SecDef intends to cut veterans benefits

cut veterans benefits: Randy June 1993

My husband, top left, spent 26 years flying special ops and combat search and rescue.

Dear Mr. Secretary:

In a Veteran’s Day message released last night, you said:

From the oldest veterans to the men and women currently serving our nation, all Americans who have served in uniform deserve the nation’s appreciation and respect on this uniquely special American Day [sic].

Turning out flowery phrases on Veteran’s Day is de rigueur for politicians, of course. But last week, in a keynote address at a forum sponsored by a prominent D.C. think tank, you told it straight: One of your top priorities is to cut troops’ and retirees’ pay and benefits.

Military.com reports:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Tuesday that troops and their families will be asked to sacrifice on pay and benefits to preserve readiness in an era of tighter budgets.

Hagel listed politically-charged changes to compensation and personnel policy as one of his top six priorities in reforming the military following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the department gears up to meet new challenges.

As a military wife of 26 years, Mr. Secretary, I agree. This country is in dire economic straits, and cuts to pay and benefits are needed–across the board. Sacrificing for this country is the military family lifestyle, and we’re ready to do it again.

But we take the lead in war–shouldn’t you take the lead here? Show us how it’s done, Mr. Secretary!  Cut your pay and your benefits until it hurts. Cut the President’s, and Congress’s, and the High Court’s. We are absolutely ready to follow your lead—but it’s time for you to lead.

This country made a promise to us, and we’ve depended on that promise in building our lives. Our end of the bargain was to give up safety, and sleep, and freedom from fear-as-a-constant-presence, and family birthdays and Christmases together and a whole host of other things—including many of our friends. When we were in our 20s, my husband wore out a uniform going to friends’ funerals. That’s a lot of funerals, Mr. Secretary.

We kept our end of the bargain.

And, in return, our country promised us the pay and benefits you want to cut.

As SecDef, you know that many junior enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines live near or below the poverty level. For years Congress has been trying to get the best military in the world–at a discount. A new E-1, for example, makes $18 thousand a year.

I drive past Joint Base Lewis McChord on a regular basis, Mr. Secretary–and past the slovenly motels hunkered along the freeway near the post gates. Why is the strip outside the gates so shabby? Because those are the places young enlisted families can afford to stay as they PCS on or off post. If this Administration truly cares for the poor, why are you talking about cutting their pay and benefits?

And then there are those of us at or near retirement age. We’ve made our retirement plans based on the benefits our country promised us. We don’t have a Plan B, Mr. Secretary, because we trusted our country. An honorable government keeps its promises, especially to the people who put their lives on the line at the President’s command.

Many of us could have made more in the private sector, but we chose duty, honor, country. I respectfully suggest you do the same, Mr. Secretary. It is our duty, and our honor, to give self-sacrificing obedience. It is your duty, and your honor, to give self-sacrificing leadership. Step up and lead the way by cutting your own pay and benefits. Where you lead, we will proudly follow.

Sincerely,

Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun

Want to honor a vet today? Take a moment to email the President, one of your Senators or your Representative. Tell them our vets kept their end of the bargain; now it’s time for us to keep ours. Click here for their contact info.

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National Suicide Silence Week 2013

National Suicide Prevention Week: suicide hotline phone and sign on Golden Gate Bridge

Yes, I’m sticking to my story about ramping back. But while saving old blog posts to a thumb drive today, I ran across this post from last September. And I think it’s as timely now as it was then.

♦ ♦ ♦

Boy, we sure had a good National Suicide Prevention Week this year, didn’t we? The advertisements on the buses, the speaker at the high school, the articles in the paper, the PSAs on the radio, the local hotlines. . . .

Oh, wait.

Those are all things I’m remembering from years gone by. National Suicide Prevention Week was September [8th-14th] this year.

But I didn’t actually hear any mention of it. Did you?

The suicide rate is increasing both globally and nationally. Suicide now kills more Americans than car crashes, according to a study published last week in the American Journal of Public Health. Our suicide rate is higher than our murder rate. More than 37,000 Americans died by suicide in 2009.

And that number is probably way too low.

Suicides are terribly undercounted; I think the problem is much worse than official data would lead us to believe.

So says Ian Rockett, a professor of epidemiology at West Virginia University, and the author of the study. Rockett estimates that at least 20% of suicides go unrecognized and unreported.

