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More Ramblings of a Skeptic - Here are a few thoughts from around the horn

  • Written by Don C. White

  It’s been awhile since I’ve given you some of my opinions and it’s hard to believe how fast time has been flying, so here are some more of my Ramblings of a Skeptic:
  • Well, it’s another year of politics as usual in both the State of Illinois as well as with those folks we send to Washington to do the people’s work. Sometimes I wonder why we bother with elections. It seems to me there are two ways to solve this problem. The first would be term limits on all State and Federal elected officials.
  Ha! Ha! We all know that will never happen. The second way is for we the people, at least in the great state of Illinois to vote in all new candidates. What are the chances of that happening?
  • In the world of sports, which I don’t follow much, I do know that the Chicago Blackhawks brought the Stanley Cup back to the city again in 2013 and hopefully will do it again in a couple of months.
  What a great young team they have put together. Otherwise, there was not much to cheer about from the Bears, Cubs, White Sox or Chicago Fire.
  The news I keep hearing North Side about the Cubs and the roof top owners sounds like a total fiasco. I don’t know who the person or persons were who ever allowed the building owners to build their businesses from a product that was not theirs. How could the city of Chicago ever allow this unorthodox business to grow into what it has become? If the stalemate is allowed to slow or stop the Cubs building plans the city fathers should be held accountable.
  • Another fiasco in the baseball world is the Alex Rodriquez mess that has taken the sport to a new low. As an ex fan, I don’t know how long people will continue to support baseball. I know that I will not pay the price to see a major league game.
  • The news that Frank Thomas and Greg Maddux were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame was a wonderful way to begin the New Year. It was exciting to read about their great honor of being chosen to enter the Hall at Cooperstown. I have been to the Hall of Fame — twice in fact. It was a great experience that was shared with my wife and two sons.
  • Last year, we had a changing of the guard of the editor at The Reporter Newspaper with Jeff Vorva now running the ship of print. He has made the changeover with some new ideas, new staff members and new columns that should be of interest to the readers. But I have to say thanks for letting me continue my Civil War series.
  • I volunteer at Hines V.A. Hospital and have a part time job at Ace Hardware. While working at Ace and volunteering at Hines I have met some WWII veterans. When my wife was working at her last job before retiring, one of the owners of the business was also a WWII veteran. My father served for a short time during WWII (he died in January 2001).
  The fellows I want to honor are Augie, Bill, John and Larry. All of these men are in their 90’s and still active. It has been my privilege to get to know them and hear some of their stories. They all have a special place in my heart.
  This time I want to tell you something about my friend Bill; I don’t think he will mind. Bill and his wife Maxine have done something that I think deserves mentioning. They have attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago for more than 40 consecutive years.
  Those men and women that served during WWII were most certainly members of the Greatest Generation ever in the history of the United States.
  • Whenever you get the opportunity, take time to thank a veteran. It wasn’t just the returning veterans from Vietnam that went unappreciated. During the Great Depression the veterans of WWI went to Washington, D.C. to beg for their bonuses that were not due to be paid until 1945. They felt they had stood up when the U.S. needed them; and now when they needed help, their government should step up. President Hoover said the government could not afford to move up the 1945 due date.
  • Has anyone ever heard of the Four Minute Men? This was a group of men (and maybe women) that went around the country speaking to groups to instill patriotism in our nation as the war effort moved ahead. If you know anything about this please let me know.
  • Chicago used to be called the city that works, but for how much longer? For now, more borrowing, more selling off of city assets and more kicking the can down the road. All the while the mayor rakes in more campaign cash, mostly from developers that want help with their multimillion dollar projects. Sounds like business as usual in Chicago to me.
  • The phrase “Money talks” is still the gold standard in Chicago and Illinois politics. As my wife and I ease into the last years of our lives, it would be wonderful to see the state and the nation get back on the right track.
  • I have a few parting words from our commander-in-chief.
  Over the last year or so, he has said things such as: “I didn’t know Benghazi was a terrorist attack.” “I didn’t know the NSA was spying on you.” “I didn’t know what the IRS was doing.” “I didn’t know the WEB site didn’t work.” “I didn’t know you would lose your insurance.” “I don’t know why you don’t trust me.”
  No, I don’t trust you, Mr. President. You could not even read the Gettysburg Address correctly in honor of its 150th anniversary.

Donald C. White is a historian from Palos Hills who also has some pointed opinions on things that happened after the Civil War as well.

