Monthly Archives: October 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity: The Experience

Two parts to this post. First is the summary of my experiences. Second is my thoughts about it after the fact, which I’ll post tomorrow.

My brother came up for the weekend and we biked over to the Mall a little before 11am. I was too busy navigating pedestrians to get a look at the size of the crowd from the top of Capitol Hill, but when we rolled across 3rd St SW, I had a definite “Holy Shit” moment when I realized just how crowded it was already. We locked up our bikes in front of the Air and Space Museum and worked our way into the crowd. We didn’t get all that far, because it was ridiculously crowded. But it was an exceedingly polite gathering. Bumps and jostlings and stepped on feet were followed by sorries and excuse mes. Everyone was rather gleefully looking around to read the various signs.

My brother and I found some standing space right on the inside edge of the gravel path around the main grassy areas of The Mall. We had a clear sight of one of the big screens and the speakers which were showing clips from The Daily Show and Colbert Report which had led up to the Rally. We got to chatting with some of the folks around us, discussing the crowded metro ride they had, pointing out funny signs and costumes. It made me really wish I’d followed through on my idea to dress as the Grim Reaper and attach an “I <3 Fear” sign to the scythe.

The Roots started up right at noon and they and John Legend put on a pretty nice show for about 20-30 minutes. Then the Mythbusters came out and had us do the wave a few times, front to back. Cameras followed it and showed it on the screens. The crowd was pretty solid all the way back to the Washington Monument, which is about a mile away from the stage (and there were people crowded on the museum steps flanking the Mall who occasionally chanted “Louder! Louder!” because the speakers weren’t carrying the sound out to them.) The wave took just under 2 minutes to travel that distance. They did some other silly things as well and then had us all jump simultaneously and measured the “groundswell” on a seismometer. Apparently the crowd had a total impact approximately equal to the impact of a car traveling 35 mph.

After the Mythbusters, the show proper started. Jon Stewart was the main focus, Colbert serving as the foil that his character definitely is. The general dynamic was of reasonableness vs. fear. The two clearest examples of that occurred during one of the musical acts and during a brief “debate”, the latter of which served primarily to set up Stewart’s closing speech.

The music set in question was amazing in itself. Stewart started it off by bringing out the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, who adopted the name Yusuf Islam when he converted and is now performing just as Yusuf. I hadn’t even known he was performing again as he left the music business following his conversion in the 70s, but Wikipedia tells me he’s been back on stage since 2006. I’ve always loved his music, and getting to hear and see him perform “Peace Train” live gave me chills. And when Colbert interrupted him and said that there was no way he was getting on that train, I turned to the folks we’d been chatting with and said, “If he brings out Ozzy for ‘Crazy Train’, I’m gonna shit myself.” (I’m a pretty big metal head, but have never seen Ozzy perform.) And a couple of moments later, my pants were metaphorically heavier and smellier. The two went back and forth for a bit before leaving the stage arms across each other’s shoulders to let Stewart and Colbert argue about which artist should be playing. And then out came the Ojays to play “Love Train”, which satisfied Colbert’s desire for fear because of the possibility of STDs.

Until the final sequence, the rest of the rally was mostly forgettable. Each comedian gave out a few awards recognizing the sane people and the people who have promoted fear who have made a mark in the public consciousness recently. A few musical guests who no one really cared about — Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow and some others — but nothing especially offensive to the ears or mind.

Then Stewart came out to give a “keynote speech”, but before he could get going, Colbert came out to turn it into a debate. Colbert used a series of video montages of news media clips promoting fear to “defeat” Stewart’s special guests who showed that generalizations didn’t apply to all people who had those labels (e.g. Kareem Abdul Jabbar to show that Muslims are normal). But Stewart was “saved” by a Daily Show correspondent dressed as Peter Pan who got the crowd to cheer their support of Stewart and sanity and in a rather transparent gimmick showed that by working together, Americans can defeat the people who are promoting fear.

That led to Jon Stewart’s actual closing speech. And boy oh boy what a speech. The Vietnam veteran, Harley-Davidson riding biker next to me turned to his wife and said, “This is the best damned speech I’ve heard in 40 years.” If you haven’t seen the speech, you should definitely watch it. Everyone wanted to know why the rally was held, and I think this speech tells you pretty clearly, as Stewart says, the reason why he wanted to hold the rally. Why we came is something else entirely, but the point Stewart makes about the quality of the American public is something I wholeheartedly believe.

Scouting and Mormons and discrimination, oh my!

Most people are aware of the Boy Scouts of America’s policy preventing gay men from serving as troop leaders. Slightly less well known is the fact that atheists are not allowed to serve either. (So despite my having earned my Eagle, I would not be allowed to serve as a troop leader in an official capacity.) But generally speaking, a belief in any God is enough to qualify a person as a leader.

But apparently, not if you don’t believe in the same God as the members of the church your troop is organized through. The Mormon parents of two boys who joined a Cub Scout pack at a church which belongs to the Presbyterian Church in America (not the same as the Presbyterian Church (USA)) were rejected as leaders because of their Mormon faith.

This story is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. The first is that the idea of rejecting leaders and scouts of differing faiths is something that seems entirely anathema to Scouting as I remember it. It is not uncommon for varying denominations of Christians to belong to the same troops, and they also often include Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and even Buddhist members. Many troops are organized and run through individual churches, but I can’t ever recall hearing of anyone being rejected for not belonging to that church, even if they weren’t Christian.

