Monday, February 28, 2011

The "Texas miracle"

Texas Governor Rick Perry likes to run around the country to all the conservative gatherings and brag about all the "tough conservative decisions" that he has made in order to keep the state budget in surplus while allowing the state to weather the storms of the recession. It's all a lie, of course. The state actually has a budget deficit of close to $30 million, and it will be extremely hard for Perry, like other Republican governors I might mention, to scapegoat public sector unions in Texas for the state's fiscal problems, since, essentially, there aren't any. At least none that have any clout.

The conservatives who run our state talk about Texas as a model of small government and, in this at least, they do not lie. Let's take a look at some of the things that "small government" has given us:

- Texas ranks fifth in child poverty among the 50 states.
- It ranks first in the percentage of children without health insurance.
- The high school graduation rate is 61.3% which ranks 43rd out of 50 states.
- We have the highest teenaged pregnancy rate of any state.
- While Perry likes to boast of low taxes, in fact taxes on the bottom 40% of the population, those who can least afford it, are actually above the national average.

These are shameful statistics and you would think that a government with any compassion for its citizens would be working 24/7 to try to find solutions to the problems, and you would be right, of course. But "compassion" is not in the vocabulary of Texas government officials and hasn't been since the time that former Governor George Bush dubbed himself a "compassionate conservative." Even then, while it may have been in his vocabulary, he didn't really know the meaning of the word and it never actually showed in his actions.

No, our present state governor and other elected officials are all about closing the budget gap and how do you suppose they are going to do it? Silly question! They'll do it by depriving the most vulnerable, of course, just like they always do. They are proposing deep spending cuts in Medicaid, the program that provides medical care for many of the state's children, and cuts to education which may result in 100,000 layoffs, meaning even lower quality education.

As Paul Krugman asked in his column today, "What's supposed to happen when today's neglected children become tomorrow's work force?"

I'll tell you exactly what will happen - they won't be able to cope. They are already not able to cope, and the future can only get worse as our self-proclaimed deficit hawks eat that future by shortchanging our children today.

The best investment that we can make in the future is for better health care, better nutrition, and better education for today's children. Our benighted state government would prefer to make their investments in increasing the profits of Big Oil and their other high-income cronies.

Poor Texas. Poor Texas' children.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin: A review

The "naming of the dead" is a ritual often performed after some tragedy in which people have been killed. The names of the dead are read out in public ceremony as a way of remembering their lives. Inspector John Rebus, Ian Rankin's creation, feels that that is what he does in his murder investigations - he names the dead, excavates their lives, and makes sure they are not forgotten.

The Naming of the Dead is the penultimate tale in Inspector Rebus' saga. Soon he will be forced to retire and give up the job which is the only life he has. It won't be a minute too soon for his superiors at Lothian and Borders Police.

In July 2005, Edinburgh was a buzz of activity as it readied itself for the G8 conference to be held there. The most powerful people in the world would be meeting to decide the fate of much of the world for the foreseeable future. Police officers from all over the country had been commandeered to provide security for the event. They came from as far away as London to make sure that nothing went wrong.

It seemed that the only nonessential policeman, the only one whose presence was not required to keep the peace around the bigwigs, was John Rebus. Once again his superiors appeared to be sending him a message: You're not needed. You're not wanted. Pack it in.

Of course, Rebus has a tin ear when it comes to such messages. He just doesn't hear them and he goes on his way, doing his job just the way he has always done it. His way.

Much as his superiors do not want him involved, when one of the delegates to the G8 falls to his death, Rebus is the only officer left at the station to take the call and thus he becomes involved in investigating a high profile death, the very thing his boss hoped to avoid.

Meanwhile, his colleague Siobhan Clarke is investigating the death of a rapist which means that soon Rebus is involved in that investigation as well. Then Clarke's parents, aging hippies, come to Edinburgh to participate in demonstrations in regard to the G8 and, in the melee, her mother is assaulted, possibly by a policeman. Siobhan is determined to find the culprit and bring him to justice.

All of these disparate stories intertwine and interconnect as they have a way of doing in a Rankin tale, and the conclusions to the stories were not quite what I had expected. Although I've read all the Rebus stories, in order, through this one, Rankin still has the capacity to surprise me.

What will happen to Rebus when he is finally forced to leave his job, the job for which he has sacrificed all of his personal life? Who will "name" him when he loses the only life he has? It will be interesting to see how Rankin handles this. Perhaps he will surprise me once again.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The big shoot-out between Utah and Arizona

Remember the shock, anger, and revulsion that we felt when the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several of her constituents, including a child, took place in January? The shooter used a Glock semi-automatic with which he was able to get off 31 shots in seconds before bystanders could subdue him.

You might think that that event in Tucson would have made Arizonans leery of guns. And, furthermore, you might think that the Arizona legislature would have a very full plate considering the budget crunch, the unemployment rate, and the health care crisis in the state. Silly you!

It turns out that in spite of everything that has happened Arizonans still worship at the altar of the gun and their legislature is never too busy to spend time honoring that religion. They are all set to take time away from working on solutions to the above-mentioned REAL problems to designate the Colt Single Action Army revolver as the "State Gun."

I guess we should just be grateful they didn't choose the Glock. Frankly, it wouldn't have surprised me if they had, considering that legislature's track record.

