Religious Wrongs

Be careful what you wish for. This warning is a popular idiom and cliché, in this case one not attributed to Shakespeare or Aesop or any Greek philosopher, but one that is useful as a cautionary reminder. We should all be familiar with both the phrase and its intent, which is to inform people that when they promote any idea or plan they should look beyond the intended goals and promotional influences, which are almost always positive, and consider the potential negative consequences.

Virtually every human plan will have unintended and unanticipated consequences. Some of those will be positive. The formation of the demilitarized zone in Korea and the evacuation of the nuclear exclusion zone around Chernobyl have created large protected natural habitats, a boon to many regional species. And whenever some group opposed to a new book or movie advertises a boycott or attempts a ban on sales, it usually has the perverse effect of increasing interest and revenues for the offending product. However, when a person or interest group begins working to push a specific proposal they are motivated to find and advertise every possible positive effect, so unanticipated positive consequences are relatively rare.

Negative consequences are another thing altogether. There is an overabundance of examples of disasters resulting from human efforts to control our environment or to improve our lives. In this case, however, I would like to focus on the efforts of one political lobby that was instrumental in the 2016 election of President Trump and has, as a result, seen its policy proposals gain influence and implementation in many agencies and levels of the current federal administration. That movement is commonly labelled the religious right.

The overreach demonstrated by the religious right is in many ways analogous to that seen among other recent conservative social and political efforts, which have been buoyed by Republican dominance in all branches of the federal government. For example, the drive to expand the already high profit levels in U.S. business, pushed by shareholders and upper management, has led to several policies defined as business-friendly, including opposition to minimum-wage increases, reductions in employee benefits and safety regulations, increased reliance on temporary and part-time workers, and the imposition of high-tech employee scheduling and monitoring systems in the name of cost efficiency. These policies have in turn inspired a significant increase in support for unions and in the frequency and size of strikes, and strengthening of the progressive movement in politics. In a different example, the insurance industry and its allies in Congress have continued to fight the Affordable Care Act ever since it was enacted, repeatedly pushing to repeal the Act entirely or to reverse Medicaid expansion or to remove requirements to cover pre-existing conditions. The contrary effect of these efforts has been a strong increase in public support for policies such as Medicare-for-All, which would largely bypass the private health insurance industry.

The efforts of the religious right can be seen as similar. Over the same period as evangelicals and their allies have become more visible and demanding in the public sector we have seen a decrease in public involvement with organized religion. There may not be a direct causal relationship, although many “religious dropouts” have noted the uncompromising attitudes of evangelicals as significant factors in their decisions. Perversely, evangelicals have argued for decades that they must expand their efforts in order to halt the decline of morality, which is their interpretation of the growing social rejection of their own bible-centered version of righteous behavior.

The success of the religious right’s plan, if it reaches the full extent that the movement would like to achieve, would produce precisely the opposite result that they say they want. Their ultimate goal is a theocracy, a government that imposes religious doctrine through mandated prayers at public gatherings, that provides financial support for religious institutions, including schools, that encourages religion-based discrimination against specific groups, including LGBTQ or racial or religious minorities, and that supports preference in government employment and contracts and policies based on sectarian doctrines or membership. The goal is the implementation of a “Christian nation” or “dominionist” model, and more than that, a government devoted to a specific form of theocracy based on the fundamentalist sector’s biblical interpretations, the specific dogma favored by the movement. It is likely that one sectarian group strongly affiliated with the religious right would dominate, such as the large Southern Baptist denomination. State governments and legislators are already trying to impose majority sectarian doctrines on a piecemeal basis. Their intent would be to officially recognize and enforce a broad system of such dogma on a state-wide basis.

The formation of the United States was preceded by a colonial system similar to the one envisioned by the religious right. In many colonies there were official state churches, either Anglican or Congregational. Maryland in 1689 passed a law barring Catholics from practicing their religion, and in 1704 passed a law preventing Catholics from holding political office. Representatives of minority churches such as the Baptists and Presbyterians were frequently arrested in many of the colonies for preaching their religious views in public. The many disputes resulting from colonial repression, and the past experience with religious control in England, all led the founding fathers to include in Article VI of the Constitution the phrase “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”. And when they immediately added the first ten amendments, the bill of rights, the first amendment included the anti-establishment clause to prevent governments from favoring any religious denomination.

The constitutional prohibition against state-mandated religion has produced an unintended consequence that is primarily positive. Religious thought has flourished in the United States. Despite continuing decreases in church attendance and membership overall over the past five decades, 79 percent say they believe in God and 48 percent attend church at least once a month. Nearly a quarter, 23 percent, say they attend every week. And the fact that there are no government-approved or -supported churches has allowed diversity to flourish as well. There are an estimated 350,000 congregations in the United States representing some 220 denominations. About a tenth of the congregations are nondenominational. These high levels of religious participation and diversity are largely a result of our first amendment protections from governmental control or favoritism.

If the religious right has its way we will not only end up with a restrictive theocratic government, with the associated reductions in human rights and increases in discrimination against minorities. We will also see significant reductions in voluntary participation in religious and governmental activities and in the varieties of religious expression across the United States. This may make the right’s leaders happy as it reduces the competition they face from other denominations, but it will be destructive to our democracy. Be careful what you wish for.

Posted in Politics, Sociocultural | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Religious Wrongs

Commons Problems

If you want to talk about the environment or natural resources or about publicly available information or even privately held resources that are widely shared, you should recognize a concept that describes a well-researched and widely recognized problem. One of the economic terms used for resources of this type is “the commons”. These are things—land, water, air, ideas—which are widely available for use by almost anyone. Knowledge about the problem with the commons is therefore itself one of the resources within the commons. Still, many familiar theories about economics and the environment and human activities tend to ignore the commons problem. The knowledge is available to people who promote these theories, but they refuse to take advantage of it.

The problem with the commons is simply the problem of an unallocated resource: Anything that is freely available to everyone often gets overused or misused. Ranchers who have access to common grazing land tend to increase their herds beyond the carrying capacity of that land, the ability of the land to regrow forage. Farmers who have access to well water provided by an underground aquifer tend to expand their crops, and thus their extractions of water, beyond the natural ability of the aquifer to recharge itself. Industries that require access to land or flowing water to store or remove wastes, whether chemicals or surplus heat, tend to release more pollutants than can be controlled or dissipated by natural processes. Information that is in the public domain or widely available is not finite like natural resources, so it cannot be depleted by overuse, but it can be either misapplied or polluted by misinformation. Inevitably, when a resource becomes available to everyone it will attract those who will misuse it.

There are two primary solutions to this problem. One is to subdivide the commons and assign ownership. Land is the most obvious example of this method, but copyright law provides a similar function in the area of intellectual property. The theory behind personal ownership assumes that if someone owns something outright they will take care of it; they will maintain it so that it retains its value. In most cases, this is true, and you can see echoes of this assumption in arguments against government regulation. Farmers and ranchers argue that they are good stewards; they know better than anyone what is good for their land. Bank CEOs complain that controls on debt and investments limit their flexibility in managing their businesses. Taxpayers argue that they can make better decisions about how to spend their money than the government can.

Unfortunately, there are many egregious exceptions to the theory of responsible ownership. There are mining companies and factory operators, for example, that trash their own properties and then move on, leaving behind useless buildings and uninhabitable land and a former labor force that is not only impoverished but often saddled with job-related illnesses. There are landlords who allow their residential properties to deteriorate, valuing short-term income more than long-term sustainability or tenant safety. There are also some commercial operations that maintain and even improve their own facilities but that produce external effects such as releases of waste pollution and underpaid workers, elements that create damage both to the owned properties of other individuals and to the resources in the commons. In yet other cases, the owners of properties may be well-meaning, but they do not have the knowledge or the resources to properly avoid deterioration of their own holdings or negative external effects. Ownership provides no guarantees that resources will be properly used or maintained.

