Thursday, June 23, 2005

(You Gotta Have) Heart!

My friend, Tim Hulsey, reminds me that tonight was the opening of Damn Yankees at the Heritage Repertory Theatre in Charlottesville. (HRT is the summer stock offering of the University of Virginia's Department of Drama.) Tim plans to see the show tomorrow night, and I hope to catch it next week.

Since 1971, with the departure of the Senators from Washington to Texas, Damn Yankees has seemed even more of a fantasy than its plot elements would suggest. Who could have imagined that in the summer of 2005, there would actually be a major league team in Washington -- the Nationals now, not the Senators -- conspiring to use eminent domain to displace numerous homes and businesses in Southwest D.C. in order to build a stadium on the backs of hardworking taxpayers, looting the public purse to the benefit of millionaire team owners and multimillionaire baseball players!

Anyway, let me get off my soapbox and back into the batter's box, so to speak.

Back in 1996, I was fortunate enough to see show-biz legend Jerry Lewis play the lead in a road company of the 1994 Broadway revival of Damn Yankees at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Here is my review of that production, which appeared originally in the Metro Herald in December 1996:

Damn Yankees: Darn Good Fun!
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

"First in war, first in peace -- and last in the American league!" That's how Washingtonians of a certain age remember their beloved, if hapless, Washington Senators. Though never so clumsy as, say, the 1962 New York Mets, during the 1950s the Senators struggled simply to keep out of eighth place -- the bottom of the standings.

At the same time, the New York Yankees were winners all the way, taking the pennant each year of the decade except 1954 (when the Cleveland Indians took it) and 1959 (when the Chicago White Sox won the flag). So it is no mystery why Washington area baseball fans would have been constantly muttering "damn Yankees!" at their TV and radio sets after a ball game.

This it was that Maryland journalist Douglass Wallop wrote a best-selling novel in 1955 called The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which was turned into a hit musical, Damn Yankees, that same year, co-written and directed by the legendary George Abbott, with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Starring the incomparable Gwen Verdon as Lola and the devilish Ray Walston as Applegate, the play was turned into a movie (with the same stars, plus Tab Hunter) in 1958.

Forty years later, Broadway revived Damn Yankees, this time putting Jerry Lewis on the boards as Applegate. Though Lewis has been performing since the age of five (he is now 69), spreading his talents through nightclubs, radio, movies, and television, Damn Yankees is his first Broadway appearance. Now he is appearing in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Slightly rewritten for a late-20th-century audience, the basic plot remains the same. Loosely based on the Faust legend, Damn Yankees tells the story of Joe Boyd, a 60-something real estate agent who acclaims he "would sell his soul" to give the Senators a slugger who can win them games. Instantly, Applegate (the Devil) appears and offers to take Joe up on the deal, turning him into 22-year-old Joe Hardy, a sensation with a bat (and he can field, too). Joe, taking a leaf from his real estate book, insists upon an "escape clause" -- if he quits by 9:00 p.m. on September 24 (the night before the last game of the season), he can keep his soul and return to his wife. Reluctantly, Applegate agrees. He's never lost a deal in thousands of years, after all.

Joe Hardy (played by John-Michael Flate, who bears a passing resemblance to Cal Ripken, Jr.) turns out to be just the shot in the arm that the Senators need. Flagging in seventh place in July, the now-nicknamed "Shoeless Joe" takes them to within one game of winning a free pass to the World Series in September.

Still, Joe yearns for his wife and home. Applegate tries to discourage this by sending his assistant, Lola (Valerie Wright), to seduce him. Lola has never failed before, but she's never met someone like Joe, either.

When Lola fails to divert Joe's attention, Applegate uses the press -- do things never change? -- to besmirch Joe's reputation by accusing him of being a discredited player named Shifty McCoy ("Say it ain't so, Joe!" could be a line from this play.)

Needless to say, Joe rises above these challenges, uses his escape clause, and returns to the warm security of his wife's arms.

Directed by Jack O'Brien, the show moves smoothly and at a fast pace. Rob Marshall, the choreographer, has devised dances that take advantage of his cast's athleticism -- after all, how else would baseball players dance? Like all modern Broadway choreographers, Marshall's work has echoes of Bob Fosse, the innovator who choreographed the original cast of Damn Yankees. He puts it all to good use.

Jerry Lewis is surprisingly low-key in his portrayal of Applegate. Although he does take a few opportunities to mug for the audience, and to use some of the "kid shtick" that made him famous forty-five years ago, his Applegate is a suave, serious businessman. One exception: During the number "Those Were the Good Old Days," Lewis takes center stage to tell a few jokes that would feel at home in a Borscht Belt resort. ("A priest and a rabbi are on an airplane . . . ") The audience, of course, eats it up -- that's what they expect from "the King of Comedy."

As Lola, Valerie Wright defines sexy seductiveness. She oozes, she stretches, she pouts, she purrs. How Joe resists her temptations is the key question of the show.

The male chorus in this show deserves special congratulations. Originally written as a much smaller part -- mostly as background singers -- O'Brien and Marshall have pulled out all the stops for these singing and dancing baseball players. Special mention goes to Ned Hannah as Ozzie, who lights up the stage whenever he appears.

A delightful feature of this production of Damn Yankees is the presence of Mel Allen, one of the greatest sportscasters of all time, as the "Stadium Voice." Although his voice is only on tape, hearing it was terrific, if only for a brief moment.

The sets and costumes successfully evoke the ‘50s, using the shapes and colors that we associate with that era. Not mere copies of old furnishings or clothing, the designers provide an aura of the time -- much as the designers of the recent revival of How to Succeed in Business evoked the early 1960s.

Damn Yankees is fun for all ages. The audience on December 17, at least, included adults who could have seen the original production, children accompanied by their parents, and teenagers and college students out on dates. In a way, this show is back home, with references to Griffith Stadium, Georgetown, the U.S. Senate basement, and other local landmarks.

The Kennedy Center's production of Damn Yankees continues through January 12, 1997, in the Opera House.

Watch this space next week for comments on HRT's new production of Damn Yankees.

Zero Tolerance, Zero Intelligence

I just found a terrific blogsite called "Zero Intelligence." Its mission is to highlight and bring to public attention absurd (but all too real and all too common) examples of school districts' exercising "zero tolerance" policies with regard to alcoholic beverage consumption, "weapons", and unwanted speech.

Asking "What is Zero Intelligence about?," the site answers:

Zero Intelligence is a play on "Zero Tolerance", the knee jerk reactionary policies that plague our school systems. The implementation of a zero tolerance policy is the equivalent of giving up on common sense, reasonability and intellect. All infractions are grouped into types with uniform punishments regardless of the individual facts of the incident. Posession of Advil is treated as if it were equivalent to pushing crack. An honor student with the wrong type of pencil sharpener is punished the same as a known delinquent with a switchblade would be. Improper use of an inhaler leads to arrest as assault with a weapon. It is easy to see why we call these "Zero Intelligence Policies".