In this action, Arizona is in an old-fashioned western shoot-out with Utah to become the first state to designate an official state gun. The Utah legislature has already passed its bill to designate the Colt .45 as its state gun, and apparently the governor is all set to sign it into law. So, unless it can find a way to speed up its legislative process, it looks like Arizona is going to lose this shoot-out.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Thursday three

Here are three stories that are bouncing around in my head on this Thursday:

1. Do you watch the Sunday morning news talk shows on network television? Admittedly, I don't. I gave up on network news in all its permutations quite a few years ago. But I do read about the shows and what I've noticed in reading about them is that the people they have on as guests are almost exclusively Republicans and almost exclusively extremely conservative. I'm not the only one who has noticed this. Paul Krugman, for one, has taken note of it and he's a sometime panelist on one of those shows - I'm not sure which one. He's written in his blog about the disparity in political philosophies represented by guests on the shows. But the most glaring example of that may be this: The biggest domestic news story at the moment is what is happening in Wisconsin - the protests by unions and ordinary citizens and the Democratic senators leaving town in order to deny a quorum. So you would think that the networks would want to cover this story, wouldn't you? You would think that they might want to have a labor leader on to explain what folks are upset about or that they might invite a Democratic politician on to explain their side of the story. You would be dead wrong, of course. The networks will have three Republican governors on Sunday morning and no representatives from the labor movement.

2. Judith Regan is a pretty unsavory character in the publishing business - or actually, I guess she's out of the publishing business now, having been fired from all her jobs. Her name is back in the news today, though, with a story in the New York Times about an affidavit in a lawsuit that reveals that when she worked for Harper/Collins and was having an affair with the even more unsavory Bernard Kerik, she was instructed by one of the executives of Harper's parent company, News Corporation, to lie to investigators who were vetting Kerik for a possible appointment as Homeland Security Secretary in the Bush administration. The NewsCorp executive who encouraged her to lie? Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Network. Why am I not surprised?

3. My favorite story and the happiest story that I've read this week has to do with baseball. Spring training has started and in a few short weeks, the best game ever invented involving a ball and humans will begin its long season, and for six months every day will bring the satisfaction of a day graced by a baseball game somewhere. Baseball is a game of tradition and rituals and one of the most charming of these is the migration of the old players to the spring training camps each year. The old guys come back to the game they love to watch, to coach, to talk, and just to be there. The Times had a wonderful story about two of these old guys, former Yankees, the Yogi and the Gator, and their relationship. The Yogi, of course, is Yogi Berra, the Yankees' legendary catcher from the '50s and '60s. The Gator is Ron Guidry, a pitcher from a later era, who knew Yogi as a coach. Today, they are spring training companions. Yogi is getting on a bit in years and Guidry has taken on the task of being his driver and valet during their time in Florida. He wears a custom-made cap that bears the legend "Driving Mr. Yogi." It's all about friendship, comraderie, and that wonderful game, baseball. This story made me smile, maybe the only one that did all week.

UPDATE: Re story #1: Meet the Press has now announced that they will have labor leader Richard Trumka on Sunday - along with four Republicans.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The war against women and children - Phase 2

The House of Representatives voted 240-185 last week to defund Planned Parenthood and any other health care services provided through Title X. The Republicans pretend that this vote was to protect fetuses against abortion, but surely they are intelligent enough to know that Title X specifically prohibits funding for abortions.

The bill that became Title X was signed into law in 1970 by President Nixon, and its purpose is to provide contraceptive information and services, cancer screening, STD testing, screening for certain blood disorders, gynecological exams and community outreach. By passing the bill that outlaws funding for all those services, the Republicans are now seeking to actually block access to services that help prevent the need for abortions, thus making an increase in abortions more likely. Just what they say they want to prevent.

This is just one skirmish in the GOP's war against women and children. Yes, they've extended their war to include children, also, by trying to get rid of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. This is the program that provides nutritional assistance and information to poor women who are pregnant or nursing, as well as for their babies, thus contributing to better health for mothers and babies. But who cares about better health for women and children? Not the Republicans, obviously.

On yet another front in the war, you may remember that in South Dakota recently the state legislature tried to pass a law that would make it "justifiable homicide" to murder a doctor who had performed an abortion. After a great outcry from the people of South Dakota, that particular plan was apparently dropped - for the moment. I have no doubt that it will show up again because these people never give up on a bad idea.

And now, in Georgia, a legislator is floating a bill that would make it capital murder if a woman has a miscarriage. Yes, you read that right - a woman could face the death penalty if she has a miscarriage. I wonder how many women voted for the yahoo who thought this one up. I wonder if any of those women ever had miscarriages. Do you think they might be regretting their vote?

All across this nation, in state legislatures as well as at the national level, Republicans are doing everything in their power, no matter how crazy, to deny women access to gynecological health services of all kinds. At the same time, they are working toward having the idea established in law that when a sperm and an egg come together and a zygote is formed, that zygote is a citizen with all a citizen's protections and rights. (I guess the next step would be to declare that all zygotes are assumed to be MALE until they are born, because, you know, we wouldn't want to provide a citizen's protection to a FEMALE.)