So what happened to National Suicide Prevention Week?

Three words: Death with dignity.

Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith argues, in a post at First Things, that the assisted suicide movement bears much of the blame:

Pro-suicide billboards, mostly sponsored by the Final Exit Network, make headlines. The late Jack Kevorkian was lionized for helping to end the lives of more than one hundred and thirty disabled and terminally ill people, even becoming the subject of a hagiographic movie starring Al Pacino. “How to commit suicide” books can be found at your local retailer, and assisted suicide advocacy groups are treated as respectable “patients’ rights” groups in the media. Meanwhile, as debates rage about the best way to cap the surging cost of our medical system, a Vermont newspaper editorialized in favor of legalizing assisted suicide as a way to help pay for that state’s new single-payer health plan.

Why the shift in attitudes? Over the last two decades, the euthanasia movement has argued that some suicides were “rational” and that killing is a proper way to eliminate human suffering. Indeed, the idea of “rational suicide” has even found minority acceptance within the mental health professions. . . .

Meanwhile, suicide has been turned into a medical treatment in some states and nations, with doctors allowed to assist the suicides of those diagnosed as terminally ill in Oregon and Washington. In Washington, doctors are legally required to lie on death certificates by claiming that assisted suicide deaths were really caused by the underlying disease. Meanwhile, suicide is on the ballot in Massachusetts, where voters will decide on November 6 whether doctors there, as in Oregon, should be allowed to legally prescribe lethal overdoses.

We’re going to have to decide, as a culture, whether we think suicide is good or bad. Right now, we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth Trying to prevent some people from killing themselves. And encouraging others to do just that.

And for some funny reason, the people on the bridge railing aren’t sorting out our mixed messaging.

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In which I hum a few bars of a swan song (sort of)

Swan song: Swan taking flight from a lake

(CCL ahisgett)

Gentle Reader,

I have enjoyed your company. A few of you I’ve had the pleasure of “talking” with, either here or on Facebook. Most of you I know, sadly, only as numbers on a graph or email addresses in my list of followers. But it has warmed my heart, late at night, to see that you’ve dropped by during the day.

Thank you. Writers without readers are . . . well, if a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a noise?

To those of you who clicked the Subscribe button just this week, I regret humming these few bars just as you’re arriving. In fact, let me extend a general apology to all my new September followers.

But about the song. I began Cry, Beloved Country in part because it fit the time I had. You can write 800 words a bit at a time, as you have a few spare minutes here and there through the day. I began two years ago this week, kind of on the spur of the moment–I’d been planning to wait till the first of October–with this post.

Along the way, I’ve posted on high school football, voting by mail, Martin Luther King’s plagiarism, gendercide, Portland’s Powell’s BooksAsh Wednesday, the pleasures of spring, the use of military surveillance drones in the U.S., the death of civility, water wars, Adventpeople hiding behind religious freedom, assisted suicide at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, the ethics of curing Down Syndrome, the effect of the Affordable Care Act on one Washington State family, and the Resurrection, along with several dozen book reviews, posts on new Supreme Court decisions, and posts on current Bill of Rights issues–and a couple of hundred other subjects as well.

This, to be precise, is post #306.

But I have a stack of longer writing projects–manuscripts both completed and half-finished, outlines, concepts, folders of scribbled notes–that have been filling my file drawer (and the corners of my mind) for, well . . . years, literally.

Decades, in a couple of cases.

The last few years have been insanely busy for me. (Few here having the meaning of 20.) And I’ve never had time to publish anything longer than articles, essays and short stories. And, here and there, a regular column for a few years in some periodical. And of course this blog.

But suddenly I do!

Have some discretionary time, that is. And the blog, instead of being a convenient-for-me and I hope sometimes useful-for-you way of doing my daily finger exercises, is now sucking time away from longer manuscripts that require longer periods of attention.

This isn’t a swan song, exactly. But I’m going to take a break, at least till January, from the Monday-Wednesday-Friday posting schedule I’ve maintained over the past two years.

So. How often will I post? (Will I post?) I don’t actually know just yet.

If you’d like to be notified when I do post something new, you can subscribe to the blog through the RSS reader of your choice (click the Subscribe bar at the top of the right-hand column). Or you can simply receive notifications of new posts by email (type your email address in the slot just below the big Subscribe button, then click the little Subscribe button just below that).

