Monday, December 24, 2012

OF CLAM CHOWDER


My family's history in America starts in 1620 in the Plymouth Colony. We are unquestionably New Englanders though I now live on the opposite side of the continent. I also have a life-long love of chowder. In 1959 my family spent 2 weeks on Cape Cod and I can safely say that I ate clam chowder at nearly every meal for those 2 weeks. If bread is the "staff of life" I consider chowder the "soup of life".

There are many kinds of chowders: fish, corn, the very lovely smoked salmon and roast corn chowder, etc. However, when one says "chowder" the most frequent response in word associations is "clam" and clam chowder is our topic of the moment.

A clam chowder has six essential ingredients: clams, clam broth obtained in steaming the clams open, potatoes, onions, salt and pepper. Other ingredients are possible and, sometimes, even desirable but those six are indispensable. The other quality that a really good clam chowder requires is some sense of the sea whence the clams came. Finally, clam chowder is a soup, not a spread like mustard or Marmite.

There are currently four types of chowder of which I consider two edible and two trash or slops. The four are commonly known as New England Clam Chowder of which there are two variants, and then Rhode Island Clam Chowder and Manhattan.

Let me dispose of the last first. Manhattan Clam Chowder is simply a bad cioppino. Cioppino can be very good indeed but Manhattan Clam Chowder never is. The problem is that the tomato in the broth tends to overpower the clams. If you want a fish stew or soup order a cioppino and allow Manhattan Clam Chowder to die the ignominious death it so richly deserves. That is more than enough notice to give Manhattan Clam Chowder.

My personal favorite version of clam chowder is most frequently referred to as Rhode Island Clam Chowder. It is just the six ingredients I referred to above. The chopped clams swim in their own rather briny broth along with the potatoes and onions. Even a little finely chopped celery doesn't hurt but the bowl before you leaves you with the sense of clams in their natural habitat.

I first had this "Rhode Island" version at the long gone Bert's Place in Plainville, Connecticut. I don't know how long Bert's Place had been there but it had a Jazz Age feel to it. The booths consisted of six foot high-backed benches in polished wood so dark brown as to seem almost black flanking tables of the same wood. Once in such a booth you were in your own small world and glad of it. Bert's served many types of fare in a typical New England menu of the 1950s but the stars were the fried fish, clams, oysters and scallops in a light, nutty breading and, of course, the chowder.  The clam chowder came in cups and bowls that held about two cups. A cup of chowder, in deference to those who needed chowder to be white, came with a small glass bottle holding a half ounce or perhaps 1 ounce of heavy cream. A cardboard stopper with a brick colored pull tab closed the bottle's mouth. The diner could add the cream to the chowder if they found it necessary. I believe that the cream was from the local Sealtest Dairy.

I will freely admit that much of my attachment to Rhode Island Clam Chowder comes from nostalgia for the Bert's Place of sixty years ago and the meals I shared there with my Uncle George and my Crazy Aunt Helen. Still, done right such a chowder tastes of clams and the sea and seems right and good to me in some ineffable way.

I once thought that Rhode Island Clam Chowder was the original version and the cream versions a later variant but I now know otherwise. You see, cow's milk as a drink is a post-Louis Pasteur, Prohibitionist affectation. For much of human history what was valuable in milk was the cream and that alone. The cream was separated from the milk and became butter or cheese. The remaining milk was slop for hogs or the liquid for cooking. Remember that there was no refrigeration and milk was frequently swimming with bacteria acquired from the less than sanitary conditions of the cows' udders and the milking shed.

In colonial New England where most of the population lived on or close to the coast and where shellfish were readily available at low tide chowder put to use the milk that might otherwise end up in a hog trough.

So we have come to New England Clam Chowder, the dish that immediately springs to mind when one utters the word "chowder". It is a noble dish but in recent years a bastard version has come into fashion that is as vile in its way as Manhattan Chowder is in its. I'm referring to the pasty, bacon chowders that show up in too, too many restaurants. Let me make one thing clear right now: clam chowder is a soup it is not, Not, NOT a lumpy wallpaper paste.

Let me explain a bit, please. The chowder recipe my mother used when I was a boy used salt pork as the source for the grease in which to sauté the coarsely chopped onions. Salt pork was, in times gone by, ubiquitous and the long-lasting source of cooking grease in most kitchens especially those of the poor and middle classes. In making chowder one tried out a few pieces of salt pork then sautéd the onions but the pork grease creates a problem. Unless the cook binds it that grease becomes an unsightly film on the surface of the chowder. The traditional binders are either flour or crushed crackers or bread crumbs. All three binders tend to thicken the resulting chowder but only to a creamy consistency.

