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The World’s Most Disgusting Foods

photo of ice cream with mealy worms

In Florida and other Deep South states, you can eat alligator tail (which tastes like chicken), and in Arizona some restaurants have rattlesnake on the menu.  I’ve heard of people eating chocolate-covered ants and, after a bit of internet research, was surprised to discover www.edibleinsects.com, where you can purchase ant wafers (“Four Wafers of White Chocolate swirled with real ants and milk chocolate packaged in a window box”), chocolate-covered scorpions, roasted crickets, barbeque mealworms, giant water bugs, and other insects in a variety of flavors:  coffee, basil, lemon, sour cream & onion, jalapeno cheddar, bacon chipotle, dragon fruit, honey mustard, mango habanero, and Italian lasagna.  Judging by the variety, I concluded that insect cuisine is a far larger industry than I realized.  Indeed, according to most estimates, more than 2 billion people in the world routinely eat insects.

The practice of eating insects is called entomophagy.  To some extent, we are all entomophagists.  The FDA allows a certain amount of insect fragments in many of the packaged and canned foods you eat.  You may also have eaten rat fragments and feces (it’s hard to keep rats out of the corn), and if you use packaged flour in your kitchen, you are likely at some point to have consumed tiny flour weevils.  If a female weevil finds its way into your bag of flour at the mill, she will lay thousands of eggs.  Left undisturbed, those baby weevils will eat some of the flour, and you may later discover, when opening an old bag of flour, some black specks among the white flour.  Those are tiny weevils, and if you aren’t squeamish, you can bake them in your loaf of bread.  Eating them won’t kill you, and you might be able pass off those tiny black specks as pepper.

The people who promote entomophagy say it is good for the planet.  Insects are a great source of protein, and they don’t produce the greenhouse gases of your typical cow.  Insects are easy to farm and harvest, and if you can get over what you’re crunching on, insects can be a healthy source of nutrients, particularly protein.  Anthropologists say that our distant, cave-dwelling ancestors ate insects routinely.  It was an important part of their diet.  Some people argue that as Earth’s population grows, most people will once again consume insects regularly.  Other food sources may become scarce or too expensive.  Maybe so, but I am still queasy at the thought of biting into a chocolate-covered scorpion or serving ant wafers when I have friends over for dinner.

Crispy Critters and Rotten Eggs

photo of a tarantula on a stick
Deep-fried tarantula

However, chocolate scorpions may be the least disgusting of the disgusting foods some people eat.  If you are in Cambodia, you may be approached by a street vendor selling fried tarantulas on a stick.  They deep-fry the complete giant spider—hair, legs, guts, and fangs.  If you are fortunate, you may be able to pick out your tarantula from a cage of the beasts and watch as it is dusted, legs wriggling, with flour and spices and then fried with garlic and hot sauce.  I haven’t tried this Asian delicacy, but I’m told it is crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside, with a flavor, some say, like crab and others say like crickets or (what else?) chicken.

In Japan, a common delicacy in the winter is shirako, which translates to “white children.”  Don’t panic.

photos of shirako on the half schell
Shirako on the half shell with cheese

No children were harmed in the writing of this article.  Shirako is a dish made from the sperm sacs of male cod.  On the plate, shirako looks like puffy, soft white rice or little white globs of goo.  Its texture and taste are apparently acquired.  Some Japanese don’t care for it, but when it’s in season, you can order it in finer restaurants throughout Japan.  I couldn’t bring myself to order it, although I will confess to eating and enjoying caviar, which are the eggs from female fish.  Is it sexist that I would eat caviar but not shirako?

photo of Chinese century eggs
Chinese century eggs (shown without the stench)

If you are squeamish about eating caviar, then you should definitely avoid Chinese century eggs.  They are not actually a hundred years old, but these fermented chicken, duck, or quail eggs are buried for several months in clay, quicklime, or ash and salt, after which time they are supremely rotten.  The yolk turns dark green and floats in a brown, gelatinous muck that smells like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.  Sound appetizing?  Before eating it, you have to get it past your nose without gagging.

 

 

 

photo of Gaeng Kai Mot Daeng, or ant egg soup
Gaeng Kai Mot Daeng, a favorite in Laos and Thailand

In Laos and Thailand, you can order Gaeng Kai Mot Daeng, or ant egg soup.  This summer dish consists of phak wan pa (a local vegetable), ant eggs (sometimes supplemented with ant embryos and baby ants), pickled fish, hairy basil leaves, fish sauce, and shredded kaffir lime leaves.  The soup may be served with curry paste and star gooseberries.  This dish originated during a season when other foods were scarce, but it’s become favorite year round.  The ants may be either the white or red variety.

 

 

Fungal Disease and Gifts from the Sea and the Bible

Photo of corn smut disease
Huitlacoche or Corn Smut Disease

Huitlacoche is a culinary specialty in Mexico and parts of the United States.  It is actually a corn disease caused by the fungus ustilago maydis, which turns corn kernels tumorous and black, sometimes swelling them to as much as ten or eleven inches.  Also called common corn smut, huitlacoche has an earthy, smoky taste and is often mixed with other foods, like macaroni and cheese.  They even make a huitlacoche ice cream.  Mushrooms are also a fungus, so huitlacoche is in a league with eating mushrooms if you can stomach putting a corn disease in your mouth.

