Saturday, July 25, 2009

Floodwall Murals: Going with the Flow

In a memo to the City Council, dated July 22, City Solicitor Jones wrote, “At the last council meeting on July 13, 2009, some issues were raised in regards to the proposed lease agreement between the City of Portsmouth and Portsmouth Murals, Inc. As a result of those concerns, I have made a change to paragraph 2 of the lease. Specifically, I have clarified this paragraph by stating that the lessor desires to lease the ‘surface' (i.e., panels) of this property . . .” This is clarification? Surface? Panels? Does he mean murals? If so, why doesn't he say so? Is it because that would mean Portsmouth Murals, Inc. would be leasing only those sections of the wall that now have murals on them, whereas PMI wants a lease on every foot of wall?

Even with the revised language of the Floodwall ordinance presented by Solicitor Jones, which specifies the surface of the floodwall as what is being leased, there is still a potentially serious legal problem, which is how the property in question is defined, or delimited, in the lease. It is defined as the "Property commonly known as the Floodwall in the City of Portsmouth." Exactly what is the “Property commonly known as the Floodwall”? I think that what is, or at least was, commonly known as the Floodwall in Portsmouth is the 2200 hundred feet or so (actually closer to 2375, according to the Google satellite map, below) of the northern side of the flood wall that runs along Front St., from Washington St. to Madison St. That figure, 2200 hundred feet, was the figure used by the Portsmouth Murals Inc. (PMI) and others from the time the project began back in 1992. Eventually, those 2200 (2375) feet were marvellously used up, at which point more murals, the Baseball Murals, were painted on the ancillary flood wall on the western side of Madison St. between Front St. and Second St. Then the Organized Labor murals were painted on the ancillary flood wall next to Pat’s CafĂ©, on Second St. and the Bicycle murals were painted on the ancillary flood wall in the alley next to the Brewery, the alley that runs from Second St. to Front St. In addition to all this floodwall, there is the river side of the Floodwall along Front St., which now has the Wall of Fame, with the Stars painted on it.

By the vague terms of the lease that will be voted on at the Monday, July 27, council meeting, Portsmouth Murals Inc. apparently will be leasing the surface of the Wall of Fame, which is another 2200+ feet of Floodwall surface. If we are talking about both sides, or surfaces, of the Floodwall, including its main and ancillary sections, Portsmouth Murals, Inc. will be leasing, if the ordinance passes, about 6000 feet of Floodwall surfaces.

In addition to questioning the vagueness of what is meant by “Property commonly known as the Floodwall” in the revised ordinance, I also question the use of the word “surface.” Merriam-Webster, defines the word surface as“the exterior or upper boundary of an object or body.” Murals do not constitute the surface of the Floodwall anymore than tattoos are the surface of the skin. Both murals and tattoos are applied to, or on, but they do not thereby acquire the status of a surface. Could any real estate transaction with such imprecise use of language as “Property commonly known as the Floodwall” and “surface” or “panels” stand up in court? I suggested in my previous blog "Porksmouth Revisited" that the murals should perhaps be considered intellectual property, since they don't appear to be either real or private property. Are we dealing with more incompetence on the part of the City Solicitor or is this more chicanery? Is this ordinance on the up and up or just some kind of SOGP hootchy-kootchy dance?

The most serious problem with the lease may be political rather than legal. The justification for the city leasing the floodwall surface to the PMI is so that PMI will qualify for a $250,000 state grant from the Ohio Cultural and Facilities Commission. Based on what I have learned, the $250,000 may be unadulterated pork. In time-honored Portsmouth tradition, the PMI may just be going with the flow. I won't get into that now, but if the Floodwall ordinance passes next Monday, as he begins his campaign for the seat in Congress currently held by the fiscally conservative Republican Jean Schmidt, Democrat Todd Book, in addition to a rock, may have a pork rind wrapped around his neck.

click on: View Larger Map


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Murals Mishmash

Graffiti on ancillary flood wall, behind Pat's Cafe

On July 13, 2009, the Portsmouth City Council gave a first reading to an ordinance that should be of concern to the citizens of Portsmouth. The language reads: “Ordinance authorizing the Mayor of the City of Portsmouth to enter into a lease agreement with the Portsmouth Murals, Inc. for the purpose of assisting Portsmouth Murals, Inc. (PMI) in securing a grant from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission for additional floodwall murals. The deadline for submission of the necessary documents for this grant is July 30, 2009.

