Archive | International RSS for this section

Six Thoughts, Post-Referendum

Several short thoughts, nothing more.  Due to lack of sleep and general exhaustion, this won’t be my finest bit of writing ever, but here goes…

1. MANY VOTES WERE FRAUDULENT – Don’t worry, this isn’t what it seems to be.  I’ve not got some conspiracy theory floating around in my head about mass instances of voter fraud.  I suppose I mean ‘misguided’, but that didn’t seem strong enough.

I would like to look at the simple language of the Referendum ballot: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  In all honesty, I think both sides of the debate have obscured the question, whether intentionally or unintentionally.  I think when most people look at that question they aren’t reading ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ at all.  It could be any number of things:

‘Should we sack the Tories?’
‘Should Alex Salmond and the SNP run Scotland?’
‘Should Scotland be an independent country on 19 September 2014?’
‘Do you want to lose your pension?’
‘Do you want to lose Coronation Street?’
‘Do you appreciate the monarchy?’
et cetera

The heart-breaking thing is that whilst some of those suggestions are legitimate or even debatable knock-on effects of union or independence, none of them are really an answer to the bigger question and the first two (and variations of them) are particularly deceiving as they involve conflating party politics and national sovereignty.  I think that the Better Together folk were wise in having a Labour politician lead them (although they couldn’t find someone who sounded more Scottish than Alistair Darling?), indicating a cross-party effort to maintain the Union.  Although Alex Salmond is an incredibly talented politician, he is also the First Minister and the leader of the SNP.  Granted, the Referendum is a direct by-product of the SNP’s election to Scottish Parliament in 2011, but it could’ve been more effective to see less divisive faces leading the Yes campaign.

This all adds up to a wee bit of confusion when it comes to answering the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  In defence of the Yes campaign, I would argue that it is likely that many people were not thinking about the future of Scotland with a fully devolved and independent Scottish Parliament made up of all Scottish political persuasions.  We wouldn’t need to ship our best and brightest to Westminster.  They could stay here in Scotland where they have the opportunity to represent the interests of the people living in Scotland — because that would be the entire purpose of an independent Scottish Government.  Instead, folk were thinking about a decade of Alex Salmond.

I also think a lot of folk have been using language to imply that had Scotland voted ‘Yes’ on 18 September, we would be an independent country on 19 September.  Had we voted ‘Yes’, the new government would not have been established until 24 March 2016.  This would allow a year and a half of consultation and negotiation; and to play into the previous point, a democratic vote for all eligible voters in Scotland.  I’m seeing a lot of ‘still in the UK’-type language on social media this morning — no matter the outcome of yesterday’s Referendum, today we would still be in the UK.

2. SCOTLAND IS NOT THE SOCIALIST HAVEN SOME OF US HAVE BELIEVED IT TO BE — Results this morning indicate that areas of a higher working class and unemployed population came out overwhelmingly in favour of independence.  In many of our minds (me included), we’ve harboured this delusion that the vast majority of Scots are like the working class folk in Glasgow and Dundee.  But the reality is that Scotland is not as different from the rest of the United Kingdom as we thought.  Of course, a Conservative politician in Scotland is most likely much further to the left than a Conservative politician in England. See Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives.  She’s a woman and a lesbian at that — two qualities that would have many of the English Tory gentry up in arms.  But overall, it’s only common sense to acknowledge that not all Scots are socialists and up until only a few decades ago, Scotland had a long spell of complicity in the electing of Unionist/Conservative Governments in Westminster.

3. THIS IS NOT A TORY VICTORY / THIS IS NOT AN SNP DEFEAT — One great frustration among many I have with the result of this Referendum is that many folk are seeing this as either a Tory victory of an SNP defeat.  It is neither of those things.  At most, it is a Better Together victory and a Yes campaign defeat.  Make no mistake — this vote does not indicate Scotland’s approval of Westminster or the UK Government.  Likewise, it does not indicate Scotland’s disapproval of Holyrood and the Scottish Government.  Instead, a slim majority of Scottish voters decided that our best option at this point is not full independence.  Not only that, but in the midst of their grief, the SNP and the Yes campaign should take some consolation in the fact that over the length of this campaign the support of Scottish independence is at a record high.  It seems clear that the majority Scottish people want more power devolved to Scotland (a clarity that could have manifested itself in a result today had David Cameron not very sneakily traded a second, devo-max Referendum question for allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote back in the Edinburgh Agreement).  If Westminster politicians stick to their promises, we will be seeing further devolution in future.

