy consumption.) Our national optimism must be massaged, our egos protected. We need our president to be the kid’s soccer coach who cries, “Nice try!” every time the ball slips past the grasp of the goalie.  C’mon Mr. President! Be charming! Be funny! Be tough! And presidential! But don’t make us get all introspective and shit. That’d be un-patriotic.

In short, we are not electing a president. We’re electing an enabler. A co-dependent who might occasionally nag us to “cut down” on those things that will surely kill us, but in the end reassures Americans just how special we really, truly are. That it’ll be ok. That we are better than our actions might suggest. And this, above all else: that genuine change is possible without the sweat and blood of true political sacrifice.

In the global human family, America is the raging addict, the abusive head of household. Charming we are: the rest of the world loves us so much, that 20.56% of our population is comprised of immigrants.  Influential? Absolutely. With a defense budget of $700 billion (more than the 14 other highest other spending countries combined), how could we not be? Culturally relevant? You betcha. Quantifying the world’s biggest pop staris no easy task, but all evidence would suggest that music’s reigning monarch is most certainly an American.

During the course of my life, I’ve known plenty of addicts. They’re a pretty charming bunch. In fact, they’re irresistible. I’ve never met an addict who didn’t fill the room with a magnetically dominating personality. Shane didn’t title his article “The Opiate of Exceptionalism” for nothing. On our planet of humanoid dysfunction, America is addiction personified. And don’t try to contradict me; you’ll just be displaying the classic signs of denial. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume over 20% of its resources. In spite of overwhelming evidence that carbon emissions are destroying our planet, America’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions grew 7% between 1990 and 2009. Is it any accident that the U.S. is the only country in the world that “debates” the human cause of climate change? What part of America’s Falstaffian reveling isn’t the mark of an overbearing, overweening, overfed addict?

Yeah, but….I bike to work. And I’m voting for Obama! (Even though he, like Mitt Romney and every other Republican, criminally employs the oxymoron “clean coal” when discussing our energy options.) C’mon, gimme a break, already! I’m doing my best! I try to be good! America’s not that bad, is it?

Robin Williams once approached an audience member at a comedy club who, like many other patrons, was smoking a cigarette. “Oh! Filtered cigarette!” Williams quipped. “Kind of like this!” The comedian then proceeded to take a napkin from the smoker’s table and place it on his head. Williams then pretended, through the fabric of the protective napkin, to blow his own brains out.

Denial. It’s the addict’s number one tool to keep the party going. That’s why Step 1 of every recovery program begins: “We were powerless over [take your pick: alcohol, drugs, oil, colonialism], that our lives had become unmanageable.” It’s that admission – the only antidote to denial – that paves the way towards ending the horrific cycle of addiction, and moving towards the responsible mindset of taking responsibility for one’s own actions. To be fair, of the two major presidential candidates, Barack Obama comes the closest to being the adult in the room. But if he wants another gig as our babysitter, he ‘d darn well better play the dysfunctional family’s rules. That means that there are certain things that he just can’t say. Like the word “poverty” – to do so would be an open admission of national failure. (In Liberalism’s Shrinking Agenda, conservative blogger Michael Gerson notes that Mitt Romney actually used the word “poverty” five times in the second presidential debate; Barack Obama never used it at all.) Failure isn’t American! We’re a can do nation! Our presidents must always project unflagging confidence and buoyancy.  One of the reasons President Obama was criticized for his first debate performance was that he “looked tired” – a sad indicator of our desperate need to be constantly reassured that everything is okey-dokey and a-okay. Especially us.

“Woe to the nation that breeds heroes,” says Galileo’s former pupil in Bertolt Brecht’s play Leben des Galilei. “No,” replies the astronomer, “woe to the nation that needs one.” Leave it to a communist like Brecht to shoot down American optimism. Good god, isn’t there someone who can save us? Put on the Superman cape and fly it on in? How about an intervention for America? Won’t someone show us the error of our ways, and push us along the road to recovery?

Someday China might be happy to oblige. They are, after all, the largest foreign owner of U.S. debt (more than $4.5 trillion). Romney might actually bring that one up in the next debate, even as he continues to press for policies that will drive the deficit higher. One of the hallmarks of addiction is blame; count on both candidates to employ it right until the final ballot is cast on November 6th.