This ordinance should be of concern to the citizens of Portsmouth for a number of reasons, including the point that Mayor Kalb and First Ward Councilman Mike Mearan are virtual lame ducks who are in what are probably their last months in office. Lame ducks, about to lose their control of the goose that lays the golden eggs, are known to resort to monkey business.

But there are other even more compelling reason for citizens to view the ordinance with suspicion. To begin with, the ordinance was added to the agenda at the last minute and is tied to a fast approaching deadline: the last line of the ordinance says, “The deadline for submission of the necessary documents for this grant is July 30, 2009.” Beware of ordinances that are added to the agenda at the last minute, are tied to fast approaching deadlines, and are passed on a single reading rather than the customary three. One of the lessons we learned from the Marting scam is that every ordinance that is vaguely worded and must be passed in one reading on the grounds that time is of the essence should be not only viewed suspiciously but scrutinized very carefully. Fortunately, after some reservations were raised, the ordinance was not passed in one reading. It is scheduled for a second reading at the July 27 council meeting. But since the ordinance is tied to a July 30 deadline, we can expect the backers of the ordinance to argue that it must be passed at the July 27 meeting on a second reading or PMI will lose the $250,000.

Another reason for citizens to be concerned about the mural ordinance is the vagueness of the language and the possibility that the vagueness of the language alone makes the ordinance, on the face of it, legally questionable. How can the city government lease property vital to the safety of the city to a private corporation that is in the mural business? That makes no more sense than leasing it to somebody in the donut business. Doesn’t the Army Corps of Engineers have something to say about it? Nor is it made clear in the ordinance whether the city is proposing to lease the flood wall itself, the physical concrete structure, or only the murals on the wall, and if it is the murals on the wall, is it all of them or just the ones the $250,000 will pay for? But does the city own the murals? Portsmouth Murals Inc. owns the murals, doesn’t it? And if PMI owns the murals, how could it lease them from the city? This could be worse than a mishmash. This could be meshugas.

Experts say there are three kinds of property: real, private, and intellectual. The physical concrete wall would be real property, like land or a house is. Private property is something that is transportable, like the drapes or paintings hanging on the wall of a house. Are the murals, by this definition, private property? I don’t think so, since they are permanently attached to the flood wall. The murals are apparently neither real or private property. Are they intellectual property? Quite possibly. The Encarta definition of intellectual property is “property from original thought protected by law: original creative work manifested in a tangible form that can be legally protected, e.g. by a patent, trademark, or copyright.” The flood wall murals would seem to be covered by that definition.

Does anyone have a patent, trademark, or copyright on the murals? The artist Robert Dafford claims to have a copyright on the murals. Does PMI also have a copyright? What is the contractual relationship between Dafford and PMI? Is Dafford a party to this proposal of the city to lease the murals to the PMI? If Dafford alone has the copyright to the murals, isn’t he the one who should be leasing them to the PMI? These are questions that need be asked, if they haven’t already, and if they have been asked and answered, shouldn’t the answers be made public?

There are lots of other questions that could be asked about the relationship between Dafford, the PMI, and the city government, as well as the role of the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission and Todd Book in what may turn out to be a royal legal and political mess. What should not be overlooked is that PMI is an arm of the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership. Both the PMI and the SOGP have offices cheek by jowl in the Welcome Center. In my view, the Welcome Center is the real home of city government in Portsmouth, and the SOGP is the city’s shadow government. As for the “Murals Mishmash,” you can bet dollars to Mrs. Renison’s Donuts that where pork is involved the SOGP is too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Porksmouth Revisited


[I am reposting "Porksmouth,"  slightly edited, from March 2006 as background for a new article on Portsmouth Murals, Inc., which I will post soon.]  

