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Friday, March 07, 2003

For that matter, I'd prefer we pledge allegiance to the Constitution, not a flag.

http://www.suntimes.com/output/eb-feature/cst-edt-ebert05.html

Public prayer fanatics borrow page from enemy's script

Chicago Sun-Times
March 5, 2003

BY ROGER EBERT

The Bush administration has been dealt a setback in its campaign to allow prayer in our public schools. The full 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has voted 15-9 to back the 2-1 vote by its earlier panel finding the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional because of the words "under God."

The pledge, written in 1892, had those words added to it in 1954, during the Eisenhower administration, and I remember a nun in our Catholic school telling us we had to say it because it was the law--but it was wrong, because it violated the principle of separating church and state.

We started every day with classroom prayer at St. Mary's School, of course, but Sister Rosanne said there was a difference between voluntary prayer in a private religious school and prayer in a school paid for by every taxpayer--a distinction so obvious that Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft are forced to willfully ignore it.

Ashcroft said after the ruling that his Justice Department will "spare no effort to preserve the rights of all our citizens to pledge allegiance to the American flag"--a misrepresentation so blatant that it functions as a lie. The pledge remains intact and unchallenged. The court said nothing about pledging allegiance to the flag. It spoke only of the words "under God"--which amounted, the court said, to an endorsement of religion.

This is really an argument between two kinds of prayer--vertical and horizontal. I don't have the slightest problem with vertical prayer. It is horizontal prayer that frightens me. Vertical prayer is private, directed upward toward heaven. It need not be spoken aloud, because God is a spirit and has no ears. Horizontal prayer must always be audible, because its purpose is not to be heard by God, but to be heard by fellow men standing within earshot.

To choose an example from football, when my team needs a field goal to win and I think, "Please, dear God, let them make it!"--that is vertical prayer. When, before the game, a group of fans joins hands and "voluntarily" recites the Lord's Prayer--that is horizontal prayer. It serves one of two purposes: to encourage me to join them, or to make me feel excluded.

Although some of the horizontal devout are sincere, others use this prayer as a device of recruitment or intimidation. If you are conspicuous in your refusal to go along, they may even turn and pray while holding you directly in their sights.

This simple insight about two kinds of prayer, which is beyond theological question, should bring a dead halt to the obsession with prayer in public places. It doesn't, because the purpose of its supporters is political, not spiritual. Their faith is like Dial soap: Now that they use it, they wish everyone would. I grew up in an America where people of good breeding did not impose their religious convictions upon those they did not know very well. Now those manners have been discarded.

Our attorney general, John Ashcroft, is theoretically responsible for enforcing the separation of church and state. He violates his oath of office daily by getting down on his knees in his government office every morning and welcoming federal employees to join him in "voluntary" prayer on carpets paid for by the taxpayers.

His brand of religion is specifically fundamentalist evangelical. As his eyes lift from beneath lowered lids to take informal attendance, would he be gladdened to see a Muslim, a Catholic, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Baha'i, a Unitarian, a Scientologist, all accompanied by the chants of Hare Krishnas?

Under Bush we have had a great deal of horizontal prayer, in which we evoke the deity at political events to send the sideways message that our enemies had better look out, because God is on our side. This week's Newsweek cover story reports that the Bush presidency "is the most resolutely 'faith-based' in modern times."

Because our enemies are for the most part more enthusiastic about horizontal prayer than we are, and see absolutely no difference between church and state--indeed, want to make them the same--it is alarming to reflect that they may be having more success bringing us around to their point of view than we are at sticking to our own traditional American beliefs about freedom of religion. When Ashcroft and his enemies both begin their days with displays of their godliness, do we feel safer after they rise from their devotions?

(Copyright Chicago Sun-Times Inc.)

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He's Not Dead Yet.

Thanks to Tom Heald on the World News Now Discussion Group

Stop clapping, this is serious

from The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald
March 1, 2003

Tom Lehrer is still feisty and funny, but the king of sophisticated satire tells Tony Davis there's no place for his style of humor now: the world just wouldn't get it.

"I'm not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn't figure out what sort of song I would write. That's the problem: I don't want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporize them."

The speaker is Tom Lehrer, arguably the most famous living satirical songwriter. And, in a roundabout way, the New York-born singer, composer and mathematician is explaining why he has been all but silent since 1965.