The second strategy for avoiding the misuse of the commons is regulation by knowledgeable authorities. In a few cases such regulatory enforcement can be provided by private-sector agreements such as industry-wide consortia or residential subdivision compacts, but the vast majority of controls must be provided by government. In the case of resources held in common, government regulation is virtually the only effective option. For that reason we have spent many decades building up hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations in attempts to control misuse of resources in the commons, rules generally created in response to specific negative experiences and public outcry for remediation. We have also put aside land in government reserves, in national parks and monuments, national forests, national conservation lands, wilderness areas, state and local parks, and other public holdings. During those same decades many wealthy and influential groups have been pushing continually to roll back such protections.

One of the most significant recent movements against government control of the commons was the Sagebrush Rebellion. Prominent in the western U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, Sagebrush demanded that Federal lands be turned over to state and local authorities and that environmental protections, such as those for wetlands and endangered species, be rolled back. In 1988 the Sagebrush Rebellion was largely replaced by the “wise use” movement, which has the same goals. Not surprisingly, much of the funding for Sagebrush and “wise use” activism and lobbying groups has come from resource extraction corporations (i.e., oil and gas, mining) and from representatives of agribusiness (i.e., the American Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Association). Their primary goal is to remove federal controls that limit commercial exploitation of lands held in common. They want the Federal government out of the way because state and local governments are generally more malleable and more responsive to industry lobbying, and more likely to sell land to private developers.

Land, at least, generally stays in one location. Water and air are resources that flow from the commons to private control and back again. Whatever a private “owner” does in their own operations on their own land can affect the lives of many others. That is why wetlands and clean air regulations, for example, are so important. In recent years we have seen widespread water pollution by oil spills and releases of mining and agricultural wastes, including record destructive red tide incidents in Florida caused by runoff of farm chemicals. There have been fatal localized levels of atmospheric chlorine and other toxic gases released in accidents. On the plus side, the United States has in recent years avoided the levels of air and water pollution commonly reported in China (similar to incidents that had been seen in the U.S. fifty years ago), but there are powerful interest groups that are working to remove the rules that have protected the commons. They argue for deregulation in the name of the “free market” and talk about “freeing up” land and water for human activities, but what they really want is to be released from many of the true costs of doing business, for example the costs of cleaning up after themselves. Or they want to make use of the resources of the commons without paying for them or restoring them afterward.

And this is the reality behind the protection of the commons. The commons is ours, it belongs to all of us and is used by all of us. In so many cases, it is vital to our lives, even the part of it that is composed of land that few of us will ever visit. Even if it is land under the jurisdiction of the Federal government—the feds don’t really “own” land—it is really ours. If it is water or air or wildlife, under nobody’s jurisdiction, it is also ours, in common. It all must be regulated by the only governmental entity large enough to act across state lines and to be responsive to all of us, not to an owner or owners. If it is turned over to private ownership or to uncontrolled use it will be lost to us; it will become subject to the limited goals of a small group, individuals likely motivated by narrow economic concerns rather than by the much wider goal of maintaining resources for all of us and for the future.

Posted in Economy, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Commons Problems

NATO Defense

The first half of 2018 has demonstrated, clearly, two lessons that we should already have known and recognized about government in the United States; well, anywhere, really. The second of these I will get to later. I will begin, first, with the logical proposition that a government needs leadership that is experienced in the work that needs to be done. This should be self-evident, an unquestioned concept. It should be accepted in the same way that employers and applicants alike expect job applicants to have relevant experience in the work they will be expected to perform once hired. Yet in repeated instances, in political campaign after campaign, we have heard arguments that what we need in high government office is a businessman, a “proven” manager, a CEO. A man, for example, like Donald Trump, who was recommended, even lauded, because he was an outsider, someone who had no previous experience in government. Even now, more than 500 days into his presidency, there are those who defend President Trump by excusing his gaffes on the basis of inexperience (that is, ignorance) or by claiming that his errors are proof of his willingness to think “outside the box” and to upset the status quo, attempting to reframe his lack of knowledge as a positive quality.

The damage that is inflicted by amateur leadership in this case is exacerbated by the application of dogmatic theories that ignore the realities of democratic governance, often bypassing and undermining the intent of laws passed by congress. The Trump administration has, for example, placed key administrators in charge of both HUD and the EPA not because they were knowledgeable about the work of these federal agencies but because their past actions and statements demonstrated opposition to the goals enumerated when the agencies were created. In this case, the touted business focus of the president may have increased the potential for damage, as he and his appointees have espoused and applied theories that emphasize the short-term profit-centered goals of modern corporate logic rather than the long-term community-oriented goals of government social planning. They go further than that, in fact, and regard the private and public sectors as antagonistic, and they strongly favor the side of anti-government extremes.

The most recent examples of the dangers of amateurish leadership have come in the area of foreign affairs, a stage on which a modern president has a great deal of flexibility. At and leading up to the June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, President Trump gave unprecedented concessions and recognition to a minor power and its dictatorial leadership. In return, as subsequent events have demonstrated, the U.S. and South Korea received nothing of consequence, not even a detailed or enforceable document. The only lasting outcome of that meeting seems to be a message to other dictatorial powers that the path to security and world status is to develop a nuclear weapons program.

Surrounding the diplomatic failure regarding Korea the President has repeatedly produced a series of false statements that have misrepresented the policies of our closest allies and threatened vital alliances. Perhaps the major example of this was the manner in which Trump sabotaged the June 2018 G7 Summit. The unnecessary tariff war that the U.S. initiated prior to that meeting certainly didn’t help. However, for sheer incompetence in foreign affairs it is hard to match the July NATO Summit in Brussels: Before and during that meeting Trump repeatedly demanded, in press releases and campaign rallies and bombastic tweets, that every NATO member should increase their military spending to a level above two percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Unfortunately, this arbitrary two percent figure is not a new NATO goal. For decades it was a rough and unofficial rule of thumb, largely ignored. Also unfortunately, the administration of President Obama pushed to have it codified as a formal commitment at a 2014 summit meeting in Wales, as a response to the rise of the Islamic State and to the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea. But the difference between the actions of prior administrations and those of the Trump regime points out another of the problems inherent in inexperienced leadership. Prior presidents treated the rule diplomatically, almost never mentioning it. It rarely surfaced in the media. In contrast, the Trump team turned the two percent goal into a cudgel that the president used as often as possible to denigrate the NATO organization and U.S. commitments to Europe. Trump has compounded his public bluster by demanding that European countries bring their spending up to the two percent level immediately, even though the Obama guidelines had set the completion date at 2024. He intentionally created a media storm, even threatening to withdraw the U.S. from NATO if they didn’t comply by “paying their fair share”.

Unfortunately, media coverage in the U.S. has largely parroted the erroneous Trump framing of this issue. First, they have largely accepted the mistaken concept that the two percent figure refers to funding which supports NATO, as if all this money were fully dedicated to a distinct governmental entity like the United Nations or the European Union. And Trump has taken advantage of that error to imply that the U.S. would be able to pay less if only the other countries contributed their “full share”. None of that is true; the two percent figure refers to total defense spending in each of the NATO countries, only a minuscule percentage of which goes to NATO administration and coordination. The size of Germany’s “share”, for example, has no effect on the defense spending in any other country.