I’ve heard Republicans blame the unions for Portsmouth’s decline. I’ve heard Democrats blame the bosses. I think neither the workers nor the bosses are to blame.The fundamental reason for greater Portsmouth’s economic decline, and for the general decline of American industry in the last half century, is globalization, which is a term for economic changes that have been going on internationally for over a century but which accelerated after the Second World War. Globalization is international economic integration, or, to its critics, globalization is the internationalization of economic exploitation.

As the U.S. declined industrially as a result of globalization, those regions and sectors of the American economy most affected by the decline came to depend more and more upon the state and especially the federal government for financial assistance. Large chunks of this financial assistance were in the form of pork, which is defined on Porkopolis, a conservative pork-alert blog, as “a government project, appropriation or appointment that yields jobs or other benefits to a specific locale and patronage opportunities to its political representative.” One of the features of Porkopolis is a series on Pork in Portsmouth.

Porking Portsmouth

When did the porking of Portsmouth begin? When did Portsmouth become Porksmouth. I’m not sure, but in March 1964, the Portsmouth City Council made a momentous decision. In a resolution, numbered unlucky #13, the council turned much of the economic control of the city over to a private “non-profit” corporation named the Portsmouth Area Community Improvement Corporation (PACIC).

In Resolution #13, the Portsmouth City Council granted PACIC an extraordinarily broad mandate. The mandate of this private corporation, consisting mainly of businessmen, bankers, and lawyers, was no less than “To promote the health, safety, morals and general welfare of the inhabitants of the community . . .” In the following year, 1965, the Ohio state legislature passed a law allowing municipalities to designate community improvement corporations, such as PACIC, as their agent. As if PACIC hadn’t already been granted extraordinary power in Resolution #13, for the health, safety, morals and general welfare of the people of the Portsmouth area, the Portsmouth City Council passed another resolution, #30, designating PACIC as the city’s official agent, or legal representative.

The previous, pre-war, heavily industrialized but now depressed post-war city of Portsmouth became classified by the USDA as a “rural area,” part of the Appalachian region, thereby making it eligible for USDA pork. I was told by a native of Portsmouth, who moved back after spending most of his adult life elsewhere, that he was surprised to discover upon his return to Portsmouth that he had grown up in Appalachia. To someone growing up in Portsmouth back in the 1940s and 1950s, being Appalachian had more disadvantages than advantages, and was more likely something to be ashamed than proud of. Beginning in the 1960s, when President Johnson declared war on poverty, that situation changed. Because it was repackaged as an Appalachian community, Portsmouth qualified as underprivileged and neglected and a candidate for special government assistance. If you were Appalachian, you were assumed to be a victim of poverty, and the government was obliged, perhaps as a holdover of the Great Depression, to assist the victims of poverty as much possible.

As far as Ohio is concerned, Portsmouth is at the top of the Federal Pork Barrel. The primary governmental pork provider for Portsmouth is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). To facilitate the funneling of federal dollars into south-central Ohio, the USDA designated the Portsmouth area as the Greater Portsmouth Enterprise Community (GPEC), a kind of most-favored-pork-district classification. Apparently, no other Ohio area enjoys this distinction. I don't know whether the late Vern Riffe had anything to do with it, but Portsmouth is unique

Incidentally, when it provides relief, the US government prefers, in Orwellian fashion, to convey it in the language of entrepreneurial capitalism, in which “enterprise” is a sacred word. In urban areas there are “Enterprise zones,” in rural areas “Enterprise Communities.” Lord help those who live in neither, because the government apparently will not.

Privatizing Pork

With the creation of PACIC, in 1964, important functions of the Portsmouth city government were essentially privatized. However high-minded its original objectives might have been, PACIC and its successor, the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership, assumed the role of a private agency responsible for the acquisition and distribution of government funds. To put it bluntly, PACIC-SOGP became a pork dealer, with none of a public agency's obligation to openness. John Welton (Doug Deepe) reports that members of the SOGP are sworn to secrecy.

