Good Guy Gun

Jack Bolle looked down at the dealer’s display case. There, under tha glass on a small white pedestal in the middle of the neatly spaced rows of other, lesser pistols, was the one he wanted. He had been to several local dealers to look at it, to ask to handle it, to cradle it in the palm of his hand, feel its heft, to hold it up in front of him, in the two-armed pose favored by law enforcement, and aim it at the wall, at the paper calendar and the posters, out through the window. It was a Glock, the 19 Gen 5, matte black with the latest high traction surface texture, unmatched, they said, in hardness and resistance to damage and rust. An unmatched reputation. It was cool, figuratively and literally, a solid room temperature object, but it warmed to his touch as he wrapped his palm around the grip, as his index finger caressed the trigger guard. He had read all about it on web sites and talked to the salesmen and listened to everything they could tell him. It had been recommended by and many other sites. But none of the photos and written descriptions could compare with direct physical contact. It was beautiful, a miracle of engineering and manufacturing. He knew he wanted it; he needed it.

It would be expensive, yes, as much as eight hundred including the gun and the polymer thumb-release holster he wanted, and the ammo, and the tax, always the taxes. Government overreach. At least there was nothing they could do to stop him from buying it. And then he would have it. It would be his. He knew exactly where he would keep it, too. When he wasn’t wearing it, it would be kept on the shelf in the hidden cabinet he had built in the closet under the stairs, along with the other guns, the two he had inherited from his father and the others he had gradually added to his collection. But mostly the Glock is the one he would be wearing, whenever and wherever he went out. It would be his everyday defense weapon. He’d finally received his open carry permit; that had cost a bunch, too, what with the required training and all that, but it, too, was all worth it. His wife didn’t seem like she thought so, but by now she had stopped saying anything about it, so it was all good. They had enough income, and he had provided most of it. And, anyway, she spent a lot more money on shoes and clothes than he did, and there was that new vacuum cleaner she had wanted. That wasn’t cheap, either. Now, it was time for him again, it was time to buy the Glock. He filled out the application forms and handed them to the guy behind the counter, officially beginning the waiting period and the required background check. He would wait there at the display case a little while longer, until he could see that the Glock, his Glock now, had been moved from the display case into the room in the back where they kept the weapons that had been reserved for purchasers.

As Jack waited for the salesman to review his application form his eyes briefly scanned the sporting rifles hanging on the wall behind the counter, especially the Wyndam CDI. That was also tempting; a semiauto, 5.56-millimeter Bushmaster-style long gun, sleek black, rapid firing, a 30-round magazine. It would be fun at the range. But it wasn’t something he could carry every day. That would be impractical. And it was more expensive, too; he didn’t think he could get his wife to go for that, not quite yet. If he bought that it would have to join his other so-called assault rifles, the old generic Diamondback DB-15 and the Smith and Wesson M&P15 Sport, all of them standing vertically on the rack in the closet. He had planned ahead so there were three empty slots in there, room for future additions. The Wyndam would also take the place of the older rifles at the range on the weekends that he went there, once a month, at least for the first few months until the novelty wore off and people there got used to seeing it. He could imagine it pressed firmly against his shoulder, the momentary bumps and the sharp pops of each burst as he repeatedly squeezed the trigger.

It was only a week later that he finally brought the Glock home, and the day after that it was neewly cleaned and readied and in the new holster and hanging from his belt as he stood in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom. He adjusted the belt to fit a bit lower on his hips and shifted it slightly further backward, then forward again. It looked great. It was just as cool as he had imagined. He practiced a release and draw movement, a bit awkwardly at first, then again and again, watching the mirror until the muscle memory took over and he had smoothed out the action. He smiled.

Two days after that, on a Saturday, he made a trip to the hardware store, the Glock holstered on his hip. As he had driven to the store and walked from his car to the door he sensed a new awareness, a heightened vigilance to everything around him, a readiness for rapid armed response to anything that might happen. On TV he had continued to hear, repeatedly, endlessly, about all of the crimes perpetrated by the bad guys in their city, the robberies and carjackings and assaults and revenge killings. The news was full of it. The police always arrived after the fact, too late. Now, at least, he would be prepared. He would be the good guy with a gun, prepared and observant and armed, ready to respond to any possible threat or assault with deadly force. He could avoid being a victim. He could defend others. That recognition reinforced his heightened sense of awareness, accompanied by a sort of adrenaline boost. He felt more alive, more energized, than ever. His eyes scanned the streets and parking lot around him, newly alert for any behavior that might be suspicious, anything out of the ordinary. His right hand slid down to rest on the reassuringly solid handle of the Glock on his hip. Yes, he was ready.

Inside the store, Jack noted the actions of others around him. For the most part, they would first look in his direction, then their eyes would drop to his waist, then they would look another direction, then simply turn and walk away, veering off into a side aisle or leaving the aisle that he had entered. For that reason he usually had a full aisle to himself. Out of the corner of his eye as he looked at the products on the shelves he spotted people who would stop at the end of the aisle, look in his direction, then move on. Nobody said anything, but it did seem that people were avoiding him. That was okay, he decided. They would soon realize that he was there to protect them, to keep them safer. They would learn to appreciate men like him. He soon found the paint and brush that he needed to put a new coat on his storage shed, paid for it, and went home.

As the month went on his experiences in other public places were similar, that is, in those locations that he could enter with his weapon, the locations that didn’t have “no gun” signs at the front door. There weren’t many of those in his small town. One, of course, was the church they attended, but he always went there with his wife and she made it clear that she wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving the house with him wearing the gun. In other places, when he was alone, he thought about ignoring the signs, but decided, at least for now, not to confront anyone. He could leave the holster and its contents in his car, it wasn’t a problem, even as he recognized that that would leave him unprotected and a bit nervous. Before he started open carry he had been concerned that maybe some lib or other anti-gun nut might raise a stink seeing him in public—he knew that some web sites had posted complaints about that—but he found that nobody he saw did, at least overtly. It was mostly just avoidance, that and some momentary surprised expressions and pauses as people looked in his direction. No, nobody said anything. Gradually he even began to realize that his previous heightened awareness of others had diminished. In fact, the overall intensity of his interactions with the world seemed to have decreased and he was less and less conscious of the holster itself, noticing it only occasionally, as when his right hand brushed up against it or when it bumped against the central console as he slid into his car seat. It was, he thought, moving from being a life enhancer to being a minor inconvenience.

The solution, he decided, was to renew his awareness of the threat. Jack increased the time he spent on open carry websites, searching out stories of individuals who had successfully defended themselves or others using the weapons they had available. He could imagine himself in those situations, backing down a perp, maybe even firing a well-placed shot. At first he thought there were a large number of such incidents, but soon realized that there was a lot of duplication and that many different web sites copied the same information. Still, that did provide him a new rededication for a few months. He again felt like a potential hero, a supporter of law and order. But then nothing happened. He never had any reason to pull the Glock out. The stories about gun owners foiling criminals were still out there, and new ones were added on occasion. Stories on the TV news about robberies and road rage and mass shootings were still there, but they always involved people and locations he didn’t know. Nothing seemed to happen around him.

It was not just that his life was boring; in fact, it was mostly like life before he started open carry, but it now was in contrast with that brief period of heightened awareness. In addition, there was the continuing inconvenience of that weight on his hip that got in his way when he wanted something out of his pocket or when he slid into his car seat. And then there was the tendency, still noticeable, of people avoiding him in stores. More and more when he went out he didn’t bother to get the Glock out of the closet. More and more, it seemed that it just wasn’t worth it.

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Diversity War

Recent Facebook meme: “America – My Ancestors Didn’t Travel 4,000 Miles for the Place to Be Overrun by Immigrants”

It is a continual and stupefying realization to me that a large percentage of self-professed “patriots” in the United States oppose such concepts as diversity, multiculturalism, and multilingualism. Their ideas are often expressed in opposition to immigration–or as President Trump often noted, immigration from “the wrong countries”–but also in statements decrying the loss or dilution of “American culture” or in demands that everyone speak English. Discussions and polls have shown that nobody is sure what, exactly, a definition of the common culture in the United States would include, but significant and vocal percentages of U.S. citizens believe that it would include belief in a Christian God, vague notions of “shared” northern European ideals, the ability to speak English, multi-generational family residence in the country, and support for the U.S. Constitution, flag, and/or the national anthem. Accordingly, people who are not Christian, or those who speak English poorly or not al all, or who are, or appear to be, of non-European ancestry are regarded as suspect or illegitimate. Often such people are deemed not worthy of citizenship, of remaining in the country.

