Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dennis Anderson to Host Town Hall Meeting in Woodstock

Dennis Anderson, a Democratic Party candidate for Congress in the new 14th Congressional District, will host a town hall meeting in Woodstock on Wednesday, August 1 from 6 to 8 PM at the Woodstock Public Library, 414 West Judd Street.

The meeting will cover a variety of issues including the role of the Federal government, the economy, and healthcare.

Town Hall Forums are not a new concept.  They originate in colonial America.   The first meeting of voters occurred in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1633.  Although a New England phenomena, Thomas Jefferson once called them the “wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of government.”

However, town hall meetings have fallen into decline.  In Illinois, Township governments are required to hold one each year to adopt a budget and conduct other business.  In the smallest townships, election of official are still conducted at the meeting, although conventional elections have generally replaced that part of the agenda. 

In recent years they have become a favorite of campaigns.  Elected officials and candidates alike, during election years, hold a series of town halls designed to talk about issues with voters.  In recent years, they have drawn the most extreme elements of both parties, who have seen it as an opportunity to assail members of the political opposition.

The Anderson campaign is hoping to return the Town Hall meeting to a thoughtful discussion of issues between candidate and the voting public and avoiding, if possible, shallow posturing and theatrics.

Sounds like a good idea to me.  Join Dennis tomorrow if you agree.

 For more information regarding the Town hall, or to RSVP, contact the campaign office at (815) 444-0305.  And visit http://www.dennisforcongress.com/

