Saturday, November 28, 2015

What Cannibals Teach Us About Citizens United


By Bob Ferris

Fore tribesman with evidence of past practices.
There is a tribal group in New Guinea called the Fore that formerly honored their ancestors by eating small pieces of their brains after they died.  This “funerary cannibalism”  had a side-effect though, because within the ingested gray matter there was a prion (think mad cow) that caused a fatal disease in some that the Fore called "kuru" which is characterized by shaking and pathologic bursts of laughter.


I think about the above as we look at the destructive factionalism (see Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10) currently affecting American politics.   In this equation Citizen’s United is the fatal prion. And while we have certainly been experiencing bursts of laughter along with shaking rage, we cannot help but understand that absent a solution to Citizen’s United we will cease being—our great American experiment will die.
"…widely accepted prion theory, which states that the cellular protein PrP is the sole causative agent of prion diseases; there is no nucleic acid involved. The theory holds that PrP is normally in a stable shape (pN) that does not cause disease. The protein can be flipped, however, into an abnormal shape (pD) that does cause disease. pD is infectious because it can associate with pN and convert it to pD, in an exponential process--each pD can convert more pN to pD. In What is a Prion…
“Prion” is simply shorthand for “proteinaceous infectious particle” and as Citizen’s United is a mouthful too let’s just shorten it to “cucu” which gives a nod to the Fore’s kuru as well as editorializes on this political pathogen itself.  When we look at the above quote and translate it into our body politic analogy it works very well because political contributions from individuals and within limits can be seen as equivalent to the “pN” in the above construct and the post-Citizens United decision political contributions as the “pD.”  When pN convert to pD we get what we have now which is a cucu problem.

The absence of nucleic acid in the prion is telling, because these missing functional units—as in the familiar but likely not understood DNA or RNA—mean that these prions are free from much in the way of biochemical coding for controls or direction.  If you think of these nucleic acids in the context of our political model you might consider these as items like ethics, truth and the other moderating elements sometimes observed in politics, but largely missing at this point.

It is not really too hard to understand that our current political situation is very similar to the above Mad Cow disease infected brain.
What makes our current situation so scary and perilous is that we have a myriad of pD forms from bankers wanting increased deregulation and the hyper-religious wanting a theocracy (1,2) to the fossil fuel industry wanting to stop action on climate change (1,2,3) and those thinking the solution to communism is fascism (1,2).  And all of them are spinning out of control. And all of them are flipping figurative pNs to pDs.  And all of them are collectively ripping to shreds the fabric of our democratic republic just as Mad Cow prions destroy brain structure and ultimately take the life of the infected organism.

The good news is that there is a cure.  Citizen’s United needs to be addressed and then much of what cucu-ness we are seeing dissolves.  Billionaires like the Kochs, Murdochs, Waltons and others would not put forth and promote candidates willing to do their bidding while giving lip-service to our needs. The Christian Reconstructionists, Dominionists and groups like The Family Leader could no longer seek to remake this country all of us in their own narrow image.  And the Exxon-Mobils of the world would no longer be able to fill the halls of Congress with anti-science zealots slinging snowballs and silliness.

Taking action to reverse Citizen’s United is no little undertaking.  There are entrenched forces willing and able to fight for this bright, purple plum they have given themselves much like Britain was unwilling to let loose of their former colonies.  But as has been said before we won the War of Independence but the American Revolution must continue as we always need to protect what we won and make it better not worse.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Theocracy by Boomerang


By Bob Ferris


I remember watching Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn in the 1965 movie How to Steal a Million.  Big time fun from a time when we did not look too hard or deeply at life around us.  One of my favorite parts of the movie was how they used boomerangs make of tongue depressors to set off alarms within a museum they were robbing to desensitize the guards who eventually turned the alarms off only to lose what they were protecting.