Given this traditional use of salt pork some bright and innovative chefs at some point in the 1970s or 1980s thought, why not bacon? Bacon would give a pleasant, smokey grace note to the chowder. So far, not a bad idea but most bacon isn't naturally smoked and even that which is requires a lot of bacon to suffuse that smokey flavor through a large restaurant's stockpot full of chowder. More bacon means more grease. More grease requires more flour to bind it and so we descend into the hell of chowders in which one can stand a spoon vertically, the wallpaper paste perversion of New England Clam Chowder that has now become ubiquitous. I will here point out that thick, pasty New England Clam Chowder is a crime against history, taste and nature that needs to be sent back to the kitchen any time some poor waiter ferries it to your table. Chowder is a soup, not a spread. A proper chowder should leave a thin, white film on your spoon. If it leaves a thick residue it's not proper chowder.

Unfortunately the major commercial soup makers, Campbell's, Snow's and Progresso, all have "heat and serve" clam chowders that they make in the manner of this wallpaper paste obscenity. Shame on Snow's! We can excuse Campbell's and Progresso as having no traditional knowledge of real clam chowder but Snow's was originally a New England company and does demonstrably know better. Their concentrated chowder that requires addition of a can full of milk is very good; not homemade but still good and true and edible while the pasty "heat and serve" version is not.

So to restate the basics:

Manhattan Clam Chowder - bad, avoid at all costs

Rhode Island Clam Chowder - very good, not to everyone's taste though that may largely be a matter of expectations; deserving of wider acceptance

New England Clam Chowder (soup) - excellent, delicious and fortifying; a meal in itself

New England Clam Chowder (paste) - bad, evil, a perversion of chowder; avoid at all costs; if served to you in a restaurant send it back to the kitchen as inedible

Now since I won't "shut up" I will "put up". Here's the recipe that I currently use.

1/2 lb. of thick cut, smokey bacon
2-3 Tablespoons of flour adjusted depending on the amount of bacon grease
2-3 large onions coarsely chopped
4-6 russet potatoes peeled and cut into approximately 3/8ths inch cubes and parboiled
1 Tablespoon of tarragon
3 bottles of clam broth/juice
2-3 lbs. of chopped clams with their broth
1/2 gal. Half and Half
1/2 gal. whole milk
salt and pepper to taste
butter
(optional: 2-3 celery stalks finely chopped, bits of the crumbled bacon, meat only and a small clove of garlic, crushed, paprika or Old Bay seasoning, whole "baby" clams are definitely an acceptable substitute for the chopped clams)

The first step is to peel and cut the potatoes. Place them in a large pot. Cover with water to which you add 2 teaspoons of salt and boil briefly, no more than 15-20 minutes in the pot from the time you turn on the heat. Thoroughly drain the potatoes.

Try out the bacon in the bottom of a large stock pot. I suggest that you eat the bacon though returning some of the meaty part of the bacon to the pot isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Add the chopped onions and sauté them over medium heat until they are translucent.

Add to the onions some salt and pepper and the tarragon crumbled between your fingers. Stir this mixture together. If you are going to add the celery and/or crushed garlic do it at this stage.

Add the flour in increments starting with 2 Tablespoons stirring until all the grease is completely bound with the flour.

Add all 3 bottles of the clam juice and stir over medium heat until the broth thickens slightly and becomes milky.

Add the potatoes all at once and stir them into the mixture.

Next add the chopped clams and bring the mixture to a low boil.

Once the mixture in the pot is lightly boiling add the whole milk and Half and Half in that order. If the proportions of solids (clams, onions, potatoes) to liquids (milk, broth, Half and Half) seem to favor the solids, add more milk and/or Half and Half. Stir the mixture to blend and distribute the clams, potatoes and onions throughout the milk.

Heat the chowder, for that's what it is finally, stirring occasionally until heated through which brings us to a dispute. It is my considered opinion that "heated through" means when the first bubbles of a boil reach the surface of the chowder. My mother who learned her cooking from her mother and grandmother both Down East women from Jonesboro, Maine insisted that chowder was heated through when visible steam rose from the surface of the chowder. The truth is that it is done either way and almost ready to eat.

Taste the chowder. If necessary add more salt and pepper a little at a time to taste.

