Friday, September 16, 2022

Royalty and Competence

I don't care much about the British monarchy. I can't tell one prince or princess from the other, forget which one is the international playboy and which one is supposed to be the geeky intellectual. Queen Elizabeth has been around my whole life, always apparently gracious and proper and likeable. Nice lady, I'm sorry to see her go. None of it affects me in any way.

In the US of course we don't have royalty, really. We have multigenerational dynasties of the filthy-rich and political wheeler-dealers, we have oligarchs, but we don't have people who acquire power as a birthright and rule by just being there.

A quote by C.S. Lewis has been going around since the Queen died, and there is something to it:

Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.

The Spectator, vol. CLXXI (27 August 1943), p. 192

The idea of "honoring royalty" is feral and irrational, or, as Lewis says, spiritual. You put a crown on somebody's head and they become the Great Parent to the society. The honor is completely undeserved, and that is clearly some of the attraction of it. Even if they do not make decisions or do anything other than give medals and host galas, the people look up to their royalty with love and respect. C.S. Lewis argued that people have an innate need for inequality, and saw royalty as a response to that; royalty is just an artificially created inequality that puts one person above others but does not necessarily do any real harm to the lesser population, at least in modern times.

It seems to me that logically the goal in a democracy is to select leaders who can lead. These should be people who understand the topics involved, who surround themselves with wise advisors, who make decisions based on facts and principles, who inspire the citizenry and persuade the legislature to pass laws that are good for the country. I mean, this makes sense, doesn't it?

On the other hand, the US elects movie stars, guys you'd like to have a beer with, wits and charmers, and recently a minor reality-TV character with a string of bankruptcies, divorces, and lawsuits behind him -- almost exactly as Lewis predicted in 1943.

We Americans tend to scoff at the idea of a king or queen but we can't seem to get over it. Our political campaigns are a charade of gotchas and poses, slogans, grins and handshakes, none of which have anything at all to do with running a country. We -- and looking at history I primarily mean Republicans -- seem to have a need to choose a leader based on some hard-to-explain qualities of personality. It is almost always someone who is richer than ninety-nine percent of us, at least. It is always someone with more expensive suits than you or I could afford, they belong to clubs that wouldn't take us, their hair is always perfect. The inequality between the voters and the candidates may actually be the point of the campaigns. Republican candidate's slogan: I Am Better Than You.

It seems to me we should decide, are we trying to elect someone to run the country, or do we want to pick a Daddy? Do we want good policies to be enacted or somebody to spank us when we're bad and send us to our room without dinner?

I should point out that Joe Biden has been one of the most effective presidents ever. He has passed a ton of huge bills, with little comment in the press. He is improving the country in many ways, fighting poverty, bringing down the deficit, negotiating international policies. But his favorability ratings have never been commensurate with his leadership successes.

This week the railroads almost shut down, they had already canceled a lot of trains in anticipation of a strike. Our groceries were going to rot in the fields, fuel would not be delivered, supply chains and manufacturing and trade were going to be disrupted, the American economy was on the brink of getting hammered because of a conflict between labor and management. But the president sent his cabinet person to meet with the two sides, he himself got on the phone with them, they worked it out and now the crisis is averted. This feat will not affect his popularity with voters -- this isn't what they are looking for. Daddy didn't get mad, nobody got a spanking, there was no controversy and no spectacle on TV.

Seems to me, thinking logically, this is what we want -- somebody who can run things.

There are Republican governors and others now hoping to be president, and they are paving the way by doing despicable things and making sure the TV cameras are pointed at them. They are mocking transgender people and pregnant women, taunting those who came here seeking asylum, undermining the separation of church and state, trying to break the election process, denouncing science and education, owning the libs in ways that actual liberals are generally unaware of. As leaders their decisions are bad for the people who depend on them, but that doesn't matter because they are campaigning to be Daddy (and a couple of Stern Mothers).

I am not suggesting that the US should have royalty. The grown-up thing for our country is to learn to distinguish between the feral desire for a surrogate parent and the civilized need for someone who has the skills to run a country, and to support leaders who are competent to lead.

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Indiana Leads the Way (Down the Tubes)

Maybe even more than most medical procedures, there are lots of different reasons that someone would need an abortion. Between a quarter and third of American women have had the procedure done, either in a clinic or pharmaceutically.

Because religious hypocrites have made an artificial controversy out of it, women who have had abortions tend to be reluctant to step forward and talk about it -- you could just be asking for a lifetime of hateful judgment and trouble. So even though there are "I Had an Abortion" t-shirts for sale, you won't see many on the street. The religious right has cultivated negative stereotypes of these patients that are far from reality. In today's environment of moralistic suppression, the average citizen remains unaware just how common this medical procedure is.

If you think abortions are something for welfare queens and slutty irresponsible teenagers, ask your wife about her abortion. Ask your sister, your daughter. Ask your mom. They may or may not be honest with you.

Through hook and crook, the Christian Right has been able to load up the Supreme Court with ideologues who surprised no one in their decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to make abortion illegal. The firehose of horror stories is already opening as girls, women and trans-men are prevented from obtaining medical care they need.

Kansas Republicans put the issue to a vote in the midterm primary election, expecting an easy win, and had their ass handed to them when it turned out a big majority of people, even in Kansas, feel strongly about retaining the right to an abortion if they need one. The far right's rhetoric was clever enough to suck the press into bothsidesing a manmade controversy but it was not enough to prevent actual human beings from expressing themselves at the voting booth. Abortion is not a moral issue, it is a medical procedure, and people are smart enough to know they might need it someday.

Indiana has been the first state to pass a law banning abortion subsequent to the Supreme Court decision. Indiana's law was signed yesterday.

I wonder how that's going to turn out for them.

Earlier this year one of the state's biggest employers, pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, announced that they would be investing 2.1 Billion dollars in two new manufacturing sites in Indiana's Boone County. That was good news for Indiana. Two point one billion dollars, in what is not our richest state.

Today Eli Lilly made this announcement:

Lilly recognizes that abortion is a divisive and deeply personal issue with no clear consensus among the citizens of Indiana. Despite this lack of agreement, Indiana has opted to quickly adopt one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the United States. We are concerned that this law will hinder Lilly's - and Indiana's - ability to attract diverse scientific, engineering and business talent from around the world. While we have expanded our employee health plan coverage to include travel for reproductive services unavailable locally, that may not be enough for some current and potential employees.

As a global company headquartered in Indianapolis for more than 145 years, we work hard to retain and attract thousands of people who are important drivers of our state's economy. Given this new law, we will be forced to plan for more employment growth outside our home state.

Statement from Eli Lilly and Company

Boom -- there goes that two billion, just like that.

The Republican Party used to be the "pro-business" party, taking management's side against the needs of workers, but lately the GOP has devolved unapologetically to a position of fascist Christian nationalism, replacing capitalist economic principles with self-serving group identity slogans and fundamentalist moralism regarding (other people's) personal, especially sexual, behavior. Well now, as some famous person once said, "As you sow, so shall you reap."

It is bad when Big Pharma commands the high ground, but that's what it's come down to. It's great that Republicans are going to heaven, that's fine, but a company like Lilly needs smart people to work for them here on earth, and who would move to Indiana now? As other states fall into lock-step with the religious movement, the US will become intellectual Swiss cheese, with holes in places where the people who remain are ignorant, uneducated, poor and unemployed, and freely give away their rights. Let's see who follows Indiana's lead.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Voting for a CEO, Versus a Drinking Buddy

I remember when George W Bush was elected and the "political analysis" was that he was the candidate most people would like to have a beer with.

He wasn't my type of drinking buddy, but I don't mind having a beer with someone now and then. We might sit and shoot the bull about things, politics, the crazy things going on in the world. He'll have his opinions, I'll have mine, we might laugh and we might argue. That's fine, it's a good time, people have been drinking beer and solving the world's problems since ancient Egypt.

But that doesn't mean I think my new best friend at the bar should run the country, you know what I'm saying?

When Trump first came out with that crazy stuff about "they're not sending their best people," early in his campaign, he was like a guy at the bar. He was charming in his own way, he has a kind of personal rhythm that is grammatically awkward but likeable in a kitchen-table sort of way. He interrupts a sentence to throw in an unrelated thought, and then gets off-topic, and that is kind of what we do when we have a personal conversation. I tell you what happened to me, you tell me what happened to you, we joke about it and move on to another story.

But that doesn't mean that you and I are qualified to run a country.

The federal government, last I heard, has a million employees. That's a big company. It's got a lot of departments with a lot of complex problems in every department, changing every day. The country has a vision and a mission, and every big decision must be weighed against those, and sometimes hundreds of advisors are consulted before an important policy is implemented. The government has customers from all regions, all income categories, all traditions, and you can't make them all happy but with good leadership you can manage your compromises so everyone gets what they need.