Defoe in the Stocks

A 19th Century engraving of Defoe in the Stocks

Daniel Defoe is best remembered as one of the inventors of the English novel.  Robinson Crusoe was once a must read adventure for any boy back in the quaint days when boys read books instead of slaying zombies on an electronic device.
But the English writer had a long career before turning to fiction, dabbling in religious dissent, English politics, court intrigues, and what occasionally passed as sedition.
He was born in St Giles-without-Cripplegate parish in London about 1660.  The exact date is unknown because parish records were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.  That exciting event had the upside of ending the Great Plague of the year before by killing or chasing away the rats that caused it.  Defoe survived both calamities, as he would the attack of the Dutch fleet on Chatham in 1667.  His mother died when he was about ten, so his childhood was marked with unusual drama.
He was groomed by his father as a Dissenter for the Presbyterian Ministry.  Despite his interest in religion and his support for the plight of his persecuted co-religionists, Defoe opted for a career as a merchant dealing hosiery, general woolen goods, and wine.  He was moderately successful, but often attracted attention for the labors of his pen.
In 1685 he became embroiled in the Monmouth Rebellion against the assumption of Catholic James II to the throne.  When that was crushed he was saved from the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys in which 320 people were condemned to death and around 800 sentenced to be transported to the West Indies by obtaining a pardon through some political connections.
Defoe naturally became an eager supporter of William of Orange when he invaded England in 1688 and regained the Crown for the Protestants.  He rose in prominence as one of William III most vocal public defenders, and was rewarded by lucrative appointments as a tax collector in addition to being secretly funded out of the King’s private purse for his political pamphleteering.
He went into over dive in support of the King’s establishment of a standing army in preparation for war with France and satirical attacks on xenophobic complaints that the King was not really English
When William died in 1702 the crown slipped into the hands of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart dynasty who sided with the emerging Tories in purging William’s “foreign” policies and supporting the Established Church by the suppression of dissenters.  That was Defoe on two counts.
After he published the satirical pamphlet The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church in 1703 he was slapped in irons and brought before the notorious Judge Salathiel Lovell at the Old Bailey who sentenced him to a punitive fine, to public humiliation in a pillory, and indeterminate imprisonment until the fine was paid.   Before he could be put on public display, Defoe managed to smuggle out of prison a poem, Hymn to the Pillory, which was circulated as a broadside and stirred up public sympathy for his plight.
On July 30 Defoe was placed in the Stocks where an amused mob was expected to pelt him with rotten vegetables, dung, offal, admixed with the occasional stone.  Instead, legend has it, that Defoe was pelted  by flowers and that drinks to his health were numerous, and often shared with the prisoner.
Some scholars doubt the absolute truth of the legend.  Others support it.  It became widely celebrated anyway.  Defoe lived a dream of many dissenting writers and activists of all ages—a mild martyrdom followed by public adulation.
After three days in the Stocks, he was taken to Newgate Prison.  It looked like his residency there would be prolonged since he had no way to discharge the heavy fines against him.  Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford a leading Tory, however, saw Defoe’s potential usefulness.  Not only did he broker his release from prison, he helped pay some of Defoe’s substantial personal debts as well.  In exchange, the writer went into the “private service” of Harley, and by extension, the Queen.  He became, essentially, a secret agent and paid propagandist.  
Before taking up his pen for his new employers however, Defoe survived yet another disaster, Great Storm of 1703 which damage to London and Bristol, and uprooted millions of trees and killed over 8,000 people.  His account, The Storm, is sometimes regarded as the mother of modern journalistic reporting encompassing eye witness accounts, scientific analysis of the event and is causes, and documentation of damage and deaths. 
Defoe really proved his value to the Tories when he came to the defense of the Act of Union which consolidated the English and Scottish crowns and essentially created a new, united nation.  Defoe published, edited, and wrote most of a new periodical, The Review, which became the unofficial mouthpiece of the government.  In 1709 he had a thick tome, The History Of The Union Of Great Britain in Edinburgh in defense of the Union to skeptical Scots.
As a well known Presbyterian, he became an emissary to the Calvinist Church of Scotland whose ministers were leery of being supplanted by the established English Church.  He became an official emissary from them to the English government.  They never suspected that he was a paid agent.
By now supple in response to shifting politics, when Queen Anne died and the Whigs rose to power in 1714 under George I and the new Hanoverian dynasty, Defoe seamlessly transformed his allegiances back to his former allies and continued to work clandestinely for the new government, often by posing as a Tory with outlandish opinions.
Defoe drifted away from polemics in the later years of his life.  Not only did he turn to novels like Robinson Crusoe and  Moll Flanders, he also published a ground-breaking travelogue that also doubled as an examination of the commerce, trade, and economy of the united realm, A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain and several nonfiction works on a wide variety of topics.
In his lifetime Defoe is thought to have authored more than 300 books and pamphlets and used a known 198 pen names.
Despite his successes he died while hiding from creditors at on April 21, 1731 at about 71 years of age.  A pretty long run for a guy with a penchant for disasters and intrigue.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ike Goes Where the Founders Wouldn’t

The crest of Cold War and Anti-Communist hysteria may have passed by July 30, 1956, but there was still plenty of residual energy.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, signed a bill that designated the words “In God We Trust” as the official Motto of the United States.  

The year before Congress had acted to require that the phrase be put on all coins and bills. 

Of course the U.S. had a de facto motto which had long been included on coins and currency—E Pluribus Unim, usually translated “out of many, one.”  That phrase was approved in 1792 for the Great Seal of the United States.  It did not satisfy fervid religionists.  

Indeed the Great Seal itself, which was filled with Masonic and Deist symbolism without a hint Christian piety, had been a bone of contention since the first struggles over the proper role of religion in the Republic.  The largely Deistic founders had purposefully omitted any referenced to God in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was silent on the subject except to prohibit Congress from the “establishment” of any religion or interfering with the religious observances of its citizens.  Practical men with a knowledge of history, they were concerned lest a favored religion or a defined heresy create civil discord and perhaps civil war. 
Washington and Jefferson occasionally invoked a vague Deity, most often referred to Providence, Nature’s God, or sometimes the God of Creation, all common Deist constructions for an original moving force of the Universe.  They avoided terms like the Lord God which invoked the patriarchal deity of the Old Testament and never invoked Jesus Christ. 