The Mission and Beliefs Section of The Family Leader group.  It seems strange that they would feature an image of the US Constitution that they seem perfectly willing to subvert.
I think about this now as I look at this recent Republican God-driven lovefest sponsored by The Family Leader organization (a 501(c)4 non-profit) which claims to be in partnership with two 501(c)3 organizations Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council (the ones who recently gave Kim Davis an award and formerly employed Josh Duggar as a lobbyist).  Under IRS rules 501(c)4s can endorse candidates but 501(c)3s like these two groups and a good number of churches need to keep their heads down during elections or lose their non-profit designations.
What The Family Leader group does.  I am not sure endorsing candidates that advocate the US becoming a theocracy or ruled by Biblical Law has anything to do with religious freedom or protecting the US Constitution.  
I think about the above boomerang in this context when I remember the Republican-led Internal Revenue Service witch hunt that claimed that the IRS was targeting conservative groups for investigation when it turns out that was not the case.  This investigation resulted in people losing their jobs, but my sense is that it also—just like the museum guards in the movie—confused and desensitized the IRS to the actual threat coming from those wanting to establish a real or tacit Christian theocracy during the 2016 election cycle.  If you think I am wrong in being this paranoid you have never looked at the convoluted funding network that is the multi-million dollar, anti-science, pro-religion funding machine currently operating in this country.
The Focus on the Family group spends about $90 million dollars annually and the Family Research Council spends $14 million or so.  It would be interesting to understand how those moneys relate to their activities in conjunction with The Family Leader group.
I like this cinematic comparison also because of Audrey Hepburn who survived significant deprivations during World War II latter dedicated a good portion of her life to working with children and refugees as well as passing on this ethic to her sons Sean and Luca as well as grand-daughter Emma who have all worked with children including those of refugees.   Ms. Hepburn knew the refugee experience (personally and by extension) was raised a Christian Scientist but in later life distanced herself from organized religion, but not the associated moral core.  In all of these things she resembles America in the image set forth by the Founding Fathers.


The boomerang works because it is also something that returns in a way that could hurt you if you are not vigilant much the same way a return to the pre-Revolutionary War elements of theocracy we expelled from this country in 1787 with the initial US Constitution would hurt more than most grasp. Now I suspect some will say that it is fine if we are a theocracy, but I would argue that the evidence suggests otherwise both in the past and in the present context.

Let's start in the past.  My wife is descended from the Clarks who were Catholics and came to the Virginia colonies very early on.  They were then chased first to central Maryland where there is a record of a George Clark in the Lower Potomack Hundred census of 1776 who also fought in the Revolutionary War.  Then they moved to western Pennsylvania in the late 1700s before being displaced once again to rural Ohio in the early part of the 19th century.  Most of their moves were driven in-part by being Christian but not the “right” type of Christian.  Additionally, an arm of my family —the Ferrees—were Huguenots chased from their family estates in Picardy, France to Germany around the turn of the 18th century and then to England and finally the Colonies.  They ended up in Pennsylvania too because of the state's policy of religious tolerance where they melded into the Quaker persuasion.  The lesson here being that historically fervent Christians when they were in charge in the country were not always nice even to other Christians.

Some will say that was then and now is now, but to them I would say look at some of the statements from the most overtly Christian presidential candidates (they are all lined up in the above photograph with the exception of Trump) who are for severely restricting or barring Syrian refugees for security or other reasons (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8).   I would point to some statements coming out of the televised evangelical community especially Pat Robertson.  Pat Robinson basically said he had "compassion" for refugees on personal a level but not a policy level.

Hmmm.  My recollection from Sunday school is that Jesus supposedly turned water into wine, raised the dead, walked on water, and then died when it was not necessary simply to erase the sins of many. My sense from this is that Jesus (and therefore those acting is his name) should think the “security” concern a weak one in balance with the need for Christian charity.  My sense too is that Jesus likely would have very little need or desire to differentiate between personal feelings and “policy.”

And just a helpful aside here:  If you are really trying to recruit and convert new members to your “righteous” cause you should probably highlight your similarities, be welcoming and demonstrate through words and actions that you are better rather than emphasizing your differences, being unwelcoming and showing that you are pretty much just as bad or worse as those other guys. In point of fact this seems to be the strategy of this current Pope Francis.  Just saying.