As far as the future of the SNP goes, I believe that a large number of Scots think that the SNP has done well for the Scottish people, hence 2011’s election of a majority SNP Scottish Government in a parliament designed to avoid majority governments.  The SNP isn’t going anywhere any time soon.  If anything, a ‘Yes’ vote would’ve been the best way to ensure that the SNP would eventually dissolve.

4. AT A CERTAIN POINT, A ‘YES’ WOULD MEAN THE SAME THING AS A WESTMINSTER GOVERNMENT — As one might expect, the first results that came in early this morning were the smallest council areas. When a majority of councils had reported (most of them ‘No’ votes) it became clear to me that had the bigger councils voted ‘Yes’ overwhelmingly, this would create the same lopsided democracy as we find at Westminster.  Sure, in this hypothetical situation where ‘Yes’ won as a result of only a handful of large council areas, in numbers the ‘Yes’ would have it.  As is already felt by the smaller councils, particularly in the Western and Northern Islands, they would be governed by the will of places like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.  Folk have used this as an argument against independence, saying things like ‘Well, the Highlands and Islands have a different culture from the Lowlands, so we should have the opportunity to be independent countries too!’ I think that’s nonsense and you don’t need to think too long to realise that the Western and Northern Islands would be more closely managed and find greater clout in a smaller, more local Scottish Parliament (as opposed to Westminster).  But what I really want to express is that, should Scotland one day decide to be an independent country, I would hope that would be the will of the vast majority of Scots, with support from the further flung parts of our beautiful country.

5. THE UK IS BECOMING INCREASINGLY INHOSPITABLE TO THE OUTSIDER — A major part of why I supported a ‘Yes’ vote is because I am noticing a trend of hostility and inhospitality to outsiders in the United Kingdom.  (Given the results of the last European Parliamentary election, some might even argue that this is a European trend.)  As an Angeliño-Glaswegian, I have a particular interest in the rights of immigrants, although my native language, skin colour and accent put me at a great advantage among non-native residents of Scotland.  The cancer that is British fascism and isolationism is spreading beyond the confines of the political fringes.  Many BNP voters have been making their way to UKIP, a seemingly more politically viable party these days.  I thought that political separation from the UK would enable Scotland to become more intimately associated with the rest of Europe (and the rest of the world).  Unfortunately, no amount of devolution will allow for that in a United Kingdom.  I suppose that is one of my biggest fears in the wake of the Referendum results — that Scotland would become yet more xenophobic.  And here’s a wee reminder to those who think that the SNP’s brand of nationalism is the same as Nazi nationalism — the SNP has never stood for ethnic nationalism, that’s the job of the SDL.

6. WE CANNOT LOSE MOMENTUM — In the wake of this morning’s result, it would be easy to become discouraged or complacent.  Those who supported ‘Yes’ might feel downtrodden and exhausted with nothing to show for it.  This isn’t the result of a simple football match.  This was bigger than any General Election.  And now the opportunity seems lost.  It might be difficult to face the day today.

Those who supported ‘No’ might feel as if their work here is done, dusting off their hands, accompanied by a large sigh of relief.  After the overwhelming nature of this very long and divisive campaign, we might feel too tired to continue.  But there is much work to be done.  I believe that many ‘No’ voters are not entirely convinced about this current system in the UK.  Perhaps they believe that the best way for change is to remain part of the UK and renew it from the inside out.  I can appreciate that.

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a nation divided.  But we are still Scotland and despite the fact that we are not the socialist haven many have envisaged, we have many shared ideals, ideals that are not represented by many of the folk at Westminster.  We cannot give in.  We cannot feel defeated and we cannot feel as if our task is finished.  We must unite as Scotland with love for one another in order to press for the change we need.  We must hold those who made promises accountable to those promises.  We must fight for a fairer and more just society.  We must fight against the special breaks given to large financial institutions.  We must fight for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.  We must fight to do our part to demonstrate care and respect for nature and the precious natural resources so exploited by UK.  And if it be our united will, we must fight to rid the UK of our hypocritical and immoral nuclear arsenal.

These are just some of the things we value.  Let’s write a longer to-do list together.

Hearts

North American Aviation

NAAI had just left North American airspace when I realised.  You see, when I find myself in the midst a long distance journey I become incredibly emotional.  I’m not sure why exactly.  Maybe it’s the thin, recycled air.  Maybe it’s the persistent hiss of the jet engines.  Maybe it’s the realisation, when looking out the window onto the earth and sea below, that I am truly an insignificant wee speck of matter inhabiting a tiny plot on a tiny planet within a tiny solar system within a relatively small galaxy within an unfathomably large and expanding universe.