Ladle the chowder into bowls not skimping on the solid parts. Place a generous pat of butter in the centre of each bowl and shake onto that pat some paprika or Old Bay seasoning. I rather like Old Bay because it looks nice and adds a slight peppery bite to the chowder.

Serve hot. Eat until satisfied.

Finally, I will leave you with a recipe without endorsement courtesy of the American Heritage Cookbook for Daniel Webster's chowder recipe as excerpted from The Cook published in 1885.

Four tablespoons of onions, fried with pork. One quart of boiled potatoes, well mashed. One and a half pounds of sea-biscuit, broken. One teaspoon of thyme mixed with one of summer savory. Half-bottle of mushroom catsup. One bottle of port or claret. Half of a nutmeg, grated. A few cloves, mace and allspice. Six pounds of fish, sea bass or cod, cut in slices. Twenty-five oysters, a little black pepper, and a few slices of lemon. The whole put in a pot, covered with an inch of water, boiled for an hour, gently stirred.

The Webster recipe is more a mulled wine fish stew or, to bring this full circle, an American cioppino. I've never tried it because, frankly, it doesn't sound that appealing but it did fuel one of the great Americans of the first half of the 19th Century. Webster was a speaker who could be heard by over a thousand people gathered to dedicate the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown so who am I to argue with the quality of lubrication which his recipe supplied? It does, I think, indicate the breadth of what can come under the umbrella of the term "chowder". Still, I do not consider that umbrella large enough to include either Manhattan Clam Chowder or that pasty abomination served so widely today. The thick version of New England Clam Chowder would certainly have muted Webster as he tried to speak through that glob of paste.



Wednesday, December 19, 2012

GODS AND MONSTERS



I have listened to the Interfaith Memorial Service, the prayers by representatives of many religions and sects, the words of the President and the excerpts from other memorials and funerals. I am glad that the bereft families find some solace in their religions. I would not take the tiniest mote of comfort from any who have lost someone they loved dearly.

Yet I have to say that the assurances mouthed by cleric after cleric have angered me almost as much as the murders themselves. The ministers, priests, rabbis and imams have assured us that these dead children and the educators who sought to defend them have been gathered into the loving arms of their gracious, heavenly father. As well meaning and sincerely given as those assurances may be they seem to me empty and false.

If the god they worship is loving and gracious, the all-seeing, all-knowing god of love they sing and praise, what was he doing as Adam Lanza shot his mother, loaded her weapons and drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School? If that omniscient, all-powerful god was sitting on the sidelines and watching as the events of Friday morning in Newtown, Connecticut unfolded is that god not complicit in the murder of 20 6 and 7 year old children?

I long ago gave up on what Richard Dawkins has called “the god delusion” though I prefer more gently funny construction of the late, great George Carlin: the “big, imaginary friend in the sky”. The “problem” of evil resolves itself if there is no god engineering things. Similarly centuries of tying one’s self in logical knots over the pretense of “free will” unravels readily without some wished-for god tangling up the process.

Still I come back to my anger. Either this all-seeing, all-powerful, loving god has none of those attributes or he’s a perverse bastard who’d intentionally allow the senseless murder of children simple because he needs a quick rush from watching idiot preachers praise him for being a ghoul.

When you come down to it I suspect that I’m just trying to reassure myself by asserting that there is no god. Perhaps I’m really more of an agnostic because I hope that there is no god while I secretly suspect that there is some nasty, petty daemon ruling over this world. I suspect that the nasty, little god who destroys Job to win a bar bet then evades responsibility by feigning umbrage when Job  has the temerity to question his motives is really “the lord god of hosts”.

No, thank you, I spit on the god so petty and insecure that he lets those children die. I refuse to worship such a monster. I’d as soon worship a Hitler, a Stalin, a Pol Pot or a Jim Jones as worship such an unworthy creation as that god who will not intervene just to have “20 more angels on heaven”. Such a god does not deserve a single prayer or so much as an outhouse for his worship.  

Yet to bring it full circle my anger is misplaced. The sky is empty. There are no angels. Not one let alone 20 more. We have imagined the loving god who comforts the bereaved. Man is all there is and the loving god within each of us contends incessantly with the monster that cohabits in each of us too. That monster won the battle inside Adam Lanza. The best we can do is try to prevent more such bloody victories. Just don’t vomit up some half-digested crap about more angels in heaven lest my monster get the better of me.