The most frightening part of the above paragraph is that all of the examples cited are real. They are not hyperbole or fiction for effect. They all actually happened in various school systems in the United States. These and countless other incidents show just how badly zero tolerance policies fail our children.

  • This is a group website dedicated to keeping an eye on, and pointing out the excesses of, bad school policies and actions. We will keep a particular focus on zero tolerance policies but will also report on abuses outside of these.
  • We will hold these policies up for discussion when possible and ridicule when deserved.
  • We do not in any way suggest an abrogation of rules and regulations, only that the punishment should fit the crime and that each incident should be evaluated on its own merits.
  • This is a fairly partisan site and the contributors share a genuine abhorrence for the subject policies but we are always interested in hearing opposing views. Vitriol and defamation will not be tolerated in posts or comments.
  • Discussion is always encouraged. To this end we have installed a subscription plug-in for comments on the site. Although not as effective as a discussion forum, this will allow readers to be informed when comments are posted to items they wish to follow.
  • When possible and practical we will give space for rebuttal from the school systems that we report on.
  • We reserve the right to use any material that is sent to as quoted content on this website.

I say, more power to them.

Nobody's Property Is Safe

This has been a bad week for personal liberty. First, the House of Representatives voted to amend the First Amendment to restrict freedom of speech that takes the form of flag desecration. Then the Supreme Court ruled today that local governments can seize private property for any reason, even to turn it over to other private owners for development purposes.

The ruling in Kelo v. New London means that nobody's property is safe from the greedy hands of government. It eviscerates the right to private property in the United States.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, was the swing vote in this decision, voting with the Court's four most liberal members (Stevens, who wrote the opinion; Souter, Ginsberg, and Breyer). The Court's other swing vote, Sandra Day O'Connor, wrote a dissenting opinion joined by the Court's most conservative members: Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas.

As talk show host Neal Boortz put it this morning: "You only own your home so long as your local government chooses to allow you to own your home."

Writing in her dissent, Justice O'Connor says:

Over two centuries ago, just after the Bill of Rights was ratified, Justice Chase wrote:

“An act of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority … . A few instances will suffice to explain what I mean… . [A] law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with such powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it.” Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386, 388 (1798) (emphasis deleted).

Today the Court abandons this long-held, basic limitation on government power. Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded–i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public–in the process. To reason, as the Court does, that the incidental public benefits resulting from the subsequent ordinary use of private property render economic development takings “for public use” is to wash out any distinction between private and public use of property–and thereby effectively to delete the words “for public use” from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who also joined in O'Connor's dissenting opinion, wrote separately:
If such “economic development” takings are for a “public use,” any taking is, and the Court has erased the Public Use Clause from our Constitution, as Justice O’Connor powerfully argues in dissent. Ante, at 1—2, 8—13. I do not believe that this Court can eliminate liberties expressly enumerated in the Constitution and therefore join her dissenting opinion. Regrettably, however, the Court’s error runs deeper than this. Today’s decision is simply the latest in a string of our cases construing the Public Use Clause to be a virtual nullity, without the slightest nod to its original meaning. In my view, the Public Use Clause, originally understood, is a meaningful limit on the government’s eminent domain power. Our cases have strayed from the Clause’s original meaning, and I would reconsider them.
Thomas continues:
The consequences of today’s decision are not difficult to predict, and promise to be harmful. So-called “urban renewal” programs provide some compensation for the properties they take, but no compensation is possible for the subjective value of these lands to the individuals displaced and the indignity inflicted by uprooting them from their homes. Allowing the government to take property solely for public purposes is bad enough, but extending the concept of public purpose to encompass any economically beneficial goal guarantees that these losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities. Those communities are not only systematically less likely to put their lands to the highest and best social use, but are also the least politically powerful. If ever there were justification for intrusive judicial review of constitutional provisions that protect “discrete and insular minorities,” United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152, n. 4 (1938), surely that principle would apply with great force to the powerless groups and individuals the Public Use Clause protects. The deferential standard this Court has adopted for the Public Use Clause is therefore deeply perverse. It encourages “those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms” to victimize the weak. Ante, at 11 (O’Connor, J., dissenting).
Justice O'Connor also hits on the perversity of the majority's ruling:
As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result. “[T]hat alone is a just government,” wrote James Madison, “which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.” For the National Gazette, Property, (Mar. 29, 1792), reprinted in 14 Papers of James Madison 266 (R. Rutland et al. eds. 1983).
In response to the decision, Scott Bullock, the attorney from the Institute for Justice who argued for the oppressed homeowners in oral arguments before the Supreme Court, said:
"The Court simply got the law wrong today, and our Constitution and country will suffer as a result. With today’s ruling, the poor and middle class will be most vulnerable to eminent domain abuse by government and its corporate allies. The 5-4 split and the nearly equal division among state supreme courts shows just how divided the courts really are. This will not be the last word."
Dana Berliner, another senior attorney who specializes in the rights of property owners with the Institute for Justice, said:
"It’s a dark day for American homeowners. While most constitutional decisions affect a small number of people, this decision undermines the rights of every American, except the most politically connected. Every home, small business, or church would produce more taxes as a shopping center or office building. And according to the Court, that’s a good enough reason for eminent domain."
Now the battle for private propery rights moves to the ballot box. We must be sure that those elected to public office, especially to city councils, county boards of supervisors, and similar local bodies, reject the idea of using eminent domain for private development purposes. State governments must add protection of property rights explicitly into their constitutions and statute law. Until then, the individual right of private property remains at risk for every American.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

'Signature Sings Broadway in Ballston'

This has been sitting in my email in-box for a while, but it's still timely, since the events described take place this weekend. (I'm going to try to see the Saturday matinee performance.)

Signature Theatre is proud to present a free concert celebration in Ballston's Welburn Square - Signature Sings Broadway in Ballston. For 15 years, Signature Theatre has dazzled audiences with innovative new work and stellar musical theatre productions on the main stage. This summer, Signature brings the thrill of live theatre to the masses as a special gift for the community. The concert will be presented on June 23, 24, and 25 at 6:30pm with a special matinee performance on June 25 at 1:00pm. Welburn Square is located between Taylor and Stuart Streets, across from the Ballston Metro, and it has welcoming open lawn and park bench seating for residents, families, and commuters. Patrons are also welcome to bring picnic blankets and lawn chairs to enjoy the event. The concert is free for everyone - no tickets required! For more information, please call 703- 820- 9771, or visit our website at

"We are thrilled to share this lively musical experience with the community," expressed Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer. "Signature has received so much encouragement from the community over the years, and this is our way of giving back." The Broadway- inspired concert is directed by Rick DesRochers, Signature's new Associate Artistic Director, and showcases an array of musical theatre favorites - classics, hits from newer shows, and of course, Sondheim favorites. The cast includes celebrated Signature performers Bob McDonald (Putting it Together), Evan Casey (Allegro, Ten Unknowns), Lauren Williams (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Allegro), Clifton Duncan (One Red Flower), Lynn Neal (Mack and Mabel), and Florrie Bagel (2004 Overtures Graduate, Signature's Musical Theatre Institute). The hour-long concert includes unforgettable songs from My Fair Lady, Rent, Chicago, South Pacific, Into the Woods, Wicked, Sweeney Todd, and many others. All members of the community are welcome and encouraged to enjoy the outdoor performance.

