Letters to Newspapers

I wrote my first letter to a newspaper at the age of twelve, asking a sports editor what would happen if a batter hit a fly ball so high he rounded the bases before it was caught.  The editor replied by asking if this was a dream induced by an over-indulgence in spinach (and that the run wouldn’t count).  It wasn’t until years later, though, after our farm had been vandalized, that I wrote another letter to an editor.  But that reminded me that newspapers are a time-honored way to share ideas and promote social justice, and over the next few years I wrote quite a few (often in response to letters by others).

Below are the letters I still have copies of which appeared variously in the Albion, Grand Island and Omaha papers…

Dear Editor:

When I was 13 years old my father suggested we watch an episode of “The World At War” on NETV together.  We had seen some episodes before, and I had no objections.  This episode dealt with the Holocaust.  I had never even heard of it.  It showed in graphic detail the horrors of the Nazi death camps.  I saw scores of bodies at a time bulldozed into mass graves.  I saw victims being herded into gas chambers, and I saw survivors in the state the Allies found them in upon liberation; I heard of children buried alive.  My father and I sat without speaking through the entire program.  When it was over I sat in stunned silence.  After a few moments my father turned to me and said “The only reason I let you see that was in the hope that someday, somehow, you can do something to prevent that from happening again.”

My father’s charge has haunted me ever since.  When I would read of the Khmer Rouge or the Indonesians or the Bosnians or the Rwandans, I would feel guilty for not having done something; anything.  But I never knew what.

Tonight my wife and I drove our two children out to our farm, less than 5 miles from Albion.  The children, ages 3 and 5, love to play out there.  Anything of value was stolen years ago, but two years ago I built a structure for use in an amateur music video I was working on.  This structure was based loosely on the Native American medicine wheel.  After the video we continued to use the spot as a nice place to cook hot dogs on summer evenings.  Being round, the kids especially loved to run around in it.  But tonight when we drove in we saw that it had been vandalized.  My 5 year old was very upset – the “bad guys” had been here.  But even worse than the juvenile destruction was the fact that swastikas had been spray-painted all over the structure.

Apparently someone in our community saw an abandoned video prop in an abandoned farmstead and recognized something of the Native American spirituality it faintly mirrored.  While my family and I were out of town (so I could attend a seminar aimed at helping create a World Wide Web Page for the Albion area) they felt compelled to desecrate it.  Whoever this was was so filled with hatred that they not only tried to destroy it, but had to deface it with a symbol of hate.  While I was upset that any one would commit such an act, I couldn’t help but wonder what their parents, unlike mine, had taught them.  Part of the Web Page’s message was to be that violence and hatred aren’t a problem here – we offer a sanctuary, if you will, against the all-to-prevalent hatred of today.  But we don’t.  We apparently have young people born and raised here who believe that it is “cool” (or something) to destroy and hate.  And they are acting on this belief.

The sheriff’s office is investigating, and will probably find who did this soon (several clues were left behind).  But I wonder how the news that somebody’s’ children are practicing hate crimes is going to set with their parents.  Do the parents know and just not care, or are they so oblivious to their children’s’ past-times that they don’t even suspect? (And imagine how they will probably howl when their precious darlings are prosecuted.)

How could this happen here?  Aren’t we supposed to have moral values?  Is that all just talk?  I may be powerless to stop hate elsewhere, but I WILL fight it here, and I urge everyone reading this to do the same.  After all, we have an all-too-sorry history of where complacency leads.

Dear Editor:

Dan Warren correctly observes (June 16 Pulse) that we can’t have rational discussions so long as name-calling and blaming continue to polarize us.  I have to wonder why name-calling and blaming are so prevalent; who is benefiting from this? In the same edition of the World-Herald that Mr. Warren’s letter appeared was a headline stating “Report cites Halliburton in Iraq mismanagement.”  The article says that losses could amount to billions of dollars, and pays particular attention to waste and mismanagement involving Halliburton, which was run by Dick Cheney from 1995 to 2000.