Yes, "every sperm is sacred," as someone once sang in another context, and that makes every zygote sacred and it must be defended by all means available. But, little zygote, once you reach term and are expelled from your cushy life in the womb, you are on your own, baby! Don't expect any help from the Republicans.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Who's the worst president ever?

I am just old enough to remember when we used to actually celebrate two presidents' birthdays in February - Lincoln's and Washington's. Though neither man was perfect, there could be no real argument that each was deserving of a holiday in his honor. There quite simply would not have been a United States of America without Washington, and there would not be a 50-state union today had not Lincoln refused to yield and held it together through the sheer force of his determination to see that this experiment of "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" did not fail.

Somewhere along the way, though, the decision-makers determined that two presidential holidays in one short month were just too many and so they compromised on a date and combined the two into one. To add insult to injury, they called the holiday Presidents' Day and made it an amalgamation of honor for all presidents.

And yet there are some presidents - several, in fact - who do not deserve this honor, who do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with Washington and Lincoln, much less to share a holiday with them. An interesting article in Salon.com today, written by Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, explores the records of some of the very worst of these and speculates about who deserves the title of "Worst President Ever."

You need to read the entire article, but I can summarize it here by stating that the final argument comes down to James Buchanan and George W. Bush.

Buchanan, the president who immediately preceded Lincoln, was particularly inept at the job and seemed determined not to do anything that might actually steer the country away from the course that was leading it to civil war. In the end, he may not have been able to change the course of history and save the country from that wasteful and terrible war, but it seems that he scarcely tried.

Bush, of course, as we remember only too well, is the president who waged two long and bloody wars simultaneously, one of them totally unnecessary. He wrecked the economy with his disastrous tax cuts for the wealthy and his refusal to ensure adequate oversight of the financial institutions of the country. He did his damnedest to destroy the social safety net and let a major American city drown on his watch. His policies finally led us into the deepest recession since the Great Depression and, at the height of that disaster, he term of office ended, leaving his unfortunate successor to try to pick up the pieces and save the country.

LaFantasie seems to find little to separate these two presidents in their badness, but his conclusion is that simply because a hundred and fifty years have passed and we can see the final result of Buchanan's ineptitude and what it did to the country that we have to give the trophy of true horribleness to him. However, he does offer the caveat that when enough time has passed so that we can see the ultimate results of George W. Bush's willful subjugation of the government to the private profit-motive sector, history may decide to award the trophy to him. Personally, I'm ready to hand it to him right now.

Friday, February 18, 2011

We interrupt this blog...

We interrupt this blog for this important event:



Yes, it's the weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count and I'll be picking up my binoculars to count the birds in my yard. Why don't you join me by counting the birds in your area and entering your information on the website? It's fun, it's free, and the information provided can help ornithologists determine how to best assist our birds. If you enjoy birds, here's a way you can help them.

(You can follow my weekend bird counts at Backyard Birder.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Madison = Cairo?

Paul Ryan, the Republican congressman from Wisconsin, said today that it seemed like "Cairo has moved to Madison" in the wake of thousands of Wisconsinites taking to the streets to protest their union-busting governor's actions.

Hmmm...

So, if Madison = Cairo, then I guess that means that Gov. Walker = Mubarak and he should resign forthwith. Sounds about right to me!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Really super!

Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, in true tea party fashion, is attempting to destroy the rights of public employees in his state to collectively bargain. He has promised to call out the National Guard if necessary to enforce his draconian ideas. Hey, wait a minute! Aren't National Guard members public employees?

Well, anyway, if Walker expected wide support for his idea, he must be somewhat surprised at the reaction of Wisconsinites. Students have struck in support of their teachers, who are, after all, public employees, and today support for those employees came from another source. Current and former members of the Green Bay Packers, this year's Super Bowl champions, issued the following statement:

We know that it is teamwork on and off the field that makes the Packers and Wisconsin great. As a publicly owned team we wouldn't have been able to win the Super Bowl without the support of our fans.

It is the same dedication of our public workers every day that makes Wisconsin run. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. But now in an unprecedented political attack Governor Walker is trying to take away their right to have a voice and bargain at work.

The right to negotiate wages and benefits is a fundamental underpinning of our middle class. When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps ALL workers by raising community standards. Wisconsin's long standing tradition of allowing public sector workers to have a voice on the job has worked for the state since the 1930s. It has created greater consistency in the relationship between labor and management and a shared approach to public work.

These public workers are Wisconsin's champions every single day and we urge the Governor and the State Legislature to not take away their rights.


Well said, Packers. Now that's what I call really super!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Calling all bird geeks

For many birders in Canada and the United States, this is the week we have been anticipating for months now. In just a few days, we will begin one of our favorite citizen science projects, the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Every year on Presidents' Day weekend, thousands of birders across the continent, and across the ocean in Hawaii, take part in this four-day-long census of birds. It is a survey to find out just where the birds are at mid-winter and how they are faring. By this time, the migrants have settled in their winter homes but have not yet started their spring flight north, so this count can give a very good idea of numbers as well as the health of the bird population before it disperses to its breeding grounds.

This will be the thirteenth year that the count has taken place. It has grown substantially in the number of participants each year and ranks with the Christmas Bird Count in its popularity and importance in the birding community. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, and Bird Studies of Canada.

