Making Plans?

resolutions

A new year means making resolutions, those weak promises you make to yourself that you have no intention of keeping. You’re probably not going to exercise more, or lose the weight, or watch less TV, or spend more time with family, etc. I hate to burst your well-intentioned bubble but if you didn’t make all the lifestyle changes you had on your list last year, you’re not about to fulfil those wishes this time around. 

But go ahead anyway. There’s no harm in making an effort toward self-improvement. That is, as long as the goals you set are healthy, uplifting, and not designed to lead to mass murder.

There’s something happening here

There’s a disturbing trend making waves in recent weeks: the notion that a civil war is on this nation’s horizon. That’s right, we’re apparently heading toward a bloody, destructive real shooting battle pitting American against American. Everybody’s talking about it, from television preachers to the President of the United States. 

As devastating as another war on the homefront would be, it seems this war won’t have as clear-cut battle lines as did the North vs South conflict of the 1860s. No, this one will be impossible to define in geographical terms. Rather than separate armies made up of regiments from this or that state, the civil war that might be on our 2020 calendar will truly see neighbor challenging neighbor. While the ultimate reason depends on who you talk to and their mood at the time, it sure seems like the majority of the crowd that is breathlessly calling for the shooting to get starting has one thing in common: a feverish devotion to President Trump.

Oh, you’re overreacting, you tell me. It will never get that bad. Sorry, but I don’t share your false optimism. Remember, we’re talking about people who laughed when this president made fun of a disabled journalist. People who follow the lead of the president and refuse to believe what our law enforcement and military experts tell us. People who repeat the president in questioning the patriotism of battle-wounded soldiers and Gold Star families. The same people who would never have accepted any of this coming from the previous president.

So if a civil war is inevitable, we need to know the rules of engagement.

I’ve got questions

Who will you shoot? Can you at least provide a simple answer?

How do you decide who amongst your fellow Americans is the enemy? Is there going to be a Sign-up Day? Do we all have to declare which side we’re on? Or are those of you who are cheering for a bloodbath get to be the ones who make up the rules as you go along? 

Do you grab a voter registration list and separate us purely along party lines? Do you monitor our posts on Facebook or Twitter? Do you look for political bumper stickers or identify us by whether we wear one of those silly MAGA ballcaps? 

Will we be declared as Good Guys or Bad Guys because of the churches we attend? Or where we were born? Or the color of our skin?

Do your enemies have to wear badges or would you prefer tattoos or brands?

You might think these are silly questions, but threatening a domestic war just because we don’t all align politically is a matter that calls for serious thought. The NRA puts it right on top of their gun safety rules: “Know your target and what is beyond.” Let there be no doubt when you aim.

These aren’t water balloons, after all. People are calling for a real-life killing war if they don’t get what they want, and they’re getting ready. Take, for example, the angry guy at the Trump rally in Pennsylvania last month who insisted that the president would not be removed from office by impeachment and backed it up by saying, “My .357 Magnum is comfortable with that.” Relax, cowboy.  No one believes the Mitch McConnell-led Senate would ever convict the president on any articles of impeachment, no matter how obvious the wrongdoing.

And then there’s the Oath Keepers, the extremist militia group that brags about its abundant weapons and willingness to use them, which seems to be begging the president to give them the go-ahead. They don’t need a reason to aim their guns. All they want is someone to tell them that their thirst for blood is justified.OathKeepers

We all know people who can’t control their anger. For some, white-hot hatred has led them to the point of solving every problem with violence. Are these the people you can trust to be on your side? To follow your orders, or to lead you into battle?

A grim reality

It’s just talk, you might say. They’re only joking, you claim. No one wants violence, you insist. Take this as a warning: it’s more than words, no one is laughing, and it’s clear that a growing number really do want to start shooting. Whether you choose to believe what the rest of us can see or you prefer to continue denying the truth, that’s on you. 

If you’re willing to shoot to kill, you better be able to legitimize that decision. And if you’re willing to stand by and let things get to the point of random murder in the name of politics, you need to make sure you can live with that as well. If they let you.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald January 2, 2020.)

We are better than this

dog whistleThose of us who dabble in the occasional do-it-yourself project eventually learn a few ‘rules of the road’, so to speak. We know that you should always “Measure twice, cut once” and “If it can’t be fixed with duct tape, you’re not using enough duct tape”. And then there’s the one about the old man who explained to his grandson why he had so many tools: “If the women don’t find you handsome, they’ll at least find you handy”.

The key to a job well done is having the right tools and knowing how to use them. To build my column, my tools are my words. It makes sense to know which ones are right for the task. For this one, the important words are not pleasant but are certainly getting a lot of work these days.

 

Here’s where things get ugly

First, let’s flip through the pages of our handy dictionary and get a clear sense of the differences of three key terms: bigotry, prejudice, and racism. Now, each of these words can be used to attack based on a person’s words, thoughts, or actions. It isn’t my intention to single out anyone here, but to get a better sense of how we can define and understand the world we live in.

According to Merriam-Webster, bigotry is ‘obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices’. Words like narrow-minded or intolerant come to mind. People with a “my way or the highway” attitude could easily be described as a bigot, but general usage of the term seems to be much more harsh.

Prejudice is ‘preconceived judgment or opinion; an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge’. To me, that sounds like what you get with the previously mentioned bigot who makes up his mind without bothering to check his facts.

And then there’s the big word that is bouncing around in many current events discussions these days: racism. The language experts describe it as ‘a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race’. That’s some serious heavy lifting in a single sentence, so let’s see if we can expand on that a bit.