In this economic twilight zone of enterprise zones and enterprise communities, the only real competition is among those vying for government assistance. It is a rare “entrepreneur” in the “enterprise community” of greater Portsmouth who does not begin by asking the SOGP for some kind of federally or state financed special assistance. According to the folklore of American capitalism, in the old days entrepreneurs pulled themselves up, Horatio Alger style, by the bootstraps. Now they pull themselves up by government pork straps. Horatio Alger, Jr., incidentally, was the son of a Protestant minister who went bankrupt trying to make a killing in real estate in my home town, Revere, Massachusetts, and Horatio Alger, Jr. himself was a minister who was defrocked after sexually molesting boys in his Cape Cod parish. These are not the kind of facts that get taught in public schools, memorialized in murals, or acknowledged by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans (HAADA).

The politically conservative HAADA gives annual awards, nicknamed “Horatio’s,” to those who have allegedly pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Enron CEO and President Bush buddy Ken Lay was one of those awarded a “Horatio” by the HAADA. Since then Enron has collapsed and Lay has been indicted. Did the entrepreneurial Kenny-boy” ever benefit from government favors? Did Portsmouth real estate developer Neal Hatcher ever get an abatement from the SOGP or a sweetheart dormitory deal from the local state university?

Taps for Private Piggy

Jesse Stuart, the Kentucky author (shown left in a misleading floodwall mural), became the region's anti-pork prophet. Pork drove him to distraction and arrested his artistic development. It was downhill after his second novel, Taps for Private Tussie, a neglected classic of American literature. Hatred of pork drove Stuart further and further to the right politically until in the end he was reduced to a reactionary polemicist, romanticizing Kentucky and excoriating Ohio, extolling the land and denouncing the federal government, the satanic purveyor of pork and dependency.

What Taps for Private Tussie revealed is that, in addition to fierce independence, there is a strand of dependency in Appalachian culture that is vulnerable to governmental paternalism. "The fault lies not in our government but in ourselves," is one of the unpopular ideas subtly dramatized in Stuart's novel.

Pork Zones

In its operations, the SOGP, along with the other acronym agencies that were subsequently formed, provide public feeding tubes to keep the Portsmouth area alive, even if that area appears at times, judging by the city council, to be brain-dead. We owe our soul not to the company store but to the SOGP. Since the SOGP controls the pork strings, it controls the city's purse strings, just as the Community Action agency, another creation of USDA, controls the county’s. Portsmouth may once have been a company town, and the companies may have controlled city government, but at least the companies provided jobs. Now the companies are gone and all classes in Portsmouth, under- and over-privileged, have come to depend upon government money for survival. Portsmouth’s culture of dependency is nowhere depicted on the floodwall murals, of course, because the history celebrated there is the version propagated by the Chamber of Commerce and the SOGP. The style in which the floodwall murals are painted is photographic realism, or trompe l'oeil, but the history purveyed is at best romantic and mythic and at worst Chamber of Commerce boosterism.

Maybe the SOGP and its acronymic cousins are necessary evils. The city government may not have been up to the challenge of getting and managing all the pork the city has become dependent on, especially since some of Portsmouth’s worst addicts are the over-privileged on "the Hill." In keeping with the relatively low salaries and low respect for public employees, Portsmouth city government, with a few notable exceptions, has been run by the dumb and the dishonest, by the losers and the loudmouths. We get what we don’t pay for. From Portsmouth’s first disreputable mayor, whose business was rum and pork, to Greg Bauer and our current mayor, we have had our share of bad or crab apples. Mayor George Wear, who signed off on the creation of PACIC, later hanged himself, though if there is anything to rumors surrounding his death, there might be material there for a lurid mural.

Bush Pork

Speaking of murals, I will close with the most recent example of a SOGP murals-related pork project. The 2003 Executive Report of the Greater Portsmouth Enterprise Community (GPEC) included the following statement: “SOGP is . . . the lead agency in development of the new Welcome Center.”

From start to finish, the Welcome Center has been a pork project, as were the floodwall murals that preceded it. The funds for the Welcome Center came, like so much of the pork in Portsmouth, from the USDA. Rep. Rob “Porkman” was given credit for being the Jimmie Dean sausage maker of this deal. In his campaign speech (10 Sept. 2004) at Shawnee State U., President Bush began by praising the murals and praising Portman for making the Welcome Center possible. A former economist in the Reagan administration has published a book criticizing President Bush’s economic and tax policies and pointing out that during Bush’s years in the White House, pork projects and the deficit have reached financially obscene levels. The title of the book is The Imposter, and that’s what Bush was when he praised the Welcome Center, an imposter, because the center was a dyed-in-the-rind pork project, which fiscally conservative Republicans should be scandalized by and that the president should have had the decency not to mention in mixed company.