But I find another theory yet more romantic.  In even the recent past, travelling nearly 10,000 kilometres, across an ocean and then a continent, would take ages — months upon months.  During that time, on top of the regular roller coaster of emotions during any given six-month period in life, travellers would face an even greater confrontation with their own mortality and the mortality of others.  And I think when I find myself 10,979 metres in the air, travelling at 902 kilometres per hour, passing over the land and sea, in those 10-12 hours I experience just a small taste of the emotional stress of those who had to make the journey in weeks, months or even years.  Whatever the cause, I always fall victim to this neurosis when I travel great distances.  But this visit to the place of my birth featured more substance than I had expected.

I should’ve realised that things would be incredibly different.  In the two and a half years since my previous visit, I was blessed with a niece and three new nephews.  I wasn’t prepared for the pain of saying goodbye to them two weeks later, knowing that I won’t be around to share in those special early moments — whether that is first words, first steps or the first day of school.  Will they remember me when they see me next time?  I don’t even know when ‘next time’ will be.  And alongside all of the other joys and sorrows that I missed in the last two and half years, I lost one of the most influential and important people in my life.

I’m a man who has been blessed with two amazing grandfathers.  My mother’s father died in March 2010.  He had been very influential in at least this last decade of my life.  But before I converted to Christianity and sensed a calling to church ministry, my passions had been devoted to a good number of things attributed to my father’s father.  And that’s not to say that since conversion my paternal grandfather has not been a continuous influence.  He taught me countless things about life and virtue and filled me with the riches of wisdom and curiosity.  But when my father’s father died in December 2012, in accordance with his wishes, no funeral was held.  I was encouraged by my family to stay in Scotland.

In honesty, my grandfather’s passing probably came as a relief to some.  His quality of life had been worsening steadily and he hardly resembled the man he was before Alzheimer’s set in.  But even in the midst of his battle against that horrific disease, I saw definite glimpses of my stubborn, cheeky, but ultimately tenderhearted grandfather.  In his pride, a younger version of my grandfather would have abhorred his state in the final years of his life.  But that’s neither here nor there.  It has happened as it has happened.

Although I haven’t lived with my parents for a decade, like any good and decent child, I’ve kept a fair number of my belongings, mostly books and vinyl records, at my parents’ house.  This trip seemed as good a time as any to sort through what remained of my belongings in California.  Very conveniently, my father had consolidated most of my things to a few boxes in the shed.  Among these boxes was one full of my most treasured possessions — the things given to me by my grandfather.  I had started the collection from before I can remember (with the help of my father, who had also passed things down to me).  It went hand in hand with my obsession with spaceflight and aeronautics, all inspired by my grandfather.  Pictures, technical manuals and diagrams, slide rulers, NASA Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle mission patches and memorabilia.  I used to stare at these things for hours upon hours.  And here they were again, just as magical as ever before.  Well, almost.

When I was younger, if I had any questions I could just visit my grandfather.  He was always up for talking with me, and not just about his work in the aerospace field.  He taught me countless life lessons that remain with me to this day.  During this visit to California, these scraps of paper and miscellaneous in a box took on new significance – they were my grandfather’s continued presence.

I arrived at LAX on the Monday.  My time in California would be full of visits and wee travels.  Saturday was booked for a visit to my aunt and uncle’s house for a gathering of some of the Smiths.  My grandmother was there, visiting from Yucca Valley.  My uncle had planned to take my grandmother home on the following Monday, but my father and I had planned on spending that day together and we both had the same thought — we wanted to spend our day with his mum and in the High Desert (and perhaps make a visit to Joshua Tree).  When we got to my grandmother’s house on the Monday I had a close look around.  It was the first time I had seen the place after my grandfather’s death.  It had gone through some changes when his condition worsened and he required 24-hour care, necessitating relocation to a care home, but this was it — my grandfather was gone.  At some point I had a frantic thought.  There was a particular item that used to hang on the wall in my grandfather’s house.  He had always told me it was his most prized possession, but I couldn’t find it.  I asked my grandmother where it might be and she seemed to think that it had been given to my family.  My father didn’t recall and being that I had been gone for two and a half years, I sure as hell didn’t have it.