 

 

photo of muktuk, the skin and blubber of whales
Muktuk, the skin and blubber of whales

For Inuits in Greenland, a traditional meal is muktuk, which is the frozen skin and blubber of whales.  The skin tastes like hazelnuts and the blubber like licorice.  The fatty parts are sticky and can adhere to your teeth (pack a toothbrush for a trip to Greenland).  Icelanders prefer hakarl, which is fermented shark.  The shark is beheaded and gutted and then placed in a shallow hole and covered with sand and stones.  It is dug up two or three months later, cut into strips, and dried.  The result is probably nutritious, but it stinks to high heaven.  You might need to hold your nose while biting into this Icelandic treat.

 

 

Fried locusts and wormsWorried about a plague of locusts?  In Israel and other places, diners can feast on deep-fried or chocolate-covered locusts.  Jerusalem chef Moshe Basson boils locusts in vegetable stock with a touch of turmeric.   When they are cool and dry, he twists off the heads, removing the viscera, and pulls off the wings and legs.  Then he rolls the carcasses in a beaten egg and coats them with seasoned flour before deep frying them until they are golden brown.  Ummm good.  Next time you are hankering for fried locust, though, be sure the little critters were not killed with insecticide, which is frequently the case.  Fried locusts are better when they are free of toxins.  Now you know what to do if you ever experience a Biblical plague of locusts:  eat them.

Days of Wine and Roasted Rodents

photo of Vietnamese snake wine
Vietnanese rice wine with venomous snake in the bottle

If you are in China eating century eggs and need something to wash it down with you might ask for baby mice vodka.  They don’t make the vodka from baby mice.  They just add a dozen baby mice to the bottle and let it sit for months until the flavor of the dead mice becomes infused in the alcohol.  If that’s not to your liking, you can travel to Vietnam, where they serve snake wine.  A dead poisonous snake is placed in a bottle of rice wine and stored for months until the venom dissolves in and is neutralized by the ethanol.  The Vietnamese believe that snakes have medicinal value, so snake wine, which is pinkish because of the snake’s blood, may cure what ails you—or it may permanently discourage you from drinking rice wine.

 

photo of grubs on a plate
Juicy, fat grubs on a plate with garnish

People in Laos are known to eat roasted rats.  Peruvians favor grilled guinea pigs (you know, those cute, furry rodents sold in pet shops).  In Indonesia, you can buy chargrilled bats, and in South America and Southeastern Asia, a favorite snack is grubs.  On a trip to Ecuador, my wife and I watched an eight-year-old Indigenous girl pluck a fat grub off a canoe and plop it in her mouth.  Served raw like that, grubs have a creamy taste, but they are also roasted on a spit for special occasions and then taste like bacon.

 

 

photo of cooked mopane worms
Amacimbi or Madora, a treat of Mopane worms in Southern Africa

In Southern Africa, a good source of nutrients is the Mopane worm, which is not a worm at all but actually the caterpillar form of the Emperor Moth.  Called Amacimbi or Madora, this popular dish originated in Zimbabwe.  The worms are boiled for several hours and then cooked with tomatoes and onions and a pinch of maggi.  Chefs sometimes add a teaspoon or two of peanut butter or cream and serve the dish with sadza, a form of maize, which is a staple in Zimbabwe.

 

 

 

Counting Sheep and Two Truly Nasty Treats

photo of haggis, the national dish of Scotland
Haggis, the national dish of Scotland

One of the favorite foods in Scotland is haggis, and my Scottish friends may fault me for including the national dish of Scotland in this article on disgusting foods.  Sorry.  You create haggis by making a sausage of a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs.  Add onions, oatmeal, suet, and seasonings and cook the concoction in a sheep’s stomach.  This crumbly sausage is eaten with mashed potatoes or turnips, accompanied, of course, by glasses of Scotch.  Or, in my case, a bottle of Scotch delivered intravenously.

 

 

photo of a sheep's head
Smalahove, a treat in western Norway around Christmastime

If you find yourself in western Norway before Christmas, you may be tempted to try smalahove or sheep’s head.  The chef beheads a sheep and removes its brain.  Then he burns off the fleece and skin and salts the head, which may be cooked raw or smoked and dried first.  The head is typically roasted over an open fire, but it may also be soaked in brine and boiled.  Smalahove is typically seasoned with white pepper and nutmeg and served with mashed rutabaga and potatoes, along with a strong beer or Akvavit, a Scandanavian spirit.

 

 

photo of casu marzu, a Sardinian cheese
Casu marzu, a Sardinian dish of rotting cheese and maggots

Several notches higher on the gross-out scale is a Sardinian delicacy called casu marzu, which translates to “rotten cheese” and is sometimes also called “maggot cheese.”  Cheese fly eggs are added to rotting Pecorino cheese.  When the larvae hatch, they burrow into the cheese and digest the fats, which produces a creamy texture.  Casu marzu must be consumed while the maggots are still alive.  If they are dead, the cheese could become toxic.  Diners not only risk food poisoning, they may also suffer from an intestinal larvae infection.  Because of the health hazards, casu marzu has been banned commercially, but you can find it on the black market.

 

 

photo of balut
Balut, a popular treat in the Philippines

The pinnacle of grossness is a treat sold in the Philippines called balut.  A fertilized duck egg that is just about to hatch is boiled alive.  The diner taps a hole in the shell and slurps the liquid oozing out before crunching down on the fetus—beak, feathers, bones, claws, and guts.  Some people eat balut with salt and pepper, coriander, and lemon juice; others prefer chili pepper and vinegar.  A warm beer completes the meal.  Street vendors selling balut are as prevalent in Manila as hot dog vendors are on the streets of New York and other American cities.  If you are ever tempted to eat a balut, consider yourself a grand prize winner of the “People who will eat absolutely anything” contest.