I want to thank my friend Rob Portman, Congressman Rob Portman,” Bush told the faithful at the Portsmouth rally. “He's a – here's typical Portman. He says, ‘Take credit for the visitors center.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. You did all the hard lifting. All I did was see to it that it happened.’”

Like many of Bush’s unscripted elliptical-cryptical moments, this needs translating. What Bush meant is that Portman had told him not to forget to mention the Welcome Center in his speech, because it was important that Republicans and Portman and the president in particular get credit for this local pork project. The president, naturally, did not admit it was pork, anymore than the Vatican has ever admitted that the Sistine Chapel is pornography, but the cognoscenti in such situations understand what's what: here is a special gift, a pet project, a French postcard, just for you folks. Pork is one of the guilty pleasures of politics, and you disapprove of it only when it lands on somebody else's plate.

The president did say that Portman, modest (wink-wink) public servant that he is (“Here’s typical Portman”), should really be given the credit for this particular pork project. In an attempt to exorcise the hint of the school-marmish unmanliness that haunts his father's political persona, and the cheerleading draft-dodging one that haunts his own, Bush resorts to macho posturing, to walking and talking and governing in a real hombre way. [See Oliver Stone's 2008 film about Bush, W?] That's probably why Bush in referring to his buddy Portman's role in regard to the Welcome Center resorted to a masculine metaphor: “You did all the hard lifting.” If sneaking pork projects into bills is a form of weightlifting, most congressmen are Arnold Schwartzenegers.

"Lifting" has another meaning, stealing, that is appropriate in this case, because that is what the Welcome Center is, a theft from the public treasury. One of Portsmouth’s over-privileged Republican businessmen, George Clayton, had an empty department store and adjoining property in Portsmouth’s depressed downtown area. There is an unwritten law in Portsmouth that the over-privileged with distressed property must be rescued with public funds, and George Clayton was. Commercially, Clayton's property was virtually worthless, but politically, in Portsmouth's twilight-zone "enterprise community," it was worth millions.

The floodwall murals had been promoted as a way of attracting tourist dollars to Portsmouth, but when that project attracted far fewer tourists than had been forecast, it was decided that a Welcome Center was what was really needed to increase mural visitors. Originally a Kroger’s supermarket, Kenrick’s department store was turned into a box-like, unattractive Welcome Center, at a rumored cost of millions, about $400,000 of which was to pay off Clayton. In Portsmouth, buildings of architectural importance, such as the train station, are torn down, while buildings like Kenrick’s and Marting’s are treated as architectural treasures that justify the expenditure of millions of public dollars on their conversion to public buildings. The real reason they escape the bulldozing they deserve is they belong to the over-privileged who are exempted from paying the price failed businesses outside of “enterprise zones” and “enterprise communities” have to pay.

What an architect could do in the way of attractiveness and functionality was severely limited by the grocery-department store provenance of the Kenrick building. You can't make a Taj Mahal out of an outhouse. The Welcome Center should help the city council understand why the Marting building cannot be made into a suitable home for the city government. We have a new attractive state-of-the-art county jail, built from scratch. Don't visitors to Portsmouth deserve as much as the inmates of the county jail? They do, but unfortunately they are prisoners of the SOGP and Portsmouth's pork-ridden politics.

State-of-art jail: Putting inmates before tourists

Since its opening, the Welcome Center has proved to be much less tourist friendly and much more SOGP friendly than even the project’s critics had expected. The Welcome Center has been closed on weekends and holidays, when it is most likely to be of service to tourists. But the number of tourists, even in the summer, is not likely in the near future to justify the money it has taken for the creation of the murals and the conversion of a commercially worthless empty department store into a welcome center.

