Friday, January 27, 2012


It was Tom Paine who wrote that we as a people and a new nation had the capacity “to begin the world over again.”
Martin Luther King set out to make the world over again and he made a good start before he was shot dead.
King said, “Let us be those creative dissenters who will call upon our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.”
That’s what we celebrated when we marched last week from the court house to the school house – our opportunity to begin the world over again.
Of course, we talked about the cold and of the diverse community of warmly bundled marchers with colorful scarves and trophies from past political marches carrying steaming hot coffee cups; then, somewhat self-consciously, we realized the only inconvenience we faced in our march was the wind and weather.
Just think about the march in Selma, Alabama and how it succeeded in winning voting rights legislation in 1965 because, as King described it, a “stubborn sheriff” acted so wrongly in handling the protest that he “stumbled against the future.”
Martin Luther King was a man immersed and saturated in the Christian spirit, shaped by the Bible, focused on what was just, on equality, and he chose as his guide for activism the non-violence of Jesus and of Gandhi.
After Selma, King said that, “Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end.  That is what I have found in nonviolence.”
Anticipating his own death, King said in the Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, that he identified with those who were poor and hungry and, “[i]f it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice say, ‘Do something for others.’”
The challenge for our nation, in his mind, was human rights; it remains our challenge today.
In this presidential election year, decades later, we have a need and the opportunity to concern ourselves with the collective misfortune of our friends and neighbors.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich declared after his electoral presidential primary victory in South Carolina that the reason for his win was “[t]he American people feel that they have elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system.”
Gingrich celebrates individual freedom from any government program.  Gingrich pretty plainly has said that he will cut out food stamps (makes fun of the President for feeding the hungry) and housing for the poor, unemployment insurance for the jobless, training programs for those who want to join the work force, education grants, and he would curtail or eliminate Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  These are among the last 50 years of government legislation and programs that Gingrich disapproves. 
Gingrich’s win in South Carolina confirms, what King said years ago, that “[o]verwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions.”
Gingrich does not discuss much the elite that he does celebrate, the filthy rich who sustain both Romney and Gingrich, two heads of the same beast, who especially resist any public system that dares regulate their favored elite, even though, to borrow from King again, the current regulatory “[l]egislation … is evaded, substantially nullified and unenforced [making the effort in recent days] … a mockery of law.”
The assistant director of the office of economic opportunity, Hyman Bookbinder, back in 1966, said that “the poor can stop being poor if the rich are willing to become even richer at a slower rate.”  Now the same can be said about what’s happening to the middle class.  But Gingrich and his kind would accelerate their profits – at our expense.
King worked “to begin the world over again.”  In the midst of our almost unprecedented domestic crisis and our costly foreign entanglements, this presidential election is an excellent time to resolve to continue King’s work and to climb that “plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.”  Now that’s a worthy challenge for any political campaign!