One other concept that illustrates the folly of this interpretation is the structure of the United States defense budget itself. In all of the other NATO countries the defense budgets are almost entirely devoted to self-defense within Europe, and thus to NATO defense. On the other hand, the U.S. military budget, which is about 3.5 percent of GDP, is spread out all over the world. Only about half of the 130,000 U.S. troops that are stationed overseas are stationed in Europe. Does that mean that we should only credit the U.S. with contributing half, or about 1.8 percent of its GDP, to NATO? By another measure, the U.S. has troops in more than 150 countries, of which the 12 European countries only make up eight percent. So would the Europe-adjusted U.S. “contribution” actually be only eight percent of the 3.5 percent total (0.28 percent of GDP)? Instead, the Trump administration and the media coverage seems to accept that the billions spent by the U.S. to maintain a presence in South Korea and Okinawa are part of its effort in defense of NATO. That is ludicrous. Previous leaders experienced in diplomacy and foreign policy have not always recognized the folly of this assumption, but at least they have been less likely to try to shame our allies for failing to measure up.

But the biggest flaw in this entire two percent question can be pointed out by reference to the farewell speech made by a previous (and very popular) Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is the second lesson I promised at the beginning of this document. Eisenhower warned us about the power of the military-industrial complex and the danger that military spending would continue to increase irrespective of any rational analysis of defense requirements. The truths are these: (1) U.S. military spending is excessive, driven more by the desires of weapons manufacturers and their lobbyists than by the needs of our troops or our country’s defense; (2) the NATO two percent commitment is an arbitrary figure that is also irrelevant to the needs of each European country, a figure that seems to be intended more to increase arms sales and manufacturing than to provide useful defensive capabilities.

So what are the two lessons we should have learned from the first half of this Trumpian foreign policy year? First, it is folly to assume that experience in the private corporate world is evidence that a political candidate will be successful in government leadership. Second, Eisenhower was right.

As to whether our country will ever internalize either of these lessons on a large enough scale to avoid mistakes like the ones mentioned above, I’m not optimistic. Perhaps a third lesson is that we would be better off with a more flexible government that includes a parliamentary-style vote of no confidence. Unfortunately, we have to work with the system we’ve got. Vote for Democrats in November 2018.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on NATO Defense

NFL Witness

Rulings by the United States Supreme Court have myriad effects on our lives; we frequently see echoes of their influence in events many decades after the Court makes its statement. In some cases we don’t even have to strain our analyses to see the connection. Unfortunately, even the most obvious legal and social consequences too often demonstrate that too many people, even among our political leaders, are ignorant about too many Supreme Court decisions.

One case in point was decided 75 years ago this month. It was West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, a decision presented on June 14, 1943. The question involved the two Barnette children, both Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were students in a public school. They were expelled from school for refusing to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Members of this religion regard any such pledge or secular ritual to be a violation of at least two of their most important rules: (1) the biblical injunction against veneration of idols (Exodus 20:4-5) and, more importantly, (2) their concept of primary allegiance to “God’s kingdom”, not to any secular government or its representatives or symbols. Witnesses also generally refuse to participate in political and military activities. The actions by the school against the Barnette children prompted the legal case that eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled (by a 6 to 3 vote) that no student could be required to participate in ideological activities of this type.

This ruling was a direct challenge to an almost identical case the Court had ruled on only three years earlier. The Barnette decision reversed Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 1940, in which the court had rejected the arguments of two schoolchildren, also both Jehovah’s Witnesses. That ruling stated that students in school could in fact be compelled to recite the Pledge despite their strong religious convictions. The change in the Court’s collective mind occurred in large part because President Roosevelt had modified the Court by replacing two conservative justices and promoting Harlan Fiske Stone to the position of Chief Justice. Stone had been the lone dissenter in the 8 to 1 Gobitis decision. The Court’s 1943 ruling rejecting mandatory pledges was broad and unambiguous and has stood since then, despite frequent attempts by presidents and congress to pass laws to enforce recitation of the pledge, and also despite almost continuous demagoguery on the issue by conservative activists.

Pro-pledge counterattacks in 1943 began immediately. The backlash against the Supreme Court decision was exacerbated by arguments that misunderstood, misinterpreted, distorted, and exaggerated the intent of the ruling and the motives of the plaintiffs. Some of the events were described in an article of the June 2018 issue of Church and State (Page 12):

     “Jehovah’s Witnesses were attacked and persecuted across the country. One of
     their houses of worship, known as Kingdom Hall, was torched in Kennebunk, Maine.
     In Nebraska, a Witness man was castrated. In Illinois, Witnesses were tarred and
     feathered. In Richwood, W.Va., a police chief and a deputy sheriff led a mob as they
     rounded up Witnesses, forced them to drink castor oil and marched them out of town.
     People throughout the country mistakenly believed that the Supreme Court had
     said that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were traitors.”

The atmosphere back then was in many ways similar to what we are experiencing in the United States today. There was an atmosphere of patriotic fervor and fear resulting from the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war, somewhat similar in emotional impact to the aftermath of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and our current “war on terror”. There was widespread confusion regarding the characteristics and motives of unfamiliar religious groups, as there is today. There were, and are today, active demagogues who built their careers and enhanced their donor funding by distorting the differences between religions, exploiting the fears and ignorance of their audiences. Today those demagogues include the president among their ranks, and the messages they are promoting include memes demanding universal participation in the national anthem and the pledge, and prayer in school, and use of the phrase “Merry Christmas”, and other concessions to the demands of one specific religious faction. Their propaganda is disseminated rapidly through social media. And as there was a surge of violence in the 1940s, roday we have seen a spike in attacks on Muslims and Sikhs and refugees and anyone else who is identified, mistakenly or not, as “the other”. Recently a group of Trump supporters (all appearing to be Euro-Americans) approached an Arizona state legislator in Phoenix and told him to go back to the country he came from. That legislator was a member of the Navajo tribe. Irrational inanity inspired by ignorance.

One of the most recent controversies related to the Barnette case is one that has largely been kept active by our demagogue-in-chief. In the 2016 football season, the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem at the beginning of most games. He was protesting injustice against black people, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the time his protest didn’t inspire more than a few other players to join him, and, as the ACLU website noted, “Kaepernick silently knelt, making no attempt to disrupt the singing of the anthem. He did not try to prevent anyone from standing. This textbook nonviolent protest is totally American.” Still, his action ignited a national controversy, with many fans expressing strong opposition and many others avid support. For several weeks, Kaepernick jerseys were the fastest-selling clothing items on the NFL official online shop despite the fact that it was a season during which he and his 49ers struggled. At the end of the season he chose to become a free agent. No team chose to hire him for the 2017 season, and it was likely that any continued protests would have quickly died out as the season progressed.

Then President Trump intervened. In a rally at the beginning of the 2017 season Trump said that Kaepernick and anyone who followed his example were disrespecting the anthem and the flag and our country and our military, and that any football players who kneeled during the anthem should be fired. In short, he completely misrepresented the purpose of the protest, vilified the protestors as unpatriotic, and threatened them with loss of their jobs. All because of simple nonviolent protests. Unfortunately he found that this faux-patriotic theme was very popular with his base, so he doubled down, both on Twitter and at every rally since then. What happened then? The NFL protest became widespread and partly anti-Trump. It may well continue into the 2018 NFL season, despite the new NFL rule change that requires players to stand during the anthem (if they are on the field). We will see.

At this point you may be asking what the NFL controversy has to do with the Supreme Court rulings about the pledge of allegiance. First, let me note that Trump supporters, like the large numbers of people who attacked Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940’s, are outraged and potentially violent because they falsely believe that the targets of their rage are unpatriotic ingrates, perhaps even traitors. Second, their rage is misguided because neither the Witnesses nor the NFL protestors are opposed to the United States or its government. If anything, our NFL players have demonstrated their patriotism, in the sense that they believe in the higher ideals of our country and want the government to live up to those ideals. So there are similarities. But the most important factor was outlined effectively by Justice Robert H. Jackson when he wrote the 1943 Barnette ruling:

     “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official,
     high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion,
     or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith
     therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now
     occur to us.”