It has nothing to do with having a beer. It has nothing to do with kitchen-table talk.

Journalists love to talk about "Dems in disarray" and "Biden in trouble," by which they always mean his popularity ratings are low, not that he has done a bad job. They yearn for a colorful, kitchen-table kind of leader who will say outrageous things, the awkward uncle who is so rude that you can't ignore him, and you just have to tell your friends later about the obnoxious comments he made at dinner. They don't sell papers when the government is run in an efficient and fair way, which is actually what the Chief Executive job is all about.

I just happened to see a sort of random comment on Twitter and I thought I'd share it.

He is doing a great job as President. No scandals, no crimes. He isn't stirring stuff up, he isn't going onto social media and TV and saying outrageous things. He wears a dark-blue suit and goes to church a lot, has surrounded himself with well-informed but not inflammatory advisors. He respects everyone, including his political opponents, and tries to work out bills that address our actual problems -- not to get even with somebody who said something critical of him, but to pass legislation that solves real social issues. It makes sense to elect this kind of leader.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

A Surge in Anti-LGBT Violence

June being Pride Month, some homes on 31st Street in Baltimore displayed rainbow flags and other LGBT banners and signs. Wednesday night somebody came up and, apparently dousing the flags with gasoline, set four homes on fire, sending three people to the hospital, two in critical and one in serious condition. Two homes were completely destroyed.

A neighbor said, “We’ll double down and everybody’s gonna get Pride flags on their houses now just to show like we’re not gonna live in fear of it, but I mean, it definitely makes you a little scared. You know, you can’t just live like that.” Baltimore Sun: Three people injured in Baltimore fire; authorities investigating a burned Pride flag

But you know, you are going to "just live like that," because that's how things are now.

It was big news this week when more than thirty Patriot Front members were arrested in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The group was planning to join with other nazi groups to beat people and break up a Pride Festival there. These are the people who organized the Charlottesville Unite the Right event in 2017, and it appears they intended extreme violence this time. Luckily the attack was broken up by police, and reports on social media suggest that the festival was a great success, the biggest crowd they'd ever had, with music, bubble machines for the kids, dancing in the park.

Drag queen story hours have been a big hit at libraries across the country, which you just know has been driving the nutty ones crazy. Why should any American be allowed to dress in nontraditional clothing and yet act like a decent human being? Last Saturday the Proud Boys stormed a Drag Queen Story Hour in San Larenzo, California, disrupting the event. I am trying to imagine how you brag about something like that later: me 'n the guys went down and hollered a bunch of cusswords at kids listening to stories and some guys in dresses at the library. It just doesn't sound that macho, y'know what I mean?

Somebody suggested that it would have been smarter for them to host a Proud Boys story hour. Man, I bet parents would love to bring their kids to that.

The oldest gay bar in Detroit burned down Tuesday, and the Fire Department is calling it a total loss.

Nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills filed in 2022 so far, most of them targeting trans people

If we took two steps forward, this seems to be time for one step back, as hate comes out of hiding across the country. We will have to hold the line to keep from losing more ground.

We in Montgomery County were, ironically, among the first communities to be hit by this wave of anti-gay and anti-transgender bigotry. A small group of rightwing activists tried to defeat a sex-ed curriculum that mentioned sexual orientation and gender identity, and then they tried to force a referendum on trans civil rights. This county is deeply blue, I think we had one Republican school board member fifteen years ago. Yet a group of about ten core members and maybe as many as fifty part-time supporters -- in a county of one million people -- generated national news and almost succeeded at imposing their ignorant opinions on the rest of us.

I am not sure why these sexual-identity issues set them off. Well, I have my theories. Somehow the idea that a gay person would live their life without shame makes these nuts violently angry. I used to think it was a cheap shot to suggest that these haters have personal ambivalence about their own sexual feelings, but that is definitely part of it. So many of the worst ones have fallen out of the closet.

Conservatism is the defiance of hypocrisy. You express some principles and behave exactly the opposite of them, then shrug off the contradiction.

The fact is, the Trump presidency and rise of the America First nazi movement have put gay and trans people in actual physical danger. The crazy fascists are getting more and more violent, and there is no end in sight. Conservatives cannot understand the concept of minding your own business when someone is different from yourself. They have been packing the courts with conservative judges, packing the election boards with nutty cheaters, and even though there are not very many of them we still face a steep uphill battle just to maintain our American democracy and our freedom.

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Notes After Uvalde

I have a few observations after the Uvalde mass killing of nineteen children and two teachers.

First a preface: law enforcement is a necessary function in a complex society. Cops are just people with a job, like anybody else, there is nothing unusually good or bad about them as individuals and I believe most take the job in hopes of making the world a better place. It is time to look critically at the characteristics of the role we have assigned them, the norms they have adopted, how these things serve the function of law enforcement, and how they don't.

Everybody knows this uncomfortable fact: the police in Uvalde this month, as well as at Parkland in 2018, and other violent incidents, were cowards. They stood around and let murderers kill helpless children at will and then lied, and continue to lie, about it. We expect the police to punch down at the weak -- it's a professional norm -- but when we really need them in a violent situation, their priority is their own safety.

If you or I were sitting at home watching TV and we heard someone murdering children outside, we would do something. It's not our job, it's our obligation as human beings. In Uvalde, more than a dozen policemen stood outside the door for an hour and listened to the slaughter of children without intervening.

Almost everything the police in Uvalde have said about the mass murder has been a lie.

I know it's politically correct to call them heroes and swoon over the risks they take, but the number of police that are killed on the job is dwarfed by the number of people they kill. Police departments often do not cooperate in keeping records of their own acts of homicide, so we don't really know the number of their victims. For instance, the twenty-one innocent victims of police inaction in Uvalde will certainly not be counted as killed by police. In 2021, 84 officers in the US died from felonious assaults, that is, somebody killed them; BLS says there are currently 665,380 Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers in the US. Records show 1,100 people were determined to have been killed by police in that same year.

The police shamelessly jack up their "killed in the line of duty" statistics with COVID deaths, which outnumber being actually killed on duty by a great margin. The pro-police National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum database says 458 officers died in the line of duty in 2021. Reading further, we see that 381 of those were COVID deaths; they refuse to take the free, effective, universally available medicine and they get sick and die. That does not make them heroes. Approximately one one-hundredth of one percent of police officers were killed by someone in 2021.

When police use their personal judgment to stop and question "suspicious-looking" people, the result is harassment of minorities and subsequent unequal enforcement of the law. Even in deep-blue Montgomery County, the police stop Black drivers at twice the expected rate, given their frequency in the population. And trust me, it is worse in other places.

Police are paid to enforce the law, they do not prevent crime.

Law enforcement is an important role in a civil society, and we count on them as professionals to carry out their duties.

It turns out the police do not legally have to protect citizens unless they want to. The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the police have no special duty to protect anyone. See also Washington Post: U.S. judge says law enforcement officers had no legal duty to protect Parkland students during mass shooting.

Arming the police with military equipment does not make anyone safer.

"Police-involved shooting" is a passive way to a describe an event as if it just happened on its own, with no one responsible. "A policeman was standing there and his gun went off and the bullet hit someone." When you see that wording in the news, you know the media are covering for police violence. "A police officer shot someone" is accurate and assigns agency where it belongs.

Police defenders blame "a few bad apples" without quoting the rest of that saying.

  1. It is not an especially dangerous job
  2. A police state is the definitive dystopia
  3. They aren't "heroes" for doing what they are paid to do

A police department's version of "what happened" is self-serving and often not true. Cell-phone video has proven this many times. (Read the police report on George Floyd's death as a reminder.) The initial report in Uvalde was pure fiction. Because we as a culture accept the "myth of the hero" their reports are almost never questioned.

The fatuous relaying of police interpretations of important events by journalists allows officers to operate without scrutiny. American public life would be very different if journalists interviewed witnesses as well as quoting police statements.

A good guy with a gun is more dangerous, and no more effective, than a good guy without one.

Crime is decreasing, except for gun crime.

Mental illness is rarely involved in mass shootings, and is not the reason that the US has many many times more mass shootings -- we have more than two a day, on average -- than any other place on the planet. There were at least twelve mass shootings in the US over the recent Memorial Day weekend.

Most mass murderers are rightwing extremists.

Making teachers carry guns at school is too stupid to even argue about. It is not a serious suggestion and we don't need to waste time on it.

Violent nuts do not kill because of critical race theory.

They also do not kill people because they did not have two parents.

More Christianity in school will not reduce mass killings.

More "security" and surveillance does not prevent mass shootings.

The idea of limiting school access to one door is, again, too stupid to argue about.