Thursday, January 19, 2012


You know how some early Americans thought to invade Canada.  Well, they are now invading Virginia.
There’s a Canadian Company that wants Virginia to lift the 30-year-old ban on mining uranium so that they can dig up about 119 million pounds of uranium, worth about $7 billion. 
You might think they feel safer mining here rather than in Canada.  The truth is they’re coming here because they’ve already thoroughly messed up their own north land – such as the open pit they left behind at the Key Lake Mine in Northern Saskatchewan, and the sand-like Stanrock tailings (70 million tons) at Elliot Lake. What they leave behind looks like a moonscape – barren, lifeless and gray. 
We can’t really want them to do the same to us.  Instead of allowing them to lift the ban on mining uranium, we should be considering every other energy alternative before radioactive material.  Some prefer nuclear because there are no carbon emissions.  That’s good but don’t forget there is the radiation from uranium.  Our best engineers have shown no clear ability to mine uranium safely, nor much more success in avoiding leaks from reactors when generating nuclear energy at plants, and then there is that nasty question of what we do with the spent radioactive rods and ore that sends off radiation for longer than we can imagine our progeny existing.
This Canadian company and its Virginia supporters nevertheless want our Virginia General Assembly to lift the ban on uranium mining – and the legislative outcome is in doubt.
Ordinarily, the unstable Uranium atom decays until it becomes another element that is stable.  In the bargain, it sends out alpha and gamma rays.  Gamma rays rip through your clothing and concrete and heavy metal and can cause radiation sickness and cancer.  Once you inhale or ingest any uranium tailings or dust, no matter how small, once inside you, the alpha rays damage living tissue from within.  We like to think everything wears down and Uranium does but longer than we can imagine.  Uranium 238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years. Radium 226 has an intermediate half-life of 1,600 years.  This is a half-life longer than all recorded or imagined time.
In order to unearth the fuel for these reactors in Virginia, among the very serious challenges to our safety and well-being, are the radioactive rivers that we shall likely unleash and the toxic dust that will float in the air that Virginians breathe because of the mining of this unstable element.  Heavy rains feeding rivers and winds carrying uranium particles will damage human tissue beyond repair.
Today we are focused on a proposed mining site in Pittsylvania County, the principal object of the Canadian company’s interest, but you should be aware that there are earlier uranium mines elsewhere in Virginia that were abandoned years ago and unexplored Uranium deposits that run North and South parallel to Virginia’s western border and through Loudoun County.
The Canadian company and its Virginian supporters tell us, like that old song, of Bobby McFerrin’s, “Don’t worry.  Be happy,” for there will be federal oversight and regulation of the mining.  We had assurances from these same federal authorities that the mines of West Virginia were safe from gas explosions (when they weren’t), and that the Gulf of Mexico was safe from any major oil drilling disaster (when it wasn’t). So we are not assured.
Rachel Carson wrote in 1962 in “Silent Spring” that “[t]he most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials.  This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible.”
This legislation, if powerful vested interests overcome rational argument, is likely to release a clear and irreversible danger in Virginia – and that would be our state’s shame and disgrace.  Write your state delegate and senator -- so that maybe they don’t get this one wrong.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Janet Clarke, the newly minted Supervisor from Blue Ridge, has apparently dropped her campaign pose of being democratically responsive.  Fresh into her new job, she’s telling us what she’s going to do without asking us folk in Lovettsville what we think about it at a hearing or public meeting. 
She’s dictating to us folk who live in and near Lovettsville, in the Catoctin District, a magisterial district that she does not represent, where she insists that the County build a new middle school and a new high school. 
In fact and in truth, we don’t have the students in Lovettsville to justify these schools, we are at the County’s edge, close to the Potomac and thus not “centrally located,” and for these and other reasons, many parents are of the firm view that we don’t need and don’t want these schools here.
It is fascinating how people come to Western Loudoun from elsewhere and want to change what we have.  They come from Fairfax, as Ms. Clarke did, saying that they love our open country and then, shortly thereafter, they set themselves to marginalizing working farms, paving dirt roads, straightening the smooth turns of a country road so they can better speed on it, cutting down trees, driving out wild life, and squandering the resources including our challenged waterways that made this rolling land in Loudoun a natural treasure.
Those of us who have been here for a while who have helped Johnny (and Mary Jo) learn to read, sent our children on a school bus or drove them ourselves and neither our children nor any of us parents were the worse for wear.  When I was a kid in New York, I traveled by bus and subway across a fair distance in the Bronx to get to high school.  My daughter’s travel was shorter and faster than my own – not that I ever complained about my own daily odyssey. 
So this declaration of intent by Ms. Clarke is not really about helping Johnny to read.  It’s about building schools that we don’t need in places that don’t make sense in order to spur residential development that would not otherwise occur without the infrastructure that a school requires. 
It’s the field of schemes – build it and we shall pay -- our taxpayer dollars spent widening roads, providing water, sewer and electrical infrastructure so that the developer won’t have to spend those funds himself – Loudoun’s down home version of corporate welfare.
Supervisor Clark insists it would be “shameful” if these schools weren’t built in Lovettsville.  What is truly “shameful” is Ms. Clarke telling us what to do, deciding our fate, calling us all names, without a single public hearing on the matter.
Incidentally, Lovettsville’s actual representative for the Catoctin District, Geary Higgins, told us during the recent campaign how he restored homes, loved the environment, and proposed to listen carefully to what the voters wanted.  Now that he’s elected, however, he has made his position clear on these schools – he’ll do what Ms. Clarke, the Board’s new Vice Chair, wants, also without first hearing what the citizens want.  So we are on notice that we have an echo, not a voice in Mr. Higgins’s notion of “stewardship” for our district – and that he is as undemocratic as Ms. Clarke.
An election is a transforming experience because only then do we find out what we got.  Sorry to say, early indications are that what we got is highly indifferent to democratic – small d – principles by which elected officials invite the public to say what they want, and to object to what they don’t want, rather than being told by the political class what they’re going to get.