We have talked about a movie; an overt effort to take our country back some 250 years into a failed and painful past; and the dangers of boomerangs and free-wheeling Christians ungoverned by a higher, secular law, so where does that leave us?  The first place is that the IRS has to step up to the plate and enforce this bit about churches and other non-profits wrongfully participating in the electoral process.  This wink-wink-nudge-nudge approach to enforcement has led to serious violations and feelings invulnerability that should not be allowed to continue.  Pulpits are wonderful places for tending to the spiritual health of a congregation but poor places for politics, particularly so when the politicians praised are acting in manner contrary to core principles of your belief system.


Secondly, we have to remember once again why we have a separation of church and state and fully understand that we should not give up this great protective happenstance because a misguided group within this country is trying to create a myth persecution and also re-write important sections of our history along with their shredding of our country’s textbooks.  And we should return our pledge to its original form taking out “under God” as well as removing “In God we Trust” from our coinage.  E Pluribus Unum is our national motto and it is a good one we can all salute and feel properly proud.

Friday, November 20, 2015

We Cannot Have Billionaires until the Homeless and Refugees are Helped


By Bob Ferris


There are a lot of memes out there proclaiming that we should not welcome Syrian refugees until we address “fill in the blank” where the blank is filled in by homeless soldiers or starving children in the US.  They all are misdirected and forget what America is all about or should be.  They are misdirected in that these should read: We should not have billionaires until “fill the blank” is addressed and we help Syria refugees.

But before some brain-washed Ted Cruz clone jumps up and says “Hey Martha, this yahoo is talking about communism” let me say: Absolutely not!  But communism is always a convenient hobgoblin to hoist (see McCarthyism) when folks are trying to establish fascist, oligarchic or theocratic regimes or all three.  But I suppose that it is a little like yelling “fire” in a swimming pool in that the gullible and non-thinking swimmers will create a wake trying to get to ladders and steps not fully grasping they are already in the safest place.

Billionaires and the super-rich exist only because they have disproportionally used our public resources and infrastructure.  Billionaires, and we have more than 400 in the US, are not an example capitalism succeeding but rather that government has failed in its charge to represent all people and properly steward our resources for this and future generations.  On this note, how can a legislator feel pride in creating riches for a precious few while allowing our air to be degraded, our waters to be undrinkable, our infrastructure (e.g., public lands, education, transportation, sanitation, etc.) to erode, and this looming climate crisis that materially sink us both literally and figuratively.  Nice job!
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  
There is a lot of talk about the Founding Fathers of late but to me it comes back to reading things like the Constitution starting with the Preamble (above).  Nowhere in the above do we see language either in the lines or between them that say that we will create a ruling elite or work to shift the assets of the middle class to the wealthiest.  Asset transfer or favoritism does not create tranquility or general welfare and it certainly does not secure blessings on this generation and those to come.

So when you see these hateful and short-sighted memes, understand that they were created by those yelling “fire” in the pool of our nation in the hopes that those unthinkingly rushing to the ladders and steps will carry these messages far and wide.  We are a nation of immigrants—all of us—and a lot of our families were once refugees.  We welcome those in true need regardless of their beliefs as we were welcomes regardless of ours.

Interestingly just after we sped out the door upon posting this piece we went to the Library of Congress and then onto a talk at the Folger Theater where they talked about Shakespeare's "Pericles" and the relevancy of that play to the current situation with the Syrian refugees.  At that event they passed out these cards letting us know how we can help.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Hollow Rattle of Trumps Tinfoil Saber


By Bob Ferris


I missed this excellent piece (click here) written about Donald Trump in August because I was dealing with some personal issues.  But it bears sharing and re-sharing as Mr. Trump rattles his saber (1,2, 3) and waves red flags on immigration (1,2 ,3), welfare (1,2,3), and race (1,2,3).

