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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Faux Foot Follies

This is a pre-Thanksgiving blog entry, and what could be more appropriate for that than a discussion of … football? After all, Thanksgiving is the traditional football holiday, isn’t it? The game has always been an object of devotion in the United States, rating as high on the loyalty scale as religion, which, unsurprisingly enough, also competes for our attention every Sunday. However, there is a problem. The U.S. version of football is under siege right now, from several directions. So, what’s causing the problems now?

Let’s start with the current controversy about two “nationals”; the National Football League and the National Anthem. Sports and politics, mixed into one controversy and pulled kicking and screaming over into patriotism, all of them volatile topics! We’ve all seen the images of many NFL players “taking the knee” during the anthem, in protest. They actually started this in protest of injustice and racial bias, not against the anthem or the flag, but we can’t simply let protesters decide what their protests are about, can we? Much better if we decide for them, and claim that they are disrespecting the song and the flag and our military and the very principles this nation was founded to promote—even as they protest in support of the principles this nation was founded to promote.

One of the many irrational responses to the players’ protest—and those responses have been dominated by irrational responses—is the movement by fans to boycott football. Fans have even scorned their wannabe fantasy connections to the action on the field, burning their favorite player jerseys and team banners, tossing their season tickets, walking out before the game starts. That’s obviously because nothing causes the NFL team owners more pain than when someone who has already paid for the entire season decides not to stay and watch the game. So far, it seems that the biggest losers from the controversy are the many small shops that deal in sports memorabilia, which have noticed a significant decline in business during the otherwise-busy NFL season. Of course, they’ll undoubtedly recoup many of those losses later, when the same fans come back in to replace the items they burned or tossed.

All of this happens to create mixed feelings in me. I support the player protests, without question. I believe that Colin Kaepernick (and Eric Reid) had every right to protest racial injustice in any way they felt they could, at any time they felt would be most effective, and that the players who continue this protest are also well within their rights and well within the best traditions of the United States and of nonviolent dissent. Note: polls show that a majority of fans agree. No, my problem is that I would like to do what I can to counter the boycott, but I have effectively ignored virtually the entire football season every year for decades, and it wouldn’t make any sense for me to start watching any games now. I guess I could go out and buy a Kaepernick jersey, if I could even find one anywhere, but it would just end up gathering dust in the garage somewhere.

So let’s move on to the important question of whether U.S. football should be radically altered (or even ended) because of the ubiquitous problem with concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). U.S. football is caught between those people concerned for the players, on one hand, and the other fans (like President Trump) that say that crackdowns on unnecessary roughness are “making the NFL really boring” and “ruining the game” (never mind that football has always been pretty boring—more on that later). The fact is, even devoted fans should care enough to want the players to survive their brief careers relatively intact, especially mentally. If players are spared, either by ending the game forever or by switching to professional flag football, I wouldn’t mind. Personally, I’m not invested in the NFL product or in the ubiquitous college or high school leagues which serve as the minor league apprenticeship system for the NFL.

Let me digress a moment. I am a fan of real football, the “futbol” that is popular throughout the world and that features ninety minutes of virtually non-stop strategic action that pauses briefly only when one team scores a goal and celebrates, which isn’t often, or when someone gets injured (or, more often, dramatically collapses with a fake injury). Neither of these ever causes a very long delay. If you’re watching real football, which people in the U.S. call soccer, there are no opportunities to go out to the kitchen to get another beer or more chips, and there are precious few breaks for advertisements. The time clock and game play almost never stops. I might also point out, by way of justifying use of the name football here, rather than soccer, that real football is in fact the only game in which the ball is moved up and down the field almost entirely by real feet—there’s actually a serious penalty called if a player touches the ball with hands or arms. That’s my bias.