Signature Sings Broadway in Ballston is sponsored by Maxine Isaacs and James A. Johnson; The Annette and Theodore Lerner Family Foundation; BNA, Inc.; Freddie Mac; Heritage Tile and Escrow; Washington Theater Review; Arlington Community Foundation; International Humanities, Inc.; IDI Group Companies; The JBG Companies; Reed Smith; Northern Virginia Community Foundation; Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley, Emrich & Terpak, P.C.; and Fraser Consulting, Inc.

Directed by Rick DesRochers
Thursday, June 23 at 6:30pm
Friday, June 24 at 6:30pm
Saturday, June 25 at 1:00pm & 6:30pm

Welburn Square across from the Ballston Metro
4200 Block of North Fairfax Drive
(Between Stuart & Taylor Streets)

Signature Theatre is a non-profit professional theatre dedicated to producing contemporary plays and musicals and to the development of new work. Now in its 15th season under Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, Signature has been nominated for 191 Helen Hayes Awards for excellence in the professional theatre and has been honored with 42 Helen Hayes Awards, including Outstanding Musical in 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2005 and Outstanding Play in 1999. Signature Theatre is a member of the Theatre Communications Group, The League of Washington Theatres, the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, the Arlington Arts Alliance, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Gay Victims of Communism

Hunter College Professor Wayne Dynes has a good piece on the gay victims of communism on his blog. Dynes acknowledges that he can only address the topic superficially, because little research has been done (or at least published) on how Marxist regimes persecuted (and continue to persecute) their gay and lesbian citizens.

He offers this historical illustration of Communist attitudes toward homosexuality:

A well documented episode is the visit of the great French writer André Gide to the Soviet Union in 1936. He went as a fellow traveler and returned deeply shaken. He wrote two books about the experience, the first circumspect, the second more outspoken about the social misery and absence of freedom of expression in the USSR. The Communists and their allies turned viciously on him. Some relied on innuendo, speaking of his problems with "morals" and his devotion to young men. The Communist pundit André Wurmser went further, producing a scurrilous article entitled "A Poor Bugger: André Gide." Another role, then, that homophobia played among Communists was to punish those who stepped out of line by advertising their proclivities. Something similar happened when Alger Hiss, after his exposure as a spy for the Soviets, sought to discredit his accuser Whitaker Chambers by talk about his homosexuality—-as if this had anything to do with the matter of Hiss' guilt.

Wayne's discussion of Castro's Communist Cuba and how its treatment of gay men and lesbians contradicts the left/liberal mythology about the Cuban paradise is worth a visit. He recommends a book, Gays Under the Cuban Revolution, by "an honest leftist, Allen Young."

Baby Names and the 49th Parallel

In his 1990 book, Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in his preface:

Knowledge of Canada or the United States is the best way to gain insight into the other North American country. Nations can be understood only in comparative perspective. And the more similar the units being compared, the more possible it should be to isolate the factors responsible for differences between them. Looking intensively at Canada and the United States sheds light on both of them.
In a chapter entitled "The Canadian Identity," Lipset, who is now professor emeritus at George Mason University, notes:
The cultural and structural differences among western countries generally and between Canada and the United States in particular have declined in some respects. The diffusion of values, the comparable economic changes, and the development of rapid transportation and almost instantaneous communication seem to be producing a common western culture. Yet, many traditional national differences persist, some in weaker form, and new ones emerge (an example is the rate of unionization, which is now much higher in Canada than in the United States).
In an effort to test this hypothesis, somehow I got the notion to compare Canadian and American baby names, to see if there was anything discernibly different.

Based on some quick research I did, differences may be eliding and our naming cultures may be converging. If you meet an adult today named Ian or Gordon or Douglas, chances are pretty good that he's Canadian, not American. New generations of Canadians and Americans seem not to carry over the distinctions attached to the names of their parents and grandparents.

This may not be true in the future. I looked up the most popular baby names in the United States and Canada for the year 2003. Here are the top ten names for baby boys and baby girls. Note the substantial overlap, especially for the girls. (Names that appear on both lists are marked with an asterisk [*] and an indication of where they fall on the other list.):

USA Boys

1. Jacob* (Canada #4)
2. Michael
3. Joshua* (Canada #2)
4. Matthew* (Canada #3)
5. Andrew
6. Joseph
7. Ethan* (Canada #1)
8. Daniel
9. Christopher
10. Anthony

Canada Boys

1. Ethan* (USA #7)
2. Joshua* (USA #3)
3. Matthew* (USA #4)
4. Jacob* (USA #1)
5. Ryan
6. Logan
7. Nicholas
8. Tyler
9. Dylan
10. Connor

USA Girls

1. Emily* (Canada #1)
2. Emma* (Canada #2)
3. Madison* (Canada #3)
4. Hannah* (Canada #5)
5. Olivia
6. Abigail
7. Alexis
8. Ashley* (Canada #8)
9. Elizabeth
10. Samantha

Canada Girls

1. Emily* (USA #1)
2. Emma* (USA #2)
3. Madison (USA #3)
4. Sarah
5. Hannah* (USA #4)
6. Sydney
7. Megan
8. Ashley* (USA #8)
9. Taylor
10. Paige
It looks like Canadian and American kindergartens may be practically indistinguishable in a couple of years, at least from the class lists teachers and principals will use.

Whether any conclusions can be drawn from this list (or even a comparison of longer lists, such as the top 50 baby names in each country), I don't know. Perhaps this is just an example of the trivial sort of research that can be done simply because we now have the capacity to do so, through Google and other search engines. (At the time Lipset wrote his book in the 1980s, it probably would have been necessary to travel to Statistics Canada/Statistique Canada in Ottawa for an American researcher to uncover the data for comparison.)