When we read the above referenced article by Gwenda Blair we see that Grandpa Trump was essentially what we would call a “draft dodger” today as he left Germany before he was old enough for his compulsory service and only returned roughly two decades later after the threat had passed. The German government saw this too and asked him to leave the country of his birth.  We also see that Grandpa Trump’s son Fredrick Jr. (Fred) was of draft-able age when the Selective Service was established in 1940, but did not serve in World War II electing instead to profit off loopholes in federal housing funding.
I was captain of the baseball team,” Trump explained. “I was supposed to be a professional baseball player. Fortunately, I decided to go into real estate instead. I played first base and I also played catcher. I was a good hitter. I just had a good time.MTV Interview 2010 
And three-sport high school athlete Donald sought 2-S, 1-Y and then ultimately a 4-F exemption from the Viet Nam era draft because of "bone spurs" which I am sure is looked on with great sympathy by my former brother-in-law who went to Viet Nam after having radical knee surgery in high school or my older brother who went too with his childhood asthma.  For those of us who are paying attention, served in these avoided conflicts or have family who did so this multi-generational pattern of responsibility ducking makes Trump’s saber rattling and war mongering a little hard to take.

A section of the listing of Draftees in Alaska during the World War I including my grandfather Robert Jackson Settles.
Now I suspect there are a passel of excuses for all of this avoidance by the Trump family when it comes to the military or serving ones country in a time of need such as: A young lad running away from home makes poor choices, thirty-five is too old to fight in a war, or the skills you need to be a soldier are fundamentally different than those of a professional baseball player.  I do think about these possibilities, but at the same time I talked with my mother recently and she told me about my grandfather who ran away from home at age 15 eventually ending up working for the US Forest Service in Seward, Alaska.  He was precluded from entering World War I because he was needed for the Alaska Home Guard, but the minute they released him he took his 36-year old body and hopped on a troop ship bound for Europe.  So some people let impediments stop them from standing up when needed and others obviously overcome these hurdles and do the right thing.

The Donald’s immigration rhetoric seems sour too.  Trump is the son and grandson of immigrants with his father’s history being relevant in the so-called Anchor Baby debate, because he was actually conceived in Germany just before his grandparents were deported for his grandfather’s convenient absence during his window for mandatory military service.  Trump also famously married two immigrants and profited mightily off illegal Polish immigrants that were paid below-market wages and had sleep in his under-construction hotel (1,2,3).
 "For single men the Arctic has excellent accommodations as well as the best restaurant in Bennett, but I would not advise respectable women to go there to sleep as they are liable to hear that which would be repugnant to their feelings – and uttered, too, by the depraved of their own sex." Frederick Trump writing about his hotel the Arctic in the Yukon Sun from Gwenda Blair piece.
Trump’s call for welfare reform has the same flat ring as his war mongering and immigration stance. For when you look at where the family money originated—beyond the thinly disguised brothels of his Grandpa Trump's Poodle Dog and the The Arctic House (above)—it came in large part from his father’s gaming of federal housing subsidies first for servicemen during World War II (while portraying himself as Swedish rather than German), then for returning servicemen coming home to rebuild their lives, and eventually because of the nation’s need for affordable housing.  And when we talk about welfare, what are legal business debts forgiven through the process of bankruptcy (Trump has had four in 18 years) but another form of welfare?  Now on this last point Trump will argue that these were his corporations, but not him which begs the follow-up question:  What are corporations but artificial mechanisms for shielding entities from paying rightful taxes because it is felt that this is in the public’s interest (i.e., another form of welfare)?


Though many were shocked by Mr. Trump’s non-response to an anti-Muslim question from one of his supporters and the assertions that his father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1927, they probably should not have been (note: see proper response to anti-Muslim outburst above by Aaron Rodgers).  Mr. Trump has a long history of making inopportune comments about people of color and was even sued along with his father by the Department of Justice in the 1970’s when he was president of his father’s company for discrimination against African-Americans (1,2).  Trump and his father counter-sued and lost ultimately signing a settlement agreement that required changes in the way the Trumps did business.  It is interesting to look at Mr. Trumps denials of wrong doing at the time of the suit and also to the charges that his father was arrested in 1927 as they are eerily similar—a pattern, if you will.

