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Saturday, July 31, 2004  

When British historians attack.  I guess this has to belong to one of two categories—(1) "Blimey, where have these people been?" or (2) "Guess who just fell off the turnip lorry." The Reuters news service reported today on an English newspaper's story about a group of British historians who've just discovered that Hollywood films are guilty of "sloppy," "formulaic," "shameless," "irresponsible" and "grotesque" distortions of history, especially in the Americanization of British history. Among the examples of films that seem to have left an entire generation of children confused about history: Troy, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Braveheart, The Patriot, U-571, and Saving Private Ryan, in which all mention of British or Allied troops was omitted. [See Independent, August 1, 2004]

The historians didn't appear to offer any suggestions for dealing with this problem—and what could they say, really?  Hollywood is in the business of entertaining people through artistic films, and apparently that means lying most of the time.

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posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 11:48 PM |

Wednesday, July 28, 2004  

Louisiana Cat.  After twenty years of marriage my wife decided to go to work full-time. I didn't make enough money for our lifestyle in our gated community, so she would leave the house through the front door in the morning and return the same way in the evening.

At her new job she met a woman who was moving with her second husband to Baton Rouge for their new life there, but they couldn't take their cat Gus and they wanted to know if we would take him. He was a big cat, she said, but a really loving, fun cat. He was at the vet's office, waiting; if no one would take him, she said, he'd have to go to the Humane Society and we all know what happens there.

So I went to the vet's to see Gus and he was the biggest American short-hair cat I'd ever seen. He was friendly, almost totally orange, but a little shy and stayed toward the back of what was really a dog cage until the friend, Beverly, reached in and took Gus out.

He was a handsome cat with inquisitive hazel eyes and enormous paws; he was neutered as a kitten and his front claws had been removed then, too. He wasn't sure what to make of me at first, and that was because he didn't get along with Beverly's new husband. Gus hated him, she said, and the new husband hated Gus. Once he left his briefcase open in the morning and before he left for work Gus jumped in it and peed all over his papers. That's why Gus wasn't going with them to Baton Rouge. He loved to stay on their screened porch and sit on a chair and look out, and whenever he wanted to play, he'd grab a toy in his mouth and walk on two legs towards you. There was a spark of intelligence in those cat eyes and he had personality, and I said we'd be happy to take care of Gus and we took the big orange cat home with us.

When he first got to the house, he stayed out of sight for about two days straight. I'm still not sure where he was—he was, after all, a really big cat—but he'd sneak out for food two or three times and to use the litter box. After that, he pretty much made himself very visible.

My children all loved him, although they couldn't handle his one big habit—in fact, I think I was probably the only one who could. If he liked you, he would get on the nearest countertop and jump onto your shoulders and stretch himself around your neck. He weighed about twenty-five pounds, so he was a lot to carry around, and he would stay like that until you pushed him off. The kids couldn't do that for more than a minute or so. He didn't give any warning that he was going to do the jump, so a few people were almost knocked over by this. I didn't mind it and could carry the weight, so Gus spent a lot of time on my shoulders.

He made friends with the family very quickly and once in a while he would come around the corner with a toy in his mouth, walking on his hind legs. He wouldn't walk too far like that, but perhaps he did it as often as he did because we always made a big deal about it, cheering and clapping to see this happy sight, and more so because as big as he was, he looked just like a toddler making his first steps.

We wouldn't let Gus outside. He had not been with us long enough and he wasn't at all an outside cat, so we had to stay vigilant about keeping him in the house. That was hard to do, with four children and their friends coming in and out of the house, but we were able to manage it for about four months. We didn't have a screened porch, so Gus struggled to find a way to look out on the world. I had a series of three tall windows in my study, so he made himself at home on the library table there and watched the world in the back yard from his new perch, until he made up his mind that he needed to see parts of the world that weren't visible from the table in my study.

One day we noticed that we hadn't seen Gus for several hours. We looked throughout the house for him and concluded that he had slipped out of the house.

Two days later a friend called me to say that there were remains of a large orange cat by the highway outside our subdivision. I made the children stay behind as I took a walk in that direction; I found him in the grass near the entrance to the neighborhood. He had been dead for at least a day; he was hit by a car, probably. I walked back to the house and then drove the car around with a shovel and a plastic bag. He was rotten and stinking in the hot Louisiana sun and the trunk of the car smelled like dead flesh for a week. I buried him in an out-of-the-way spot in the woods behind the house.