But not every addict is saved by an outsider. In fact, many interventions end in failure. No, an addict pretty much has two options laid out before him: death or recovery. And that’s where we stand today. And I mean “we” as in We the People. The United States of America may not be a pure democracy, but we have lots of democratic tools that could stand to be dusted off. And I’m not just talking about voting. For starters, we could stop driving cars. Period. We could also cease to support agribusinesses that overproduce meat, sell genetically modified crops, and exponentially enlarge our carbon footprint. How about closing tax loopholes on corporations, and making multinationals like General Electric pay their fair share? Or legislation (in the form of a constitutional amendment, if necessary) to overturn Citizens United? And while we’re at it, let’s open up the presidential “debates” to more candidates so we can end these interminable personality contests that masquerade as elections.

These ideas are hardly unheard of, but they are well outside of the American political mainstream. To put them forward in a focused, responsible manner might take more than a little bit of courage. But contrary to popular opinion, politicians do respond to consistent, disciplined pressure from the electorate. Mitt Romney may or may not be pro-life. Or pro-choice. Or pro-anything. The change in his stance on abortion was based not upon principle, but political calculus. Barack Obama’s “evolution” in supporting gay marriage did not come purely out of the goodness of his heart. The president is a smart man; he did the math: conservatives were never going to vote for him, no matter what. And the pressure from the left to support gay marriage was too intense to ignore.  We can only wonder what would have happened had Obama’s apologists – the so called “liberals” who never pressed for single payer healthcare or the closing of Guantanamo Bay – held him to the same standards that the Republican far right now holds his shallow opponent.

No matter. One of the essential ingredients of recovery is looking at the past, learning from it, and then simply letting it go. This is where we are. Every American citizen is free, at any time, to abandon his imperial prerogatives, or cling to them for dear life (or death). Which brings us back to George Carlin. More than twenty years before his rant on American pride, Carlin took on a bigger subject: humanity’s place on the planet. It’s a great bit, one in which he excoriated lefties like me who try to preserve the environment. Said Carlin:

We’re so self-important. So arrogant. Everybody’s going to save something now. Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails. And the supreme arrogance? Save the planet. What?…Save the planet? We don’t know how to take care of ourselves, yet. We haven’t learned how to help one another. We’re gonna save the f#@%ing planet? . . . And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with the planet…it’s the people are f#@%ed! …the planet is doing great. It’s been here over four billion years . . . The planet isn’t going anywhere, folks. WE ARE! We’re going away! We’re going away…

Pretty tough stuff, isn’t it? I’ve included the entire bit here, and I can guarantee you that, regardless of your political persuasion, that at least some of it will make you very, very, very upset. That’s the job of the brave comic, and George Carlin was most certainly that. But I find a perverse hope in his words, which I’ll quote in full here:

I think that we’re part of a greater wisdom than we’ll ever understand. A higher order, call it what you want. You know what I call it? “The Big Electron.” It doesn’t punish. It doesn’t reward. It doesn’t even judge. It just is. And so are we. For a little while. Thanks for being here with me for a little while tonight. Thank you. Thank you.

And that’s all there is. The Empire will Autumn, and then it will die. The same is true for you, for me, and all of humanity. So does any of it really matter? Sure it does. Every last part of it. As any twelve step or self help guru will tell you: all we really have is now. So now is the time to get busy. Jean Paul Sartre once famously asked in his play No Exit:”What are you, if not your life?” Future generations (assuming there are any) may find tremendous fascination with our delusional and magical thinking – but we’ll finally be evaluated on our actions, not our fantasies. True national pride comes only with actions that match our mythology. Then, and only then, will we shed our imperial hubris. That’s when each of us can truly be Happy To Be An American.