In the past few years this bigotry seems to have gotten worse. We’ve seen increasing numbers of physical or verbal attacks on Asian Americans, Middle-Eastern Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and others. Public demonstrations by White supremacy groups and Christian Nationalists have become more common and blatant, joining and amplifying pundit messages expressing fears about the potential loss of “American culture.” In perhaps the most egregious example of the ignorance of such activities, a Navajo state legislator in Phoenix was accosted by a group demanding that he should leave the U.S. and return to his own country. A Navajo!

There are many things that could be said about such astonishing intolerance, but the most important base fact to begin with is that the United States has always been a multicultural and multilingual country. That is true despite our efforts to keep Africans enslaved, to chase Natives and Hispanics out of the lands we stole from them, to reject Catholic immigrants, and to send the Chinese and Irish and Mexicans and Italians back after they had completed the necessary and often backbreaking tasks we needed them to accomplish. Our country has had an unending history of accepting immigrants from virtually anywhere when we needed massive numbers of workers to build our economy, only to follow with backlash actions that attempted to “cleanse” our society of the “un-American” individuals and influences we had previously recruited.

What we so often fail to do is to recognize that those diverse peoples and influences have always been a significant net benefit to out country. To provide just one time-limited but very significant example of that benefit, as we lead up to the 80th anniversary of our official entry into World War II, I would like to list a few of the many ways that those “un-American” citizens, the ones we have so often unfairly tried to reject, helped us to succeed against that war’s threat to our country and to democratic government, often risking their lives to do so.

Start with a group that suffered from a dual deficit. During the war years hatred against Germans and Italians grew. Many were subjected to group internment under the revised Alien Enemies Act and Presidential Proclamation 2526, much like the Japanese-Americans. A number were also victims of an older, more persistent prejudice; they were German Jews. One example was The Ritchie Boys, a group of recent European immigrants that was especially effective. These were individuals, including Jews, who had escaped the advance of Axis armies across Europe and who joined the U.S. war effort. They were trained to apply their knowledge of Europe and of German language and culture in efforts to collect useful intelligence from prisoners of war. As much as 60 percent of the actionable information about the enemy may have come from the efforts of this group. Prominent members included J.D. Salinger and David Rockefeller.

While we were recruiting refugee Europeans into the war effort there was one marginalized group at home that initially was ignored because they were considered unacceptable for combat: African Americans. The military had a pervasive policy of racial segregation. Despite that, more than one million African-Americans served in the war. Among these was the 761st Tank Battalion. The first Black tank battalion to see World War II action, the 761st played a significant role in holding back German forces in the Battle of the Bulge, spending 183 consecutive days in action. Other all-Black units also had prominent roles. One, the 969th Battalion, was later recommended for the Distinguished Unit Citation for its actions around Bastogne.

While Black infantry and artillery units were distinguishing themselves on the ground an experiment by the Army Air Corps was proving to be remarkably successful. This was the creation of a group of pilots, trained at Tuskegee University and at a variety of Army bases The formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron was supported by first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1943 they received a Distinguished Unit Citation for their first combat action, the bombing of an Axis garrison on the island of Pantelleria, leading to its surrender in advance of the allied invasion of Sicily. The 99th was later re-designated the 99th Fighter Squadron and along with another Tuskegee unit, the 332nd Fighter Squadron, achieved an extraordinary combat record as escorts for bombing raids over Italy and Germany. Members of the 332nd earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses. On March 29th, 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bush and the U.S. Congress.

In the Pacific theater, the Marine Corps generally resisted using African-American units in combat; instead they were assigned supportive tasks in Ammunition and Depot companies. Working on small islands occupied by a stubborn and often hidden enemy, they inevitably ended up in active fighting. After learning of their courage and spirit, Lieutenant General Alexander Vandegrift, the commandant of the Marine Corps, noted, “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines—period.”

Japanese Americans were yet another group that was, like Germans and Italians, initially subjected to internment at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II. Soon, however, the Army decided that they were yet another resource that could not be ignored. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, formed almost entirely of second-generation (Nisei) volunteers, fought in Italy and France. It became the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. military history, earning more than 18,000 awards in less than two years. Twenty-nine of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Many Japanese Americans also volunteered for the U.S. forces as field translators in the Pacific theater and used their language skills to gather intelligence from prisoners of war and from messages they decoded. The Allied war effort against Japan was aided significantly by the useful information provided by these men. It’s undeniable that German- and Japanese-speaking citizens and immigrants were of immeasurable benefit in anticipating and countering the movements of Axis forces.

Finally, there is one other minority group whose efforts should be recognized. Members of Native American tribes used their distinctive languages to create unbreakable codes to transmit plans and intelligence on radio communications that could otherwise have been intercepted by the enemy. Code talking had been pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw speakers during World War I. During the Second World War there were members of the Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Comanche, Tlingit, Hopi, Cree, Crow, and Navajo serving on all of the war fronts. These men were most often assigned to front-line combat units and paired with radio operators, one of the most dangerous infantry assignments in the war because they were specifically targeted by enemy snipers. Code talkers made it possible to rapidly transmit useful information from the front with virtually no likelihood that the enemy could decode it. The relatively large number of Native languages and limited knowledge of them outside the United States made it all possible.

This focus on World War II is not intended to marginalize the many other contributions that these or other minority groups have made to the United States in its relatively short history. We tend to focus on the English colonists, but our country began as an amalgamation of indigenous peoples and immigrants from many countries, and that vaunted national culture that conservatives want to preserve is an indivisible, unique mixture of their traditions and contributions along with those of northern Europe. For the continued success of our government and economy we are indebted to all of the many and varied residents, recognized and unrecognized, documented and undocumented, whether they speak English or not, whether they look like northern Europeans or not, whether they arrived 20,000 years ago or in 1650 or just last week. They all deserve to be here and to be recognized as full citizens and colleagues.

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Freedom Two

Discussions about freedom in the 21st century tends to be about individual liberty, the type of freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. People have the right to speak freely, to protest, to openly practice their religion, to own guns, to avoid restrictions imposed by the actions of other people or by government agencies, or at least to enjoy due process protections before government impositions are applied. There are many disagreements about how these freedoms should be defined and how they should be guaranteed, but even in disagreements freedom is most often expressed as a series of personal rights. We believe that we are, or should be, “free” to live the lives we want.

In 2020 and 2021, the years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of individual rights has been expanded in response to a variety of restrictions imposed by public health orders. Many people have declared their right to refuse to wear a mask and the right to congregate in large groups in bars, in sporting events, and in churches. These are not framed as isolated concepts; they are tied to several elements in the Bill of Rights under freedom of movement, of speech, of religion. Individuals are claiming the right to oppose reasonable government efforts to control the spread of the virus, as if the rights enumerated in the Constitution were absolute and inviolable. And in almost all cases the opposition is expressed as a defense of freedom against the tyranny of an activist government.

But this individualistic interpretation of freedom is a relatively new development in the continuing evolution of human relationships with the powers that control their lives. The movements that fought government power in the eighteenth century, the ones that broadly promoted freedom and the rights of humans, were primarily focused on the liberty of the masses. They were objecting to traditional forms of hereditary rule. The goal was to create a government that was responsive to the governed. Freedom was visualized as freedom from arbitrary and autocratic rule; the ability of the populace to control the activities of the entities that affected their lives.

The French national motto is instructive. It calls for “liberté, egalité, fraternité.” The emphasis is not merely on freedom (liberté), but on equality and brotherhood. The goal of the French revolution was to create a government that treated citizens not merely as a loose collection of “free” individuals but as a community, a mutually responsible collective. Admittedly, that revolutionary movement degenerated into the tyranny of the Jacobins, a self-appointed violent leadership, and eventually into the Napoleonic empire, but the unrealized intent was to replace an autocracy led by a hereditary monarchy with a fully democratic and socially responsive government. In their view such a government was seen as an essential device in the goal of emancipating the citizenry. It took the French another 80 years, through yet another monarchy and another empire, but they succeeded.

Meanwhile, across the pond there was a nascent example of the kind of government the French theorists wanted. In fact, the 1776 American revolution against the English monarchy served as inspiration for the 1789 French revolt, among others. And after the English colonists chased the representatives of the King out of the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic coast, the leaders who formed the Continental Congress busied themselves with creating a new government based on the same theories that were popular with the French, and although their own motto was simply “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One) their primary intent was also to create a democratic government responsive to the citizenry. For many of those leaders, one example was the Iroquois Confederacy, a stable social organization governed largely through consensus. The United States of America may have begun with a failed construct in the Articles of Confederation, but they replaced that in 1789 with a governing Constitution that defined a democratic federation. Their desire was to create a lasting government that would be controlled by the people, or at least by those white men who owned property. Individual citizens were to be represented and protected, but individual rights were not a priority. In fact, to the writers of the U.S. Constitution the Bill of Rights was an afterthought. That list of individual rights that we so often use today to define “freedom”? That was something they threw in at the last minute after they had created what they wanted, a government constituted of, and responsive to, a free people. Yes, there were still strict limits on who “the people” were, but we’ve been working on that since then.

