The Thoughts and Musings of Tom Allain

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it

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(b.1964)

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The Trump Chronicles, Volume 64: Are You Seriously Complaining that Your Job is Hard?

April 28th, 2017

Dear Don:

I feel no joy in writing this post, but I read the interview that Reuters published yesterday. One of your quotations struck me: “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know I’ve been telling you for months that serving the American people as our President is difficult. Last December 11th I raised the concern that you were not taking advantage of daily briefings. Five days later I suggested that it wasn’t a good idea to ignore intelligence that you didn’t like. On February 9th I pointed out how little you know about the balance of power and the role of the judiciary in our government. The next day I pointed out that your ignorance of the START treaty puts us all at risk.

I could go on and on, but here’s my point: you ran on a platform where you claimed that you were smart enough to not need to learn how to govern. Now we find that you believed all along that running our country would be easier than turning a small fortune into a big one in real estate. Last year I suggested that if we look only at the numbers I’ve been more of a success than you have. Don, I tell you that my father, who worked for the federal government from 1953 to 1988, knew something you’re still figuring out: government service is complicated. It requires a work ethic, and willingness to learn how to do the job. I’m proud of him because putting food on our table meant he needed to learn, to listen, to hone his skills, and to do a good job. And he didn’t spend every weekend playing golf at Mar a Lago.

Seriously, call me.

Vaccines: They Have Your Back (and Your Childrens’ Back Too)

April 23rd, 2017

National Infant Immunization Week Blog-a-thon with woman holding baby. #ivax2protect

This week we celebrate National Infant Immunization Week, sponsored by the CDC, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I’ve filed this post under both “celebrating” and “ranting” and with good reason. Two hundred and twenty one years ago Edward Jenner (1749-1823) began to explore smallpox, a virus that devastated populations at that time. Thirty percent of those who came down with the disease died of it and many of those who didn’t were scarred for life. Mr. Jenner noticed that those who suffered from a much milder disease, cowpox, appeared to be immune to smallpox. He suggested that if he could give people cowpox (which was virtually never fatal) he could ensure that they would not be in danger of contracting the much more dangerous smallpox.

He was right. And more to the point, he gave birth to the vaccine movement. Today we see vaccines as a treatment, a way to introduce something into our bodies that will protect us from dangerous diseases.

Vaccines stimulate our immune systems to protect us from dangerous diseases. You can find the list of these diseases here.

That’s why I’m celebrating. But I’m also ranting because in 1998 Dr. Andrew Wakefield published and article in The Lancet that claimed there was a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism.

As you can imagine this created incredible anxiety among parents of infants. Nothing frightens parents more than the idea that they are doing something that will harm their children.

In the immediate aftermath of Wakefield’s article, the percentage of children who received vaccinations plummeted.

But on further observation it became clear that Wakefield lied. Other doctors replicated his experiment and none of them replicated his results. The Lancet withdrew its support as did everyone who partnered with him and in 2010 he lost his license to practice medicine.

I’d like to tell you that Mr. Wakefield’s fraudulent claims had no traction and that parents once again vaccinated their children, but this is simply not true. The combination of Mr. Wakefield’s lies, his influence on American celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, and the general belief in health conspiracies leave us with the reality that thousands of our children are not properly protected from easily avoidable diseases.

Some of these parents mean well and are overwhelmed by bad information from sources who capitalize on their ignorance. Others find misinformation an easy way to punish the other parent in custody disputes.

Regardless, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children place them in needless harm’s way. They claim that vaccines are “poison” that will harm their child when in reality vaccines make their bodies work better. Vaccines have our backs in the sense that they make us stronger.

This week, if you’re the parent of an infant or know someone who is, please encourage them to keep up with their vaccine schedule. When these infants are old enough to talk they will thank you (and so will I). While I didn’t like getting shots as an infant, toddler, or child, I’m grateful to my parents that they protected me.

