Thursday, December 28, 2017

Emperor's clay army battles mortality -- Dec. 28, 2017 column


If you think your tweets will be your key to immortality, think again.

The Library of Congress, which has collected every single public tweet published for the last dozen years, keeping billions upon billions of our instantaneous utterings, has hoisted the white flag.

As of New Year’s Day, it will acquire tweets only “on a very selective basis.”

The library will preserve its massive tweet trove but doesn’t know how or when it may allow public access.

People say nothing on the internet ever dies, but the quest for immortality in the digital age evidently will remain almost as elusive as it was for the first emperor of China more than 2000 years ago.   

Someday people may pore over tweets to learn about our culture – oh, no! -- the way crowds in Richmond ponder relics of ancient China at a spectacular exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China” provides a glimpse of one man’s attempt to cheat death. A richly illustrated exhibit catalog helps piece together the remarkable story, and I draw on the catalog’s details here.  

More than 200 years before the birth of Christ, Ying Zeng became the king of the Qin State at the age of 13 in 246 B.C. By 221 B.C., he had united the seven warring states and proclaimed himself emperor of all China, Qin Shi Huang. He claimed his dynasty would last 10,000 generations.

Even before he became China’s first emperor, though, he was obsessed with immortality. A history says Qin Shi Huang deployed 700,000 slave laborers for three decades to create a huge underground kingdom.

The subterranean kingdom stretched 38 square miles and included a palace, armory, entertainment areas, stables for horse-drawn chariots and large burial pits. 

Nearly 8,000 horses and warriors made of clay and vividly painted would protect him in the afterlife where he planned to continue his reign.

The first emperor invented centralized government, built highways and connected existing walls into what would become part of the Great Wall. He instituted a common currency, system of weights and measures and script for writing.

His tyrannical reign depended on strict laws; he had books burned and scholars killed.

Wielding such power, he must have thought finding a cure for death was in the realm of the possible.

His underground kingdom lay hidden until 1974 when farmers came across a terracotta head. The archaeological find was one of the most consequential of the 20th century. 

Archaeologists have excavated only about 20 percent of the underground world. Untouched is the emperor’s burial chamber, which history says was constructed to mimic the country’s landscape with flowing rivers of poisonous mercury.  

The emperor’s mausoleum site museum was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

The terracotta army exhibit in Richmond includes life-size clay figures of an armored general and several other military men, each individualized with a different face, hairstyle and uniform.  

Besides building his underground kingdom, the emperor also ordered search parties on long voyages to mythical destinations to find the elixir of life. Just-released 2,000-year-old correspondence on wooden slats shows provincials reported on promising herbs and minerals from local mountains.

Today our quest to cheat, or at least delay, death continues, although along more scientific lines.

People restrict calories in hopes of extending life. Some resort to cryogenic freezing after death in hopes their bodies will be revived later. Researchers explore promising enzymes and gene therapies.

Last spring, the National Academy of Medicine announced it was developing a Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity that will award at least $25 million for scientific advancements in extending healthy life.

Meanwhile, we can learn from Qin Shi Huang, whose dynasty didn’t last anything close to 10,000 generations and whose quest for eternal life probably killed him.

He reigned for 11 years and died at age 49, reportedly after taking mercury pills that were supposed to make him immortal. His dynasty ended less than four years after his death.  

The desire to live forever may be immortal, but the terracotta army exhibit in Richmond ends March 11. Tweet about it, if you like. Just don’t miss it.  

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Word of 2017? Bet you can't pick just one -- Dec. 21, 2017 column


It’s not easy to summarize a year in a single word, especially a year as tumultuous and polarized as this one.

Maybe that’s why lexicographers’ choices for the Word of the Year 2017 all have a political hue.

Collins Dictionary chose one of President Donald Trump’s favorites -- “fake news” -- as its word for 2017. Definition: “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news.”

Merriam-Webster picked “feminism.” You’d think everybody would know it means “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”

But when Merriam-Webster analyzed “lookups” of words online to gauge public interest, feminism was a top lookup of the year, first spiking after the Women’s March on Washington in January. As discussions of feminism evolved with the news, interest in the word kept spiking, the dictionary said. went for “complicit” after lookups surged following a Saturday Night Live parody commercial featuring Scarlett Johansson as a sultry Ivanka Trump. The fake ad was for “Complicit,” “the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this . . . but won’t.”