A year later my wife said she wanted a divorce and I knew then that Gus had loved me much more than my spouse.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 6:15 PM |

Tuesday, July 27, 2004  

Separating the inseparable.  The big chill for Christians has to be the thought of an American Church, a kind of modern western theocracy with specific toe-the-line doctrines. This certainly seems to be the direction Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Judge Roy Moore, Pat Robertson, and many others want to take the country. But if there is a culture war coming in the US, it's going to be hard to find out who's who on which side of which fence. At the center of the frays will be abortion, faith-based initiatives, gay marriage, stem-cell research, pro-this, pro-that. At its epicenter, though, will still be the issue of church-state separation, which is now less a substantive matter than a dark mantra of convenience—convenient for the religious when one creed encroaches on another in a public forum, convenient for the nonreligious when that forum begins to stink religious.

The Culture War's battlegrounds are everywhere, in plain sight: courthouses, public parks, schools, hospitals, the workplace, even churches themselves. Recently a PAC in Kansas, the Mainstream Coalition, has been sending volunteers out to local church services to monitor the political activities of local pastors, the aim there being to catch a church in the throes of some political energy. If caught by these thought-police, it gets turned over to the IRS in an effort to have its tax-exempt letter ruling revoked, much like what happened in 1992 to the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, NY. In that case, the church took out full-page ads in both USA Today and the Washington Times urging Christians to vote against Bill Clinton's presidency on the basis of his positions on abortion, homosexuality, and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in schools. This attracted the attention of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and the IRS, which revoked the church's tax-exemption ruling. The church sued to have its exemption back, but later in Branch Ministries vs. Rossotti, 99-5097 the appellate court upheld the decision. For that matter, the AU more recently asked the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of Jerry Falwell's ministry for its support of George W. Bush's re-election. [See "Falwell Confidential" at Jerry Falwell Ministries]  The IRS had earlier revoked the tax-exempt status of Falwell's television ministry for 1986 and 1987 after finding that the ministry had channeled donations toward support of congressional candidates.

Aside from the mere wordy assault, what would prevent the pure church-state separatists from effective attacks on pastors, churches, synagogues, mosques, ministries, etc., is the elimination of the 501(c)(3) designation which permits the tax-deductibility of gifts to "charitable organizations," but then this is would surely upset the delicate financial balance of religious bodies in the US, thus forcing anyone of faith to continue teetering instead on the slim line separating church and state. I say "slim line" because one struggles to find a religion or faith that does not touch on human behavior, political behavior included. I don't know of any. Where is the person of faith who does not have an opinion, bias, or recommendation that might pass from church to state?

There is some resemblance here between the so-called church-state separation and the issue over journalistic integrity in reporting. The common-sense view is that there is no such thing as pure journalism, although we all go along as though the bias-free journalist really exists. On this I am reminded of Bobcat Goldthwait's appeal to all journalists after the public furor over the televised video of the Rodney King beating in 1991. Said Bobcat: "Please, if you ever see me getting beaten up by the police, please put your video camera down and help me."

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 3:41 PM |

Monday, July 26, 2004  

American Christians are shrinking.  According to a new statistical report by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the percentage of Protestants is declining in the US and will probably fall below 50 percent by as early as the close of this year.

What it means, I think, is that the American Church is shrinking, losing adherents from what is becoming a dead faith, more patriotic than spiritual, and sending them to the largest growing religion in the US today—None.  In thirty years, the Nones have gone from 5.1 percent to 13.8 percent, nearly a three-fold increase.

"The Vanishing Protestant Majority," by Tom W. Smith and Seokho Kim, is available as GSS Social Change Report No. 49[.pdf].  The AP report on the research findings is archived at Religion News Blog.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 9:02 PM |

The vacation's over.  During my beach-filled week on Florida's east coast, I happened to notice how vibrant the economy was (at least compared to what I find in central New York) and how rich the area seemed in the sheer number of small businesses.  Could there be a real connection between its economic health and its robust, entrepreneurial, small business environment?

According to US Business Facts[.pdf] and Statistics of US Businesses, there were 5.7 million employer firms in the US in 2001 and a full 99% of all employer firms were small businesses which employed over half of all private workers.  There were another 17.25 million small businesses whose only employee was the proprietor.  The usual wisdom?which is apparently well-founded?is that small business is the real engine of the US economy, not the multinational corporation.

Even in this election year, we all still seem to look to the stock market for signs of health in our economy and continue to seek our nourishment at the alter of Wall Street.  Looking at the two major parties, we again see two rich men vying for the presidency.  It isn't the "rich" factor that bothers me as much as their ties to publicly traded multinational corporations and the interests these corporations seek to preserve.  I am leaning toward the view that for the Christian in America to be authentic in his faith he must take his money out of the 401(k) and other investment accounts that grow by ownership of stock and put that money into an entrepreneurship venture.  How different our perspective on America would be if we no longer have to suck the teats of corporate wolves.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 12:55 AM |
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