Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

The Best Holiday Movies Are About Memories   Leave a comment

Turn Your Television On This Month. Please.

December 1, 2016

I’m still a kid. I love the holidays, and one of the things I enjoy this time of year is reliving Thanksgiving and Christmas memories through films. Turkey dinner was the sit-down altar where we communed together as a family. Film is where we see ourselves again or for the first time. Viewing can be particularly enjoyable when watching the film with friends or family, as we have favorite scenes—some in common and some unique to us. After all, memories are about life, real or imagined or some combination of the two. This month I’ve decided to offer you my list of ten films that are worth watching every holiday season, from Thanksgiving Day to New Years Day.

#10: Prancer: This 1989 film features a midwest farmer/single dad, his 9-year old daughter, and a reindeer named Prancer. It has sentimentality but also a first rate realism and charm. Directed by John Hancock Prancer stars Sam Elliott, Rebecca Harrell, and Cloris Leachman. Roger Ebert wrote “[Jessica is] a 9-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, and uses logic to defend her position: If there isn’t a Santa, then maybe there isn’t a God, and if there isn’t a God, then there isn’t a heaven, and, in that case, where did nine-year old Jessica’s mother go when she died?”. Heavy stuff or heady stuff? Either way, you can handle it and feel good about this unusually good holiday treat.

dec-mov-2#9: A Christmas Carol: There have been many film versions adapted from Charles Dickens’ story, but this 1951 version is my favorite. It features Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, and Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley. The story is timeless and worth watching every Christmas. Whether you become tearful or not, it’s a century old story, in a half-century old film, shot in glorious black and white, and it still delivers

#8: Home Alone: Few movie stars have had the ability to be both charming and annoying on screen and in real life, and all before the age of 12. Forget the annoying part. Macaulay Culkin helps drive this 1990 film with sufficient believability as the young child left home by highly distracted parents. Culkin benefits from the direction of Chris Columbus, the writing of John Hughes, and the comedic performances of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. It’s been a quarter century since the film was made yet the basic premise holds up. If it seems like too much work, watch it for Pesci and Stern. The film wouldn’t work without them as the bumbling thieves.

#7: The Santa Clause: Tim Allen’s turn in this 1994 holiday-flavored feature film was a surprisingly good idea. In short, Santa dies on the job, Tim Allen’s character steps in to save the day and discovers that he is now (and forever?) the new Santa Claus. It’s funny with some tugging at the heart. It’s the Twinkie of Christmas movies. Enjoy it and don’t think about the calories. The Washington Post had it right: “The Santa Clause would be another formulaic Christmas special without Tim Allen.”

#6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Not all of the films from National Lampoon have been winners but this 1989 spinoff from the original Vacation is a lot of fun. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo return as the Griswold parents, along with a new Audrey (Juliet Lewis) and a new Rusty (Johnny Galecki). It’s also worth watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the way-too-hipster next door neighbors “Margo and Todd Chester”. We can watch the film and look back on our fond memories or on the horror of sharing Christmas with the entire family. Good fun.

#5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: No holiday season would be complete without this 1987 film. One of Steve Martin’s better outings, and John Candy is as perfect as he can be. The unlikely twosome becomes mutually dependent as they attempt to travel from New York to Chicago by way of Kansas and Missouri in an effort to get home for Thanksgiving. As with most films written and directed by John Hughes, the music is top notch (including Martin’s traumatized “you’re messin’ with the wrong guy”.) The film is wonderful and it always reminds me of how much the world misses John Candy.

#4: Miracle on 34th Street: On the surface this is a film about a nice old man who calls himself Kris Kringle and claims to be Santa Claus. Threatened with being declared insane, a young lawyer steps in to defend Kringle, arguing in court that he really is Santa Claus. While Kringle’s sanity is the central theme, the real centerpiece of the 1947 film is about a single mom’s journey (and ours) to have faith, and to believe in something that may be difficult or impossible to prove. While that sounds like religion, the faith here is far more about life itself. But it works on both levels. The cast is a who’s who of post WWII Hollywood faces: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Granville Sawyer, William Frawley, and Jerome Cowan.