It's 50 years since Lehrer's first recordings, and 38 years since his last album of new material, yet word that we've secured an interview has people around the office launching into such unlikely yet infectious ditties as The Vatican Rag, Smut, and Lehrer's ode to spring pursuits, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.

It also has people asking with a surprised tone: "Is he still alive?" Yes, Lehrer is very much with us, despite being quiet for so long (he once told The New York Times he had encouraged rumors of his demise in the hope of cutting down junk mail). And the writer of the nuclear holocaust anthem We Will All Go Together When We Go, and the prescient Pollution, is as feisty and as funny as ever. He just isn't doing anything about it.

Lehrer is that rarest of beasts- a performer who was never seduced by the roar of the crowd and who rejected show business well before it had a chance to do the same to him. His concert tours were brief and motivated either by a desire to visit a new place (such as Australia, in 1960) or to test and polish material for a recording. Even after his biggest hit, the 1965 album That Was the Year that Was, he quickly returned to academic life rather than cash in with concert tours.

"I wasn't really a performer by temperament," he explains today. "I can't imagine Rex Harrison doing the same My Fair Lady every night for years. That would drive me crazy.

"I didn't feel the need for anonymous affection, for people in the dark applauding. To me, it would be like writing a novel and then getting up every night and reading your novel. Everything I did is on the record and, if you want to hear it, just listen to the record."

"The record" is a body of work comprising fewer than 50 songs, yet one that has made an indelible impression, not just with the many musicians and humorists who cite him as a hero.

In 1999, Martin Gilbert, the biographer of Winston Churchill and famous chronicler of the 20th century, named Lehrer as one of the 10 great figures of the previous 100 years. "Lehrer was able to express and to expose, in humorous verse and lilting music, some of the most powerful dangers of the second half of the century... Many of the causes of which Lehrer sang became, three decades later, part of the main creative impulse of mankind," he said.

Boredom wasn't the only reason Lehrer gave up the industry that made him famous and, thanks to a very canny business sense, surprisingly wealthy (his first album was recorded for just $15 and sold more than 370,000 copies on his own label). Years ago, Lehrer quipped: "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize." And he wasn't being entirely flippant. Almost everything about the world of entertainment and politics has changed and he doesn't see any room for a modern-day Tom Lehrer.

"With audiences nowadays I see it with these late-night (TV show) people, Jay Leno, David Letterman and so on the audience applauds the jokes rather than laughs at them, which is very discouraging.

"Laughter is involuntary. If it's funny you laugh. But you can easily clap just to say (deadpan): `Aha, that's funny, I think that's funny.' Sometimes they cut to the audience and you can see they are applauding madly. But they're not laughing."

Then there are the issues themselves. When Lehrer talks in his still-boyish voice about vaporizing Bush, he quickly adds: "And that's not funny." It's hard not to laugh, nonetheless, if only because of the sudden change of tone accompanying the word vaporize.

"OK, well, if I say that, I might get a shock laugh, but it's not really satire," he says.

The issues during the Cold War days of mutually assured destruction were, Lehrer insists, easier to make fun of. "Things are much more complicated. Feminism versus pornography, for example. There are a lot of feminists who think it is bad, but others think it's good.

"I have become, you might call it mature I would call it senile and I can see both sides. But you can't write a satirical song with `but on the other hand' in it, or `however'. It's got to be one-sided.

"The real issues I don't think most people touch. The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn't ban land mines."

Telling sophisticated jokes about politics is something Lehrer believes works only in clubs such as the hungry i in San Francisco. Those clubs don't exist any more, nor, he reasons, do the audiences that once filled them.

"The people who go to comedy shows are kids that don't know anything, I think, and so you have to make jokes about your girlfriend or your family or that kind of thing only, make them as vulgar as possible."

Television has taken over the mainstream comedy beat, he says, and generally won't stand for partisan political humor because it will offend half the potential audience. "One of the problems I see with these comics on television, particularly cable television, is, since you can say anything in terms of sex and scatological references and so on, therefore, you should do it. So they all limit themselves to these subjects and this vocabulary. My objection is that it is a lack of articulateness."

He adds that it's not funny just to say something insulting about the president. "Irreverence is easy, but what is hard is wit. Wit is what these comedians lack." Lehrer admires Eddie Izzard and a small number of other modern comics, but has no solutions to what he sees as a decline in political satire.