David Berkson

October 21, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

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Orwell, Romney, and Afghanistan: The Curse of Liberal Schadenfreude

 

This piece was written prior to the October 3 presidential debates which featured a decisive win for Mitt Romney against President Barack Obama. The liberal blogosphere has responded predictably: Romney the Fop has become Machiavellian Mitt, a Shakespearean arch-villain preying upon the exhausted nobility of our embattled liberal hero. Why did the president fare so poorly in this first debate? There are two possible explanations, both of which may be true. The first is that Obama was busy doing his job while Romney had the luxury to prepare. The second  is that the president began to believe the increasingly derisive press around Romney (reflected in the piece below) and seriously underestimated his Republican opponent. If that is true, then Barack Obama may himself be a casualty come November, an unwitting victim of  the shallowness of liberal Schadenfreude.

DB

10/6/12

———————————————-

 

Mitt Romney has become our national Malvolio. It’s impossible to make a political joke without this man as the punchline. His ambition is naked, and his ivy league opportunism is so offensively noxious, that – well, it’s kind of hard not to make fun of him. And to be honest: if Romney loses the election (and the polls suggest he will) I’m sort of going to miss him. I suspect I’m not alone. If comedy is your business, Romney is a goldmine; the jokes pretty much write themselves. It’s not just that he’s an arrogant, over privileged, pretty boy millionaire. It’s that he seems to think that being an arrogant, over privileged, pretty boy millionaire is somehow normal. Stewart and Colbert barely need to write copy: they can just roll the tape, let Mitt talk, and let the Schadenfreude party commence. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have Eastwood thrust upon ‘em.

That said, I seriously hope that come November 7, we won’t have Mitt Romney to kick around anymore. Our national Twelfth Night must eventually come to an end. But when that happens, get ready for the hangover. It’ll be ugly. We will still be precipitously close to double-digit unemployment.  46 million Americans will still live in poverty.  Many of those Americans are, and still will be, children – one in five  kids, to be precise. We will still be at war with Afghanistan, the longest in American history. And the cash needed to deal with these problems will be in dangerously short supply: the United States government is currently in the red for close to $16 trillion, the largest deficit in American history.

If your politics are even moderately progressive, watching Romney self destruct is a liberal dream come true. But what are we going to do when this election is over? How will we regard the second term of Barack Obama? Will we continue to say that he’s inherited a big mess? That being president of the United States is really, really hard? Or will we hold him accountable? And if so, to what? What will the president feel that he owes the millions of Americans who will hopefully give him a second term?

The other day, I saw a posting on Facebook by a group that calls itself “Being Liberal”. I like these guys. Or that person. Or whoever it is that puts up the memes and the postings that preach to my chosen choir. This posting in particular caught my attention because the meme featured a picture of George Orwell, one of the most influential and important thinkers of any century. Here’s what the author of 1984 had to say:

War Against A Foreign Country Only Happens When the Moneyed Classes

Think They Are Going to Profit From It.

It’s a terrific quote. But Orwell’s words were not what caught my eye.

It was the explanation accompanying this clear and well-stated proposition, which appeared to need no help. (Seriously, if George Orwell can’t write clearly, then we’re all in serious trouble). Here’s how  “Being Liberal” makes the quote relevant:

George Orwell explains why Mitt Romney and people who pay for his campaign want to start a war with Iran.

 Well…

…putting aside the fact that when Orwell died Mitt hadn’t celebrated his third birthday, there’s a great deal that this commentary ignores. Sure, Romney’s rhetoric towards Iran is bellicose, obnoxious, and irresponsible. There is no doubt that he would be a disastrous commander-in-chief, far worse than the man who currently holds the job.

But the United States is at war. Right now. Why criticize an imaginary, future conflict, when there’s plenty to say about the one that we’re in right now?

Well…that’s a little awkward. Because Afghanistan is Obama’s war. No, he didn’t start it. But he has certainly embraced it with a surge, throwing behind it the full and mighty weight of his presidency. Now there’s an inconvenient truth. I mean, wasn’t that our whole deal with W? Wasn’t he an ignorant, bellicose warmonger? Didn’t we need to get him out of office so we could save American lives? Shouldn’t we be bothered by the fact that the American casualty rate in Afghanistan is much higher under Obama than it ever was under Bush? Well? Shouldn’t we?

Oh, the price we’ll pay just to keep our guy in office. C’mon people, it’s hard being president. There’s just a lot that we don’t know, and it took years, years to get us into this mess that we’re in right now. You can’t expect these problems to be solved overnight. Or even in four years. Just give the man four more, and you’ll see how well it turns out.