And what does it mean that the ninth-ranked names for girls are "Elizabeth" and "Taylor"? Really, Elizabeth Taylor. Someone is playing a cosmic -- or at least continental -- joke on us, eh?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

New Addition to ODBA

With the first day of astronomical summer, the Old Dominion Blog Alliance (see sidebar) has a new member: Hans Mast, who describes himself as

a conservative (politically & religiously), Mennonite, 17-year-old computer programmer from Catlett, VA who loves to play basketball, volleyball and most any sport. I am Manager, Computer-guy, and Customer Service and Sales Rep for Golden Rule Travel & Communications.
I first noticed his blog through a recent posting on Canada. In it, he writes:
I was shocked at the level of ignorance that Canadians that I have talked with have about the Gomery inquiry and the sponsership scandal (perpetrated by the Liberal party). I asked a couple about it and intially they just looked at me blankly, but then after ten seconds or so, their faces would light up and they would say, "Oh... Yeah.. I think I heard about that. Some scandal in Ottawa." They didn't seem to know which party was involved. Stephen Harper (leader of the Conservative party) needs to get his act together on public education. Apparently the Liberals are losing points in the polls, slightly.
Since about 25 percent of traffic to my own blog originates in Canada, I appreciate Americans who can actually say something intelligent about our Canadian neighbors.

I remember a few years back, having dinner at the Dupont Italian Kitchen in Washington with about 15 libertarian and conservative friends. One of my tablemates and I got into a heated discussion of some aspect of Canadian politics -- the details evade me now -- when suddenly the whole group went silent, staring at us. Someone chirped up, "Are you guys really arguing about Canadian politics?" We nodded yes, as though nothing was odd, until the cultural context hit us and we all broke into a fit of laughter -- and, naturally, continued our conversation as though nothing had happened.

So I promise my Canadian readers more Canadian content, besides irregular updates on Dave Moffatt and his brothers.

War on Drugs, War Against the Poor

I came across an article in the South African newspaper, The Star, published in Johannesburg, about futile efforts to stamp out marijuana cultivation by peasants in neighboring Swaziland.

If you are not familiar with Swaziland, it is

a small landlocked country of about 17,360 square kilometers, with a population of approximately 1 million in 1999, at a density of 57 persons per square kilometer. Swaziland has some natural mineral resources (coal, asbestos, timber) but is a predominantly market economy based largely on wholesale and retail trade, agriculture and light industries. The Gross Domestic Product per capita is approximately US$1,300.
According to one recent report, "two-thirds of Swazis [live] in chronic poverty, and unemployment [reaches] beyond 40 percent." And the World Food Program reports:
The poorest and most food insecure households are headed by people with the least employment opportunities and very few assets

Even in years of reasonable harvest and stable prices, some two-thirds of households live below the poverty line. The recent dramatic increase in food prices have pushed a greater proportion of people below the poverty line and worsened the lives of those already struggling

66 percent of Swaziland's population live below the poverty line

The economy is largely dependent on agriculture and manufacturing sectors

As a land-locked country, with limited domestic markets, it relies on exports of agricultural commodities for economic development and food security

Arable land only represents 11 percent of the total area; the rest is permanent pasture, forest or woodland

The average unemployment rate in Swaziland is about 40 percent, although this figure is higher in rural areas

So it should come as no mystery why Swazi farmers turn to a cash crop that actually earns them cash in an effort to rescue their families from abject poverty. They grow "dagga" (a South African term for marijuana, weed, pot). The Johannesburg Star article explains:
Prized for its potency across the world, "Swazi Gold" is grown in the remote northern mountains of this tiny African kingdom, then smuggled into neighbouring South Africa and on to Europe and North America.

Police in impoverished Swaziland say that despite dousing acres of towering plants with deadly insecticide, they are losing the war on dagga to dirt-poor peasants bent on protecting their most lucrative crop.

"We can't win this war," says inspector Ngwane Dlamini, head of criminal investigation in the northern region of Hhohho.

"This is just a drop in the ocean - the people are poor and they can get much more money for marijuana than maize or vegetables," he says as he sniffs at a 2m plant in one makeshift field north of the regional capital Pigg's Peak.
To put a human face on the situation, correspondent Rebecca Harrison found the widow of a peasant farmer. It's hard to argue with her reasoning:
Like thousands of other peasant farmers in Hhohho, a woman who identifies herself only as Khanyesile ekes out a living from 30 limp dagga plants hidden in thick undergrowth behind her rickety shack.

"My husband died and I lost my job at the local furniture factory - I needed money to feed my five children and send them to school," she says from beneath a flowered headscarf.

Khanyesile, 45, has been jailed and fined for her dagga. Police have twice sprayed and burned her tiny fields and once local thieves stole the entire crop just before harvesting.

But a patchy income from selling shiny stones to tourists at the side of the road is not enough to feed her family, and she has no intention of giving up her plants despite the threat of up to six years in prison.

"You can't get money for maize... and it is difficult to grow, but a man from South Africa comes every month to buy my dagga," she says.

Most of her neighbours, Khanyesile says, also grow dagga, and homesteads club together to minimise risk for the man from South Africa, who arrives on foot across the mountains.

"I don't understand why the police want to stop us growing dagga - it is the only way we can make money."
While small-scale farmers like Khanyesile barely eke out a living by growing pot in a tiny patch in their backyards, the potential for profits that will pull them out of poverty is great:
Swazi marijuana, which is said to be more potent due to the soil and weather conditions, fetches a handsome premium.

On the streets of Johannesburg, Swazi Gold is sold in 30g small bank bags, or "bankies", for R70 apiece, while Amsterdam coffee shops charge the equivalent of around R50 for one gram.

Khanyesile says she gets around R1 000 for 2kg.
(Current exchange rates will bring approximately 6.7 South African rand for each American dollar. So R1,000 is about $150.00 -- a lot of money in a country where the average income is barely more than $100 per month.)

Why do the United States and other developed countries subsidize a global war on drugs that is effectively a war on the survival of the poor? Why do they do it even when its futility is so apparent? As Harrison puts it in her Star article,
[M]any experts say police are wasting their time, since dagga is embedded in Swazi culture, smoked for centuries by farmers and used for medicine by traditional healers.

Dlamini [the drug enforcement agent] says even the chief of his home village would smoke a dagga pipe twice a day as an accepted part of Swazi tradition.
Futile and cruel. Cruel and futile. Those are the words to describe the war on drugs.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Young Zach Among the Philistines

There is a courageous young man in Tennessee who, as of this writing, is being subjected to psychological torture at the whim of his parents, simply because he was honest with them about his being gay.

I am late in coming to this story, which apparently has swept the blogosphere over the past two weeks or so. Consequently, Zach's blog now contains thousands of messages of sympathy and support. The mainstream media (MSM) are just now catching up to it.

Here is how the Washington Blade describes the story in its edition for Friday, June 17:

A Tennessee teen is claiming in a blog that he was forcibly admitted into an “ex-gay” camp by his parents after coming out as gay, gaining attention from media outlets and gay activists.

Zach, a 16-year-old from Bartlett, Tenn., was sent to the camp Refuge, associated with Love In Action near Memphis June 6 and is to remain there at least until June 20, according to his June 3 blog entry.

Love In Action, an ex-gay ministry, is accredited by the ex-gay group Exodus International and supported by numerous area churches in Memphis. Officials with the ministry on Wednesday would not confirm whether the teen was enrolled. A friend contacted by this newspaper would not confirm Zach’s full name. His parents could also not be identified.