He says he couldn't do anything with the Israelis and the Palestinians "because I'm against everybody and I can't take a side". Nor can the man who found so many snappy couplets and delightful tunes in impending nuclear doom see any toe-tapping inspiration in September 11, the invasion of Iraq, or the thing he seems most keen to talk about the Columbia space shuttle explosion.

"They are calling it a disaster instead of a screw-up, which is all it was. They're calling these people heroes. The Columbia isn't a disaster. The disaster is that they're continuing this stupid program.

"One of the things I'm proudest of is, on my record That Was the Year that Was in 1965, I made a joke about spending $20 billion sending some clown to the moon.

"I was against the manned space program then and I'm even more against it now, that whole waste of money. And so, when seven people blow up or become confetti, then they've asked for it. They're volunteers, for one thing."

Not the sort of sentiments that will get you air time in the US at the moment, he agrees. And clearly signs of a man who is getting highly passionate, yet who acknowledges such a condition is bad for humor. "That's what happened to Lenny Bruce. He got angry, and then he wasn't funny any more. You have your choice there."

It would be wrong to assume, however, that Lehrer, 74, is bitter and twisted. He proves quick-witted, lively and extremely friendly. He keeps a keen watch on the world from his Santa Cruz beach house and, although he stopped teaching two years ago, he still "hangs out" around the University of California at Santa Cruz.

He writes songs for friends and special occasions "nothing recordable," he insists and, for his own pleasure, plays selections from the heyday of the American musical theatre on his piano. That's no surprise. Lehrer's sense of rhyme and rhythm is as acute as the best Broadway songwriters and, for 25 years, he taught a course on the American musical, alongside mathematics.

He says Stephen Sondheim "is the greatest lyricist the English language has produced and that's not an opinion, that's a fact". He also reveals a soft spot for The Simpsons, which he calls the most consistently funny show on television.

Talk of the manned space program turns to questions on Lehrer's hilariously black song about Nazi rocket scientist-turned-NASA star recruit Wernher von Braun.

He says that a line from the 1965 song
"Once the rockets are up
Who cares where they come down?
That's not my department
Says Wernher von Braun"
is his most quoted.

"The idea that Wernher von Braun was a hero didn't make me angry so much as, well, it was just so silly. It was one thing to hire him, OK, but to make him a hero, which a lot of people did... he may have helped us land on the moon a few years earlier than we did, but who cares?"

The widespread rumor that von Braun sued Lehrer proves to be a furphy. "I've heard that a lot, that I have to pay all my royalties for the song to him and so on and so forth. No, that's one of those myths. There is no possible way he could have sued me."

Lehrer's decision to give a rare interview was at least partly motivated by his desire to talk about his Australian tour of early 1960, during which he was banned, censored, mentioned in several houses of parliament and threatened with arrest. He calls it "the highlight of my life".

When he arrived in Australia, he hadn't sold a huge number of records, but press had been given to Princess Margaret's affection for the recordings of this "sick singer" and "professional ghoul". In an era when most American performers rushed in and out quickly, Lehrer stayed for two months, and his highly quotable quips made him a press and television favorite.

"The Sydney and Melbourne concerts were fine. I think the best audience I've ever had was in Melbourne. But Brisbane was a problem because the chief of police said I couldn't sing the boy scout song, particularly. That was the one that bothered them."

That song was Be Prepared!, including such revised scout pledges as:
"Don't solicit for your sister, that's not nice
Unless you get a good percentage of her price."

He says: "The chief of police couldn't come out with any specific threat and so I took a chance and I sang the song and everything was fine. The Sydney and Melbourne papers were having a wonderful time reporting this but, in Adelaide, they caught on and they didn't want to be made fools of, so they made me sign a petition saying that I wouldn't sing five songs. And, since I was using the Town Hall and it was sold out already, there wasn't much I could do."

The ban also covered I Hold Your Hand in Mine, the tale of a man who cut off his girlfriend's hand and kept it as a "precious souvenir". "The Australian Opera had just done Salome in Adelaide," remembers Lehrer, "where she cuts off the guy's head and carries it around, but they objected to my song."