[Note: I must apologize for one item in this post. Initially the Newtown shooter was identified as Ryan Lanza and I perpetuated that mis-identification in this post. The shooter was Ryan's brother, Adam. Ryan Lanza had nothing to do with the Sandy Hook shootings and was by all reports as horrified by them as were most of us. I have corrected the post to reflect that identification.]

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

WHO DONE IT?



On Friday, December 14, 2012 the calendar year and school year were winding down to an extended holiday break when the peace of Newtown, Connecticut, the peace of the season and the peace of the nation was broken…once again. This wasn’t the first time within the week. The difference here was that there are 26 dead of whom 20 are children under 8 years old. Unfortunately, it’s the same old story.

I’m sure that the NRA and other gun rights fanatics will be out in force to mouth slogans like, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Yet the fact is that take the gun out of the hands of the distraught or deranged person and the death toll goes down. Had Adam Lanza, identified as the shooter in Newtown, been armed with a knife instead of a .223 caliber Bushmaster assault rifle there’s every reason to suspect that there would have been fewer dead.

We’re going to hear a great deal about what I’m sure will be described as Adam Lanza’s “troubled” history. Some may even look at the gross inadequacy of mental health care in Connecticut and across the nation. Ultimately we will categorize this shooting as we do all the previous shootings at schools and elsewhere as the acts of disturbed or deranged individuals. However, we always stop at the shooter we refuse to place blame where it truly belongs on the disturbed and deranged individuals and even groups (no, I’m not a conspiracy theorist; I’m referring to actual groups involved.) who facilitate pulling the triggers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Cackamas Town Center Mall in Oregon, the Sikh Temple shootings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the theatre shootings in Aurora, Colorado and may others through the years.

Let me here point out the organizations involved in this conspiracy to murder.

First amongst the villains behind the triggers in these murders are Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association. LaPierre was among the group of right-wing fanatics who engineered a take-over of the NRA in 1976. Until that time it had been mainly devoted to shooting sports and hunting but with a decided bent toward quiet enjoyment of firearms. The NRA had opposed the 1968 Gun Control Act but had a membership that saw reasonable limits on gun ownership as a means to a sane and safe society. LaPierre and others, like most absolutist fanatics, felt that any restriction on the ownership of any firearms of any type were an infringement on individual freedoms. LaPierre has been paid handsomely over the decades to feel that way by the weapons manufacturers, but in the manner of fanatics like James Kopp, Eric Robert Rudolph, Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden I am sure that LaPierre is genuinely committed to his dogma and the money is only icing on the fanatical cake. Essentially the people who took over the NRA in 1976 were the militia and Minuteman extremists who are sure that the U. N. Black Helicopters are just over the horizon waiting to disarm them, essentially the Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols types who are more likely to be domestic terrorists than defenders of our Constitution. The object of the take over of the NRA in 1976 was the huge endowment that the NRA had accumulated from its firearms safety and hunter safety programs since its founding in 1871. With that funding LaPierre and his fellow fanatics could and did bankroll election campaigns, think tanks and judges who could promote their cause.

In 1994 Congress passed a ban on sales of assault weapons to civilians. Such weapons were narrowly defined and included the high capacity ammunition magazines that permit firing from 15 to 100 shots without reloading. During the next decade the number of mass shooting incidents decreased until 2004 when, under the mal-Administration of George W. Bush and in the face of NRA funded opposition in a Congress controlled in both houses by Republicans, the ban was not renewed. For the record, George W. Bush stated that he would sign a renewal of the assault weapons ban if it passed Congress; however, he took that public stance with the full knowledge that the renewal had no chance of passing for his signature. Predictably since 2004 the incidents of mass shootings have increased.

Next on the list of triggermen in this unending rash of murders is the National Shooting Sports Association whose headquarters, in an amazing bit of serendipitous irony, sits across the street from the entrance to the Sandy Hook Elementary School campus in Newtown, Connecticut. The NSSA is the NRA for firearms manufacturers. It quietly supports pro-gun laws, politicians and activists including the NRA as part of the pipeline of money from the sales of weapons and ammunition to the pro-gun cause.

The NRA, NSSA have a long history of supporting assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines while at the same time emphasizing “one-shot kills” in hunting. It is one more example of the cognitive dissonance that seems to be epidemic in right-wing circles. If the ideal is the “one-shot kill” with a second or even third shot as indicative of, alternatively, less than ideal conditions or a lack of skill, what is the point of a 40-round magazine? The fact is that there is no point to civilian weapons with a capacity of holding more than 2 or 3 cartridges. Between 1812 and 1912 the number of shots available without reloading in portable pistols and rifles increased from a maximum of 2 to about 8. World War I spurred development of weapons with larger capacity magazines as have subsequent wars. Still the fact remains that for hunting and target shooting a cartridge capacity of between 1 and 8 is all that is warranted with 2 or 3 the real, practical limit.