In a more rational political climate, such waste would surely elicit outrage from both sides of the political isle.  But our energy and attention are instead being directed  towards knee-jerk emotional issues, like the Pledge of Allegiance and gay marriage, issues of the heart but not the pocketbook.  The American people have an ongoing responsibility to scrutinize government and hold it accountable for its actions; we are instead polarized into either blindly accepting or blindly denying everything coming out of Washington.  Both sides have devolved into caricatures of themselves, and weakened our system of government in the process.

Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but wonder, is our preoccupation with name-calling and blaming diverting many of us from noticing what’s really happening in this country, in the world?  Could it be that the polarization Mr. Warren decries is, if not intentionally fomented, at least encouraged by individuals and entities that are quietly milking us for all they can while we exhaust ourselves arguing tired ideological issues ad nauseum?

Dear Editor:

Julian Schmidt (Pulse 12-18) asserts that diversity is inimical to society.  He seems to advocate a narrowly defined and exclusive society which makes one wonder what place people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds would occupy.

History shows that with enough coercion, a monolithic society can be established; Mao’s China with men and women dressed exactly alike comes to mind, but that is just one of many examples.  If history tells us anything, it is that such societies stifle the human spirit, and seldom endure for long.

I have been privileged to know people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, and they have taught me many things, including that despite our differences we are all pretty much the same, for better or for worse.

The roiling resentments that Mr. Schmidt decries stem from the ongoing efforts of people  to homogenize society; rather than accept that God created humans in many diverse ways, these people attempt to force others to be just like them.  We are already one people; not through common ancestry, language or religion, but by virtue of our shared humanity.  For any society to remain vital, it must recognize and build upon this fundamental humanity rather than attempt to enforce conformity to an ideology based upon fear of what is different.

Dear Editor:

Mark Elkmeier, in justifying civilian casualties in Iraq (June 16 Pulse), stated “If civilians are willing to help the Osama bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins of the world, they better be willing to suffer the results of war.”

A day or two earlier it was reported that a University of Colorado committee had recommended Professor Ward Churchill be fired. Although this recommendation was said to be based upon “research misconduct and plagiarism,” one suspects it is in retaliation for his comments comparing “some of the World Trade Center victims to Nazis.”

Blaming civilian victims on the opposing side of a conflict for what happened to them, rationalizing that they deserved to die, dehumanizes them, absolving us of guilt over their deaths. But in ignoring that they were people very much like us, people who loved and laughed and will forever be missed — like the victims of 9/11 — we dehumanize ourselves as well.

The war on terrorism is a war of values.  If Americans become as callous toward civilian deaths as Islamic radicals and their sympathizers are, won’t the radicals have won?

Dear Editor:

Harold Anderson reported in his column on December 8th the comments of an Egyptian radical living in Milan regarding the execution of American Nicholas Berg.  “Kill him! Kill him! … Cut off his head…. God is great! God is great!”  These words serve to remind us of the fanaticism of our enemies.  What decent person could react to the killing of a prisoner with such excitement?

When Nebraska executed Harold Otey, a crowd of death-penalty supporters gathered outside the prison shouting such things as “Fry him!”  “Barbecue him!”  KOLN-TV reported that some overwrought death-penalty advocates ended up chanting “Go Big Red!” over and over.  As I understand it, execution times have since been changed to occur during working hours so ranting crowds aren’t as likely to gather.

Harold Otey was a convicted murderer while Nicholas Berg was not, yet one wonders if such distinctions mean much to those who scream for blood.  Whether shouting “God is Great!” or “Go Big Red!” such irrational behavior illustrates how much some people enjoy the suffering and death of others.  Such behavior is not confined to our enemies — we have people like this in our own backyards.

Dear Editor:

Issues ranging from the positioning of a marker bearing the 10 Commandments to the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance inspire many people to express their belief that we live in a Christian Nation.  It is as if saying it again and again somehow makes it true.  If we were to be judged upon the words of those most outspoken, we would indeed appear a Christian Nation.