The great thing about this project is that it is fun, free, and open to anyone who wants to count birds and report them. Participants do not have to have any particular expertise in birds; they simply have to be able to observe and report. All they have to do is go to the GBBC website, sign in, give some information about the area they are censusing, and then enter information about what birds they saw. Participants can spend as little as fifteen minutes in observation, or if you are a real bird geek like me, you can spend as many hours of each of the four days that you can manage to squeeze in.

If you have any interest at all in birds, this is the citizen science project for you. Check in at GBBC and get ready to count. The information that you provide can be very helpful to the ornithologists who track the movements of birds and can be useful in planning ways to assist birds, who are facing challenges from every direction these days.

Be a bird geek! I promise it doesn't hurt at all.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

And our new president is...

The CPAC has spoken and the new president of the United States will be...wait for it...Ron Paul! Yes, the famously prickly, so-called libertarian congressman from Texas is the darling of these right-wingers. If they had their way, he would be moving to the White House tomorrow.

In their straw poll, Paul got 30% of the vote, which may not sound too impressive until you look at how the rest of the vote was divided:

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney: 23%
Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (who, frankly, I'd never heard of): 6%
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: 6%
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: 5%
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty: 4%
Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann: 4%
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels: 4%
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin: 3%
Radio talk-show host Herman Cain (Who???): 2%
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee: 2%
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum: 2%
South Dakata Senator John Thune: 2%
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman: 1%
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour: 1%
Other: 5%
Undecided: 1%

I find it interesting that the Sarah Palin wannabe, Michele Bachmann, actually got more votes than her idol. That may be due to the fact that Bachmann showed up at the convention while Palin snubbed them. One of the most exciting moments at the convention, however, was when a Sarah Palin impersonator showed up on the floor. She was immediately swarmed by starstruck right-wingers who thought she was the real thing. Most embarrassingly, this happened while Mitt Romney was delivering his speech which had, apparently, failed to hold the crowd's interest.

It's also interesting that neither Glenn Beck nor Rush Limbaugh showed up in the poll. Or perhaps they showed up as "Other."

The odious Haley Barbour did show up in the vote. Barely. He managed 1%. If this unreconstructed admirer of the White Citizens Council can only manage 1% of the vote at this lily-white gathering, I think his presidential campaign is probably over before it has begun.

Actually, the same could probably be said for the rest of these "candidates."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Timing is everything

You have to hand it to former New York representative Chris Lee. The timing of his sex scandal was impeccable, although I don't suppose he actually planned it that way. It happened at a time when everyone's eyes and ears were focused on events in Egypt. (Those few who weren't focused on Egypt were probably focused on the CPAC convention, but that's a blog post for another day!)

Gawker.com broke the story on Wednesday under the headline "Married GOP Congressman Sent Sexy Pictures to Craigslist Babe." He had represented himself to this "Craigslist Babe" as a divorced lobbyist when in fact he was a married congressman with children, and, most incriminatingly, he had sent her a picture of himself, topless, flexing his muscles. And really that seems to be all that happened. The two people had some flirtatious emails back and forth and he sent her the picture to prove that he wasn't "a toad" but this so-called sex scandal doesn't even seem to have involved any actual sex. On the scale of Washington sex scandals, it hardly even nudges the needle. Nevertheless, hours after the story broke, Congressman Lee resigned. It tends to make the cynics among us just the teeniest, tiniest bit suspicious that maybe there were other stories that hadn't yet broken that he was trying to forestall. But I'm probably just showing my jaded view of politicians, especially those politicians who loudly proclaim their allegiance to "family values." It seems that about 99.9 times out of a hundred, these guys are hiding something. Or trying to hide something.

Anyway, Lee may now be in the books as having had the fastest sex scandal on record in Washington. I certainly don't remember a quicker one. Usually, they drag on for months with charges and counter-charges, ad nauseum, and the politician being dogged by reporters everywhere he goes until he finally decides he needs to "spend more time with his family" and resigns in ignominy. Of course, it hasn't quite played out that way with two Republican senators, Vitter of Louisiana (of the diapers and prostitutes) and Ensign of Nevada (of the payoffs to his aide, the husband he cuckolded). They are both still serving (very bad pun intended).

The key may well be that many of those long-term sex scandals that we've come to more or less expect came to light in summer, during slow news periods. This one broke during a very eventful February. Like I said, timing is everything.

Friday, February 11, 2011

This is just the beginning

So the peaceful revolution of the Egyptian people has brought about its much desired result - Hosni Mubarak is no longer a part of their government. The man who has ruled autocratically, sometimes brutally suppressing his political enemies, for the last thirty years has left the capital and retired to his vacation home, handing over the governance of the country to the military. In many countries, the idea that the military would be in charge of the government would be a thing to be feared, but in Egypt, apparently, the military is loved and trusted by the people, and those who had taken to the streets are ecstatic at this outcome. Thus ends phase one of their revolution.

It's only the beginning, of course. In order for the people to get the democracy they so ardently desire, the government and the country must be totally transformed and that will take time. I heard a commentator on NPR today saying that it took 500 years from the signing of the Magna Carta for England to have something approaching a democracy and it took more than 200 years for the United States to go from a society in which only adult white males, many of them slave-owners, were considered to be full citizens, to a place where people of any race, creed, color, or sex might enjoy the benefits of citizenship. And still today, we deny the full rights of citizenship to some people. In light of our own history, we can hardly expect Egypt to transform itself overnight from an autocratic regime to a full democracy. Even with the best of will and intentions from all concerned, the road to democracy will be bumpy and it may have detours.