We live in a time of “alternative facts” and conspiracies, where bloggers and (so called) journalists find an income stream in lying. I don’t begrudge their income stream, but I do wish to call out plan to put children in danger to make a buck.

Don’t believe them. Vaccinate your children.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 63: Tread Carefully, Mr. Trump

April 21st, 2017

Dear Don:

As I write this we appear surrounded by possible international crises, and frankly I’ve been expecting it. Back in December I expressed concern that you don’t do your homework and believe yourself smart enough not to need to. My concern centered on the real possibility that another country will test you and you won’t know what to do.

Now I see that you are sabre rattling on North Korea, even to the point of lying about an “armada” heading their way. Even though Iran has complied with the terms of our nuclear treaty you insist that you will review it. In August of 2015 you called the treaty “terrible.” You ordered a bombing in Syria (using tomahawk missiles) after watching pictures of dying children. I could go on but I think you see my point.

Last month I wrote about the 100th anniversary of the US entrance into World War I. I didn’t write then about the reasons but it’s worth a look. Simply put, World War I resulted from a series of secret agreements, a push by crumbling empires to appear relevant, and a general disregard for the human cost of war.

Amazingly it all began with a small spark that ignited an immense powder keg. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was crumbling but still insisted on exerting influence on the nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A 19 year old Serbian named Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918) shot to death Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, next in line to the Austro Hungarian throne.

Austria-Hungary soon declared war on Serbia, and within weeks World War I formed between the Central Powers and the Allies.

On an autobiographical note, my wife’s grandfather was born in Austria-Hungary in 1882. When he was 20 his father put him on a ship to America to avoid his being drafted into the army for yet another war. It went well for him, and for me.

Don, my point is this: World War I casualties list 16,500,000 dead and 20,000,000 wounded. And it began with secret treaties and posturing between large nations. And the world went to war when a small spark from a 19 year hold hit a mountain of gunpowder.

Expertise Needs Our Support

April 18th, 2017

From my earliest memories I’ve recognized truth does not depend on our opinions or desires. Facts are facts, even when they’re inconvenient.

I’ve been blessed to have born into a time and place where knowledge was valued and the smartest people in the room should be heard and respected. Good leaders told the truth and journalists reported factually.

But in the last few decades we’ve seen this model challenged. The 24 Hour News Cycle recognized that they didn’t need their viewers to be informed, but instead they needed their viewers to stay tuned. On March 8, 2014 Malaysian Air Flight 370 disappeared and we still don’t know what happened. In the days and weeks after its disappearance CNN and other news outlets learned that as long as they covered Flight 370 they claimed high ratings. Their ratings plummeted when they left this coverage for other stories. And so they continued to cover Flight 370 long after they had anything to report.

On March 19th, 11 days after the disappearance, CNN reporter Don Lemon suggested that the plane was sucked into a black hole. I don’t think anyone believed this, but after 11 days he was running out of things to talk about.

We see countless more examples, but in the early 21st Century we need to recognize we are consumers who increasingly want to be told what we want to hear more than we want to be told the truth.

And that’s a bad thing. This doesn’t serve us well. We need to hear uncomfortable truths because that’s how we grow and learn.

As I child I was told about Adam & Eve, Noah’s Ark, and other events from the Bible. As an adult I learned that many of these stories were myths. They were true but not factual. But today I’m surrounded by fundamentalists who believe that every animal alive today entered Noah’s Ark in the year 1656 BCE and emerged 40 days later when a dove flew off and returned with an olive branch that spontaneously appeared after all the plants and trees were drowned in the flood. In a Gallup Poll from 2014, 42% of Americans identify as Creationists (ie, the world was created 6,000 years ago over the span of 6 days).

I’ve been thinking about this because a few days ago I heard an excellent essay from Tom Nichols, the author of The Death of Expertise. You can watch him here and I suggest you do.

In case you don’t, let me take some excerpts:

A few years ago a mischievous group of pollsters asked American voters whether they would support bombing the country of Agrabah. As you might expect, Republicans tended to support military action while Democrats were more reluctant. There’s only one problem: Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s from the animated Disney film Aladdin. Only about half the people surveyed figured this out.

