Category: Christianity



Hedd Wyn: the shepherd poet whose story shows the stupidity of war

By Giles Fraser, Thursday 9 November 2017


When the first world war broke out, the poet Ellis Humphrey Evans was working as a shepherd on the family hill farm in north Wales. Generally better known by his bardic name, Hedd Wyn, which means blessed peace in Welsh, Evans initially refused to sign up. While the Anglican establishment was calling on young men to do their duty for God and country, there were others, particularly in the Welsh nonconformist tradition, who refused this dangerous combination. “Why must I live in this grim age,” writes Evans in his poem War, “When, to a far horizon, God / Has ebbed away, and man, with rage / Now wields the sceptre and the rod.”

But when the army came for his younger brother, Evans took his place, despite his Christian pacifism – or perhaps even because of it. He joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. In France, trudging towards Passchendaele – a three-month battle that was concluded 100 years ago on Friday – Private Evans composed his final poem on the theme of the hero and posted it back home as an entry in the national Eisteddfod competition.

Twice in the last few months people have spoken to me movingly about Hedd Wyn. First was Paul Flynn, the veteran Labour MP for Newport West. Flynn’s father was a machine-gunner at Passchendaele. Believing all the nationalistic propaganda, he enlisted and fought through the worst of the mud and death. He survived, but was never the same again. Which is why, even at 82, Flynn still burns with righteous anger at the stupidity and pointlessness of war; and why he was so exercised when Tory MP Bill Cash foolishly described Passchendaele as “a wonderful battle” in a Commons debate earlier this year. As he was explaining to me what his father went through, Flynn reached for a copy of Hedd Wyn’s poems and started reading them out in Welsh – a language I do not understand. But the way he read was so intense, so focused, there was no mistaking the moral seriousness of what he was doing.

A few weeks later, I mentioned how moving I had found this to Rowan Williams, whom I had gone to visit in Cambridge. At the name of Hedd Wyn his eyes lit up. He took me into his study, where, on the bookshelf, he showed me an image of the great Welsh poet painted in the form of an orthodox icon. I knew very little about this poet beforehand, but it was clear this young shepherd from Trawsfynydd had profoundly touched the lives of many.

Hedd Wyn was killed on the first day of Passchendaele. “It was a nosecap shell in his stomach,” wrote a soldier, with him on Pilckem Ridge in the notorious Ypres salient. During the 100 days of the battle of Passchedaele, the allies gained just five miles of ground. For this they lost 310,000 men; the Germans 260,000.

A few weeks after Hedd Wyn’s death, the poem that he’d sent back from France – as tradition has it, submitted anonymously under a pseudonym – won the coveted bard’s chair at the National Eisteddfod. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, was in attendance. As the trumpets sounded, they called on the winning poet to reveal himself. After three such attempts, the archdruid stepped forward and gave the grim news that Evans had been killed in action six weeks before. The empty chair was draped in a black sheet. To this day it is remembered as the Eisteddfod of the black chair.

I will stand in silence with my poppy during the act of remembrance. But I am always conscious that remembrance is a little too easily purloined by those who want to celebrate precisely the sort of militarism and nationalistic chauvinism that led so many young men to pointless deaths. So during the silence, I will be thinking of a peace-loving man walking the hills with his sheep and hundreds of thousands like him whose lives were needlessly taken by the failure of politicians to figure out a better way for human beings to live with their differences. And I will think of that empty black chair, a haunting symbol of the total futility of war.

Photograph of stretcher-bearers struggling in mud to carry a wounded man to safety on Pilckem Ridge, Ypres, on 1 August 1917. The day before, Hedd Wyn had been killed in this area. IWM/Getty Images.

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Memory is stubborn

Invention of the Mizrahim

By Susan Abulhawa, 20 Sept 2017


The State of Israel was conceived at the turn of the 20th century in Eastern Europe by a group of elite European Jews who launched a movement called Zionism that sought to establish a physical nation state exclusive to Jews. It was a typical settler colonial enterprise, complete with the narrative of a divine mandate and a non-existent or savage indigenous population, central to which was the myth that Jews of the world formed a singular people, favored by God, who were returning to their singular place of origin – Palestine – after a three thousand year absence.