Gay activists tracking the teen’s plight have organized daily protests since June 6 outside Love In Action’s facility in Memphis. The organization scheduled a press conference for June 16, after this publication’s press deadline, to address the growing controversy.

“LIA is calling upon the community to extend open-minded consideration and tolerance towards young people with same-sex attraction who are currently undergoing the organization’s youth program called Refuge,” according to a press statement from the organization.

Wayne Besen, a gay author who tracks the “ex-gay” movement, said the teen is likely to experience psychological damage.

"This is significant child abuse,” said Besen, author of “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals & Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth."

A local Memphis TV station, WMC-TV, did a report on Love in Action, the organization that tries to brainwash gay teenagers. (If you don't listen to the words, can you tell which of the two interview subjects is openly gay and which one is the "ex-gay"?) The report can be found here.

Protests have been organized and took place at the Love in Action facilities in Memphis over the past several days. The protesters got the word out through their own blog.

According to Zach's blog -- which he has updated despite fear of punishment for doing so by the "counselors" at Refuge -- the organization has rules that seem designed to induce Stockholm Syndrome in its "clients", by cutting them off from the outside world and anyone who cares about their well-being. Zach laments:
What is with these people...? Honestly.. how could you support a program like this? If I do come out straight I'll be so mentally unstable and depressed it wont matter.. I'll be back in therapy again. This is not good--
Some of the rules are downright bizarre. I was struck by this one (in addition to bans on clothing made by Abercrombie & Fitch or Calvin Klein):
6. No television viewing, going to movies, or reading/watching/listening to secular media of any kind, anywhere within the client's and the parent's/guardian's control. This includes listening to classical or instrumental music that is not expressly Christian (Beethoven, Bach, etc. are not considered Christian). The only exception to the media policy is the weekly movie. [emphasis added]
Bach not Christian? What about the cantatas? "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"? The St. Matthew Passion? Or, for that matter, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis?

These people are philistines, pure and simple. Perhaps young Zach's blog will turn out to be the equivalent of young David's sling.

Friday, June 17, 2005

'All the President's Men'

Earlier this evening, I went to see All the President's Men at the Vinegar Hill Theatre in Charlottesville. The theatre is running the film during the coming week in reaction to the Watergate revival in the news lately, since Mark Felt came out as Deep Throat and Bob Woodward offered his confirmation of that revelation. (According to IMDB, Vinegar Hill is the only cinema in the country showing All the President's Men this week.)

It wasn't until I sat down in my seat that I realized that today was the anniversary of the Watergate break-in of June 17, 1972, the event that led to the discovery of what John Dean called a "cancer growing on the presidency" and the premature resignation of Richard Nixon.

All the President's Men Robert Redford Dustin HoffmanThat brought to mind a memory of what I did on August 9, 1974 -- the day Nixon resigned.

I was a 15-year-old high-school student attending the Georgetown University Summer Forensics Institute in Washington, D.C. For those of you who are not familiar with summer debate institutes, they are quite intense. So preoccupied were we with the work we had to do to assemble our evidence, prepare our cases, and get ready for the end-of-institute tournament, we were largely unaware of the history being made virtually in our backyard. With little access to television or radio news broadcasts and little interest in reading newspapers for purposes other than the debate work at hand, we had not realized that the articles of impeachment against Nixon had been filed and that the government was paralyzed by scandal.

A digression: Reader who have not participated in competitive debate or forensics may not comprehend just how intense and insular summer debate institutes can be. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine notes in his 2001 book, Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture, that the "summer institutes at Georgetown University and at Northwestern in the late 1960s and early 1970s were particularly influential in forging and fostering the rapid-fire, evidence-intense national circuit style that dominates debate in many regions."

Fine then goes on to explain:

Debate institutes are intense times; participants want to "do debate," with sleep and leisure secondary. According to one participant, fifteen hours a day of debate work was common. One debater at an institute explained that she generally awoke at 5:30 a.m. and worked until breakfast at 7:00. After breakfast she worked on her research until 8:30 a.m., when she attended a general meeting and then a theory class until lunch at noon. From 1:00 to 3:00 she attended a research class, followed by research in the library, then dinner. After dinner, the individual lab groups met. In the evening she worked in the library, and from 10:00 p.m. until midnight she met with friends and worked on her projects. From midnight until 1:00 a.m. she worked in her room. At 1:00 a.m. was lights out but she "found ways to keep lights on, flashlights, to keep working." Given the amount of work and lack of sleep, it is worth noting that when I asked her about her most enjoyable experience, without hesitation she responded "institute" (interview). At institute, participants have nothing to do but "deal with ideas." I do not suggest that every student enjoys the rigors of institute life, or that all are equally successful -- horror stories exist -- however, working eighteen hours a day can be a peak experience, when coupled with a deep and profound sense of community.
The only dispute I have with that paragraph is that I don't recall any of my teammates working as few as 15 or 18 hours a day at the Georgetown institutes of the 1970s (when I was a student) or the early 1980s (when I was a coach).

Digression ends, and back to August 1974:

Still, word reached us that something big was happening, and on the evening of August 8, a large group of us gathered in a dorm lounge in New South Hall to watch Richard Nixon's address to the nation, in which he announced his resignation would take effect at noon the next day.

We may have been teenagers, but we were not unaware of the historical significance of what was happening. So a few of us -- I think there were 11 altogether -- decided that the following day, Friday, we would have dinner at a restaurant in the Watergate Hotel, the place where it all began.

So there we found ourselves, just short of a dozen 15- and 16-year-old boys, dressed in suits and ties and (as is the wont of teenage boys) shoes that did not match the rest of our outfits, gathered around a table at the Watergate. Here's the kicker: At the end of the evening, the bill for all of us came to just over $200, which seemed exorbitantly expensive to my Midwestern eyes. But can you imagine buying dinner for 11 hungry teenagers at a fancy D.C. restaurant today for less than $10 per person. (I'm not certain, but I think our bill included two bottles of red wine -- this was the 1970s, after all, and being a teenager was no obstacle to drinking wine with dinner.)

Now, let's return to the movie:

To my surprise, All the President's Men holds up remarkably well after almost thirty years. I had only seen it once before, not when it first came out (1976), when I was far too busy being a high school senior, but a couple of years later, when it played on campus at Georgetown for a bargain price ($1.50, I think, or perhaps $2.00). So my memories were vague, at best, in terms of the details, although I naturally remembered the basic structure.

What makes the movie work is that it is a mystery despite the fact that we know the outcome. It is simultaneously a political thriller and a demonstration of the plodding nature of investigative journalism without becoming tedious about the latter. What's more, it's a movie about politics without reference to political points of view. Nixon and his 1972 opponent, George McGovern, might as well be off-screen fictional characters. Even the Vietnam War, the major political issue of the day, is mentioned only in passing. Politics is irrelevant to the plot because the plot is about puzzle-solving.