Read No Further—if You are Squeamish

photo of Sannakji, live octopus
Sannakji, live octopus ready to be served

I said that balut is the pinnacle of grossness, but that may not be true.  Eating something that is still alive as you put it in your mouth is arguably worse.  Take, for example, a Korean treat called Sannakji.  This dish consists of live octopus.  The chef slices off pieces of the tentacle, which are placed, still wriggling, on the diner’s plate.  You pick up a slice of tentacle with your chopsticks and plop it in your mouth.  You must be careful because the suckers will attach themselves to your lips, teeth, and tongue.  Koreans call eating sannakji “dancing with your food” because it continues to wriggle as you chew.

Many of us are used to eating sushi and sashimi, both of which are made with raw fish or eels.  But in some parts of China, they take sashimi one step further—the fish is still alive.  As diners cut off pieces of the fish and eat it raw, the fish’s mouth is still moving and it may still be trying to wriggle its tailfin.  For most of us, however, eating a live fish pales beside the thought of eating monkey brains from a live monkey.  In China and other parts of Southeast Asia, some restaurants strap down a live monkey, cut its skull open around the crown, and serve monkey brain while the creature is still alive.  Apparently, monkey brain turns bitter once the monkey dies, so the brain must be consumed in those brief moments between its life and death.  For obvious reasons, I haven’t included a photo of this dish, which many people would consider grotesque.

What people eat around the world depends considerably on what they’re used to, what foods are plentiful or scarce, and how creative (desperate) they have had to be throughout their history.  Imagine if we had an instrument called the “grossometer.”  On one end of the scale would be “No problem—I’ll eat that and love it” and the opposite end would read “No way in hell, even if I’m starving.”  No doubt, our individual grossometers would read differently.  As you read the descriptions of the disgusting foods in this article, where do they land on your grossometer scale?  Furthermore, have I left out any foods you have found disgusting?

Bon appetit!

 

Photo credits:  ice cream with mealy worms (Photo 156626051 © Sarah2 | Dreamstime.com); fried tarantula (Photo 74536142 © Jeoffrey Erwin Puzon | Dreamstime.com; shirako (Photo 103534724 © Nuvisage | Dreamstime.com); Chinese century egg (Photo 21436263 © Ppy2010ha | Dreamstime.com); ant egg soup (Photo 143884221 © Amnarj2006 | Dreamstime.com); Huitlacoche (Photo 188565605 © Arturoosorno | Dreamstime.com); muktuk (Photo 195294722 © Juno Kim | Dreamstime.com); fried locusts (Photo 54924801 © Jedynakanna | Dreamstime.com); Vietnamese snake wine (Photo 163892910 © Tloventures | Dreamstime.com); grubs (Photo 140620082 © Gunung Kawi | Dreamstime.com); Mopane worms (Photo 137097328 © Hecke01 | Dreamstime.com); Haggis (Photo 11932629 © Paul Cowan | Dreamstime.com); smalahove (Photo 108078261 © Duncan Noakes | Dreamstime.com); casu marzu (Photo 162705239 © Antoniomaria Iaria | Dreamstime.com); balut (Photo 171123336 © Jurajlongauer| Dreamstime.com); octopus (Photo 183685745 © Passionphotography2018 | Dreamstime.com)

 

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Let’s Make Things Better for Children

Portrait of a sad girl

April 2021 was National Child Abuse Prevention Month.  With everything else going on in our world, that may have escaped your notice.  It did mine until I read Dr. Richard Grossman’s article called “Let’s Make Things Better for Children.”  Dick Grossman is a physician and a compassionate commentator on social issues.  With his permission, I am reprinting his article here.  Following it is an introduction to 4 The Children, a nonprofit that focuses exclusively on children’s rights.  According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, in 2020, 38,883 children in Colorado were victims of abuse or neglect.  In the nation as a whole, 491,710 children were neglected, 115,100 were physically abused, 60,927 were sexually abused, and 39,824 were psychologically maltreated.  Every day, five children die from child abuse.

Victims of child abuse suffer long after the abuse ends and some of those abused become abusers themselves later in life.  Child abuse is a morally repugnant social disorder, and it deserves not only our attention but our concerted efforts to curtail abuse and protect the rights and safety of the children who are at risk.  The solution is not just to identify and punish the abusers but to advocate for better parenting, as Dick Grossman argues in his article below:

Having Kids illustration

Let’s make things better for children!

We do so much for our progeny. We have three granddaughters and have contributed to their college funds for years. It is difficult to believe that the oldest will be using some of that fund starting in the fall!

It is sad to think that these fine young ladies are inheriting a world that is in worse shape than when we were kids. I continually think of today’s young people; that is my primary motivation for working in the fields of population and the environment.  Having Kids is an excellent, if idealistic, plan to improve the lives of children, present and future. Please go to Having Kids for more information.