The larger world has also been working on expanding the collective concept of democracy as freedom. That concept helped inform the collapse of the Ottoman empire and varied European colonial empires, assisted by the chaos of two world wars and by yet another theoretical framework animated by yet another significant revolution, this one in Russia around 1917. Again, not all of the anti-colonial movements have succeeded in building functional democracies, but most European and Asian countries have, and the continents of Africa and South America would have contained more successful examples but for the repetitive interference by the powers of the first and second world.

The growth of democratic collectivism generated a backlash. It was begun by conservative theorists in Europe as a reaction to the ideals and upheavals of the late eighteenth century and, immediately after World War II, to the memory of the populist upheavals that led to fascist states in Germany and Italy. But it has gained much of its modern popularity from opposition to the growth of the welfare state. In the United States a well-funded anti-tax, anti-regulation campaign and the election of Ronald Reagan helped promote the idea that government is the problem, not the solution, and that individuals are responsible for their own fate. To diminish the role of the state they emphasized self-support, self-defense, and the identification of freedom with individual rights rather than popular enfranchisement.

It’s not just political life. Our economic system has also become consumed with individualism. Corporations increasingly regard their employees as isolated individuals. Salaries are offered and negotiated with minimal reference to those of any other employees, and unless employees are represented by a union, which is now rare and something corporations spend millions to avoid, workers receive few if any benefits. The most extreme form of this trend is the arrangement in which employees are hired as independent contractors, removing any legal obligation the corporation may have beyond paying a salary or, at worst, a stipend based on output. Corporations have increasingly rejected any form of loyalty or other obligation to the people on whom they depend. They regard individuals as replaceable, disposable. Even workers recognized as employees are not guaranteed any minimum number of hours or a reliable work schedule. Business representatives continually argue for, and lobby elected representatives to achieve, minimum wage levels that are as low as possible and the removal of regulations that protect employee rights and safety. They recognize the fact that government can be a positive force in the lives of ordinary citizens.

Somehow, our current combination of political and economic individualism doesn’t sound much like freedom. The United States has certainly made progress in the two centuries of its existence, gradually moving closer to the ideals phrased in our founding documents. Slavery is no longer legal, every citizen has the legal right to vote, and citizenship applies to everyone born in the country. Admittedly we haven’t progressed enough. Just how free is someone who has to work two jobs to barely survive, who cannot seek medical attention for fear of bankruptcy, or who lives with constant fear of violence from the police or other representatives of the government? How much political freedom does someone have if their elected representatives consistently vote for the policies preferred by powerful economic interests rather than those preferred by their constituents? It may be difficult for someone facing those problems to think that government may be the solution to their problems, but it is even more difficult to think of any other entity that could create progress. Certainly not the economic system, much less any vague principles based on individual rights without any effective entity to protect them. We need not only to recognize, once again, that government can be the guarantor and embodiment of freedom, but to work to make sure that that promise will be fulfilled.

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What infrastructure?

Infrastructure works to normalize behavior, to the point that certain things become relatively invisible and unnoticed.

– Christy Pottroff, assistant professor at Boston College. Dollars & Sense, March/April 2021

The American Society of Civic Engineers repeatedly awards our overall national infrastructure a grade in the range of D or D+. This low grade reflects some embarrassing realities, facts that should be troubling to us, and would be if we bothered to think about them. Roads are plagued with potholes, drainage problems, and other serious rough spots; almost 60,000 bridges are rated as structurally deficient; the air traffic control system and many airports are overburdened and desperately need updates; trains and subway systems rumble through 100-year-old tunnels on poorly maintained rails; underground water and sewage pipes are ancient and deteriorating, and Flint, Michigan is far from being the only municipal water distribution system that still depends on lead pipes. If you bother to pay attention to the history of the many landmarks you drive past, especially out here in the great American west, you will realize that most of the last great infrastructure programs we had building dams and bridges and government buildings and the supporting walls of park trails were the federal job-creation efforts of the tri-part acronyms of the 1930s, the WPA and CCC and CWA and PWA.

Three decades ago a diverse group of organizations, leaders of businesses and unions, and elected representatives came together under the name United for Infrastructure to designate the second week of May as Infrastructure Week. The designation was largely ignored until 2017, when President Trump used the title as part of announcing his own infrastructure initiative, a public-private partnership that would, he claimed, provide one trillion dollars worth of new projects and jobs. Unfortunately, under his proposal only one-fifth of that trillion would come from the government. Fortunately, the Trump proposal was unsupported and underdeveloped, a public relations stunt severely deficient in details, and as a result went nowhere in congress. Unfortunately, the vague presidential hype followed by failure to provide any plans or any legislative action, in three consecutive years, twisted the previously unknown phrase “infrastructure week” and turned it into a well-known media punch line, a metaphor for any substantial promise that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing.

Why was it fortunate for our country that the Trump program went nowhere? There were two serious deficiencies in that proposal. First, it depended very heavily (80 percent) on private investment. When private companies “invest” in public infrastructure they tend to demand a return on their investment, which is one reason why we end up with toll roads and toll bridges. A large part of the reason the Trump “public/private partnership” went nowhere is that there were so few public facilities that congress wanted to convert into profit centers for private corporations. In addition, the president planned to reduce costs and attract private money, as he himself explained, by slashing the “dense thicket of rules, regulation, and red tape” that had caused “terrible delays” in infrastructure projects. That meant bypassing such items as environmental impact reviews, regulations controlling the quality and safety of construction materials, and labor restrictions; those in the Davis-Bacon Act that require paying workers the prevailing (union) wage rates and others that require a safe workplace. So by avoiding the Trump plan we missed out on labor backsliding, potential environmental and safety hazards, and a collection of new permanent tolls and fees. We dodged a bullet.

Of course, the political pressure for improvements did not abate. The problem was hardly a new one and the growing needs were recognized long before the first infrastructure week. Virtually nothing had been done by the federal government since the 2009 stimulus package following the great recession, and that effort had been recognized at the time as inadequate, the proverbial bandaid on an ulcerating cancer, funding a relatively small set of ameliorations. All across the country there were still ancient and deteriorating roads and bridges and airports and rails and waterways that were noticeably verging on disaster. Evidence of many of those potential failures were noted on occasion by members of the public and reported on, although rarely and briefly, by local media. Any significant outcry about infrastructure only surfaced on those occasions when there was a significant failure—the 2007 collapse of a heavily-used bridge on I-35 in Minneapolis, a 2017 passenger train derailment onto I-5 in Washington State, the 1978 collapse of the roof of the Hartford Civic Center, the 2008 toxic flood from the breach of a dike surrounding the Kingston ash ponds in Tennessee, and the ongoing Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis that began in 2014. Even these notable failures only received widespread media coverage for a short period, after which the lobbying efforts in favor of infrastructure spending returned to groups like United for Infrastructure and other varied trade unions and industry representatives.

As I write this the administration of President Joseph Biden is negotiating with congress about a major infrastructure proposal containing funding in the neighborhood of 2 trillion dollars. The package was prompted both by the need for infrastructure and by the desire to stimulate the economy after the Covid pandemic recession. Opponents have raised three primary objections. One is concern about the federal budget deficit and a second opposes the corporate tax increases that are included in the package to offset the impact on the deficit. I could write an entire blog entry about each of these two issues alone, but I won’t expand on them here. The most relevant question in terms of this blog entry is the third objection, which relates to the definition of infrastructure itself. Many of those opposed to the Biden legislation have characterized it as containing minimal real infrastructure spending, from as little as 6 percent to as much as 30 percent. Such complaints are political theater. It is true that only 6.2 percent of the proposal is specifically devoted to updating bridges and highways, but overall 24.8 percent is directed toward transportation improvements and another 34.5 percent to upgrading public buildings and water and wastewater and electric distribution systems. It is difficult to see how such efforts wouldn’t be considered within the definition of infrastructure. Another 22.2 percent of the funding is assigned to research and development related to infrastructure improvements, a less direct connection but still relevant and important. Perhaps the only questionable category of spending is the final 18.5 percent, which is slated to support caregivers for the elderly and disabled. This has been characterized as contributions to our “human infrastructure,” which is perhaps a stretch of logic, but not an entirely unreasonable one. If “human capital” is the result of education and job training, then surely it can also be an element within our national infrastructure.