As many pundits have pointed out since the uprising began, Egypt is, in many ways, the linchpin of the Middle East. What happens there deeply affects all the neighborhood, and what affects that neighborhood has repercussions for the rest of us. But I don't think any of those concerns were on the minds of the people who demonstrated in the streets of Cairo and around the country over the last two-and-a-half weeks. They were simply seeking a more just society, one in which they and their families could have a decent life. I do most sincerly hope that their dreams are not thwarted and that they are able to achieve that end, no matter how long the process takes.

One thing is for sure - a country with a six thousand year history should know a lot about patience and it will take that patience to build the democratic society to which they aspire. Blessings on them in that effort.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir: A review

Having read several fictional accounts of the Tudor era, including Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and the Tudor mystery series by C.J. Sansom, I thought it might be interesting to get an actual historian's take on the period. Alison Weir is an actual British historian who has had an almost life-long fascination with that era and has written widely about it. This book, The Lady in the Tower, concerns the last four months of the life of the second of Henry VIII's six wives and Elizabeth I's mother, Anne Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn has, of course, been an iconic figure of great interest for historians, poets, playwrights, novelists, and, indeed, for ordinary people, virtually since her death by beheading in May, 1536. She was accused and adjudged guilty of treason against her king - specifically of having committed adultery with at least five men, one of whom was her own brother and of having conspired with them to kill the king. All five men were also judged guilty and beheaded. The truth of Anne's and the men's guilt has long been in question and has been debated endlessly over the last nearly five hundred years.

Weir explores and lays out the available evidence on the subject in her copiously footnoted and referenced work. Indeed, the first part of the book seems a rather dry recitation of the known facts about the events. She makes extensive use of the contemporary accounts and sources that are still available and she seems to scrupulously try to avoid leading or misleading the reader to one opinion or another.

In the end though, Weir makes clear that Henry, who was still married to Catherine of Aragon, had wooed Anne for six years while wrestling with the Church over trying to clear the way to marry her and who had now been married to her for three years, had by 1536 grown tired of her and was ready to put her aside. This could have had much to do with the fact that he had fallen in love - or perhaps in lust - with one of Anne's handmaidens, Jane Seymour, and now wanted to marry her. It also probably had much to do with the fact that Anne had failed to produce a male heir to the throne. A few months after their marriage, their daughter, Elizabeth, was born, and since that time, Anne had had three other pregnancies (four in all in three years) but all three had ended in miscarriages. At least two of the miscarriages and possibly the third as well had been male fetuses. Henry had become convinced that he would never have a son with her and he was ready to move on to someone with whom he might.

Henry's Master Secretary at this time, the man charged with making things happen for his king, was Thomas Cromwell, of whom Mantel's Wolf Hall was a sympathetic portrayal. Weir's examination of the evidence has led her to the conclusion that Cromwell, seeing what his king wanted, conjured a way to bring it to pass and, at the same time, to remove the influence of the powerful Boleyn family. Cromwell, once a Boleyn ally, had fallen out with the queen, and, in 1536, he himself was not in favor with the king. Perhaps he saw the gambit of removing Anne Boleyn as a way of killing two birds with one stone, so to speak - he would do away with a personal enemy as well as again ingratiating himself with the king by removing the impediment to the king's desired marriage. Weir makes a strong case that the evidence against Anne may well have been trumped up by Cromwell to achieve his aim.

We can never know the truth with 100% certainty, but we do know that Anne Boleyn, an unpopular queen in her lifetime, accepted her fate and went to the scaffold bravely, always denying that she had ever been false "in her body" to her king.

In a way though, Anne had the last laugh. Public opinion which had been against her began to turn, especially when the populace saw their king marry Jane Seymour within ten days of Anne's death. But the lady in the tower's ultimate victory was achieved through her daughter. In Elizabeth I, perhaps England's greatest queen, a Boleyn sat on the throne of the country that had seen the first Boleyn executed.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Here's one reason American students are falling farther behind

Honestly, I do not sift through the news each day looking for stories that will outrage me. Nevertheless, as I do my morning reading, they just jump right out at me and tend to spoil the rest of my day. Often, all I can do is shake my head at the utter and complete stupidity of some people. Like some of the parents of children in the Mansfield school district in Texas.

The Mansfield Independent School District had been offering classes in Arabic in a program funded by a federal Foreign Language Assistance Program grant. The classes covered not just the language but Arabic culture as well. This would seem to be a good use of the Foreign Language Assistance Program funds since federal agencies, including the military services, always have a shortage of Arabic speakers.

But then some 200 parents showed up at a meeting about the new curriculum and some of them were irate at the idea that their children might actually learn something about Islam. Apparently, they were terrified that this great and powerful religion would somehow seduce their kids into forsaking Jesus and following Mohammed. The school district caved to parental fears and put the language classes on hold for now. They say that they do not have "mandatory Arabic classes" but that some Arabic classes will be offered as electives while the district "gets more parental input."

I can just guess what that "parental input" might sound like.