In other words, a viewer would not have to have lived through the Watergate era to enjoy seeing All the President's Men today. In fact, this movie is so well-constructed, it holds its appeal to a wider audience much better than does the farcical satire, Dick, which came out in 1999 and covers some of the same territory. To understand and really enjoy Dick, one really must have either lived through Watergate or have studied it in depth. Such intimate knowledge is not necessary to understand or enjoy All the President's Men. (That said, Dick is a very funny movie; I really like Dick and even own the DVD and soundtrack CD. It would be interesting to see these two films as part of a double bill.)

I may go back to see All the President's Men next week with some friends who are not old enough to remember the times, just to see if their reaction justifies my theory.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Who's Debating? Whose Debates?

Jerry Kilgore, now the official (not just presumed) gubernatorial nominee of the Republican Party of Virginia, has announced flatly that he refuses to participate in any debates that include both independent candidate Russ Potts (a Republican state Senator from Winchester who is breaking with his party with this maverick bid) and Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, the Democratic party's nominee.

As he did in the primary campaign, when he refused even to acknowledge that he had an opponent, George Fitch, Kilgore says he is focused solely on Kaine.

Does Kilgore's refusal stem from fear or complacency? Does he lack confidence in his own abilities as a debater? Is he shy or arrogant?

Here's the key question: How many debates featuring Kaine, Potts, and an empty chair will it take before Kilgore relents?

Abolishing Cash: Fantasy or Nightmare?

I am in the middle of doing some home renovations, and it became necessary for me to move around some boxes and files from one room to another. As it happened, I came across a crumpled piece of paper, upon which was glued a newspaper article. It turned out to be an opinion article I wrote in early 1991, shortly after I joined the Libertarian Party and after my first campaign for public office.

Reading the article (which, eerily, appeared in the Charlottesville Daily Progress, years before I ever imagined living in Mr. Jefferson's town), I was struck by how relevant it is given current concerns about the USA PATRIOT Act, the Treasury Department's proposed "Know-Your-Customer" regulations, the government's heavy-handed anti-money-laundering activities, and a wide range of proposals to require uniform identification documents for all Americans.

I had completely forgotten writing this article, which had been prompted by an op-ed piece in the New York Times that was so offensive and frightening that it cried out for an immediate response. Although I do not mention the original piece by title in the article, thanks to Google, I was able to track it down as "Abolish Cash," by Harvey F. Wachsman, published on December 29, 1990. (Does that seem like a century ago rather than a decade and a half?)

I found an excerpt from Wachsman's article on a rather odd web site (but that's easier than paying to use the New York Times archives for such an ephemeral purpose). Here is a key passage:

If all the people who do business in cash were forced to report their incomes accurately — if the underground economy were forced to the surface — the Government could collect an additional $100 billion a year for the national treasury — without raising taxes. States and cities, many in serious financial trouble, would also benefit from collecting previously unpaid income and sales taxes.

How do we create a system to keep cash businesses honest? Eliminate cash. This may sound revolutionary, but the exchange of cash for electronic currency is already used in nearly all legitimate international business transactions...

Here's how it would work. The Government would change the color of the currency and require all old money to be exchanged at the Treasury.

Then, all the new currency would be returned by its owners to the bank of their choice...

We would offer a period of tax amnesty to encourage compliance, but as a practical matter compliance would be assured because after a certain date all currency would be worthless.

In place of the paper money, we would receive new cards — let's call them Americards — each biomechanically impregnated with the owner's hand and retina prints to insure virtually foolproof identification...

Fugitives would be easier to track down, legal judgments easier to enforce, illegal aliens simpler to spot, debtors unable to avoid their responsibilities by skipping town...

Some people might be concerned about possible abuses of civil liberties. But there would be a record of anyone who entered another's account — officials would be granted access only after electronic verification of their hand and retina prints. Civil and criminal penalties for theft of information would be devastatingly severe...
Then, in a paragraph that makes me smile because it both underscores its own intended meaning and simultaneously undermines it by showing how technology has advanced so unpredictably in the subsequent years, Wachsman writes:
Americard may seem like a drastic approach but its advent is inevitable. In the days of the telegraph and the pony express, who could have imagined that one day there would be a phone on every street corner in Manhattan?
(For my younger readers, I should explain that, years ago, most people were unable to carry their telephones with them. For their convenience, there were "pay phones" in public places that accepted coins in return for a few minutes of conversation. These have largely disappeared but they can be seen in museum exhibits and Superman movies.)

Here is my response to Harvey F. Wachsman, published in the Charlottesville Daily Progress on January 20, 1991:
Liberty imperiled by surveillance
By Richard E. Sincere Jr.

Great seer that he was, Benjamin Franklin must have had Harvey F. Wachsman in mind when he wrote: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Wachsman, a neurosurgeon and lawyer, suggested in a recent New York Times article that the U.S. government forbid cash transactions of any kind for, among other reasons, catching tax cheats, stymieing muggers and making life more difficult for drug dealers. To do this, he proposes a central computer system that will track all transactions, from buying a hot dog to trading blue-chip stock.

In place of paper money, he writes, “we would receive new cards – let’s call them Americards – each biomechanically impregnated with the owner’s hand and retina prints to insure virtually foolproof identification.”

This is an intrusive assault on liberty and privacy that creates far more opportunities for state interference in the personal lives of citizens than any of the most draconian measures endured in pre-Gorbachev society. The potential for abuse, despite Wachsman’s lame assurances to “some people ... concerned about ... civil liberties” is limitless.

Wachsman tries to claim that there would be civil and criminal penalties for unauthorized use of information from “Americard” transactions. Such penalties already exist for those who delve into our personal lives today, but did that stop the harassment of Martin Luther King by J. Edgar Hoover? Did it stop the illegal use of Internal Revenue Service files by the Johnson and Nixon administrations in efforts to deal with political enemies? Does it stop the National Enquirer and other salacious tabloids from releasing intimate details about celebrities’ private lives?

Establishing a central computer bank with detailed information about the purchasing habits of every American simply would make easier the jobs of spies, gossip-mongers, and political tricksters.

Imagine: People will shy away from making embarrassing but essential purchases – such as hemorrhoid medicine or condoms – knowing that an accessible record of the transaction will be kept. Republicans who want to contribute to a Democrat’s campaign will demur for fear their colleagues will find out. Closeted homosexuals will be shut up even further, afraid to subscribe to a gay magazine or make a donation to an AIDS charity.

Wachsman brushes aside such objections to his fantasy by saying: “I’d like to ask every parent whose child walks to school through a gauntlet of drug dealers, everyone whose home has been robbed, whether they think their rights are jeopardized by a system that could solve all these problems?”

The gut reaction of many people will, alas, be that it does not harm them or deprive them of fundamental rights. Emotions run high on issues like this, clouding our judgment. Reasonable reflection on Wachsman’s proposal to abolish cash reveals that it is, in a word, chilling. It is undeserving of serious consideration.