Not only is it counterproductive to force people to participate in standardized ideological rituals—whether they believe in the expressed sentiments or not—but it is also a violation of both the wording and the spirit of our most important founding document, the Constitution of the United States. The Supreme Court said as much 75 years ago, but we should not have needed their reminder, not then or now.

Posted in Politics, Sociocultural | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on NFL Witness

Gun Simplicity

It should be patently obvious that the arguments involved in the discussion about the second amendment to the constitution, and about gun rights and gun control in the United States, have tended to greatly oversimplify reality. And the simplification goes well beyond such claims as the slippery slope paranoia that any restrictions will eventually lead to confiscation and the competing wishful thinking that a single piece of legislation—an assault weapons ban or universal background checks or universal open-carry or smarter guns—will solve almost all of our problems with gun violence. We also tend to greatly oversimplify the human factors.

My own exposure to guns began relatively early in my life, which means that my experiences have spanned many decades and a variety of activities. I’ve also known many different types of gun owners and users. When I was in my early teens my step-father took my sister and I out into the oak-forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas to fire a rifle at targets of opportunity, whatever was available. It wasn’t hunting, just target practice, and we didn’t shoot at anything that moved. It simply involved getting familiar with loading and aiming and pulling the trigger and getting some outdoor exercise. We didn’t do it often.

In high school I was in Junior ROTC. This required knowledge of a variety of military weaponry, and special familiarity with one surplus weapon that the army apparently had in abundance, the M1 Garand rifle that was standard issue during World War II. This is a relatively heavy 30-caliber semiautomatic long rifle. Its heft and balance and the wooden stock which encloses most of its barrel means it remains popular with honor guards and military drill teams even today. We didn’t fire the M1s, of course, we only cleaned them, marched with them, and learned the standard movements of individual arms drill. I was, however, one of the members of our school’s fifteen-man rifle team, which competed using fairly ordinary bolt-action 22-caliber rifles.

Therefore, by the time I volunteered for three years of military service I was already fairly familiar with guns. After boot camp there were two weeks of basic infantry training, which included target practice using the M1 Garand and a few other isolated experiences such as firing a 50-caliber machine gun and throwing a live hand grenade—interesting, but nothing I would spend money to repeat. I went from that into months of training to repair military radios, and although I spent nine months in Vietnam, the only time I held a weapon after that was when I was assigned to night-time sentry duty.

My mixed exposure to a variety of weapons is matched by experiences with a variety of people who own and use them. There are several types of these, exhibiting very different attitudes regarding their guns. For example, there are those who fire weapons almost entirely at targets at a firing range. Start with serious target shooters, some of whom are professionals. They choose the characteristics of their weapons to maximize accuracy. They tend to use manual bolt-action long rifles to better control the path of the bullet and to avoid the vibration induced when a semiautomatic weapon ejects a cartridge. They would be no more likely to use an AR-15 than a skeet shooter would be to use a sawed-off shotgun. On the other hand, there are recreational shooters who want to hit the target, but who are mostly in it for the sheer experience of firing a gun, perhaps even a variety of guns, including the AR-15 and other popular types. These include users who post pictures or videos online showing them firing rapidly, often with closeups of the gun itself. The gun, not the target or accuracy, is emphasized. At the extreme end of this group are the shooters who use bump stocks or other modifications to experience the thrill of fully automatic fire.

Then there are the hunters. In this case there are at least three sub-groups. We still have subsistence hunters, the ones who actually eat the animals they hunt or who use guns to kill wild predators who threaten them or their livestock. Their weapons of preference, depending on the purpose and the prey, are bolt-action rifles or shotguns. The intent is to kill with as few shots as possible, and from a distance. For them, accuracy is again a major goal. A second group of hunters, who sometimes also eat parts of their prey, are the trophy hunters. For these people the intent is, again, to kill quickly, with as few shots as possible. Again the weapon of choice tends to be the bolt-action rifle. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of trophy hunters, but I recognize that they, and the subsistence hunters, have much in common with the serious target shooters. Their weapons are chosen to fulfill a specific purpose.

The third group of hunter-types are epitomized by a group I knew in the military. These men would gather whatever weapons they could find, from rifles to assault weapons to pistols, and would go out into the hills to shoot at whatever they decided would make a good target. Using the title “hunter” for such a group could be inappropriate, as indicated by a statement I heard from one of these men after one of their “hunts”. He said, in a matter-of-fact comment accompanied by a smile, that “when you hit a squirrel with a 45-caliber slug, there’s not much left.” I doubt this group ever shot anything larger than a skunk or carried back any part of anything they killed. As with recreational target shooters, the idea is primarily to enjoy shooting, not to accomplish any specific purpose, and the weapon of choice could be anything, although some weapons are clearly more cool than others. Some isolated locations outside of cities are littered with bullets and casings left behind by such groups.

With such a wide variety of gun users in the United States, and with each group or sub-group having different reasons for owning and choosing their guns, how can we generalize about them and the NRA?One big problem with gun ownership, illustrated by many common attitudes held by recreational hunters and recreational target shooters, is that the concept of the “coolness” of certain guns is largely divorced from dedicated purposes such as serious target shooting and subsistence hunting. But when the National Rifle Association and its allies defend gun rights, they talk about supporting serious hunters (but notably, rarely about trophy hunters) and about another group, the self-defenders who own a gun to protect themselves. They don’t mention the small percentage of gun purchasers whose primary motivation is to collect and display and fire specific guns because they are “cool”—for example, because they are rapid-fire military carbines like those used in movies, or because they are historically significant, or because they use high-caliber ammunition.

It is important to recognize this because the NRA position on gun control is driven primarily by two constituencies that they rarely mention. One is gun manufacturers, the companies that have in recent decades provided the bulk of the funding that keeps the NRA afloat. The second constituency consists of the most devoted of gun fans, the ones who provide the most verbal support and single-issue voting patterns. The manufacturers oppose gun controls of all types because any restrictions on sales would cut into their profits; the devotees oppose them because they want to own the types of “cool” guns, ammo, and accessories that would likely be banned by new restrictions. Both constituencies eagerly help the NRA propagate the slippery slope myth of universal gun confiscation to attract more support, a strategy that has effectively attracted the votes of many ordinary owners who are not devotees but who, for example, simply want to keep one rifle for hunting or a small pistol to stop intruders at home.

The fact is that gun owners are only a small and declining percentage of U.S. citizens (currently about 31 percent), and the variety of reasons they have for gun ownership makes for poll results that go significantly against the NRA’s broad obstructionism. For example, a 2018 poll found strong support for gun controls opposed by the NRA: 88 percent for background checks on all gun sales, 78 percent for a three-day waiting period, and 68 percent for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. A Quinnipiac University National poll found similar results.

Yes, the NRA and their supporters like to pretend that they are keeping legitimate hunters and home-defenders away from the edge of the slippery slope. But in fact they are only defending two highly limited privileges desired by two relatively small populations: The ability of gun manufacturers to maintain their markets, and the ability of gun enthusiasts to purchase whatever destructive toys they desire. Note that these are indeed privileges, not rights; the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that the “right to bear arms” is not absolute. The position of the NRA, however, is absolute, despite the continuing human damage that their policies are causing in our country, not only the mass shootings that occur all too frequently but the even more destructive daily toll of suicides, accidental shootings, and murders and other crime-related incidents. We need to limit the NRA’s influence and apply some reasonable reality-based controls to our all-too-free market in weapons.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gun Simplicity

What Assault?

How did we get here? Once again, a mass shooting has reactivated what passes for a gun debate in the United States. This time the event occurred at a high school in Florida and seventeen people died, but those details, as with the details of the Pulse Nightclub shooting and the Mandalay Bay shooting, seem to be almost irrelevant as the two sides once again talk past each other. In the dueling statements there are also many misconceptions expressed about weapons, especially the weapons most commonly involved in such events; the ones commonly referred to as “assault weapons”. So I’ll start here with a little history.