This item was a strange thing – a plaque of wood with a small engraved brass plate beneath a block of translucent plastic, within which was found a piece of God-knows-what.  My grandfather told me the short story behind the object numerous times and I wish so much that I had made a recording of his words, in his own voice with all of the proper details.  But I’ll do my best to tell it as he told it.

But before we get into my grandfather’s story, some background is necessary.  In the midst of the Cold War, on 4 October 1957, the USSR launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1.  The Soviet Union launched their second Sputnik satellite, this time carrying a small dog called Laika, in November.  It wasn’t until the end of the following January that the United States launched Explorer 1 in response.  On 12 April 1961, the Soviets bested the Americans once again when they sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space aboard Vostok 1.  He spent 108 minutes in space, completing one orbit of the Earth.  In May the Americans responded when they launched astronaut Alan Shepard into space aboard the Mercury 3 spacecraft dubbed Freedom 7.  Astronaut Gus Grissom spent 15 minutes in space during the sub-orbital flight of Mercury 4 on 21 July 1961, but the Soviets answered with a second orbital flight manned by cosmonaut Gherman Titov on 6 August.  It wasn’t until the third manned American Mercury mission sent astronaut John Glenn into space on 20 February 1962 that the United States was able to achieve Earth orbit.  Astronaut Scott Carpenter repeated Glenn’s mission in May.

Although having trailed the Soviet Union for the first five years of what was named the ‘Space Race’, on 12 September 1962, the US President John F. Kennedy, whilst speaking at Rice University in Houston, Texas, announced,

We choose to go to the Moon.  We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

To journey to the Moon!  An ambition in the minds of the earliest creatures capable of sight and cognition.  A god, a disk, a face, a perfect celestial sphere!

In order to achieve this ambitious pledge, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) followed the success of the Mercury missions with the Gemini programme, which set out to test necessary steps in order to develop a mission capable to sending humans to the Moon, things like extra-vehicular activity (‘spacewalks’), longer duration flights and orbital rendezvous of two spacecraft.

As to be expected, the steps to get to the Moon were planned out meticulously.  The successor to the Gemini programme, the Apollo programme, was designed to work through different phases, culminating in an eventual Moon landing.  The basic steps were as follows:

1. Test out the manned Command/Service Module (CSM) in Earth orbit.
2. Test out the manned CSM in Moon orbit.
3. Test out the manned Lunar Module (LM) in Earth orbit.
4. Test out the manned LM in Moon orbit.
5. Land on the Moon.

Each successive stage couldn’t be completed until the previous stage had been tested thoroughly.  The contract for the construction of the CSM was awarded to North American Aviation, the company for which my grandfather worked at the time.  But due to design flaws (of which my grandfather played no part), what was the to be the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 1, was destroyed on the platform during a launch simulation test on 27 January 1967, killing all three astronauts on board – Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger Chaffee.

The Apollo 1 tragedy was a major setback for NASA and the Apollo programme, and in September 1967, North American Aviation merged with Rockwell Standard to form North American Rockwell.  Following much grieving, drama and deliberation, the Apollo programme was allowed to continue and my grandfather served as the Electrical Supervisor for the construction of the Command Module with North American Rockwell.

After a series of unmanned tests, the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, finally took place between 11 and 22 October 1968.  Much was riding on the success of Apollo 7 – the future of the Apollo programme and JFK’s pledge to reach the Moon before the end of the decade, the future of NASA, the future of North American Rockwell, as well as the Americans’ desire to reach the Moon before the Soviets.

Despite a lot of nerves, the mission went as planned and when the astronauts returned they held a meeting with the ground crew from North American Rockwell.  Thus officially begins the wee story behind my grandfather’s most prized possession.

When in Earth orbit, a spacecraft and its contents experience weightlessness, and when there are bits leftover from the construction of the spacecraft they sometimes emerge from their nooks and crannies and can pose a threat or distraction to the astronauts inside.

During this meeting with the ground crew, Captain Wally Schirra, Commander of Apollo 7, produced a large box containing what he said were the bits found in the Command Module by the astronauts whilst in orbit.  My grandfather and his co-workers held their heads in shame.  I believe some expletives were uttered when he told the story.

Schirra opened the large box to reveal a slightly smaller box, to the slight relief of the ground crew.  And that slightly smaller box contained yet an even smaller box.  He proceeded to open the boxes like nesting dolls until the final box, a very small box containing seven small bits of rubbish.  In the standards of air and spaceflight, Apollo 7 proved to be an exceptionally clean machine.

