That is the question

Two interesting votes are taking place in Scotland today.

First, the members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews are voting on whether to admit women …. Not to the dining room and bars, but to the club itself! Times do change.

Which leads to …. Second ……

Residents of Scotland over the age of 16 are voting in the IndyRef. It has been fascinating to observe from afar the various campaigns. The question and possible answers are disarmingly simple, while the debate has been anything but.  I briefly want to focus on the question the Scots are considering today. Here it is; short, clear, unambiguous:

Should Scotland be an independent country?

To grasp the test in the question, substitute “England” for Scotland and ask it of yourself. No Englishman in his right mind would consider voting “No”, a fact the UKIP party led by the indomitable Nigel Farage makes very clear in the context of EU membership. And yet, many Englishman have openly suggested the Scots should vote No. How odd.

Or substitute “Canada.” Canadian nationalism and sense of being itself are overwhelmingly strong. Goodness, Canadian passion for being an independent country extends to legal limits on non-Canadian pop music content on the radio and in magazines.

Or Ireland. Or Denmark. Or Iceland. Or Nepal.  Or … their name is legion.

I hear you object. “But they are independent countries.” You miss the point. Their present state is not the issue. If that were the case there would be no IndyRef. That argument is self-defeating and entirely misses the point. They are countries, yes, in the sense that being nations they are also states.

The real issue is: Should a nation be a state? Answer: if it wants to be. Ergo, the IndyRef.

A better example than those I listed above is, say, Kurdistan. The Kurds are clearly a nation, but long since have had no state, although I think they were independent more recently than Scotland. This accounts for the lack of parallel with, say, Texas about which there are whisperings and even rumblings of secession from the United States.

I admit there are vexing ambiguities. Québec, for example. But the parallel in this case with Scotland is not so clear. Read here from the Toronto Star for a brilliant analysis of the differences. More similar, as the Star piece outlines, is the separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. I grew up with Czechoslovakia, but it is gone. (Hockey fans knew what a potent combo that was!)

No, the IndyRef question is fair, reasonable, and clear. It is also needed.

Some would dismiss the Yes campaign as a xenophobic madhouse. Odd how they do not say the same thing of, say, the Ukrainians, or the English, or the Canadians, or the Angolans, or ……….

It is going to be an interesting day. I am simultaneously hopeful and anxious, expectant and resigned.

Moral heroes

Who has not witnessed the “No-No-No-Yes” parent in action? The grocery store check-out lane is a likely spot. The kid, trapped in the cart, is reaching and straining to reach a chocolate bar from the strategically placed display while the mother, with an increasing volume matching her mounting embarrassment, yells “No, No, No,” until with desperate reluctance and a guilty smile to the watching crowds she gives in and hands the kid the candy, “OK. This one time.” No-No-No-Yes.

I mention this neither to criticize the mother (who is doing the hardest job in the world) nor the grocery business’s manipulation of us as consumers. I do so simply to illustrate, by its absence in this case, the challenging essence of ethics in action. There are three ingredients needed to lift ethics from the realm of fantasy and fun speculation and thrust it into hard-nosed and harsh reality.

They are: clarity, consistency, and courage.

You must be clear in your understanding (whatever it is and however profoundly articulated in your own mind) of right and wrong, good and evil. Without clarity moral action will be muddled at best.

You must be consistent. What is right today must be right tomorrow. Evil may manifest itself in differing forms and to varying degrees, but evil it remains. Inconsistency, not to be confused with relativism (which is another matter altogether,) renders moral action accidental.

You must have courage. Nothing is more challenging to or revealing of character than taking a moral stand. This is not ever easy. To take a stand is to stand out and this too many want to avoid at all costs, especially if the crowd of folks is all going another way. “Everyone’s doing it, saying it, voting it, wishing it” is no slogan for the march of the heroic spirit. No courage renders moral action impossible.

Consider the National Football League.

What a mess! Not only at the national level (with its handling of the Ray Rice affair of domestic violence,) but also at the local level (with the Minnesota Vikings’ bobbling of the Adrian Peterson matter of beating his children) we have been treated to the very opposite of ethical action. No clarity. No consistency. No courage. No ethical action.

Corporations have started to flee the NFL, the Vikings, and the players involved. Money talks and so we may see a veneer of clarity, consistency, and courage begin to be manifested. Don’t be fooled. The ethical travesty is rooted in the system.

The NFL in turn, needless to say, is no more than an example and an illustration. It is not the entire disease. In reflecting on it, however, I invite you to examine not only your own life, of course, but to be alert for what is going on around you: in your workplace, your friendship circles, politics, international affairs.  Moral heroism is not in over abundant supply. We need as many heroes as we can get! Hope demands it.