Pet project in St. Louis needs human touch

Bobs Column - The B SideI own two dogs and a cat. Let me get that out of the way at the onset.
And, I have nothing against pets of any kind and believe they make great companions. Finally, I do not understand why anyone would abuse or neglect a pet, and believe it’s shameful that it happens as often as it does.
That said, the growing trend of “rescuing” pets—giving shelter to homeless dogs, for example -- is tough for me to get behind. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with caring for a dog or cat that’s lost its way or taking a trip to the animal shelter to adopt a pet, but I sometimes wonder if our priorities are straight.
I was reminded of the “rescue” trend last week while watching the Blackhawks play the St. Louis Blues. The television announcer noted that Blues captain David Backes and his wife founded Athletes for Animals.
The organization describes itself as a “united team of professional athletes with a shared passion for rescuing and protecting the welfare of homeless pets nationwide. The group is made up of athletes from all the major sports, many who play for St. Louis teams.
Athletes for Animals and similar organizations got significant media attention recently when several members of Team USA, including Backes, adopted dogs while in Sochi and brought them home. While in Sochi, many of the athletes helped feed and care for the dogs abandoned in the Olympic city. It made for great press and better photo ops.
Their actions are well-intentioned. Helping a dog in need—feeding it, giving it a home—is admirable. The trouble is, there are countless hungry and homeless people who need our help long before dogs and cats.
I’ve often wondered what the homeless and hungry think about getting less attention than animals. People sleep under viaducts on cold winter nights, line up for limited space at shelters and pick through the garbage to find something to eat while rescued pets get love and attention from caring families. Again, our priorities are wildly misplaced.
It’s easy to understand why we love pets and want to care for them. They’re cute and adorable. They require some time and effort, but once they get accustomed to their home and family, they’re little bother. We play with them, take them on walks and they respond with unconditional love.
It’s not so simple with human beings.
There’s nothing cute and adorable about the homeless and hungry.
Many have struggled on the streets for years—some are alcoholics, drug addicts and ex-cons. Society too often turns away from these people, convinced that they’re beyond help.
That’s true to an extent. We all know the guy who’s been on the street corner for years begging for a loose change. Chances are he’s never going to get the help he needs and become a productive member of society.
But there also are struggling families who caught a bad break or two—unemployment, unexpected illness—which caused them to lose their home. The road back can be a difficult one. It’s tough to get back on track when home is a car or a series of shelters and you’re next meal is in question.
Backes and his teammates need to understand this. The Blues captain doesn’t have to look outside the city in which he plays hockey to see signs of hunger and despair.
Approximately 135,000 children in St. Louis are at risk for hunger, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This represents enough children to fill Busch Stadium three times.
Further, approximately 88 percent of children enrolled in St. Louis public schools rely on free or reduced-cost meal programs. Many of these students go back to homes where there is little or no food.
In 2011, the Food Research and Action Center reported that nearly 20 percent of Missouri residents experienced low or very low food security. This means that one out of every five people in Missouri does not know where a next meal will come from.
Nearly 50 years, ago Bobby Kennedy traveled to rural Mississippi to check on the progress of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, better known as the War on Poverty. What he found, writes Peter Edelman in his book “So Rich, So Poor,” was “children, thousands of them, hungry to a point very near starvation.”
Kennedy was “deeply moved and outraged,” Edelman wrote, and made relieving hunger a top priority.
Sadly, athletes such as Backes and a host of other celebrities are too busy taking care of pets. Imagine if he and other popular players required fans to make food contributions at personal appearances and autograph signings. Pantries throughout St. Louis would be eternally grateful.
Imagine if an effort was undertaken to build additional homeless shelters in NHL cities—hockey fans would respond if their favorite players were involved.
There’s nothing wrong with watching out for animals, but we must not ignore hungry and homeless men and women in the process.

Inside the First Amendment - Gay marriage, religious freedom and the need for civil dialogue