After nearly every mass shooting, rightwing social media circulate a story that the murderer was transgender, often with photographs of some random person. This is never true.

Every sensible person knows that the gun situation in America is insanity.

Even Republicans and NRA members know we need to regulate access to deadly military weapons.

There is no such thing as a "lone wolf" mass murderer. This is a concept made up by the gun lobby. Every one of them got the idea somewhere. Their manifestos and social-media postings are all the same: rightwing hate, misogyny, antisemitism, racism, conspiracy theories.

Thoughts and prayers do not mean anything. We need rational policies on guns.

Fairness, kindness, and decency did not used to be partisan political issues, and should not be. Daily mass murders of totally innocent citizens is not acceptable. We should be in agreement on these things.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Enforce the Laws

Trump's rallies have always had a special moment where the crowd breaks into the chant "Lock her up! Lock her up!" Sometimes the chant erupts repeatedly, spontaneously, while Hair Furor speaks. Originally it meant they wanted to lock up Hillary Clinton, but the target is not really terribly important. It could be Anthony Fauci, Nancy Pelosi, Hunter Biden, President Biden himself; women are the preferred victims. Kamala Harris is a favorite.

This chant has a strange appeal to conservatives. It is a pure, concise icon of their belief system: we don't want to debate with liberals, we don't want to listen to their over-eddy-cated ideas, we want to throw them in prison.

The new fascist movement is almost literally peasants with pitchforks and torches storming the castle. It is not literally that because, though we have seen torches, I at least have not seen pitchforks at these rightwing events. Also, they like to attack and occupy state and federal capitol buildings, and not actually castles. But the fact is, the magas want to take direct action and punish somebody, bypassing legitimate pathways. Jail would make them happy, though they are in favor of execution of liberal leaders. Assassination, torture, whatever.

Of course the problem with that is that the US has stuff like a Constitution, laws, processes for charging people and giving them a fair trial. No matter how frustrated conservatives are with our system of government, the idea that we would imprison political rivals without a criminal conviction is deeply un-American. It runs against the most fundamental principles of our way of life. You cannot claim to support freedom and liberty and also set up gallows to execute political leaders without a trial. This logical inconsistency is obvious to any reasonable observer. But still: conservatism is the defiance of hypocrisy.

These days, the Democrats control Congress and the Presidency and have the ability on many levels to investigate and prosecute big-time criminals who are trying to break our country. These are not neighborhood burglars, these are people who grab hundreds of millions of dollars at a time from government accounts through tax evasion, subsidies, fraud, bribes, nepotism, and other kinds of corruption. They make sure tax cuts go to people who don't need them, and that ordinary people do not benefit from government programs that would make their lives better; they redirect government money to their friends and families rather than to the most qualified contractors and corporations, or to citizens in need.

We do not hear Democrats chanting "Lock them up." In fact what we see is that Democratic leaders, including district attorneys and leading Justice officials, are afraid to use legitimate government processes to enforce laws that were established with good reason, for the benefit of the people of the country.

Maybe their focus groups are telling them that it would "look bad" to prosecute criminals who belong to the Republican Party. Maybe it would "look political." And so we have people like Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Donald Trump and his family members and his former Cabinet members and advisors, all of them who ripped off the American people throughout the Trump years and now are running around promoting anti-American ideas and candidates who will implement them. We have people with pending sex charges, corruption charges, frauds and grifters, seditionists and liars out on the streets, enriching themselves while they do their best to try to bring our country to its knees.

The media direct our attention to the petty things, and we fall for it. "Illegal immigrants" are not getting all the baby formula. A Black women's lacrosse team is not smuggling drugs. Shooting Black guys for cracked tail-lights does not make us safer. Our media and our attention focus on petty incidents while billionaires and millionaires, preachers and politicians and gigantic corporations are robbing us blind. Why does the US have the worst technology in the developed world? Why do we have the worst healthcare? We pay our taxes and where does that money go? It goes to fund the arms industry and it goes into the pockets of billionaires and corporations with armies of lobbyists.

Joe Biden has a lot of good ideas, programs that really do make life better for people. He has increased employment, he nearly eliminated child poverty, wages are up and crime is down, except for gun crime. He is handling the situation in Ukraine skillfully. But his approval ratings are dragging the bottom. And why is that? It's because he is coddling criminals. Our leaders, from the top down, are too cowardly to enforce the law. People know the insurrectionists must be stopped, but our leaders won't stop them.

It is not enough to provide good services to the people, especially when you have preachers, posers, and politicians up and down the country telling people that the Democrats are communists and pedophiles. Our elected leaders need to defend our values and our country, aggressively and strongly.

We had an attempted coup, once the greatest country on the planet and now we are like some little dictatorship somewhere, with maga rednecks smearing their poop on the walls of our Capitol while Congress crouches behind blockaded doors. A violent insurrection, organized and directed by the president and his inner circle. Some of the suckers and minor-league sociopaths who went into the Capitol are getting jail sentences, while all the ringleaders -- all of them -- run around free, undermining our way of life. Congress and the Justice Department are afraid to disturb them -- oh, you don't want to obey a subpoena, no prob man, sorry to bother you. The corrupt rich and powerful are becoming exponentially more rich and powerful and our elected leaders are afraid to do anything about it.

The Constitution was carefully written to support robust government in the face of political abuse. Our government was designed to survive even when some citizens have criminal intentions. The justice system was set up to support and defend an orderly, secure, lawful way of life, and it is time to use it as it was intended. Maybe some defendants will be found not-guilty, fine. Try them. Put the evidence on the table. Bring consequences.

The recently leaked Supreme Court opinion regarding abortion, once it is issued, opens the door for the courts and the federal government to take away a lot of rights besides the right to manage your own reproduction. I do not personally understand the motives of people who want to take away American citizens' rights, but tighten your seatbelts, 'cause here we go. The rightwing Supreme Court is delivering the totalitarian state that the Republican Party dreams of. They are starting with abortion and you can expect your rights to drop like flies after this.

You will not get your freedom back once the unprosecuted criminals have had their way with our country. We need to enforce laws, from the Hatch Act, bribery, and emoluments, and up to fraud and tax evasion to foreign-agent violations, to perjury and conspiracy and sedition, to protect the system that makes lawful civilized life possible in the first place. But the media and government leaders are afraid of "how it would look."

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Gun Crime

Americans believe that crime is increasing, out of control. People in the middle of the country believe that the coastal cities are literally on fire, with looting and rioting and robbing and raping going on everywhere you look. They're afraid to come here. Every night the news goes on and on about escalating crime, and people believe it.

But the odd fact is that crime has been declining, even in the cities, for the past couple of decades. The country is safer than it ever was. Of course we can blame the media for this misinformation, and in particular we can blame their habit of going to the police for their facts. Police spokesmen have their own point of view, they want funding for the department and they want job security for officers and you can't blame them for that. But the result is not necessarily an objectively accurate narrative assessment of crime in the US, you might say.

On the other hand, one kind of crime is increasing. If this category gets recognized at all, it is typically called "violent crime." It includes homicides and felony assaults. Like, after a guy shot up the Van Ness neighborhood last week, just across the line from our little county, the Washington Post had this information in their news story:

[D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III] noted that on Friday and Saturday, police responded to a total of 10 shooting incidents with 15 victims, including a shooting of a man in a wheelchair and the shootings of three people in Brightwood Park. Both attacks occurred as police were in the midst of tracking down the sniper, evacuating buildings and securing the area around Van Ness.

Also over that 48-hour period, a construction worker directing traffic was shot by a person on a ride-share bicycle who was upset with delays, and a man was fatally shot and stabbed during an argument at a birthday party. On Monday, as the mayor’s briefing was wrapping up, a person was fatally shot in Northeast Washington.

Police said they have seized 969 illegal guns in the District this year, a 50 percent increase from this point in 2021.

School was in sniper’s ‘crosshairs,’ but link is unclear, D.C. chief says

That's a lot of violent crime. But let's give it a more accurate name: gun crime. These are all incidents where someone shot someone with a gun. These deadly crimes might have been fistfights or shouting matches, except somebody had a gun.

Gun control has become one of those things that politicians can hardly talk about, because the rightwing noise machine will drown them out. Remember, "Obama's gonna take our guns away?" Whatever happened with that? They hated him because he was going to take their guns away, which he never mentioned and never tried to do. He should have, but the issue is simply too controversial to touch, even for a skilled negotiator like President Obama.

If you try to peel away the layers, you conclude that the problem is too complicated to solve. And yet, the Unites States is the only country on the planet that has 1.this kind of belief that guns are sacrosanct, and 2.this kind of murder rate. The problem is not complicated; everybody else has figured it out. Somebody just has to do something.