Culpability and integrity

The debate rages. Is ISIS “Islamic” or not? Can the category “Muslim” be applied to it?

I have alluded to this recently and do not propose continuing in this post, but mention it to highlight another point.

In an era in western civilization of rapid secularization and widespread dismissal of organized religion’s relevance, it is religion which is playing a key role in determining the pace and pattern of current global affairs. This dimension, I think, remains fundamentally baffling to western leadership and is an inherent weakness in the setting of strategy. Be that as it may, my interest today lies elsewhere.

Please note what the BBC reports about what has been termed a “crisis” in Germany.  It references March 23, 1933 or “Potsdam Day,” a day of minor infamy on which then newly elected Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler was “adopted” as elite by the then German establishment, thus legitimizing him. The whole thing centered on the Goebbels controlled event which took place in and around the Garnisonkirche, a baroque masterpiece, subsequently bombed by the allied air force and then finally demolished by East German Communists.

What’s the “crisis?” There are proposals to rebuild the church. Its value as an example of baroque is almost unmatched, it is argued. Those who oppose this rebuilding project proclaim the church as a symbol of “evil.”

Clearly I have no horse in this race. I mention it for this reason: Hitler’s rise to power was in large part aided by the German Church. (You can read a very simple piece about it here.) True, his power also led to the formation of “Confessing Christians” many of whom (Dietrich Bonhoeffer perhaps most famously) would oppose the regime and indeed participate in attempted assassinations. Karl Barth became a mouthpiece of opposition and stimulated the creation of the Barmen Declaration, perhaps a high-point of twentieth century theology and, along with the American civil rights movement, a high mark of that century’s Christian conscience in action. The point is that despite the opposition of the Confessing Christians, Nazi power and its establishment was “baptized” by the church.

What’s the point?

The church alas is an all too human institution and goofs up, makes enormous errors in judgment and practice, endorses inhumane policies, embraces the selfish and arrogant, and generally falls woefully short of its ideals.  History all too loudly and clearly testifies to all this. That is by no means the whole truth of the church, but you get my point. Even as it proclaims its message and even as it performs exemplary self-sacrificial work, the church also says and must say and continue to say, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” As a Christian, I am aware of the faults and failings of my church and yet do not want it judged on those things alone.

The same holds true for every religion and its institutional practitioners.  Islam included.

Sunday Potpourri

This from

Ugandan authorities have foiled a planned imminent attack by the Somali militant Islamist terror group al-Shabab, the U.S. Embassy in Uganda said Saturday. In statements on Twitter and its website, the embassy said Ugandan forces had conducted operations against members of the terror group in the capital, Kampala.

Did President Obama not say in his “let’s get ISIS” speech the other night, that the US strategy would be like that which was so successful in dealing with al-Shabab? After all, he was just off a killing strike on its leader. It seems they must have other leaders in waiting.

Does can entail ought, after all?

Ethics 101 teaches that while ought implies can, can does not entail ought. Are we in danger of being forced by science to discard this ancient axiom?  Read here, for example. The coming of the actual humunculus. Can this fail to end badly?

World War III?

Pope Francis is widely reported to have said that the global conflicts ongoing are so widespread and ingrained that we have effectively entered the third world war. He put it like this:

(P)erhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.

He went on to urge the world “to shed its apathy” in the face of all this evil. Is it apathy or impotence? Is it not the case that folks of the local level simply feel trapped? “What can I do about it?” is not necessarily a cry of apathy, but a shriek of rebellion, or at least as loud as rebellion can get against the machinery of national governments’ decision-making.

IndyRef Fallout

Whether Scotland votes Yes on Thursday in the IndyRef, already lasting changes have taken place within the fabric of the country. This wee piece, for example, has certainly and indelibly marked George Robertson nothing more than a smarmy nyaff (look it up!), but more than that it has deeply branded a trend that will, after the vote regardless of outcome, continue as a voice that will no longer be tolerated.

Manchester United and Glasgow Rangers

On a lighter note: in a few hours ManU kick-off and this match is virtually the real start of their season. Millions of pounds of new signings will be on display against lowly Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford. Lose and despair will grip the ManU universe. Win and light will suddenly be shining at the end of the tunnel.

As for Glasgow Rangers, what can one say? The drama continues. Owners continue to rip off resources and weaken the club’s prospects; fans roar in complaint, but feel they can do “nothing about it.”

Kind of like World War Three?