Although it was a project conceived in Europe by Europeans and for European Jews, they lacked sufficient numbers to build a population large enough to conquer the indigenous Palestinian population. Thus, recruitment of Jews from the surrounding Arab world was a necessary inconvenience. They did so through propaganda and by creating false flag terror incidents (bombing of synagogues or Jewish centres) in order provoke an exodus of Arab Jews. A prime example of this happened in Iraq, where the oldest Jewish community in the world had lived for millennia as contributing members of Iraqi society, and who prospered, contributed to the arts and the economy, and participated in government.

But these Jews were not embraced as brethren by European Zionists. Zionism was decidedly colonial, and that meant that Jews of the Arab world were seen as incomplete, barbaric, dirty, uncivilised. Za’ev Jabotinsky, one of the forefathers of Zionism said, “We Jews have nothing in common with what is called the Orient, thank God. To the extent that our uneducated masses [Arab Jews] have ancient spiritual traditions and laws that call the Orient, they must be weaned away from them, and this is in fact what we are doing in every decent school, what life itself is doing with great success. We are going in Palestine, first for our national convenience, [second] to sweep out thoroughly all traces of the Oriental soul.”

A multitude of programs and protocols were implemented towards this goal. One of the most egregious was a large initiative of stealing the babies of Arab Jews and giving them to be raised by European Jews. But the larger efforts were simple propaganda campaigns that were implemented in schools, communities, and national projects.

The word Mizrahim, from the Hebrew and Arabic words meaning “those of the East,” was popularised to lump all of these peoples of different nations into a single miscellaneous category that erased their individual ancient histories and cultures that spanned thousands of years of life and tradition, replete with countless and invaluable achievements in their respective nations.

In essence, it was a project to strip ancient peoples of their identities, which was not unlike what they tried to do to Palestinians. Zionists were trying to create a new nation with a unified people. So, they could not abide allowing parts of this population to continue to identify as Iraqi, Moroccan, Persian, Tunisian, and so on, and certainly not as Arab Jews. At the same time, the racist impulses of colonialism could not abide putting these people on par with Jews of Europe. They could not simply be Jews in the new Jewish state.

Thus, the word Mizrahim, from the Hebrew and Arabic words meaning “those of the East,” was popularised to lump all of these peoples of different nations into a single miscellaneous category that erased their individual ancient histories and cultures that spanned thousands of years of life and tradition, replete with countless and invaluable achievements in their respective nations.

Before Israel, Jews of Iraq identified as Iraqi, of Morocco as Moroccan, of Tunisia as Tunisian, of Iran as Persian, of Syria as Syrian, of Egypt as Egyptian, and of Palestine as Palestinian. They spoke Arabic, ate the same foods as their Christian and Muslim compatriots, celebrated and partook in the same national events and traditions, lived by the same social protocols, and moved through their respective cultures as other natives did. And despite the similarities of their cultures, Tunisians were distinct from Egyptians, who were both distinct from Iraqis, who were distinct from Moroccans, etc. But Israel collapsed them all under a single identity, which was to be distinguished only from Ashkenazis, European Jews, who were higher up on the social order, and, of course, from non-Jewish Palestinians and Arabs, who were to be despised. The level of their resulting self-hate can be measured in the heightened cruelty they practise against Palestinians.

However, as Zionists would learn from Palestinians, erasing the identity of others is not an easy task. Memory is stubborn, and roots will continue to tug at humans long after they’ve been uprooted. Arab Jews continued to speak Arabic at home, to dance to Arabic music, eat Arab food, and dream of once again seeing the mountains, rivers, architecture, libraries, and colours of Persia, Babylon, North Africa and the Levant.

Israel has moved away slightly from early Zionism’s contempt for our part of the world. And while it remains a colonial project, bent on erasing the native Palestinian presence, their social efforts are more focused on “indigenising” themselves to the land. The obstinacy of Arab Jews in clinging to their cultural roots has provided a convenient avenue to lay claim to regional indigenous culture. So now, Arab foods (like falafel, hummus, shakshouka), traditional Arab clothing (like tatreez, galabiyas, keffiyehs), and Arab folkloric dances are all being rebranded as “Israeli,” yet another phase of colonial renaming, and they use the rebranded Arab Jews to justify their claim.