New York's subways had a mass shooter a couple of weeks ago, guy shot ten people and a bunch more were injured in the crowd scene. Good guys with guns did not prevent the crime, or interrupt it. The subway system is swarming with cops -- last January the mayor announced a plan to have uniformed police on every platform in the whole system. There were cops all over the place when the shooter caused havoc and then got off the train, exited the station, and wandered around the city until he phoned in his own location for them to come arrest him. Police did not stop him or catch him, even though the NYPD's budget is more than ten billion dollars.

In other words, you cannot solve the gun problem by increasing the number of armed policemen. That sort of escalation does not work for one simple reason, which is that the "bad guy with a gun" always has the advantage of surprise. You could have one cop for every citizen, trailing them around, watching their every move, and still a citizen could grab his gun and shoot somebody before the cop could respond. Sorry, but that's the truth. Constant police surveillance is not the solution. Also, I don't know why anybody would even want to live like that.

The solution is to do what every other civilized country does: control access to guns. Yep, take 'em away. Melt 'em down. Use the metal in the supply chain. Nobody needs an AR-15 in their house. Nobody needs magazine clips with unlimited capacity. People with arrest records for violent crimes can do enough damage with their fists, they don't need the power of bullets when they lose their self-control. There ought to be some training for gun owners, some screening, periodic testing. Other countries do it, we can do it.

People around the world look at American gun violence and say, "That is crazy." And any reasonable person has to agree, this is crazy. Guns do not make anyone safer, they only make everyone less safe. And yet there is no serious movement to do anything about the problem.

It's as if there were a religious taboo on this subject, we are not culturally permitted to mention it. The Second Amendment is, for one thing, not grammatically clear, and for another, it was written during a time when "arms" were primitive compared to what Joe Shmoe can get now. Guns have a place, hunting is a worthwhile thing to do, and a pistol might make you feel safer in your house. But ... back to the guy last week at Van Ness, from the same Post piece:

Raymond Spencer had six firearms in the apartment on Van Ness Street, including three fully automatic rifles, the chief said at a news conference Monday. He said police found thousands more rounds of ammunition inside another residence in Fairfax County, Va., and parts to assemble three additional firearms.
Now come on, you know this is crazy. It's time for reasonable people to speak common sense about this topic and solve this uniquely American problem.

Saturday, April 09, 2022

The New "Grooming" Lie

This new "grooming" thing is weird and scary. The roots of hypocrisy run insanely deep on this one, and I just hope that ordinary people have some lick o' sense and can tell when the TV personalities, preachers, and politicians have gone too far.

The Washington Post explains, on this morning's front page:

In the charged debate over what and how children should learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, some mainstream Republicans are tagging those who defend such lessons as “groomers,” claiming that proponents of such teaching want children primed for sexual abuse.

Further, "some mainstream Republicans" are using the same slanderous concept to slime old-school Republicans who do not take the new fascism far enough.

Pizzagate was a conspiracy theory that said that prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and her inner circle of advisors, were conducting some sort of child-trafficking sex ring. It was bizarre theory that saw secret pedophile code-words hidden in emails and secret messages implied in business logos, and somehow it came down to a punk-rock pizza place, just outside our little county, a place with artichoke pizzas and ping-pong tables, a place you took the family, where the team would celebrate a win. These nuts were sure that Hillary and her people had babies in the basement of the pizza place and were killing them and sumpn sumpn sex stuff.

QAnon continued that theory and expanded on it, where Donald Trump was going to secretly lock up all the child-molesting Democrats and purge the world of this cabal of powerful pedophiles. This is crazy stuff, yet conservatives are consumed by fantasies about pedophilia.

I was going to share a list of prominent Republicans arrested for child molesting and child pornography, but the list had almost 300 names on it and was just too much to post here. Oh, one of the names on the list was not a pedophile but was having sex with a mule, which ... how do you get caught doing that? Their latest thing is for Republicans to promote state bills dropping the age requirement for marriage, so adult men can marry children. Real pedophilia is an actual problem for conservatives. Trying to turn the tables on liberals is a little, uh, obvious, and it is hard to tell whether rank-and-file conservatives buy this stuff but history suggests that a lot of them will.

What we today call "conservatism" can almost be defined as the defiance of hypocrisy. Doing what they accuse others of is their calling-card. Liberals are criticized when they are inconsistent; it would be too tiring to treat Republicans the same way.

Now these people have started accusing liberals of "grooming" children for sex, by teaching them about sexual orientation and gender identity in middle-school and high school sex-ed classes.

It is serious to accuse someone of child molesting. It is irresponsible to make those accusations with no evidence, sometimes accusing blanket groups of people of sexually molesting children, again without a grain of substance. This is not a matter of differences of opinion. This kind of lie is intended to make Republican voters despise and hate Democrats, to think of them as devious sexual predators, to see them as legitimate targets of violence.

It is frankly depressing. These people will say anything, they really don't care if it's true or not. There are gay people, for real, and there are transgender people. It may be hard for Republican voters to understand, but it is an objective fact of the real world. Gay and trans people exist, and have since the beginning of time, in all societies. Everybody is not the same, and some of the differences fall on dimensions having to do with romantic attraction and gender.

Teaching students about this does two important things. First, for that minority of students who are becoming aware that their sexual orientation or their gender identity is not the same as most of the other kids, it gives them a way of understanding themselves, and learning they are not alone. They learn what it's called, and they can read and learn more if they want. This is much better than sitting there feeling like the only freak in the universe who has ever felt this way.

The second thing is that it teaches the heterosexual, cisgender majority of students that variations in orientation and identity are a normal kind of diversity. Everybody's different, and some people are different in these ways. It isn't something they chose, it's just how some people are, and they can still make good friends and colleagues, just like everybody else. Making fun of them only makes you look ignorant, like the Congresswoman who said, "[gay Cabinet member] Pete Buttigieg can take his electric vehicles and his bicycle, and he and his husband can stay out of our girls' bathrooms." A small amount of education could have prevented that embarrassment.

The thing is, these are some deluded people. We see them trying to end American democracy, they even tried to disrupt traffic on the Beltway hee-hee-haw-haw-haw. They are obviously not real smart about thinking things through, and they are prone to behaving impulsively on the basis of unfounded rumors.

So when rightwing TV pundits and politicians and preachers start saying that liberals are grooming children, as if we were all child molesters, they are putting innocent people in danger. You don't reason with pedophiles, jail is not good enough for them, when Bubba finds out somebody "likes kids" he feels violence, even murder, is appropriate.

It is important to teach about human sexuality. Our society is sexually twisted into knots, there are so many things -- untested rape kits, blocked investigations, churches moving priests around, pay disparities, this would be another long list -- and a little objective reality can only help. Yes, you learn about sperm and Fallopian tubes, and you learn that your armpits will stink and your pubic hair will grow, and you learn that most teenagers will be attracted to the opposite sex but some will not, and some small number of people have been assigned the wrong sex at birth, and they may need to begin to correct the problem before puberty changes their bodies in permanent ways. It doesn't hurt anybody to take a few days of class time to go over these topics. It does not encourage anybody to turn gay or decide to change their gender. And it has nothing to do with cultivating a generation of sexual victims for perverted liberals. These are just facts about human beings, and we all make better choices when we are better informed.

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Right to Make Sense

There's a lot going on these days but you might have noticed that Republicans have become very concerned about transgender people. They are passing laws regulating medical attention for trans people, keeping transgender people out of athletics, stopping any mention of trans topics in school; Texas passed a law saying that parents of a trans child can be convicted of felony child abuse, and other states are trying to pass similar laws. They want neighbors, schoolteachers, doctors to report parents so they can be charged with the crime of having a transgender family member.

It's a political strategy that works for Republicans. In real life, nobody is actually upset by someone's gender identity. Trans people are just people, you might do a double-take and then it doesn't matter. It literally does not hurt anything, does not affect anybody's life in any way except for the one person, who is pursuing happiness just like anybody.

So here's the game -- and conservatives do this over and over, we saw them try it here in our little county a few years ago. Out of nowhere, they start complaining about something that is not a problem -- on the topic of gender identity two favorite starter issues are bathrooms and sports, because they can bring these up as "what-ifs" without anything actually happening. Some preacher or lawyer starts complaining to the press and of course the press is happy to write about "the issue." If a preacher explains that something is sinful or even evil, many people just don't know any better, and believe what they are told. Next thing you know they are passing laws making life miserable for some citizens who have not hurt anything or anybody.

If you are comfortable with your birth gender then it can be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what it would be like to have people treating you like someone you are not. You cannot blame people who don't get it, if they have not had a trans friend or family member or given it much thought. It "seems" easy, penises on this side, vaginas on that side, and most of the time that's how it works, but not always, and it can be hard to explain. On the other hand it is not hard to accept, either. There have always been trans people and somehow society managed to function. It does not affect anybody, and it should be nobody's business.