The Commander and crew felt the need to express his gratitude to my grandfather by suspending the wee bit of rubbish (some woven insulation from electrical wiring) in a block of translucent plastic mounted to a piece of wood with a brass plaque that reads:

THIS ARTICLE, FLOWN ON
APOLLO 7 OCTOBER 11-22, 1968,
IS PRESENTED TO
T. J. SMITH
BY
CAPT. WALLY M. SCHIRRA
FOR THE CREW OF APOLLO 7

‘There are only seven of those in the world’, my grandfather would say.  But where had his gone?  I searched all over and asked everyone I could.  My time in Los Angeles was winding down to a close.  Resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t find the plaque, I packed up my box of space memorabilia and shipped it to my home in Glasgow.

As I was packing my clothes for the journey home, my father asked me, ‘What about this safe box?’  He was referring to a small army-green box that I had scoured the week previously.  I supposed that I had spotted a few things that I would have liked to take with me back to Glasgow: some pictures of my grandfather with his crew for the Space Shuttle Main Engines, a certificate from Ian Ross, then Director of John Walker and Sons Ltd, Kilmarnock, commemorating my grandfather’s Hole-In-One from 28 April 1992, and a few other certificates of achievement from NASA and North American Rockwell.  There was even a picture of the moment when Wally Schirra (looking well chuffed) gave my grandfather (looking well irritated) the small piece of wire insulation at that meeting.  As I moved papers around I realised, there it was – the plaque.  It was right under my nose the whole time, hidden between papers in this small army-green box in my father’s shed.

DSC_0132 01

‘America!’, a ramble

Is America a force for good in the world?  Many people would respond positively, convinced of some strange belief called ‘American exceptionalism’, and would top it off with a resounding ‘God bless America!’  But on the other end of the spectrum we find many who would respond with disgust, as if such a question was not worthy of a response at all.  Perhaps both of these responses are true.  In an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970, Orson Welles declared,

I think one thing that is generally true, the one generalisation that is true about America is that everything is true about it.  It’s impossible to say anything that isn’t true, good or bad.  Our enemies are right, our friends are right.  It’s an awful big country [with] an awful lot of different kinds of people in it.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement.  From my perspective, an expatriated American of Scottish extraction, I can’t bring myself to side with either one of the two  extremist responses above.  The disestablishmentarian in me would readily scoff at the first answer when looking at the actions of ‘America’ throughout its short history.  ‘Manifest Destiny’; CIA plots to interfere with South American politics in order to stop the spread of COMMUNISM(!); capitalistic exploitation in America and in third world countries; the ill-informed invasion of Iraq in 2003; all those boy bands from the 90s – America isn’t a wholly good nation.  But then again, such a thing doesn’t exist.  That is not to say that America has done exclusively ‘bad’ things with this power.  Throughout history America’s government—however manipulated by an insecure worldview—has acted in self-interest.  Sometimes America’s self-interest is beneficial for the rest of the world and sometimes it isn’t.

When I left America for Scotland I was told by a Northern Irish friend that I would probably find myself defending my the States more than I expected.  But to be honest, I never had an entirely bleak outlook on America in the first place.  At different points I toyed with expatriation as a self-righteous act of political protest, but if anyone wants to lump America together as a homogeneous society of nit-wits I will try my best to convince them that this cannot truly be said of any nation.  America, with more than 300 million citizens who for the most part find their origins in faraway countries, is a freakishly diverse and dynamic nation.  But as it stands, and while this is not unique to America, many Americans (me included) and American governments have been guilty of making this world a poorer place in many inventive ways.

But America is also a beautiful nation full of beautiful people.  This as well is not unique to America.  But growing up in and around Los Angeles has shaped who I am in many ways and I wouldn’t change that fact even if I could.  And while I profess a love for Scotland, it inevitably shares many of America’s flaws.  I simply can’t escape what is broken with the world because I can’t escape the world.  All any of us can do is aim to repair what is broken and spread what is good.  But at this point we must ask the question, what is good?

Regarding America, and in celebration of the Fourth of July, when Americans commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (according to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams), I will now point out two things that I think are exemplary of the good: American music and baseball.

Let me make clear that these two things are not free of their own flaws.  For instance, in addition to the 90s boy bands I mentioned earlier, America is also responsible for Journey and a host of other terrible artists.  Of course this is a matter of taste, and while some poor folk might think that Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are passé, their music had and continues to have a profound impact on culture around the world.  Of course we are reminded of the words of Donne, ‘No man is an island’, and the two owe a great deal to a rich and fertile musical heritage borne from countless sources like the Negro spiritual.  But it can be argued that, among many others, the highly influential genres of ragtime, jazz, country, rock and roll, soul, hip-hop, and grunge were all founded in the US of A.  And of course there’s the broad Americana genre.  Perhaps these developments can be attributed to the rapid economic growth of America throughout its short history, mixed with the continual convergence of various world cultures, all taking place alongside the development of music recording and transmission throughout the 20th century.