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian writer and the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO for children. Her latest novel The Blue Between Sky and Water has been translated into 26 languages.

Photograph of three Mizrahi Jews reading a copy of the Hebrew Bible at a Jewish refugee camp, March 3, 1949 [AP].

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Thoughts and prayers

Why I’m no longer talking to God about gun sprees after the Texas shooting

By Grace Dent, Monday 6 November 2017 17:36 GMT


After the killing on Sunday of 26 members of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in Wilson County, shot dead in the middle of a church service, I am calling a personal moratorium on the issue of solving gun-related terrorism with “thoughts and prayers”.

I just don’t think my prayers are working. Obviously, I speak only for myself: merely one small, numb British woman with no right to speak of America’s right to bear arms, or to spoil the fantasy of a thousand gun enthusiasts that in similar circumstances, they would man-up and be that cool-headed gun-toting good guy. But as the First Baptist Church mourns what remains of its congregation after an attacker wearing a bulletproof vest opened fire with a Ruger assault rifle I think I’ve lost faith in all your prayers.

Obviously, you keep on tweeting about them. Although, let’s be honest, most of you aren’t literally praying anyway. Most of you are simply pressing retweet on someone else’s flimsy Twitter request for prayers, thinking “Phew, job done”. Or, more accurately, on Sunday night, as the First Baptist news broke, many were retweeting about prayers while thinking “Hang on have they changed the rules on X-Factor?” or “Why has no-one liked my Insta post of a charcoal-dough pizza? WTF? Six likes? Should I take it down?” And none of this, to my mind, is “praying”. In fact, I’d bet that throughout most of Twitter’s biggest thoughts and prayer dispatchers, absolutely zero of the hard-slog, eyes closed, scrunching-of-face,”Oh father, I have prayers” stone cold praying went on.

“But Grace,” you might argue, “I communicate with my God/Higher Being without need for traditional, accepted, religious modes or tropes, therefore, I was praying sincerely about Sutherland Springs. As God is all around me, my prayer took the form of gawking at rolling news on Facebook, while bidding on Ebay and bitching on WhatsApp”. This is not enough, I say.

To my mind, if you’re bandying about your prayers on social media, I want evidence that for at least one hour after hitting “send’” you were kneeling in a darkened room, in a deep selfess introspective fug, beaming out healing vibes like some sort of holy Daft Punk lazer show.

I do not apologise if these strict “Prayer 101” guidelines feel draconian. If Earth is relying mainly on Twitter-based God shout-outs to solve this dichotomy rather than legislation, it’s important we get it right. Let’s hope, for example, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Paul Ryan’s thoughts and prayers really totted up some God-points for the future, especially as Sutherland Springs had stopped “Trending” on twitter within a few hours and, as I write this, was already slipping into obscurity.

Still, as a childhood communion wafer scoffer and Sunday School pupil who has spent much time fretting about heaven, I must share my concerns over even the most intense, proper, earnest, solemn, eyes-shut praying. I’ll level with you, I just don’t think it works or at least, not like many of you imagine.

Even sincere prayer has limited power. Prayer, for centuries, has only ever been a way to make humans beings sit still, take stock of the human condition and hopefully try to do things a bit better. Prayer is not the same as harnessing your own personal X-Man to shine a safety ring around your loved ones. Prayer doesn’t promise a guardian angel who’ll show up when the next Stephen Paddock character sets out to kill 56 and injure 546 on the Las Vegas Strip. Prayer is, instead, a way of thinking things through and coming to conclusions.

Prayer is a process of thought that hopefully draws humans to make the right choices. If there is a God, which I hope there is, or, man what a let-down, I think he/she/it would probably want us to think very hard about our human obsession with guns. And re: praying, I think God would hope that we’d be sitting quietly after another mass-shooting and puzzle over why a patch of planet Earth has allotted its resident access to powerful guns and ammunition, yet is in subsequent great pain over the terrible outcomes, while at the same time unable to make any useful changes.