I tend to prefer the expanded definition of infrastructure included in the Biden legislation. It recognizes our national needs and the broad variety of physical structures and services that our country, and our economic prosperity, depends on. That definition may go even beyond the categories mentioned in the proposed 2021 bill. Infrastructure properly includes the necessary building blocks and human activities that help us all work and lead more productive lives, that in many cases make our normal lives possible. We need only compare the relative convenience of our lives with those in less developed countries to realize how important it is that we have such a varied and comprehensive infrastructure, and how important it is for us to maintain funding for it.

The quote with which I began this post recognizes the value of “normalizing behavior” and of “invisible and unnoticed” services that we so often take for granted. That quote in fact comes from an article supporting the United States Postal Service, another vital infrastructure system that fits this description. The writer of the quote continues with comments related to the USPS, but which can be extended to many other forms of the broad categories of infrastructure:

Infrastructure works to normalize behavior, to the point that certain things become relatively invisible and unnoticed—like the fact that a representative of the U.S. government stops by our homes nearly every single day of the year.  When infrastructure breaks, however, people take notice. The disruption of normal life-—lags, delays, and mis-deliveries—-reminds us of how infrastructures like the postal system depend on government support and funding, human ingenuity, and public participation to work.

The Covid pandemic of 2020 has in fact disrupted our lives. The effort to restore normalcy, and perhaps to improve it in many ways, requires that we reverse the long-term reductions of public infrastructure funding that have been common in the past four decades. We should support restoration and improvement of all the structures and services included in as broad a definition of infrastructure as possible.

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Speak to Me?

My cable TV provider keeps showing short messages telling me to talk to their system. If I change the channel, it gives me a message saying, “Next time tell your voice remote ‘CBS’.” I’m not sure why that would be easier than pushing three or four buttons to select the channel number, especially since the voice process—holding the microphone button down long enough for the TV to let me know that it’s ready and to listen to my request—seems to be a lengthier and more clumsy action. So for months I haven’t bothered to do what they tell me; they seem to be slow learners, though, they persist with the message. If I pause the video stream and the screen saver comes on, there’s often a message on it that tells me about a new programming offering and tells me something like, “To find out more about Peacock, say ‘Peacock’ into your voice remote.” Well, yes, out of curiosity I tried that once and it worked, but I would have preferred to simply find whatever programming Peacock offered by navigating the regular channel listing or the premium services screen, the way we do with Netflix.

I also own a car that would, if I were willing to activate it, allow me to use my voice to tell it to perform different tasks such as, for example, turning on the radio and tuning it to the station I wanted. I would tell you what else the car would let me do using voice commands, but I haven’t bothered to look up that information, much less try it out. Part of that, I suppose, comes from the concern that when I’m talking to someone while driving we’ll all have to avoid saying certain words that would cause the car to do something stupid, like dial my wife’s telephone or shut itself down just when the light turns green. Yes, I’m quite sure that it would never suddenly lurch across the median into oncoming traffic, although recent stories about self-driving cars with “minds” of their own should make us all wonder about such misdirections. In reality, though, I’m just not interested. I did do a brief scan of the owner’s manual—yes, this particular new car surprised me with a thick printed manual, which at one time was a common item—and this cursory examination revealed that there are many electronic features of this car that I will never use. In that sense it is somewhat like my smartphone, only with somewhat fewer unnecessary functions and a much smaller list of apps that I can add on later. I assume that it won’t be long before our cars will come with lists of as many apps as our phones come with now, and one of the first actions I will have to do after buying a new car will be to spend two hours uninstalling or hiding the pre-installed apps that I know I will never use.

Now that you have read the above two paragraphs I expect that you wouldn’t be surprised if I tell you that I have a general rule against talking to inanimate objects. Well, I do. And no, it’s not part of a recognized or systemic philosophy; for example, I am not a resistentialist, much less a Luddite. I don’t subscribe to the well-known hypothesis of the innate perversity of inanimate objects. I don’t have a generalized prejudice against modern inventions or more specifically, against devices that pretend to be able to respond intelligently when spoken to. I just don’t like to talk to objects. Okay, on occasion I have made an exception of talking to large bulky pieces of furniture, but only when I’m forced to try to move them. As my friends can tell you, I’m also not fond of talking to people through an intermediary object, that is, using a telephone.

Some of my current reluctance to talk to devices that are termed interactive or responsive may come from years of experience. I’ve tried speech recognition and speech-to-text software, several times. About ten years ago a neighbor of ours received a popular speech transcription package from his daughter as part of a proposal that he could dictate his memoirs to his computer and perhaps eventually publish the story of what had been, in fact, a very long and eventful life. This neighbor asked me to help him learn how to use the software. I had made other such attempts in previous decades out of curiosity, to check out the hype about flawless hands-free writing, and knew that the quality had always been limited, but improving. I was still hesitant, but still curious, and I agreed to try. We installed the software and went through the training process, with my neighbor speaking the phrases requested by the computer and letting it become accustomed to his phrasing and accent, which fortunately was a fairly standard California white dialect. Then we tried it out. The result was, to use a familiar comparison, somewhat like someone who’s a bad speller relying on autotext. The mis-transcription of place names like Sacramento or Stockton was to be expected, I suppose, but ordinary English words were also often twisted, creating sentences that did not make sense and documents that required extensive editing before they could be saved or transmitted to anyone. True, it didn’t help that the prospective memoirist would laps into irrelevant dialog and forget to turn off the mike, adding lines of irrelevant content. But throughout this process I gained a renewed respect for the complexity of the old retro business tradition of dictation and shorthand, not to mention the current retro system of court reporter stenography, and for the people (mostly women) responsible for completing those tasks.

Computer-mediated transcription has improved somewhat more in the past decade, but even simplified and brief interactions remain suspect. Alexa and Siri have provided relatively accurate responses to people but also fuel for viral comic videos. I have friends who use Siri regularly to ask for information, and it usually works. But experience has shown that these interactive squawk boxes do best when listening to a standard adult midwestern white dialect; individuals who have a nonstandard accent, including Black, Asian, East Indian, or southern, have reported errors as often as 50 percent of the time. Such minority-related errors shouldn’t be surprising, given that facial recognition software is also similarly and notoriously error-prone when dealing with images of minority individuals. The problem is that both human speech and human physical features are incredibly varied and complex, and computers are not yet up to the tasks they are being asked to perform, especially when programmed by their almost entirely white standard-dialect-speaking designers. I am tempted to remark that computers are not up to the kinds of actions that ordinary people achieve every day, but then I remember the common phrase “all Black people look alike” and the George Bernard Shaw quote that “the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” It seems that we humans are asking our technology to do things that we ourselves are frequently not able to accomplish.

Would we do that? Oh, yes, we would, and I would, too. Only I personally won’t be doing it using my voice. I didn’t spend a year in typing class in high school to throw it all away now. Wait, was that just another misleading excuse? Am I simply, throughout all of the above, trying to find justification for a prejudice I have always had against using verbal expression to communicate with anything other than a responsive human being? Very likely. I admit that I don’t think much of talking to animals, either. That I may justify by noting that whenever most people converse with dogs they use a form of happy talk that they otherwise only use with babies, so they don’t really talk to dogs either, and hardly anyone talks to cats. Clearly, I’m not a fan of statements such as, “Who’s a good boy, who? You are!” performed with exaggerated emphasis in an abnormally raised tone. This form of address seems to be a recognition that the dog, or a baby, is really only capable of understanding the tone of a statement, not the content. And that recognition is the truth, and that too may be a large part of the reason I don’t like to talk to animals or babies or objects.

Am I rationalizing again? Probably. The truth is that I really don’t know why I don’t like to talk to objects. What I do know is that I prefer to talk to responsive persons whom I can see, ones who can display facial expressions and other forms of body language that indicate a reaction to what I am saying and that provide me with clues as to whether I am providing some useful or comprehensible information and whether or not the recipient is accepting or rejecting the message. I believe that I want something immediately meaningful in return to my comments, and that is true whether or not the person in question actually responds verbally. I believe that such responsiveness is what I really need from a conversation, and that may be, truly, the heart of the matter.

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Insurrelection Solved

In my previous month’s offering I stated that the United States, in the 2020 presidential election, dodged a bullet. That is to say, somewhat less briefly, that we avoided an attempted insurrection, one that was based on little more than imaginative fabrications and rumors and partisan spin. All of that was promoted by media, both social and traditional, that reflected and repeated it, over and over, until millions of citizens had been convinced that the vote count was fraudulent and that the losing candidate actually won (but, oddly enough, only at the presidential level). The ultimate expression of this was the January 6th attack on the Capitol Building, a violent riot that had our highest legislative representatives huddled in safe rooms while the capitol police and their eventual reinforcements from the D.C. police battled the mob and worked to force them out of the building. That event, fortunately, has been followed by a nationwide FBI enforcement and apprehension operation and a massive security presence in Washington and in most of our 50 state capitals. These enforcement and control efforts together managed to make it possible for the remaining election events—the installation of new members of congress and the presidential inauguration ceremony—to proceed almost as if this were a normal peaceful transfer of power.