“…to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society.”                   John Stuart Mill, 1859

I took care of an infant with bad burns when I was in general practice. He was not seriously hurt, but I would have missed the backstory if I hadn’t made house calls.  My three years as a GP were in a small town where I got to know people much better than if I only worked in the clinic. It has been almost half a century ago, so some parts of this story are hazy. The little room where the teen mother and her baby lived still seem clear, however.  I was there for a visit to change the bandages and to check on the burns.  The 8-month-old baby was fussy from the pain he felt as I removed the bandages, examined, and then redressed the wounds.   Since this was not our first visit together, I was hoping to get some insight how this little boy had scalds on his feet and legs.

“I didn’t want him, anyway,” the young mother answered. “He was fussy so I put him in the tub to calm him down by giving him a bath. He was still crying and standing, holding on to the knobs. I turned on the “hot”—I guess to punish him.”

Probably having children is the one thing that has the greatest impact on us as individuals and on society. Yet it seems that many people don’t give parenting as much thought as buying a car.  Unfortunately, many children in this country are conceived by accident, as was the case with the young mother with the scalded child. Almost half of pregnancies are unintended.  Studies by Dr. Henry David have shown that children suffer if they were unwanted and their unfortunate mothers had to raise them.

There is an alternative. The purpose of the organization Having Kids is to increase the intentionality of childbearing and to change reproductive norms. It also hopes to make society more supportive of children and of parenting.

They call what we have now the “isolation model”.  In this model: “… potential parents are seen as individual entities apart from their prospective children and the communities in which they live, whereby the rights of prospective children are not recognized and the voices of communities are not heard.” In our model parents decide how many children to have with little regard to the interests of the child(ren) or of society. Furthermore, it is assumed that women will all become mothers.  The “isolation model” doesn’t take into account environmental deterioration, mass extinction of species, climate chaos or the other litany of problems global society faces. Nor does USA society deal well with the needs of early childhood development.

Having Kids presents a new, child-centered model. Their goals include having parents consider the state of the environment when making decisions about childbearing. They want all children to have a fair start in life, with a minimum level of food, love, attention, healthcare, etc. They believe that children should be brought up without violence and kids should have some control over their lives, thus forming the basis for a just and democratic society.

A key part of Having Kids is to advocate for small families. They point out the many advantages of single child families, including a smarter, more productive child, less frantic parents and more resources to raise the kid.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2021.  Reprinted with permission.

Photo of an abused girl
The emotional toll of child abuse is lifelong. It’s difficult to overcome the despair felt when those who should love you are causing you pain.

4 The Children

Among the organizations in our community that provide support for abused and neglected children in need is 4 The Children.  This local non-profit strives to protect childhood today for stronger families tomorrow.  4 The Children does this through two different programs:  the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program and the Supervised Exchange and Parenting Time (SEPT) program. 4 The Children is in the very early stages of developing a Child Advocacy Center, as well.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is a national program that advocates for the best interests of abused and neglected children. A Court Appointed Special Advocate (or CASA) is a volunteer assigned to a case within the Dependency and Neglect (D&N) System to ensure the best interest of the child(ren).  They are highly trained volunteers. The CASA will gather information and submit objective reports to the court and all parties involved. The information gathered and presented by the CASA will help the judge to make decisions about what is in the best interest of the child(ren) involved. CASAs are trained to be a collaborative member of the professional team.

The staff and volunteers advocate for safe and permanent homes and work to ensure that children are receiving all advocacy necessary. The CASA serves as the “eyes and ears of the court” and will stay involved until the child or children are in a safe, permanent home. Additionally, the volunteers are the child(ren)’s voice within the court system and walk beside them throughout the whole court process and beyond. The CASA program’s strength is the highly trained and dedicated citizen-volunteers who advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children. The CASA program serves La Plata, Archuleta, San Juan, Montezuma, and Dolores counties.

The SEPT program offers a safe and nurturing environment for a relationship to be established after family trauma has occurred. We see that most of the families are able to mend and/or build relationships between non-custodial parents and their children. These parents are working hard to establish a long term custody arrangement that meets the needs of their children. The SEPT program serves La Plata, Archuleta, and San Juan counties.

Photo of a boy covering his face
Children in abusive homes suffer not only neglect and possibly physical abuse but also shame, sadness, depression, fear, and hopelessness

As an organization, 4 The Children serves a wide range of demographics from age, gender, race/ethnicity, income level, and geographical location. Additionally, 4 The Children serves children and families who experience or have experienced, domestic violence, high conflict divorce and custody battles, substance abuse, mental health, child abuse, neglect, and many other difficulties.  4 The Children is working to serve children who have experienced sexual abuse as well as other criminal actions through the Child Advocacy Center.

In 2019, Colorado had 115,180 referrals to the child abuse hotline; however, in 2020, the number dropped to 98,169 referrals. There could be a number of reasons for this decrease, but a large contributing factor is the current pandemic. During 2020, the number of calls made to the child abuse hotline dropped significantly as mandated reporters were not seeing children or families in person. The Stay-at-Home order forced all to stay at home in order to keep us safe from the virus; however, there are many children as well women and men in abusive homes, one that they don’t have a chance of escaping.

Children need a safe place to live. Parents need more support and resources.

I am indebted to Bryn Joyner for this information on 4 The Children.   She serves as the program director for the CASA program. In this role, she provides oversight of the CASA program, including recruitment, training, and supervision of volunteers to ensure that every child they serve receives the best advocacy possible. Bryn also promotes 4 The Children and the CASA program to grantors, funders, and the community. She also writes grants for the organization.  Before directing the CASA program, she worked with the SEPT program as a visit supervisor.  She says that 4 The Children is working to give the children in our community a voice and the advocacy they need for a safer and brighter tomorrow. 