How did we as a people ever become so unsure of ourselves and our culture that we are scared to death to even listen to a discussion of another culture or learn its language for fear we might be tainted or turned away from the "true path"? Do we really have so little confidence in our own influence over our children that we fear that exposure to new or different ideas will cause them to forsake us and everything we have taught them?

This is just a sad, sad story on many levels, but I really believe it is an indicator of why our school systems are failing our children. Parents simply will not stand for anything to be taught those children that might open their minds to ideas that the parents find abhorrent or wrong. Whether it is in the field of earth sciences, biology, social science, or even languages, if it is contrary to any of our beliefs and value systems, then it must be quashed. Our children must not hear of it.

And so our educational system stultifies and our children are unprepared to be citizens of the world, and our society slowly becomes an idiocracy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The war against women

Our new Republican Congress keeps telling us that their number one priority is jobs, but their every action gives the lie to that claim. First, it was revisiting the Affordable Health Care Law. Now they are pursuing their true first priority - seeking to reverse every gain towards equality that women have made in the last hundred years. While Republicans say all the right things, offering empty platitudes about women's equality, their agenda is to legislate women into second-class citizenship. This is true not only at the national level but in state legislatures all across the country.

Republicans are seeking to reverse, through legislative action, the protections of the Equal Pay Act. They insist that the law is no longer needed because the pay gap has all but been eradicated. This is blatantly false, but when were these bozos ever guided by facts?

The big guns of this Republican war against women, though, are trained at women's health issues, specifically reproductive issues. For example, they are doing their best to shut down Planned Parenthood, which is a health care provider - sometimes the only health care provider available - for low income women and men, providing contraception, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screening. The Republicans' argument is that they want to limit abortions, but abortions are a very small part (about 3 percent) of the services that Planned Parenthood provides.

Republicans are also trying to decriminalize violence against women. They wanted, in their H.R.3 bill, to redefine rape. According to their "new rule," it wouldn't be rape unless it was "forcible rape." Statutory rape of a child or rape involving incest where perhaps no actual force was applied would no longer be considered rape and would not be grounds for a woman or a child to receive an abortion to remove the fruit of that act. The Republicans left themselves wide open on this point and they were ridiculed mercilessly as they should have been. Apparently, they have now retrenched and dropped that language from their bill. This does not mean, however, that they are giving up. These enemies of women's rights never give up. They keep pushing and pushing and they will continue to do that until they have managed to reverse every single gain that women have so painfully made.

So, these are the believers in "small government." They believe that government should not regulate commerce to make it more fair; it should not inspect food and drugs to make sure they are safe; it should not provide any social safety net at all. It should keep its hands off everything. Except women's bodies. When it comes to those, government should be as intrusive as all get out, going right into the medical examination room with her and monitoring her conversation with her doctor. The hypocrisy is truly mind-boggling.

UPDATE: Apparently the House GOPers have not changed the language in their H.R.3. And the war continues...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Texas is being invaded!

They are spilling over our southern border by the hundreds. By the thousands even. More and more every day, Texas is being invaded by migrants from the south.

And this is just the first wave, the leading edge of an invasion that is only beginning. Over the next few months, these numbers will increase until every tree and hedgerow is alive with these invaders as they seek shelter after a long trip.

These first arrivals are already being reported by alert observers all over the state. Every day they are out there scanning for the first sighting of the first scout of the oncoming army.

What the observers are looking for is a flash of black, a dark body outlined against a winter landscape. Actually, the newcomers are most often heard before they are seen. A liquid warbling betrays their presence. The experienced observer hears that sound and looks up, searching the sky for its source, an adult male Purple Martin.

The Purple Martin Conservation Association maintains a website page for observers to report their first sighting and that page shows reports coming in, not just from Texas, but from all across the southern tier of states. The birds are coming in spite of the cold weather that still prevails in much of the area. These birds, who make their living catching flying insects on the wing, may find slim pickings as that cold weather keeps the insect population down, but somewhere in Brazil in January their biological clocks told them it was time to fly north and so they have come.

Purple Martins are among the most popular backyard birds in the country. Today's Americans continue the tradition started long ago by Native Americans of putting up housing for the birds. The birds have, in fact, become dependent upon the maintenance of this tradition. In the eastern part of the country, they now nest exclusively in human-constructed housing.

Not only are these birds favorites with many backyard birders, they are favorites of mine, as well. I always look forward to that first sight of purple-black wings against the winter sky, and February is the month for it here in Texas.

So, I'm out there with my ears wide open, listening for that first warbling sound, and my binoculars are at the ready, just like all the other besotted observers. I know the birds are in my area because they have already be reported by several spotters. Not by me though. Not yet. But I'll keep looking.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Will we be able to afford to eat in our brave, new world?

I was perusing the science pages of The New York Times as I do every week when I came across a story about a drought in China and a resultant rise in the price of food. As I read the story, it brought to mind similar stories that I have read in recent months. There have been a number of crop failures because of extreme weather conditions right around the world.

Climate scientists have warned repeatedly that the frequency of these extreme weather conditions is likely to increase as the earth continues to warm. They might as well be shouting into a hurricane. People simply are not listening. Perhaps when a loaf of bread goes for $100, it might finally get their attention.