John McCain and Donald Trump had very different experiences during the Viet Nam War.  Trump's sin was not taking  deferments because many people did nor was it taking a deferment that was specious, but it was taking both those actions and then feeling entitled to besmirch the record of one who suffered mightily because he did not take these easier paths.  
As an ecologist I tend in most things to look for patterns—patterns in behavior or systems.  For Mr. Trump there seem to be two main patterns and they seem to be multi-generational.   The first is to avoid or ignore responsibilities or threats.  Grandpa Trump left Germany when compulsory service loomed and them left British Columbia when he felt officials we about to crack down on prostitution and other gold field excesses.  And both Frederick and Donald figured out ways to skip serving during wartime when many volunteered.  Now in terms of disclosure I too had a high draft number (344) but I did not file for a deferment nor have I ever publicly questioned or criticized Senator McCain’s war record (1,2).

The second pattern seems to be to one of creative reinvention.  When you are a German in a country at war with Germany tell everyone you are a Swede.  When the source of your wealth is inherited and you want everyone to drool over your competence and business acumen portray yourself as a self-made man.  And when people call you a bigot with the justification of ample and repeated evidence, tell everyone that you have many friends in the black community.


I have said many times that Donald Trump’s campaign is about finding the lowest common denominator and then adopting that position (the above graphic tells this story but was perhaps too subtle and mathematical for some).  If you find that most folks hate or fear Muslims, bang that drum until the skin breaks.  If most folks have been educated to think that immigrants are taking their jobs rather than their own ignorance and gullibility, wear that message on your forehead too.  If most folks think that the relative sliver of welfare payments in the federal expenditure pie is sinking this country’s economy, then sing this beloved, but false hymn as well in spite of your own history in this arena.   And if others are jumping off the high and dangerous bridge of religion, jump up and form your own public prayer event and invent a history of "churchliness" that no one seems able to corroborate (1,2,3).
"Thus, for example, when building apartments financed through the Federal Housing Authority after World War II, he exploited regulations that paid him by the room rather than by the unit, turning out a high proportion of small one-bedrooms and studios rather than the roomy three and four bedroom apartments families needed and FHA architects had intended." Quote about Fred Trump in Gwenda Blair's piece.  
The problem with this least common denominator approach is that it is like a lot of what the Trumps have produced over the years:  It is successful for them but not what the customers or country needs (see above and Trump University 1,2,3).   What we need now is leadership that will bust us out of a political system far too compromised by the moneyed elite.  We need a leader who will be honest and forthright about climate change and help determine solutions rather than denying the existence of an issue that becomes more apparent with each devastating drought and storm.  We need a leader who understands the horror of war and wants to avoid further conflicts rather than one who thinks that military school has any concrete equivalency to military service.  We need a leader who will work to reestablish the middle class, deal with our aging infrastructure and get us moving again on education. And we need a leader who wreaks of character rather than one who is simply “a character.”

For all this and more Americans need to take a deep breath, see beyond the media machine and remember that the Presidency is about continuing and advancing the American Revolution (as differentiated from the War for Independence) and not being dragged back to past provincialism, prejudices and prurience.  Donald Trump in this context reminds me of the tales some have told about Napoleon's bejeweled and gold-encrusted sword having a cheap and not battle-worthy blade.  Donald Trump is a lot like that fabled sword in that he is showy and loud to the point of garishness but his blade is made of tinfoil with all that oft maligned metal implies.   We can make America great again but that pathway requires a leader not one who panders to the base instincts of the worse that our country has to offer.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Should Your Religion or Church Have a Warning Label?