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

In recent months, legislators in more than a dozen states — from Hawaii to Georgia — have attempted to enact laws they describe as necessary to protect religious freedom.
Some are broad “religious freedom restoration acts” very similar to laws already on the books in many states. Others are amendments to existing laws aimed at allowing businesses to deny wedding services to gay couples on religious grounds. All are driven by the rapid growth of public support for same-sex marriage and gay rights, reflected most powerfully in a series of recent court decisions favoring challenges to bans on same-sex marriage in even the reddest of states.
None are expected to pass any time soon, due in large measure to fallout from the bitter debate over Arizona’s proposed law vetoed earlier this month by Governor Jan Brewer. 
In calmer times, many of these bills might have faced little or no opposition. After all, the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed Congress almost unanimously and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
What’s changed, of course, is the ascendancy of gay rights and same-sex marriage. Those once in the majority on the gay rights issue — successfully passing laws and state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage — are increasingly in the minority. In this new environment, many religious conservatives are rushing to put in place legal mechanisms for seeking exemption from laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, intemperate voices on both sides are making it difficult to have a civil discussion about if and when to accommodate conscientious objectors to same-sex marriage.
Far too many proponents of gay rights dismiss any and all attempts to carve out exemptions for religious people from non-discrimination laws as nothing more than bigotry disguised as “religious freedom.” On the other side, many conservative groups characterize all opponents of religious exemptions as part of the “homosexual lobby” intent on denying religious freedom.
Same-sex marriage vs. religious freedom is fast becoming a shouting match where any concern for the common good is lost in the din of charge and countercharge. Before more damage is done, people on all sides should take a deep breath and acknowledge that non-discrimination and religious freedom are both core American principles. Resolving the tension between these two fundamental rights should be a balancing act, not a zero-sum game.
To some extent, of course, same-sex marriage proponents have already (grudgingly in most cases) acknowledged the need to signal concern for religious freedom.     All states that have passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage have included language ensuring that clergy will not be forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies (politically smart, but unnecessary because this would never happen under the First Amendment).
In some states, laws or court decisions extend protections to religiously affiliated groups seeking exemption from participating in or recognizing same-sex marriages. Thus far, however, no state explicitly grants exemptions to wedding businesses that, on grounds of religious conscience, object to providing services for same-sex weddings.
Is there any room for accommodating conscientious objectors who would be required to participate actively in the ceremony or preparing for the ceremony such as photographers or marriage counselors? Can the law draw a distinction between those who want to discriminate against LGBT people (which should not be allowed) and those who object to participating in a ceremony that offends their faith?
However we ultimately answer these and related questions about religious claims of conscience and same-sex marriage, these issues require getting beyond the name-calling and engaging in civil, respectful dialogue.
It’s easy to understand why LGBT people may not be enthusiastic about finding ways to accommodate those who have opposed (and continue to oppose in many cases) laws protecting LGBT people against discrimination.
But to paraphrase religious-freedom advocate Roger Williams (in his 17th century argument with Puritan minister John Cotton), when you are at the helm — after being so long in the hatches — don’t forget what it was like to be in the hatches.
Claims of conscience don’t always — and shouldn’t always — prevail. But a society that takes freedom seriously must seek ways to protect liberty of conscience whenever possible.
After all, the right we guard for others today may be the right we need for ourselves tomorrow.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: religiousfreedomeducation.org Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Guest View One bold solution for many bad decisions

  • Written by Tom Cross

While there may not be one single act that has led to Illinois leading the Midwest in job loss, and having the nation’s worst budget deficit or our record high tax rate, what is clear is that there have been a multitude of bad decisions and failures in leadership that have culminated in the state’s poor fiscal shape.
 The simple fact is, we face very real, serious challenges that can’t be solved with the politics of the past.  The time for excuses and half measures has ended.  We need bold, innovative solutions at this very moment because Illinois families are being punished by the failures of state government resulting in them paying more and getting less.
 Three years ago, Democrats – namely Governor Pat Quinn– promised us that when they raised our taxes they would use that money to pay our backlog of bills.  Three years later, the 67 percent tax increase has chased thousands of jobs out of Illinois, but our unpaid bills still remain at over $7 billion.
 What’s the real impact of a billion dollar deficit and the unpaid bills?  Social service agencies don’t receive funding and they reduce their workload, jobs are lost, and taxpayers pay late payments which totaled $318 million last year alone.
 The impact of this mismanagement isn’t just about numbers, it’s affecting people and Illinois’ future.  We were told that the tax increase would allow for greater investments in education and safety net programs for those who most need our help.  Yet now we face a budget that seeks deep cuts to those very same programs.
The state of our state’s budget is impacting the very fabric of our communities.  The poor fiscal policy in Springfield is a major contributing factor to employers like Caterpillar who have chosen to expand outside of Illinois and Office Max who chose to leave the state entirely.  And it’s not just employers who are leaving Illinois, it’s our neighbors.  From July 2012 to July 2013, Illinois lost 40,000 residents, the highest in the nation.     
We face big problems, but the good news is there are solutions if we elect people with bold ideas who are not committed to the status quo in Springfield.
The lynchpin to Illinois’ economic recovery is not rooted in a complex algorithm; instead, it is found in something families do each day – balancing the budget.
 Indiana does it.  Wisconsin does it.  It’s time for Illinois to follow the lead of our neighbors and balance our budget.  Only with a balanced budget can we begin to reprioritize our state’s investments, ensure our children have the resources they need to compete globally, make certain that those truly need of help are receiving the very best available and make greater investments in our communities.
Unfortunately, politicians like Governor Quinn have overseen unbalanced budget after unbalanced budget.  These actions ignored our constitutional requirement to have a balanced budget and catapulted Illinois into the position of having the nation’s worst budget deficit.
 We must put a stop this cycle of weak leadership and poor decisions that penalize citizens.
As Governor Quinn unveils his budget address, it is my sincere hope that the numbers are real, the budget assumptions are sound and spending decisions are responsible and reflect the priorities of taxpayers. And most importantly, that he proposes a balanced budget.
 But if this budget is built on gimmicks, false assumptions and bad math, then it should be immediately rejected.  We simply cannot afford any more bad decisions.
 Illinois is craving results that positively and meaningfully impact people’s lives.  That begins right now with having an honestly balanced budget.
 