Increasingly…laypeople don’t care about expert views. Instead many Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict with each other, while knowing almost nothing about the subject they are debating.

How did this happen? How is it that people now not only doubt expert advice, but believe themselves to be as smart, or even smarter, than experienced professionals? Parents who refuse to vaccinate a child, for example, aren’t really questioning their doctors. They’re replacing their doctors. They have decided that attending the University of Google, as one anti-vaccine activist put it, is the same as going to medical school.

We need to find our way back from this ego driven wilderness. Historically, all people return to valuing expert views in times of trouble or distress. We’re all willing to argue with our doctors until our fever is out of control. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But that’s where we’re headed. And unless we start accepting the limitations of our own knowledge, then each of us is failing in our obligation to participate in our democracy as involved, but informed citizens.

Well put Mr. Nichols.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 62: Sean Spicer And Amateur Hour Part 4

April 12th, 2017

Yesterday we saw the Press Secretary take Amateur Hour to a new high. Past recipients of the Amateur Hour award include Kellyanne Conway, President Trump, and Presidential Aide Stephen Miller. We can now add Sean Spicer to that list.

The full transcript of the briefing is here. In the course of his press conference he was asked what made President Trump think he can get President Putin to pull back his support for President Assad. Mr. Spicer responded:

I think a couple things. You look — we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons. So you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself is this a country that you and a regime that you want to align yourself with? You have previously signed on to international agreements rightfully acknowledging that the use of chemical weapons should be out of bounds by every country. To not stand up to not only Assad, but your own word, should be troubling. Russia put their name on the line. So it’s not a question of how long that alliance has lasted, but at what point do they recognize that they are now getting on the wrong side of history in a really bad way really quickly. And again, look at the countries that are standing with them: Iran, Syria, North Korea. This is not a team you want to be on. And I think that Russia has to recognize that while they may have had an alliance with them, that the lines that have been crossed are ones that no country should ever want to see another country cross. (italics mine)

Later in the briefing he was asked to clarify his remarks on how Hitler did not sink the level of using chemical weapons. Here is his response:

I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing, I mean, there was clearly — I understand your point, thank you. Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not — he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent — into the middle of towns. It was brought — so the use of it — I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent

.

In fairness he later apologized and recognized that he violated the First Rule of Politics: Never compare anything to Hitler.

And while I accept his apology, I’m more troubled by his clarification that his original statement. We all know that millions of Jews (and others) were gassed by Zyklon B, a chemical weapon. And I can understand how, in the heat of the moment, he forgot about that. But when asked to clarify (and when he could have easily admitted he was mistaken), he spoke about how President Assad’s crime was more serious than Hitler’s because Hitler didn’t use it on “his own people” and that Assad “dropped them down to innocent, in the middle of towns.”

Whether he intended it or not, Mr. Spicer claimed that Jews and others in the concentration camps (or the Holocaust center) were not “his own people.” This plays exactly into Hitler’s claim the Jews were not “our people” but outsiders.

Welcome to the Amateur Hour club.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 61: What Exactly Is Going On In Syria?

April 11th, 2017

Dear President Trump:

In my last post I suggested that your are learning that you have a hard job. It got me thinking that you might need to understand what’s going on there. Here is my analysis (you’re welcome):

In 2011 we witnessed the Arab Spring. It began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Lybia, Yemen, and Syria. They all attempted to overthrow dictators and return power to the people.

The Arab Spring has mixed results, but for our purpose let’s concentrate on Syria. The people of Syria certainly had motivation. Since 2000 they have lived under the oppression of President Bashar al-Assad; he succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad who ruled from 1970 until his death. By all accounts Bashar is a chip off the old block: Hafez was just as cruel as his son.

This might be a good place to talk about the role of religion in all this. The majority of Syrians are Muslim but like Christianity, there are divisions within Islam. For example, I am Catholic and you are Presbyterian, but we are both Christians.