But let’s return to what some people call “gridiron football,” the game played only in the United States and Canada. It could also be called by the name my friends and I used to use when I was young, which was “tackle football”. We could simply get rid of the misnomer “football” and shorten that to “Tackle”. That makes sense because the action called a tackle is probably the most significant element of game play. There are actions called tackles in real football and in rugby, also, but they don’t have the effect of stopping play, as they do in tackle football. But I want to go further. For the rest of this blog post, I will refer to tackle football as “SAR”, short for “Stop-Action Rugby.” I do this because game play in tackle football, and even the shape of the ball itself, is closest to the game of rugby, but with much more frequent stops and restarts. What’s with with the shape of that ball, anyway? An egg modified to increase the unpredictable erratic action when it bounces? Admittedly, the ball does work better in a game where it is so often moved down the field by throwing it, an action, I might note, not involving feet. But I digress again …

The play action on the field of SAR (Tackle) was adequately summarized back in the 1980’s by Mikhail Gorbachev, when President Reagan invited him to attend his first game. In response to a vague question about what he thought of it, he stated, factually, “All get up, all fall down.” SAR is a game in which the average play, the action part, lasts less than ten seconds. Then the teams get ready for the next play; they have at least 25 seconds to do that, and often run right up against that limit. That means repeated short spans of downtime in which players celebrate their last run or pass or tackle, then mill around a bit, then form a huddle (or not), and finally line up for the next play. There is generally so much setup time between plays that on television the broadcasters follow almost every play with an instant replay of what we just saw.

SAR is a game which consists of four 15-minute quarters, supposedly an hour of actual playing time, but the total game length generally, and unpredictably, takes more than three hours. Okay, there’s also a half-hour half-time break, but that still leaves about an hour and a half of extra off-the-clock time. Every SAR game has up to 12 time-outs, two two-minute warnings, lengthier pauses for injuries and penalties, and longer setup periods after every score (i.e., touchdown or field goal) and every time the ball changes hands (i.e., punt). It’s as if the game was designed specifically to allow as much downtime as possible for paid TV commercials. I’m sure the sponsors and the owners love it. In fact, the primary characteristic that makes SAR so boring is the very same thing that makes it so profitable on television.

That profit is vital. The importance of TV revenue is demonstrated most effectively by the lack of loyalty of team owners to “their” fans. Take this from someone who grew up in Oakland, California, which was not once, but actually twice, the “home city” of the team soon to be known as the Las Vegas Raiders. If a team owner doesn’t think the TV viewership in “their” city is providing enough profit, they pack up and leave for a greener locale (that is, one with higher audience ratings and, if possible, a newer stadium with more luxury skyboxes). Yet another digression: That’s an excellent reason to support the Green Bay Packers, the only team owned by the city. Other NFL cities should follow their lead. Instead of going into debt to build a new stadium for an ungrateful private owner, they should buy the team outright. Use eminent domain, if necessary!

Finally, player specialization is also extreme in SAR. Backs are relatively flexible (except the quarterback, who is essentially a risk-averse ball-delivery mechanism), but linemen are intentionally loaded down with extra gut weight, all the better to keep them from being pushed around. They are the Sumo wrestlers of U.S. sport. Each SAR team also consists of several separate teams, one for offense, one for defense, and yet another set of players who sit on the sidelines for virtually the entire game, waiting for the very few minutes in each game devoted to kicking the ball and returning kicked balls (the “special” teams). It makes sense, then, that there is extra setup time every time the ball changes hands, because everyone on the field must be replaced with an entirely different team. That, of course, provides a chance to play four or five more advertisements. Is it any wonder that half of the hype for the big annual Super Bowl now refers to the commercials?

SAR, however, will survive all of the current threats and downturns. This is in part because it is a traditional ritual, especially on Thanksgiving, but mainly because it provides a massive amount of revenue, and the television stations and owners use some of that money to promote the game and build audiences. They won’t let the golden goose die. So there will continue to be more than enough eyes in the living rooms across the country to keep the money flowing, boycott or not.