If we were to be judged upon our actions rather than our words, would we still appear so religious?  I believe we would; our devotion, however, would not be to Jesus, but to Judas.  It is not just at the pinnacle of corporate attainment that we behold individuals who will sell out their employees and investors without moral qualm.  Everyday life is littered with examples of people routinely taking advantage of others for their own personal gain.  Our political system rewards those who say what people want to hear regardless of sincerity; our economic system is based upon taking advantage of others – capitalizing on opportunities to redistribute wealth irregardless of the broader impact.  And our religious institutions appear as they so often have in the past – more dedicated to their own well-being than to serving the needs of their flocks.

Judas, at least, repented.  He tried to give his thirty pieces of silver back to save Jesus.  Who among us voluntarily repents today?  Whether dishonest CEO or dishonest used car salesman, who looks upon their victims with regret for what they’ve done?  In many ways we’ve ‘out-Judased’ Judas.

Granted, many people in this country aren’t like the one’s I’ve described, and their actions tell a different story.  But their voices are drowned out by the forces which seem to drive our world, forces of greed and selfishness.   If we are the followers of a biblical figure by proclamation, then let’s remember that our actions proclaim more loudly than our words – before we assert that we’re a nation following the example of a New Testament character, let’s take a good look at which character this really is.

Dear Editor:

On November 5th your paper stated that people in the Great Plains reject an enlarged government role in their lives, and hence vote Republican, because they are raised to be self-reliant.  I find it surprising that a newspaper in this region would be unaware of our huge reliance upon farm subsidies, or the fact that federal money in a variety of forms, including Social Security, has long been a major source of income in many rural areas.

It also seems odd that such a respected news organization would fail to notice how much the government has expanded under conservative leadership — even our library habits are now considered a legitimate concern of the federal government.

To ignore the hand that’s feeding us by focusing on worn myths of rugged individualists may bolster our self-esteem, but to vote based on such feel-good images rather than an understanding of how large a role federal dollars play in rural America is indeed shooting ourselves in the foot.

Dear Editor:

Isn’t it a little ridiculous for Christians to feel persecuted because their faith isn’t being promoted through gaudy Christmas displays on public property and crass commercialization in stores?  If it’s true that 85% of Americans are Christians, then it appears Christianity is doing quite well without any special help from retailers or the government.  And if it isn’t — if Christianity is imperiled by government impartiality and retailers showing respect for all faiths, then perhaps instead of declaring themselves the victims of an imagined holy war, Christians should look inward to see why their faith can no longer compete with other religions on a level playing field.

The present controversy surrounding what to call this season has been trumped up by certain politically ambitious Christian groups who seemingly cannot accept the fact that no religion is entitled to special treatment in this country.  This time of year has been sacred to people in the northern hemisphere since mankind first observed the varying length of the days, and it is disingenuous of Christians to pretend it belongs to them alone.

Dear Editor,

My wife and I feel very fortunate to be able to raise our children in Albion and I’m sure many other parents share our feelings.  We feel that the quality of life afforded by a small town contributes to the growing environment of our children, and is reflected in our schools and community resources.  But regardless of its advantages, Albion, like any small town, has challenges to be met if it is to continue to remain a vital community.  I’m sure I’m not alone in having considered possible solutions to various problems facing the area, such as how to promote economic growth and provide valid options which could enable more young people to remain here after graduation.  But these are not simple issues and offer no simple solutions, and this unfortunately makes it too easy for a person to think “There’s nothing I can do….”  But I believe there is something simple that anyone and everyone can do – become involved in the community.  This need not be anything more than just talking to other people, sharing ideas for our future.  Big ideas come from little ideas, just as successful ideas often grow from ideas that fail.  The future of Albion doesn’t lie in somebody smarter or better equipped’s hands; it lies squarely in our own.