Unfortunately, Wachsman’s views are symptomatic of so many in today’s society who fail to heed Ayn Rand’s observation in her novel, The Fountainhead, that “civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” Wachsman wants to step backward from civilization toward computerized savagery. His proposal, like those of many others who want to solve the deficit or solve the drug problem, sacrifices liberty for safety and subordinates personal freedom to tribal control.

Richard Sincere was recently the Libertarian candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates in Arlington’s 49th District. He is also an issues analyst and writer.

Liberty Film Festival Announced

A news release arrived in my email box with this lede:

The 2005 Liberty Film Festival, Hollywood's premier event for conservative and libertarian film, will be held this October 21-23, 2005 at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. The Liberty Film Festival showcases films that celebrate the traditional American values of free speech, patriotism, and religious freedom.
That's the week before the Virginia Film Festival, so I am unlikely to be able to attend both. Still, the Liberty Film Festival promises some tempting features:
The festival is currently accepting feature and short film submissions (both documentary and narrative). The festival will hold three juried competitions for Best Feature Film, Best Short Film, and Best Screenplay (unproduced). Best Feature Film and Best Short Film winners will each be awarded the Libertas Prize. The Screenplay Competition will have a $1000 prize. The deadline for all entries is August 21, 2005.

The Liberty Film Festival continues its innovative programming this year with a Producers Series, which includes panels on Film Production, TV Production, Screenwriting, and Film Finance & Distribution. The Festival will also feature a debate on the 1950's blacklist. Festival speakers will include Oscar and Emmy-nominated producers, directors, writers and actors. The Festival will also feature a Tribute to John Wayne, and a 100th Birthday Tribute to Ayn Rand.
Just so we don't think this is something completely on the fringe, the festival organizers do some impressive name-dropping:
The Liberty Film Festival is also pleased to announce its Board of Advisors (in alphabetical order): Stephen K. Bannon, Co-Chairman of Genius Products (distributor of films under the Wellspring, AMC & Sundance Channel labels), actress Morgan Brittany ("Dallas," "Melrose Place"), philanthropist Paul Harberger (President, Foundation for Free Markets), film critic and national talk show host Michael Medved ("The Michael Medved Show," "Right Turns"), and award-winning producer Douglas Urbanski ("The Contender," "Nil by Mouth"). Our Board of Advisors bring a wealth of experience to L.A.'s most cutting-edge film festival.
This is apparently the second in the series. I vaguely recall hearing about the festival last year, but the news release reminds us of some substantial media coverage:
The first Liberty Film Festival drew 3000 people in October of 2004 and attracted national media attention in the L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Newsmax, Weekly Standard, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR.

Four films showcased at the festival -- "In The Face of Evil," "Celsius 41.11," "WMD," and "Impact: The Passion of the Christ," went on to theatrical distribution. The festival also spawned the popular conservative film blog LIBERTAS, which has recently been covered in Variety, USA Today and on CNN.
If I have some other reason to be in La-La Land in October, I may try to get tickets for the Liberty Film Festival. It would be an interesting event to write about.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

790 Years of Magna Carta

Today is the 790th anniversary of the promulgation of Magna Carta (the "Great Charter"). This commemorative article has appeared, with minor changes, in various newspapers across the United States since the first version was published in 1991. This particular adaptation, with references to the late playwright Bob Cassler, whom I knew through libertarian circles, appeared in The Metro Herald in June 1995:

Magna Carta's Rich Legacy Endures After 780 Years
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

Alexandria playwright Robert Cassler's historical drama, Second in the Realm, has its Virginia premiere on June 15 by the FairStage Theatre Company at the Lanier Theatre in Fairfax City. The play tells the story of England's King John and his conflict with Archbishop Stephen Langton, a conflict that led to King John's submission to his barons at Runnymede on June 15, 1215, when he put his seal on Magna Carta ("the Great Charter"). Magna Carta has rightly been called the first great document of freedom in the Anglo-American tradition and its power endures today.

Magna Carta does not have the ringing phrases that every schoolchild knows, such as "We hold these truths to be self-evident...." or "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people...." It is, in fact, a long, pedestrian document written in a sort of medieval bureaucratese. Its importance lies in something other than its prose, even in something other than the meaning it held for the king and barons who composed it.

Winston Churchill summed it up best when he said that Magna Carta tells us that "there is a law which is above the king and which even he must not break." In other words, Magna Carta was the first document to assert that government must be limited and that free men and women have rights that the government cannot take away or violate. As such, Magna Carta is the predecessor of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Constitutional scholar Bernard Schwartz, in his history of the U.S. Bill of Rights called The Great Rights of Mankind, argues that in Magna Carta "one sees for the first time in English history a written instrument exacted from a sovereign ruler by the bulk of the politically articulate community that purports to lay down binding rules of law that the ruler himself may not violate. In Magna Carta is to be found the germ of the root principle that there are fundamental individual rights that the State -- sovereign though it is -- may not infringe."

The two most important principles, hidden among layers of explanations of feudal rights and responsibilities, are what we have come to know as "no taxation without representation" and "the right to a jury trial," including the first protection against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment and the first guarantees to individuals of the "due process of law."

On taxation, Chapter 12 of the Charter says: "Scutage or aid shall be levied in our kingdom only by the common counsel of our kingdom," a clause that to the barons at Runnymede meant that the king could not arbitrarily and unilaterally change the terms of their feudal relationship, and that the king could not collect new taxes without the advice and consent of his barons.

On due process, Chapter 39 says: "No free man shall be captured or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed ... except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land." This means that the rule of law -- with all its transparency, accountability, predictability, and reliability under the wary eye of the people assembled as a jury (or, today, as a congress or parliament) -- shall hold precedence over the arbitrary decisions of the king.

Today, a copy of Magna Carta is enshrined at the National Archives alongside the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Original copies -- sealed at Runnymede -- are displayed in English cathedrals. Another copy was purchased by Ross Perot for his personal collection. These honors underscore what the legal historian Frederic Maitland said: that because of its longevity and influence, Magna Carta "rightly becomes a sacred text."

It is awe-inspiring, this document signed by a puny king (as portrayed by Shakespeare in his play, King John) at the insistence of the barons of his kingdom. After nearly eight centuries, it still plays a vital role in the lives of men and women around the globe. One need only look at the recent revolutions in Eastern Europe and Africa to see Magna Carta's intense, inspiring, innate power.

Magna Carta's enduring legacy of limited government and individual freedom should be gladly and frequently celebrated. To this end, Robert Cassler's new play, Second in the Realm, dramatically illustrates the long-lasting strength of Magna Carta. It reminds audiences -- and all of us -- how the impulse to freedom that beats within the human soul was first set on paper 780 years ago "in that meadow that is called Runnymede."