As conservatives start obsessing loudly over this, somebody has to come out and say, wait a minute, this isn't even a problem, and that will be liberals. And next thing you know, liberals are using unfamiliar words like "nonbinary" and giving press conferences about rights for trans people, and then the conservatives will claim liberals are "promoting" or pushing something that seems weird to unschooled countryfolk. These days they are saying that liberals are "grooming" young people for some kind of sexual exploitation, as if there was no other explanation for treating people fairly. Of course in the meantime they have passed a bunch of hateful laws, taking away the rights of transgender people, who are not a big part of the voting population and can't win in a majority-rules system.

People out there reading the newspaper don't know any better, they don't know what's going on. Millions of conservatives actually believe that liberals are literally pedophiles. It's not just that one pizza place. Fox News is telling them that Democrats are grooming children for secret liberal child-orgies, and people who don't know any better believe it.

This is absurd but you can't ignore it, you have to fight for the right to make sense in this crazy country. This is not something that will correct itself automatically, people will only get dumber and dumber if we do not stand up to this nonsense.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Expecting a Fascist Win

A lot of people these days feel like the fascists are going to win. There aren't very many of them and it is not clear what they stand for, but they are committed, they are loud, they cheat behind the scenes as well as out in the open, and they have the support of the media. Their political positions are so dumb that it seems like a waste of time to even argue with them, and so they keep claiming new ground. They're banning books, censoring history lessons, they fight -- often violently -- in favor of perpetuating the covid pandemic, they support police brutality and vigilante violence. Apparently white nationalist fascism "makes sense" to some people. But their points are so ... not-rigorous ... that it is impossible to debate or negotiate with them.

The startling thing is that it's so asymmetrical. You've got Republicans being investigated for human trafficking and large-scale sexual abuse, multimillion-dollar financial crimes, working secretly for foreign governments, and yet the media will focus on how wasteful and hypocritical it is for Joe Biden to fly home to Delaware for the weekends. They have literally criticized him for going to church. Biden's biggest scandal is the unproven assertion that his son's laptop had bad stuff on it, personal sex videos and files from his druggie days. Not even Joe Biden's own laptop, his adult son's. And the allegation is almost certainly false. On one hand, we have flagrant criminals hoping the next election will save them from going to prison for real crimes. On the other hand, we have a religious family man with a hint of a stutter and some policies that our country has long needed, as we slip farther behind the rest of the developed world in almost everything except incarceration, infant mortality, gun violence, and covid deaths.

The Republican Party has stopped having a platform. They can't say what it is they want to do for our country. They dropped the idea of proposing policies for the last election and won't have anything next time, either. Also, for the next Presidential election they have already said they're not going to debate. Because, honestly, it doesn't matter what they'd say. They are against something, and that's all it takes, fear and anger. The Democrat will propose a problem solution and the Republican will say, "I'm against it," and that's their position. That's the debate, so why bother? They do not have solutions to any problems, only complaints, and you don't need to commit yourself to a platform or debate anybody for that.

It won't matter that the GOP does not stand for anything. White people are mad after years of progress by minorities and they are blaming everything on inclusive liberal politicians. People don't know what Biden has done for them, because the media are not saying anything; the public is vaguely aware that there was a "spending bill," because, everybody knows, spending is what Democrats do. But nobody knows what was in the last bill, or the next one.

This week Newt Gingrich said the January 6 commission should go to jail. You remember the "Lock Her Up" chants that Trump's followers so enjoyed. You might remember when the federal government killed Michael Reinoehl, Trump said, "This guy was a violent criminal, and the US marshals killed him. And I’ll tell you something — that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this." Rand Paul says that Anthony Fauci deserves five years in prison. In the coming America, this is how it will be. They won't bother with arresting people and fluffy stuff like trials; troublesome political rivals will get what they deserve, administered by government goons and rightwing hit-men, like in a bad movie.

These are people with no understanding and no respect for the Constitution and the justice system we have in place. Violence replaces lawfulness, as one group ascends to unearned dominance over all others in the country. And it is hard to oppose them when their message is this dumb. Joe Biden is not a communist, or even a progressive, he is a mainstream Democrat who holds popular views on most things. Fauci is not a sadistic monster and big fat liar. Vaccination does not kill you or make you turn socialist or shrivel your testicles and masks do not infringe on your personal expression. Russia should not be attacking Ukraine, and refugees and homeless people need help, not more punishment. Yes, there is racism; various groups in the US are treated unfairly. The earth really is getting warmer, there is a reason for the fires and the huge storms. The 2020 election was fair and Joe Biden won it. It is tedious to argue about these things. They are not real controversies, they are made-up issues that don't make sense, have no evidence to support them, and reasonable people really don't want to have to spend their time talking about this.

These aren't things worth arguing about, and it's hard to get regular intelligent people engaged with these topics when there are real problems that need solving now. So while Democrats are trying to make things better, conservatives are threatening violence over nutty non-issues. They are changing the rules for voting, moving district boundaries, putting their own people in charge of monitoring elections, putting judges in place, school board members. You can't vote them out of office if they have twisted the voting laws so they can win with a minority. Unless you have a better idea.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Antifa

I'll tell you something that bugs me: antifa.

In an attempt to head off the violence expected the following day, on January 5th, 2020, President Trump instructed the Secretary of State to consider adding Antifa to a list of “aliens who are members of an identified criminal organization” within the country’s Foreign Affairs Manual. A 2019 Senate bill called for "the groups and organizations acting under the banner of Antifa to be designated as domestic terrorist organizations." A bill was introduced in the House of Representatives this year, "calling for the designation of Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization."

The day before the Capitol insurrection, the President issued a statement:

Pundits now theorize that the President actually believed that an organization called "antifa" existed, and he was preparing to have the National Guard protect the nice "pro-Trump people," swooping down on antifa when they tried to disrupt his coup. Then Trump could declare martial law and cancel the certification of the election results. The non-appearance of antifa spoiled the plan.

Fox news and other media went ahead with their part and reported that antifa was actually responsible for the January 6th attack on the Capitol. (Dr. David Duess has even published a 212-page Complete List Of Antifa Members In Capitol Building Riot -- one reviewer wrote, "A thorough and well vetted list of AntiFa terrorists caught trying to undermine the Democracy of this great country of ours. Every patriot should read and try to grasp the magnitude of this book") All the people arrested so far in conjuction with the January 6th attack have been Trumpers.

In small towns across America, warnings have gone out that antifa was planning to attack, and patriotic locals would go downtown with their guns and gimme caps, and in every case antifa saw the turnout and went chicken, didn't even show up.

I'm old enough to remember protesting the Vietnam War. They called us, sensibly enough, "anti-war protesters." There were usually some pro-war protesters as well but not enough to give them a name, maybe "hard-hats" because a lot of them were construction workers. Anti-war protesters were not usually very well organized; if you had somebody with a hammer and some tacks they could put up posters and everybody would show up for the demonstration. You didn't join anything, you just went to express yourself with millions of other Americans.

There were some well-organized civil rights groups in the mid-twentieth-century with names, like the NAACP or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that had members and leaders. You knew if you were in it or not, there were offices and membership lists and roles in the organization. There were also groups like the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers, who took a different approach but again, you were either a Black Panther or you weren't. You might agree with them and go to their events. but that didn't make you a Black Panther.

On the other side you had groups like the Ku Klux Klan, fighting against racial equality. There were lots of these groups, the point being that on both sides there were real organiztions, with members, and headquarters, and leaders. There were also lots of people who sympathized but did not wear the hood and gown, they might even show up for the violence but you were either in the KKK or not in it.

During the Iraq War I marched in some protests in DC that had two or three hundred thousand people in them, massive parades, miles long. They called anti-war protesters "anti-war protesters," or, maybe "liberals," or if you wanted to be inflammatory you could call them "lefties," but that would not appear in a news story. Most people weren't members of any group, they just opposed the war and protested it.

Donald Trump rose to power on a movement that is correctly described as fascist. It is an authoritarian white supremacist movement that seeks preference and power for a certain segment of the population. They don't like Black people or uppity women or gay and transgender people. Also don't like Jews, Muslims, atheists, or foreigners. Or liberals. They believe that laws apply to other people and not to themselves. This group of people doesn't really have a name because they are used to being the default American. Every television show was about them. They starred in every movie, played every sport, they ran every big company and got all the good jobs there. If you ask them what group they belong to, they will say "we're normal Americans," because as far as they know everyone is just like them, or should go back to where they came from. There was a suggestion to label them "Deplorables" but they also run the newspapers, and that did not stick.