There have already been food riots in various countries around the world. The current uprising in Egypt has been fueled, in part, by the fact that food has become more scarce and expensive and people are unable to feed their families. What will happen when that circustance becomes fact in this country? Most likely the right-wing demagogues will blame it on illegal aliens and will demand that we declare war on Mexico, while at the same time insisting that every citizen, including children, must purchase and carry a concealed handgun to "protect" themselves. Yeah, that'll fix it. But that is the kind of logic we've come to expect from the idiocracy that seems to hold sway in much of our country.

Commodity prices, in general, have surged in the face of the economic downturn that has been building over the last five years, and food prices actually were rather late in joining the party, as economist Paul Krugman points out in his blog. But now that they have and as the extreme weather events and resultant crop failures continue, we might expect that they will be the life of that party for some time to come.

All the more reason to get that backyard vegetable garden started this spring.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Heartstone by C.J. Sansom: A review

I admit it. I am a mystery series junkie. I enjoy nothing better than discovering a well-written mystery series with sympathetic characters that I can care about. I love following the development of the series and the characters. If it happens to be a historical mystery, then I have truly found nirvana. I might just OD.

Probably my favorite mystery series at the moment, and it does just happen to be historical, is C.J.Sansom's Tudor mysteries featuring the hunchback lawyer/detective Matthew Shardlake. Part way through the series Shardlake was joined by an assistant, Jack Barak. The two of them together make a very effective team, a team which exhibits a humanistic philosophy in what is, in many ways, the very inhumane society that was Henry XIII's England of the mid-1500s.

Heartstone
is the fifth book in the series and is one of the best. Of course, I think I say that about them all.

In this entry, we are nearing the end of Henry's reign. He is conducting a war of choice against France, a war that has financially devastated his country and caused the devaluation of the currency. It has also devastated the population with thousands of unnecessary deaths and disabling injuries. Still, Henry continues to draft more men into his army and navy, even hiring mercenaries from other countries to help fight his ill-conceived war. Much of this seems very relevant to our own recent history.

Henry's current wife is Catherine Parr who has been a friend to Shardlake, and he to her in the past. Now she sends for him and asks him to pursue a court case that had been initiated by a tutor against a former employer who he believed was mistreating and robbing his two rich wards. The tutor, who subsequently committed suicide under mysterious circumstances, was the much-loved son of a former servant of Catherine Parr. She and her former servant seek justice for the young man.

(As an aside, when Shardlake goes to meet with the queen, he meets the king's daughter, Elizabeth, who impresses him greatly. Foreshadowing, perhaps?)

Accepting the assignment will take Shardlake and Barak into the very teeth of what appears to be a planned French invasion of England at Portsmouth. They must travel some tortuous roads which are already clogged with military personnel and supplies also trying to get to Portsmouth. Along the way, Shardlake sees the misery and hardships of the recently conscripted soldiers and he sees the struggles and heartaches of the citizens whose labors are financing a foolish king's prideful venture.

While in the area, Shardlake plans to investigate another case, that of Ellen Fettiplace, a woman inmate of Bedlam whom he has befriended. Something happened to her nineteen years before that unhinged her mind and left her unable to face the world. Shardlake, that inveterate righter of wrongs, wants to find out what it was and free Ellen from the fear which has entrapped her.

Meantime, all Barak wants is to avoid being conscripted into the army and to get home as soon as possible to his beloved Tamasin who is expecting their child.

The plot with all its intermingled mysteries is too richly drawn to do any real justice to it in a brief review. Sansom, who is a lawyer with a Ph.D. in history, knows this period. The book is rigorously researched and the real-life characters that appear in it stay true to their historical facts of life. It is a big book with plenty of rousing fictional adventures, but it remains true throughout to its time and place. It is a very satisfying read.

And yet...

There is one quibble that I have with this book that just sets my teeth on edge! Throughout, Sansom, the lawyer and Ph.D, continually uses subjective pronouns as objects, as in "The red-faced soldier cursed Barak and I." Barak and I. Really? Does Viking have no editors? Have the rules of English grammar really changed so much since my elementary school days of diagramming sentences? Do children even diagram sentences any more? Would Sansom really write "The red-faced soldier cursed I?" Somehow I don't think so. Why then would he write "Barak and I" in that same context?

The misuse of subjective pronouns really is my absolute pet peeve in grammar, enough so that it caused me to give this five-star book only four stars. Please do better next time, Dr. Sansom!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hungry birds

The birds have been especially hungry this week and more of them are coming to the feeders. They've kept me busy making sure that all the feeders are stocked.

I haven't seen any unusual birds at my feeders this week. (Of course, with temperatures in the 20s and 30s, I haven't actually spent a lot of time outside observing.) I still haven't had any big flocks of White-winged Doves or any of the blackbird family, although I do get small numbers of the doves and the occasional individual Red-winged Blackbird. What I do get is unusually large numbers of my usual visitors.

I had to go into town at mid-day today and when I arrived back home in the middle of the afternoon, as we turned into the driveway, a large flock of perhaps as many as 200 American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins flew up from the black oil sunflower seed feeder near the driveway. Also, these little finches are now hitting the thistle seeds hard! For most of the winter, I could fill my thistle sock feeders and the seeds would last at least a week. Now, I'm filling the socks every day.