The next conspirator in the murders in Newtown is the Gun Owners of America. It tends to be the most rabid of the gun fanatics supporting things like the “stand your ground” laws that have given any angry, little man with a gun the right to shoot the random object of his fears. They also support the Orwellian named “Constitutional carry” (carrying concealed weapons without a permit) and “open carry” laws that would allow these would-be cowboys to display the compensation for their inadequacies on their hips. It has the endorsement of the certifiably insane Congressman Ron Paul.

Further complicit in these killings and indeed in all the mass shootings of the last 3 decades several more groups such as the National Association for Gun Rights, The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and a plethora of others. Still 2 others bear special mention.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a right-wing organization of right-wing legislators and legal theorists heavily funded by the most fanatical neo-fascists in America. They have promoted the infamous “stand your ground” laws passed in several Republican controlled states, most notably Florida. They are also behind anti-union and anti-immigrant laws and generally legislation that would take America back to some point in the 19th Century, whether before or after passage of the 13th Amendment is still unclear. ALEC was clearly complicit with George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin in February, 2012. They are simply part of the conspiracy enabling Adam Lanza more recently.

And finally among the organizations conspiring to murder 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, Connecticut there is The Federalist Society. One might think that an organization claiming devotion to the U. S. Constitution would not be complicit in murder but one would be wrong. The Federalist Society pretends to support a “textualist” or “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution when, in fact, it simply perverts the text to their own predetermined, dogmatic ends. Rather like religious fundamentalists of all stripes, Christian, Jewish, Islamic or other, The Federalist Society’s founders and adherents pick and choose the parts of the Constitution they prefer and support their arguments with heavily edited “evidence” from the Federalist Papers and other documents from the debate over adopting the Constitution and Bill of Rights in the years between 1783 and 1791. Federalist Society members are usually affected by the delusion that their thoughts are completely consonant with those of the nation’s founders when in fact they are heavily biased by their own often bizarre interpretations of the Constitution and the debate around it. We owe the unsupported interpretation that the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution conveys an individual right to own and carry firearms rather than the collective right to maintain a “well-regulated militia” to The Federalist Society's alliances with the gun lobby.

Having dealt with the organizations complicit in the Newtown murders let me move on to the individuals.

I’ve already mentioned Wayne LaPierre and need not give him any further notice. There are 5 more fanatics, however, who helped Adam Lanza, Wade Michael Page, James Holmes and Jared Loughner among others pull their respective triggers murdering more people than I or anyone would want to count. Those criminal conspirators are Antonin Scalia, John G. Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, all member of the U. S. Supreme Court. They all are adherents of the fanatical fundamentalist dogma of The Federalist Society and all signed on to Scalia’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller. The Heller decision for the first time in American history reinterpreted the 2nd Amendment to convey an individual right to “keep and bear arms” rather than that right as part of a “well regulated militia” for the defense of the nation. Those 5 men have consistently reinterpreted the Constitution to comport with their own biases and dogma while cloaking their radical reinterpretations with a fig leaf of purported “original intent”. Scalia particularly pretends to channel the framers of the Constitution as if he were the one spiritualist medium who is not a fraud.

So in solving this who done it we have a large number of conspirators complicit with Adam Lanza as he pumped multiple shots from his Bushmaster assault rife into the bodies of 6- and 7-year-old children. If the parents of those 20 dead boys and girls or the surviving relatives of the 6 adults murdered are considering suing for “wrongful death” I urge them to include the organizations I’ve mentioned though the list is not exhaustive and especially Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito and Kennedy for as any Conservative will tell you, people must take “personal responsibility” for their actions.

[Note: I must apologize for one item in this post. Initially the Newtown shooter was identified as Ryan Lanza and I perpetuated that mis-identification in this post. The shooter was Ryan's brother, Adam. Ryan Lanza had nothing to do with the Sandy Hook shootings and was by all reports as horrified by them as were most of us. I have corrected the post to reflect that identification.] 

