Potatoes and Family 

My business buys insurance through a local agent who happens to be a Bosnian Muslim immigrant. He grew up during the Balkans war in the 1990s. He just sent around Thanksgiving greetings to his clients which included a couple of stories from his childhood. With all the bigoted idiocy about Syrian immigrants being spewed by national political figures I thought that his missive would be a fine antidote. With his permission, here it is:


    Hope you have a lot to be thankful for.  I am thankful for many things, including discovering crossfit, but far beyond anything else I am thankful for joys of being a dad to my son William!  But when I stop and think about having a son I often think of my dad who passed when I was 21.  And I get choked up, and I am getting choked up typing this, so I wanted to share what the spirit of thanksgiving and family love means to me.

    When I was 10 or 11 I noticed how huge my dad's legs were.  One day we were just laying around and I remember making a big deal about it, I bugged him, asked why/how are his legs that big... (this is not because I was small, my dad genuinely had big legs) he just smiled and moved on...  Later on, we packed a loaf of bread, some meat, little water and we went to forest.

    We walked for a long time, and eventually sat down to eat.  We started a small fire and grilled the meat.  We ate nothing that day and I don't know if the meat was that delicious or if I was just really hungry, but I couldn't stop eating.  I remember commenting on how great meat was, and how hungry I was.  My dad ate nothing, I ate everything.  I wanted him to eat too, but he said that he wasn't hungry and wanted me to have it all.

    I enjoyed that meal, I enjoyed that day with my dad.  Maybe it was that same day, maybe little there after I thought how big his legs are, one leg the size of me, and he isn't hungry?  I knew he was starving, but he wanted me to eat everything because I was enjoying it so much.  I also knew I would not give away food, but he did.  I knew how much I loved him, but that day it was so clear to me how much he loved me, and it was the type of love I couldn't understand.  My dad stayed hungry so I could eat and to me when I think about ultimate love this is what comes to mind.

    I grew up during civil war and there were times when food was scarce.  One winter, I think I was in 8th grade, so technically after the war but life after the war was just as hard as during war.  That winter all we ate was just one meal a day and it was potatoes of some sort.    I went to school hungry, did not eat at school, and as I am walking up from school to our house I am just praying.  I just thought if I pray hard enough, God will hear me and bring food to the table.  I come home and my mom is setting up a table for us to eat.  As I am waiting at a table for mom to bring food, praying intensifies.  Please have her bring something other than potatoes.  I start thinking of reasons why I deserve more than potatoes, please just today I want more than potatoes.  I close my eyes, silently stuffing as many prayers as possible before she brings food out to the table.  I open my eyes to the sight of baked potatoes, not enough to fill me in.  Defeated, I put my head down and start crying, but I didn't want to cry, so what got out of me were groans, and a few tears.  My dad asked if I was OK, and I say yes, hiding my face.  I look up to see my sister laughing, mom and dad content.  Feeling of gratitude slowly overpowered everything I was thinking earlier because I realized how blessed we were for being together.  So what if I was hungry, we had each other and we love each other and nothing else mattered, and I became grateful to have potatoes, some people were not lucky to have that, some people lost their family.

    My father-in-law celebrates every holiday, every birthday, makes a big deal out of every occasion.  I don't believe in birthday celebrations so I asked him why are you celebrating your birthday man, why do you care so much?  "Why do I care so much?  Do you really want to know?  Do you really think I care about birthdays and all these celebrations?  What do you think this is all about?  This is all about having family together, when would we get together all at once and share this joy, we are lucky that we can do this, and I find every opportunity to have us together."  My father-in-law also stayed hungry so his kids could eat, and he understands the power of family.

    I think this deserves an ending that will bring all of it together, but at the risk of being cheesy it's best I stop here.  I think you get the point, plus William is banging on the door, it's time for my break.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Phil Scott’s 20-20 Trust 

(This one is about two months overdue. Your Minor Heretic has been busy, alternately cajoling and hammering on large machinery. I’m happy to report that the floggings did increase morale and that the machinery is now running.)