#3: The Bishop’s Wife: This 1947 film is also about Christmas and faith. But relax, this is not a film that looks or feels anything like a tent-revival. It’s an intelligent story based on a visiting angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) entering the life of protestant minister Henry Brougham (David Niven), who’s marriage to wife Julia (Loretta Young) is tested along the way. There are numerous religious moments but the film is anything but preachy. There are lofty (sometimes heavenly) goals, a couple of sermons, a boys choir, some shopping, lunch at a French restaurant named Michel’s (of course), a few snobs, and some solid citizens. Sit back and simply let yourself get lost inside this film. Rounding out the cast are Elsa Lanchester, Regis Toomey, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley.

#2: It’s A Wonderful Life: Frank Capra presents the life and times of George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed). In just over two hours, we are treated to their lives and ours. Like the old nursery rhyme, this 1947 film features tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, doctors, a rich man and more. As Bailey’s life moves forward, he’s forced to reflect on how he’s helped change things for the better, and with an angel’s help, he sees an alternate version of how his life—or lack thereof—could change everything and mov-no-1everyone. Like other Capra films, this one is rich in characters and character actors, including Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, and H.B. Warner. And for trivia buffs, there is the perfectly-cast voice of Moroni Olsen as Franklin, the never seen senior angel narrating the film.

#1: A Christmas Story: This 1983 film narrowly edged out the others for #1 simply because it speaks to me on so many levels. Instead of just seeing the enjoyable chaos surrounding the lives of the Parker family, I can clearly see my own family growing up in Milwaukee; our version was all Wisconsin, not Indiana. Yet like ‘old man Parker’, my father did swear at the furnace (and other things). I did want a BB gun for christmas. We lived in our version of that neighborhood, on that street, in that house and we had our own Bumpus family for neighbors. And there was plenty of innocent “drama” surrounding our lives as Christmas approached, but there was also the sense of family and time together. I love this film. Regardless of any memories I might like to forget, my reality is of a time when, as Jean Shepherd tells us, “all was right with the world”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen


STEM. Creating A Minion Nation   Leave a comment

The GOP and Stalin Agree: Ideas Are Unnecessary

March 31, 2016

Today’s journalists love acronyms. They provide writers with a type of shorthand which also (they hope) suggests they know so much more than the reader. Just a few years ago BRIC, for example, was a hot topic; writers, politicians, and economists all jumped on the bandwagon to declare that these countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China—constituted the new economic bloc to be reckoned with. BRIC was introduced by Goldman-Sachs as a bit of economic futurism. It downplayed the potential strength of Europe and North America, and simultaneously projected the sunny economic potential of the BRICS (South Africa was added later, hence the ”S”.) In any case, BRIC(S) gave journalists a clever word that dripped with a certain lingual superiority, as they became de facto cheerleaders for the moneychangers pushing this nirvana-to-be scenario. A little more than a decade later, all that shiny Goldman-Sachsian predilection is not, well, so shiny. Fortune—not known as a mouthpiece of the proletariat—offered this grim assessment:

“There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed the rugged promise of the globe’s economic frontier could be summed up with a simple acronym: BRIC. To investors and corporate prospectors alike, Brazil, Russia, India, and China were like Gold Rush towns high in the hills—deep, rich veins of commerce that could be tapped by anybody quick enough, industrious enough, and brave enough to stake a claim.” . . . “Yet as much as we might celebrate the concept of BRIConomics for its insight and uncanny timeliness, it is time now to put the thing to pasture. As quickly as the world transformed at the start of the millennium, it is changing again.” In short, Fortune’s view was that China’s economy was growing at the slowest pace in nearly a quarter-century, that “scandal-plagued Brazil” was on the edge of recession, and a declining appetite for oil coupled with economic sanctions and poor policy “have Russia reeling”. No Chia pets, hula hoops, pet rocks, or other dynamic economic stimulants on the near horizon to foster a quick reversal of fortunes.