Late this afternoon, I went out to my backyard and startled a big flock of Northern Cardinals that were having their dinner at the feeders there. It's not unusual to see large numbers of these birds gathering to feed together at the end of the day, but this was a bigger number than I generally see - maybe twenty or more.

And so it goes all through the roll-call of backyard feeder birds. Their tribe has increased. Maybe they know that February is National Bird-Feeding Month!

Congress first established February as National Bird-Feeding Month back in 1994 on a resolution introduced by Congressman John Porter (R-IL). The first sentence of Porter's resolution proclaimed that this is "one of the most difficult months in the United States for wild birds." The reason for this difficulty will be clear to anyone who stops to think about it.

Birds typically enter fall and winter with an abundance of wild food provided by Nature, but as the weeks and months roll by, that supply of food is depleted. Finally, by the end of January and beginning of February, most of the food is gone just as we are entering a period when much of the country is experiencing its harshest winter weather. That combination can be a killer for high-energy creatures like birds who require a steady supply of food to keep themselves going. That's when their human friends can really come to the rescue with their backyard feeders.

Backyard bird feeding benefits even those birds who do not come to the feeders, because it reduces competition for the remaining wild food which they depend upon. Moreover, bird feeding is such a popular hobby, engaged in by more than one-third of the adult population of the country, that it has an economic impact as well. Somebody has to raise all those seeds and manufacture the suet cakes and pressed seed cakes, not to mention all those bird feeders and birdbaths. Yes, bird feeding is big business.

So, help the birds at this hungry and difficult time for them, as well as supporting your country's economic recovery. Feed the birds!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why does it always have to be about us?

Like much of the rest of the world I suspect, I've been following pretty closely the news reports from Egypt over this last couple of weeks. It's a fascinating story, just on the face of it - an apparently leaderless, unorganized popular revolt against the rule of an autocratic leader. But, more deeply than that, I admit to being an Egyptophile. The long history of that culture and its people is an amazing human story that has long held my interest. I've read quite a bit and studied some about the ancient history of the culture, the time of the pharoahs, right up through Cleopatra. Indeed, one of the books currently on my "to be read" shelf is Stacy Schiff's Pulitizer Prize-winning biograghy, Cleopatra: A Life.

The modern history of Egypt has, of course, been problematic on many levels and yet it retains its status as one of, if not the oldest continuous human societies on earth with all the gravitas and dignity that that conveys.

With all that long history to consider, when I read the news accounts or watch television or listen to radio accounts and analyses, I am struck by the fact that so many of the reporters and the analysts in American media make the story not about Egypt and Egyptians but about us. About America and Americans. Are we really so self-centered, so narcissistic that we can only see the rest of the world through the prism of our own selfish interests? Why does it always have to be about us?

A close second in the analysts' point of view is the importance of how all of this will affect Israel! How about how it will affect Egyptians? I don't really think that those people who are marching in the streets are thinking about the U.S.A or Israel, except perhaps very tangentially. They are thinking about a failing economy, a lack of educational opportunities for their children, no jobs to be had for many of them, and a government that seems remote and uncaring. Why is it so hard for many Americans, especially those among the "talking head" class of Americans, to see that?

I say "good luck" to the Egyptian man and woman in the street. May their revolution succeed and may it bring about the kind of democratic society that they envision and want for their future. It might not be a society that would have been envisioned by Ramses II or even Cleopatra, but I think they might look with pride at the courage and fortitude of their 21st century children who are demanding a government that they can respect and one that will protect universal human rights.

And when they get that government, then we can work out our relationship to it, but let it be a mutual effort, not one that is all about us.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Brrr!!!

As much of the country prepares for one of the worst winter storms in decades, one is led to wonder once again just what the heck is going on in the world of weather.

For example, I read a story in The New York Times recently that stated that while parts of the southern United States have had record snowfalls and cold this winter, 2,000 miles to the north in northeastern Canada and Greenland, it has been freakishly warm, both this winter and last. Their temperatures in December ran as much as 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. This has had an economic impact because bays and lakes have been slow to freeze and so ice fishing, hunting and trade routes have been disrupted.

What's going on here? Is this a result of global warming? Scientists warn that it is almost impossible to link a particular weather event to the larger issue of global warming, but it is very difficult for the layperson to believe that it is not somehow related. Theories about the effects of global warming have postulated that it could generate extreme weather events right around the world, and we certainly have seen some extreme events in the last twelve months, from the floods that devastated Pakistan and, now, Australia, to the Arctic chill that has descended on Europe and North America over the last two winters.

The immediate cause of our extremely cold weather seems to be that a pattern of atmospheric circulation that has in the past tended to keep frigid air locked in the Arctic has weakened considerably during the last two winters. The gate has been left open on the Arctic "fence" that kept the cold air in and that has allowed cold air to push far into the south, while at the same time warmer air has been sucked into the north. And the reason for this change MAY be that the ice on the Arctic Ocean's surface declined in September by more than 30 percent. Ice reflects sunlight, so when there is less of it the ocean absorbs more heat. That heat affects the atmospheric pressure and the circulation of air.

It's complicated and I certainly don't pretend to understand the half of it, but as we enter February with temperatures here in Southeast Texas expected to descend possibly all the way into the teens this week, we could wish that someone would find a way to shut and lock that Arctic "gate" once again.