[Additional Note: Besides the 20 young children the Sandy Hook Elementary School's Principal, 3 teachers and the school psychologist were murdered by Adam Lanza. They gave their lives to educating our children and ultimately sacrificed their lives in trying to save our children. Yet they are members of the same group of teachers and of teachers' unions vilified by the same right-wingers who have mortgaged themselves to the gun fanatics. Had this shooting taken place in Wisconsin, Indiana or Michigan I have no doubt that educators in those schools would have similarly sacrificed in spite of the Republican anti-union activists who have spat on them and treated them like slaves in removing their rights to collectively bargain.]

Saturday, December 8, 2012

AT THIS FESTIVE SEASON – 2012



"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?"  demanded Scrooge.  "Are they still in operation?"

"They are.  Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge.  "I'm very glad to hear it."

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?"

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge.  "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.  Besides -- excuse me -- I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned.  "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's.  Mine occupies me constantly.  Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew.  Scrooge returned his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

                                   ~ A Christmas Carol, Stave the First, Charles Dickens

There were many in the England of the 1840s who cursed Charles Dickens. He was popular and he wrote discomforting things about the status quo, things that threatened the quo of those with status. How dare he? But time passes. We’re elevated the lessons of Dickens’ novella to canon taught us in many forms. Yet here we find ourselves 169 years later and the Scrooge of Scrooge and Marley is still alive and well, unreformed, unreconsiled with his nephew, uncaring that Tiny Tim will die, forging further links on that weighty chain of ledgers and cash boxes.

Let us consider, please the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This treaty states that the signatories will respect and promote equal human rights for people with disabilities. It was modeled on the U. S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. This Convention the United States signed during the administration of George W. Bush. However, as an international treaty our Constitution requires that it must be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the United States Senate. Thus it was that the Senate held a vote on Tuesday, December 4, 2012.

The treaty had the solid support of Senate Democrats as well as some notable Republicans including John McCain of Arizona, Richard Lugar of Indiana and even Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Former senator and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, himself a disabled World War II veteran, came to the Senate floor in a wheelchair from his hospital bed at Walter Reed Hospital to support the treaty.

There was a time in our history when that support would have meant certain passage for the treaty but we live in greatly devolved times. Since the 1960s and particularly since the Reagan Administration the Republican Party has increasingly fallen under the thrall of the racists, bigots, John Birchers, NRA fanatics, “Objectivists”, “Libertarians”, religious fundamentalists and the lunatic subscribers to Human Events all of whom came out to oppose equal rights for people with physical or mental disabilities but who, unlike themselves, have a current diagnosis.

Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma led the opposition and brought in that paragon of logic and decency, former Senator Rick Santorum to argue both that because we already have the ADA the treaty is superfluous and that it would open the United States to interference with our “sovereignty” should other nations intervene to impose on us laws we already have. With the typical lunacy of this group of right-wing extremists they saw no contradiction in their arguments. They did, however, collect 36 other senators on the side of wrong and injustice to vote with Lee and Inhofe to kill the treaty. Passage required at least 66 votes but managed to garner only 61.

And lest we think of this as an aberration caused by 38 men whose tinfoil hats are protecting them from the controlling messages from those U. N. Black Helicopters that they are certain hover somewhere nearby I would offer the further embarrassment of the Republican lunatic fringe in the Senate. Where the defeat of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was patently insane this next act is so thoroughly craven that it beggars all comparison.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky thought he had a surefire way to embarrass his Democratic colleagues. On Thursday, December 6th he called up a vote on a bill which would have given President Obama authority to bypass Congress in raising the Federal debt ceiling. The vote would require a simple majority of senators. Most probably McConnell figured that the bill would quickly fail a Senate vote after which Republicans could taunt that even Democrats refuse to support the President’s proposals.

Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, took the matter to his Democratic caucus and returned to the Senate floor to say that he thanked Sen. McConnell for calling up the measure and that he was happy to vote.

Suddenly Sen. McConnell found himself painted into the same inescapable corner in which he’d thought to strand the Democrats. So what was his reaction? He mounted a filibuster of the vote on the bill he himself had called to the floor.

People are dissatisfied with Congress. The remarkable thing is that more people don’t understand that it is the Republican minority, especially in the person of Mitch McConnell, that has denigrated Congress thoroughly since 2009. We cannot have a Congress, House or Senate, that does the work of the nation as a whole while we have the craven partisanship of Mitch McConnell and the lunatic paranoia of Lee, Inhofe, Rand Paul, Eric Cantor and the rest of the escapees from the right-wing asylum. Luckily, if the Republicans continue bringing forward candidates like the crop in 2012 there’s some reason to believe that a House majority and a 66 Democrat Senate may be in our future and a period in which Congress can redeem its reputation should not be far behind.