Almost from its beginning, Muslims have divided into two groups: Sunni and Shia. Most Muslims are Sunni, but there are pockets of Shia, including Iran.

In Syria a small group of Shia Muslims branched off to a group called Alawites. Mr. Assad and his family are Alawite.

So what does this mean? If you hear nothing else from this post hear this: the war in Syria is a three way war. Three groups all battle for victory, and claim foreign sponsors. Let me try to explain this as best I can:

  • Mr Assad leads the first group. As I said he is an Alawite and claims Syria’s only future lies in a continuation of his regime. He believes everyone who opposes him wants to destroy Syria and his backing comes from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • Syrian resistance composes the second group. They viewed the Arab Spring and saw an opportunity to overthrow Mr. Assad. Three of four of them identify as Sunni Muslims and believe they have suffered from oppression at the hands of the Assad’s. The United States supports this group.
  • Finally, ISIS rounds out these groups. They are Shia and view both Alawites and Sunnis as infidels and want Syria to comprise part of a larger caliphate. They are backed by Iran.

Yes, Mr. Trump, this is complicated. Your fawning over Mr. Putin may well come back to haunt you as you have sent your Secretary of State to scold Mr. Putin. It likely won’t work. In any three way conflict, an alliance between two of them will almost certainly defeat the third. If Iran and Russia join forces, Syria may become a caliphate that none of us want.

Last September you told us you had a secret plan to destroy ISIS. At the time you refused to reveal it out of a fear that one of your opponents would appropriate it.

You no longer have opponents for your office. Maybe now is the time to reveal it.

Call me.

The Trump Chroncles, Volume 60: Here’s What’s Good and What’s Bad About The Syrian Bombing

April 10th, 2017

Let me being by saying this: no act of war is good. War is sometimes necessary but it’s never good. I write this blog post knowing that “good” means “the best of a series of bad choices.”

A few days ago I spoke about how President Trump is learning that his election propelled him into a tough job. He ran on a platform of America First, meaning that regardless of our history or our place in the world, we bear no responsibility for atrocities outside of our border.

But inventions in the 19th and 20th Centuries (telegraphs, telephones, cameras, radios, televisions, computers, the internet, social media, OK, you get the idea) provide us access to events thousands of miles from us within seconds. And this access brings with it a moral compass (religious or not) that commands that we care about people we don’t know and do what we can to defeat injustice and value human life regardless of where they live and what they look like.

In the 21st Century our recognition that we know what evil rulers are doing to their own people and it matters to us. As Americans who care about human rights we cannot ignore what is happening in Syria because if it can happen to them, it can happen to us. Their lives matter to us and once we learn of their plight we cannot look away or pretend it isn’t happening.

And so for of us who weep for those who died at the hand of President Bashar Al Assad we applaud last week’s airstrike. We applaud Mr. Trump’s decision to move away from his belief that we don’t care about what happens outside our borders.

But, at the same time, I worry about the path ahead of us. Both President Assad and Russian President Putin condemned these actions I’m not certain Mr. Trump has a plan for what happens next. I recognize that Mr. Trump was horrified by pictures of dead and dying children from Sarin attacks from Syria, but what does he do next?

Mr. Trump proclaimed last week that he is not the “president of the world.” On March 30th Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proclaimed that only the Syrian people should decide who leads them.

Let me state simply my concern: President Trump ordered the attack on Syria because he saw horrific pictures on Faux News. It’s likely more complex than this. Presidential advisor Steve Bannon argues against foreign intervention and almost certainly opposed the strike. On the other end of this issue, Presidential son in law Jared Kushner certainly argued in favor of it. The last few weeks have shown that Mr. Trump listens to his son in law more than his advisor and I’m certain this contributed to the strike.

That said, I’m not certain anyone in the White House has a 2nd step to a policy nobody seems to articulate. In the days since the strike Mr. Assad has continued to murder his own people.