Lookups of complicit surged again after Trump said she didn’t know what it meant to be complicit.

The esteemed Oxford Dictionaries chose “youthquake,” a 1965 creation repurposed to reflect the significant influence of young voters in the UK’s snap election last June.

“It is a rare political word that sounds a hopeful note,” said Casper Grathwohl, president of the dictionaries of the Oxford University Press, although he acknowledged: “It’s true that it’s yet to land firmly on American soil but strong evidence in the UK calls it out as a word on the move.”    

Talking about words on the move, where’s covfefe when we need it?

Covfefe epitomized President Donald Trump and his tweet machine. It’s a made-up word he used in a truncated tweet a little after midnight on May 31: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” 

The tweet was later deleted, but then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in an explanation worthy of the Alice in Wonderland School of Spin, told reporters, “The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”

Instead of trying to settle on one Word of the Year, perhaps we should think of 2017 as the Year of Words. Plural.

No president ever word-bombed the nation the way Trump does, instantly sharing his mood swings with the masses.  

Trump weaponized words, but he wasn’t the only one. North Korea President Kim Jong Un must have been thumbing through an old thesaurus when he called Trump “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” A dotard is someone who’s elderly and senile. 

The year began with Trump’s dystopian vision of America. Inaugural addresses typically play to the nation’s hopes and dreams; his stoked fears with words like  “carnage.”  

The new administration delivered “alternative facts,” White House aide Kellyanne Conway’s infelicitous phrase for Spicer’s lies about the size of the crowd at the inauguration.

The year is ending with the administration denying a Washington Post report that the Department of Health and Human Services had banned the Centers for Disease Control from using seven words in its 2019 budget request. The words are: diversity, 
entitlement, evidence-based, fetus, science-based, transgender and vulnerable.

HHS strenuously denied the prohibition, and CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald tweeted, “I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC.”

An analysis by Science Insider, though, found the words already had been used far less in CDC’s 2018 budget request earlier this year than in the three previous Obama CDC requests.

The New York Times subsequently reported it wasn’t a ban so much as a recommendation to avoid language that might slow or derail approval of the budget by Republicans. So it appears red-flag words were banned as a political strategy.   

A firestorm ensued, of course, as free speech still matters.

The American Dialect Society, a group of linguists and other academics, will vote for its Word of the Year Jan. 5.

It would be nice to think its word describing this rancorous year could be hopeful for the future.

But that’s unlikely. Its choice last year was more prophetic than anyone thought. Remember “dumpster fire”?

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Surprising elections make voters great again -- Dec. 13, 2017 column


The dramatic election of Democrat Doug Jones as a senator from Alabama was at once stunning and reassuring.

Stunning because it had been nearly 25 years since Alabama sent a Democrat to the Senate, and just last year Alabama embraced Donald Trump by nearly 30 points over Hillary Clinton.

Reassuring because it, along with last month’s Virginia election, showed our political system -- messy and rowdy as it is -- still works.

Trump’s winning the White House despite losing the popular vote last year led to lasting frustration and a sense of powerlessness among some Democrats. But in state and congressional races no Electoral College stands in the way of the popular will.

The message from voters in Alabama, Virginia and New Jersey this year was a resounding no to the benighted politics of the past.  

“Decency wins,” Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, tweeted Tuesday night, one several Republicans who praised Alabama voters. Flake, who is retiring, had tweeted a picture of his $100 contribution to the Jones campaign.
Jones had been the lead federal prosecutor in cases against two Ku Klux Klansmen in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Baptist Church in Birmingham, which took the lives of four black girls. Jones won convictions in both cases in 2001 and 2002.
For Democrats who hope to turn back the Trump tide in congressional elections next fall, the Alabama contest was consequential. It shaves the Republican majority in the Senate to 51 to 49.  

“This is a political earthquake,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, who heads Democrats’ 2018 Senate campaign effort. He cited as part of the earthquake the elections in Virginia and other states and localities.

Alabama answered the question whether black voters in the Deep South will turn out for a Democrat who is not Barack Obama. Yes, they can.

About 30 percent of Alabama voters Tuesday were black, and 96 percent of them voted for Jones, exit polls reported. That’s about the same share of the black vote President Obama received in 2012.

Solid-red Alabama suggests Democrats may be able to persuade more Southern whites to vote blue. Obama received just 15 percent of Alabama white vote in 2012; Jones got 30 percent.