The second is that it is odd that a Mormon family would not belong to the scout troop run through their own church. The Mormon church uses Scouting as their youth organization program, and almost every male Mormon in the US is involved in Scouting at some point in their life. I don’t know the background behind this family not joining the Scouting program at their own church, but I would hazard a guess that it is rather uncommon in areas where there are decent Mormon populations, and Matthews, NC is close enough to Charlotte, that I don’t see that being a problem.

The fact that the district office said that this discrimination was acceptable is also odd to me. Mormons have been widely distributed throughout the BSA organization, and that the national and regional offices aren’t raising a stink over this is surprising.

From the religious side of things, it’s an interesting conflict. Mormons, as the article discusses, reject the concept of the Trinity. Trinitarianism is one of the early principles of Christianity, as defined by the Council of Nicaea (summed up in the Nicene Creed and latter the Apostle’s Creed.) But more importantly, the Mormons believe that following the death of Jesus Christ, there was a great apostasy due to the corruption of the word of God, and that the revelation that Joseph Smith received was the return of the true word. As such, the Old and New Testaments themselves are not enough to understand Jesus’ message and that without additional understanding, they are not enough for full salvation. As a result, both traditional Christians and Mormons argue that the other side is not truly “Christian”.

Either way, as a supporter of the basic principles and goals of Scouting (their discrimination against homosexuals is a side effect of fundamentalist interpretations of those principles), I find this decision by the local troop and district office to be upsetting. Scouting has a long history of tolerance and acceptance of differing religious beliefs, with over 35 different religious groups awarding badges reflecting a Scout’s study and understanding of those groups’ beliefs, often earnable even if the Scout is not a member of that religious group. Rejecting leaders because of a difference in faith is just shocking and completely antithetical to the very principles of Scouting.

An excerpt

George said:

“You know we are on a wrong track altogether. We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can’t do without.”

George comes out really quite sensible at times. You’d be surprised. I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber.

How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha’pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, and with–oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! The dread of what will my neighbor think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal’s iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!

It is lumber, man–all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment’s freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment’s rest for dreamy laziness–no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lilies white and yellow, or the sombre-waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchids, or the blue forget-me-nots.

Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed only with what you need–a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.

You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water. You will have time to think as well as to work. Time to drink in life’s sunshine–time to listen to the Aeolian music that the wind of God draws from the human heartstrings around us–time to–

I beg your pardon, really. I quite forgot.

Well, we left the list to George, and he began it.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!), Jerome K. Jerome

A testing point

The President of the United States of America, authorized by act of Congress, March 3rd, 1863, has awarded, in the name of the Congress, the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller, United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.

Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism while serving as the weapons sergeant in Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3312, Special Operations Task Force 33, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan, during combat operations against an armed enemy in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, on January 25th, 2008.

While conducting a combat reconnaissance patrol through the Gowardesh Valley, Staff Sergeant Miller and his small element of U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers engaged a force of 15 to 20 insurgents occupying prepared fighting positions. Staff Sergeant Miller initiated the assault by engaging the enemy positions with his vehicle’s turret-mounted Mk 19 40-millimeter automatic grenade launcher, while simultaneously providing detailed descriptions of the enemy positions to his command, enabling effective, accurate close air support.

Following the engagement, Staff Sergeant Miller led a small squad forward to conduct a battle damage assessment. As the group neared the small, steep, narrow valley that the enemy had inhabited, a large, well-coordinated insurgent force initiated a near ambush, assaulting from elevated positions with ample cover.

Exposed and with little available cover, the patrol was totally vulnerable to enemy rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire.

As a point man, Staff Sergeant Miller was at the front of the patrol, cut off from supporting elements and less than 20 meters from enemy forces. Nonetheless, with total disregard for his own safety, he called for his men to quickly move back to cover positions as he charged the enemy over exposed ground and under overwhelming enemy fire in order to provide protective fire for his team.

While maneuvering to engage the enemy, Staff Sergeant Miller was shot in the upper torso. Ignoring the wound, he continued to push the fight. Moving to draw fire from over 100 enemy fighters upon himself, he then again charged forward through an open area in order to allow his teammates to safely reach cover.

After killing at least 10 insurgents, wounding dozens more and repeatedly exposing himself to withering enemy fire while moving from position to position, Staff Sergeant Miller was mortally wounded by enemy fire. His extraordinary valor ultimately saved the lives of seven members of his own team and 15 Afghan National Army soldiers.

Staff Sergeant Miller’s heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty and at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.

The starkly matter of fact way in which Medal of Honor citations are written has always been more emotionally stirring to me than any amount of florid prose, riddled with imagery and metaphor. The citation for Staff Sergeant Miller was read yesterday afternoon at a presentation at the White House, following a brief speech by President Obama. Despite the 8 years that the war in Afghanistan has been going on, SSgt Miller is only the third recipient of the Medal of Honor for service there. A fourth recipient has been announced, the first living recipient since the Vietnam War.

Regardless of your thoughts on the propriety of the war, the strategy and tactics being employed, or anything else, it is important to take time to think about the men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other lesser known areas of occasional violence, and to honor their sacrifices. Not the sacrifices they make for our country, but the sacrifices they make for the other men and women they are serving with, the men and women they are living and working with, both American and international, and the sacrifices their families make each time that one of them has to leave home.