However, this election cycle was anything but normal, and the aberrancy began well before the voting. It began, months before the election, with President Trump insisting that the only way he could lose was if the election was rigged. That in itself was not surprising, because after he won the electoral college vote in 2016 he never gave up the obvious lie that he lost the popular vote only because of millions of illegal ballots. That provided us with ample notice that he would refuse to accept a loss and that he would do everything he could to label the 2020 election as fraudulent, too. He initiated a variety of attempts to reverse President Biden’s win, and in this effort he had an army of co-conspirators. There were, of course, many self-styled “whistleblower eyewitnesses” who claimed that they had seen fake ballots brought in, or legitimate ballots trashed or shredded or burned. Some of these stories even included videos that they said showed the alleged infractions. Other partisan observers complained that they had not been allowed in to observe and challenge decisions that were being made as ballots were being received, verified, and counted, and still others claimed that there were more votes cast in certain cities than there were registered voters. Finally, there were political operatives and media observers who accepted and repeated such statements uncritically. That included the several legal teams that filed more than 60 Trump-inspired lawsuits challenging the accuracy of the vote count in six states in which challenger Biden won. All but one of those suits were rejected for lack of evidence.

So at the point I write this, three weeks after the inauguration and at a time when most of the Biden cabinet has been approved by the Senate and begun work, there are still congressional representatives and millions of people, almost all Republicans, who refuse to say that the election was legitimate, that Trump’s stories were lies, and that Biden won. Most Republican senators have even concluded, in their impeachment votes at least, that Trump’s endless lies and hyperbolic attacks did not inspire the insurrection of January 6th. We must now recognize that the United States is very fortunate that we survived the 2020 election and that our government is now capable of moving on in a fashion that can be referred to almost as “normalcy.” My desire here is to give recognition and express thanks to the many citizens who made this favorable result possible.

I’ll begin with the millions of election workers who processed a record number of votes this year, including a massive increase in the number of mailed-in ballots, all while we were threatened by the rapidly-spreading Covid-19 virus. It was a major undertaking. It involved, as it always does, the creation and printing of the millions of versions of ballots required by candidacies for local elected positions and a plethora of city, county, and state bond issues and constitutional amendments and other local measures. Those ballots had to be distributed to each individual voter according to their registered residence in specific electoral districts, boundaries defined by their city council or water board or state legislature representatives. Distribution of ballots could be either in person or through the mail. In-person voting required a vast army of workers to set up equipment and verify voters and securely handle ballots at millions of voting centers, both for early voting and for election-day voting. All of that, again, occurred in the face of a virulent pandemic.

Then these same workers tabulated the ballots. This required them to work long hours, often for several days in a row. In every case in these election centers there were representatives from each party present to make certain that the procedures were unbiased and the tally was accurate. They are the honorable partisans who believe in the system and who make it work. In too many cases this time, however, there were noisy partisan crowds surrounding the election offices demanding access to challenge every step from validation of the signatures on ballot envelopes to counting the votes, in effect demanding insertion of highly biased motivation into a process designed to be non-partisan. Many of the election workers had to be escorted to and from their buildings, through the angry mobs, at the beginning and end of their shifts.

In charge of these essential workers were local government officials such as county clerks, and they, too, were often subjected to pro-Trump pressures, in some cases including death threats. Infamously, the Secretary of State for Georgia received phone calls from Senator Lindsey Graham and President Trump, both of whom encouraged him to find ways to either disqualify Biden ballots or to “find” more votes for Trump. The Trump call was recorded. In it, the president began with attempting to cajole the Secretary of State to find just enough votes to reverse the Biden win. When those repeated appeals were rebuffed, Trump moved on to threats. This despite the fact that the vote count in Georgia had already survived an audit and two hand recounts. Similar tactics were used by Trump and his supporters on election officials in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona. In all cases the state officials resisted the improper “lobbying” (i.e., bullying) and insisted that their election results were, in fact, correct and that there was no fraud and no improper counts, and nothing they would or could change. This was true whether the election officials were Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. We should recognize and praise the honesty and devotion to fairness, the insistence on upholding reality, that was demonstrated by all these public servants despite unprecedented political pressure and negative scrutiny.

The same is true of all of the legislators who voted to certify the results in their states and to approve the teams of electoral college representatives chosen by their voters, even when the results favored the other party, and despite being lobbied by the president and his legal team inveigling them to choose pro-Trump electors. Remember that many Republican legislators have been, and are being, threatened with being “primaried” (opposed by well-funded GOP adversaries in the 2022 primary elections) because they were considered to be insufficiently loyal to Trump.

We must also express gratitude for all the judges, in many states across the country, who presided over the more than 60 pro-Trump lawsuits and who rejected all but one for lack of evidence. Some of these judges had been appointed by President Trump, yet they asked for real evidence, not innuendo, relating to the contested elections. In response to Trump legal offerings they used phrases such as “did not prove” and “record does not support” and “lack of evidence.” Even our highest judges, those on the Supreme Court of the United States, proved that their loyalty was, as it should be, to the Constitution and not to the President or to the party that gave two-thirds of them their jobs.

The military leadership and soldiers of the United States also deserve praise. In other countries we have seen the military use their overwhelming force to help reverse elections and take over the government; in the past 50 years, military coups have removed duly elected governments in Chili, Haiti, Honduras, Mali, and the Republic of the Congo, and only two weeks ago there was a military coup in Myanmar. In his efforts to illegally retain his position President Trump repeatedly hinted that he expected to have the support of “his” military, but to their credit, “our” military leaders refused to get involved, except to the degree that they helped avoid another capitol hill riot. As part of this, we must recognize the sacrifices made by tens of thousands of National Guard troops and police officers who have been protecting public buildings and employees during the past month and who made this year’s peaceful inauguration ceremony possible.

So, yes, the United States, after 231 years of constitutional governance, dodged a bullet fired by a would-be autocratic dictator who tried to subvert the will of the voters solely to keep himself in office. We have a lot of people to thank for that. In fact, no democratic government can continue long without the cooperation of the many people, the large and small cogs in the system, who do their jobs without preference for their own personal political beliefs or party affiliations. Let us give thanks and praise to all those who, by insisting on the usual nonpartisan procedures and the rule of law, helped to preserve our constitutional system and allowed the legitimate expression of the voice of the people, the vote, to be heard, recorded, and implemented.

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After two months of uncertainty the 2020 election cycle has finally been completed. As usual, it has provided us with significant information about our electorate and the issues that motivate them. And as usual, the analyses provided by our political leaders and pundits are a mixture ranging from learned wisdom to wishful thinking. But there was much about this election that was not usual. The fact that it occurred during a world-wide pandemic, a disease that struck the United States especially hard, inspired worries that voter turnout would be significantly reduced. That did not happen, in large part because of the other extraordinary election irregularity; the personal characteristics of one candidate, the incumbent president.

Voter involvement in the 2020 election was historic. This was true both in the presidential election in November and in the runoff election in Georgia in January. Records were set in the number of votes received by the winning and losing candidates for president and in the number of votes tallied in the runoff. The punditocracy was correct in attributing this high voter activity to one factor; the high positive and negative voter reactions to the tenure of President Trump. A similar, mostly negative factor was also significant in the 2018 mid-terms.

Where the expert opinions went wrong was in interpreting the mixed results coming from the various levels of the election. Joe Biden won by a large margin, but Republicans prevailed in more of the down-ballot races. They did not regain majority control of the House of Representatives, but reduced the margin. In the Senate the GOP lost control, but not by as much as had been expected. In response, many analysts resurrected the old chestnut that “Americans like divided government”. Well, no. A more applicable generalization would be that all politics is local. The reality, in my own humble opinion, is that the Democrats were a bit too successful in their record turnout in 2018, and 2020 was in large part a balancing event. To illustrate this, I will refer to my own state of New Mexico, which trends blue. The state has three representatives in the House. Two of those, and the two senators, have trended Democrat in the past decade. But in the 38 years beginning in 1981 the second congressional district had been GOP country for all but two years. Then in 2018 a record turnout of Democratic voters pushed Xochitl Torres-Small into a close victory over GOP Trump supporter Yvette Harrell. That was a fluke. In 2020 Harrell ran again and gained an easy win because of the resurgence of support for the president. As I write this, half of the ten seats lost by the Democrat House in the 2020 election were representatives who had won close races in 2018 in districts that Trump won in 2016. Up to 30 House Democrats were fighting for re-election on GOP turf, in districts Trump had won in 2016, and many of them were targeted by a record expenditure of Republican money. That’s why the GOP did well down-ballot.