I realized this the evening I attended the town meeting to review the results of the community survey.  Over thirty residents attended and openly discussed goals and possible improvements for the next 10 to 20 years.  Many ideas were brought up and the ones that seemed most promising were selected for development by volunteer committees.  This demonstrated very clearly the power of sharing ideas and hopes.  If thirty people could do this much in one evening, imagine what could be done by more people over a longer time.  If everyone who appreciates the life this area offers would show their support  by sharing their feelings and outlooks, I’m confident solutions to the problems facing us would emerge.  After all, we’ve provided so much as a community for our children already; why not provide them with the opportunity to raise their children here?   The Jan. 16 town meeting would be a good place to continue working towards tomorrow.

Dear Editor:

Because of feminism, women can own property instead of being owned as property.  Because of feminism, women can gain an education and work outside the home.  Because of feminism, women can leave abusive marriages.  Because of feminism, women can vote.  Yet area Right To Life director, Carol Grimminger, views feminism as a “catastrophe,” likening it to communism.

What would Ms. Grimminger have women do?  Wear burkes and only leave the house in the company of a male relative?  Such atavistic sexist repression is an affront to men and women alike.  Americans are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan in part to bring basic human rights to women there while at the same time people like Ms. Grimminger are working to deny these rights here in this country.

People like Ms.Grimminger need to loosen their corsets, take a good whiff of smelling salts, and join the 21st century.  Those who forget the past, after all, are doomed to repeat it.

Dear Editor:

After reading about St. Francis Medical Center excluding Central Health Center from the community services directory I had to check my calendar to make sure this wasn’t still the Dark Ages.  It seems incredible that in 21st century America poor women are being denied access to health care because of some draconian religious ideology.  The belief that wealth is an indication of God’s opinion of a person evolved from Calvinism centuries ago, and is still a major justification used by some fundamentalist Protestants attempting to eliminate aid to the poor.  I’ve heard conservatives say that people are poor because God hates them — helping the less-affluent is thus a sin against God.

But this is a Protestant argument; traditionally, good works have been an important part of Catholicism.

By deliberately omitting Central Health Center from the services directory, St. Francis has passed judgment on every financially disadvantaged woman in the area.  They are in effect saying because these women are poor, they aren’t entitled to know that screenings for breast cancer, cervical cancer and diabetes are available to them.

This economic and gender discrimination is even worse than racial discrimination.  While being forced to ride at the back of a bus was demeaning, this denial of health information could prove fatal.  That such blatant discrimination bears the stamp of religious approval makes it even more egregious — religions are supposed to foster compassion, not justify discrimination.

Dear Editor:

Mike Gloor, President and CEO of St. Francis Medical Center says objections to his organization’s decision to omit Central Health Services from the community services directory demonstrates intolerance beyond his ability to understand.  Perhaps now he better understands how other people feel about the intolerance demonstrated by this omission.

No one is questioning St. Francis’ many contributions to its community, only the selective nature of these contributions. Their faith clearly cannot tolerate the full range of views and beliefs embodied within the community they serve, and they have the right to act according to their beliefs. But they were wrong to impose their views on others — the ethical thing for them to have done regarding the community services directory would have been to simply decline to handle it. I’m glad they are finally realizing this and hope another qualified and impartial group will step forward and take over the service directory in the future.

I hope St. Francis understands that if some other institution had been in charge of the directory and omitted St. Francis for religious reasons, the same people who have been critical of them would be rushing to their defense. Our society is based upon equality, even if our religions are not, and those of us with a sense of civic responsibility believe in defending the rights of everyone.

Dear Editor:

It has been observed that patriotism is the last bastion of the scoundrel.  Time and again it turns out that those who declare themselves the most American are the least likely to respect the fundamental American principles of equality, freedom of speech and the rule of law.

On the second day of the Grand Island Ethnic Festival, an event intended to unite the community and celebrate diversity, a volunteer at the Hall County Republican booth began verbally and physically attacking the adjacent Mid-Nebraska NOW volunteers and their booth.  He attempted to physically destroy their display, and had to be restrained and prayed for by other Republicans.

That a representative of a major political party would, at a public event no less,  verbally and physically attack people advocating equality for women flies in the face of everything America stands for.  Such an act is an outrage, and while to their credit, was stopped by the other Republicans present, casts the Hall County Republican Party as violent and intolerant.