And, perhaps more significant going forward, younger voters and suburbanites in Alabama decisively went for Jones.
 Trump remains personally popular in some quarters -- Alabama voters approved and disapproved of him equally -- but he exhibited no coattails. His tweet and robocall endorsements were words in the storm of words.
After his gubernatorial candidate lost in Virginia, Trump lost twice in Alabama. He’d backed Moore’s competitor in the GOP primary, then fully endorsed Moore near the end of the campaign and attacked Jones.
When Moore lost, Trump dodged blame, tweeting he’d been right all along that Moore couldn’t win a general election. The “deck was stacked against him,” Trump tweeted.
More accurately, Moore had stacked the deck against himself.
Long before The Washington Post’s reports of allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore roiled the campaign last month, Moore had a history of judicial defiance and racist and homophobic comments.
He denied all the sexual misconduct allegations, and fewer than one in 10 voters said they were the most important factor in their vote, according to exit polls.

The splintering of the GOP also played a role in Jones’s victory, but it’s doubtful another candidate anywhere could engender as much bipartisan animosity as Moore.

The last Democrat who successfully ran for the Senate in Alabama was Richard Shelby in 1986, who was reelected in 1992. Two years later, he switched parties and still represents Alabama. But Republican Shelby couldn’t stomach his party’s candidate and announced he’d written in someone else.

It’s too soon to declare Trump irrelevant or Trumpism dead, but neither has the ruddy glow of health at the moment.

Trump tweeted his congratulations to Jones election night and called him the day after. Hoping to find an ally, he invited Jones to the White House.

Jones has promised civility and to work with Republicans when possible.

“The people of Alabama expect me to do the right thing and vote for the people of Alabama,” said Jones in a news conference. He faces the voters again in 2020.
 ©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A blue tide in Alabama? Senate election a big `if' -- Dec. 7, 2017 column


The voters of Alabama have a chance to show Virginia wasn’t a fluke.

Last month, a Democratic wave carried Ralph Northam to victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, washing out Republican Ed Gillespie, who had run a throw-back campaign.  

More significantly, Old Dominion voters showed the door to a passel of veteran Republican state legislators, threatening GOP control of the House of Delegates. Several delegate seats are still in doubt, pending recounts.

After the drubbing, President Donald Trump tweeted that Gillespie lost because he “did not embrace me or what I stand for,” even though Gillespie espoused Trump’s positions on immigration, Confederate monuments and other hot-button issues.

If Alabama voters reject Republican Roy Moore as their U.S. senator Tuesday, they’ll also be turning thumbs down on Trump, Moore’s protector in chief, and on the toxic politics of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist.

That’s a big “if.”

No Democrat has won a statewide race in Alabama since 2008, and Trump won 63 percent of the vote last year. Much depends on whether Democrats can turn out black and independent voters for Democrat Doug Jones.

If the tide runs blue in Alabama, Trump won’t be able to blame Moore for keeping him at arm’s length. Trump has gone all-in for Moore and vice versa.

“Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need . . . Moore to win in Alabama. We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!” Trump tweeted Monday.

A grateful Moore tweeted he “can’t wait to help” Trump drain the swamp.

If Moore loses, Trump won’t be able to erase his own failure by deleting his favorable tweets about Moore the way he did after he backed Luther Strange, Moore’s opponent in the GOP primary, and Strange lost.

A Moore loss would confirm Time’s choice of “The Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year. The Silence Breakers is the magazine’s name for the many women who finally came forward this year to tell their stories of sexual harassment.

Among them was Leigh Corfman, who told The Washington Post that Moore touched her sexually when she was 14 and Moore was 32 and an assistant district attorney.

Nine women have come forward to describe inappropriate encounters with Roy Moore, including several who say he pursued them when they were teenagers. Moore has called the allegations `false’ and `malicious.’ `Specifically, I do not know any of these women nor have I ever engaged in sexual misconduct with any woman,’ he said in late November,” Time reported.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said if Moore is elected, he would “immediately have an issue with the Ethics Committee,” which could lead eventually to expulsion.

Sen. Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, said “the Senate should vote to expel him, because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate.”

Political expediency being what it is, though, such high-minded resolve could evaporate.

Consider what happened to Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, who had the guts to say Moore’s election would be “a stain on the GOP and the nation.”

“No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity,” Romney tweeted.