If you’ve been following Vermont political news at all you know that Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott is officially in the race for governor. I listened to an interview with him on Vermont Public Radio back in mid-September. One of the topics was the problem of Scott’s ownership of DuBois Construction, a company that does business with the State of Vermont. As governor this would present a conflict of interest.

Actually, as Lt. Governor it presents a conflict of interest, so there’s another story. For the moment I’ll focus on the potential problem.

Scott explained that he would solve the problem by turning over the operation of the company to a blind trust. This makes no sense at all.

People who hold public office sometimes put their financial holdings in a blind trust. An investment advisor takes over the holdings and buys and sells stocks, bonds, and other assets without informing the public official what is in the portfolio. Thus the official’s self-interest is generalized to a healthy economy. There is no reason for the official to favor one business or business sector over another. At least, that’s the theory.

Let me emphasize before going further that conflict of interest is always judged on appearance. Absent mind reading abilities, nobody can tell whether an official’s actions are influenced by an investment. In this particular case, we might assume that Phil Scott is honorable and still raise objections to an appearance of conflict of interest. The same rules apply to everybody.

That said, the idea that Phil Scott could put a single company into a blind trust goes against basic logic. Despite his absence from day to day operations at Dubois, he would still know that he owns the company. He has stated that he intends to go back to running the business after eventually departing politics. He would have a definite interest in the continued prosperity of the company. Decision makers throughout the state government would also know this. How screamingly obvious. It’s not a blind trust if you know what’s in it.

I don’t know whether to question Scott’s judgment or question his opinion of average voter intelligence. Wherever the non-baked idea of a single-asset “blind” trust came from, he should drop it. Getting back to the present problem, if the governor running a business that contracts with the state government is a conflict of interest, how is the lieutenant governor in the same situation not a conflict of interest? Phil Scott needs to remove Dubois Construction from the business of government contracts.


Pope Francis Dodges the Big Issue 

Your Minor Heretic has been busy wrestling with large mechanical things for a while, but all the feel-good PR about the papal visit has gotten me feeling disgruntled and heretical.

Yes, Papa Frank has been saying the right things about poverty and climate change. Fine, thanks. It’s always fun to see the far right tie themselves in knots when a conservative authority figure breaks ranks. However, His Eminence has failed to address child sexual abuse by the clergy and his church’s historical and present efforts to protect the child rapists in its midst. When a parishioner can’t trust the church to protect children from sexual abuse, really, what use is that church?

The pope even stuck his foot in it by publicly sympathizing with the clergy over their suffering due to the child abuse scandal. Huh? Survivors of priestly abuse were appalled.

I wrote about this back in 2008 and not much has changed since then. One point I covered then was that Catholic canon law required an oath of secrecy from anyone involved in a sexual scandal. Violating that oath “even for a greater good”, such as notifying the police, resulted in excommunication, “latae sententiae, ipso facto.” The Latin means that the person who complains to the police that a priest raped their child would be excommunicated without any process, at the moment of the commission of the act.

I looked up latae sententiae excommunication and there are a number of things that will get you instantly booted from the church. Throwing away a communion wafer is one of them and assaulting the pope is another. Heresy as well, so I’m out. Raping a child is not. To paraphrase a line from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to excommunicate.”

If Pope Francis wants me (along with many other Americans) to dredge up a few warm and fuzzy feelings for him, he could issue a papal bull declaring any cleric committing an act of sexual abuse to be excommunicate, latae sententiae, ipso facto. If tossing a sanctified cracker in the trash warrants it, raping a child should pass the test for expulsion.