And thanks, again, for reading along.

Warm regards,

Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun

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Matthew Shepard, The Book of Matt and hate-crime laws

Matthew Shepard

(CCL Amedit Magazine icon collection)

“What if nearly everything you thought you knew about Matthew Shepard’s murder was wrong?”

So writes Out Editor-in-Chief Aaron Hicklin in the current issue of The Advocate.

You remember Matthew Shepard: a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming, lured from a bar by two homophobic men one night in October, 1998. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson took him out into the country, tied him to a split-rail fence, repeatedly punched and pistol-whipped him, then left him to die in near-freezing temperatures. He was found 18 hours later by a mountain biker who at first mistook his crumpled 5’2″ form for a scarecrow.

His murder led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, commonly known simply as the Matthew Shepard Act. And Legal Insurrection documents just how deeply and pervasively the Matthew Shepard hate-crime narrative has permeated American culture.

But what if Matthew Shepard wasn’t killed because he was gay? What if he was killed by his lover in a meth deal gone bad? That’s the thesis of Stephen Jimenez’s book, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepardwhich comes out tomorrow.

Jimenez is no slouch as an investigative reporter. The 2012 Norman Mailer Nonfiction Fellow has written and produced programs for ABC’s 20/20, Dan Rather Reports, Nova and others. He’s won an Emmy, the Writers Guild of America Award, an investigative reporting award from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and several fellowships at Wyoming’s Ucross Foundation. His 2004 revisiting of the Matthew Shepard case on 20/20 won an award from the Writer’s Guild for best news analysis of the year.

Nor is he a gay-basher. In fact, according to Out’s Hicklin, Jimenez is himself a gay man.

Jimenez reports that Shepard routinely used meth. And that McKinney, his killer, was both his sometime lover and fellow user. Hicklin summarizes Jimenez:

By several accounts, McKinney had been on a meth bender for five days prior to the murder, and spent much of October 6 trying to find more drugs. By the evening he was so wound up that he attacked three other men in addition to Shepard. Even Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor who had pushed for the death sentence for McKinney and Henderson, would later concede on ABC’s 20/20 that “it was a murder that was driven by drugs.”

It appears Matthew Shepard’s murder wasn’t actually a hate crime, the law named for him notwithstanding.

So here’s the question: Does that make his death any less heinous?

He was beaten with a seven-inch long pistol butt so hard that it crushed his brain stem. He spent 18 hours outside in near-freezing weather, his face covered in his own blood except where tears had washed it clean.

Should his killers have received a lesser sentence because their motivation wasn’t homophobia? Was Shepard’s life of less value if he was killed by his lover rather than by a homophobic heterosexual? Is it okay that he was murdered since it turns out he was a druggie, and not Mother Teresa after all?

What should we have done differently, in prosecuting his killers, if we had known then what we know now?

And if your answer is nothing, then what’s up with hate-crime laws?

If the torture and murder of a human being are wrong, we already have laws for that. But there’s a difference between morality and legality–and there should be. Hate is a sin; it shouldn’t be a crime. But hate-crime laws are thought-crime laws straight out of 1984.

The law has to rest on an objective basis or it ceases even attempting to be impartial. But I can’t ever entirely sort out even my own motives. Can you?

How are twelve good people and true supposed to discern the motives of another person, a stranger in the dock? That’s at the best of times a very tricky and very subjective enterprise, and one rightly left to the confessional and the counselor’s couch, not the courtroom. Justice must remain objective or it’s no longer justice.

Hicklin asks:

How do people sold on one version of history react to being told that facts are slippery — that thinking of Shepard’s murder as a hate crime does not mean it was a hate crime?

He gives his own reaction later in the article:

There are valuable reasons for telling certain stories in a certain way at pivotal times, but that doesn’t mean we have to hold on to them once they’ve outlived their usefulness. In his book, Flagrant Conduct, Dale Carpenter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, similarly unpicks the notorious case of Lawrence v. Texas, in which the arrest of two men for having sex in their own bedroom became a vehicle for affirming the right of gay couples to have consensual sex in private. Except that the two men were not having sex, and were not even a couple. Yet this non-story, carefully edited and taken all the way to the Supreme Court, changed America.