Musings on ‘Nine Eleven”

The day of the Twin Towers; of catastrophe; of horror and terror; of death.

And yet: all those things (horror, death, and terror) have been, are, and will continue to be realities for too many every day. But, for Americans, the attack on “the homeland” was a shock and life has not been the same since. It precipitated the War on Terror which President Obama has done his best to rebrand.

Until last night? Or, not so much?

In his address to the nation preparing the people for military action against ISIS (or ISIL) he made an interesting point about belief, ideology, and nationalism, perhaps unintentionally, but I doubt it.

Some context: President Obama had earlier stated that ISIS had “no ideology.” This caused some comment as they themselves assert that they are Muslim. More than that, their view would be that they are the truest of the true amongst Muslims. In his speech last night the president asserted once again that they have no ideology since they are “not Islamic” and “not a state.”

As for their statehood, one can wonder what makes a people a state as distinct from a nation. I have written before about Scotland’s pending IndyRef. Nobody can deny that Scotland is a distinct nation. What is at stake in the IndyRef is their statehood. Will the Scottish nation once again be an independent state?  A state is a governmental, not an ethnic, notion. Heavens, Vatican City is a state! The president’s thinking in this regard seems, to me, to be muddled. Was he suggesting that ISIS is not a state because its borders are sloppy, ill-defined, and cross others of other states? That being so he is likening ISIS to Kurdistan, and the Kurds are going to be enthusiastic partners in the US led anti-ISIS coalition, it would appear. His muddled thinking perhaps was simply muddled for the sake of beating war drums. I get that. His other comment, not so much.

Asserting that no religion “condones the slaughter of innocent people” he conveniently ignored the fact that, of course, history witnesses to the contrary. Given the correct circumstances (e.g., Churchill’s carpet bombing of Hamburg, or the Shoa, or the sweep of the conquistadores through the southern Americas, or some of the darker incidents of the Crusades on the Christian side, the slaughter of England’s Jews, for example, or the deaths of so many during the Inquisition, or countless other instances) the followers of this or that faith have slaughtered the innocent. War is like that. But the president made the assertion to support another, odder, claim. He claimed that ISIS was not “Islamic.”

What to make of this claim?

Insofar as most (I think, all) of the members of ISIS are Muslims and regard themselves as such, are we to conclude that while the individuals within ISIS are Muslim their military behavior denies that category to the collective, that because horrific atrocities occur and are encouraged that the collective is without religious identity, no faith system or practice, no “ideology?”

This assertion of the president’s becomes odder and odder the more one thinks about it. Thus, one is driven to ask: why did he make this claim? What was his motive?

Surely he could not have been guarding Muslims of all stripes from the fury of those appalled at ISIS? Nobody in their right mind can simply equate Islam as such with ISIS, just as nobody in their right mind would equate Christianity, say, with carpet bombing. Too many Muslims do not behave this way to allow of such a thought. But, to say that is one thing; to claim that ISIS is not “Islamic” is another altogether.

The only way this sense it makes, it seems to me, is this: President Obama cannot bring himself to believe or think that the enemy is aberrant Islam. For him Islam does not allow for such hateful distortion. A so-called Muslim who manifests such behavior is dismissed as not Muslim. Since being muslim (non-capitalization intended) means “submitted to the will of Allah” President Obama is in essence making a theological judgment. 

His logic seems to be: The will of Allah does not permit the killing of the innocent; ISIS kills the innocent; ergo ISIS is not “Islamic;” thus, I am OK with going after them and bombing them to smithereens. Phew! I am not killing Muslims.

I guess this is how he needs to think as Commander in Chief. It’s a muddled apologia for war. Here’s hoping his generals and those of the coalition think with a little more direct and effective aim.


A tale of two cities

Washington DC

The American nation is holding its breath. Tonight the president is going to announce his “strategy” for dealing with ISIS. A poll published last night by ABC showed that 79% of the American people favor bombing within Syria. They, not the president, are leading the strategy, one suspects. All the same, as newspaper after newspaper has pointed out, for this president any strategy to use American power in this conflict (surely even he must acknowledge that the “war on terror” is back and an appropriate description) is a contradiction of both his instincts and his ideology. It will be interesting to hear how he phrases it all.

Part of the political cover for this turn-around is what is happening in Baghdad. There a new government has been formed more in liking to the US administration. Why? Because it involves everybody. The Sunni and Shia interests have been met and all sorts of groups are represented in the decision making process. How unlike Washington itself! Here the president famously announced that he had “a phone and a pen” and he would legislate by executive action, in clear violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers concept, because the Republican led House was “doing nothin’ but hatin’” as he put it. Of course, voting “No” on measures you disagree with is neither hating nor doing nothing. It is simply disagreeing. It is not doing nothing! Meanwhile bills more to the elected majority’s liking have been flowing to the Senate where “nothing” happens to them. It is all smoke and mirrors of deceit and corruption. But, nevertheless the US administration has high-minded advice and conditions to impose on the Iraqi people.