Which brings me to STEM. Like the gushing embrace of BRIC, STEM is the new flavor of the month with many GOP politicians. This acronym is shorthand for a clever distillation on education: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. To them, STEM is what really matters. On the surface there is nothing wrong with placing an emphasis on these core subjects. However, politicians are attempting to make this a zero-sum game. When the pool of education money is finite, then increased emphasis on one aspect of education means a decreased emphasis on the other. Who needs those silly history lessons—that’s all old stuff anythway. All about dead guys. And foreign languages? English has worked for me. Literature? What can I possibly learn from Shakespeare or Voltaire. Before you think that this is as cartoonish as the images of someone walking through the financial district holding a sign declaring “the end is near” consider the loud voices in the GOP. For a political party often complaining about government overreach, as in dictating what we will or won’t do, consider this from the New York Times, about the efforts of some of the darlings of the right:

• Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin suggested in February that “students majoring in French literature should not receive state funding for their college education.”

• North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory is on record as declaring “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it,” McCrory said. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

• Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio was unequivocal: “Welders make more money than philosophers . . . . We need more welders and less philosophers.” [Note to Marco: It’s “fewer” in this context, not “less”.]

• Florida Governor Rick Scott said “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here.”

At the very least this is gross naiveté on the part of these and other politicians. A far more likely scenario is that we are viewing a GOP effort toward social engineering; creating a society able to write code, but unable to connect the dots between political decisions and unexpected outcomes. An extreme example might be, if we study physics and nothing else, we can, among other things, learn how to make a nuclear weapon. If we study the humanities as well, we can learn about the outcomes of using nuclear weapons: after atmospheric testing in the Pacific, after the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, and after the original Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear weapons can be bad.

When I returned to college in the 1990s, I chose my school carefully: that is to say, I found the nearest 4-year college. At Fairfield University, a Jesuit school, I gained knowledge and I honed my skills in critical thinking. It may have been a happy accident for me that Fairfield University was nearest to me in Connecticut, a 30-minute drive from my home. After all, the Jesuits have been honing their own skills through four centuries of education for both the religiously devoted and the laity. Ignatius Loyola’s ideas became the fundamental building blocks for the Society of Jesus, which began, not surprisingly, building schools. For all of their bravado about devotion to Christianity, the GOP in general, and those lay-pontificators above seem to miss the point. It’s about humanity stupid.

The Rev. Jack Butler of Boston College describes a Jesuit education as having six core elements. In short, [1] Care of the person, [2] Experience, [3] Liberal arts, [4] Mission, [5] Service of justice, [6] Anticipatory joy.

Butler’s more detailed descriptions are in an article titled “What is Jesuit education?”, and it is worth reading. When talking about the Liberal Arts—and central, in my opinion, to the STEM conversation—Butler offered this:

“Ignatius Loyola said that if individuals follow their desire, they will find God. In order to find that desire, Butler said, students need a broad basis of knowledge from which to begin seeking. Another reason that Jesuit education emphasizes the liberal arts is so that students can find God in all things. And finally, Jesuits believe that students should be able to converse on a range of topics.”

I’m not here to advocate for religion in general or a Jesuit education in particular, although I believe there is real value in what they offer. I am, however, against a new brand of social engineering that creates only the worker bees who can labor for the wealthy: you make the honey and we’ll handle the money.

Bevin, McCrory, Rubio, Scott, and so many other Republicans believe that history, philosophy, religion, literature, art, gender studies, music, anthropology (and others) are superfluous, non-essential to the knowledge intake of students. It’s a myopic view that could only be promoted by members of a ruling class. I’m reminded of the USSR’s infamous leader Joseph Stalin’s philosophy of ideas. While not a comparison to Rubio, et al, Stalin offered this nugget: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.”

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

Return of the Pharisees   Leave a comment

Many of the Wealthy Seem Bent on Giving for Name Only

December 31, 2015

The concept of giving is wonderful, confusing, rewarding, necessary. And that’s just for starters. From my earliest days in Lutheran elementary school, I learned about the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. “Alms for the poor” (or a variation), a phrase we were assured was found throughout the Bible, was drilled into our heads. What Sunday School 8-year old could not feel some degree of empathy? There are the numerous lessons on giving offered by the world’s major religions including Judaism, Christianity (including Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, etc), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and among them we learn what alms are, who they are for, why we should give, and so on.