Photo of a girl writing "help" on paper

What You Can Do

First, you can become more knowledgeable about the problem.  The Children’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is an excellent source.  In Colorado, another good source is the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline.  I previously cited the 4 The Children organization, as well as Having Kids.  You can learn more about child abuse and neglect in the Four Corners region, including an interview of Bryn Joyner, at this website.  Finally, the NY Times published an article about how child abuse may increase during the Coronavirus epidemic.

Second, if you are aware of a child who is being abused or appears to be suffering from neglect, call the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline (844-CO-4-Kids) or dial 911.  Your vigilance and willingness to report possible abuse may be all that prevents a greater human tragedy.

 

Photo credits:  Young girl in blue shirt:  Photo 106838366 © Elena Nichizhenova | Dreamstime.com; boy covering his face:  Photo 60179137 © Eakachai Leesin | Dreamstime.com; sad, bullied girl:  Photo 141688797 © Sam Wordley | Dreamstime.com; child writing “Help”:  Photo 76914566 © Deborah Lee Rossiter | Dreamstime.com.

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A Letter to the West Point Class of 2020

I am a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Class of 1969.  A group of my fellow graduates published the following letter on June 11, 2020.  It is intended for the 2020 graduating class at West Point, but the sentiments expressed are relevant to all Americans, particularly those who have been shocked and ashamed at the behavior of our president and his loyal supporters in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the threatened and actual use of the American military against peaceful protesters in the weeks following Floyd’s death.

West Point cadets marching
West Point graduates swear an oath to defend the Constitution

When we graduated from West Point and were commissioned in the United States Army or one of its fellow services, we took an oath to defend the nation and the Constitution.  The vast majority of our fellow graduates adhere to that oath, even after we have left the service and after a number of us have retired.  But Michael Flynn and Mike Pompeo are disgraceful examples of West Point graduates who have violated that oath and given their loyalty to a president who lacks common decency, lies habitually, and views himself as a dictator who can use the American Army against American citizens.  I join my fellow graduates who wrote the letter below in condemning those who prize loyalty over fidelity to the Constitution and in praying that these new graduates will remain faithful to the oath they are taking.

Fortunately, some senior past and present military leaders are finally expressing their outrage and concern over Donald Trump’s behavior and his abject failure of moral and ethical leadership. Four-Star Generals Colin Powell, James Mattis, John Kelly, Richard Myers, Martin Dempsey, and John Allen, along with Admirals Mike Mullen, William McRaven, and James Stavridis, among others, have recently spoken out against Trump.  Mattis called him a threat to the Constitution.  The latest military leader to speak up is the currently serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.

General Mark Milley said today that he regrets joining Trump in his walk to St. John’s Church, where Trump cynically held up a Bible in an appeal to his base, and in which hundreds of peaceful protesters were routed with teargas and rubble bullets so Trump and his entourage could walk to the church.  General Milley said, “As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched.  And I am not immune.  As many of you saw, the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week.  That sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society.  I should not have been there.  My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.  As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”

National Guard troops at a protest
Using our military against American civilians is contrary to the oath West Pointers have sworn to uphold

I encourage you to read the letter below.  It embodies the true spirit of service to the nation and fidelity to the United States Constitution.  This is real patriotism, not the loud,  flag waving, MAGA-hat wearing charade on display at Trump rallies.  We should all be grateful that senior military leaders, as well as graduates of the United States Military Academy, are finding the courage to speak out.  This is a moment in our history when speaking out is essential.

 

A Letter to the West Point Class of 2020, from fellow members of the Long Gray Line

 

You are beginning your careers at a tumultuous time. More than 110,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, more than 40 million are unemployed, and our nation is hurting from racial, social and human injustice. Desperation, fear, anxiety, anger, and helplessness are the daily existence for too many Americans. These are difficult times, but we are confident you will rise to the challenge and do your part as leaders in our Army.

Like the classes before you, the Class of 2020 comes with varied life experiences from across America and beyond. You represent the country’s diversity of race, ethnicity, identity and beliefs. Your West Point journey has led you to this moment when, with right hands raised, you take an oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This oath has no expiration date. The burden of responsibility and accountability will both weigh on and inspire you for your entire life. Oaths are solemn, public promises with significant meaning and moral gravity. When they are broken, the nation suffers.

The oath taken by those who choose to serve in America’s military is aspirational. We pledge service to no monarch; no government; no political party; no tyrant. Your oath is to a set of principles and an ideal expressed in the Constitution and its amendments. Our Constitution establishes freedom of the press, of assembly, of religion, of equal protection under the law regardless of race, color, or creed — we cannot take for granted these freedoms that are but dreams in too many nations around the world.

By accepting your commission, you incur a moral purpose and obligation to provide for the common defense. In doing so you enable the nation to fulfill the full range of its aspirations. Today, our Constitutional aspirations remain unfulfilled.

The abhorrent murder of George Floyd has inspired millions to protest police brutality and the persistence of racism. Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests. Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events. The principle of civilian control is central to the military profession. But that principle does not imply blind obedience. Politicization of the Armed Forces puts at risk the bond of trust between the American military and American society. Should this trust be ruptured, the damage to the nation would be incalculable. America needs your leadership.