John Adams, a true product of the Puritan tradition as it evolved eventually into Unitarianism, firmly believed that organized religion was necessary to constrain the “passions” of an innately sinful humanity.  Moreover he was politically indebted to the support of the Black Legion—the clergy of the New England Standing Order—against “atheistic” Jeffersonian Republicanism.  Yet even he resisted considerable pressure to inject explicitly Christian prayer, practice, and symbolism into official use. 

A complex battle between the evolving movement of Evangelical Protestantism and republican secularism see-sawed back and forth for the first decades of the nation’s existence.  Some compromises were unofficially reached, but on the whole the government remained resolutely secular, nor were Presidents even expected to make personal religious declarations.  

During the crisis of the Civil War, however, President Abraham Lincoln needed the fervent support of the Protestant clergy, particularly its avidly abolitionist voices.  Not a personally “saved” Christian, and deeply influenced by the Founder’s secular Deism, Lincoln non-the-less was a student of the Bible as literature and was adept at echoing its cadences and invoking powerful Biblical language in his speeches.  But he was always being pressed by the clergy to make more overt religious statements.  

It was in this context that Lincoln called for national days of fasting and Thanksgiving.  He also undoubtedly approved when his Treasury Secretary, the devout Salmon P. Chase, first directed the Mint to inscribe the words “In God We Trust” on a two cent coin issued in 1864.  The approbation of the preachers far outweighed the slight protests of Freethinkers and over the next decades most—but not all—coins added the phrase as they were re-designed.  

Government issued Greenback currency, however, contained no religious declaration, just a practical promise to pay the bearer in specie upon demand.  

And so the situation stayed until the dawn of the Cold War.  Then Catholics, who had long been reluctant to join with Protestants in any religious demands on the government because they assumed, quite rightly, that the Protestants would insist on narrow language that excluded Catholic worship, became particularly alarmed at the rise of “atheistic Communism” and the suppression of Catholic worship in the new Soviet Satellites in Eastern Europe.  Leading anti-Communist Prelates launched a campaign to require “In God We Trust” on currency as well as all coins and to make it an official motto.  

Federal authorities, who were eager to use those same Bishops to influence the heavily Catholic industrial working class against “Communist infiltration” of the labor movement, were more than glad to add religious arrows to their crusade against Reds.  

When leading Protestant Evangelicals fell into line, the movement in Congress became irresistible even to those who were squeamish.  What Congressman wanted to be painted as voting against God?  

Controversy over the motto and its use on currency and coins has never gone away.  Church and state separation advocates, civil libertarians, and increasingly vocal atheist activists have repeatedly challenged the motto and its use on coins and currency in court.  And just as routinely have lost. 

In the case of Aronow v. United States in 1970, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, “It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.”  The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.  In another case The Supreme Court upheld the motto in because it has “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”  

With public support of continued use of the motto on coins and currency standing at 90% in a 2003 Gallup Poll it does not appear that the phrase will be going away any time soon.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Four Years Ago in Knoxville—A Shattered Sunday Morning

Sunday morning impatiens.