By Bob Ferris


At the beginning of the last century the drug industry was at a turning point.  On the one hand we had powerful developments in terms of disease control and the amelioration of suffering with chemo-therapy being one and aspirin another.  But we also had snake oil and other patent medicines that used ultimately harmful ingredients and addictive elements like tapeworm eggs or cocaine foisted on a gullible and unsuspecting public by those wanting to fill their own wallets and purses.   But all were called "medicines."  My sense is that we are at the same point now with religion and churches with some doing good work and others causing great harm and no real mechanism for sorting wheat from chaff.


Now some of you will start to think: But these are my beliefs and I should have freedom of religion in this country.  Well here are some of my beliefs.  I do not believe that religion should make you hate yourself or others.  I do not believe that religion should cause physical, psychological or economic harm to you or others.  I do not believe that religion should lead to your death or the death of others.  And I do not believe that religion should dominate politics.  Pretty simple and straight-forward beliefs, but unfortunately because “religion” is so ill-defined and not in any meaningful way regulated great abuses abound.


Karl Marx once famously said that religion was the opium of the masses.  He was not the only one to say something such as this but likely the best remembered.  So what if religions were overseen by an agency like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that came into being in 1906 in part to sort the bad medicines from the good?  And what if they did not regulate per se but simply created a labeling system that warned and informed.  If examined by such an agency would your church be required to have one of the following labels?
Caution: May cause you to be bitten by snakes (1,2,3).
Caution: Child molesters (1,2,3) or ritualistic rapists (1,2,3) may be members or leaders.
Caution: Could cause you to beat your children to death (1) or deny them access to needed medication (1,2,3) or education (1).
Caution: Your money is going to support grand lifestyles (1,2,3,4) rather than a religious mission.
Caution: Could cause you to hate and hurt others just for the color of their skin (1,2), lifestyle (1,2,3), religion (1,2,3), or position on abortion (1,2,3).
Caution: Your church is conspiring with others to capture political power and remove one of the founding cornerstones of this country (1,2,3,4).  
As one can see from the above numbered links abuse abounds in this arena and sadly this is not even an exhaustive list as this broadly defined and too-sacrosanct umbrella of church and religion currently gives equal shelter to saints as well as sadists and to charlatans as well as the most charitable among us.   And this good versus evil balance is really not helped by the cults that grant “blank check” forgiveness thus creating concentrations of serial sinners and enables the kind of monumental hypocrisy that former Senator Alan Simpson recently called out below.
“Hypocrisy is the original sin,” he declared. “It’s the guy who’s checking your moral values, like to ask for Jesus, you know — while they’re diddling their secretary. That’s not my idea of family values.” Former senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) 
Perhaps in light of the above this hypothetical agency could also issue “sinning” demerits so that serial offenders would lose their access to a sanctioned pulpit, moral high ground, or the ability to cast literal or metaphorical “stones” at others.  If you need concrete examples here think about the fact that Jim Bakker is still preaching and that Kim Davis is telling people how they should live their lives.

Monumental cultural change or understanding is generally catalyzed by catastrophe, collective weight of consciousness, or looming threat.  With this situation the catastrophes of Jonestown, the Branch Davidians (1,2) and Warren Jeff’s polygamous sect have certainly provided ample drama to catalyze change, but it has not happen.  Likewise one could not be aware of current events and not see a consistent background of abuses—little and massive—that should at some point override the privileged nature of religion.  But no number of child abuse cases, financial shenanigans, or adultery within the family values industry seems able to turn this tide and create change.


Our only hope as a nation in this regard and at this point of peril is that people understand that this prominence of religiosity in the candidates standing for president (as illustrated by the above blessing of Donald Trump with Paula White on his right) reflects not a religious resurgence in the populace—as the above graph shows just the opposite is happening—but rather a concerted effort by specific elements in our country who will do anything and say anything to destroy one of the most important founding pillars of our country: The separation of Church and State.
And these forces are hoping that your fear of ISIS and the Taliban will blind you to their own, very similar in-process junta or the danger of our armed militants just waiting for provocation.  I hope that we will wake up to this in time and be sensible enough to be able to sort out the differences between beneficial and abusive religious just as we once were able to do with these ground-breaking cures in the early 1900’s and the poisons in pretty bottles sold by swindlers and quacks.  As so much is a stake, I hope we do.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Of Warriors, Wars, Weddings and Wimps