Tom Cross is the Illinois State Representative for the 97th District and the Republican nominee for state treasurer. 

Another View - CIA spies and tortured lies

  • Written by Amy Goodman

“What keeps me up at night, candidly, is another attack against the United States,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said last month in what was, then, her routine defense of the mass global surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies. 

All that has changed now that she believes that the staff of the committee she chairs, the powerful, secretive Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was spied on and lied to by the CIA. The committee was formed after the Watergate scandal engulfed the Nixon administration. The Church Committee, led by Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, conducted a comprehensive investigation of abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies, of everything from spying on anti-war protesters to the assassination of foreign leaders.
Thus began the modern era of congressional and judicial oversight of U.S. intelligence.
This week’s public spat between CIA-loyalist Feinstein and that agency might briefly upset the status quo, but they will make up. Sadly, it obscures a graver problem: the untold story of the United States’ secret policy of torture and rendition (the latter is White House lingo for “kidnapping”).
The conflict surrounds the mammoth, classified Intelligence Committee report on this notorious U.S. government program. Feinstein and other senators have sought the declassification of the 6,300-page document.
We have now learned from press reports and from a speech Feinstein made on the Senate floor this week that Intelligence Committee staffers were given access to CIA documents at a secure CIA facility, somewhere outside of CIA headquarters. Feinstein described the scene: “The CIA started making documents available electronically to the committee staff at the CIA leased facility in mid-2009. The number of pages ran quickly to the thousands, tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, and then into the millions. The documents that were provided came without any index, without organizational structure. It was a true ‘document dump’ that our committee staff had to go through and make sense of.”
Whether it was in those millions of pages, or provided to the Intelligence Committee staff from a CIA whistle-blower, we do not yet know—but a key document surfaced, called the “Internal Panetta Review,” ostensibly named after Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA at the time. Feinstein said in her floor speech, “What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was ... their analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing.” This “Internal Panetta Review” specifically contradicts the CIA’s own written testimony to the Intelligence Committee. Yes, the CIA was caught in a lie.
It doesn’t end there. Mike German, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice who served as an FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism for 15 years, said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, “This is really an extraordinary situation ... this is supposed to be oversight of the CIA that the Senate is doing, not allowing the CIA to set the terms for the oversight of their own work.” Feinstein reported that hundreds of documents originally provided were later deleted by the CIA. Now, to add insult to injury, it turns out the CIA is seeking criminal charges against committee staffers, ostensibly for stealing the Panetta review.
Ray McGovern is a former top-level CIA analyst who publicly criticized the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. He told me: “This goes back to the key question of supervising the intelligence community. ... People always say, ‘After 9/11, everything changed.’ Well, it did change. The president, on the evening of 9/11, said, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We’re going to kick some ass.’ ... Well, they took some prisoners in Afghanistan, and the first person tortured was John Walker Lindh, an American citizen.”
The torture was widespread, vicious and conducted in secret “black sites” around the globe. This is what is being lost in the Beltway power struggle between Sen. Feinstein and the CIA. Lives have been ruined; some in U.S. detention died violent deaths at the hands of their captors. In the grim American gulag at Guantanamo Bay, hunger-striking prisoners charged with no crime, some of whom have been cleared for release for more than a decade, are subjected to vicious force-feeding and torture techniques that date back to the Spanish Inquisition.
Let’s hope Feinstein’s indignation is not quickly salved, and that the Intelligence Committee’s oversight of the sprawling U.S. intelligence agencies is invigorated, with real teeth. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden weighed in from political asylum in Russia, saying, “We’re seeing another ‘Merkel Effect,’ where an elected official does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it’s a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them.”
  Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
  Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 1,100 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.