Mine Injury Victim in Afghanistan

Ok. But if I’m going to make that leap of faith, I’d better be clear about the facts. 1,650 Americans have died in Afghanistan since Obama took office. Compare that with the 463 who died there under Bush. ABC News reports that 15,786 American soldiers have been wounded in Afghanistan – 4,341 of them after the death of Osama bin Laden. And as of May of this year, the United Nations reported 11,864 civilians in that country have died in Operation Enduring Freedom – and that’s only between 2007 and 2011. George W. Bush was president for only one of those years.

The carnage is not limited to Afghanistan. President Obama aggressively employs drone strikes against Pakistan. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles. No American flyers means no American deaths. Perhaps that explains the no-American-outrage. Never the less, Stanford University and NYU School of Law just published a study titled Living Under Drones. For an academic analysis, it’s worded rather bluntly. Here’s how the report begins:

“In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.

 “This narrative is false.”

While acknowledging “It is crucial that the US be able to protect itself from terrorist threats, and that the great harm caused by terrorists to Pakistani civilians be addressed,” the report calls the effects of current U.S. drone practices “damaging and counterproductive.”

A read of CNN’s September 25 report makes it easy to see why:

Obama has already authorized 283 strikes in Pakistan, six times more than the number during President George W. Bush’s eight years in office…As a result, the number of estimated deaths from the Obama administration’s drone strikes is more than four times what it was during the Bush administration — somewhere between 1,494 and 2,618.

Gee, I wonder why all these Arab Muslims are so upset with America? Why do they hate us so much? Do they really have to be demonstrating now? Right before an American election? Don’t they realize how much worse things would be under Mitt Romney?

It turns out that Democrats were right: having “Hussein” as a middle name doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if you want to be commander-in-chief. Obama has prosecuted the war Bush started with far greater efficiency and ruthlessness than his lazy, incompetent predecessor. And just in case anyone forgot, we have John Kerry to remind us: “Ask Osama bin-Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago.”

idUSBRE87P01H20120907?videoId=237573937

Yeah! Who’s your daddy, now, Republicans? You want some of this? You wanna take on Obama? C’mon! Just see what happens! Bush couldn’t kill bin Laden, but Barack Obama did. So eat it, you red state wussies. And don’t even think about taking our lunch money again!

And so we can add Barack Obama to a long and distinguished list: Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson – all United States presidents who have left us their legacies of war. So we should probably lay off Obama. Right? It’s part of the job, isn’t it? Besides, it’s an election year. The race is going to be tight. And for God’s sake, please, please, please give us anybody but Mitt Romney.

I guess that’s the way it is. But as my former teacher, Bill Bigelow, used to say, that’s not the way it has to be. The October 21, 1967 anti-Vietnam War demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial drew 100,000 people, including Dr. Benjamin Spock and poet Allen Ginsberg. The demonstration was one in countless; millions of Americans participated in the anti-war movement throughout a period that lasted almost a decade. And for the protesters of ’67, it did not matter that President Lyndon Johnson was a Democrat. They were not willing to give him a get out of jail free card, even though he had championed and signed the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. No. These were Americans who believed that the war was wrong. And it was this issue, that commitment to the value of human life, that drove their political action. The anti-Vietnam War protesters certainly meant business: during the October 21 demonstration, 30,000 marched directly to the Pentagon; over 600, including Norman Mailer, were arrested.

Pardon my naïveté, but I don’t understand what makes this war better. Do you? And more importantly: if it were George W. Bush, or another Republican president, pursuing the same policies as Obama is now, how would you react? Would you support it? Ignore it? Wait for the election to be over and then do something? What does being liberal really mean?

One thing you can say about George Orwell: his commitment to democracy and freedom of expression went beyond partisan confines. The author of Animal Farm had no problem skewering Stalinism when many on the far left were giving it the “better than the alternative” argument. It’s impossible to guess what Orwell might say about the 2012 election. But it’s a pretty safe bet that he wouldn’t save all of his ire for the likes of Mitt Romney.