In different ways, the Shepard story we’ve come to embrace was just as necessary for shaping the history of gay rights as Lawrence v. Texas; it galvanized a generation of LGBT youth and stung lawmakers into action. President Obama, who signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named for Shepard and James Byrd Jr., into law on October 28, 2009, credited Judy Shepard for making him “passionate” about LGBT equality.

There are obvious reasons why advocates of hate crime legislation must want to preserve one particular version of the Matthew Shepard story, but it was always just that — a version. 

In a word? Meh. The truth is whatever we need it to be. (By the way, I wouldn’t buy a used car from Hicklin if I were you.)

In a post-modern world, there are always endless versions of the truth-with-a-small-t. I value the importance of story, and of versions of stories. But the law is no place for them. Matthew Shepard’s death was horrible. A dog should not have died like that, much less a man. That’s as far as the law ought to go. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday used to say. Pretending to delve into criminals’ hearts, and coming up with ever-changing versions of the narrative as we peel the onion, does nothing but destroy justice.

* * *

Here is an archive of Andrew Sullivan’s video interviews with Jimenez regarding Shepard’s murder. And here, Jimenez answers the question, “Was Matthew Shepard’s murder a hate crime?”

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Pope converts to Unitarianism

Pope Francis interview: photo of smiling Francis

(CCL Catholic Church, England and Wales)

Okay, so not actually. But you could certainly be excused for thinking so, given the glee with which major news organs are reporting on Francis’s first extended interview since acceding to the papacy.

“Pope says Church is ‘Obsessed’ with Gays, Abortion and Birth Control,” crows the New York Times:

Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.

His surprising comments came in a lengthy interview in which he criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized. He articulated his vision of an inclusive church, a “home for all” — which is a striking contrast with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the doctrinal defender who envisioned a smaller, purer church.

Certainly the pope is poised on a knife-edge here. If you put love before dogma and serving the poor ahead of doctrine, can you end up perverting both dogma and doctrine (and, ultimately, love as well)? Can a home in which everyone feels welcome become indistinguishable from the culture around it?

Of course. It happens all the time.

But.

The knife-edge he’s poised on is the same one the New Testament is poised on.

The same one Jesus has always walked.

Remember? The man who partied with prostitutes, tax collectors and other notorious sinners? And the man who never minced words about sin and the judgment to come?

That knife-edge is where Christians have to live. We have no other choice if we are to walk the Jesus Way.

Part of what Francis said, in essence, is that Christians have to do a better job of explaining to our culture the bases for our opposition to some popular parts of our culture. We have to preach the whole Good News (the etymological meaning of the word Gospel), in other words.

Which requires talking about–and taking seriously ourselves–God’s love for the world.

Which requires loving sinners.

Which turns out to be really, really good news for me, since I am one.

And that, in fact, is just how the interview opens:

I ask Pope Francis point-blank: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: “I ​​do not know what might be the most fitting description. . . . I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

The pope continues to reflect and concentrate, as if he did not expect this question, as if he were forced to reflect further.

“Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

And that’s the deep center of the Christian faith right there. Not an argument. Not a set of doctrines or rules. But a person. A person who looked upon us and loved us and invited us into a relationship with himself.

That’s where the interview begins, and that’s where every Christian has to begin every day. In her own private life. In his shared life with his brothers and sisters. In her daily interactions with friends, coworkers and neighbors.

Asked what the greatest need of the Church is, Francis responds:

The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, “This is not a sin,” or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.

Notice the knife-edge. Falling off either side–either only pointing out how someone has failed to live up to the commandment or saying “this is not a sin”–is failing to take responsibility for our fellow man and woman.

Failing, in other words, to love them.

Pretty much everyone knows that orthodox Christian teaching says that abortion and homosexual acts are sinful. The Church has, for better and worse, successfully gotten those ideas across.

But have we gotten across equally well the idea that God so loved the world? That we are sinners whom Christ has looked upon?

That’s the context in which Francis goes on to say:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon, must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis [basic teaching]. Then you can draw even a moral consequence.  But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. . . . The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.

Notice: We can’t only talk about these issues. We do have to talk about them. The teaching of the Church on them is clear, and Francis is a son of the church. That ought to lay to rest any idea that he’s getting ready to say, as he accused the “loose minister” of saying, “This is not a sin.” What he’s talking about here, is, as St. Paul said, speaking the truth in the context of love.