Postage stamp depicting West Point
This 1937 U.S. postage stamp bears the motto of the U.S. Military Academy: Duty, Honor, Country

Your commitment to your oath will be tested throughout your career. Your loyalty will be questioned, and some will attempt to use it against you. Loyalty is the most abused attribute of leadership. Weak or self-serving leaders will emphasize loyalty over duty under the guise of “good order and discipline.” Unfortunately, some will make a Faustian bargain and endeavor to please their commanders and advance their own careers rather than take care of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in combat — which is not just a problem, it is a disgrace. America needs your leadership.

We, a diverse group of West Point graduates, are concerned. We are concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to Duty, Honor, Country. Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military. We ask you to join us in working to right the wrongs and to hold each other accountable to the ideals instilled by our alma mater and affirmed by each of us at graduation.

Your West Point education is both a profound gift and a sacred obligation. Our Nation has invested in you and entrusts you with demonstrating the values we expect of our leaders. They rightfully expect some return on that investment. You have the support of the entire nation as well as the heartfelt bonds of our alma mater.

It is imperative that West Point graduates work daily to serve as “leaders of character.” When leaders betray public faith through deceitful rhetoric, quibbling, or the appearance of unethical behavior, it erodes public trust. When fellow graduates acquiesce to bullying, and fail to defend honorable subordinates, it harms the nation and the Long Gray Line. When fellow graduates fail to respect the checks and balances of government, promote individual power above country, or prize loyalty to individuals over the ideals expressed in the Constitution, it is a travesty to their oath of office.

On the eve of your graduation and joining the Long Gray Line and the Army officer corps, we, the undersigned, are resolute in our efforts to hold ourselves accountable to the principles of Duty, Honor, Country in selfless service to the Nation. We will not tolerate those who “lie, cheat or steal.” We pledge to stand for the sacred democratic principle that all are treated equally, and each person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is not about party; it is about principle. Our lifetime commitment is to the enduring responsibility expressed in the Cadet Prayer: “to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”

Members of the Class of 2020, welcome to the Long Gray Line. We believe in you. We support you. As your lifetime journey of service begins, we pray that your class motto, “With Vision We Lead,” will prove prophetic. America needs your leadership.

Grip Hands,

Concerned Members of the Long Gray Line, a coalition of several hundred West Point alumni from six decades of graduating classes who collectively served across ten presidential administrations.

 

Photo credits:  Cadets in formation at West Point:  Joseph Sohm, Shutterstock; Soldiers at a peaceful protest in California:  Black Pebble, Shutterstock; U.S. postage stamp depicting the United States Military Academy:  neftali, Shuttestock; photo of the United States Military Academy:  ID 16015534 © Nancy Kennedy | Dreamstime.com

 

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On the Inevitability of Social Liberalism

Conservative Commentator Rush Limbaugh
Conservative Commentator Rush Limbaugh

The progress toward social liberalism may have been impeded since Trump took office, but it is inevitable, despite those who oppose it.  Had Rush Limbaugh had been on the radio in 1918, we can imagine him loudly denouncing the women’s suffrage movement.  “Women should not be allowed to vote,” he might have argued, “because their role is in the home.  The fairer sex is concerned with children and local issues.  They don’t understand the loftier matters of state, government, war, or politics, nor should we ask them to.”  He would have been joined in his opposition by Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, Laura Ingraham, and other firebrand conservatives who would use their media platforms to impede social progress.

Denying women the right to vote would be incomprehensible in 21st century America, but until 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, women’s suffrage was a hot social issue in this country, and many conservatives—some waving their Bibles and quoting scripture—vehemently opposed giving women the right to vote.  Prior to 1920, the opposition to women’s suffrage was as strident and vocal as Donald Trump ranting about immigrants at one of his rallies.  The Anti’s, as opponents of women’s suffrage were known, offered these kinds of arguments:

  • Only a minority of women want the vote. The majority are happy not having it.
  • Doubling the number of voters would lead to more corrupt voting practices.
  • Women have been making advances without having the vote; therefore, they don’t need it.
  • Women should focus on what suits them: education, reform, and charity.
  • Women already have important roles in society. Giving them the vote would force them to sacrifice their higher interests, namely the family.
  • Because women are excused from public service requiring the use of force (e.g., police, military), they would be irresponsible voters.

Despite these lame arguments, the Nineteenth Amendment passed.  Women have now had the vote in this country for nearly a century, yet as recently as 2015 conservative extremist Ann Coulter said on the radio program “Free Speech” with fellow conservative Gavin McInnes that women should not have the right to vote.  Coulter argues that if women were not able to vote, “We’d never have to worry about another Democrat president.”  In Coulter’s opinion, women, especially single women, “are voting stupidly.”  In taking away their right to vote, these women “would finally be silenced.”

American society, like all societies, will always have people who oppose social change.  It upsets the status quo.  It challenges conservatives’ value system and threatens their identity.  It enables debate that may threaten the legitimacy of their ideology.  It frightens them because they don’t want to lose or share the privileges or special status they and their kind have enjoyed.  Allowing any social change may open the door to even more social changes, and they worry that the world they are comfortable with will end.  In the worst of cases, they are not just concerned with protecting their own social status, they actively seek to deny others the opportunity to enjoy equal status.