Unfortunately for authorities, they couldn't ban what they didn't know about, so Lehrer was able to sing several songs then unreleased in Australia, such as The Masochism Tango
("Take your cigarette from its holder
And burn your initials in my shoulder
Fracture my spine
And swear that you're mine
As we dance to the Masochism Tango.")

By the time he left, it was fair to say Lehrer was more famous in Australia than anywhere else.

His second album, launched here soon after the tour, carried more song parodies than political comment pieces. It wasn't until That Was the Year that Was in 1965 that Lehrer's songs became overtly political. In the scathing National Brotherhood Week, he sang:
"Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants
And the Hindus hate the Muslims
And everybody hates the Jews."
(Lehrer has a Jewish background, but is not religious.)

He caused even more outrage (and plenty of mirth) with The Vatican Rag, a swipe at the Catholic Church's attempt to modernize, which set a proposed "hymn" to a brash show tune
("Get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
There the guy who's got religion'll
Tell you if your sin's original
If it is, try playin' it safer
Drink the wine and chew the wafer
Two, four, six, eight
Time to transubstantiate").

And he gave US foreign policy one serve after another in songs such as Send the Marines.

Sadly, though, Lehrer is of the opinion that while satire may attract attention to an issue, it doesn't achieve a lot else.

"The audience usually has to be with you, I'm afraid. I always regarded myself as not even preaching to the converted, I was titillating the converted.

"The audiences like to think that satire is doing something. But, in fact, it is mostly to leave themselves satisfied. Satisfied rather than angry, which is what they should be."

His favorite quote on the subject is from British comedian Peter Cook, who, in founding the Establishment Club in 1961, said it was to be a satirical venue modelled on "those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War".

Lehrer says you can't satirize real evil. "You can make fun with Saddam Hussein jokes... but you can't make fun of, say, the concentration camps. I think my target was not so much evil, but benign stupidity people doing stupid things without realizing or, instead, thinking they were doing good."

Lehrer enjoyed quoting scathing reviews on his album covers ("More desperate than amusing," said the New York Herald Tribune; "He seldom has any point to make except obvious ones," reported the Christian Science Monitor) and referring to himself as the derriere-garde in American music. Those few interviews he has granted in recent years are also filled with self-deprecation.

"Well, that's part of the act," he says with a laugh. "I can't say `I'm the greatest performer that there ever was'. But, if I say `you probably won't like these songs', it works."

It's his way of saying he's proud of what he's done. "There are some words here and there I would probably change but, for the most part, I'm delighted that I don't have to be ashamed of it."

---

In my youth... there were certain words you couldn't say in front of a girl; now you can say them, but you can't say "girl."-Tom Lehrer

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Thursday, March 06, 2003

Let's Leave God Out of This, OK?

People seem to forget that "God" does not appear in the U.S. Constitution.

Many of the Founders were devout Christians, even members of the clergy. Yet they did not mention God in our nation's supreme charter. I like to think it's because they felt our Republic could stand on its own merit, and would be evaluated based upon our words and deeds. No need to say God is on our side; it should be obvious.

In the words of Susan B. Anthony, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice that it always coincides with their own desires."

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Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Inconsistency

So O'Hare is all messed up, or so say the local teevee hairdos. It's hard to judge from my apartment, 260 feet above the street, but I'd guess downtown Chicago received about five inches of snow. Why O'Hare is having problems is beyond me; during the big storm in Pittsburgh three weeks ago, Greater Pitt was able to keep on running. Cancelled flights were caused by destination conditions, not airport runway conditions. I suspect it's just sloppy reporting; O'Hare's probably running just fine, and the delays are due to airlines cancelling flights last night in anticipation of the predicted foot of snow.

Another inconsistency: it appears free speech is a relative term, at least in Albany. Imagine the cheek of this guy, advocating such an obviously seditious position:

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - A man was charged with trespassing in a mall after he refused to take off a T-shirt that said "Peace on Earth" and "Give peace a chance."

Mall security approached Stephen Downs, 61, and his 31-year-old son, Roger, on Monday night after they were spotted wearing the T-shirts at Crossgates Mall in a suburb of Albany, the men said.

The two said they were asked to remove the shirts made at a store there, or leave the mall. They refused.

The guards returned with a police officer who repeated the ultimatum. The son took his T-shirt off, but the father refused.

"I said, 'All right then, arrest me if you have to,'" Downs said. "So that's what they did. They put the handcuffs on and took me away."