We’d like to believe that charitable giving is only or primarily altruistic. But, of course, it is not. To be fair much of the giving to charity by Americans is personal, like money dropped in the collection plate during mass, or in the poor box inside the narthex of the church, or in the Salvation Army collection pot. Yes, someone may observe the act of giving but not necessarily the amount given. The idea is to be less than obvious. And to be clear, there exists no societal norm for how much is enough. Some elect to follow an historical or epistemological practice. Tithing, for example: giving 10%. Others may have a familial ‘norm’ based on nothing more than “I always give $5.00”. And still others follow the “spare change” model. I was in a conversation with a priest who told me of a parishioner who asked “if one wishes to practice tithing, is it gross or net?” Somewhat predictably the priest responded, “well, if you have to ask. . . .”

The number of people who choose to give anonymously is infinitely larger than the “look at me” crowd, those who make very public contributions. My analysis is based soley on the far greater number of people in the so-called 99%, versus the smaller group—the 1%, those who hold the greatest amount of accumulated wealth within this or any society. It is possible that some within the latter “one percenters” give for one or more sincere reasons, but I would wager that most of the wealthy believe that public giving works beyond helping others; it improves their standing in the community, society, or the world. They are also likely to be well versed in the tax code, as in a list of deductions to offset income and reduce taxes.

Charity, from ancient times to today, has been used by some as a billboard, a neon sign, offered publicly to impress others. Like the pharisees of old, the wealthy and particularly the über-wealthy seem to relish making public donations, affixing their family name to a fund, trust, or charitable organization so everyone knows it was they who made the donation. These days when I see the credits at the beginning of a documentary film or a public television program (or video) I find I’m spending more time scrutinizing the donors than the stars, producers, or writers. The latter have an agenda, to be sure, but the former—the donors to one of these projects—have an agenda as well. The size of the on-screen font suggests that some (or many) of these donors are 21st-century pharisees who, like their namesakes two thousand years ago, believe in their inherent lofty place in society, and wish to reinforce an equally pretentious “knowledge” of their superior sanctity. They want the world to accept their premise.

The wonderful and long-running PBS series Nova is just one example where the good vibe and hopeful anticipation of what is to come quickly crashes through the floor when you see one of the named contributors to the funding: The David H. Koch Fund For Science. You understand that IMG_1558this is no quiet, unobtrusive thank you credit to the billionaire. That on-screen credit, the fund’s logo, takes up about 25% of the screen. About as subtle as a freight-train. The Koch brothers, more than any single American family—at least during the past twenty years—have used their wealth to reshape the American political landscape. Their agenda is simple: spend hundreds of millions (billions really by some estimates) to place very conservative, anti-government, low-tax (for the wealthy) candidates in state legislatures, governorships, in the U.S. congress, the senate, and on the supreme court. And they receive tax deductions for their efforts.

As one of his contributions to the generations who followed, the great codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides left the world his take on giving, on charity, with a list of eight levels of giving, correlating to the degree to which the giver is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the recipient. Counting down, and in an abbreviated form, here are Maimonides’ levels, the “Great Eight”:

Eight: Giving grudgingly. If the option is to give grudgingly or not at all, Maimonides prefers that you give grudgingly. Better to help someone in need, albeit with a bad attitude, than to ignore them.

Seven: Giving less than you can afford, but doing so pleasantly. If you or your accountant suggest you can afford to give $1,000 and you decide to give $250 and you do so with a pleasant demeanor, the positive nature of your expression of caring helps offset—to some degree—the decision to do less than you can afford.

Six: If you give generously, but must first be asked, you land at level six. Take heart. You gave, even though the person in need had to calmly ask or grovel in your presence.

Five: You gave before anyone asked. This requires you to pay attention, to look where you may not wish to look. No crying, begging, or pleading required. In essence, you reached out before the needy reached out to you.

Four: The person on the receiving end knows that the gift came from you, but you don’t know who received the gift. Perhaps the donor feels like they’ve accomplished something of more value because of the anonymity. Of course, those on the receiving end still know they are indebted to the donor. The superiority of the giver is maintained.