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Flag Day Reflections

In addition to being primary election day in Virginia this year, June 14 is Flag Day, commemorating the adoption by the Continental Congress of what became the Stars and Stripes so familiar to Americans.

Timed for the occasion, the Washington Post ran a review of a new book on the history of the American flag on Sunday, June 12. Historian Richard Ellis reviewed Marc Leepson's Flag: An American Biography. In his Book World review, Ellis wrote:

The many different meanings Americans have attached to their flag are conscientiously explored in Marc Leepson's new "biography" of the American flag. In the early years of the republic, Leepson reminds us, the flag carried little of the emotional freight that it bears today. The Star-Spangled Banner waved over military forts, naval ships and commercial vessels, but ordinary Americans back then would not have dreamed of flying it themselves. Gradually the flag became a more important symbol in American life, but not until the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861 did it become the preeminent patriotic symbol that it has remained to this day.

Leepson's narrative of the development of Americans' flag fetish includes a number of tales well worth telling, especially the late-19th-century fabrication of the myth that a seamstress by the name of Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. But the story sags at times under the weight of dates and facts, as well as occasionally lifeless prose. In describing an 1865 Civil War victory parade, for instance, Leepson notes that Washington, D.C., "still mourning President Lincoln's assassination, did not go all out during those two days in the flag-display department however."

* * *

Leepson concludes that the "simple fact is that -- despite its changing meaning over the years -- since 1777 the American flag has symbolized the values and ideals upon which this nation was built." He is perhaps guilty of overstating his case here -- it is difficult to reconcile this "simple fact" with his own earlier observation that "in the post-Revolutionary War era, the flag, as a symbol of the nation, played a minor role" -- but he is surely correct that throughout most of American history the flag has represented not only a nation but a set of ideals.
About a year and a half ago, I weighed in on a controversy regarding the American flag: the proper place of the Pledge of Allegiance. This article was published in the Metro Herald on October 17, 2003:


To the surprise of many, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider an appeal of a ruling last year by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that said the presence of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance creates an unconstitutional mixing of government and religion. The Ninth Circuit's decision in the case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow was met with ridicule and disdain when it was issued, and observers of the judicial scene thought the Supreme Court would want to avoid getting involved in this rather emotional argument, better known for its heat than its light.

Needless to say, conservative groups and their spokesmen weighed in fast with their views. When the appeals court ruled, some called for the impeachment of the judges who voted against the phrase "under God." Others welcomed the Supreme Court's taking on of the case as a sign that an obstacle has been raised to those who would destroy our common culture.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission told the Baptist Press: "The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that the pledge is unconstitutional is outrageous even for the looniest of all the federal appeals courts in the land." Jay Sekulow, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, added: "The Pledge is part of an American tapestry of time-honored and historically significant traditions that has come under attack."

These conservatives might not be so eager in their remarks if they knew the history of the Pledge of Allegiance and its intended purpose. While most of us today view it as benign or sentimentally patriotic, a look at its origins illustrates the sinister -- one could say "un-American" -- features underlying the Pledge.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "allegiance" as "the obligations of a vassal to a lord." Similarly, Black's Law Dictionary defines it as "obligation of fidelity and obedience to government in consideration for protection that government gives."

Writing in the May 2001 issue of the journal The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, published by the Foundation for Economic Education -- one of the oldest pro-freedom think tanks in the United States -- author and activist Jim Peron reports that the author of the Pledge of Allegiance was Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist agitator who was the cousin of Edward Bellamy, author of the socialist utopian novel, Looking Backward (1888).

Francis Bellamy composed the Pledge for a magazine called The Youth's Companion, which first published it on September 8, 1892, and promoted it vigorously. As Peron relates the story, "Bellamy, like his cousin, wanted to use government schools to help promote a socialist agenda. He felt that one way of encouraging this agenda would be the teaching of state loyalty. To this end he wrote a pledge, which students across the country were asked to take. With a few minor changes this pledge is what is now called the Pledge of Allegiance."

Peron goes on to note that "Bellamy attempted to accomplish several goals with his Pledge of Allegiance. He saw it as a means of inculcating support for a centralized national government over the federalist system of the Founding Fathers." Moreover, Peron writes, Bellamy "originally toyed with the idea of making the Pledge more openly socialistic, but decided that if he did so it would never be accepted."

Why not? Because the American republic was founded on constitutional principles that are antithetical to socialism and its parallel, feudalism, in which the citizen is a mere vassal to a superior lord. The Pledge of Allegiance stands on its head the American commitment to universal but individual rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence). In its place it puts fealty to the will of the state and the subjugation of the individual to an amorphous "society."

Whether or not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in government schools is unconstitutional will be decided soon by the U.S. Supreme Court. But conservatives who view the Pledge as sacrosanct should not be too quick to condemn an "adverse" ruling without first thinking about the implications of the history and the text of the Pledge itself. If they do, they might realize that they are supporting something quite at odds with what they hold dear about America.

While the Supreme Court hears this case and decides how to rule, we citizens have an opportunity to reflect on the Pledge's implications, as well. The unsettling conclusions we draw should lead to deeper wisdom and a better appreciation of individual liberty as promised by the Constitution.

Richard Sincere is author of Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise and The Politics of Sentiment, among other works.
We know now that the U.S. Supreme Court decided, precisely a year ago (on June 14, 2004) that it is still permissible for schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance despite the presence of the phrase "under God." The Court did not rule on the merits of the case, however, noting merely that Michael Newdow, who brought the original lawsuit, lacked standing to do so. Speaking for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:
In our view, it is improper for the federal courts to entertain a claim by a plaintiff whose standing to sue is founded on family law rights that are in dispute when prosecution of the lawsuit may have an adverse effect on the person who is the source of the plaintiff’s claimed standing. When hard questions of domestic relations are sure to affect the outcome, the prudent course is for the federal court to stay its hand rather than reach out to resolve a weighty question of federal constitutional law. There is a vast difference between Newdow’s right to communicate with his child–which both California law and the First Amendment recognize–and his claimed right to shield his daughter from influences to which she is exposed in school despite the terms of the custody order. We conclude that, having been deprived under California law of the right to sue as next friend, Newdow lacks prudential standing to bring this suit in federal court.
The issue has gone away -- for the moment. I only wish the conservatives who are the most vociferous proponents of the Pledge would realize how anti-American "pledging allegiance" is.

Because it is a social ritual, I still participate in Pledge ceremonies as a matter of courtesy. This is simply a matter of respect for the people I am with, much the same as bowing one's head when a dinner party host says grace (even if you are a non-believer) or standing for the singing of "O Canada" before a game at which an American baseball team is playing the Montreal Expos -- er, that is, the Toronto Blue Jays. (I guess they don't still sing "O Canada" at RFK Stadium for Washington Nationals games.)

But being polite does not necessarily suggest approbration as much as it does mild toleration and considered resignation.