Trump's followers walk around with heavy guns, intimidating people. They start fights on airplanes and in grocery stores when they are told to wear a mask during the pandemic. Groups of them go into cities and vandalize them, shoot people with paint guns or bear spray, start fights with residents. They display a lot of patriotic American symbols as a way of asserting that this country belongs to them and they don't want to share it -- they even refer to one another as "patriots." These people are fascists, even if they are too dumb to know what the word means. Their beliefs coincide with a way of thought that is generally considered by decent people to be an evil force that should be stopped. My father, for one, took a load of shrapnel and nearly lost his life over Europe opposing fascists. Many Americans died for that cause, and we grew up proud that we stopped Hitler.

It turns out there are many millions of people in the country who do not agree with our fascists, and sometimes they come out to protest the increase of racism and authoritarianism in the country today. It would be reasonable to call these people "anti-fascists." Most of them do not belong to any organization, they just have common sense and some knowledge of history.

A rightwing agitator/writer named Andy Ng, in the Pacific Northwest, is most directly responsible for popularizing the myth of antifa. He uses the term for any liberal person or group who challenges the fascist crush for power. He has almost single-handedly created the image, now a cliche on Fox and other Republican media, of antifa rioting, looting, starting fires. He regularly claims to be a victim himself of the awful violence, though nobody ever sees it happen.

Rightwing media took the ball and ran with it, further mythologizing antifa as a well-funded and highly organized group. It is believed by many conservatives that George Soros himself, who in reality has nothing to do with it, is sending paychecks to protesters for marching in the streets, committing violent acts, vandalizing the cities. Rightwing media show video of street violence and claim that it is "antifa," and millions of ignorant Americans think that antifa members use their Soroschecks to loot and vandalize cities and attack "normal Americans" on the street. Out in the flyover states they believe that coastal cities are too violent to visit, because of antifa looting and violence.

Antifa is said to dress in black, that's how you know it's them, unless it is a rightwinger in disguise. Antifa are said to be extremely violent and highly organized and they take orders from a secret cabal of ... nobody really knows. Communist China, maybe. Atheists? Somebody bad, that's all we know.

So listen, have you ever seen an antifa website? Have you ever seen an antifa office building? Have you ever met anyone who said they were a member of antifa? Have you ever received a fund-raising email or text message or robo-call from antifa? Have you ever seen antifa supporting a political candidate, or calling for a boycott, or carrying a banner in a march? Have you ever seen a reporter go undercover into an antifa bunker, compound, or training exercise? Has any TV show ever had commentary by an antifa pundit, or even quoted an antifa official or representative? Have you ever seen an antifa yard-sign, flag, "antifa" on a cap, in a song? Antifa grafitti? Have the police ever busted an antifa arsenal, or actual pile of bricks or concrete milkshakes (hee hee) prepared by antifa? Can you name any real person you have ever heard of, in the news, on TV, anywhere, who said they are a member of antifa?

Does that not seem a little strange to you? The Republicans literally wanted to declare antifa a terrorist organization, but ... what organization? You can read all the organization's beliefs and official positions on their website: antifa.org.

Antifa is the creation of rightwing media. Everything you have heard -- dress in black, looting, attacking conservatives -- is fiction. There is no such group. Oh somebody might loot after the police murder someone, maybe even start a fire, there are counterprotesters at Nazi rallies, but calling them "antifa" is simply made-up. Antifa, or anti-fascist, means somebody who opposes fascism, which should be all of us. It's not an organization, not a club, cult, party. Just like we were anti-war protesters, these are anti-fascism protesters, people who oppose the authoritarian takeover of our constitutional democracy.

Responsible citizens should be wary of the way that our media are able to create the myth of such an organization and drill it into the public's collective brain, and responsible citizens should ask themselves why the media are doing this, what they get out of it, and what it means for our future as a country.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

A Defense of Education

Authoritarianism does not work for educated people. When the leader says something absurd, people who are able to judge for themselves remain unpersuaded. This is the simplest political fact there is.

The educational system works from bottom to top to produce experts -- individuals who are knowledgeable in their field, who know not only the subject matter but the research methods that produced that knowledge, alternative theories, the history of the topic and ideas that have been tested and discarded. These experts know when to trust a fact and when to doubt it even if it is supported by some evidence or arguments. Their opinion is not based on confident-sounding assertions of truth, but on the actual fact that they know what they are talking about. Experts can disagree among themselves and they can be wrong, they are typically constantly adjusting their beliefs in response to new information. An authority is a person with power, whether it is deserved or not. Non-expert authorities can appeal to faith or common sense arguments, metaphors and analogies, and they can be right sometimes, but there is no system behind them for validating and providing the most erudite and up-to-date knowledge of the time.

The consequence of course is that dictators oppose education everywhere around the world. The universities come under attack, teachers and professors come under attack, as well as artists, activists, scientists, and innovators; people are mocked for using "ten-cent words," and the value of an education is literally measured in terms of the dollars that it adds to a student's lifetime earnings.

Job-training programs are worthwhile but they are not education.

By defining the value of knowledge within an economical frame, authoritarians are able to steer students away from intellectual pursuits such as philosophy, literature, and basic theoretical scientific research, and towards majors that will help them find a place in the ongoing corporate system of business. The goal is to reduce intelligent human beings to consumers and producers, unquestioning participants in an economy where wealth continues to flow toward the already-rich. Discouraging the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself is a way to keep the population ignorant and dependent on authoritarian leaders who can say "Only I can solve these problems."

It appears that Republicans are gearing up to make education the wedge issue of choice for the next election cycle. In the recent race for the governorship of Virginia, the tide turned when Youngkin attacked McAuliffe for saying that he trusted teachers more than parents to educate kids. Republicans treated this as some kind of attack on the family, but it was really an opportunity for them to further undermine the institution of education. School boards are being threatened across the country, rightwing radicals are demanding that books be banned and even burned, they want public schools to support white Christian values, and that's all.

Here ya go: we'll pick a parent each day to teach a lesson in the classroom. Monday, Mrs. Jones will teach the kids how to solve quadratic equations; Tuesday, Mr. Smith will walk the kids through the battles and shifting alliances of the French and Indian War. Wednesday, Mr. Jackson will explain the Bernoulli effect and how airplanes fly. No, come on, parents are not qualified to educate children, that's why we have schools. Teachers have a prepared lesson plan, and even if you don't solve quadratic equations in your adult life it is important to know how mathematics works at that level, that there are things you can do with symbol manipulation and the laws of logic that give correct results. It's important to work it out on paper, to grasp the fact that logic works, that the world makes sense if you know the facts and the logic that connects them. Even if you forget how the Bernoulli effect works, it's good know that there is a physical reason that airplanes fly, and it isn't just angels holding them up there.

The idea that parents should decide what is taught in school is ridiculous. We saw it in our county with sex education, where noisy rightwingers demanded that absolutely nutty ideas should be taught in the public schools, and today we are literally seeing prize-winning books being banned, book-burning advocated, as school boards try to dumb down to parents' demands on matters of sexual identity, race, immigration, and other topics that require careful critical examination.

We already have fragmented, personalized knowledge. The Internet quickly figured out how to give end-users information that is tailored to their personal preferences. If you search for a term on Google on your computer, and I search for the same term on mine, we will get different results. If you are conservative, you will get conservative results, and I will get liberal results. And if authoritarians have their way, people will send their kids to schools that, following economic principles, "give the customer what they want." If you don't think quadratic equations are important, then you could send your kids to a school that doesn't bother with that stuff. Black people can send their kids to Afrocentric schools, white people's kids can learn history with no mention of slavery, Christian kids can study creationist biology, and over time knowledge will become even more fragmented and unreliable than it is now. We will be more dependent on authoritarian leadership to guide us confidently but wrongly through the confusing mess of actual reality.

Historically, white Americans literally sailed ships to Africa and kidnapped people who were living their ordinary lives there, brought them to this land and forced them to work without pay or any rights. The entire Southern half of the country depended on that forced labor to develop industry and wealth, and it was not unknown in the North. Today a significant proportion of the country's population is descended from those African people, and any history that avoids or whitewashes that episode of our past is ... just wrong. Of course it doesn't sound real good to say that white people kidnapped Black people and held them as slaves, but it happened, and the consequences of that activity are part of our daily life now -- you simply cannot understand American culture without knowing about slavery, the Civil War, the Reformation, segregation, lynching, Jim Crow -- ragtime, boogie-woogie, jazz, blues, hip-hop... None of it makes any sense if you don't know what happened.

Note that understanding history does not directly help you find a better job; there are not a lot of jobs out there for historians. If we define our educational standards in terms of production and consumption -- skill learning -- then it is not necessary to teach history accurately. But if we treat knowledge and critical thinking as being inherently valuable, then we can cultivate a society that makes well-informed, intelligent decisions that pave the way toward a history that future Americans will not have to sweep under the rug. Democracy, rule by "we the people," requires accurate knowledge and good skeptical critical thinking. And, by the way, a well-educated person will be qualified for the best-paying jobs.