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Luther at 500

Five hundred years ago, on the last day of October, an event occurred that would reverberate across Europe and change the structures of both religion and government. On that day a 34-year-old theology professor and preacher at the University of Wittemberg, Germany, posted a list on the door of a local church. It contained 95 theses questioning the established dogma and activities of the Catholic Church. He was most directly inspired by a disagreement over the use of indulgences, a common practice in which Catholic officials solicited payments from faithful church members for mitigation of sins and other favors, such as efforts to reduce the amount of time that dead family members would spend in purgatory. For years there had been growing dissatisfaction with the church, the result of the perceived greed of the clergy and rumors involving lavish spending and sexual misconduct in the Vatican.

Martin Luther was a complex individual, who “cuts a perplexing historical figure. In various depictions, he is by turns fiery or meek, bombastic or shy, licentious or pious, revolutionary or reactionary. Cunning or naively bewildered by what his high-minded remonstrance unleashed on the world.” (Elizabeth Bruenig, The Nation, July 31, 2017). He instigated and effectively promoted the Protestant revolution in religion, but in the 1524 Peasants’ War, the conflict between feudal subjects and the German princes, he clearly sided with the royal establishment. He was a university professor who defended his positions with powerful logic, but who also called for blind faith, saying that “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has … treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” And the forces he inspired were often irrational, if not anti-rational; the most common early victims of the populist violence inspired by Luther’s anti-authoritarian arguments were not leaders in the Catholic Church, although some of those were also attacked, but intellectuals and philosophers.

Earlier unsuccessful attempts at breaking away from the monopolistic power of the Roman Catholic leadership included the Great Schism of 1054, in which the eastern Orthodox Church separated from Rome. A temporary second schism occurred due to a disputed papal election in 1378, leading to the existence of three popes competing for power until 1417. That division was almost entirely the result of political intrigues, not of differences in doctrine. Near the end of this period some early protestant churches were formed, led by John Wycliff (Oxford University) and Jan Hus (Charles University of Prague), both of whom objected to many Catholic practices. Some reforms in those churches included liturgy in the language of the congregants (Czech or English), married priests, the elimination of indulgences and purgatory, and justification (divine pardon) based on faith alone. The Catholic Church requires both faith and “good works” for justification, and “good works” all too often were defined as donations to the Church. The second schism and the early protestant efforts were ended by the Council of Constance (1414-1417), which elected a single Pope, Martin V, and condemned both Wycliff and Hus. Hus was executed by burning, while Wycliff, who was already dead, was exhumed and his remains burned. The lesson was thus sent and further reforms were subdued.

Yet there were continuing perceptions that all was not right in the Catholic Church. After the Council of Constance there were two more official ecumenical councils, attempts to study and address complaints. Information about the church’s failings were increasingly publicized through the availability of printing presses, invented in 1444 and by 1500 found in almost all cities in Europe. Martin Luther was personally repulsed by many of the Church’s practices, most directly during a pilgrimage to Rome in 1511, where he discovered immorality and corruption unexpected in the seat of the Catholic Church.

The Fifth Council of the Lateran, begun in 1512 and concluded in March of 1517, produced a lengthy list of decrees for minor reforms, but ignored the major problems recognized by many throughout Europe. Seven months later Martin Luther posted his list of 95 theses. At first, Pope Leo X ignored his arguments. But soon, Luther was excommunicated by the Church and declared a heretic. At first, he was protected by Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony. Luther repeatedly rejected the authority of the Pope and called for a new non-hierarchical system based on scripture. In the following years he would add many published works regarding the Pope, devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints, celibacy, the sale of indulgences, excommunication, justification and good works, and other Church doctrines and practices. A growing number of followers printed and distributed pamphlets containing his writings throughout Europe. He produced a German translation of the New Testament which became a best-seller.