What the Welcome Center is useful for is as headquarters for the SOGP, which has its offices there. Like those social clubs in New York that serve as fronts for Mafia families, the Welcome Center is the front for the SOGP. The secret deals that are going to be made in the Welcome Center [such as the one that funneled $250,00 from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission to Portsmouth Murals, Inc.] are going to be much more important than the decisions made by the city government in the Municipal Building, which is deliberately and cynically being allowed to fall further into neglect and disrepute as a prelude to tearing it down. It is regrettable that the Municipal Building is not owned by one of the over-privileged of Porksmouth, like the Kenrick, Marting, and Adelphia buildings. If the Municipal Building was owned by one of the favored few, then it would be viewed as a Taj Mahal, and porked to the max. But it is located in Portsmouth, not Porksmouth, and owned by the people, not the over-privileged, and is occupied by the city government, not the SOGP, and that makes all the difference.

Welcome Center: Putting the pork before the cart

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ten Possible Lights at End of Tunnel

“I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Portsmouth Daily Times crack cover-up reporter Frank Lewis (July 10, 2009.)

1. The light at the end of the tunnel that Daily Times crack cover-up reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be the glowing joint of our oft off-to-the-races mayor who wants his biking buddies to call him “The Fonz” but who persist for some reason in calling him “Potsie.”

2. The light at the end of the tunnel that crack cover-up Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be the one working headlight of the sub-sub compact car rented from Enterprise by city councilman Mike Mearan in which his drug-addicted and purse-snatching secretary Heather Hren is transporting oxycontin from Columbus to Portsmouth.

3. The light at the end of the tunnel that crack cover-up Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be the green light that city government gives to every crook who has an unmarketable old house, leaking department store, or piece of worthless toxic property in Portsmouth that he wants to unload on the public and be excused from paying any taxes on or otherwise have any responsibility for.

4. The light at the end of the tunnel that crack cover-up Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be the phosphorescent glow of the toxic mold in the leaky Adelphia building, which Mike Mearan managed to unload on the city of Portsmouth to get his client, the absentee landlord Dr. Singer, a tax break from the IRS and a pardon from the city for the delinquent taxes he owed.

5. The light at the end of the tunnel that crack cover-up Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be our mayor returning on his motorcycle late at night from South Carolina where he was the runner up in a two-man race for members of the American Association of Retired People with Alzheimer’s but the results of which were invalidated when it was learned that neither the mayor or the first place finisher, Governor Sanford, has Alzheimer’s or is retired but only act as if they were.

6. The light at the end of the tunnel that crack cover-up Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be the headlight of Neal Hatcher’s souped-up motor scooter on which he is performing, in the dark, without his helmet, the daredevil feat of simultaneously screwing the public while giving them the finger.

7. The light at the end of the tunnel that crack cover-up Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be the glow of the politically radioactive Marting’s Building that has led, directly or indirectly, to the departure of council members Ann Sydnor, “Sassy Lassie” Caudill, Marty “It ain’t worth nothing” Mohr, “Turncoat” Tim Loper, Howard “La-Z-Boy” Baughman, and former mayor Greg “Graphic Sex” Bauer and our current terminal mayor, Jim Kalb, who it seems likely will qualify for a full-fledged membership in AARP in six months.

8. The light at the end of the tunnel that crack cover-up Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be the light from the back room of the $325,00 Mrs. Renison Shop where in the still of night one of the most toxic items in the diet of our increasingly obese and sclerotic nation are being prepared for the consumption of Portsmouth’s dwindling but expanding hardcore donut abusers.

9. The light at the end of the tunnel that crack cover-up Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be the light in the office of the publisher of the Daily Times who has decided in the same still of the night that Lewis, like reporters Mike Deaterla and Jeff Barron, and managing editor Art Kuhn before him, has outlived his usefulness and that the incredibly shrinking no-Monday edition newspaper can no longer afford to pay him his pitiful pittance of a salary, which is not much better that what Portsmouth’s prostitutes are paid, and he therefore must be terminated.

10. The light at the end of the tunnel that crack cover-up Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis believes he sees could be the dawn of a new day that will see the departure of crack cover-up reporters like Lewis, verbal diarrhetic schlock-jocks like Steve Hayes, harassing sidewalk and building inspectors like Larry Justice, enabling city solicitors like David Kuhn and Mike Jones, city treasurers like Trent “Cook-the-Books” Williams, internet-nutty police chiefs like Charles Horner, appalling appointees to city council, like the aforesaid Mike Mearan, and lapdog politicians like Jim Kalb, whom Mike Jones left holding the Aldi’s bag.