Regardless of the cause, American music has always pushed new ground and inspired subsequent generations of artists.  See legendary musicians of days long past like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger (who is still kicking!).  Their torch was passed to popular artists like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Thelonius Monk, and Frank Sinatra.  Then this was followed by a wave of dramatic developments from American artists like The Beach Boys, Blondie, James Brown, T-Bone Burnett, Devo, Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Michael Jackson, Love, Ramones, The Talking Heads, Television, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, and Frank Zappa.

In more recent years we’ve seen the rise of significant American musicians like Lou Barlow, Jeff Buckley, Botch, Converge, Fugazi, Grandaddy, Aimee Mann, Neutral Milk Hotel, Nirvana, Pixies, R.E.M., Tupac Shakur, Daniel Smith, Elliott Smith, Sonic Youth, Sunny Day Real Estate, The White Stripes, Yo La Tengo, and yet more recent artists like Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Cass McCombs, and Frightened Rab…nevermind that last one.  Of course there are many more artists that should be included in this list (I merely picked some of my favourites), but that only goes to show how important American music has been in the last century.  In Sufjan Stevens alone we can see a massive and ambitious output of constant reinterpretation and innovation.

Now onto the second good thing I want to affirm about America, which probably came as no surprise to seasoned LITC readers.  Baseball may not enjoy the global fame of association football, but I happen to think it is the greatest sport to ever grace the face of the earth (though football’s soccer’s not far behind – apologies to cricket, rugby, golf, etc.).  I’ve professed my undying love for baseball through blog posts on several different occasions.  And despite the inevitable corruption that plagues the sport (greed, performance-enhancing drugs, marital infidelity, bench-clearing brawls, etc.), there’s a magic and heart to baseball that is truly good.

In the classic 1989 film Field of Dreams, the character Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) is trying to convince the main character, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), to embrace his dream, a vision he had of a baseball field on his farm in Iowa.  Because Ray has cleared land for this baseball field and has invested money into its development (outfitted with stadium lights and all), he is losing money rapidly and in this particular scene his brother-in-law is trying to convince him to sell the farm and leave his dream behind.  Mann responds,

Ray, people will come Ray.  They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom.  They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it.  They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.  Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say.  It’s only $20 per person.  They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack…

And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon.  They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces…

People will come Ray…

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray.  It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.  Oh, people will come Ray.  People will most definitely come.

There’s much more going on at the core of the film, but I won’t spoil it – you should watch the film.  What I want to point out is this sentiment expressed so sweetly through James Earl Jones’ transcendent voice.  Throughout many wars and economic depressions baseball has remained because it is a special vessel of goodness.  I suppose that’s part of why I love the Tigers so much – they represent this beacon of goodness (among many other great beacons of goodness in Detroit) in the midst of a suffering place.

So this is to you, America!  And while I’m not too keen on the cult of the American flag, here’s Ol’ Glory, which stands as a mere symbol for the hopes and dreams—noble and ignoble—of millions of people throughout the last 235 years and in the present.  May God bless America, but more importantly, may God continue to bless this struggling world.

Helicopter Megaphone

The new Deerhunter album, Halcyon Digest, was released this week and I seized the opportunity to purchase it at Avalanche during a quick trip to Edinburgh on Monday.  The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.  The artwork is intriguing, with the fold-out insert designed in the fashion of an underground newspaper or zine.  All of the lyrics to the individual tracks are written on this insert with an additional bit before the eighth track, ‘Helicopter’.  Before the lyrics this short article appears, reprinted in the album artwork with permission from Dennis Cooper:

Dima (real name Dimitry Marakov) was born in 1986 in the town of Nalchik, Russia.  From a young age, he dreamed of working in the fashion industry as a designer.  Lacking the moral or financial support of his parents, he actively sought out contacts within the industry through the internet.   At the age of 14, he became acquainted with a successful fashion photographer in St. Petersburg who invited the boy to come live with him and work as his assistant.  Dima accepted the offer and moved in with the photographer.  According to friends of Dima, he became the older man’s lover for approximately the next year.  He eventually grew dissatisfied with the lack of benefits he had been promised would result from the arrangement.  He left the photographer to become live-in lovers with a wealthy man who provided the financial backing for a conglomerate of pornographic gay websites.  It was at this point that Dimitry adopted the stage name Dima and, with the help of false documents that corrected his age to the legal 18, began a successful career modeling naked and starring in hardcore sex videos on the gay websites financed by his lover.