Remember also that Trump lost the 2020 race despite attracting a record number of votes, and only failed because the Biden campaign attained an even larger record count. The Republican electorate obviously was more motivated in 2020 than in 2018 and their participation both surprised the pollsters in many states and increased the chances for GOP down-ballot candidacies. Whatever the result was, it wasn’t because our citizens prefer division in our federal government.

Another hypothesis, forwarded mostly by centrist Democrats, was that their party lost seats because some members had forwarded such progressive ideas as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and Defunding the Police. Admittedly, many centrist candidates were attacked by election ads that claimed that they were in the pocket of “socialists” such as Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That couldn’t have been a comfortable experience. However, the effects of such ads are probably being exaggerated. Progressive policies are regularly approved in polls by large majorities, and Ocasio-Cortez has noted that “every single swing-seat House Democrat who endorsed Medicare for All won re-election.” The centrist complaint also ignores that fact that if Democrats themselves had not brought up any progressive ideas, Republicans would have happily invented other labels and memes that they could use in their election spin. The many bogus charges attributed to Hillary Clinton in 2016 are ample proof of that.

The November 3rd general election was act one of the election cycle. There were delays in vote counting, largely due to the need to process the massive increase in absentee and mail-in ballots caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even so, the presidential race was completed, and Joe Biden declared the winner, by November 7th. Attention then shifted to act two, the double runoff for both of the senate seats from Georgia (one a regular six-year position, the other a special election to finish out the last two years of a term ended by resignation). The GOP ad strategy in both races was similar to those in other states, with the primary difference being some race-baiting efforts against the black Democrat. Despite that, and with some help from bumbling off-target statements from Trump, the Democrats won. Again, all politics are local. As in other states, the Georgia results pitted urban counties, which ran 70 to 80 percent for Democrats, against rural counties that voted for Republicans by similar percentages. If there are any generalizations to be gained from that, it could have something to do with the dominance of conservative talk radio in rural areas and the concentration of minorities in cities. In any case, act two completed the electorate’s rejection of Trump governance.

The third act of the election is in progress as I write these words. It involves the refusal of the incumbent president to concede his loss and his continuing delusions, over the course of several months, that the Biden win was the result of widespread fraud—bogus ballots, voting by dead people and non-citizens, manipulation of machine tabulation, lies by election officials. Those fraud allegations have been incorporated into more than sixty lawsuits filed in federal and state courts across the nation. All but one of these cases have failed in court for lack of evidence, and two more general attempts were rejected out of hand by the Supreme Court for the same reasons. Those same allegations, however, have had significant impacts in the public sphere. Months of repetition in right-wing broadcast and social-media outlets has convinced millions that the presidential election was, in fact, stolen and that President Trump should have won. Indeed, as Trump himself tells it, he did win by a landslide.

At this point Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States on January 20th, but he inherits a nation that is divided by widely divergent interpretations of reality. The majority, certainly, accept his election and are ready to move on. A different significant percentage, however, including most Republicans, has become devoted to conspiracy theories telling them that the Republican Party is defending their values, but that the presidential election was stolen and that their votes were negated, adding strength to the following disruptive beliefs: (1) Future participation in elections is useless; (2) The agenda of the Democratic Party is aimed at imposing immorality and “socialist policies” through illegal efforts, efforts that will, in effect, destroy the United States; (3) Only militant action can be effective in restoring Republican rule and saving the country from collapse.

The potential danger of these beliefs was displayed clearly on January 6th when a mob of thousands, most wearing Trump’s MAGA hats and carrying extreme right-wing flags—pro-Trump, Gadsden, Qanon, Confederate—and shouting pro-Trump chants, marched from a provocative and incendiary White House rally directly to the national Capitol Building. There they broke in and trashed many congressional offices. They would have physically attacked congressional leaders if they had been able to find them. Their attack halted the ceremonial joint meeting that was being held by Congress to certify the results of the 2020 election; one of their goals was, in fact, to stop that certification. This was an attempted insurrection by people who had come to believe that violent insurrection was their only viable option; with no trace of irony, they called it the “Save America Rally.”

A timely article in the December 28, 2020 issue of The Nation provides a look at the dangers we are facing. It is a review, by philosophy professor Peter E. Gordon, of the life and ideas of Theodor Adorno, a historian who studied the rule of the Nazis in Germany and other authoritarian regimes. As Gordon writes:

“any attempt to explain mass politics purely in institutional terms or as an expression of rational self-interest will miss the underlying factors that make authoritarianism an enduring temptation… Every society, [Adorno] admitted, has its residue of ‘incorrigibles.’ But a mass movement is not made of them alone. It consists of ordinary men and women who are no more irrational than the world they inhabit. If their politics are irrational, this is only because they make explicit the systemic irrationality of the social whole… For Adorno, democracy is not a full-fledged reality that fascism has damaged; it is an ideal that has yet to be realized and that, as long as it betrays its promise, will continue to spawn movements of resentment and paranoid rebellion.”

The election of President Trump in 2016 was an expression of widespread malaise and discontent with government policies that had created decades of economic stagnation among ordinary workers. This formed an irrational system that was seen as broadly unfair. Trump’s election messages and right-wing media capitalized on the anger of ordinary voters. In rejecting President Trump in the 2020 election cycle, the United States dodged a bullet. However, that bullet was created and eventually fired by the effects of decades of growing inequality and irrationality in the social structures of the country. It will return if we don’t manage to make our political and economic policies more reasonable.

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Small Green Steps

Our household has just made a small major leap into the future, the green future. The significance and yet smallness of that leap, in regard to our continuing but also relatively small personal commitment to reduce the destruction of our environment, will, I trust, become clearer later in this document. It’s not that we’ve been shirking our duty to the future, not that much, anyway. When we moved into our current house, a small and well-insulated abode, we installed the most reliable and efficient new furnace and air conditioner we could find. More recently we refinanced our mortgage, taking advantage of an increase in real estate prices, and installed a new low-energy water heater and modern windows that reduce heat transfer. We also recycle as much of our trash as we can, with the result that the mass of what goes into our recycle bin is generally at least as large as what goes into the trash bin. Could we do more? Undoubtedly, and we haven’t given up working on it.

Our latest advance is the purchase of an all-electric car, a Nissan Leaf, as our only vehicle. This is not our first break with the transportation norms; we’ve experimented with alternative fuel sources before. Forty years ago we had a 1980 Ford F-150 pickup that used propane. This was not necessarily a big carbon-reduction option, but it did have some advantages over the standard fossil fuels. The truck was ostensibly a dual-fuel vehicle, but we used the gasoline option so rarely that the carburetor stopped working, probably the result of oxidation in the vaporizing nozzles, or clogging caused by aging unused fuel. The propane system worked so well that we simply never bothered to clean out the gasoline system to get it working again. The truck had an outstanding range, the result of having an 80-gallon propane tank in the bed just behind the cab, and that was an advantage given that at the time we frequently needed to travel from Chinle, Arizona to Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and Tulsa, distances of 180, 230, 870 miles.

There were other advantages to propane. In a gasoline-burning engine the fuel is never completely vaporized, causing incomplete combustion that leaves behind corrosive liquids. That residue coats and gradually dissolves the interior surfaces of the cylinder, an effect that is most obvious on the exposed metal prongs of the spark plugs. They literally shrink in size, becoming weaker and messing with the width of the spark gap. With our propane truck, however, the fuel burned so completely that after ten thousand miles the original spark plugs still looked new. The other internal surfaces of the engine, the cylinder walls and piston rings and more, were probably in excellent condition as well, and the catalytic converter was likely also pristine. Complete combustion also undoubtedly reduced the types and amounts of toxic gases that were released into the air—that’s what I tell myself, anyway.

Our next experiment in alternative fuels was a 1980 Mercedes diesel, which we bought when it was old enough and depreciated enough for us to afford it. Diesel gets a bad rap because of the larger carbon particulates that are emitted, making diesel exhaust a Group 1 carcinogen, but diesel-powered vehicles actually emit significantly less carbon dioxide and get better fuel mileage than comparable gas-powered ones. Still, this was not a significant improvement. It was an excellent road car, however.