An educated public will be resistant to authoritarianism. You can't just toss out slogans like "death panels," or "communist," or "critical race theory" and tell people these are important forces in the real world, because educated people have the intellectual confidence to distinguish what's real. This month a Republican politician literally accused Big Bird of being a communist -- do you think people who understand communism believe that? Or even people who know that Big Bird is a person in a costume? It is embarrassing that anyone would even think of this, never mind the millions of people who hear the statement and believe it. Knowledge and logic -- education undermines the effectiveness of this kind of absurd communication.

I am not optimistic about this. Neither political party seems to have any desire to shift away from a view of citizens as consumers-and-producers, neither party seems to be ready to advocate for knowledge and critical thinking as ends in themselves. Ivy-League-graduate Republican congressmen mock the Ivy League elite and their voters are too stupid to notice the hypocrisy, while Democratic politicians always describe the value of education in terms of employment and wages -- producing and consuming. Sometimes it is important to know things just to know things, so that when someone tells a falsehood or presents invalid logic you have the mental ability to identify the errors and not be persuaded by them. Dictators always go after the intellectuals, and there is a reason for that.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Putin Comments on Western Values

The textbook case of cognitive dissonance is when somebody you can't stand says something you agree with. What are you supposed to do? You can dislike them less or find some reason to disagree with what they have said, or both -- it is hard for human beings to hold conflicting thoughts. You want to be on the same side in everything, or on opposite sides. It's basic psychology: we want our thoughts and feelings to be consistent.

This crossed my mind as I flipped through yesterday's Washington Post and encountered a headline:

Putin slams trans rights and other values of the West.

(Online version: "Putin slams ‘cancel culture’ and trans rights, calling teaching gender fluidity ‘crime against humanity’") This is the least surprising thing in the world, isn't it? Of course Putin opposes rights for transgender people and "other values of the West."

Putin stressed that his country should adhere to its own “spiritual values and historical traditions,” while steering clear of “sociocultural disturbances” in the West.

These statements of Putin's do not induce the slightest amount of cognitive dissonance in an American reader. I do not like Putin and his authoritarian ways, I would not want to live in Russia, and I also like Western values and think "sociocultural disturbances" tend to be healthy for a community, strengthen individuals' sense of autonomy, freedom, and strength, and they are fun. I don't like him and I disagree with him: no dissonance.

Republican readers also will feel no sense of cognitive dissonance upon reading Putin's statements, but for the opposite reason. He embodies their ideal as a strong and manly leader, and of course he opposes trans rights and other values of the West, which they also oppose. They like him and agree with him: no conflict there.

I don't know if Republican leaders get literal envelopes of cash from literal Russian oligarchs. I don't know if Putin has his people call their people every morning to tell them what to do and say. I don't know how it works, but clearly there is a well-funded and well-organized global movement to eliminate individual freedom, to assign more power to the state and to the very rich, and Putin is a leader of this movement and one of its least embarrassed spokesmen. Because the movement opposes Western values, American politicians have to veil their motives, hiding behind religious privilege and using words like "truth," "patriotism," and "freedom" in ways that are the opposite of their usual meanings.

The global authoritarian movement has infiltrated American society in a way that I would never have imagined, growing up during the Cold War and after the Allied victory against the Nazis. Putin's words here would be unusual for an American, we normally speak up in support of personal freedom, we encourage differences among people and individual uniqueness as a cultural foundation. Our country's history has been a story of the broadening of acceptance for people as they are. Where Constitutional rights were initially awarded to the small group of white male landowners, over the centuries the gift of freedom has expanded to include more people. We rejected the ownership of human beings and gave rights to the descendants of freed slaves. We eventually gave many rights to women, including the right to vote. Our country recognizes that sexual orientation and gender identity are not qualities that should affect someone's right to participate freely in our society. The goal of Western values, I think I can say, is for "we the people" to explicitly include all the people. It is not a goal we have attained yet, but our historical momentum marches incessantly in that direction, even against constant opposition from the outside by leaders like Putin, and from within by Republicans, Nazis, white nationalists, and others.

I kind of like the ring of that phrase, "sociocultural disturbances." It is almost as if the West engages in some kind of ongoing revolution, pushing back against the suppression of liberties, one sociocultural battle after the other, expanding its definition of freedom until just about everybody has it. This is disturbing to the Putin/Trump authoritarians who feel they have the right to determine the standards and values that everyone should comply with, and it is empowering for the rest of us. This empowerment of the ordinary citizen can only come under democratic rule, where voters decide how policies will be implemented.

The simpler term instead of "spiritual values and historical traditions" would have been ideology. The are many kinds of "spiritual values" in Russia, as well as in our country; in the US these are not broadcast and enforced by the government, though Americans aligned with Putin's values do endorse the merging of church and state (as long as it's their church). "Spiritual values" in this kind of context comprise not only attitudes toward deity and the afterlife, but judgment and punishment of our fellow citizens as well. There is obviously nothing in Christian, including Orthodox, scripture about transgender people. Yet Putin as well as many evangelical Americans consider it a "spiritual value" to despise certain of their fellow citizens and to make their lives as miserable as possible, to deny them rights solely because they fail to comply with a particular in-group's social gender norms.

Western values encourage the expansion of history, as well. It is generally held that "history books are written by the conquerors," but an enlightened, scientific history is one that tells the story of a society without taking the point of view of one participant or group over another. Conquerors tend to be cruel, and the history of that cruelty can be told from the perspective of the colonialists or from that of indigenous, conquered, or exploited populations. This is the conflict behind the current Republican opposition to "Critical Race Theory" or any teaching where white people might have been unkind or unfair to a minority group. Western scientific values promote a historical narrative that is objectively accurate, not one that glamorizes the victors with fictions and half-truths.

Putin's allies are working hard to undermine our Western values in the US. Supporters of his ideology are moving into official positions in the states and counties, poised for the moment when they can eliminate the troublesome habit of a democratic vote and install their leaders regardless of the will of the majority. They are disrupting and changing the norms of our federal government processes to accommodate outbursts and violence, defying norms and laws, ignoring the dignified protocols that have evolved in centuries of governing by officials who respected Constitutional law. These opponents of Western values make up a small minority of our population but they are relentless, sneaky, and dangerous.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Preliminary AZ Fraudit Results Are In

I have been interested in the election challenge conducted by Maricopa County, Arizona, Republicans. Well, I was born in Phoenix, grew up there, I have some ideas about the place. When I grew up it was Goldwater's town, and both the newspapers were bizarrely conservative -- there just wasn't any other point of view. At some point some of us realized how crazy it was, lots of people moved there from more sensible places, and some residents were exposed to points of view from outside the Valley of the Sun, and there are today a few clear-thinking people in the county. But even today the tone is set by those crusty desert-rats who live in trailers out by Apache Junction or Gila Bend, or near the Superstition Mountains, sitting under an awning in the hundred-ten-degree heat watching a little black and white TV with rabbit ears, and shooting at intruders.

It would have been no surprise at all if Trump had won Arizona, including the big-city capital of Phoenix, in the 2020 election. It woulda been a yawner, the most expectable thing in the world. "AZ" would have gone on an alphabetized list with other red states with no explanation required.

You might remember the flurry when Fox News, of all the networks, called Arizona for Biden on election night. Trump literally got on the phone to Rupert Murdoch and told him to take it back. It was a close race and still early in the evening when Fox painted Arizona blue. Nobody understood it, but Fox stood by it and many hours later the other networks confirmed the call.

Arizona went blue and Maricopa County, being by far the most populous part of the state, led the charge. Tucson was no surprise but ... again, you cannot imagine how deeply conservative Phoenix has always been.

The Republican nutty fringe, which is mainstream in that region, decided to challenge the election results with an "audit." Actually they were not only challenging the results, but were challenging the whole idea of voting, the idea of democracy. Trump should have won, because Trump should have won. Who cares if a bunch of dumb voters feel otherwise? Destiny cannot be diverted by something as trivial as an election.

The Maricopa County fraudit, as it is more appropriately called, violated every principle of rigorous research. They started with a conclusion -- Trump won and the election was stolen from him -- and worked back, looking for incriminating evidence, chasing down every paranoid rumor. I won't review the whole process here, but it was ... ugly. Oh and then remember, when they were going to issue the report they all caught covid and it was delayed.

This morning the Washington Post reports that they got a draft of the final report, pretty close to what will come out officially this week.