Monday, January 9, 2012

GAZETTE COLUMN: Chutzpah on the Court House Lawn by John P. Flannery

This County tried a religious experiment on the public court house lawn in Leesburg, at taxpayers’s expense, and it went terribly wrong – making us a national laughing stock once again.
Some Christians wanted to place a crèche and other religious symbols in the public square -- on our courthouse lawn.
This was constitutionally impermissible under the First Amendment for the Board of Supervisors to pass a public ordinance that had as its purpose - the “establishment of religion.”  The first clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees separation of church and state -- so that the government may not underwrite or prefer or “establish” any religion over any other religion. 
While the government may not establish any religion, by the very next provision in the First Amendment, neither may any government interfere with the “free exercise” of religion.  What that means is that Christians, and those who follow any other religious belief, are free to use any place of worship or any yard of any private home to host whatever religious worship or practices they wish any time of the year.
Our community leaders, however, skirted the prohibition against establishing religion, ignoring the fact that there were good and sufficient places to practice religious rites off of public property, by acting as if, this were instead, an exercise of free speech.  Thus did this County allow some Christians to foist their religious views on a pluralistic community having diverse religious beliefs and unbelief. 
So insistent were some Christians in their efforts to establish their religion as pre-eminent over others that they did not comprehend, respect or tolerate the views of others. 
Exhibit A is the much-publicized and not-so-covert smashing of a skeletal Santa hung on a symbolic Cross, taken apart piece by piece, until it disappeared entirely, and reportedly while under surveillance by law enforcement (Inspector Clousseau we presume).
Politicians wrung their hands and whined that this was an offensive and un-Christian exhibit.  There were crocodile tears at its destruction.  They were so blinded by their intolerance for any view that differed from their pre-conceived view of what was acceptable, they failed to appreciate that this artful satire was entirely Christian, condemning the crass materialism of the post-thanksgiving retail sales orgy that vitiates the true meaning of Christmas.  One Christian pastor from Loudoun said the display was representative of “[t]he materialistic mugging of a religious tradition that has created a ‘Christmas market’ and ‘crucified’ a transcending spirit of Christmas ….”  He compared this current artistic expression to Jesus’ historic objection to the “market around [the] ritual sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.” After all, this pastor said, if Jesus and his followers had not protested that Jerusalem “market,” among other controversial teachings of his public ministry, Jesus would have never been sacrificed on the cross, and his birth would have had no historic or religious significance. 
We shouldn’t need to be reminded that the First Amendment “freedom of speech” protects speech that some find intolerable, outrageous, even offensive -- the only brand of speech that truly needs protection.  Here we have Christians and other disapproving an entirely Christian message because they object to its presentation.
Other Christians – or so it appears - pulled down the fairly moderate lawn display of the Atheists that was both respectful in tone and presentation.  No question that this was not Christian.
In the end, the Christians who insisted on this pretext of “free speech” so that they could “establish” their religious belief couldn’t even respect the freedom of others to speak in opposition or even to speak with a difference in emphasis than they preferred or approved.
Going forward this New Year, we must not allow any sect of any religious belief to use the public square at taxpayers’ sufferance to establish their belief, and we must recognize that pretending that this is free speech when it is really about establishing and preferring one religion over another doesn’t work – especially not when some Christians can’t respect the rights of other to speak in disagreement or in a manner they disapprove.