The new Protestant and Lutheran movement quickly subdivided under various leaders, including Huldrych Zwingli of Switzerland and John Calvin of France, not to mention the Anglican variant, created by England’s Henry VIII for quite different reasons. In nations where the Catholic Church retained influence over the government it struck back forcibly, most notably in Spain and the Spanish colonies in the New World, where printing presses were tightly controlled and the violent religious inquisition was extended through most of the 16th century. In France, persecution of the Protestant Huguenots led to a series of religious wars. In the American English colonies, many protestant sects persecuted or imprisoned members of other sects before such actions were made illegal and eventually unconstitutional. And within the Catholic world itself there was increased pressure for real reforms that reduced corruption. The Church’s response was delayed by a series of conflicts with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who sacked Rome in 1527, and with France’s King Francis I, who called for a general council including representatives of the major protestant churches. But eventually they convened one of their most important ecumenical councils, the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which responded to this pressure by standardizing many of the church doctrines and the biblical canon. Indulgences were retained, but abuses of the practice were forbidden.

The eventual outcome of all of this is that we now have a wide variety of religious options available to us, and there is no longer a single monopolistic entity controlling the religious doctrines and governmental structures that direct our lives. That alone is a major improvement and advancement of personal and societal freedom that can be traced back directly to Martin Luther.

The influence of Luther’s 1517 action and his consequent influence is not limited to religion. The spreading revolt against the Catholic Church became a symbol of the possibility of rising up against political authority as well. The German Peasants’ War of 1524, which Luther eventually opposed, was inspired by his example. Luther’s writings also argued that the earthly political sphere and the kingdom of heaven should remain separate. In other words, the long-standing identification of government with God and the Church, and the use of justifying doctrines such as the divine right of kings, could now be questioned. This is a major step in the development of social contract theory, the idea that any government derives its authority not from divine selection and approval, but from the consent of the governed.

It is possible that Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the other philosophers of the Enlightenment would have come up with Social Contract Theory on their own—there were certainly antecedents in Greek and Stoic philosophy and the Magna Carta—but it is also likely that the example, and broad popularity, of Luther’s anti-authoritarian philosophies, and more than a century of relative religious freedom, helped both inspire the development of their ideas and make it more possible that they could be implemented. Certainly it would be easier to reform or overthrow an existing government when it isn’t supported by God and the ubiquitous power of a monolithic church.

As the Reformation progressed, contract and property law was also released from adherence to religious law. This meant that contracts would increasingly be adjudicated by secular courts according to established law and a strict reading of the written terms, not by religious jurists basing their decisions on moral concerns and vague interpretations requiring a just and equitable purpose. This opened up many new possibilities for commerce and the development of market capitalism—not entirely a positive legacy, but mostly good.

Perhaps the ultimate extension of this particular aspect of Martin Luther’s reform is in the first amendment to the United States Constitution, which calls for strict separation of government from church control, and the church from government control. After two centuries of legal development and precedent, the results of this are clear. Government and legal systems, for the most part, do not and cannot promote religious doctrine. The United States contains a vast variety of religious sects and congregations in large part because government neither supports nor persecutes any specific religious group. Members of several of the larger religious organizations have been trying to obtain the government imprimatur or financial support that would help them create the kind of powerful monopoly that the Catholics once held in Europe, but religious freedom is too important to allow such involvement.

Over the past 500 years we have greatly expanded personal and political freedoms, and we continue to make progress. Anyone familiar with history and Medieval society will recognize that these have been considerable improvements, and much of it began with a list posted to the doors of a small Wittemburg church and the persistent prolific obstinance of Martin Luther.

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Fear and Hoping

In last month’s post (on this same topic) I noted that many of the emotions of envy and fear and hatred displayed by modern conservatives are common human reactions to situations which seem unfair. I noted that I had experienced similar feelings, but also that one difference between people on the left (including me) and people on the the right is that leftists tend to direct such responses at people who have undeserved privileges, and modern conservatives direct them at people who have undeserved difficulties, for example, minorities and people in poverty. In either case, we tend to assume that our chosen “other” group, defined variously by wealth or race or religion or national origin, constitutes a threat to our lives and/or livelihoods, and this inspires both resentment and fear.