Three: This is the reverse of level four: The donor knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know who donated the money. I disagree with Maimonides here, as this seems like it should change places with level four (above). After all, this type of giving enables the donor to maintain a feeling of superiority over the recipient. In any case, Maimonides placed this at level three.

Two: A completely anonymous gift. The donor does not know where the money went, or who received the money, and the recipient has no idea whom to thank. This is a near-perfect level, since the receiver can take the gift with the knowledge that there is no one to whom they need to feel indebted, and the giver can never know if the recipient was someone on the other side of the world or down the block.

One: Helping someone reach self-sufficency. If you recall the saying that “give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach someone to fish and they can feed themselves”, then Level One is the idea that you can actually help someone become self-sufficient. Better to have a job than to be unemployed. Better to feel you are contributing to society than to take from society (although many on the far right speak only of the “takers”). Along with income, food, and shelter, there is the preservation of one’s dignity.

Many followers of western religions believe that doing good things on earth will be rewarded in heaven. Karma, from Hinduism and Buddhism, represents the sum of one’s actions in this and previous states of existence, and those actions are viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. This year let’s resolve to do more, and perhaps we should consider doing it silently. Our karma may depend on it.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2015


The GOP: A Political Party (always) Wishing For War(s)   Leave a comment

An Iran Deal means the Presidential Wannabes will soon Start Shouting

July 14, 2015

In 2009 President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize but back then he didn’t really deserve it. In hindsight, most agree that the voters in Stockholm, or Oslo, wanted [a] to stick a thumb in the eye of “43”, George W (the “decider-in-chief”), and [b] they wanted to send a message to the new president that much was expected of him, particularly in the area of . . . well, peace. Six years later, those Scandinavian voters are beginning to feel relief, or justification, or satisfaction. Last night it became clear that President Barack Obama has opted for dialogue rather than sabre-rattling. He’s chosen to change the course of political thinking rather than be bullied into another war. He’s decided to deal with the world as it is, and not simply pro-long another stalemate. Feigning deafness has not been an Obama trait. Thankfully. After almost two years of talks—six-party talks, aka negotiations, but in reality talks primarily between America and Iran—the deal is about ready. Ready for supporters to breathe a little easier, and ready for the guaranteed opposition from the GOP candidates who wish to be president.

The thinking of the GOP is readily seen in the words of one of the conservative darlings of the “W” administration, John Bolton. Bolton B52Bolton, a man who never met a country (or an international organization) he wouldn’t bomb, continued his drumbeat to war this past spring. When the GOP invited the Israeli Prime Minister to address a joint session of congress, the invitation had one purpose: to stop any deal with Iran. On cue, Netanyahu came to Washington, D.C., and criticized the president, all to the obvious glee of his GOP subjects. And in support of the desired march-to-war and hoping to derail the Iran negotiations, Bolton offered an op-ed in the New York Times on March 26, 2015, with this particularly Bolton-esque paragraph:

The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.

Of course, Bolton neglected to deal with the reality that Iraq was never a unified country, but a creation of the post-World War II exercise in line-drawing by the winning powers, and he ignored any history of the region. Bolton also failed to mention that Syria was no military match for Israel and retaliation was highly unlikely. And in March 2015 he hoped no one would recognize that Iran is a unified society, with a long (long as in thousands of years) history. Iraqi and Syrian citizens were never likely to rally en masse  to a defense of their state, or their fearless leaders (respectively, Hussein and Assad). Consequently those two countries are in chaos and Iran as yet has not been attacked by ISIS. Iran’s population is, well, Iranian, and will certainly rise to any invasion, or respond to any attack, by ISIS or the United States. The GOP would like to keep the status quo. See how well that worked with Cuba? For the GOP it’s better to act like a 5-year old: stomp your feet, hold your breath, and refuse to speak with a nation 90 miles from Florida. That certainly made the world a better place. Now Iran is the “new” Cuba.