Romney’s moral stance should have earned him praise. Instead, Bannon, at a rally for Moore in Alabama, blasted Romney for failing to serve in the military and for his draft deferment for missionary work. Moore is a West Point graduate.

What Bannon failed to mention, of course, was Trump’s five draft deferments – four for education and a medical one for bone spurs in both his heels.

Voters in Alabama can tell the rest of the country they’re not buying cynical claptrap from the likes of Bannon and Trump.  

It may not happen. Late polls show Moore with a slight lead, and the race is rated a toss-up by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.   

Still, a Democratic win in Alabama would show Virginia was not an outlier. It also would be a good omen for Democrats in next fall’s congressional elections.

Did I mention that’s a big “if”?

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Teflon Don's sanity draws more scrutiny -- Nov. 30, 2017 column

You’d have to be crazy to run for president.

That’s what people often say, meaning it takes a certain kind of person, with a supersized ego and laser determination, to put oneself through the political wringer.

President Donald Trump proved he had the moxie to win the White House. Now his performance in the Oval Office is drawing new questions about his sanity.

When the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced last year, Trump admitted saying the vulgarities about women. He apologized and called it “locker room talk.”

But recently he changed his tune, telling a senator the voice on the tape wasn’t his and he didn’t say those words, The New York Times reported.

More than a dozen women have come forward to accuse Trump of inappropriate behavior. The charges have rolled off his back, even as many powerful men in the entertainment and media industries have lost their jobs.

He’s Teflon Don, one of Trump’s accusers said. The White House position is that every one of the women is lying.

Trump endorsed Senate candidate Roy Moore and seems to admire the way the Alabama Republican has steadfastly denied all allegations of sexual impropriety.

Trump reportedly has returned to a favorite conspiracy theory of old, strangely reiterating his claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya – after acknowledging last year that the former president was born in the United States.

Trump clings to the notion that he lost the popular vote only because there was widespread voter fraud, although no proof of it has been found.

At a White House ceremony Tuesday honoring the Navajo code talkers, he showed his impulsiveness and lack of filter when he made a crack about Pocahontas, his nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts.

And his sharing three inflammatory, unverified, anti-Muslim videos on Twitter Wednesday was so far outside the norms of presidential behavior as to be inconceivable. Except that for Trump, tacit endorsement of the far-right, racist Britain First group was sadly par for the course.

“It was wrong for the president to have done this,” said a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who added that Britain First uses “hate-filled narratives to peddle lies and stoke tensions.”

But Trump won praise from David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan leader, who tweeted: “Thank God for Trump! That’s why we love him.”

Thumbing his nose at an ally, Trump tweeted to May to mind her own business.

During the campaign, Trump’s many GOP competitors as well as the news media, Obama and Hillary Clinton questioned his mental stability and warned of his unfitness for office.  

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, called Trump a “pathological liar,” “narcissist” and “utterly amoral,” after Trump attacked Cruz’s wife and father. Cruz later endorsed Trump anyway, and most other prominent Republicans also fell in line.

This isn’t the first time a president’s mental health has come under scrutiny. Richard Nixon was prescribed uppers and downers in an attempt to control his moodiness. 

Richard N. Goodwin, an aide to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote that he studied medical books trying to understand LBJ’s paranoid behavior. 

Those interested in Trump’s mental health can skip the medical texts. “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President,” a book of essays, was published in October.

The authors concede no definitive diagnosis is possible, but they say Trump exhibits signs of being a malignant narcissist, a sociopath, paranoid and of having a delusional detachment from reality, among other things.

“Anyone as mentally unstable as Mr. Trump should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency,” the authors write in the prologue.

Trump’s fans dismiss such talk as politics as usual.

“Trump is NOT crazy despite the claims of some mental health professionals” read the headline on an op-ed by Andrew Snyder, a psychotherapist, on Shrinks are calling Trump crazy simply because they disagree with his policies, he said.

But you don’t have to think Trump is crazy to find him reckless and rash. Not that Teflon Don is about to change.  

In Missouri Wednesday, he was talking about taxes but could have been referring to his approach to the highest office in the land.

“Hey look, I’m president. I don’t care anymore,” he said.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Giving Tuesday accentuates the positive -- Nov. 23, 2017 column


After the post-Thanksgiving buying spree of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday comes Giving Tuesday, a day to give back.

On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, we remember the wisdom of the Beatles: Money “can’t buy me love.” But giving it away can make us feel better.