And it’s a message every Christian needs to take deeply to heart. Because falling off either side of the knife-edge is failing to love the world that God so loved.

♦ ♦ ♦

Predictably, but sadly, in their eagerness to find something seditious in the new pope, the mainstream media have ignored most of the wide-ranging interview. It’s long (over 10,000 words) but well worth your time. (You can read it here.)

Here’s one more bit to (I hope) whet your interest:

Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good.

For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions–that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation. . . .

Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing. . . . We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.

Again, you can read the whole thing here.

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The real reason we need to defund the NEA

NEA: old newspaper ad, "Do you like art? Draw for money!"

(CCL welderdog)

It’s not about National Endowment for the Arts funding of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. (Here’s a photograph of the work–and a thoughtful and deeply Christian meditation on it.)

Or about Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment. (The NEA-funded traveling exhibition included everything from heartrendingly beautiful close-ups of flowers to striking portraits to five explicit photographs of men in S&M poses, including a photograph of Mapplethorpe with the handle of a bullwhip in his rectum.)

And it’s not about the deficit. The NEA’s proposed $154 million annual budget represents one one-hundredth of one percent of federal discretionary spending. Scrapping the NEA would cause nary a ripple in our 16 trillion, 741 billion, 917 million, 164 thousand, 284 dollar debt.

No, we should defund the NEA for the health of the arts.

NEA: “Success for the accepted styles”

A classic 1993 British study found that government art subsidies encourages the homogenization of art, discouraging “choice and the development of new ideas.”

[T]he concentration of patronage in the hands of one government-funded body will inevitably impose some degree of standardisation on the character of the subsidised works. The result is liable to be success for the accepted styles, and obstacles for the novel. Although the Arts Council argues that subsidy encourages experiment, it only does so in the directions thought desirable by its staff, who are bound to be influenced by current fashions among their peer group. [Emphasis mine]

NEA: “Not typically all that helpful to these small organizations”

And the pernicious effect is a two-way street. Not only are artists subtly encouraged to create works similar to ones that get funding. Grantors tend to favor already-successful individuals and organizations.

National Endowment for the Humanities’ William Craig Rice says:

[T]he history, if you look at it, is that it is the rich and the well-connected organizations and in some cases artists who wind up with the majority of the NEA money. . . . If you look across the board, the NEA has not typically been all that helpful to these small organizations. . . .

The NEA helps what Rice calls “the networked people”–the well-connected–at the expense of outsiders.

NEA: “Artists . . . as tools of the state”

And then there’s what happens when artists become extensions of the state. Futurist Alvin Toffler nailed it presciently 40 years ago:

Recognizing the reality of the danger of political or bureaucratic interference in the process of artistic decision making, the principle should be established that the United States government will make absolutely no grants to independent arts institutions–directly or through the states–to underwrite operating expenses or the costs of artistic production. Proposals for a national arts foundation that would distribute funds to foster experiment, innovation . . . are on the wrong track. They ask the government to make decisions in a field in which it has vested political interests.

At what point do artists lose their creative freedom when they’re funded by the government, with its own vested political interests?

Rewind to 2009. Well-known arts community consultant Patrick Courrielche received an email from the NEA inviting him to join a conference call to “celebrate how the arts can be used for positive change.”

About 75 influential people from the arts community participated in the call, which focused, Courrielche writes, on:

core areas of the recovery agenda–health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.

Courrielche says participants were told:

This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally? Bare [sic] with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely.

Two days later, 21 arts organizations endorsed Obama’s health care proposal. Of those, the Washington Times discovered:

16 of the groups and affiliated organizations received nearly $2 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in the 150 days before the conference call. According to a Washington Times analysis of NEA records, more than $1 million of that total came from the stimulus package.

Courrielche writes:

I’m not a “right-wing nut job.” It just goes against my core beliefs to sit quietly while the art community is used by the NEA and the administration [sic] to push an agenda other than the one for which it was created. It is not within the National Endowment for the Arts’ original charter to initiate, organize, and tap into the art community to help bring awareness to health care, or energy & environmental issues for that matter; and especially not at a time when it is being vehemently debated. 

Artists shouldn’t be used as tools of the state to help create a climate amenable to their positions, which is what appears to be happening in this instance. If the art community wants to tackle those issues on its own then fine. But tackling them shouldn’t come as an encouragement from the NEA to those they potentially fund at this coincidental time.