Throughout most of the first World War there were three basic types of weapons. There were short-barrel semiautomatic pistols, but those were largely reserved for officers. Most infantrymen were assigned rifles. These were long-barreled guns with wooden stocks. They were bolt-action reloaders; essentially single-shot weapons despite the use of a variety of magazines or clips. A trained soldier could fire as many as ten to twelve rounds a minute. Their primary purpose was long-distance accuracy. The third type of gun, the one that decimated so many of those rifle-toting infantrymen in the no-man’s land between the trenches, was the long-barreled automatis machine gun, a stationary device because of its size and weight. All of these weapons had their own functions out in the open crater-filled fields. In the potentially crowded short-distance fighting inside a trench the machine gun was too bulky to be useful and the slow-firing rifles quickly became little more than extensions for the use of barrel-mounted bayonets.

In 1918, the last year of the war, a number of smaller guns were developed for battles inside trenches. Most were shorter rifle-type carbines that were capable of fully automatic fire. Improved straight recoil mechanisms reduced the tendency of the barrel to climb when fired, and a variety of magazine designs allowed expending twenty or thirty bullets without reloading. These early carbines, however, did not employ one of the most distinctive innovations that allowed more effective control at high rates of fire. That would be the pistol-grip popularized with the Thompson submachine gun. The tommy-gun was developed too late to have an effect on the first world war, but it became popular as a tool for both law enforcement and organized crime during the inter-war period. It’s appeal was enhanced by repeated appearances in movies and newsreels. Despite excessive weight and reliability problems it remained in common use throughout World War II and Korea, in part because of the stopping power of its large .45-caliber bullets.

In the 1920s the Germans developed the first modern assault rifle, the StG44. Modern assault weapons follow its basic pattern today, including such variants as the AK-47 Kalashnikov and the AR-15. They all have pistol grips to better control the gun as it fires rapidly. They all are chambered for lower-powered narrow calibers of ammunition, in the .22- to .30-caliber range, that help enable the weapon to be held steady at higher rates of fire. These relatively long, narrow rounds also are known for a tendency to wobble, ricochet, and/or fragment inside a body, causing significantly more damage than bullets that maintain a stable path. The guns all accept high capacity magazines that can be exchanged rapidly. None of these features is necessary in a hunting, sport, or home defense weapon; some, in fact, are counterproductive. These characteristics were designed for warfare, and have made the weapons ideal for mass murder.

The popularity of the Thompson submachine gun led to the passage of the 1934 National Firearms Act. This law, perhaps the only lasting example of sanity in U.S. national firearms policy, required registration of all fully automatic firearms and placed restrictions on ownership, transport, and transfer of such weapons. It is in large part because of this law that the two students who perpetrated the 1999 Columbine High School massacre were not able to purchase the .50-caliber fully automatic machine gun that they wanted to use. Unfortunately 1934 was the high point in federal gun control efforts in the United States.

After World War II there were a number of significant advances in the speed and variety of assault-style weapons. In the 1950s the compact Uzi design was developed. The 1960s saw the first of the AR-15 models. Both were capable of fully automatic fire and both became widely used by military units. As the 1970s ended, however, the manufacturers of these weapons began to see reduced sales because of increased competition from newer models, and they responded by moving into the civilian market, providing semiautomatic versions for sale throughout the United States. Of course, these were still weapons designed for rapid killing in relatively short-range situations. They were still capable of firing almost one round every second. The characteristics that allow a shooter to remain in control of the weapon in rapid-fire mode, to dominate a firefight, to expend a magazine of thirty or fifty rounds before reloading, and to reload in seconds; all of these entirely military functions remained.

Civilian sales of these did not take off immediately. At the same time, however, on the big screen there were a large number of popular movies in which fully automatic Uzi carbines were used by a variety of characters, from gangsters to terrorists to commandos. The Uzi became well-known. Then, in 1982, Sylvester Stallone became Rambo. In this case there was a single hero and the fully automatic AR-15 was often featured in extended scenes in which Rambo moved through a landscape firing while enemy soldiers haplessly ran out into the line of fire, destined to be cut down by a withering hail of bullets.

In 1983 a TV show called the A-team premiered. One of the regular features of this show was a sequence in which the actors used AR-15 carbines; actually semiautomatics but with sound effects and visuals implying that they were fully automatic. They would spray the area surrounding them with what sounded like hundreds of bullets, but somehow nobody got hurt and few vehicles were damaged. It must have been a low-budget show. The A-team was popular, regularly watched by one-fifth to one-fourth of the TV audience.

The next year (July 1984) a depressed man walked into a McDonalds in San Isidro, CA, with an Uzi semiauto carbine and killed 21 people and injured 19. This was the first modern mass shooting of more than twenty people by an individual civilian shooter. It was also the first in which a gun that is now considered an “assault weapon” was used. In the past 40 years, mass killings have steadily increased in frequency and destructiveness. Not all mass killings have used assault weapons; a few, in fact, have not involved guns at all. But the events with the highest death tolls have almost all involved versions of the AR-15. This is a weapon that has no reasonable purpose outside of the military, one that should be banned for use by civilians.

So we currently have available four general types of guns. The semiautomatic pistols are still with us, vastly improved, and arguably still have a role in self-defense. Long rifles, both single-shot and semiautomatic, still have a useful purpose in hunting and marksmanship. The remaining two types of weapons, the fully automatic long guns and the semiautomatic versions commonly called “assault weapons”, have legitimate functions in the military, but they have no real civilian applications that can’t be accomplished better with a pistol or rifle. Their primary purpose is rapid killing of humans. Unfortunately, only the fully automatic versions of these military weapons are either restricted or regulated in the United States. This makes large-scale mass murder significantly easier in our country, and the results are what we have repeatedly seen in many different locations, and with a wide variety of shooters.

Posted in Sociocultural | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on What Assault?

New Torture Director

The election of President Trump has in effect pushed our country back at least eight years in terms of our human rights policies. This should have not surprised anyone. During his campaign, Donald Trump not only displayed an abysmal lack of knowledge of foreign affairs, but he repeatedly made statements that endorsed “waterboarding and worse”. He promoted extrajudicial killings not only of suspected terrorists, but of members of their families as well. His macho stance in favor of wide-scale punishment of “our enemies”, sometimes generalized to any Muslims almost anywhere, may have been calculated primarily to energize his most radical followers. But in light of his continuing efforts to push ahead on almost all of his campaign promises, no matter how radical or unpopular or unconstitutional, and his expressed disdain for both minority groups and political opponents, his administration must be watched carefully for any actions that violate human rights protections.

The latest indication that the current president doesn’t care about human rights violations comes from his announcement that he wants Gina Haspel to be promoted to the highest leadership position in the CIA. In fact, we have seen this coming. On February 2, 2017, only a few days after Trump’s inauguration, the Trump administration had appointed her to be Deputy Director of the CIA . At that time, several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee protested based on her questionable background, but the Deputy Director position does not require Senate confirmation.

The background facts are that in 2002 Haspel was the head of a CIA “black site” detention and torture center in Thailand. During her time there, many prisoners were “waterboarded and worse”. One “high profile” detainee arrested in Pakistan, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded 83 times and subjected to a variety of other techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, small-box confinement, and physical assault. Many of these torture sessions were videotaped. In 2004, however, pictures of the horrible treatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were released, and media coverage expanded to question other CIA torture programs. The next year, in the midst of the resulting storm of coverage, Gina Haspel (according to her superior at the time) drafted a memo ordering the destruction of the videotapes of the torture sessions at the black site in Thailand. All tapes were then destroyed. In short, she not only administered a site where torture was common and frequent, but she acted to destroy significant evidence of these CIA crimes against humanity.