There is another significant factor, however. This is most obvious among alt-right adherents, although it is also true of many other less-radical conservatives. These people don’t allow their resentment and fear to dissipate. They seem to revel in it, to constantly maintain it and even reinforce it with dedicated propaganda sources that give them more and more reasons to be afraid. They create, search out, and share internet memes that demonize minorities and exaggerate conspiracy theories and repeat slippery-slope arguments about affirmative action and welfare and foreign aid and liberals and unions and socialists/communists and sharia law. They limit their media coverage to Fox News and conservative talk shows that repeat the threats that “others”, whether political or minority or foreign, are trying to take over the United States or subvert “our” culture. In short, they act as if they do not want to let go of their fear. Fear, and thus hatred, becomes an integral part of their daily personal reality.

I have often said that the base emotion behind bigotry—hatred of “the other”—is fear. That concept has been questioned both by bigots and by those who oppose bigotry. Many bigots clearly want to believe that they are motivated by logic, not by emotions, especially not by emotions as irrational (and perhaps unmasculine) as fear. Never mind—they are fearful, and that inspires their hate. Many people who are against bigotry don’t want to admit that their opponents are motivated by something as common and human as fear. Never mind—they are wrong, too. One problem is that hate is evil, but fear inspires pity, and neither bigots nor anti-bigots want to feel pity toward those who express prejudice. However, the most common methods used by white supremacists to fire up their members have always involved stories about minorities taking their jobs, about violence perpetrated by black and Hispanic men, about other religions displacing their beliefs and legal systems. In recent demonstrations one of the chants used by the alt-right was “You will not replace us”, which frequently morphed into “Jews will not replace us.” This is a sign of paranoia and fear-mongering as obvious as candidate Donald Trump’s declaration that “They’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” Conservatives in general have been animatedly repeating the story of a San Francisco woman who was killed by “an illegal immigrant” as well as anti-Muslim anecdotes about rape and oppression of women or “jihadi” terror or “sharia law.” And it’s not just Mexicans and Muslims; there is also continuing paranoia about such manufactured threats as the gay agenda and the war on Christmas. These are all blatant invocations of fears that underlie hatred.

There are people on the left who are caught in the same vicious cycle. There are groups of anarchists whose major focus seems to be the destruction of symbols and activities of the capitalistic/oligarchic system. There are proponents of the left, including some members of the Green Party and various fringe groups, who reject all the major “corporate” media and political parties and who continually reinforce their positions through selective media sources and acquaintances who remain on topic, reminding them of the imminent threats represented by oligarchic and corporate/monopolistic control. And this is nothing new. The leftist factions of the 19th century, anarchists and bolsheviks and others, had their own meeting venues and conferences and produced and distributed their own newspapers. They demonized robber barons and fat cats in diatribes similar to those used today against the Koch brothers. The right, of course, had their own more generalized support in the yellow journalism of the day. These are historical tendencies that have been repeated many times, ones that cannot be eliminated entirely—there will always be fearful and frustrated people. But they can be mitigated.

That is the good news. Fear and resentment, and the anti-social consequences of such negative emotions, can be significantly reduced by specific sociopolitical strategies. Paranoia and poor self-image will always cause some people to fear specific differences or to long for an ideology that places them on a rung somewhat higher than some “other” group. There will always be opportunists who will appeal to the fears and stereotypes of such people in order to gain influence and wealth. Such individuals will always seek out people who agree with them, people who are willing to join them in anti-social activities. But we can relieve many of the societal pressures that can initiate or accentuate such feelings and fears. That means we can reduce the factors that assist anti-social groups in recruiting new members.

One solution is to use both legal means and public pressure to discourage anti-social activities. Added penalties against hate-motivated violence have helped somewhat, as have generalized changes in societal attitudes. Lynchings and similar revenge murders once were public celebrations that defied prosecution; they are now widely condemned and the perpetrators are quickly arrested. Segregation, stereotyping, and job discrimination are still a serious problem, but we have made progress in reducing their effects and the attitudes that maintain them.