The Myth of Hiroshima 

It is the 70th anniversary of the first and only military use of the atomic bomb. The established story about the U.S. using the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it was necessary to avoid a planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. The U.S. military had encountered fierce resistance and tens of thousands of casualties during the invasion of the island of Okinawa and were anticipating hundreds of thousands while attacking the mainland. As is often the case, the established story is false. Not long after the Japanese surrender, several high ranking military officers went public with their opinions.

"The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into war. ... The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan." - Adm. Nimitz

"The Japanese were ready to surrender, and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. … I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon." -Dwight D. Eisenhower

"It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons... My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children." - Admiral William Leahy

(With a hat-tip to Paul Bibeau at Goblinbooks for the quotations. Really, you should go read his stuff. He's brilliant, pointed, and funny.)

Perhaps you suspect these men of merely distancing themselves from an atrocity after the fact. Let me fill in the story from the perspective of a relatively unknown player in this story, one Ladislas Farago, an operative of the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, Special Warfare Branch, also known as Op-16-W. Farago wrote a history of WW2 espionage titled “Burn After Reading.” It is an interesting survey of the operations of various intelligence and counterintelligence operations before and during that war. The last chapter is what interests me now. Titled “The Surrender of Japan”, it chronicles the efforts of Op-16-W to open a path to a negotiated surrender through diplomatic back channels and psychological warfare.

(Farago is better known as a military historian and author. He wrote “Patton: Ordeal and Triumph”, on which the Patton movie was based, and “The Broken Seal”, which was part of the basis of the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” about Pearl Harbor.)

Farago wrote the “Appeal to Japan” that President Harry Truman read on the radio on May 8, 1945, telling the Japanese that 1) Germany was defeated, 2) that Japan would get no relief from attack until it surrendered, and 3) that surrender did not mean extermination or enslavement. The appeal was based on intelligence gathered by Op-16-Z, the signals intelligence branch that worked alongside Op-16-W.

In December 1944 Op-16-W received a report originating from an asset code named “Shark”, a Turkish diplomat in Tokyo. The substance of the report was that the present Premier of Japan would resign in favor of a confidant of Emperor Hirohito, in order that a “peace party” would have the power to negotiate a surrender. Hirohito was only concerned that he would retain his own position as the symbolic and spiritual leader of the nation. With that concern addressed, he would put the entire weight of his authority behind peace negotiations.

On March 19, 1945, Op-16-W proposed a plan of psychological warfare aimed at high level Japanese officials “in order to accelerate and effect the unconditional surrender of Japan without the necessity of an opposed landing on the Japanese main islands.”

In the meantime, Japan was extending feelers through various channels. Jiri Taguchi, an agent who reported directly to Japanese Foreign Minister Togo, went to Berne, Switzerland and requested a secret meeting with the American diplomat Leland Harrison. The approach was dismissed. Hirohito himself approached the Cardinal of Tokyo to ask the Vatican to act as a go between, and this request was forwarded through the American representative to the Vatican to the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. The State Department waffled on this approach due to political considerations about the Vatican. American signals intelligence units picked up and decrypted communications between Togo and an ambassador, Sato, stationed in Moscow. Togo explicitly asked Sato to ask Stalin to be a go-between in surrender negotiations. Stalin rejected this, and the U.S. couldn’t use the intel because it would have revealed our ability to break Japanese diplomatic codes. Nevertheless, U.S. officials knew that Japan was desperate for a negotiated surrender months before the dropping of the atomic bomb.

In the spring of 1945 Op-16-W made propaganda transmissions that assured Japanese officials that unconditional military surrender did not ultimately mean loss of national sovereignty. The emperor’s position would be assured. There followed an odd conversation over the public airwaves and in the press between Japanese propagandists and American ones, with subtly coded references to negotiation. A Japanese government spokesman, Dr. Isamu Inouye, made a broadcast in April 1945 that included: “Japan would be ready to discuss peace terms provided there were certain changes in the unconditional surrender formula.” On July 24 he was more explicit: “Should the United States show any sincerity of putting into practice what she preaches, as for instance in the Atlantic Charter excepting its punitive clause, the Japanese nation, in fact the Japanese military, would automatically, if not willingly, follow in the stopping of the conflict.”