If God does exist, I’ll venture that this invisible, omniscient energy probably wants less of Twitter’s thinking and praying on gun sprees and more of the actual doing. Stopping events like Sutherland Springs will require sacrifice, hard work and decisions that will not always be popular. I see a lot of powerful people in the wake of another mass killing yaddering on about their God, but not many are prepared to be godly.

Photograph of law enforcement working the scene of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, by Nick Wagner (Austin American-Statesman via AP).

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Shameless wealth transfer

A Tax Plan for a New Gilded Age

By the New York Times Editorial Board, November 2, 2017


With their new bill that would slash taxes on the wealthy and blow up the federal budget deficit, House Republicans and President Trump are making it absolutely clear whom they are working for — the top 1 percent — and whom they consider dispensable. Well, that’s pretty much everybody else.

The bill, which House leaders unveiled on Thursday after weeks of back-room negotiations that only Republicans were privy to, contained multibillion-dollar gifts for corporations, Wall Street titans and rich families. While there are a few peanuts thrown at lower-income and middle-class families, many people of modest means who take advantage of deductions and credits for things like housing, state and local taxes, medical expenses and education costs could end up paying more in taxes.

At the same time, the bill would add $1.51 trillion to the federal debt over the next decade. In coming years, Republicans will surely point to that inflated debt to argue that it is imperative that Congress slash spending on infrastructure, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Where to begin? The primary goal of this bill is to slash taxes on corporate profits to 20 percent, from 35 percent. Mr. Trump’s minions in the White House and Congress are mouthing the same old stale arguments: that businesses will take the money saved on taxes and hire more people and hand it over to employees in raises and bonuses. If only. Credible economists believe the benefits of the cuts would accrue nearly exclusively to shareholders and executives. In fact, about $70 billion a year, or 35 percent of the benefits, would flow to foreign investors who own shares in American companies, according to Steven Rosenthal at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

The bill would also lavish benefits on real estate partnerships, hedge funds and other pass-through businesses, which send their profits directly to their owners without taxes being withheld. Republicans want those business owners to pay taxes of just 25 percent on that income, rather than ordinary rates, which go up to 39.6 percent. Republicans argue that this will benefit small businesses. In fact, a large majority of small-business owners already have personal tax rates below 25 percent. This provision would aid a small group of developers, investors and other tycoons who work in professions or industries where it is relatively easy to set up pass-through businesses. Like, yes, Mr. Trump and his family, who make their money from one such industry: real estate. Let’s not forget that Mr. Trump has not released his tax returns, something every other major-party presidential nominee has done for nearly 40 years.

Republican lawmakers argue that they will put in protections to prevent people from turning their salaries into pass-through income. But their promises ring hollow when they are not even bothering to close the carried-interest loophole used by private-equity and hedge-fund managers to treat some of their income as capital gains, which are taxed at a lower rate than wages. Mr. Trump railed against that tax provision during the 2016 campaign.

On personal income taxes, Republicans say they are simplifying and cutting taxes for most people. But that is not really true. They propose reducing the number of tax brackets to four, from seven, while raising the lowest bracket to 12 percent, from 10 percent. They want to double the standard deduction but eliminate personal exemptions. One new benefit that could help many families would be a $300 tax credit for tax filers and their dependents who are over 17, like an aged parent. Strangely, it would end after five years. By contrast, the bill’s cuts to corporate and other business taxes would be permanent.

The changes that could affect middle-class families the hardest include the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes. And the property-tax deductible would be capped at $10,000. Many people in high-tax states, like California, New Jersey and New York, would be especially hard hit. Those families would also be squeezed by the proposal to cap the mortgage-interest deduction for home purchases starting Thursday, the day the bill was introduced, at $500,000. Reducing this deduction is worthy of consideration, but it ought to be part of a comprehensive reform of housing subsidies that won’t put home buyers in high-cost areas at a disadvantage.

One particularly hardhearted change would eliminate the deduction for medical expenses, which is primarily used by people with serious and chronic illnesses. Gone, too, would be important tax credits and deductions for college tuition and interest on student loans.