Now in its sixth year, Giving Tuesday raised a respectable $10 million online for charities and nonprofits in 2012. Fueled by social media, it has grown and spread worldwide.

People in about 100 countries participated last year, raising $168 million for worthy causes, an increase of 44 percent from 2015. The average contribution was about $108.

Giving Tuesday encourages us to take a breath, reflect on what’s important and act on our values by contributing time, energy or cash. Companies also participate, recognizing that customers, especially millennials, like doing business with companies that share their values.

Giving is so strongly associated with our culture that the Museum of American History launched a Giving in America project two years ago, collecting artifacts such as a March of Dimes collection can and a bucket from the ALS ice bucket challenge that swept the country in 2014.

The museum will sponsor a day-long Giving Tuesday celebration in which kids and adults can share how they give and why.

Facebook and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will match up to $2 million in donations to U.S. nonprofits through Facebook, which is also waiving its fees for donations made on Facebook that day.

Observers credited the rise in Giving Tuesday contributions last year partly to a “Trump effect” of people speaking with their wallets following the election. The ACLU, Anti-Defamation League and Planned Parenthood were among groups that reported spikes in donations.

The Trump effect worked both ways. The Donald J. Trump Foundation raised $2.9 million last year, nearly as much as it did in the previous four years combined. It donated about $3 million to nonprofits, mostly to veterans groups, distributing more last year than it had in the last three years combined, The New York Times reported Monday.

Trump hasn’t actually contributed to his own charity since 2008, but a couple of deep-pocketed donors wrote checks for $1 million each. Trump announced he’s shutting down his foundation, though he hasn’t yet, according to the Times.

Giving Tuesday isn’t political and it doesn’t accept or distribute contributions. It encourages each person to choose a favorite charity, donate on the charity’s website and publicize the choice on social media with the hashtag #givingtuesday.

It was founded in New York by the 92nd Street Y, a cultural and community center in New York, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation. Founder Henry Timms, executive director of the Y, is the son of one of my closest friends.

Many studies have shown helping others makes you happy. Volunteers may also live longer, manage their pain better and lower their blood pressure more than those who don’t volunteer.

Behavioral economists write about the “warm glow” effect. If you’re generous with your time, talents or money, you’re likely to report higher levels of well-being.

It may be all in your head, literally. Acts of generosity activate a part of the brain linked to happiness, a Swiss study released last summer found.

Participants were promised about $26 a week for four weeks. Half were asked to commit to spending the money on someone else and half on themselves. After deciding how they’d spend the money, the subjects received MRI scans and answered questions.

People spending the money on others reported feeling happier than those who were treating themselves. The scans showed generosity triggered a response in a part of the brain related to happiness.

Interestingly, this happened even though the participants never actually received or spent any money. And it didn’t matter how much they planned to give.

“You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice,” said Phillipe Tobler, one of the researchers.

On this Giving Tuesday, we can all make ourselves feel better by acting on our values and priorities.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

But will they thank the president? -- Nov. 16, 2017 column


A great American tradition is again about to take place -- and I don’t mean overeating, arguing over politics, watching football and shopping.

Before those time-honored Thanksgiving rituals, the president of the United States will issue a couple of pardons everybody can agree on.

If all goes according to plan, two photogenic and well-behaved turkeys from Minnesota will be driven to the nation’s capital. They will spend the night in a luxury hotel before being delivered Tuesday to the White House, where President Donald Trump will exercise his power to pardon. 

The two lucky birds then will make the trip to Virginia Tech, where they will join Tater and Tot, the turkeys President Barack Obama pardoned last year, to live out their lives in a special enclosure called “Gobbler’s Rest.”

Unlike the other 238 million turkeys raised in the United States annually, these turkeys will never grace anyone’s dining room table.

So, naturally, the question on Americans’ minds is: Will the turkeys thank Trump?

This president loves to be thanked. You could say he demands it. He asked in a tweet Wednesday whether the three UCLA basketball players would say “thank you President Trump” for securing their freedom from a Chinese jail.

The young men stupidly shoplifted in three stores in China while on a team trip and got caught. “They were headed for 10 years in jail!” Trump tweeted.

As presidents often do, he intervened and the three were released. They did thank the president and the U.S. government. Trump then tweeted “You’re welcome” and urged them to “give a big Thank you to President Xi Jinping, who made your release possible and HAVE A GREAT LIFE!”