I hope I speak for everyone committed to freedom and equality when I call upon the Hall County Republican party to publicly disavow acts of violence against ANY group and apologize for the unsanctioned behavior of their volunteer representative.

Dear Editor:

Chuck Austerberry, assistant professor of biology at Creighton University pointed out recently (Pulse 8-20) that evolution, while controversial, is supported by overwhelming evidence and that various aspects of it “can provide good critical thinking exercises…”.

One such exercise could involve the on-going stem cell controversy.  Many people believe embryonic stem cells are fully human, endowed with an immortal soul, and must be treated accordingly.  Many people also believe plants and animals lack a soul and are therefore entitled to less respect.

Human fetal development parallels the process of evolution.  Just as all life presently on Earth evolved from a common single-celled ancestor, each human grows from a fertilized cell (the source of stem cells), passing through stages of development which echo the evolutionary process.  Every fetus possess gills and a tail during its development, for example, just as ancestral life-forms did.

If a fertilized ovum possesses a soul, then mustn’t that ancient common ancestor have possessed one also?  By extension, wouldn’t all life on earth possess a soul, having arisen from the same source as humans?  And doesn’t the possibility that all life is as sacrosanct as a fertilized ovum poses even more ethical problems than stem cell research?

Dear Editor:

I would like to publicly thank Senator Tom Briese for his unfaltering efforts to bring meaningful property tax relief to Nebraska.  Though the “Grand Compromise” recently passed by the Legislature falls short of the property tax relief Nebraskan’s need, it is a step in the right direction.

Senator Briese’s recap of his more recent efforts to reduce reliance on property taxes were outlined in his column last week.  That he has met so much opposition to rebalancing the “three legged stool” of Nebraska’s major sources of tax income – income, sales and property taxes – demonstrates the adversarial nature of competing political interests.  I’m not speaking here of conservatives versus liberals – I’m speaking of urban versus rural and big business versus family farmers and homeowners.

Traditionally, Nebraska has been supported roughly equally by the taxes mentioned above – income, sales and property – but for a long time now local expenditures, particularly school funding, have been borne more and more by the counties.  This has allowed politicians at the state level to tout their ability to ‘keep taxes low’ but that is a political smokescreen. Sales and income taxes have been kept low by refusing to adequately support public education at the state level and thus forcing county property taxes to soar.

Nebraska ranks abysmally low in state aid to education (a situation Senator Briese’ predecessor, Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, worked hard during her term to try to improve) but abysmally high in property tax rates.  Farmers are doing far more than their fair share to support education because their voice in our Legislature is too-often drowned out by powerful interests who would pay more taxes if our tax system were brought back into balance.  Income and/or sales taxes would have to go up, and there are special interests working hard to keep this from happening.  While some of these groups may talk about the importance of low income tax rates to a healthy business community, the fact is that the primary business of Nebraska is agriculture.  Part of the “grand compromise” involved business incentives – tax breaks for new or expanded businesses.  Yes, we need to attract good-paying jobs, but we also need to make sure we don’t damage our most important business – agriculture – in the process.

We have to have taxes to provide the government services we need to maintain a functioning society – law enforcement, infrastructure, education and a host of other things.  But in the final analysis, the only fair tax is one based on each citizen’s ability to pay it – income tax.  The days when owning a farm meant a person could afford to pay more in taxes are long gone – commodity values are currently so low that high property taxes significantly endanger farmers’ ability to stay in business.

Having been involved with a number of rural development issues through the years, I understand how hard Nebraska’s development agencies work to help rural communities.  Yet by continuing to drain away a disproportionate amount of rural resources through our unbalanced tax system, our state government is doing more harm to rural areas than our development agencies can ever overcome.

Because of the ongoing population shift from rural to urban areas, rural residence no longer have much clout in our Legislature, leading to ‘taxation without (adequate) representation.’  Yet we still have some representation, and Senator Briese has from the start fought hard for the interests of rural residents.

So thanks again, Senator, and please, keep fighting for rural Nebraska.