Between the age of 15 and 18, Dima was a highly sought after pornographic model and performer.  He saved the money he made from modeling to pay for the tuition at a leading college of fashion that he hoped to attend when he reached 18.  At a certain point, Dima began supplementing his income by renting himself out as an escort within his lover’s circle of associates and acquaintances.  According to friends of Dima, they included several leading figures in the entertainment industry as well as one of the most powerful men in Russia’s world of organized crime.  Dima began to express concern to his friends that the organized crime figure had become obsessed with him, but he refused to accept their advice to stop seeing the man because of the large amount of money these dates were earning him.  Sometime in 2005, Dima abruptly left his lover, gave up his modeling career, cut off all communication with his friends, and moved in with the organized crime figure.  The last public Dima sighting was late that year when his friend Ignat Lebedev, who was also working as a male escort at the time, accompanied a client to a private sex club where he claims to have witnessed a very thin and confused looking Dima being forcibly sodomized by a group of perhaps ten to fifteen men.  Lebedev claims his client identified one of the men as the organized crime figure and dissuaded him from speaking to Dima for his own protection.

Lebedev claims he described what he’d seen to Dima’s former lover and was told Dima had been killed the previous week and that he shouldn’t speak of this again.  Lebedev reported both incidents to the police, but after interviewing the lover and being told Lebedev had made the story up, they declined to investigate the matter.  In 2006, Lebedev persuaded a prominent Russian gay journalist to write an article on Dima’s disappearance, but during the course of investigating the story, the writer was abducted by unknown assailants, beaten, and told he would be murdered if he wrote the story.  Dima has not been seen or reliably heard from in three years, although in early 2007 another organized crime figure, Evgeny Ershova, who was awaiting trial on an unrelated murder charge, claimed that in late 2005 he witnessed a young male prostitute matching Dima’s description be pushed out of a helicopter over a remote forest in the north of Russia.  Before Dima’s ex-lover died of lung cancer in late 2007, he reportedly confessed to friends that Dima was sold as a sex slave to a man in the Ukraine in late 2005 and had lived until late 2006 when he’d committed suicide.

The actual song—shared in the video below, which was released earlier this month—contains heartbreaking lyrics from the perspective of Dima.  Principle songwriter Bradford Cox beautifully delivers these sorrowful words of exploitation, abuse, helplessness, isolation and loneliness, which prove to be all the more sobering when heard in light of the article above.

Dima’s story is incredibly heartbreaking, and while he lost his life at the hands of those who would oppress, Deerhunter reminds us of the unfathomable struggle faced by those around the world that presently experience the horror of human trafficking.

Thank you Deerhunter for speaking for those who have no voice and for doing so in such a creative and effective manner. May we all be challenged to do the same and to seek to protect all people.

I became President and all I got was this Nobel Prize

Not even a year into his presidency and Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize.  He didn’t even need to make a documentary.  And it will look good between his two Grammys.

There will most certainly be both many praises and many criticisms floating about regarding the bestowal of this honor upon the young American President, but I really must say that my first reaction was overwhelming joy.  Why?  I simply believe that while standing up for what he believes America needs, President Obama still retains a considerable amount of respect from the rest of the world (or at least from those who vote for the Nobel Prize).

Once again, I am working from the assumption that two-way communication with the rest of the world is a positive thing.  From my view I would say that President Obama is not bowing down to the demands of the ‘enemies‘ of America (part of the reason for his winning of the Nobel Prize is the fact that he has really amped up calls for nuclear disarmament and human rights).

Still, while I am filled with joy, I wonder how the President of the United States could have won this award after only being President for roughly eight months (let me also add that the nomination proceedings for the Nobel Prize took place before he had even been in office for one full month).  [But let's not also forget that one need not be a President to be awarded a Nobel Prize, i.e. he could have received it (in theory) even if he had not won the election.]  And in the back of my head is the thought that perhaps President Obama simply looks so much more attractive to the rest of the world in contrast to the administration that he followed…

Either way, I hope that people won’t get nasty about this award: Obama didn’t ask for it.  This is meant to be a gift from the Norwegian Nobel Committee to someone who has contributed significantly to the cause of peace.  I think it would be difficult to defend the belief that President Obama has yet to actually impact the global political climate/landscape.  Even North Korea is changing its tune (for now).