A “first strike” is the easy part. Now comes the hard part: What do we do now?

The War That Didn’t End All Wars

April 6th, 2017

One hundred years ago today, April 6, 1917, House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 to accept President Woodrow Wilson’s request to declare war on Germany. This came four days after President Wilson formally requested a declaration of war and two days after the Senate voted 82 to 6.

Obviously it wasn’t called “World War I” because nobody expected that there would be a World War II 22 years after the end of this war. Some called it “The Great War” but others optimistically called it the War To End All Wars. It wasn’t.

Peace was declared on November 11, 1918. By that time 116,516 Americans were killed in battle, including the poet Joyce Kilmer.

May they all rest in peace.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 59: This Is Exactly What We Feared

April 6th, 2017

Last month I wrote about President Trump’s admission that he was surprised that health care was complicated. This alarmed many of us as he appeared to the be last American who understood this.

Alas, he campaigned on a platform that claimed everything was easy for him and if we voted for him he would fix everything. Famously he announced that I alone can fix it, speaking about all the troubles we face.

He told us he had a plan to defeat ISIS a year ago. Several times he’s promised to defeat North Korea without telling us how. He continues to blame President Obama for the carnage in Syria but promises a solution without telling us what it is.

In the last few days he’s learned that Syria is also complicated. As I write this he is ordering an airstrike against a Syrian airfield. I appreciate he is choosing some action instead of complaining about the “mess” he inherited. But I fear he thinks this will end the conflict in Syria. It won’t. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad won’t surrender and Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t change his support from President Assad to President Trump.

And if Syria isn’t enough, Mr. Trump is also dealing with an ongoing crisis in North Korea. President Kim Jong Un clearly allows his people to starve while he concentrates on building a nuclear weapon that can reach the United States.

As I write this, Chinese President Xi Jinping is meeting with Mr. Trump in Florida. Simply put, only China can seriously pressure North Korea to do anything, but China has little reason to do so. North Korea has no desire to bomb China and China fears not a nuclear North Korea but a collapsing North Korea. Anything that destabilizes North Korea runs the risk of creating the kind of chaos that would cause thousands, and perhaps millions, of starving North Koreans to pour into China. Clearly China doesn’t want this, and Mr. Trump could probably only suggest they build a wall.

Being President is hard, and I think Mr. Trump is only now recognizing this.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 58: Do We Have Our New John Dean?

March 31st, 2017

The unfolding possibility that President Trump and members of his administration colluded with Russian agents to interfere with or sway the 2016 election occupies many of us.

And those of us “of a certain age” remember another Presidential scandal: Watergate. In the early hours of the morning on June 17, 1972 five men were found inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee. It was soon found out that they broke into the offices to install listening devices on the phones to give President Nixon and his campaign intelligence on his opponent, Senator George McGovern.

Virtually nobody believes that President Nixon knew about the this in advance, but within a few days he directed his staff to bribe the burglars to plead guilty and not implicate anyone else from the campaign.

President Nixon easily won re-election in November of 1972 but by the first few months of 1973 things began to unravel. On April 6, 1973 Presidential Counsel John Dean reached out to members of the Senate Watergate committee. His cooperation came to light and Mr. Dean was fired on April 30th.

During all these months, President Nixon became more and more insulated and desperate. His press secretary Ron Ziegler continued to press the line that “there’s nothing to see here” and that Watergate mattered only to the press.

It’s not a stretch to see President Trump now playing the role of President Nixon and Press Secretary Sean Spicer reprises Ron Ziegler’s role.

In the last few days we’ve learned that Mr. Trump’s original pick for National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn has a story to tell. But he demands immunity from prosecution before he will tell his story.

Ironically, John Dean asked for immunity from President Nixon. It wasn’t granted.

General Flynn finds himself in a different place as he is asking for immunity from Congress. Nevertheless, I have to think that as I write this several occupants of the Trump administration are praying General Flynn does not testify to what he knows.