Another more indirect strategy, in many ways a more effective one, is to enact measures that reduce political and economic inequality, in the process reducing the insecurities and frustrations that can exacerbate fear and resentment. Progressive taxation, a viable economic safety net incorporating an adequate minimum wage, single-payer health insurance, adequately supported public education, and even campaign finance reform (to include public funding); these are all examples of policies that would tend to stabilize society.

History demonstrates the moderating influence provided by such progressive social efforts. The first Gilded Age (the half-century after the Civil War) saw extremes of economic fluctuation and public violence perpetrated by both left and right. Protests and strikes were often associated with, and opposed by, deadly violence. Race riots, ones that often destroyed entire neighborhoods, were common, as were public lynchings. Incidences of these extreme activities continued up to and throughout the Great Depression. In contrast, our current Gilded Age has wealth and income inequality matching the previous one, but there are now social support systems designed to moderate the impacts of economic downturns, labor regulations that reduce the risks involved in earning a living, and laws that reduce the effects of discrimination. Virtually none of these existed before 1910 (and yes, unfortunately, these are among the very systems and regulations that the Republican Party has been continually attempting to remove). In so many ways our current interpersonal interactions are more predictable and less violent and less prejudicial than they have been in the past, simply because we have reduced the economic insecurity and existential fear experienced by the average person.

We must learn from history. We must resist the backsliding that is occurring under the current federal administration and the divisive media that supports it. We must return to government policies that reduce inequalities in income, wealth, and political influence. We must work to protect, and eventually to expand again, the legal, economic, and psychosocial progress that the United States has made over the past century.

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Envy, Fear, Hate

Envy and self-pity, and the negative feelings that result from them, are normal human emotions. Envy and self-pity are also often connected, not only in the sense that they can arise from the same life experiences, but because they tend to reinforce each other. We have an encounter with someone who has more than we do, and simultaneously we feel sorry for ourselves and envious of the other person, and these impressions intensify the feeling that life is not fair and that the other person is undeserving of their good fortune. So in our minds we become victims of circumstances beyond our control, circumstances that unreasonably provide others with opportunities and lifestyles that we are denied.

I have recognized such feelings in my own life. At one low point the only job I could find was picking zucchini in the coastal valleys east of Watsonville, California. The work required constant bending to find ripe squash under the large and thorn-studded leaves of mature plants, breaking off appropriate-sized zucchini and putting them in a ten-gallon bucket, and carrying the bucket, when full, across several rows of plants to be emptied into a tractor-drawn trailer. This process was repeated again and again in 90-plus degree direct sunshine. The only break in this eight-hour routine was a half-hour lunch. It was, and remains, the most difficult job I have ever held, it paid minimum wage, and at the time I was living in a cheap shared apartment and driving a 15-year-old car. I was eight years out of high school and five out of the military, with no real prospects for better employment. In short, I had adequate reason to indulge in self-pity.

At the end of the last day, on my way home, I was feeling feverish and worn out and stopped to rest by sitting on the curb near a major road through Watsonville. As I waited for enough energy to continue walking to my car, my attention was drawn to a noisy group in the traffic driving by. It turned out to be five teenagers laughing, joking, riding in a new-model convertible. Add envy to my self-pity, bolstered by the assumption (likely, but never proven) that those teens had not yet begun real life, and that they would do so with advantages I had never enjoyed, and the event produced a significant wave of resentment that I have not forgotten. Not forgotten, despite the fact that I have long ago moved into a relatively comfortable middle-class income and lifestyle.

What does remind me of this incident and the related emotions are the continuing appeals and distortions employed by anti-immigrant forces in the United States. Their statements and arguments have obviously been crafted to inspire envy and self-pity and rage against an unfair system and to direct the resulting emotional response against specific (and relatively powerless) populations. In the carefully constructed worldview created by anti-immigrant rhetoric, immigrants are stealing our jobs, taking advantage of our schools and other public services, getting welfare money and food stamps, and receiving free medical care that citizens cannot obtain, and they obtain all of this despite the fact that they are undeserving, being slackers and dangerous criminals and culturally inferior. Allegations similar to these have been repeated endlessly in the conservative media and accepted uncritically by millions of adherents in spite of the fact that there is little truth in any of them.