Was this the Administration seeking to use the arts community as a propaganda organ? Or the NEA seeking to curry favor with the Administration in hopes of getting a bigger piece of the pie? Or both?

Whatever the case, it’s deeply troubling. Because artists, as Courrielche says, shouldn’t be used as tools of the state. Art fulfills a prophetic role in our society, and prophets on the government leash are toxic to the health of a culture. State-run arts are, in fact, no arts at all.

The real reason we need to defund the NEA?

It’s bad for the arts.

And that’s bad for all of us.

The President has allocated $154.5 million for the NEA in the FY2014 budget–an increase from the current $138.4 million–while the House Appropriations Committee has voted to cut that by 49%. Over the summer, members of Congress have received over 2,000 messages urging the new, higher level of funding for the NEA.

If you care about the arts, please take a moment to email your representative (here’s a quick locator page) and ask him or her to champion the independence of the arts by voting for the reduction in funding.

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Are chemical weapons different?

chemical weapons

(CCL Alejandra H. Covarrubias)

More than 100,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war to date. And then, late last month, perhaps as many as 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb were killed with chemical weapons.

And that, of course, crossed the red line.

But why?

Are those 1,400 people somehow more dead than the other 99,000 who were machine-gunned, bombed, shelled and, famously, beheaded?

Is it worse to be poisoned than to have your head sawn off?

In a country contemplating getting involved in someone else’s war, there has been remarkably little discussion of the taboo against chemical weapons. We’re threatening to get involved, not because people are dead but simply because of the particular method used to get them there.

Proponents of a chemical weapons ban have suggested various ways in which they are somehow worse. They:

  • can be used against civilians;
  • can spread indiscriminately and kill on a wide scale;
  • may be more likely to kill first responders;
  • can linger and inflict death over a period of weeks or even generations;
  • incur the condemnation of the international community.

Finally,  several writers argue that they shouldn’t be used simply because they haven’t been, at least not very much: There is what Richard Price calls a “tradition of non-use.”

Most of these arguments don’t really stand up very well to examination. Sure, chemical weapons can be used against civilians, and they kill indiscriminately. But the same is true of 500-pound bombs.

In fact, in his book, The Chemical Weapons Taboo, Price concludes that there is no logical explanation for the taboo except humans’ innate revulsion against poisons combined with time and chance: “accidents of personality and politics” and a host of other variables.

And nations’ readiness to outlaw chemical weapons–but not, say, fighter planes–is more than a little self-serving. As Eric Voeten points out, almost every unhappy ethnic group or rebel band can afford a little poison, but only states have the capital to build, for example, a fleet of F-35s at $160 million a pop. The chemical weapons ban turns out to be just another way that might makes right in the political arena.

The first prohibition against the use of gas came in the Hague Convention of 1899, 16 years before it was used for the first time. The Germans stepped over that red line at the Battle of Ypres, in 1915, followed shortly thereafter by, well, pretty much everybody.

As John Mueller points out:

The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.

As it happened, chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal. After the war, some military analysts such as Basil Liddell Hart came to believe that chemical warfare was comparatively humane — these weapons could incapacitate troops without killing many.

But that view lost out to the one that the British propagandists had put forward — that chemical weapons were uniquely horrible and must, therefore, be banned. For the most part, the militaries of the combatant nations were quite happy to get rid of the weapons. As the official British history of the war concludes (in a footnote), gas “made war uncomfortable . . . to no purpose.”

The whole article is worth reading. Mueller points out that pretty much nobody let out a peep when Iraq made “extensive use” of chemical weapons against Iran for almost a decade in the eighties. (So much for the red line.) That one of the main reasons they’re not used much is because they haven’t been very effective. And that it takes a whole lot of them to inflict much damage:

As a presidential advisory panel noted in 1999, it would take a full ton of sarin gas released under favorable weather conditions for the destructive effects to become distinctly greater than those that could be achieved with conventional explosives.

If there’s truly something more horrible about gas than about bombs, missiles, RPGs, IEDs, mortars, machine guns, long sharp knives and all the more civilized ways we’ve found to kill each other, somebody needs to make that case.

Because war is hell. And acting as if we can somehow “improve” or “civilize” it by enforcing a ban on chemical weapons is delusional.

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