Back when the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke the CIA and its defenders tried to argue that it was a case of an isolated group of jail personnel who went rogue and invented the torture methods on their own. Later investigations, however, demonstrated that the same procedures were common at other military prisons in Iraq and at many CIA black sites across the globe. The personnel at all of these sites told of higher-level CIA operatives and contractors who repeatedly arrived for training sessions and who recommended the use of the same techniques discovered at Abu Ghraib. Even so, only the guards stationed at Abu Ghraib were ever prosecuted and punished for those actions. The CIA leaders and others responsible for promoting and overseeing such torture, including Gina Haspel, were never held responsible.

It is inevitable that one of the first trends following the announcement of Haspel’s pending appointment to CIA Director was a renewal of the arguments for and against not only torture, but for and against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The apologists have been out in full force. Their primary argument is that it is unfair to judge Haspel based on the modified “new” anti-torture interrogation code that was installed in 2006 (actually, restored to the pre-2002 rules). Back in 2002, they say, the nation wanted revenge for the September 11th attack and torture had been declared legal and “everyone” accepted it as an appropriate and effective alternative interrogation method.

Admittedly, it is true that the Bush administration not only made up an entire false reality to justify the war in Iraq, they also developed a very strict legal justification for torture. The set of memos was drafted in 2002 by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee. The memos conveniently redefined habeus corpus to allow indefinite detention of “enemy combatants”, who sometimes were U.S. citizens. They also redefined torture so that most of the actions defined as torture under international law were no longer defined as such by the United States. Now, admittedly, much of the Bush storm of false facts and redefinitions was supported, even cheered on, by most of the mainstream media, at least until Abu Ghraib. But acceptance of the Bush administration plans was far from universal, not even within the federal government.

The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 did help create a sort of national unity against terrorism, but not regarding the programs created by the Bush administration to respond to that event. Across the country prior to the beginnings of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq there were hundreds of large anti-war protests, in many ways inspired by news commentaries that the justifications for the wars were bogus. There were members of congress who voted against both wars and others who opposed the conclusions of the John Yoo memos.

Under federal law, 18 U.S. Code para. 2318, enacted in 1994, torture is defined in ways that would include most of the procedures applied at CIA black sites, and it is prohibited. Torture is also precluded by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a series of later international agreements signed by the U.S., stating with the 1949 Geneva Conventions. More directly, there was a methodology divide between the CIA and other agencies devoted to intelligence and enforcement. The FBI did not use torture. In fact, the FBI philosophy was that normal interrogation techniques, which included efforts to build rapport with suspects by engaging them in normal conversation. were the only truly effective tools. In the case of Abu Zubaydah, a two-man FBI team arrived at the Thailand site first, and they controlled the discussions with Zubaydah for three months, even after the CIA team arrived. During that period, the suspect divulged several items of useful information about Al Quaeda personnel and activities. Then the CIA team took over, the FBI members were sent packing, and the torture began. There are disagreements about the results, but most impartial observers have concluded that Zubaydah provided almost nothing of value after the CIA took over.

Our interrogations of suspected terrorists would likely have been much more productive if the CIA had followed the rules of the Geneva Conventions, the strictures of U.S. law, and the policies of the FBI. However, effectiveness is only one of the criteria arguing against torture. The fact is that the CIA and its contracted mercenary teams were committing crimes against humanity no less illegal and immoral than many of those for which we prosecuted leaders of the Axis powers after World War II.

The Germans who were arrested and subjected to the trials in Nuremberg, Germany after World War II repeatedly argued that they were “just following orders”, a lawyerly plea that became known as the “Nuremberg defense”. It was soundly rejected not only by the prosecutors and the trial judges but by the media. In the Pacific our government also conducted the Tokyo tribunals (the International Military Tribunal for the Far East) condemning Japanese military leaders for their involvement in torturing allied prisoners. One of the primary methods specifically rejected and defined as torture during that tribunal was waterboarding (“the water treatment”). And yet, the use of the very same techniques during the period 2002 to 2006 are being excused because of the Yoo memos and the predominant pro-torture philosophy of the Bush Administration. Largely because of this modern application of the “Nuremberg defense”, none of the leaders of the CIA nor the Bush team have been either prosecuted or threatened with loss of their positions because of their involvement with illegal procedures such as extraordinary rendition or torture.

So should Gina Haspel have been investigated? Yes. Should she have been prosecuted for war crimes? Possibly, depending on the results of the investigation. Should she be promoted the leadership of the CIA? No, absolutely not, not until her role in the 2002 torture and rendition and the 2005 coverup are thoroughly investigated. In the meantime, the Senate should refuse to confirm her nomination. And the Trump administration should be given a clear signal that torture is not acceptable.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on New Torture Director

Drive Clueless

A long road trip can bring you in touch with, albeit anonymously, many forms of clueless human behavior. When I say clueless in reference to other drivers, I am perhaps being either overly generous or overly damning with my description. Not knowing these people or what’s going on in their vehicles, not being aware of anything that may be influencing their inconsiderate and infuriating actions, I will settle on the assumption that they are simply blissfully unaware of the reality of the situation. This, of course, does not apply to those situations in which I pass an inconsiderate driver and see them with a cell phone held to their ear. In those cases it is obvious that they are clueless. That did not happen in the events described below.

I have just completed a multi-hour trip, from Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon and back, and it has provided me with multiple reminders of how inattentive some drivers (thankfully only a few) can be. First, my own freeway strategy. On a four-lane highway such as Interstate 40 I generally put our car in cruise control set at eighty and spend much of the time in the left-hand (a.k.a. “fast”) lane. The speed limit is seventy-five, so that means we pass virtually all of the tractor-trailers and about half of the cars we encounter.

On our first day out this time the trip west was going well for the first 150 miles, until not long after we crossed the state line into Arizona. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Arizona except, of course, the state’s dominant political philosophy. The timing in this case, I’m sure, was purely coincidental. We were in the right lane at the time and coming up behind a black SUV that was following a semi. In most cases I am careful about black sport vehicles and pickups; experience has demonstrated that they often contain somewhat aggressive drivers, the type who rush up behind you on a two-lane road and tailgate you briefly, and then try to pass even where there is hardly any visible open blacktop up ahead. A few miles west of Gallup, however, this particular black SUV seemed relatively sedate, at least from a couple hundred yards back. But when I switched to the left lane to pass, it also changed lanes ahead of me, apparently deciding, right at that moment, that it was time for them to pass the semi, too. In hindsight, that should have been the first clue that there would be trouble. Unfortunately, the SUV didn’t seem to increase its speed much. So I dropped out of cruise and slowed down and followed. At this point, the SUV was not moving much faster than the truck, so it took some five minutes for it to clear the front of the semi and to move back into the slow lane.

This is a situation familiar to many drivers, I’m sure, one that most often involves two massive tractor-trailers on a long uphill stretch. Just as you approach from behind and change into the fast lane, anticipating an easy and brief passing maneuver, the rear semi decides that it is moving infinitesimally faster than the leading one and deserves to pass as well, so it also changes lanes and creates a huge two-lane wall of truck-derriere that effectively blocks any chance of going any faster than either truck for what seems like an eternity. I usually try to excuse such behavior because I realize that there must be many frustrations in pushing a load that large up a steep grade. it’s still frustrating, but I make allowances.

In the case of the black SUV on I-40 there was no such excuse. That event was similar to a double-truck wall at first, but eventually became worse. After the SUV eased past the truck it did do the right thing; it signaled and moved back into the slow lane. I resumed our previous cruise control setting and pulled past it, staying in the fast lane in preparation for passing the next semi, which was another couple hundred yards ahead. Just as the black SUV slipped behind our rear bumper, however, it suddenly accelerated and passed us on the right, then changed lanes to once again block our ability to pass the next truck. Then, of course, it decreased its speed again. So we were forced to repeat the previous slow passing scenario. My solution? This time—after we got past both vehicles, of course—I accelerated to ninety-five, hoping there weren’t any highway patrol cars nearby, and stayed with that speed until we were at least a quarter-mile ahead of that unaccountably self-centered (or perhaps passive-competitive?) SUV driver.