By Bob Ferris

My ancestor Major Archibald Alexander (1,2) spent time on the prison ship “Jersey” my sense is that he and others on that hulk did not suffer that deprivation so that the emerging nation and dream could once again become an oligarchy 250 years later.
Although I have a USAA Visa and come from a military family with Civil War generals and several officers who were at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778 and even one who spent time on the prison ship “Jersey,” I did not serve in the military.  In fact, I get a little annoyed when folks take my credit card and thank me for my “service.”  I suspect that some of this latter is post-Viet Nam era guilt that I was not completely able to wash away after getting my high draft number (344) and doing a year of teaching service men general education subjects so they could pass the GED test and remain in the service when our nation was culling the less educated from their ranks.  Now being in my early 20's with long hair and a beard teaching a 50-year old Navy Chief Petty Officer and a bunch of enlisted men how to multiply fractions and conjugate verbs had its real challenges, it is not really the same as getting shot at, shot or blown up.  I know that well enough to be offended when someone compares going to a military school with being in the Service.

The Grave of Andrew Ramsay and Catherine Graham Ramsay parents of George Douglas Ramsay, William Wilson Ramsay and Jane Ramsay Turnbull in the Turnbull family plot North Hill site 311 at Oak Hill Cemetery.
I think about this as I prepare to go to a Veterans Day ceremony at my mother’s retirement home that will honor my late father and others who served—mainly during World War II.  On this day I will think about him and my other ancestors who served and often sacrificed much to keep this bold experiment in democracy afloat and safe.  These ancestors are on my mind also because I recently visited the graves of several of my family at Oak Hill Cemetery in DC.
William Ramsay Ferris and Mary Robb Ferris
(nee Settles) on April 9, 1944.

My parents—one from New York and one from California—met because of World War II.  I cannot think of any other natural mechanism at that time for two folks rooted 3000 miles apart to come together.  Moreover, their greatly abbreviated courtship—roughly on the order of a week—would likely not have transpired if not for war’s passion and the sense of urgency and ephemerality it brings.    The war was an awful, but necessary undertaking that ultimately produced a 71-year adventure for two people resulting in four children and a myriad of grandchildren and great-grandchildren that would not be here in this present state without this global conflagration.

Oak Hill brought me other examples of this “bringing together” of people for buried there are William Turnbull (1800-1857) from Pennsylvania and George Douglas Ramsay (1802-1882) who was born in Virginia.  Those two along with William Walton Morris (1801-1865) were classmates at the newly formed military academy at West Point soon after the end of the War of 1812.  All three graduated from the Academy, Turnbull in 1819 and Ramsay and Morris in 1820 along with Morris’ cousin Lewis.  They eventually all served with distinction in the war with Mexico.  They all three moved up through the ranks with Turnbull becoming a Colonel before his death in 1857 and Ramsay and Morris becoming Union generals during the Civil War.
Anne Ramsay (nee Morris) in
later years.

But the three also shared something else that likely was linked to their formative time (understand that Ramsay was only 12 when he entered the academy in 1814) at West Point: They eventually became “family” with Turnbull marrying Ramsay’s sister Jane and the offspring of Ramsay and Morris—Joseph Gales Ramsay and Anne Ritchie Morris—coming together and forming their own family including my great-grandfather William Gouverneur Ramsay (1866-1916).

Col. Turnbull was an engineer while Gen. William Walton Morris, Gen. George Douglas Ramsay, and Lt. Col. Joseph Gales Ramsay were all artillery men.  So it is probably no great surprise that Major William Gouverneur Ramsay with his first name coming from two uncles and a grandfather and his middle moniker taken from a great-great-uncle who is credited with writing great portions of the US Constitution as well as coining the phrase “We the People,” and having a father whose grave stone is basically a giant marble cannonball at Arlington National Cemetery could be anything other than someone who served his country (Spanish-American War) and was an engineer who helped build gunpowder plants for DuPont that were instrumental in helping shift the direction of World War I.