One of the possible lights (#7) at the end of tunnel: the politically radioactive Marting building.


Saturday, July 04, 2009

Franklin on the Fourth

“Since there is no proper ceremony for observing the Fourth of July, it’s left to each of us to decide how to reflect on the meaning of freedom,” begins an editorial in the New York Times, on this the Fourth of July, 2009. I am going to spend at least part of this Fourth reflecting on the meaning of freedom, which of course will be different from what it might mean for somebody else, especially down here in Southern Ohio. My reflections on freedom on the Fourth will focus on the most famous Boston native, Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers. I will try to show how he might be relevant to us on this two-hundred and thirty-third anniversary of our nation’s independence.

Franklin was born in a place, and at a time, 1706, that was not hospitable to freedom, either political or intellectual. Massachusetts was still an English colony, which greatly limited its political freedom, and the political freedom of its citizens, who thought of themselves first, it should be pointed out, as English, not American. They didn’t think of themselves as having rights as Americans, because the United States, did not exist when Franklin was born. As they looked at it, it was their rights as English subjects, not as Americans, that were being violated. Boston was not hospitable to political freedom because England, and the King in particular, wanted to continue to exploit the Massachusetts colony for economic gain.

But neither was the Boston Franklin was born into hospitable to intellectual freedom, to freedom of conscience, because there was a tradition of intolerance in Massachusetts that had been established by the so-called Puritans, or Calvinists, who first settled the colony. The Puritans did not come to Massachusetts to establish freedom of religion. They came, at great personal sacrifice, and with heroic determination, to establish a colony where their religion, where their brand of Protestantism, would have a complete monopoly. The Puritans were, not to mince words, religious fanatics. If they had not been, they would not have taken the great risks and made the heroic sacrifices that they did. If they had not been religious fanatics, they would not have persecuted other Protestants — and Catholics—for not sharing their particular Calvinist beliefs, for not believing human nature was inherently and totally depraved and that salvation came not on the basis of what anyone might do or not do but only as a gift from God, who chose mercifully to spare a few of them at random from burning in hell forever for reasons known only to Him.

Innate Depravity

Massachusetts and Boston in particular was a bastion of Calvinistic intolerance in the 1600s, much like the Taliban intolerance of our own time. New England in general was a region obsessed with the issue of salvation, and who was and who was not going to be saved, and how it was possible to tell what the signs were that somebody was among the Elect, whom God had chosen for salvation. By the time of Franklin’s birth, the Calvinists had lost control of the colony, which was no longer a theocracy, but the tradition of intolerance and the obsession with salvation and doctrinal purity had not disappeared. Franklin’s father spent what free time he had in the evening reading and talking about religion. It was his hope that Benjamin, with his bookish bent, would study for the ministry. It was to America’s and the world’s great benefit that Franklin’s father did not have the money to send him to Harvard to become a minister, where Benjamin might have been indoctrinated into the ideology prevailing at the time. Instead, he was allowed to follow the bent of his genius and the pull of his proclivities, becoming the extraordinary self-taught, inventive and revolutionary figure that he did. Franklin regretted the time he had spent reading religious books in his father’s house, considering such disputes and speculations about doctrinal matters and the afterlife a waste of time. His sex drive was almost as strong as his drive to learn, and the restrictive attitudes that prevailed in his father’s house and in Boston toward the body and the mind, were not compatible with his nature, or for that matter with human nature.

Brotherly Love

When at the age of 17 he left Boston for Philadelphia, a city where the Quakers rather than the Calvinists had been the most influential of the Protestant sects, he found the kind of freedom he needed to flourish, economically, intellectually and, eventually, politically. He became part of the generation that embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and revolutionized the world. It was a generation that saw science and technology, rather the religion and faith, representative government rather than theocracies or monarchies, as the best hope for humanity. The Founding Fathers were for the most part not orthodox Christians. They were Deists, who did not believe in revelation, the divinity of Jesus, the infallibility of the Bible, or in miracles. The opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence refers not to the Christian, the Hebrew, the Muslim, or the Hindoo god, not to the Bible or to Jesus, but to “the laws of nature and of nature’s god . . .”