Related facts: Undocumented immigrants mostly take jobs that our citizens do not want
(unlike me, they tend to remain in jobs such as agricultural fieldwork and food
processing and sporadic construction their entire lives). Their children do go to our
schools, but they pay taxes that help support them. They rarely ask for government
benefits or welfare, even earned unemployment payments; few of them have the required
documentation. As for health care, they are only eligible for emergency-room care,
which is the exact same option that any low-income uninsured citizen can receive.
Finally, they are almost entirely hard-working people who, statistics show, are
involved in fewer crimes per capita than citizens commit.

Many of the allegations made about immigrants are familiar to anyone who has listened to the rhetoric of another continuing lengthy conservative campaign, the one against programs that make up the “safety net” for citizens in poverty. In this right-wing formulation, poor people are culturally inferior, slackers or “takers”, members of a “culture of poverty” who are themselves responsible for their fate and who don’t deserve to receive benefits paid for by responsible taxpayers. They supposedly take advantage of programs such as welfare, food stamps, and emergency medical care, often through fraud. Again, many conservatives tend to accept these ideas uncritically despite the fact that virtually none of them are supported by statistics.

Whether the target is undocumented immigrants or citizens in poverty, the conservative propaganda is similar, and it is designed to maximize the emotional responses animated by the combination of envy and self-pity. It also takes advantage of what is called “fundamental attribution error”, the tendency for people to excuse their own difficulties and behavior as the result of circumstances, while seeing the difficulties and behavior of others as representative of their character. The message is, in short: “There are people out there who are inferior to you and who deserve their fate, but who are getting benefits free, benefits that you have to struggle to earn and pay for.” It is a powerful message. It incites strong resentment in people who don’t have the job or income they want or the one they feel they deserve, and who have also repeatedly been told (by the same propagandists) that they are paying more in taxes than necessary. It also builds on resentment and fear of people who are different, those whose culture or race or national origin or religion sets them apart. And it stokes the fear that people have no control over the system that is so unfair to them, the system referenced by the phrase “take back our country”. Conservatives who have accepted this message are repeatedly engulfed by the same emotional responses that I felt when I saw those teenagers in the convertible. This explains why so many of them have verbally (and sometimes violently) attacked Mexicans or Muslims (or similar “others”) in public settings. Their envy and fear leads to another four-letter word: hate.

The similarity between my experience and theirs is that, in both cases, our emotional responses are the result of broad assumptions about the “others” and the unfairness of life. I resented the teens in the car without any real evidence regarding the actual conditions of their lives, and conservatives similarly resent safety net programs and immigrants based on false generalities. I recognize and understand the sources of their enmity.

The differences between us, however, are much more significant. My resentment was, and at times continues to be, directed toward undeserved wealth and privilege. As a result, I favor reductions in economic and power inequalities. Modern conservative resentment, on the other hand, is directed at people who have less than they do and who are suffering from poverty and powerlessness, yet who are demonized by a coordinated conservative campaign. This resentment separates its adherents, in fact, from people who work hard like they do and who experience the same economic insecurities that they do. It separates non-affluent conservatives from people who they otherwise would recognize as fellow victims of an unfair system controlled by the wealthy and the corporate elite.

This is by design. The modern conservative message is planned and distributed by the oligarchy. It is part of a strategy to keep the lower 90 percent divided and politically weak. The goal is to increase profits and investment dividends by reducing taxes, regulations, and corporate costs such as wages and benefits. They support their goals by minimizing the cohesion and influence of any groups in which ordinary humans defend and promote their interests, which include responsive government entities, non-government advocacy organizations, and unions. They also work to restrict voting. To achieve all these goals, the modern conservative message is broadcast and reinforced by a large collection of well-funded media outlets and think tanks and politicians. Their strategy has been carefully designed to support the continuation of extreme wealth and social inequality and to strengthen oligarchic political control. It has been remarkably effective.

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