In 2008 we got a Honda Civic hybrid, a vehicle that promised reduced use of fossil fuels through sharing the engine load with a small electric motor. A relatively early system, this was not entirely effective. We tend to own small cars, the F-150 being an obvious exception, and have been used to getting mileage efficiency in the high 20s, and the Honda was a big improvement at nearly 40 miles per gallon in city driving. But it was still essentially a fossil-based system; even the electric power used by the motor was almost entirely generated by the gas engine. By 2020 the alternatives, even hybrids, had improved significantly. For one, there are now plug-in hybrid options that can get 15 to 20 initial miles on electric power before they have to switch to the gasoline system. Given our short in-town errands and the rarity of our out-of-town travel, that would mean that virtually all of our driving would be all-electric. Unfortunately, again given that rarity of usage, we were concerned that the gasoline system would eventually stop working because of disuse, as it had in the propane F-150. We faced the possibility that we would frequently have to schedule otherwise unnecessary road trips just to push the hybrid into gasoline mode often enough, and long enough, to keep the gas lines clear and the gasoline in the tank fresh. As a wasteful practice that would seem to negate much of the advantage of the hybrid design.

Our choice, finally, came down to an all-electric vehicle. We researched the options, finding that there are now many excellent choices even in our price range of under forty thousand dollars. An all-electric car with a range of around 200 miles would take care of at least 95 percent of our travel needs. For the remaining 5 percent we researched options to deal with longer trips, for example the medium-range jaunt to the Grand Canyon that we have made almost every year in the past two decades. From Albuquerque, that 450-odd miles would require two hour-long quick-charge stops—at Gallup, New Mexico and Flagstaff, Arizona—in each direction, a reasonably feasible solution assuming that the limited charging facilities in those towns would be functional and not overly busy on the days we would need them. In these relatively early years of electric transport, unfortunately, charge-port access in rural areas is not always guaranteed. Given the one or two long trips that we expect to make each year, and the short time spans of each incident, we may simply choose the convenient fossil workaround of renting a compact car for those trips.

Even our all-electric solution for local trips, of course, is not completely free of fossil fuels. We don’t have solar panels, yet, and therefore we have to rely completely on the power supplied by the Public Service Company of New Mexico. That utility system has been working to build up its reliance on renewable sources, both wind and solar, and the American Southwest has an excellent climate for alternative generation, but PNM currently gets only nine percent of its electric power from renewables. That means that in reality somewhere around 91 percent of our car’s power comes from fossil sources, almost entirely oil and natural gas. That’s better than 100 percent, obviously, but it could be better. And it will be, but that will take time.

In the meantime, we have the new experience of all-electric driving. The Nissan Leaf has a drive knob with two drive modes, forward and backward. Modern electric motors have such powerful low-end torque that they can easily move a two-ton object without the intervention of changing gear ratios. From a standstill, that means an acceleration that has none of the usual gear-shift delays that are felt in even the smoothest of automatic transmissions. The several hundred pounds of added battery weight also provides the leaf with a mobile stability not found in our previous small cars, similar in some ways to the experience of driving our Mini Countryman with four 50-pound bags of sand in the back, only more so. The solid, silent movement of the Leaf is a very different experience from fossil-powered cars, a variation that is relatively subtle but obvious. I recognized this fact, but could not throw off a sense of deja-vu, the feeling that it was also somewhat familiar. It was a while before I realized the reason. I grew up in Oakland, California, and spent much time in San Francisco across the bay, often using public transportation. That city is famous for its cable cars, the delightful mode of transport for its (in)famously steep hills. But San Francisco should also get recognition for the electric trolleys that for a century have run from the piers on the bay side of the peninsula all the way out to the beach on the ocean side. When I was young most of those trolleys were the original massively heavy bus-sized units that were manufactured in the early 1900s, and when those tramcars accelerated quietly on their smooth tracks it was a steady increase in speed without the engine roar and intermittent pauses common with diesel-powered buses. It is that distinctively variant experience that I now recall, fondly, when accelerating in our Nissan Leaf.

Time will tell how successful all-electric vehicles will be. Much depends on advances in electrical generation and storage technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has noted that electrification of the world’s vehicle fleets will require doubling the production of electric power, a massive increase in the infrastructure for creating and transporting and storing wattage. Much of the existing refining and distribution systems for fossil fuels will eventually be phased out. Vehicle dealerships will have to reorganize their financial plans, if only to adjust from a model that now depends largely on regular maintenance visits. The new reality of electric vehicles is that they need very little ongoing support. It is likely that job losses in the current version of the “buggy-whip” industries will be matched by gains in the new greener operations, but there will be major dislocations. The transition, if it continues as seems likely, is only in its early stages and will take several decades.

Looking at our own personal transition to electricity, however, the change has been almost entirely positive, and we expect that our options for driving long distances and in-route charging will only improve. While we probably will explore and experience other all-electric vehicle brands in coming years, it is unlikely that we will ever return to fossil fuels.

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By Any Other Name

Some political labels are, at best, chameleons. It’s not their fault. They are complex constructs that inspire different responses in the minds of different people, involving innumerable stories that persist over decades. Their adaptive coloring matches the conceptual background provided by the observer, a background that either existed prior to their arrival or one that was freshly constructed according to political prejudices. Definitions and connotations vary widely and shift with the partisan currents, drifting in and out of favor among the majority of voters even as those who use a particular label to define themselves don’t alter their preferences or policies.

In the last half of the twentieth century the term “liberal” started as a highly popular label, associated with such efforts as the New Deal and Civil Rights legislation and such Great Society reforms as Medicare and the War on Poverty. The decline of liberalism may have begun with the War in Vietnam and the failed presidential campaign of the consummate liberal politician Hubert Humphrey. It further lost favor on the left with the rise of corporate centrism and the confusingly mis-titled neoliberal philosophy. But the lowest point in terms of public esteem followed not long after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was regarded as an anti-government ideologue, but he was actually only opposed to liberal government. His infamous quote was “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.” But if that “help” was to be in the form of policing efforts or military power he was more than happy to expand the governmental role and any related deficit expenditures. His attacks on big government were limited to liberal policies that were intended to improve the lives of individual people and to promote equitable treatment. In that effort he repeatedly denigrated the term liberal and those who professed liberal values, and demonization of liberals has been a strong feature of conservative thought ever since. The right-wing’s oddly and extremely oversimplified framing has for decades even conflated liberalism with socialism and communism and, through them, with totalitarian control.

At least the term “liberal” has fairly consistently been associated with policies to the left side of the political spectrum, even among most of its detractors. An older term, “populist”, has been used to describe such varied individuals as Huey Long, George Wallace, Ross Perot, and, in this most recent decade, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The original Populist movement of the late nineteenth century provides minimal guidance here, given that it was an extremely broad and diverse campaign. It began primarily as a rural farm-based revolt against corporate malfeasance and monopoly power, and it has retained a strong anti-oligarchic bent, but it soon expanded to incorporate such diverse and often contradictory issues as industrial worker rights, race equality, exclusion of minorities, eugenics, dominion theology, and anti-communism. The mix of policy preferences often depended on the location of the local sub-group. As the movement consolidated and as populist politicians gained nation-wide recognition, the dominant policies have become dependent on the specific leader of the moment. As a result, anyone who now considers themselves a populist must specify which individual populist leader they support, and people tend to skip the label and go directly to that individual. That often gives it the appearance of a cult of personality. The only consistent characteristic of populism seems to be that it is an ideological movement supported by a large collection of ordinary people—it is, in short, popular.

The problem with using populism as a label can effectively be illustrated by looking at who the media has most often referred to as populist in the decade leading up to 2020. On one hand we have Bernie Sanders, who is, indeed, the charismatic leader of a movement that strongly opposes oligarchic control of government and promotes specific reforms that would reduce corporate political contributions and lobbying, expand voter opportunities, and improve the lives of average people by reducing individual debt, guaranteeing health care, and expanding union power, infrastructure and the social safety net.

The other current politician referred to as populist is Donald Trump, an oligarch who has made broad claims about improving the economy and increasing employment and reducing corruption, but who forwarded almost no detailed programs, other than cutting taxes, to achieve those goals. The contrast between these two “populists” is extreme. The Sanders effort is closer in spirit to the original grassroots populist vision of the late 19th century. The Trump campaign is, if anything, closer to the vague populist leadership of George Wallace, even to its inclusion of, and support for, an energized coalition of white supremacists. During the 2020 election season many media reports have used “populism” as a derogatory or dismissive term, whether they were referring to Sanders or Trump. This is a tendency that tells the reader or listener more about media preferences than about the characteristics of the specific populist leader in question. As for the candidates, neither one has applied the term to himself or to his followers.

The Sanders campaign leads us to another political term that has widely divergent connotations. That is the term “socialist”. Whereas, in recent years, “populist” has been applied without modification (or definition) to two strikingly different individuals, “socialist” has been used to apply two strikingly different representations to one single individual. It is the true observer-defined chameleon. Among progressives, and in general among younger voters, “socialism” is now viewed as a positive concept, connected to thoughts of the stable social democracies of Europe and of popular social institutions such as Medicare and Social Security and public education. Although some pundits have expressed concerns about how the word would play among older voters and independents, in many ways support for Bernie Sanders has been enhanced by his embrace of the self-applied socialist label.