He also advised: “Be careful, there are many pitfalls on the long and winding road of life!”

Speaking of pitfalls, it’s not true that Trump revoked Obama’s turkey pardons and ordered the birds executed by firing squad. A satirical website ran a “news” story to that effect earlier this year and gullible readers have been spreading the fake news ever since.

But it’s not fake news that the feathered fortunates traditionally spend the night before their White House appearance at the historic Willard InterContinental Hotel, where the luxurious rooms cost upwards of $350.

Rolls of brown paper, pine shavings and plastic tape are involved in preparing for the guests, Time magazine reported. No word yet on whether the new hotel of choice will be Trump International on Pennsylvania Avenue.

When it comes to giving thanks, though, the pardoned turkeys should be especially grateful to Virginia Tech.

Yes, Trump will pardon, but it would be news if he didn’t. What happens next to the celebrity turkeys hasn’t been pretty.

The National Turkey Federation started giving presidents a turkey for their Thanksgiving feast with Harry S Truman. John F. Kennedy decided to send the turkey back to the farm in 1963, saying, “We’ll just let this one grow.”

George H.W. Bush was the first president to use the word pardon. He announced on Nov. 14 1989, the turkey had “been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”

Over the years, the freed turkeys were dispatched to Disneyland, petting farms and Mount Vernon. Sad to say, wherever they went, they often died months, or even days, later.

“The bird is bred for the table, not for longevity,” Dean Norton, the director at Mount Vernon in charge of livestock, told CNN in 2013.

Fed a high-protein diet, the turkeys grow large but their organs can’t keep up. They can’t fly or roost in trees like wild turkeys and don’t live as long, he said.

That’s why the turkey federation sends two turkeys every year – in case one falls ill before the big White House event.

The federation contacted Tech last year and said it wanted to start a tradition of sending pardoned turkeys to universities with strong poultry science departments, the Roanoke Times reported.

Tech’s Poultry Science Club built the enclosure in a show barn in Blacksburg and welcomed Tater and Tot about a year ago. Faculty credit the students’ good care with keeping the turkeys alive and thriving.

Thank you, Virginia Tech. And Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Virginia prays -- and votes -- to stop gun violence -- Nov. 9, 2017 column


After the latest mass shooting, President Donald Trump and GOP politicians, including Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, once again sent their thoughts and prayers to victims and their families.

It was, as always, too soon to talk about gun policy, they agreed.

But with 26 dead and 20 more wounded in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last Sunday, just 35 days after a shooting massacre in Las Vegas claimed 58 lives, prayer, while comforting, wasn’t enough for many Americans.  

“Let’s not pray,” the Rev. Robert C. Wright, Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, said in a Facebook post widely circulated on social media.

“Please do not invite me to pray in response to the horror of Sutherland Springs, Texas, unless it is to pray courage over elected officials who intend to work for the ban of automatic and semi-automatic weapons,” he said.

People feel powerless following gun violence; it’s human nature to want to respond and fix things, said comedian and social commentator Stephen Colbert.

“Five thousand years ago, if your village had a tiger coming into it every day and was eating people, you wouldn’t do nothing. You would move the village, you would build a fence or you would kill the tiger,” Colbert said on the Late Show Monday.

“You wouldn’t say, `Well, I guess someone’s gonna get eaten every day because the price of liberty is tigers.’ You take some action,” he said. “You can go vote. Vote for someone who will do something.”

Most Americans must wait for congressional mid-term elections next year to vote. So all eyes Tuesday were on state races in Virginia and New Jersey.

In Virginia, whose lax gun laws have supplied weapons to criminals from Baltimore to New York City, voters had a clear choice for governor between Democrat Ralph Northam, who advocates tougher guns laws, and Gillespie, a strong ally of the NRA.

After the Texas shooting, Gillespie was on Fox News talking about prayer for victims and his “A” rating and endorsement from the NRA.

Northam has said thoughts and prayers aren’t enough. Proud of his “F” rating from the NRA, he called for universal background checks for gun buyers, an assault weapons ban and smaller ammunition clips. He promised to reinstate the one-gun-a-month limit on gun purchases.  

Northam beat Gillespie 54 to 45 percent.

To be sure, gun policy was only one issue in the campaign, but it was a significant factor. When asked to rank five issues, voters cited health care first by a wide margin, followed by gun policy as No. 2. Those who chose gun policy as their top issue split evenly between Northam and Gillespie.  