Deists believed God made the world, but once having made it He left it to function according to natural laws. He did not micromanage human affairs, He followed a hands-off policy. Knowing how oppressive theocracies were, the Founding Fathers and Franklin adopted a constitution and established a government that was tied to no particular religion or god. It was not an oversight or an accident that Christ and Christianity were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The Founding Fathers and Franklin intended that church and state be separated, as a way of preventing the establishment of a state religion. A citizen of the United States could be of any religion or of no religion. The United States stood for not just freedom of, but freedom from, religion. A person had as much right not to believe in god as to believe in god. Christians have been trying ever since the Revolution to encroach upon and transform American government, arguing that America began and should remain a Christian nation. The majority of Americans may be Christians, but that does not make America a Christian nation, anymore than having a majority of Jews would make it a Jewish nation or a majority of Muslims would make it a Muslim nation. The fundamental constitutive fact of the U.S. implied in the Declaration and stated in the Constitution is that it is not a nation of any religion. The Founding Fathers and Franklin knew from the history of Europe and of Massachusetts that a theocracy is ultimately incompatible with democracy, that God makes a tyrannical and ultimately a rotten head of state. If a fish rots from the head down, so does a theocracy.

Christmas Spirit

In response to a controversy over a Nativity display at Shawnee State Forest, I posted a River Vices blog titled “Common Sense” back in December 17, 2007. Recently, a little belatedly, the minister who had campaigned for a Nativity display on public property, Rev. Gary Chaffins, emailed me to express his consternation at what I had written about him, about the display, and about Christianity on River Vices. He wanted an explanation. I offer this posting, “Franklin and the Fourth,” as part of my explanation to him, my addendum to “Common Sense.” On this Fourth of July I invite whoever might be reading this posting to go back and read or reread that posting to see what I wrote. I would hate to think what this country would be like if fanatical clerics had the kind of political control and influence that they have in several countries today. God help us if the Christian Taliban ever take control at the local, state or national level in our country. If I recall correctly, Islamists destroyed a historic huge statue of Buddha because they saw it as an idol of infidels. This competition between gods and religions, between true believers and infidels, between the Elect and the damned, can get very nasty, and in this nuclear age it could lead to annihilation. Fanatical believers who can’t wait to get to the next world, and paradise, don’t have preserving this world as one of their priorities. In this age of technology, the people on our shrinking planet are like the passengers on that Egyptian airliner that was possibly taken down into the Atlantic by an apparently disturbed backup pilot who muttered something like “God is great!” One disturbed religious fanatic who is at the controls of a nuclear nation and believes fervently that God is great could be in position to take the whole world down with him.

It is sobering to recall that Governor Strickland, himself an ordained Christian minister, and at the controls of our state government, decided that the Nativity display could remain at the lodge in the Shawnee State Forest, and that no other religious group had the same privilege. Though previously opposed to the extension of gambling, Governor Strickland has recently decided that there should be slot machines at race tracks. Religious displays at Ohio public parks, slot machines at Ohio race tracks–they were both political decisions, I understand, and politicians cannot survive without making compromises and even on occasion sacrificing principles. The recent economic meltdown is a reminder of the wisdom of one of the American proverbs Franklin compiled in Poor Richard’s Almanack: Neither a borrower, nor or a lender be. Perhaps we should add neither a borrower, lender, or a gambler be. What we are doing as a nation when we allow those who think the Founding Fathers were, like themselves, true believers and Christian fundamentalists, is taking a big gamble. We are opening the door to ecclesiastical tyranny, opening the door to those who think they know exactly what God wants us to do, sexually, ethically, and politically. They know exactly because the Bible tells them so.

On this Fourth of July we should remember that one of our Founding Fathers rejected what his father believed, and only after he did was he able to become the extraordinary creative, constructive, revolutionary American that he was. Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love, not Boston, the home of the mean god, was the cradle of liberty. That’s what the Fourth is supposed to be—a celebration of revolutionary change, of the triumph of understanding and tolerance over ignorance and superstition, of liberty and freedom over spiritual and political oppression.