Oh, that Mitt Romney!  Here I’d forgotten all about him. Man, what a wanker! Can you believe the things that come out of his
mouth? Corporations are people! 47%! And the truth is, you sort of can’t help yourself. He’s like Malvolio: it’s like he’s inviting you to make fun of him. (An invitation which I’ve been all to happy to oblige.) And for those of us who lived through the nightmare Democratic campaigns of Mondale and Dukakis, there is something immeasurably satisfying about watching the likes of Clinton and Obama trounce upon the stewards of America’s far right.

And thus, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

But here’s the thing: if the goal is to just get Obama into office…if the president feels that he owes his “liberal” supporters nothing in the way of a commitment to worldwide peace and justice, then…who are we? And what have we become? And, more selfishly, how will the world’s grieving people react to America’s indifference to the wars we thrust upon them?

Let’s hope they won’t be revenged on the whole pack of us.

David Berkson

September 30, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

Survival Guide To The Republican National Convention

UPDATED 8/26/12

See bottom of post for inclement weather policy.

Sometimes pain can drive a man harder than pleasure. Surely you know that, doctor. Captain James T. Kirk

Thus, we turn our attention to the 2012 Republican National Convention. Of course, you aren’t going to watch it. And you know you probably shouldn’t.

And yet…

Amid the squalor of the empire’s final days, may we not discover the smallest traces of divinity, grace, and beauty?  “I can resist everything except temptation,” said Oscar Wilde, a man who most Republicans would burn in effigy – if only they knew who he was. Never the less, should you feel compelled to stare into the depths of the infinite Republican abyss, here is The Autumning Empire’s Survival Guide for the 2012 Republican National Convention.

PAT ROBERTSON’S TROPICAL STORM WARNING

The Lord has sent us a tropical storm! Hallelujah! His will be done! Unfortunately, this particular storm threatens the fate of thousands of white evangelicals now attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Florida. Brothers and sisters, listen to me, and remember: God does not punish Republicans. Rather, the Lord tests the faith of his beloved servants. You know, kind of like Job. Only different. And just forget all that other stuff I said about Hurricane Katrina being a punishment for America’s sins. Seriously. Forget about it. Now! The Lord works in mysterious ways. And throughout the infinite cosmos, and all of creation’s wonders, there is only one being who truly can truly understand the mysterious works of God: Me, Pat Robertson. So pray for our delegates. And God Bless America. And don’t forget to Vote Republican!

The Autumning Empire’s Survival Guide To The Republican National Convention

Sunday, August 26

7:46 AM  Wake up and learn that Tropical Storm Isaac’s approach means that the convention has been all but cancelled for Monday. Privately admit that you were actually looking forward to sitting in front of your TV and making fun of these hypocritical wankers.

8:12 AM Oh my God! It’s almost as if the storm is a….metaphor for the Republican convention itself!

Whoa.

814 AM  Wait, is that a metaphor or an allegory? Damn it! You never could get the two straight!

10:27 AM Read that the GOP is prepared to hand out umbrellas and ponchos to all the attending delegates. Man, it sure is comforting to know that if these guys are elected, they’ll know how to handle a natural disaster.

12:54 PM  Ok, wait, if the storm is a metaphor, then what does it actually stand for?  A metaphor actually has to stand for something specific, doesn’t it? Jesus, don’t you remember anything from Freshman English?

2:26 PM  Be struck with the profound hope that the entire convention will be cancelled, and Obama will run in November unopposed. Then ruefully remember what happened when you dared to hope four years ago.

3:03 PM  Wait a minute, what if the storm is a metaphor for Romney and the entire GOP?Which would mean that Florida is actually the United States. Or what if the whole thing is a metaphor for another Florida voting debacle in November. Or what if – you know what, THERE IS NO METAPHOR! Realize, finally, that English Humanities was a complete and total waste of time, and decide to call it a day.

Monday, August 27

1:58 PM Quickly use your work computer check in on the abbreviated proceedings while your boss isn’t looking. Admit that you are powerless over politics, that your life has become unmanageable.

2:00 PM  Hear the opening gavel reverberate ominously throughout eternity..