But among voters with a gun in their home, 37 percent voted for Northam, as did 73 percent of those who didn’t own guns.  

“We as a society need to stand up and say it’s time to take action and stop talking,” Northam said at a forum in October.

He had the support of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun control group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who was shot in her home district in Arizona, and the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Group, funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Northam campaigned with Lori Haas, whose daughter survived being shot twice at Virginia Tech in 2007. Haas is state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Gillespie promised to uphold Second Amendment rights and to reverse the ban on guns in state government buildings imposed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Four years ago, McAuliffe touted his “F” rating from the NRA, as did Tim Kaine when he won his race for governor.

Recounts in several districts will determine which party controls the House, but Democrats already have erased much of the Republican advantage with the election of political newcomers.

Among them is Chris Hurst of the Blacksburg area, who said the fatal shooting of his fiancée, fellow journalist Alison Parker, on live television two years ago was one reason he entered politics.

Virginians showed Tuesday voters can choose prayers and policy. They’re counting on Northam and the General Assembly to deliver concrete action to stop gun violence, and the nation will be watching.  

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

My church struggles with Robert E. Lee's legacy -- Nov. 2, 2017 column


When my church in Alexandria made the news, I knew it would be a bumpy ride.  

The historic Episcopal church, after months of soul-searching, announced Oct. 26 it would relocate from the sanctuary two marble plaques memorializing George Washington and Robert E. Lee, its most famous members.

It may not surprise you that some media reports overly simplified and exaggerated the turn of events.

Headlines trumpeted: “Cultural terrorism comes to Christ Church in Alexandria” and “George Washington’s church to tear down memorial honoring first president.”  

Blogs referred to “ripping out” the memorial to Washington the church now finds “offensive.”

Asked about the plaques in a TV interview, John Kelly, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, criticized the decision and praised Lee as an honorable man.   

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors and a Republican candidate for Senate next year, and others decried political correctness.

“The next thing . . . is that they would take the name Christ off the name of this church,” Stewart declared in a news conference outside the church.

Let’s take a breath here.  

After Christ Church opened in 1773, Washington was one of the early worshippers and had a family pew. His adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, gave the church one of Washington’s Bibles after he died.

Lee could walk to church from his boyhood home a few blocks away. He and two of his daughters were confirmed in the church in 1853, and Lee attended Sunday morning services April 21, 1861, after he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army.

His eldest daughter, Mary Custis Lee, left the church $10,000 for its endowment when she died in 1918.

The church installed the two plaques -- “In Memory of George Washington” and “In Memory of Robert Edward Lee” – on either side of the altar two months after Lee died in October 1870.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the plaques when they worshipped on New Year’s Day 1942. Over the years, so did Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan and both Bushes when they visited.

In the decade I’ve been a member, there’s been a growing uneasiness among the largely white parish that the prominent Lee plaque discourages black people from becoming part of the church.

Then, white nationalist Richard Spencer moved to Old Town Alexandria, and the horrible events in Charlottesville last summer brought the matter to a head.

The vestry unanimously decided “the plaques create a distraction in our worship space and may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church . . . Accordingly the plaques will be relocated no later than the summer of 2018.”

Emily Bryan, senior warden of the church, told parishioners last Sunday: “Today, the legacy of slavery and of the Confederacy is understood differently than it was in 1870. For some, Lee symbolizes the attempt to overthrow the Union and to preserve slavery . . . The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome.”

Where my church stumbled was in not having a new location already chosen, so outsiders would see we aren’t trying to hide our history. A committee will decide where on the church campus to put the plaques.

Remaining unchanged in the sanctuary will be Washington’s box pew, the plaque marking his funeral, silver markers for Washington and Lee on the pews and communion rail, and other references to the two men.  

In the churchyard, Confederate soldiers in a mass grave will remain undisturbed.

So, maybe you’re saying, OK, I get why they’re moving the Lee plaque – but why Washington too?

Because the two plaques were installed at the same time and “visually balance each other, maintaining the symmetry of our sanctuary,” church leaders decided they should move together.

I hope the new location balances respect for history with modern -- and timeless -- values.  

I like the way Noelle York-Simmons, Christ Church rector, explained the situation to reporters the other day.

“We are the church of George Washington, of Robert E. Lee, but most importantly we are the church of Jesus Christ,” she said. Amen.

 ©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.