Unsurprisingly, the tax bill contains a couple of provisions that are designed to benefit the Trumps and others like them. It would get rid of the alternative minimum tax, which is paid primarily by upper-income families with lots of deductions. This tax accounted for a vast majority of the income tax Mr. Trump paid in 2005, according to a leaked copy of his return. The Trumps would also benefit from the bill’s proposed estate tax changes. That tax currently applies to inherited wealth above $5.5 million. Republicans would exempt wealth up to $11 million starting next year and eliminate the tax after six years. That would benefit the heirs of just 0.2 percent of people who die every year, but cost the government $269 billion over a decade.

It will take experts weeks to fully analyze the House tax bill, but what we already know is frightening enough. No Republican who cares about fairness, economic sense and the financial health of the government can support with a clear conscience this shameless wealth transfer.

Drawing by Niv Bavarsky.

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He was too stuck up


Dear editor:

When someone is lying and doing a bunch of crooked stuff and you know they’re lying and doing a bunch of crooked stuff and you’re OK with them lying and doing a bunch of crooked stuff, well, don’t expect a great outcome.

Hillary — maybe that’s “what happened.” Why didn’t the NFL players go to the White House while the first black POTUS, Barack Hussein Obama, was there for eight years? Could it be they knew he was too stuck up to go to those lesser than himself? Could it be they’re too stuck up also?

God never fails!

Hey to my friends!

God bless America. America, bless and stand up for God!

Mary Robinson
Hot Springs


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Because a few inky wretches say so


Dear editor,

Back in the late 1960s, Simon and Garfunkel sang the question, “What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?” In 2017, that simple question is answered week after week, as the same ilky rabble of letter writers, merry contrarians all, stain these pages with their regressive nonsense.

Murderer. Killer. Socialist. Muslim. Mexican. Terrorist. There’s not much else in their tiny little lexicons, so they fill the gaps with endless quotes from the Christian Bible, or by quoting professional bible-thumpers who have enriched themselves mining the gold in them thar’ hills of a gullible America hungry for health and wealth and, ironically, an apocalypse to end it all.

Words matter. Women who choose abortion are not murderers or killers. They deserve compassion and care. We all do. We all deserve quality, affordable care not derided as socialism or a gateway drug to communism. Words matter. Muslims and Mexicans are not terrorists. If you really believe that Bible you love to quote, they deserve your welcome and respect and friendship.

Abortion is not murder or killing because a few inky wretches say so, or because a barely hidden political agenda says so. What is a human life? When does it start and end? For thousands of years the span of a person’s life has been measured by one simple test. If she breathes, she is alive. When he stops breathing, he is dead.

Even the ancient creation stories begin with a Creator breathing life into its creation. The same Creator who, by some estimates, smites up to 70% of all pregnancies and fertilized zygotes. It is a harsh reality, but before breath begins and after it ends, there is no human life.

There is only tissue. The blood and bone and gristle we humans are made of, to be sure, but here’s the rub. Unless you are the person attached to that tissue, what to do with it is none of your business. Got that, ladies and gentlemen? It doesn’t matter if that tissue is a fetus or a diseased body part or a limb that must be amputated. It is none of your business.

Fact is, abortion did not became such a high-profile issue, a cornerstone of regressive politics in America, until it was weaponized by the Republican Party to divide and conquer. Just about the same time public schools were desegregated… Coincidence?

Their ploy was so wildly successful that we’re now on the cusp of full-blown fascism. We may still masquerade that fascism as exceptionalism, or hide it in the shadows of a cross, or behind a façade of red, white, and blue patriotism, but America today has never looked more like 1930s Germany. Our POTUS has never looked more like Der Fuhrer.

Strangers are feared. Rights are suppressed. Obedience is demanded. Walls, big, beautiful walls are promised. Science and education are ridiculed. Ignorance and hubris are now our best-known exports.

“God bless you, please, Mrs. Robinson. Jesus loves you more than you will know.”