And guess what: fraudit results agree that Biden won the county. In fact, these jokers estimated that Biden won by an even greater margin than the official count. It was not a great difference, 360 more votes, but still.

A Republican-commissioned review of nearly 2.1 million ballots cast last year in Arizona confirmed the accuracy of the official results and President Biden’s win in Maricopa County, according to a draft report prepared by private contractors who conducted the recount.

After nearly six months and almost $6 million — most of it given by groups that cast doubt on the election results — the draft report shows that the review concluded that 45,469 more ballots were cast for Biden in Maricopa County than for Trump, widening Biden’s margin by 360 more votes than certified results.

The draft report found the count to have “no substantial differences” from the county’s certified tallies.

Draft report of GOP-backed ballot review in Arizona confirms Biden’s win

You know the saying, "Garbage in, garbage out" -- there is absolutely nothing meaningful about the result of the Maricopa County fraudit. It does not mean that Biden "actually" got more votes than the official tally. They just could not come up with any way to twist the data so that Trump won.

About the only conclusion you can take from this is that the grifters who soaked the county for millions of dollars did not feel obligated to make the customer happy. They were like dowsers who did not find water, but got paid anyway. Does that make them "honest?" Of course not, everything about this, from the premise to the data-collection to the analysis, was dishonest. It never should have been done. The election was fine as it was.

The whole point of this was to undermine the public's confidence in the democratic process. Now other Republican-run states want to do the same thing, as we see them trying to destroy one of the most successful representative democracies in the history of mankind. It would be nice if this discouraged them, but they're not smart enough for that.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Passing of Pat O'Neill

We want to take a minute here to express our appreciation for Patricia O'Neill, Montgomery County School Board member for twenty-three years, who passed away this week at the age of 71. Pat was a true friend of the county who always took her position on the school board seriously; she put time and effort into digging into the topics that faced the board, to see what was really behind them, what the options were, and what the consequences of the options would be. Other board members regarded her as the unofficial "historian" for the school board, as she could explain, off the top of her head, the background of every policy issue that came up.

Our group, Teach the Facts, formed when MCPS came under attack for its new sex-ed curriculum, and we worked with the school board and administration to make sure they understood that the Sturm und Drang of the rightwing rabblerousers was not representative of our community. Conservatives spent a lot of money to see that our county kids didn't learn about gay or transgender people, and we really relied on the courage of the school board to steer the district into a good, healthy direction that a majority of residents and parents wanted.

Pat was an unshakable ally through it all. She was not partisan but considered each issue rationally, and in the case of the sex-ed curriculum she was a solid advocate for comprehensive sex education and the inclusion of relevant and important facts. Her top priority was always the students, and she defended students who came from nontraditional families and also wanted to ensure that other students understood that some of their friends may have a single parent, or step-parents, or parents of the same sex. She also empathized with students who might be gay or transgender and supported the inclusion of material to help them understand themselves, and to help their friends understand them. These changes met with loud, high-profile resistance but Pat and the school board stood their ground and we are all better off for it.

Pat's statements during the board's public comment sessions were wry and insightful, and respectful, no matter what point of view was being expressed. For instance, when a parent once complained that the district did not have enough teachers to teach the new material, Pat thanked them and said she hoped that they would actively work to help increase the district's budget, so they could hire more teachers.

Pat O'Neill served five one-year terms as board president, and six terms as vice-president. Her death is a big loss to the county and she will be missed for a long time.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Delta and Compassion Fatigue

With the delta variant of the coronavirus, there is still a lot of political insanity going on, but there is also actual confusion and concern among serious people about what is going to happen and what we are supposed to do. In particular, reasonable people are questioning just how much they should be expected to sacrifice to protect those who wilfully put themselves at risk.

The original virus spread fairly slowly, each person infected about two to three other people on average, and an honest early effort to "flatten the curve" in the US could have brought that number down below one, where the virus would finally die off and we could party again yall. But while we were waiting for a miracle and then trying to talk people into getting vaccinated, the virus was spreading and evolving.

The new delta virus is much more infectious than the original one. It appears that each person with the delta variant infects an average of six or seven other people, plus children seem to be more susceptible to it. To stop the process we will have to beat it worldwide, and many places have not even gotten the vaccine at all, so this is going to be part of our lives for quite a while yet.

The current vaccines are really good at preventing infection, but not perfect, and a few people are getting "breakthrough" infections after they've been vaccinated. The good news is that they do not need to go to ICU and they don't die from it. The bad news is that they can get sicker than a dog, and also they can spread the virus to others.

That sets the stage for the current moment. Oh, one other thing, in an apparent attempt at mass suicide, the Republican Party has politicized the disease and decided they should not take the vaccine. It might be bad for them. It might be a communist plot. Shots hurt. I can't explain it, it's just a fact that the rate of vaccinations dropped off once sensible people got theirs. The same Republicans also do not "believe in" wearing masks in public.

Now we have to decide what to do. You can't order people to get vaccinated, because it is more important to them to own the libs. So we are probably reaching the max as far as percent vaccinated goes. You can't force people to wear masks, because, same thing, it's some kind of lefty plot to take over our minds. These arguments are idiotic but they are the background for any intelligent planning process that is taking place now. The plan has to assume that a good number of Americans are not taking this seriously.

So -- the rest of us. If we catch covid -- delta or otherwise -- we will try to deal with it rationally. Possibly we will infect other people before we realize we're sick. Most vaccinated people who catch it will get sick and get well again. Some will not get sick, and some will stay sick for a long time.

The truth is that vaccinated people are very much less likely to become infected, and if they do get covid they are very much less likely to pass it on. Supported by other measures such as masking and social distancing, vaccine can end the pandemic, if a large enough percentage of the world's population gets it. But that is not something that we can foresee in the near future, so we need to fight it on our local turf for now.

This new variant seems to be harder on kids than the original virus, and we need to catch up on research and policy for vaccinating children. In the meantime we should protect children from exposure, and that might mean remote school, masks in face-to-face classrooms, careful contact tracing and communication to parents, and other precautions. There are also immunocompromised people, and I'm sorry but they are just going to have to be extra careful for the time being. (An extra booster shot might increase their immunity in some cases.)

People who have been vaccinated can get moderately sick, and people who have not been vaccinated can get very sick, tie up the hospitals, and die. Meanwhile people with heart attacks, cancer, and other serious medical problems are not able to get into the ICU in some places already, because it is full of Republicans.

I hate to quote the Philippines' president, Rodrigo Duterte, but I think a lot of sensible people can identify with his statement about how he -- as a Trump-type dictator -- will manage anti-vaxxers in his country:

"To those people who do not want to be vaccinated, I am telling you, don't go out of your house.

"If you go out of your house, I will tell the police to return you to your home. You will be escorted back to your house because you are a walking spreader..."

"For those who do not want it, well, for all I care, you can die anytime."

People who have taken the vaccine and followed the guidelines are increasingly feeling what The Atlantic calls compassion fatigue. If you want to do something stupid to yourself, the rest of us are caring less and less, and are not feeling a great obligation to save you from yourself. Also, trying to overthrow our constitutional government was not endearing.

President Biden is the leader of a democratic country, and he is trying to convince the idiots to take the vaccine. He does not want families to grieve, hospitals to be overwhelmed, he doesn't want Americans dying by the hundred-thousands on his watch. But the conservative mass suicide is largely a political statement of opposition to him and his party, and he can't reach those people. I'd say he's doing as well as he can but he's stuck.

And you and me -- what do we do? Sure there are legal orders, for instance right now in Montgomery County you have to wear a mask in public places and so on. But beyond that, what does a good citizen do? Assuming you are already vaccinated, your duty is to try not to spread the coronavirus to innocent people -- kids, the elderly, compromised people.

First of all: don't catch it and you won't spread it. Follow the familiar guidelines for crowds and indoor public spaces. Stay home if you can, and if you go out wear a mask. You are not limited by what the CDC says, or the county -- use your head. Stay away from people who might have it. Protecting yourself will also protect others.

If you believe you have been exposed, then you know the drill. Isolate yourself and get tested after a day or two. You might feel fine, that doesn't mean you aren't infectious.

If you're sick, do I have to tell you? Even if it's just a cold, stay home, stay in bed, get well.

The complication is this. I feel just like you, and like Duterte. I'm not the President of the United States and it's not my job to keep you safe; I did what I should have done for more than a year and now I want to live a normal life and I don't really feel a lot of responsibility for people who refuse to take care of themselves. I am not the suicide hotline, I am not going to argue with you about the Constitution. If you want to get sick and die to make a political point, it is your business.

We feel that way but as good people, even if somewhat resentfully, the rest of us will continue to limit our own behavior, both to protect others and to protect ourselves from irresponsible, rude, self-destructive, seditious idiots. It ain't fair, I tell you, but we'll do it.