2:17 PM  Experience a massive wave of relief that, due to a change of schedule, The Oakridge Boys will not be singing the national anthem.

2:19 PM  Explain to your boss that this is a “sort of trying a new marketing strategy.” Experience Kafkaesque anxiety that perhaps he is a Republican, himself. Is he? It’s possible For Josef K, it was always so hard to tell.

2:20 PM  Listen to Chairman Reince Priebus’ sage and judicious words about the safety of the delegates before he wisely adjourns. Realize that if these elitist Republican wankers had shown the same concern for the people of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, history would have turned out a whole lot different.

Tuesday, August 28

5:45 PM  Express disappointment that Billy Crystal isn’t hosting this year. Ok, maybe not.

6:02 PM  Avoid the temptation to stifle your emotions through binge eating; resolve to snack only when a speaker utters the name of former president George W. Bush.

6:15 PM  Derisively scoff at the practice of nominating the president first, and the VP second. Where’s the build? Where’s the tension? Didn’t these people ever learn about a story arc? Well, given their hostility to public education, probably not.

6:18 PM Using a Hegelian framework, analyze this convention as a negative, yet necessary, mediative process through which the abstraction of the republic must pass through in order to become fully realized and concrete.

On second thought, just keep making jokes at the expense of the speakers, and tell yourself that you are much, much smarter than those who are about to take control of your country.

6:30 PM  Boy, this role call thing sure is taking a long time. Even though no one’s mentioned W.’s name, maybe you’ll do a little snacking after all. Eating a whole bag of Smart Popcorn isn’t binging. Is it?

7:00 PM  Throughout David Brooks’ balanced yet incisive analysis, take a nice long trip to the bathroom. Preferably one outside of your home.

7:48 PM  Fall under the hypnotic spell of John Boehner’s orange, shiny forehead.

8:07 PM  Suck the nectar of Mike Huckabee’s sugar honey’d words as a weasel sucks eggs.

8:09 PM  Hope for an appearance by Ryan Seacrest, who would bring this ironic spectacle back from the brink of armegeddon into the safe and comfortable bailiwick of camp.

8:21 PM  Oh! Now you get it! That’s where they came up with the term: “santorum”.

8:23 PM  Wonder if the second night of the convention was important enough to pre-empt PBS’s Tupperware! American Experience.

8:36 PM  Choke on your pretzel upon realizing that Bobby Jindal is nothing more than a life sized marionette.

8:43 PM  Be pleasantly surprised at the GOP’s efforts to “reach out” to Latinos; ignore the nastiness of its unprecedented attacks on immigrants. And whatever you do: don’t think about Arizona.

8:51 PM  Wow. That’s Chris Christie? You were expecting someone more…more…oh, never mind.

8:52 PM  Turn off TV early; look for that bag of Peanut M&Ms.

Wendesday, August 29

 7:30 PM  Admit it. This is worse than you thought. Much worse.

7:32 PM  Stare at the new bought bag of Halloween candy from Wallgreens, and realize that it probably won’t help. Oh, well…since you already bought it…

7:36 PM  Take comfort from the fact that Ulysses S. Grant was a Republican. He wasn’t so bad, now, was he?

Oh right. He was.

7:42 PM  Wonder how even a Republican can stand the grating monotony of Mitch McConnell’s voice.

8:03 PM  Hey! John McCain! You used to sort of like that guy. Until you listened to what he actually had to say.

8:04 PM  Notice the cutaway of Sarah Palin grinning in the audience. Well, now! Don’t you have a thing or two to say about her!

8:05 PM  Find yourself wishing that they’d do more Sarah Palin cutaways.

8:06 PM  Damn it, it doesn’t matter what she looks like! Sarah Palin’s evil! You’re not about to “like” her on Facebook!

8:06 PM  Ok, you can just block her postings on your newsfeed. Or better yet, just read them ironically. That’d be ok, wouldn’t it?

9:02 PM  Hey, how come all these photos are of Sarah and Todd? How come there aren’t – oh! Commercials are over! What did you just miss?

9:03 PM  Switch over from PBS to Fox News. Never mind, turn it back, turn it back, turn it back!

9:04 PM  Put two and two together as Britt Hume drools every time someone says, “Paul Ryan”.