In the latter half of July 1945 the Office of Naval Intelligence had plans for direct meetings with the Japanese. They were flying the recently captured Japanese ambassador to Germany to the Pacific in preparation for secret meetings. They expected the Japanese surrender by September 1st.

Of course, on August 6, 1945, the bomb dropped. There has been much speculation by historians as to why the U.S. government chose that action over a week of negotiations. Some say that Truman, negotiating with the Soviets in Potsdam, saw it as a move to keep the Soviets cautious. Some argue that U.S. politicians had backed themselves into a corner of unconditional surrender and feared that negotiations would make them look weak. There is a thread of opinion that the U.S. military saw atomic weapons as a determinant of future U.S. power and required a real world test.

Whatever the matrix of motivations, the historical record reveals the standard myth as just that. U.S. military decision makers were not faced with a choice between an invasion and a mushroom cloud.

We should remember this when the politicians of our time present us with a military option that they deem inevitable.


What That Flag Means 

Apparently a lot of Americans view the Confederate flag as a symbol of “Southern heritage” rather than racism. Ok, a lot of white Americans. According to recent polls, the population in general is split 42% to 42% on that question. However, 75% of blacks think of it as racist, as opposed to about a third of whites. The disconnect here is not just racial, it’s historical. The meaning of the flag has morphed over the last century and a half from a battle flag of Confederate soldiers, to the flag of the Confederacy, to a rallying point for racist dead-enders and segregationists, to a social symbol (for some) of generalized tribal identity and  rebellion against authority. Call this last one the “Dukes of Hazzard” interpretation. Those dead-enders expended a lot of ink and energy plastering over the realities of slavery and the fight to preserve it, resulting in the soft focus “lost cause” and states’ rights interpretation of the American Civil War.

Still, to most of the African-American population of this country it is the graphic design equivalent of dropping the N-bomb. And isn’t that kind of impolite, no matter what the symbol means in someone’s own mind?

If we really want to know the original meaning, we should ask the people who originally fought under that banner. If we can’t trust the Confederates to understand the purpose of the Confederacy, who can we trust? Luckily for us they wrote about it. Every southern state issued an article of secession. Six of them were short and pro-forma; just declarations that on such a date they were no longer part of the United States. Virginia passed a pro-forma article with a reference to “slave-holding states.” However, four states gave their reasons. In those articles it’s just slave-slavery-slavitty-slave-slave, beginning to end. To wit:

Georgia’s Declaration of Secession: 35 mentions of slavery, starting in the first sentence.

Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession: 7 direct mentions of slavery, starting in the second sentence, plus 4 indirect mentions, including a reference to loss of “property.”

South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession: 18 mentions of slavery, starting in the first sentence.

Texas’s Declaration of Secession: 22 mentions of slavery, starting in the first substantive paragraph.

Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee passed pro-forma articles of secession, without any reference to motivation.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in The Atlantic, has an excellent article that expands upon this, quoting the writings of southern politicians, journalists, and Confederate veterans. It’s slavery all the way down.

Of course, there are people who say that taking the Confederate flag down will dishonor Confederate soldiers. Good. My maternal great-grandfather served in a Virginia regiment during the Civil War. (You read that right – he was in his fifties when my grandmother was born. I’m just a handshake away.) He was wrong. His fight to preserve the institution of slavery was shameful. I haven’t investigated enough to know, but he was probably a slaveholder himself. I do not honor his memory. Our shared genetic material does not soften my view of him. I owe my allegiance to the living and future generations, not to the dead.

Relegating the Confederate flag to museums is just a beginning. Understanding the context of that symbol is the start of unraveling a toxic myth in the popular, anecdotal version of American history. At the moment it’s the very least we can do.