Some opponents of social change find moral justification for their opposition in the Bible, the Koran, or another religious text.  They invoke God because no one can envision a higher authority.  If the Creator of the Universe opposes women’s suffrage, or racial equality, or gay marriage, their reasoning goes, then who are we to challenge God’s will?  These arguments are spurious and illogical on numerous grounds, but when you have no better arguments to make, invoking the name of God may be if not your best option then your option of last choice.

Turn-of-the-Century Nurses as Suffragettes
Women fighting for suffrage

Social changes do not come easily.  Many people advocated women’s suffrage well before the mid-nineteenth century, but the movement’s formal origin can be traced to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.  However, the movement did not achieve its objective until 1920—seventy-two years later.  The struggle for racial equality has lasted even longer, and many would argue that it still has not been achieved.  Unquestionably, racial prejudice remains to a greater or lesser degree in some American’s hearts and minds, but even in the relatively short span of my lifetime, I have seen considerable change in how African Americans are perceived in this country and treated by those in mainstream society.  The full extent of Martin Luther King’s dream may not yet have been achieved, but considerable progress has been made since the 1960s, and today it would be as unthinkable to return to segregation and Jim Crow laws as it would be to return to slavery.

The women’s suffrage movement and the struggle for racial equality illustrate my principal thesis:   that social liberalism is inevitable, although not without struggle, sacrifice, and fierce, highly opinionated resistance.  Social change does not come easily—but it comes.  Social conservatives initially resist change—and some will furiously, even violently resist it—but social progress is inevitable.  Like the arrow of time, it only has forward direction if we view progress from the scale of decades and centuries rather than years.  Reversals will occur, as they are occurring now under the Trump administration, and societies may backslide now and then, but as a macro view of human history shows, in the long run the arrow of social progress does not reverse.  Rights and freedoms gained can be taken away—but when that happens, as it did in Cambodia under Pol Pot, the setback lasts for a relatively brief period in the longer scale of human history before rights and freedoms are restored and social progress continues.  The pace of progress varies by culture, and one might argue that progress will never occur in North Korea and other repressive countries, but I would counter that we have to view progress on a macro scale.  Social progress will come to North Korea and Syria and countries like them but not perhaps in our lifetimes.

LGBT Rights and Gay Marriage

In Trump’s America, the battle lines between social conservatism and social liberalism are currently drawn around LGBT rights and gay marriage.  Our society is somewhere in mid-struggle with these issues but progress continues.  The acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships has been steadily increasing in the past 25 years.  In 1991, for instance, more than two-thirds of Americans said that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex was always wrong.  By 2008, just over one-half of Americans had the same opinion.  In a 2013 PEW survey, 60 percent of Americans believed that homosexuality should be accepted, and that number has since risen to 63 percent.  Attitudes about homosexuality began changing around 1970 and acceptance has trended upward since.

Attitudes about LGBT vary considerably from culture to culture.  Acceptance is greater in more affluent and less religious societies.  Acceptance also varies by generation.  Millennials are more accepting of homosexuality than baby boomers, and the generation following millennials is likely to be even more tolerant.  Younger people are more exposed to diversity, particularly in school and through social media, television, and films, where favorable depictions of gays are now more commonplace.  Despite Trump’s on-again, off-again support for LGBT people serving in the military and the reactionary attitudes of his followers, acceptance of homosexuality has become more mainstream.  It’s difficult to envision social forces that could reverse that trend.

Two women holding LGBT rainbow flags
The LGBT struggle for equal rights continues

Likewise, attitudes toward gay marriage have evolved considerably since 2001 when 57 percent of Americans opposed it.  By 2017, only 32 percent opposed it while 62 percent were supportive.  Support for gay marriage is highest among people unaffiliated with a religion and slightly less so by white Protestants and Catholics.  It is lowest among white evangelical Protestants.  As expected, more than seventy percent of Democrats and independents favor gay marriage, while only forty percent of Republicans are supportive (although that number continues to rise).

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that gay marriage was legal in all fifty states.  When that ruling was made, thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia had already legalized gay marriage, but the issue remained contentious, and several Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential election—Ted Cruz of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin—favored a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.  It is conceivable that an upswell of conservatism could result in a reversal of this Supreme Court ruling now that we have a more conservative court, but public support for gay marriage is strongest among younger generations, and all those young voters are likely to continue supporting this socially progressive development.  Despite conservative religious opposition, this social advance seems likely to have passed the point of no return, and if a more conservative Supreme Court reverses the 2015 ruling, the rising tide of support for gay marriage will eventually restore this right.

Interracial Marriage

Less contentious today is the idea of interracial marriage, but half a century ago it was not only frowned upon but illegal in some states.  In the mid-sixties, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, who was part black and part Native American, were sentenced to one year in prison for marrying.  Their marriage violated the State of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statutes and the Racial Purity Act of 1924, which forbade marriage between whites and people of color.  In a landmark ruling that year, the Supreme Court declared that raced-based restrictions on marriage were unconstitutional.

Interracial married couple Mildred and Richard Loving
Mildred and Richard Loving

In 1967, only three percent of married couples consisted of spouses from different races.  By 2015, that number had jumped to seventeen percent.  In 2017, 29 percent of Asian newlyweds (born outside the U.S.) and 27 percent of Latino newlyweds (born outside the U.S.) were married to spouses of another race.  For Asians and Latinos who were born in the U.S., the rates of interracial marriage were even higher:  46 percent of Asians and 39 percent of Hispanics.  Today, eighteen percent of black newlyweds and eleven percent of white newlyweds are marrying spouses from other races.