Downs pleaded innocent to the charges Monday night. The New York Civil Liberties Union said it would help with his case if asked.

Police Chief James Murley said his officers were just responding to a complaint by mall security.

"We don't care what they have on their shirts, but they were asked to leave the property, and it's private property," Murley said.

A mall spokeswoman did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Monday's arrest came less than three months after about 20 peace activists wearing similar T-shirts were told to leave by mall security and police. There were no arrests.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Consistency

I'm supposed to return to Pittsburgh from Chicago tomorrow so, of course, Chicago is supposed to get walloped with heavy snow today. I was stuck in Pittsburgh three weeks ago during that city's last major storm. The flights were on time, but the roads to the airport were not navigable.

At least here I can get to O'Hare by train. Not much stops the Blue Line, thank goodness.

For those of you who suspect this whole Iraq thing is a plot for control of Middle Eastern oil, take a look here. Interesting stuff.

Oh, and just to clear the air, I will not be seeking my party's nomination for the office of President of the United States.

What the hell. Everyone else is doing it.

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Monday, March 03, 2003

FBI's Top Ten List

This list, at the FBI's web site, makes things a lot clearer. Protecting civil rights comes in at number five, which explains a great deal. Also note that white collar crime is higher on the list than violent crime. I think what's most offensive here is that it's given as a list of "priorities," like a to-do list. "Protect your civil rights? Sorry, didn't get to that. We ran out of money. Maybe next year. May I see your ID?"

---

I survived the Hungry Man breakfast from Hell. My daughter sent me an email saying she and her husband had tried it, and were disgusted by it, although Alex, my grandbeagle, seemed to enjoy the eggs. I'm heading back to Pittsburgh Wednesday night; maybe a quick stop at the market on the way home from the airport might be in order.

---

I should note that I feel rather horrible today. A few days ago I was in the elevator in my apartment and a sweet little four year old girl with an angelic smile and pony tails sneezed directly into my face. Any time you have to use a putty knife to get dried kid snot off your glasses, you know you're doomed.

Anyway, the Breakfast From Hell made me really sleepy and I took a nice nap. Or a I had a transient ischemic event. Whatever.

The eggs are bad, though.

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Sunday, March 02, 2003

The Breakfast from Hell

Breakfast from Hell

Click the photo or here for more information. Thanks to Danny Burstein of the World News Now discussion list.

Coincidentally, I encountered this culinary wonder during my examination of the new Dominicks down the street (see previous entry, below).

I immediately bought two weeks' worth.

You couldn't tell it from my intimidating bulk, but I'm actually quite healthy. My doctor says, "You're in great shape for someone in your shape."

Great blood sugar, good cholesterol numbers, and my triglycerides are right on the button.

The last time I had a comprehensive physical/stress test, the doctor told me I had the heart and lungs of an Olympic swimmer. "Swell," I told him. "But where's the body?"

I'm actually coming down with something, I think. The tickle in my throat on Friday has turned into something far more sinister.

I think it's time for a hearty breakfast.

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kgbreport.com used to be kgb.com until December, 2007 when the domain name broker Trout Zimmer made an offer I couldn't refuse. Giving up kgb.com and adopting kgbreport.com created a significant problem, however. I had acquired the kgb.com domain name in 1993, and had since that time used kgb@kgb.com as my sole e-mail address. How to let people know that kgb@kgb.com was no longer kgb@kgb.com but rather kgbarkes@gmail.com which is longer than kgb@kgb.com and more letters to type than kgb@kgb.com and somehow less aesthetically pleasing than kgb@kgb.com but actually just as functional as kgb@kgb.com? I sent e-mails from the kgb@kgb.com address to just about everybody I knew who had used kgb@kgb.com in the past decade and a half but noticed that some people just didn't seem to get the word about the kgb@kgb.com change. So it occurred to me that if I were generate some literate, valid text in which kgb@kgb.com was repeated numerous times and posted it on a bunch of different pages- say, a blog indexed by Google- that someone looking for kgb@kgb.com would notice this paragraph repeated in hundreds of locations, would read it, and figure out that kgb@kgb.com no longer is the kgb@kgb.com they thought it was. That's the theory, anyway. kgb@kgb.com. Ok, I'm done. Move along. Nothing to see here...

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