The leadership of the Republican Party, at the same time, sensed an opportunity in having a prominent Democratic candidate self-identify as a socialist. Since then they have done their best to promote two questionable concepts. First, they have worked to strengthen and exploit any and all existing negative biases against socialism, including associating it with extremes such as totalitarian communism and with the struggles of countries such as Cuba and Venezuela. Second, they took that perversely skewed popular interpretation and applied it not only to Sanders but to the entire Democratic Party, including, of course, former Vice President and candidate Joe Biden. The Republican strategy has been effective on the right, raising the fear level among those who still view the entire spectrum of leftists as bogeymen, and undoubtedly in that way have provided strong motivation for GOP base voters.

Much of what passed for political discourse in the 2020 election cycle demonstrated that labels can be used to influence voters without any reference to specific policies or issue preferences. Especially in campaign ads, political labels and associated vague inferences and exaggerations were commonly used to obscure issues, often replacing accurate description with hyperbolic misrepresentations of policy, in effect bypassing any real discussions of candidate plans and platforms. The avoidance of issues and solutions is one result of the failure, or often the refusal, to agree on meaningful definitions for common political labels, just as those definitions continue to be one result of the desire to avoid real issues. As long as people and their leaders are willing to promote and believe oversimplified distortions of such labels, such problems will continue.

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Customary Collapse

As I began writing this, in late September, 2020, I have just finished viewing the installation of the casket of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the statuary hall in the United States Capitol building. There were distinctive featuresin this ceremony; for example, the choice of Denyce Graves to perform two songs and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt to give the eulogy. The eulogy itself, containing elements of Hebrew religious rites and prayer, reflected the fact that Ginsburg was the first Jewish person as well as the first woman to be laid in state in the building. The room was also very sparsely occupied, with a much smaller number of attendees present and chairs widely spaced in deference to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the overall procedure and setting tells of something other than difference or uniqueness. The coverage begins with the arrival of a hearse at the east steps to the capitol building. An honor guard of nine men in dress uniforms representing every branch of the U.S. military marches out to the hearse and in well-rehearsed coordinated movements removes the casket from the vehicle. They carry it to the foot of the stairs and, in command-led moves taken at the rate of about one step every three seconds, raise it slowly up the 33 steps to the entrance to the central rotunda. Marching to a rhythmic “hup, hup” that echoes through the quiet structure, the honor guard marches from there through the rotunda, and turning to the left, they enter the Hall of Statuary, the former chamber of the House of Representatives. In that large semi-circular room, with the full-size bronze and marble figures of more than 100 prominent U.S. citizens looking on, the casket is marched to the center and placed on the black-draped Lincoln catafalque, a platform first “hastily constructed” in 1865 and used to support every casket placed in state in the U.S. capitol since then. A brief ceremony follows before those in attendance line up to pay their individual respects to the casket as they leave.

This process as viewed on television might be characterized as one plodding sequence after another, a composite spectacle performed by small groups of actors who move slowly and deliberately through a much larger scattering of participants who stand relatively immobile as they wait for the completion of one element after another. From one performance to another it varies only minimally, whether it is used to honor Ginsburg, or Representative John Lewis two months earlier, or Representative Elijah Cummings in 2019, the first Black man to receive the honor, or former president George H. W. Bush the same year, or Rosa Parks, who was “laid in honor” rather than “in state”, but using the same procedure, in 2005. The choice of eulogy and music varies, but other than that it is as if the specific individual in the casket is almost irrelevant to the ceremonial. That consistency, of course, may be one of the most important symbolic functions of the entire process. Consistency is also, I might note, one of the most important aspects supporting the continuity of any government, perhaps especially of any government dependent on “the will of the people.”

As a country we must recognize how much we depend on continuity and repetition, on the recycling of procedures, ceremonies, and other conventions that are maintained either by tradition or by law. We select our leaders through procedures which are controlled by individual counties and which vary in many details, but which are governed by a common set of expectations and rules. The winners of our elections are sworn in in one set of functions and there’s a different ritual to inaugurate the beginning of each legislative session. The sessions themselves are governed by Robert’s Rules of Order augmented by additional rules specific to the legislative chamber. Interaction between and within the varied federal agencies, the Department of Justice and Environmental Protection and Homeland Security and the White House, and between the Executive and Legislative, are all regulated not only by legal constraints but by traditional expectations and customs.

That fact about government brings us to the specific example that is the United States at the time I write these words, and to the aberrant executive administration that has been in power for just short of three years and nine months. After all, one of the recurring disappointments during the Trump reign, if I can use such a mild descriptive term for how I feel about events since 2017, is that we could never rely on the executive branch to recognize, much less adhere to, the laws, the rules, the customs, the normal expectations, all of the major and minor consistencies that normally govern its operations.

Begin with nepotism. Ever since the appointment of Robert Kennedy as Attorney General in his brother’s administration six decades ago, presidents have avoided bringing family members into high positions in the executive branch. All of that restraint was overturned with a vengeance when President Trump entered the White House. His daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jerold Kushner, became senior advisors to the president and have acted as representatives of the United States in negotiations with Japan. Kushner was additionally charged with a variety of official policy roles, including acting as a sort of ambassador-at-large cdirecting relations with the middle east. In that position he has led arrangements for arms sales to Saudi Arabia and a series of peace proposals regarding Israel. All this despite the fact that Kushner was initially considered ineligible for a top security clearance before that determination was overruled by the president.

The long-standing high status given to the daughter and son-in-law contrasts with the frequent turnover among other presidential advisors and cabinet members. More than 90 percent of the top positions have been replaced at least once and more than a third at least twice. This reflects the common observation that under Trump, the primary qualification for retention is loyalty to the president and his often-changing opinions, not the traditional measures of competence or effectiveness. The result is that the top echelon of our executive branch is filled with individuals who have repeatedly been caught on video defending the president’s talking points even after the arguments have been demonstrated to be false. The most egregious example of this is Trump’s misuse of the Department of Justice and the Attorney General and the Inspectors General of federal agencies, all of which the president has treated as if they were his own personal defenders and his representatives. The DOJ and its AG and the Inspector General positions are, in fact, charged with representing the United States and the Constitution, not the president or his actions. Yet many have been chastised and fired by the president for enforcing the law. The president’s actions are clearly a violation of their customary and necessary roles.

The loyalty problem is related to the administration’s frequent misuse of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from performing partisan political actions while on the job or while in a government office or vehicle or while wearing government identification. Like the use of cabinet officers to spread partisan talking points, Hatch Act violations undermine public trust in their government. During the Trump years, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has found Hatch Act violations by “at least thirteen” officials, including Mark Meadows, Dan Scavino, Marc Short, Ivanka Trump, and Kellyanne Conway. Some of these officials were reported for violating the Act several times. Other violations include the use of the White House lawn for the final event of the Republican Convention this August and for a large campaign rally just last week (October 10th). In regard to these last allegations, however, the OSC oddly ruled that the White House lawn and residence aren’t federal buildings and thus the event is not a violation–never mind the appearance of those buildings in the background–and White House aides who take leave from work are allowed to assist. The OSC has not ruled on the fact that during the GOP Convention there was also the use of an official naturalization ceremony at the White House as a promotional video (making matters worse, the participants were not asked for their approval).

The final and most egregious act betraying our expectations of tradition in governance has not yet occurred, but has been threatened repeatedly. This is President Trump’s refusal to commit to an orderly and peaceful transfer of power to his successor if he should lose the election next month. As citizens we have often complained about elections and questioned the results, especially when the vote totals are close, especially when the winner of the popular vote was declared the loser and even more so when that result was certified by a questionable Supreme Court intervention. But we have recognized that it is vital, after any challenges and recounts are resolved, that the declared loser accept the result and move on. A losing incumbent who refuses to concede and step down is a characteristic of unstable autocratic nations, not of an established democracy. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, participated in scenarios run by the Transition Integrity Project, acting out possible results in a disputed election. He noted, “We found out the Constitution has so many holes in it, it’s pitiful… The only things that patched the holes over time were precedent, protocol, and decency.” Those are elements that have been notably lacking in the Trump administration.

We expect and deserve better. We deserve a different national executive administration, one that is not dedicated to ignoring tradition and protocol in the pursuit of power, one that can restore consistency with the past and public confidence in government.

“Trump had spent so many years undermining people who challenged him. Not only his opponents but those who worked for him and for the American public. And here was the problem: By undermining so many others not only has he shaken confidence in them but he had shaken confidence in himself. This was particularly apparent when the country most needed to feel the government knew what it was doing in an unprecedented health crisis.”

— Bob Woodward, Rage, p. 387 (Epilogue)

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