Which bring me to ….


The IndyRef (the vote on whether Scotland should be an independent country) takes place next week and recent polls show overwhelming surges of support for the Yes side. Something akin to panic has gripped the No leadership. There was talk in the UK press for days of pressure being exerted on the Queen to issue a pro-No statement. Buckingham Palace wisely and rightly rejected this, stating that the crown is “above politics.” (Meanwhile the Prime Minister and other minions have been sweeping over the border to say to the Scots how “very much we want you to stay.”)

My point is to focus on the two heads of state; President Obama and HM the Queen.

The one is utterly beholden to and created by politics, signing bills into law with which he agrees and vetoing others, making speeches to sway public opinion. The other is and must be apolitical, signing bills into law that plop on her desk without personal discrimination, making only speeches that capture and touch a truly national mood.

Part of the frustration surrounding the US presidency as an office is its confusion of two functions, those of premiership with those of presidency, a confusion which allows for, indeed encourages, the belief that this or that political interest is ipso facto the same as the national interest. A mark of this confusion is the bewildered blank expression I get from Americans when raising this topic. (Hopefully not from you, dear reader!)


Pundits gone nuts

I want to move from, and even attempt to connect, Manchester United and US action, or inaction, against “Islamic terrorists.”

First, a brief word for those of you who know little about and care even less for Manchester United, futbol (soccer,) or even sports in general. I find the entire world of sports interesting in its own terms, but even more so, perhaps, as a window into how contemporary culture works in realms other than sports. Sport is like a cartoon, offering exaggerated glimpses of tendencies that elsewhere in a society may be more subtle and partially concealed: power, greed, economics, insecurities, celebrityism’s fragile face, not to mention the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Thus …..

Manchester United.

Here’s what you need to know, if you do not. ManU is one of the biggest and most successful futbol clubs in all the world, let alone in England. Rich in every way … resources and tradition. They have suffered (the Munich air disaster in 1950 when most of their team died following a European Cup match) and gloried (many League titles, European championships, and the like.) Two seasons ago their longtime manager, the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson (yes, note the knighthood) retired. David Moyes was hired, given a six year contract. The team struggled. Mightily. They kept losing. Their season increasingly became doomed. Dramatically, and out of keeping with ManU tradition, Moyes was fired before season’s end. After the World Cup in came Louis Van Gaal, a much hailed manager and coach with an impeccable record of success. This new season would be different with a “genius” at the helm.

Things haven’t turned out that way. ManU have yet to win a game in the English Premier League. It has been like David Moyes all over again.

And so the pundits (I am now nearing my point) have spent weeks and weeks clamoring and complaining. The consensus has been that United need at least “five probably six new players.” Most commentators have baldly stated that the current team roster is “just not good enough to compete.”

So, by midnight BST last night the deadline for transfers until a January window, ManU concluded a flurry of signings, spending many millions of pounds and bringing in new stars.

Great, right? Oh no. You see, bringing in new guys means current players have to go. Go they have. Even some who signed on through the ManU’s “academy system” when they were under 10 years old.

So what are the pundits saying this morning? “This is not the ManU way … abandoning the academy system … Van Gaal will never make it work.” Not all the pundits are saying this, but many are and they tend to be former ManU players and who were the loudest moaners of David Moyes’ and this season’s “failures!”

Which brings me to “the war on terror.”

Over the last 48 hours or so it has become clear that US air power (drone and otherwise) is having a devastating effect on developments in the Iraqi army’s struggle against ISIS. This morning has also brought the news that the US targeted Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda-affiliated group behind the Kenya mall massacre.

Just the other day following “the tan suit press conference” pundits were saying there was little the US could do against Islamic extremism and even less that it would do, under a dithering leader who had said that the country “had no strategy” right now to deal with it. Other pundits had lamented the impossibility of air power being effective without inflicting enormous civilian casualties.

It is early days for this latest step. But there is enough evidence, it seems to me, to say that punditry has gone haywire. It used to be, did it not?, that the news was reported. Now it has become a hook for agendas political and, I think, personal, by which I mean for personal gain, “Please invite me to talk, I have an opinion, I will say something controversial, I used to be a general, a colonel, an ambassador, I know, I am an expert.”

Shut up, already.