Not much later we came across another situation that we have experienced far too often. We had just passed another semi when another SUV, a white one this time, came up behind us, traveling fairly rapidly. I saw it coming and courteously signaled and drifted to the right lane, getting out of the way before it had a chance to tailgate our car. I do try to be a good driver, I do! There was another tractor-trailer up ahead, but given the speed of the SUV and the distances involved I knew that I would have time to slip left again, after it passed me, without cutting the cruise control. That’s what I assumed, anyway. What I couldn’t have accounted for was what happened then. The SUV quickly rode up abreast of our car and then slowed down, matching our speed and blocking our access to the fast lane. It stayed there. I looked ahead at the semi that was now getting closer. It was, by then, too late to pull ahead of the SUV and pass the truck, so I had to reduce my speed, drop back, and follow the SUV.

As I said, this kind of thing happens fairly often. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that some people accelerate slowly, without really paying attention to their speedometer, until they pass someone, at which point they realize how fast they are actually going and, suddenly reminded of the potential threat of police and prosecution and delays and hefty fines, they drop back to a rate more closely approximating the speed limit. That’s just my guess. Of course, their behavioral correction in the fast lane comes at the expense of those of us who were already obeying the law (well, approximately) in the first place and who suddenly find ourselves blocked in, lagging behind somebody who should have either remained well behind us or quickly passed and gone ahead.

As we approached Flagstaff a third event occurred, one that involved an action that I don’t remember ever having experienced before. It involved yet another SUV, this time one of those smaller crossover models, but still an SUV. I’m not ready to call this a trend, though. The fact that all three of these incidents involved a misbehaving SUV does not, for me, imply anything about the owners or drivers of such vehicles. It may simply be that so many of them are on the road these days. And I recognize that this not a statistically valid set of observations, but yes, the three clueless incidents on this one day were one hundred percent SUV-related. They were also one hundred percent in Arizona, also a meaningless statistic. Of course, they were also one hundred percent semi-related, by which I mean that there were also tractor-trailers involved in each case, but the semi drivers were not the ones at fault. In the third case below, in fact, the semi-driver was the primary victim of the SUV behavior. Okay, and I must also admit that my previously-expressed prejudice about the drivers of black pickups has also not been statistically verified.

At any rate, as we drew closer to Flagstaff we came upon a semi rapidly catching up behind a small SUV that was traveling at a rate considerably below the speed limit. The semi, understandably, signaled and pulled over into the fast lane to pass, and managed to pass the SUV fairly quickly. That is, almost all of it passed the SUV quickly. But the closer the back end of the truck got to the front of the SUV the faster the SUV began to move. I was running slightly below the speed limit behind the truck, waiting for it to return to the right-hand lane ahead of the SUV, but that didn’t happen as it should have. So for almost ten minutes there was, before me, a small SUV in the right lane hanging on to the back corner of the truck in the left lane like the second goose in a flying V-formation, but staying close enough so that the truck driver was not able to change lanes and let me pass. For more than a mile the semi was trapped in the left lane. In turn, we were trapped behind the semi. I have no idea what the driver of the SUV was thinking—perhaps she (yes, we eventually discovered that it was a she) was simply taking advantage of the shadow of the semi to shield her eyes from the late afternoon sun—but her oblivious actions kept us, and two other cars behind us, from continuing on at the speed we would have preferred. Self-centered? Perhaps. Clueless or thoughtless and/or unobservant? Certainly.

These three incidents occurred in the space of less than three hours and two hundred miles of travel. That’s not bad, I suppose, given the large number of cars and trucks we shared the road with. And our travel could easily have been worse. As we passed through Gallup earlier that day we saw an accident that had tied up the east-bound lanes, causing a virtual shutdown of traffic for miles. Fortunately for us that was on the on the other side of the freeway; sometimes we can be thankful for divided highways. And our return trip to Albuquerque three days later was uneventful, except, of course for the usual three or four incidents of slow semis passing even slower semis. The fact is, we can never really fathom the motives of other drivers, though we often try, but we can be thankful that virtually all of them are courteous and attentive, even as we recall (not so fondly) the exceptions.

Posted in Sociocultural, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Drive Clueless

Poor Connections

In interviews and campaign press releases, Republican leaders like to brag about their humble beginnings and how much they care about people who are suffering financially. This has been a common GOP strategy at least as far back as the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who used it as cover when he slashed taxes on the wealthy and raised taxes on everyone else. He set the standard used by the GOP even today; tell the country that you are cutting taxes and hope that everyone will ignore the fact that the benefits go almost exclusively to the most wealthy. Meanwhile, the loss of government revenues means that most programs that benefit the rest of us, and that many of us desperately need, will have to be slashed. The Robin Hood program, only in reverse.

The misdirection in their approach came to the surface dramatically again recently with the passage of the 2017 tax “reform” bill. In the lead-up to that vote, a heated exchange occurred in the Senate Finance committee between Senators Sherrod Brown and Orrin Hatch. The Washington Post provided this description:

      Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) engaged in extended sparring with committee
      chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) over who would benefit from the Senate bill,
      with Brown insisting that it fundamentally represents a tax cut for the rich and
      not the middle class. This drew an enraged response from Hatch, even though
      Brown’s argument was 100 percent correct.

      All this made Hatch angry. “I come from the poor people,” Hatch said. “And I’ve
      been here working my whole stinkin’ career for people who don’t have a chance.
      And I really resent anybody saying that I’m just doing this for the rich.
      Give me a break. I think you guys overplay that all the time, and it gets old.
      And frankly, you ought to quit it.” When Brown pushed back by suggesting
      that previous tax cuts for the rich haven’t produced the results Republicans
      are once again predicting, Hatch silenced him.

Yes, Orrin Hatch began his “whole stinkin’ career” with a childhood in poverty, born and raised in a house without indoor plumbing. He had eight brothers and sisters, two of whom died as infants and one who died in World War II as a B-24 nose gunner. He attended public schools all the way up through the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. So he does have authentic family poverty bona fides, just like the current leaders of the Republican-led congress.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell suffered from polio as a child, beginning when he was two years old. He recovered with the help of the Warm Springs Resort in Georgia, a complex that had been bought and rehabilitated by Franklin Roosevelt and taken over and supported by the State of Georgia for the benefit of polio victims. Because of his illness his family, in his words, “almost went broke”. After he recovered he attended public schools throughout his education, up to his graduation from the University of Kentucky college of Law.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan attended Catholic schools through high school, in part supporting himself by working at the grill in a McDonalds. When he was 16 his father died and his grandmother moved in with the family. She had Alzheimers and he helped his mother take care of her needs. For two years following his father’s death he received Social Security survivor’s benefits, which he saved to help him get through college. He attended Miami of Ohio, a public university.

Here’s the question: How is it that these men can remember their humble beginnings and, despite that, work tirelessly to undermine the government supports that made it possible for them to succeed? We can only infer that the only thing they gained from their experience with poverty is a desperate drive to avoid poverty (1) by never thinking seriously about it, and (2) by kowtowing to the rich.

Look at the evidence. The 2017 tax bill, which was supported by all three of these men, made drastic permanent reductions in the taxes paid by wealthy people and corporations. It also provided small reductions for most everyone else, but those “tax cuts for us” expire in 2025. The result adds more than a hundred billion to the annual national deficit, the debt that will have to be paid back by our children. The three GOP leaders recognize the debt-mountain they are creating, so in order to reduce it a bit they are already talking about massive reductions in social programs, including Medicaid and Medicare and welfare and food stamps and federal education supports.