Whether or not the world is unanimous in approval of President Obama’s receipt of this award, we can all agree that a world where peace flourishes is a good goal; may we hope and pray that President Obama would continually make decisions that point the way (in as much as one man can) to that goal.

"Damn."
Another disappointing day.

Chávez changes tone concerning Venezuelan-US relations

A section of Hugo Chávez’ speech to the United Nations General Assembly was posted on BBC News online last night.  I took the courtesy of transcribing this portion of the speech:

John Kennedy said, ‘In the south there is a revolution and the main reason is hunger.’  Only a few days later he was assassinated.  John Kennedy was not a revolutionary, but he was an intelligent man, just as I think President Obama is an intelligent man.  And I hope God will protect Obama from the bullets that killed Kennedy.  I hope Obama will be able to look and see-genuinely see-what has to be seen, and bring about a change.  It doesn’t smell of sulfur anymore.  I doesn’t smell of sulfur, it’s gone.  No, it smells of something else.  It smells of hope.  And you have to have hope in your heart and lend your strength to the hope.

Chávez and his rule of Venezuela can be characterized as many things, but I find it intereting to analyze his view of the United States.  In 2006, the last time he spoke at the UN General Assembly, he called President George W. Bush “the devil.”  Now he declares that the smell of sulfur is gone and has been replaced with hope.  We could debate what seem to be his views regarding a link between the assassination of President Kennedy and Kennedy’s stance on South America, but I find his great optimism regarding the presidency of Barack Obama a great opportunity to heal relations with Venezuela and if America so demands it, to exercise some suggestive influence to change certain ways that some Americans might have an aversion toward him and his policies (specifically characterizing Chávez as a threat to capitalism I mean democracy in South America).

Still, some Americans can percieve any interaction with our “enemies” a great threat to national security, and anything divergent from the stagnant animosity America has experienced between itself and a significant portion of this wicked world during the virtuous presidency of George W. Bush ought to be shuned.  Why can’t America talk with these countries?  Why must America set a tone in foreign policy based on closed conditions and global superiority? ◊

Whichever side of the political/economic spectrum we’re on, we can probably agree with a sizable majority that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is incredibly odd.

◊ But I admit that I am rather ignorant when it comes to the scientific study of foreign policy.  I don’t like to be at odds with fiscal conservatives, I simply find that more often than not, I am.  I don’t take my views from this philosopher or that philosopher, but I tend to try to see things through a particular grid, one essentially based on restored relationships between humankind & God, humankind & itself, and humankind & nature.  I am certain that there are ways in which I am totally wrong, but my desire is not to push socialism, capitalism, nor any other -ism, nor is my desire to pledge allegiance to this political party or that political party.  I simply try to view this world as something that was created wisely, broken tragically, and will be redeemed thoroughly via the agenda of one greater than any president or king in this world.

The current Israel-Gaza conflict

I’m surprised that our blog hasn’t featured much (if any) discussion regarding the current troubles in Gaza (though we are being assured of a ceasefire by Israeli leadership).  I have rather strong views in opposition to the many of the actions of Israel (both presently and in the past), but I understand that as a group of people the Israelis desire a place to call their own (understandably so) and many of their surrounding countries would have them stripped of self-governance (if not even wiped out entirely).   I am certain that great deal of heated discussion would follow if I listed out my criticisms both of Israel and the various Palestinian groups who oppose them, but in this time of intense suffering I desire to write a prayer—something we’ve yet to do on this blog—and I hope it is not out of bounds.

God, the holy creator and sustainer of all things in this universe, we ask that you would exercise your will, particularly with regard to peace and the preservation of life on this planet.  We know that the tensions of war and strife are part of our lot as a result of disobedience, but we also know that you are abounding in grace and love.  Please guide the leadership of these conflicting peoples and—though this seems a near impossible task given the state of affairs in the Middle East—provide a lasting peace.  As a result of this current crisis we ask that you would please heal those who have been injured, provide shelter for those who have been displaced, and provide comfort for those who have lost their loved ones.  We boldly ask that this world would be transformed by the immense power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit.   Use us to pray and provide practical assistance in this situation.  Give us wisdom to see where we can work for your kingdom.  In all of these things may you be glorified.  Amen.

Who neither believes that war is tragic nor peace beautiful?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers