Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution

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The eminent historian David McCullough (“John Adams,” “Truman,” “The Johnstown Flood,” etc.) was interviewed on “60 Minutes” last year.  He bemoaned the fact that so few Americans today, especially younger Americans, know even basic facts about their country’s history.  He gave the example that, after a speech at a major university, a young woman approached him and gushed “Mr. McCullough, until your speech I didn’t know that the original 13 colonies were on the East Coast!”

McCullough’s a gracious man.  He didn’t laugh or get angry when he related this anecdote.  He didn’t even blame the co-ed.  Rather, he blamed parents and an American educational system that so often de-emphasizes the teaching of history.  One could tell McCullough was tremendously sad.

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Phil Robertson

Recently, various media outlets have been displaying just how historically challenged many Americans are.  I’m talking about the backlash to criticism of Phil Robertson’s (“Duck Dynasty” TV show) inflammatory remarks in GQ Magazine about African-Americans and gays.  I won’t go into how idiotic and bigoted I think Mr. Robertson’s remarks are.  Any rational, thinking human being, Christian or non-Christian, knows that this guy is, shall we say… quacking utter nonsense.  I’d quote his offensive remarks but they’re readily searchable.

But I’ll say a few words about the backlash and how the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is being used and abused by certain people –predominately people with an agenda from a certain side of the political aisle.

Here’s the entirety of the text to the First Amendment, one of ten amendments that comprise the Constitution’s Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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Thomas Jefferson

I’m sure most Americans are unable to rattle off these 45 words verbatim.  But memorization’s not important.  What is important is that we understand what the amendment means.  Which is that Congress shall make no law that establishes religion (Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state”) nor prohibits freedom of speech, press, or peaceful assembly.

Mr. Robertson wasn’t thrown into jail.  He wasn’t even arrested.  Why?  Because he didn’t break any law, because Congress didn’t make any law prohibiting his speech or religious beliefs (as twisted as his speech and religious beliefs may be).  His freedom to drool his ignorance to GQ wasn’t violated.  In fact, his words were printed in a major magazine for all the world to see!  He can continue to drool his ignorance.  And the rest of us are allowed to analyze his words and either pity or castigate them, while he continues to paddle his canoe and blow his duck whistles (I guess that’s what he does, since I’ve never seen his show).  He just can’t do it on TV anymore.  The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Mr. Robertson the right to be on TV.

Mr. Robertson’s producers suspended him because his words and ideas were offensive, and probably because they don’t want to lose advertisers.  They’re allowed to do this.  Employers fire people for this stuff all the time.  If I’m sitting in my office and decide to start yelling about anuses and vaginas, and approach enough workmates with the idea that homosexuals are sinners, I’ll probably get fired.

This whole ugly mess does have some violations, though.  For starters, violations of empathy for a persecuted minority and – dare I say it – Christian decency on the part of Mr. Robertson.  And that plus common sense and historical understanding on the part of his defenders.  It’s hard for me to understand the priorities of Robertson’s apologists.  They evidently feel it’s real important to shut up his critics.  But they’re not overly concerned about the 14-year-old gay kid, maybe struggling to come out of the closet, who has to hear that his sexuality is one step removed from sex with animals.

Once again, rather than trying to solve the real problems facing this country, Americans are sucked into a sordid debate because of some yahoo who has a microphone stuck in his face.  And half the debate is being waged by folks who don’t even understand – or don’t want others to understand – the most important amendment to their own Constitution.

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One Year Since Sandy Hook

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A year ago, on the heels of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I posted an essay entitled America and Guns. I wanted to express my outrage at how our country was doing little or nothing about its exorbitant gun fatalities.  A year later and – believe it or not – I’m even more outraged.

On December 10, Mother Jones Magazine reported that 194 kids have been shot to death since Newtown.  Of these 194, the vast majority – 127 – were killed at home due to unsecured guns (this despite the National Rifle Association’s claim that more guns in the hands of adults will protect children).

On December 11, NBC News Investigations reported on December 11 that a total of 173 children under 12 years old had been killed by guns in 2013.

The Children’s Defense Fund reports that the gun death rate for children in the U.S. is 4 times higher than Canada (the next highest rate) and 65 times greater than Germany or Britain.

There are more statistics, some of them much higher than those I’ve cited.  Although not many.  Why not?  Because the NRA and its allies in Congress have pushed for legislation making it harder for the federal government to collect data.

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After the Newtown horror, there was a lot of talk about having a “national conversation.”  President Obama called for a number of legislative measures, including a ban on military-style assault weapons, a limitation of 10 rounds on magazines, enhanced background checks, and the closing of loopholes in gun trafficking.

All of his measures were defeated in the Senate in April by a majority of Republicans and a handful of red-state Democrats.

After Newtown, the gun lobby tried to divert the issue away from guns, and pointed to mental health as the culprit.  Inadequate mental health resources may certainly be part of the problem – at least with regard to mass murders and murder-suicides.  But what have we accomplished this past year with legislation supporting mental health initiatives?

In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Sita Diehl, director of state policy and advocacy at the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), noted that 36 states increased their funding for mental health in 2013.  But she says this was “a drop in the bucket” after four years of radical cuts to mental health during a recession.  She said most of the funding in 2013 was through state bills being considered even before the Newtown shootings.  Diehl gives the feds “a C-minus, maybe a D.”  She said there’s been “lots of talk, no action.”

“After these sorts of shootings, there’s a lot of talk, and a lot of policymakers saying we need to do something about the mental health system,  But then, when push comes to shove and the budget debates occur, mental health seems to lose out.”

So here we are, a year later, with yet another school shooting in the news – Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado.

Maybe it’s time we had another “national conversation.”

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Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)

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Red Ryder BB-guns and green roast beast.  As the yuletide season approaches, so too does a smorgasbord of holiday-related entertainment.  In my last post I got into trouble with a few family members.  So, this is sort of my olive branch (or mistletoe twig).  These are films and animated specials that have stood the test of time and appeal to both juveniles and adults.  If you see them on TV, check ’em out!  And if I’ve omitted your favorite, please let me know!

Here they are, oldest to newest:

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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Frank Capra directed this uplifting (literally) fable starring Jimmy Stewart.  It concerns how a man’s seemingly insignificant acts of kindness can have an enormous effect on people and events around him.  Lots of subplots and spot-on acting, and the ending is one of the most heartwarming in cinema history.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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I’ve never seen this movie beginning to end, but it must be good because the original 1947 version has been remade numerous times.  An unassuming Santa Claus at Macy’s claims he’s the real Kris Kringle, and his sanity is called into question.  Edmund Gwenn, as Kringle, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Also stars Maureen O’Hara and a precocious child actress named Natalie Wood.

White Christmas (1954)

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With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney, and featuring the timeless songs of Irving Berlin, this has both great storyline and music.  The highlights are the gold-plated vocal cords of Crosby and Clooney.  I’m not big on musicals, but this has to be one of the best.  To be shared with loved ones and a tray full of hot toddies (or hot chocolate) while wearing red and green turtlenecks before a crackling fire.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

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This is a stop-motion animated movie, narrated by Burl Ives, and it’s the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.  Why is it so popular?  My guess is the sly adult humor and offbeat characters: a nerdy elf who wants to be a dentist, a rambunctious prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and a cross-eyed Abominable Snow Monster who has his teeth extracted by the elf.   If this were made a few years later, I’d suspect the creator of experimenting with more than just animation.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

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Linus’s speech “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” alone on stage, in hushed silence, is the centerpiece.  But my favorite scene is when Schroeder starts jamming and turns the Christmas play into a dance party, much to Charlie’s dismay.  Creator Charles M. Schulz was equal parts animator and sociologist.  His genius, and pianist Vince Guaraldi‘s cool jazz score, makes “A Charlie Brown Christmas” the gold standard among animated Christmas specials.  My personal favorite.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

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Dr. Seuss as narrated by Boris Karloff.  What a brilliant teaming!  Karloff, for those who don’t know, was the original movie “Frankenstein” monster and made many subsequent horror films.  His lilting and slightly ominous delivery make him perfect to narrate this tale about a sinister green creature who lives on a mountaintop and plots to ruin Christmas for the townsfolk below.  This animated special came on the heels of the Peanuts and Rudolph specials and caps an amazing three-year run for network television at Christmastime.

A Christmas Story (1983)

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This comedy is shown as a marathon every holiday.  We’ve all had that experience of yearning for that one special toy.  Here we have a man’s reminiscence of his boyhood in a small Indiana town and his obsession with getting a BB-gun for Christmas.  It has a ton of old-fashioned charm, and some folks consider it the greatest thing since spiced egg nog.  I haven’t joined the cult yet (the narration gets to me after a while).  But it has more holiday ambience than any other movie of the last 30 years, ages like a fine wine, and appeals to kids ages 9 to 90.

A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge) (various years)

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Charles Dickens’s miserly Scrooge is so compelling he’s become part of the vernacular, and it’s hard to imagine him and “Bah humbug!” not existing until the mid-19th century.  There are several fantastic filmed versions starring, variously, Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, and George C. Scott.  Also a modern translation with Bill Murray that got mixed reviews, and a well-regarded cartoon movie starring Mr. Magoo, among many others.

I’ll let Tiny Tim have the last words: “God bless us everyone!!”

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