Yes, the very same Paul Ryan who depended on Social Security survivor benefits to put him through college now wants to make drastic cuts in Social Security and other programs, for everyone. This in spite of the fact that the social safety net has already been diminished through repeated austerity budgets in the past three decades. And these three GOP leaders, all of whom benefited from public education, now want to continue the recent trend of making public universities more expensive and reducing support for public elementary and secondary schools. In these and many other ways, these men who were provided with government help in climbing the social ladder are now doing everything they can to remove many of the rungs on the very ladders they used.

For decades the GOP justified cuts in social programs by complaining about the size of the federal deficit. Their argument, however, has been proven specious by their unanimous votes to pass the 2017 tax package, a record giveaway that significantly reversed the progress that the Obama administration had made in reducing the deficit. This was a supersized repeat of the Bush tax cuts that turned the 1999 Clinton budget surpluses into large 2002 deficits. Some Republicans have explained, with uncharacteristic candor, that they had to pass that bill because the tax cuts were demanded by their campaign donors. In other words, they don’t really want to reduce the deficit. They want to enrich their already-wealthy friends, at any cost. So much for caring about the needy. So much for the lessons they might have learned from their humble backgrounds. In the continuing battles of class warfare, these three men and their Republican colleagues have clearly sided with the plutocrats rather than with their origins. I’m certain that Orrin Hatch recognized this fact, and that is why he protested so vehemently when it was pointed out in public. The truth can hurt, especially if you’re in politics.

The current donor system of campaign financing is a serious impediment to any efforts to provide assistance to people who suffer from poverty and unemployment and inadequate health care. People with money to donate get the legislation they want. Other people don’t. But there’s another reason why so many Republicans, even those who should know better, continue to vote against programs that provide the social safety net. That reason is the ubiquitous conservative philosophy that emphasizes individualism and self-reliance. Many prosperous people believe that their success is the result of their own personal effort and characteristics. They want to believe they are self-made. Their personal narrative doesn’t want to attribute their good fortune to luck or family resources or general economic stability or white privilege or even supportive infrastructure factors such as good roads and clean water and effective schools. As a result, they see no reason to support such things with tax money, and they make huge donations to the GOP and get, in return, even larger tax breaks.

The system must be changed. One way to do that is to ignore what politicians tell us about their humble beginnings. Instead, ask them, repeatedly, what they have done for the poor and middle class lately.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Poor Connections

The Year of Me Too

The Person of the Year this year, at least according to Time magazine, was not a person, but a group—a large group, in fact, all of them female. Under the title “The Silence Breakers”, the cover featured five of the women who have exposed powerful men for their tendency to harass or belittle or threaten or rape people who were dependent on their decisions. The many other women who have also come forward are represented anonymously on the cover by the elbow of another woman who remains mostly off the right side. In 2017, their actions have become an odd sort of social event, a movement composed largely of individual decisions motivated by the individual decisions of others. One woman comes forward and inspires another to speak, then another and another. In most cases, their efforts have become effective only through the cumulative force of multiple reinforcing stories.

The wave of accusations caused an explosion in a pre-existing online campaign. The sharing of stories of sexual harassment using the phrase “Me Too” began in 2006, created by community organizer Tarana Burke on the MySpace network as an effort to create “empowerment through empathy”. It inspired the creation of of the Twitter meme #MeToo, and in 2017 that collection of personal complaints and inspiration quickly grew to millions of messages worldwide. Actress Alyssa Milano, providing her own vignette about producer Harvey Weinstein, wrote “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” That magnitude should have been obvious to anyone open to the ubiquity of sexual harassment, but fewer people can now remain in denial.

There are several recent well-publicized events that presaged, and in some ways promoted or influenced the current movement. An early one may have been the publication of Cheryl Sandberg’s self-help book Lean In. Among some commentators, at least, that book has been credited with inspiring a certain amount of self-assertiveness, a willingness of individual women to stand up for themselves and not to remain silent in the face of mistreatment. That is probably a stretch, one that certainly overstates the influence of Sandberg’s book.

A more likely initial inspiration was the 2016 election, the one that saw an admitted sexual predator and government amateur win the presidential contest against an accomplished, experienced, knowledgeable woman. The election brought us the massive demonstration on the day after President Trump’s inauguration, a protest that included proponents of many progressive issues, but which was primarily a “Women’s March” against sexual harassment. The march developed into a movement organization, Together We Rise. The election and march inspired a record number of women to run for office around the country, which in turn led to a surprising number of women winning their races, especially in the November Virginia elections.

Throughout 2017, in short, women were prompted to speak out in extraordinary ways, and, in another extraordinary development, the media began noticing and providing broad coverage. It didn’t hurt that even before the election, Fox News fired Gretchen Carlson, which led to her lawsuit and complaints from other employees, and the down fall of Roger Ailes and a number of other Fox employees. Post-election and protests, it is not surprising that a few complaints against Harvey Weinstein became a flood that spawned a series of New York Times articles and harassment charges involving more than 90 women, and that led to a tsunami that swamped other luminaries, including directors Brett Ratner and James Toback; Bill O’Reilly; actors Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck, and Kevin Spacey; media icons Matt Lauer and Mark Halprin; comedian Louis C.K.; politicians Roy Moore, John Conyers, and Al Franken. Oh, and also, oddly enough, Garrison Keillor. Of the above listed men, only Donald Trump has retained his job (the GOP tried to keep Roy Moore, too, but failed).

The perpetrators and their supporters generally deny the accusations. When they can’t entirely imply that their accusers are liars or that the relationships were consensual, they often come up with excuses . The most interesting of these is the one forwarded in defense of Weinstein, who claimed that he “came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.” This is a theme used by many older predators, including Bill Cosby. Apparently these men and their friends believe that it is impossible to learn and adjust as we age—the old dog and new tricks defense. Unfortunately, their memory of the cultural norms of the past are also flawed. Yes, men have had exaggerated expectations of sexual favors if they had economic or political power, and they may have taken advantage of their relative privilege more often in the past. They undoubtedly faced fewer adverse consequences.

But the sixties was no golden age of male dominance. Yes, there were many jokes and cartoons about bosses chasing their secretaries around the desk, and stories about the casting couch, but those were not signs of approval. And in case you don’t believe that, I have a movie for you to watch. It is The Apartment, an excellent 1960 winner of 5 academy awards which explores the misuse of office power relationships to take advantage of women. The dominant male predators are definitely not positive roles. So the decade did not begin well for tolerance of sexual harassment. And yes, one of the counter-culture efforts of the 1960’s involved sexual liberation, but that was predicated on consensual relationships.

What a concept. Consensual relationships. Why don’t these men understand that? The fact is, there are no excuses for sexual harassment. Like rape, it is generally more about power and dominance than about sexual attraction. It is simply another way for men who have control over the working lives of women to manifest their position and humiliate subordinates. And it is attempted by men at all management levels. As Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center noted, “We don’t read lots of news stories about fast food workers experiencing harassment and retail workers experiencing harassment and hotel maids experiencing harassment, but that’s not because it’s not happening.” The media concentrates on the wealthy and well-known, but that, to mangle a phrase, is just the visible tip of the dysfunction.

Tarana Burke, in an interview in the Nation (December 4/11, 2017), notes that she is concerned that the MeToo movement, and the public view of the scandals, will be distorted through a focus on popular individuals. This seems to be happening in the media coverage, and that may mean that the attention will decline after all of the high-profile scandals are resolved or forgotten. It has happened before. This time the perp count is larger and more influential, but the same pattern may still occur. That’s why Burke wants the focus now to be on power and privilege, not individuals. We must focus on the ubiquitous nature of the problem and the importance of believing and encouraging victims, and punishing the guilty. The focus must be on all of the MeToo messages and messengers, now and in the future. And the response must be clear; the predators must lose.

Posted in Sociocultural | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Year of Me Too