The Ramsay marble cannonball at Arlington.
But war unfortunately is not just about gaining glory, making matrimonial connections or even being true to one’s blood line but it is about monumental losses, destruction and deprivation too.  While Turnbull, Ramsay and Morris got commendations for their participation in battles during the Mexican War, their classmate and Morris' cousin Maj. Lewis N. Morris (named for his Declaration of Independence-signing grandfather) died during battle.


Lt. Andrew Douglas Ramsay
Likewise, buried in another plot in Oak Hill is Lt. Andrew Douglas Ramsay son of Capt. William Wilson Ramsay brother of George Douglas Ramsay and Jane Turnbull (nee Ramsay).  Andrew died in the fourth month of the Civil War when he was shot by a Confederate sharpshooter while trying to recover some lost artillery during the battle of Bull Run.

And my late father—Maj. William Ramsay Ferris—carried some shrapnel he gained as a P-40 pilot in the Pacific Theater during World War II along with other effects of being shot down and dealing with bouts of malaria both overseas and upon his return to the States.  I know his decision to become a civil engineer was heavily influenced by his grandfather William G. Ramsay for whom he was named.  I suspect too his initial desire to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis might have been swayed not only by his love of sailing but by stories of Admiral Francis Munroe Ramsay  another of George Douglas Ramsay’s sons who attended Annapolis and distinguished himself on the “Choctaw” and other ships during the Civil War.  Rear Adm. Ramsay died just six years before my father was born so the stories were probably fresh.  Ironically, my father was offered an appointment to West Point which he declined, but eventually ended up attending the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina before leaving there to join the Army Air Corps right after Pearl Harbor.

The USS Ramsay named in honor of Adm. Francis Munroe Ramsay and launched in 1919.  The Ramsay was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and is believed to have sunk one of the Japanese mini-subs.  
On Veterans Day all of these folks and others—ancestors and beyond—will be on my mind as well as their stories.  They all deserve our thanks and we need to honor their sacrifices and memories.  But given our current political situation and the fact that the field of presidential candidates and their supporting cast seems so heavily weighted with folks like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, the Koch brothers and others who have profited mightily from the rights and opportunities offered by this fine country, but have done nothing or precious little in terms of the responsibility element of citizenship represented by the above.

To them, candidates and political meddlers alike, I would urge some time for retrospection and request that they realize that they have only been part of this great country for one, two or at most three generations.  One’s attitude towards blithely giving public land in the West to corporations might be different, for instance, if one’s ancestors fought for, bled on or financed the acquisition of that land.  But since we are approaching Thanksgiving, I will sum up this latter idea by saying that all are welcome at a Thanksgiving table (and I had several family members at the original meal), but if you are the party who came late and leaves early thus avoiding cooking, set-up and clean-up and only brought with you an out-of-scale appetite and a boardinghouse reach, please do not think that you are entitled to complain about the food or make drastic changes to the menu.  So in the end and in this context maybe the best way we can thank these veterans is by preserving the principles they fought and died for.  That is my plan, but right now we are hopping on our bikes and riding to Arlington to visit J. Gales, Annie, J. Gales Jr., the Major, Nana, Francis and the site where my parents will be interred once far, far into the future my mother joins my father.

[Note: Just to make the above Thanksgiving analogy clear: The “all” represents immigrants which we all are as humans did not evolve on this continent; the “Thanksgiving table” is this country; the cooking, set-up and clean-up are the wars, political debates, hard work and gumption that created and have protected this country; and the quality of our food and the menu are the elements of our political system and the US Constitution. Pushing us further towards an oligarchy (1,2), incorporating Fascist philosophies, gerrymandering districts, suppressing votes, or converting us to a theocracy (1,2, 3) would all be very topical examples of changes to these latter features.]