So instead of a rational, reasoned approach to evaluating the Iran treaty, it’s all about sabotage. Death by a thousand insults. For the GOP crazies, the time has come to ratchet up the verbalized venom, and for their conservative collection of Daddy Warbucks-like supporters to throw a couple of hundred million dollars into media-buys denouncing President Obama, the Iran agreement, and the Iranian people. As John McCain sang in 2007 (“Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Iran“), eight years later John Bolton lectured that it was better to bomb Iran than, well, anything else. If that’s the best the GOP can do, the electorate has to understand that war is their preferred Republican Party option. That’s it.

At least it makes elections easy. Vote for the GOP and it’s a vote for war. Vote for Democrats means voting for rational discourse and, perhaps, a more peaceful world. Nothing is that easy, but the GOP makes it look that way. Time to work for peace, not scream about bombing Iran.

David Steffen

© 2015 David Steffen


Note: As the GOP quotes come in, I’ll add them below. I’m keeping their comments outside, separate, at the bottom of this post, sort of like the dregs they are. (of course I will probably comment on the comments….)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: “The deal is ‘[an] historic mistake for the world’ and will allow Iran ‘‘to continue to pursue its aggression and terror in the region.” And so says the leader of a nation with 100-200 nuclear weapons of its own, and a stated preference for war. Time for BB to just shut up and stop encouraging its ally, the United States, to launch a preemptive war on Israel’s behalf.

HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN A. BOEHNER: “Instead of making the world less dangerous, this ‘deal’ will only embolden Iran – the world’s largest sponsor of terror – by helping stabilize and legitimize its regime.”

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: “This is a terrible deal. It will make everything worse and I live in fear that we have set in motion a decade of chaos.” NOTE: Look for my separate blogpost on this idiotic politician’s views.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO:  “It will then be left to the next president to return us to a position of American strength and reimpose sanctions on this despicable regime until it is truly willing to abandon its nuclear ambitions and is no longer a threat to international security.”    NOTE: Senator Big Gulp whose parents, according to him, fled the Castro regime’s takeover in Cuba years before Castro ever came to power. Very prescient parents. . . . Now he wishes to impress us with his knowledge of the future of Iran. His views are much more appropriate for Mystery Science Theater 2000 rather than reality.

CARLY FIORINA: “Iran has demonstrated bad behavior for 30 years,” she said. “We know they have been trying to cheat on this deal. We know they have been funding proxies with the strategic objective of destabilizing the region.”  NOTE: Ms. Fiorina wishes to apply her success at HP to Iran. Almost tanking a company is one thing. Attempting to engage in international diplomacy is way above her pay grade (and way above her golden parachute.)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: “The deal threatens Israel, it threatens the United States, and it turns 70 years of nuclear policy on its head,” Mr. Christie said. “I urge Republicans and Democrats in Congress to put aside politics and act in the national interest. Vote to disapprove this deal in numbers that will override the president’s threatened veto.”

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: “The deal rewards the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with a massive financial windfall, which Iran will use to further threaten our interests and key allies, especially Israel.”

Posted July 14, 2015 by Jazzdavid in Education, Government, History, Religion, war

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The Inevitable Personal Decision   Leave a comment

Six Years After “Death Panels” Iowans and other Conservatives Need A Reality Check

March 29, 2015

Years ago I looked on Iowa’s Senators as the best of both worlds. One Republican, one Democrat. One conservative and one progressive. But that was, indeed, many years ago. When Senator Tom Harkin chose to hang it up and retire from his senate seat, and the state of Iowa wouldn’t, or couldn’t find an electable replacement, it was a bit like reading Inferno. Joni Ernst would become “Grassley in Training”. If Dante Alighieri needed a character to expand senatorial idiocy, he would have written a part specifically for the likes of Ernst. Any day now I expect the United States Senate to add a sign so that everyone entering the chamber could have a gut check: “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter”.

The GOP had been salivating to show the world how governing works. And since the new congress was sworn in, little has been done. Except, of course, talking about repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The fixation Republicans have on dismantling the law is remarkable, and the damage that will be done should a true non-believer like Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, or Donald Trump, etc., become president, is almost incalculable. You may recall that the demonization of the ACA got a real boost during the policy debate in 2009 and 2010 from none other than Senator Charles Grassley. But why the focus today, March 29, 2015? The New York Times  made me do it. Sort of.