Monsieur Jacques d’Nalgar
Hot Springs, Arkansas


Photograph (modified):


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Here in Arkansas

Stifling dissent

By Ernest Dumas, September 28, 2017


Whenever Donald Trump in his serial bouts with failure decides he must re-energize his base of white nationalists by doing things like demonizing black athletes who protest discrimination, the mainstream press falls for it and gives him maximum space and time. We’re addicted.

Who could pass up the president’s words at an Alabama political rally: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired’?” The president called on NFL owners to fire protesting athletes and on fans to boycott games when owners don’t fire them. He disinvited the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from the White House, because black star Stephen Curry had disrespected him by saying he wouldn’t go.

The sentiment is not new. We have heard such mutterings for decades, at least since two Olympians raised their fists in the black-power salute during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Games. But it is supposed to be a higher-order event when the president of the United States sets out to enforce conformity and suppress disobedience of patriotic customs. A few remember the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and the Reichstag power to disregard the constitution in order to enforce conformity and stop dissent.

But Donald Trump is no Hitler or even Vladimir Putin, however much he might like to be and despite his being the first president to openly urge the suppression of dissent. Presidents James Madison and Woodrow Wilson warned of the dangers of trying to stifle dissent in times of national crisis.

We have been through far more serious threats to the First Amendment than Trump’s ravings, even though he talked emptily last year about changing the laws to roll back freedom of the press and speech. Here in Arkansas, we have our own history of Trumpian suppression, and not merely two centuries of stifling protests of unequal access to justice and civil rights.

It would not be Arkansas if it did not also involve religious freedom, in our own macabre ways of interpreting the establishment clause in matters involving the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Joe Johnson, a farmer who tried to scratch out a living for his eight kids on 39 hillside acres near St. Joe in Searcy County, went into town in 1941 to get commodities to feed his brood. The commissary clerk suspected he was taking the government foodstuff to the hated Jehovah’s Witnesses, who would not salute the U.S. flag. Johnson said he fed only his family. Prove it, she demanded, by saluting the flag. Pearl Harbor was at hand, but war fever was already strong.

Johnson refused and recited Psalm 115 about paying homage to inanimate objects rather than God, the text that formed the basis of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief that honoring inanimate objects violated holy writ. He stalked to the door, took off his hat and made a little speech about Psalm 115. While making gestures with his free hand, Johnson apparently brushed the flag. Not only was he denied food for his family, he was hustled to jail for desecrating the flag. A 1919 act of the legislature made it a crime to desecrate the flag.

His appeal, based on grounds that he was denied the constitutional right to observe his religion, went to the Arkansas Supreme Court. It would have none of it. The majority said he got his just desserts because the demands of a political society, like honoring the flag, overrode his religious freedom.

Everyone could benefit from reading the dissent by the chief justice, Griffin Smith, and his longtime colleague, Justice Tom Mehaffy. Smith said he personally found Johnson’s views about the Bible mawkish, “but while to me it appears vapid, to him it is real.”

While he strongly disagreed with the farmer, the judge wrote, “the fact remains that we are engaged not only in a war of men, machines, and materials, but in a contest wherein liberty may be lost if we succumb to the ideologies of those who enforce obedience through fear, and who would write loyalty with a bayonet. … Witch hunting is no longer sanctioned. The suspicions and hatreds of Salem have ceased. Neighbor no longer inveighs against neighbor through fear of the evil eye.”

Arkansas didn’t much agree with Justice Smith. Jehovah’s Witnesses were mistreated, often violently, for their refusal to honor the flag. The Arkansas Selective Service called Witnesses “lower down than a snake” and ordered them drafted in spite of their conscientious-objector claims. A mob broke up a Witness gathering on Little Rock’s Asher Avenue and cheered when several Witnesses were shot and others were beaten with pipes. Police arrested the remaining Witnesses for disturbing the peace. School kids who refused to recite the pledge of allegiance were expelled. Kathleen Cannon met worse at Cane Hill. The principal beat her with a rubber hose and threw her down the school steps. The Cane Hill School Board praised the principal.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1940 had condoned punishing the Witnesses for disrespecting the flag, reversed itself in 1943 when things in Arkansas and elsewhere got out of hand.

You needn’t worry too much about Trump. Virtually the entire National Football League, including his biggest supporters, repudiated him.


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