Periodic shooting outbreaks and mass killings have become a feature of modern American life.  It is already a cliché that they shock us, but no longer surprise us.  Unless we are tethered to the event by ties to the victims, geography, or some other accident, our grief and outrage fade after a day or two and we resume our lives puttering away at the mundane until the next horror grabs our fleeting attention.
The carnage last week in Aurora has perhaps lingered longer than others if only because it is coupled in our imaginations with a cultural icon—the latest Batman movie—and the queasy feeling, if we pass our time occasionally in similar cinema multiplexes, that it could have been us.
But the Olympics are on, and after that the political conventions.  The kids will be going back to school and, hey, the summer is slipping away.  We are already, as they say on television “moving on.”
Of course if we do have that personal connection, perhaps we have not given it up quite so casually just yet.  And in this world since we are, it is alleged, only separated by six degrees from any other mortal, many of us stumble into some unexpected connection.  It turns out that one of several young men who died in that Colorado movie house protecting his girlfriend with his body, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class John Larimer, was from here in Crystal Lake, Illinois.  At 27 he was just a year younger than my youngest daughter and although they went to different high schools they must inevitably had some mutual acquaintances.
And after a memorial at church yesterday for my friend Roger Schiller, who did not die in a hail of bullets buy is dead just the same, I heard Rich Strong, who came from Colorado to play mandolin with his father Chris, say that he lived minutes away from the theater and that one his students was among the dead and another gravely injured.  So, unexpectedly, I was once again in the broad loop of that tragedy.
One eruption of mayhem I feel a particular kinship to occurred four years ago this last week on July 27, 2008.  As these things go, it was not a major event.  They body count was low—only two dead and a handful injured.  If it were not for the somewhat unusual location of the shooting, it would have received no notice at all outside of Knoxville, Tennessee.
It was a Sunday morning—and it is always a Sunday morning in my mind when I remember it, regardless of the exact anniversary date.  A sad, disgruntled man whose life was unraveling, walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church that bright morning as children from two local congregations were getting ready to present their summer program, an adaptation of the sunny, iconic musical Annie.  He removed a shotgun, primitive weapon compared to the high powered ordinance used in other killings, from a guitar case and began blasting away in the crowed sanctuary.  He kept firing until he was tackled and disarmed by congregants as others fled in terror leaving mangled bodies behind.
The killing spree turned out to be somewhat unusual in that it seemed to be motivated by something more than just a twisted desire for infamy base on a total body count of anonymous strangers.  The killer picked this church and the people in it.  He had a motive of sorts.  He wrote it down in a rambling manifesto that the police later found.  He believed that liberals had ruined his life.  And because he could not get to the politicians he especially despised, he sought to kill those who he thought  had elected them, the liberal members of the local Unitarian Universalist Church.  Of course it also turned out that his ex-wife had been a member and that he had once been a welcome guest.  So perhaps his political motivations were mixed in with other harbored resentments.
My connection to this little horror comes not because I knew the victims, although I knew people very like them.  It came because I was accustomed to spending my Sunday mornings in another UU congregation in Woodstock, Il.  And I had been at summer services where liturgy was jettisoned in favor of some interesting or compelling program put on by the lay members.  And what could be more interesting, compelling and just plain delightful than beloved children you know by their first names singing familiar songs.  I felt it could have been me collecting the fatal buckshot, that it could have been my church.
The children never got to sing their songs that morning.  They were shepherded out of the church and away from danger.  But the next night when the whole of Knoxville seemed to gather at the near-by Presbyterian Church for a memorial service, they asked—no demanded—to sing their song.
Video of them singing that optimistic tune and of the whole assembly joining in moved me deeply. 
Naturally, I wrote a poem, which I read the next week in church and again on the first anniversary. 
It is on my mind this Sunday morning as well,
Knoxville: 7/27/2008 10:26 A.M

They are about to sing about Tomorrow,
            as fresh and delicate as impatiens in the dew,
            when Yesterday, desperate and degraded
            bursts through the doors
            barking despair and death
            from the business end of a sawed of shotgun.

Tomorrow will have to wait,
            Yesterday—grievances and resentments,
            a life full of missed what-ifs
  and could-have-beens,
  of blame firmly fixed on Them,
  the very Them despised by
  all the herald angels of perfect virtue—
  has something to say.

Yesterday gives way to Now,
            the eternal, inescapable Now,
            flowing from muzzle flash
            to shattered flesh,
            the Now when things happen,
            not the reflections of Yesterday
            or the shadows of Tomorrow,
            the Now that always Is.

Now unites them,
            victims and perpetrator,
            the innocent and the guilty,
            the crimson Now.

Tomorrow there will be villain and martyrs,
            Tomorrow always knows about Yesterday,
            will tell you all about it in certain detail.

And yet Tomorrow those dewy impatiens
will sing at last—
The sun will come out Tomorrow,
            bet your bottom dollar on tomorrow
            come what may…

How wise those little Flowers
            To reunite us all in Sunshine.

—Patrick Murfin