9:07 PM  Look at Ryan. Remember when the scariest Republican out there was Dan Quayle? Where the hell is he? Somebody bring him back! Now!

9:13 PM  Jesus, what happened to all the Wallgreen’s candy? There’s no way you could have eaten it already. Is there?

9:14 PM  Wonder why Paul Ryan is saying: “If I can not inspire love, I can cause fear!”

9:17 PM  Nod your head approvingly as Ryan advocates for less government control. Now scratch that same head as he calls for complete control over women’s bodies and reproductive rights.

9:29 PM  Understand that even though you may disagree with Paul Ryan, he is a rising star in the GOP, who is a disciplined, far reaching political theorist. Wait, you didn’t actually think that. It was Fox News thinking it for you.

9:31 PM  Pass out on the couch in a sugar-induced stupor. Dream of a world with candy…lots and lots of candy…

Thursday, August 30

7:24 PM  Skip dinner. Get right to the good stuff. Eat the brownies over the pan; you won’t spill crumbs on the carpet.

7:30 PM  Tune out the now familiar opening ceremonies and contemplate the looming horror of history’s iron boot.

8:04 PM  Hey, with a little more eyeliner, Marco Rubio could look exactly like Billy Zane in Titanic!



Can you tell the difference?

8:14 PM  Standing ovation for Mitt Romney.

9:14 PM  Romney’s speech begins.

9:26 PM  Be pleasantly surprised that the Republican nominee has devoted twelve minutes of his speech to address the crisis of American poverty.

Yeah. In your dreams, America.

9:27 PM  In a dramatic, hallucinatory flashback, realize that it was Romney who brutally murdered your parents and made you live with the Dursleys.

9:28 PM  Slap hand to forehead as Romney proposes that America become more reliant on fossil fuel. Wow! How come no one ever thought of that before?

9:29 PM  Pace the floor. Contain your anxiety. Are Romney and Obama really at a dead heat? Really? Really?

9:31 PM  Realize that Mitt Romney has spoken for thirteen minutes without uttering a single verb.

9:35 PM  Tell yourself that Romney would be a warmonger. Conveniently forget that President Obama ratcheted up the war in Afghanistan, legalized indefinite detention, and broke his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Just shut up about Obama, ok? He inherited a big mess! What! Do you want Romney to be president? Well? Do you?

9:37 PM  Gasp in horror as you realize that Miit Romney’s hair product is Soylent Green

9:42 PM  Raid the freezer in the basement and stuff your face with Otis Spunkmeyer frozen chocolate chip cookie dough. Anything to mitigate this growing sense of panic! Maybe the brainfreeze will make it better.

9:45 PM  Dear God, Romney’s still talking! What the hell left is there to say?

9:46 PM  Call your mother and scream at her. That’s right! Scream! She’s the one who ruined your life! She’s the one who has to pay!

9:47 PM  Call 911! Romney could be our next president! Someone has to do something! Now! Also, mom was kind of surprised by your call; she might have fallen and injured herself.

9:48 PM  What do you mean the police can’t stop him from being elected? What about the fire department? How about the National Guard?

9:49 PM  Realize that nuking the Resurrection Hub would have been highly, highly advisable.

9:52 PM  Turn your head away as Romney removes the rubber mask. Don’t look at it! Shut your eyes, Marion! Don’t look at it, no matter what happens!

9:53 PM  Gape in horror as the Romney and Ryan families storm the stage. This is the Zombie Apocalypse. Lock all the doors and board up the windows. Time to get ready for the long haul.

10:00 PM  Turn of the television, and realize that this is what’s left of the party of Lincoln.

And cry, beloved country.

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INCLEMENT WEATHER POLICY

The Autumning Empire is is an educational website. Like all educational institutions, we don’t plan ahead for bad weather, scramble at the last minute, and ask that you rearrange your life accordingly. If it’s good enough for my son’s grade school, it’s good enough for me. For your convenience, we will provide updates by 6AM, PDT every morning until the convention has reached its dark and apocalyptic conclusion. We realize that you have many options when shopping for conventional support; thank you for choosing The Autumning Empire.

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