In a PEW Research study of attitudes toward interracial couples, non-black respondents were asked if they would oppose having a close relative marry someone who is black.  In 1990, 63 percent said they would oppose it; in 2016, that number had shrunk to 14 percent—a remarkable attitudinal shift in just twenty-six years.  We can see evidence for this shift on television, where a number of current ads depict interracial couples.  What was once taboo is becoming more commonplace.  Even the majority of Republicans today say interracial marriage does not matter.  By 2014, there were more than five million interracial married couples in the United States, a number that will continue to rise, as will the number of children with biracial heritage.  At some point in the future, our country will have more people with mixed-race heritage than people born from parents of the same race.

Women in the Workplace and the Military

We have to take a longer view to appreciate the strides women have made in the workplace and the military.  In the 19th century, women had few workplace choices and were largely confined to the homestead raising children.  The Civil War gave many the opportunity to work as nurses, just as the Crimean War had given that opportunity to British women.  During this era, women who worked outside the home were primarily teachers, dressmakers, and domestic servants.  In the twentieth century more opportunities opened up, but it wasn’t until World War II that the dam really burst.  With so many men off to war, women filled many jobs previously open only to men, including jobs in industry.  My mother and her older sister worked in an airplane plant in California during the war, part of the Rosie the Riveter generation.  The situation regressed a bit in the “Father Knows Best” era in the 1950s when men, returning from war, took back their old jobs and women were expected to tie their aprons back on and keep house and raise children.

Young American woman in full military combat uniform
Women are now able to serve in front-line combat roles

Today, while women still earn less for doing the same jobs as men, the gap is slowing narrowing, and women make up an increasing percentage of the workforce.  In 2013, more women entering the workforce had at least a four-year college degree than men, and the gap between men and women is still growing.  Forbes reported in 2008 that more than 11 million women were enrolled in college, compared to just over 8 million men.  A PEW Research study found that in 2012, 71 percent of recent female high school graduates had enrolled in college, compared to just 61 percent of men.  Today, women make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce, and about forty percent of them are in management, leadership, or professional roles.  With more women earning college degrees than  men, they will eventually surpass the number of men in jobs requiring  a higher education.

American women have always served in the military, a few in combat roles disguised as men in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.  But women were prohibited from officially serving in combat roles until 1994, although they made up nearly 14 percent of service members in all branches.  Even after 1994, women’s roles in combat were restricted.  However, in 2015, the Pentagon announced that women would now be allowed to serve in front-line ground combat roles.  Progress in women’s equality has been steady, albeit with grudging social acceptance.

However, that acceptance demonstrates a fundamental shift in societal attitudes, and it’s difficult to image the circumstances that would compel our society to move in retrograde—to prohibit women from combat, to restrict the types of jobs women can hold, to reverse decades of progress, and, despite Ann Coulter, to take away women’s right to vote.

The Inevitability of Social Liberalism

In 2018, we are witnessing a resurgence of conservatism and with it a resurgence of white power hate groups, racism, and xenophobia—energized and condoned by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon (under the guise of nativists and nationalists) and their media trumpets, particularly the crews at Breitbart, Fox News, and other ultra-conservative media operations.

Three columns in ruins at Ephesus symbolizing the crumbling of reactionary edifice
Like these ruins in Ephesus, the bastions of the Old Order are slowly crumbling

They are funded by a few radially conservative billionaires and their families, like the Mercers and the Hunts, who are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into socially regressive causes and political campaigns.  But no matter how loud and powerful they are, the sheer numbers of mainstream Americans who make choices about who and what they’ll accept and how they’ll live, and what they’ll support form a rising tide of social change that can be retarded but not denied.

It is possible to deny people rights they once had.  We saw it in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and like Russia and Germany it usually occurs during periods of extraordinary national upheaval when a minority that assumes power seeks to retain power by controlling and restricting the masses.  But social attitudes and values, once planted, can be suppressed for only so long.  Eventually, societies evolve beyond the temporary denials of rights once held—a process that may also require extraordinary upheaval.  Human progress moves inexorably forward, though it may span more than a few lifetimes.

Social regressionists like Trump, Bannon, Limbaugh, Hannity, Carlson, Coulter, and Ingraham may work hard to reverse social progress.  They may achieve some successes along the way, but ultimately they are like pimples on the ass of progress because, as I have shown in this discussion of women’s progress, racial equity, and LGBT rights, social liberalism is inevitable.  It occurs as successive generations become more accepting of diversity and more willing to extend equal rights to all people, regardless of gender, race, religious preference, or sexual orientation.  It occurs when the bastions of the Old Order crumble as the hatred and privilege that support them are exposed and eroded.  It occurs as the edifice of intolerance is crushed by the weight of tectonic demographic shifts that the powerful are powerless to resist.

 

Sources:  U.S. Department of Labor, PEW Research Center, NORC at the University of Chicago, The Williams Institute, Madamenoire, and Forbes magazine.

Photo credits:  Rush Limbaugh:  victorfosterono @ flickr; suffrage women:  Everett Collection Inc. @ Dreamstime.com; LGBT couple:  Rawpixelimages @ Dreamstime.com; Mr. & Mrs. Richard Loving:  Tullio Saba @ Flickr; woman soldier:  Roman Kanin @ Dreamstime.com; ruins in Ephesus:  Bin Wang  @ Dreamstime.com