In 2009, Grassley was senior enough, and respected enough, that he might have engaged his constituency in an honest debate about the ACA. With almost 30 years in the senate, and with the world’s largest ethanol lobbying group supporting him (the state of Iowa, in case you were wondering), Grassley has never been likely to lose an election in his home state. And with the debate for and against the ACA, Grassley couldn’t (or chose not to) find the good things in the bill and consider participating in the process. But what was most egregious was his cheap, Tea Party-esque jump onto the loony bandwagon, embracing of all people, the idiotic half-governor Sarah Palin. She helped begin the rhetorical cesspool-diving contest by suggesting that the ACA would have “death panels” to make end of life decisions for people, instead of with people. Grassley offered this:

“‘There is some fear because in the House bill, there is counseling for end-of-life,’ Grassley said. ‘And from that standpoint, you have every right to fear. You shouldn’t have counseling at the end of life. You ought to have counseling 20 years before you’re going to die. You ought to plan these things out. And I don’t have any problem with things like living wills. But they ought to be done within the family. We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.'”

You’ll note I didn’t simply print the last-line of Grassley’s little tirade, as I wanted to be fair, and have his remarks in context. Nevertheless, his remarks are still ludicrous for two reasons. First, his reading of the legislation is like conservative Christians (and other religious or just plain shy people) insisting that no outsider will talk to their children about sex. Recall the old joke(?), my kids will learn about sex the same way I did: in the backseat of my dad’s car. The Guttmacher Institute released evidence from a 2006-2008 study confirming the premise that Sex Education Delays Teen Sex. Believe it or not, like sex education, when the subject of end-of-life planning happens earlier—rather than later—outcomes can be changed. Second, the planning needs the option of outsiders being part of the conversation. It’s often easier to ask questions or talk about the “what-ifs” to a non-family member, rather than mom or dad, or sister or brother, or son or daughter. Which brings me to the New York Times.

The March 29, 2015 Times has an article that everyone should read. Titled “Teenagers Face Early Death, on Their Terms“, the article is a must-read, and a must read for Charles Grassley and those who are like-minded. Waiting for family members to have a conversation about death is often as successful as waiting for Godot. So the conversation should be initiated within the family or inner circle of friends, before anyone gets sick, and certainly before pain, drugs, and imminent death eviscerate any likelihood of a rational conversation. A friend of mine, Maggie Watson, got me thinking about this a few years ago with the publication of her book A Graceful Farewell: Putting Your Affairs in Order. Maggie (who is alive and well) was thinking about it and passed along a valuable guide and lesson that Grassley, Palin, and others should read instead of attacking the process. Today’s Times reminds us that if some raging-hormonal teenagers can comprehend and make rational decisions about sex, and other teenagers can make rational end-of-life decisions about death, something, as Sherlock Holmes might say, is afoot. If teenagers can be rational, maybe even Grassley and Palin—well Grassley anyway—can get on board. It is time to bring death and dying out of the closet. Let’s place it front and center on the dining room table. Talk about it. Deal with it. And then treat it like the red box on the walls of public spaces: Just know it’s there. Pull Alarm In Emergency. Open only when needed.

David Steffen

© 2015 David Steffen

The Man Who Wished For War   Leave a comment

B.B.: Win or lose, take your lying, race-baiting, anti-American, pro-war POV and ride into the sunset.

March 17, 2015

I would normally pay just passing interest in an Israeli national election. But this time I’ve found myself following it far more closely than ever before for one simple reason. Benjamin Netanyahu, the provocative PM is the leader of this American ally. Yet it’s doubtful he cares about anything other than the drooling sycophants of America’s GOP. He’s lied and worse to gather sympathy in the United States and votes in Israel.

First, Netanyahu shows himself to be a liar. His previous pronouncements about support for a two-state future for Israel and Palestine is now confirmed to be a lie. Back in 2009 Netanyahu spoke eloquently about two states coexisting: “There are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s security and existence.” He’s suggested as much in the years since, probably to placate those in the American audience desirous of a lasting peace, or perhaps just to seem more likable during meetings with President Obama. The Prime Minister is now changing his mind: “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state if he is re-elected, further rolling back his acceptance six years ago of a two-state solution.” This is not a case of evolutionary thought. He’s been lying and went public today to play to his base.

Second, the Israeli version of the race-card was played today: “‘Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations,’ Mr. Netanyahu said in [a] video. ‘The left-wing nonprofit organizations are bringing them in buses.’”  These “Arab voters” are entitled to vote; they aren’t the alleged graveyard voters of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Netanyahu’s rhetoric sounds like the U.S. Republican base as they continue to disenfranchise Black voters.

Third, anti-American sentiment was on display when he, his ambassador to the United States, and House Speaker John Boehner concocted an Israeli campaign speech for Netanyahu to deliver to a joint session of congress. He spent his time in Washington dictating American foreign policy with the gushing support of the GOP.

And finally, his pro-war stance toward Iran might have more sympathy had he not been spouting about imminent weaponry for 20 years. As Roger Cohen reminds all of us in the New York Times, “Netanyahu has talked himself into a corner on Iran. He has set so many “red lines” on the Iranian nuclear program nobody can remember them. He has taken to fuming publicly over President Obama’s refusal to do the same. Of late he has juggled metaphors: Iran is now “20 yards” from “touchdown.” His cry-wolf dilemma comes right out of a children’s book. It was in 1992 that he said Iran was three to five years from nuclear capacity.” And these comments from Mr. Cohen are from 2012.

Whether Netanyahu wins or loses his election, all of us should consider the source before buying into anything he has to say.

David Steffen

© 2015 David Steffen

Benjamin Netanyahu: Postscript   1 comment

You Don’t Have To Be Jewish To Dislike Netanyahu

March 7, 2015

I recently posted two pieces about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to work for peace. In those posts, November 1st and March 2nd, I made the case that the Prime Minister is not interested in peace. Instead, Netanyahu is only interested in solidifying his image as a tough guy, a feared leader, a protector of Israel. In fact, I’d paraphrase Frederick Forsyth: “In the world of diplomacy, he’s just another asshole.” While this may seem harsh, his visit to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on March 3, 2015 was ill-timed, ill-mannered, and ill-suited to the role of a statesman. But then Netanyahu is not a statesman. While I might spend time here doing a post about the lunacy of the March 3 speech to Congress, others have weighed in, and I’ll simply endorse their thoughts.


In a full-page March 2, 2015 ad in the New York Times, the magazine Tikkunwhich declares their mission as “dedicated to healing and transforming the world”—offered a thoughtful pre-speech message to the Prime Minister. The headlines of the ad were

“No, Mr. Netanyahu— you do not speak for American Jews . . .

And… The American People Do Not Want a War with Iran!”

More than 2000 people signed and supported the ad. And it’s worth a wider audience.


Then there is the same-day opinion piece offered by the New York Times Editorial Board titled “Netanyahu’s Unconvincing Speech to Congress“. It quickly cut to the chase with this bottom-line assessment:

“Mr. Netanyahu’s speech offered nothing of substance that was new, making it clear that this performance was all about proving his toughness on security issues ahead of the parliamentary election he faces on March 17. He offered no new insight on Iran and no new reasons to reject the agreement being negotiated with Iran by the United States and five other major powers to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. His demand that Mr. Obama push for a better deal is hollow. He clearly doesn’t want negotiations and failed to suggest any reasonable alternative approach that could halt Iran’s nuclear efforts.”


Benjamin Netanyahu does not want peace. He longs for war with Iran. Particularly with American planes, American ships, American firepower, American money, and of course, American lives. If he is so certain about Iran’s plans—as he has been for twenty years, a certainty that he continues to offer—then do the unthinkable, at least unthinkable in your current mindset. Take a page from the Anwar Sadat-Menachim Begin playbook. Go to Tehran. Speak with Iran directly. Let them see the desire for war oozing from your pores. Maybe they’ll quiver in your presence, maybe they’ll spit in your face; or perhaps they’ll look on such a gesture from you as launching not missiles, but dialogue. Mr. Netanyahu. Shout for peace, not for war. But if it’s war you want, do it yourself.

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