 

Truth isn’t always comfortable

In his book “Portraits of White Racism”, David Wellman defined racism as a “system of advantage based on race”. He went on to explain, “Race is still a deadly serious category in America; how one is designated racially profoundly affects the experience of being an American.” That is, how society – and especially, how government – defines you is a primary force in determining how much of your inalienable rights are available for you to enjoy.

Paula Rothenberg, in her study “Race, Class, and Gender in the United States”, writes: “Racial prejudice when combined with social power… leads to the institutionalization of racist policies and practices.” In other words, if you choose leaders who have strong personal opinions about people of different ethnic backgrounds and they use their position of power to negatively affect the lives of others, you are contributing to a society fueled by racism.

In 1970, Patricia Bidol-Padva wrote that racism is “prejudice plus power”. It’s important to understand that power can be as simple as holding enough influence to affect the outcome of someone else’s actions. Examples would include making hiring decisions or approving a home loan. The greater the power, the more opportunity to derail the lives of others.

Our legal system has a mottled history with race; one only has to consider the Jim Crow laws of the not-too-distant past to see how our courts have been unfairly used to disadvantage non-whites. While it’s tempting to say that things are better now, a recent study by the Brennan Center finds that 24 states right now don’t have a single person of color serving as a Supreme Court justice, hardly a true reflection of our nation’s population. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we need a mandatory quota system to force diversification. But if our courts are that much out of touch with reality, can we be assured that those justices are as impartial as we expect them to be? 

 

A matter of choice

Each and every one of us can decide: be driven by feelings of superiority over others who look different, or be accepting of all in spite of those differences. No one is born with hatred, but humans are fast learners. I once sat at a baseball stadium and overheard a young – and clearly drunk – white man shouting his disgust over an African-American umpire’s call of a close play. Turning to one of his buddies, the guy proclaimed, “And that’s why I don’t like black people.” While I’m confident that this belligerent fan isn’t currently serving in office, recent elections have taught us that anything is possible. 

Let me be very clear: a racist can be any color, from any ethnic background, and have any religious belief (or none at all). No particular demographic has exclusive rights to racist thoughts or behaviors. So if I’m pointing fingers here, rest assured. I’m not placing all the blame on one group over another. Systematic hatred of others based on their looks is not limited to one race, and one newspaper column isn’t going to give sufficient space to explain all the reasons for that hatred. 

As a Caucasian male of European descent, I only know what it’s like within my own skin. But I also know that I wasn’t raised to think that I was better than those with different skin tones. And I’m not about to stand in silence while the privileged few try to turn this nation back into a land of oppression.

You see, whether it’s our government using authoritarian means to suppress the rights and privileges of large segments of our population… or it’s the ‘dog-whistle’ catchphrases that pepper the public comments by America’s most prominent political voices…we are seeing prejudice plus power in action. And that, my friends, is racism amplified to the highest volume.

 

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald August 1, 2019.)

“Those who cannot remember the past…

are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

the time machine

Buckle up, buttercup

Let’s talk about those who hate. Now, you may not be comfortable using that term to describe those around you (or yourself), but you might recognize a few things in the following paragraphs. And what you discover may make you squirm in your seat. That’s okay: self-realization isn’t a bad thing, especially if you work to change.

Now, you’re probably not among the worst and you may not be actively pursuing a life of hate, so there’s hope. But by being willing to accept the words and actions of others, whether by agreeing in full or in part, means that you are enabling the spread of hate.

And you certainly don’t want that on your conscience, right? 

 

Fiction, not fact

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve certainly noticed that people are growing angrier at the world around them. Egged on by talk radio, social media, politicians, and even preachers, it’s safe to say that Americans are generally more upset with each other with each passing day.

Sure, there’s plenty of reasons (or excuses) for this downward slide of personal behavior, and there’s no one cause. But it isn’t hard to find a few instigators, those who are actively spreading the disease. One of the more prominent of these Typhoid Marys of Hate is Alex Jones, the star of the website InfoWars. You may know him as one of the primary corrupters of truth on the internet. Jones eagerly pounces on tragedies like mass shootings, labeling them as “false flags” – a government-run covert operation intended to mislead – and insisting that what we see on the news is not real. Jones has repeatedly insisted that school shootings like those at Sandy Hook Elementary and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were fake and that the children murdered in those events never existed. Taking advantage of the rising tide of anger in this country, Jones has made a career out of fueling that hatred, convincing many of his audience to fully believe every word he says despite the obvious facts available. 

I will note here that Jones has, somewhat reluctantly, admitted that at least some of these mass murders are not staged events and that the victims are real. Of course, he only changed his tune after he was named in a lawsuit by families of the victims, so I would question his sincerity.

 

No easy answers

Part of the public acceptance of conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones has to be the willingness of more and more people to take as truth whatever they hear from the people they like, know, or trust. That’s an unfortunate level of indifference that I’ve discussed on these pages many times before. And I’ve also highlighted the growing eagerness of many Americans to shed the shackles of what they call “political correctness”. People are more comfortable being public with their prejudices. I don’t hesitate to say that many are proud to show off their true selves after hiding their feelings for much of their lives. 

Such levels of intolerance are not new, of course, and are not limited to the USA. Although we have a disturbing history of institutional racial and religious bias with the targets being of many different backgrounds – Native Americans, blacks, the Irish, Eastern Europeans, and many others – we eventually find a way to overcome the differences and, at least officially, grow to be more accepting. Smarter, cooler heads will prevail – they always do – and we as a nation will be better as we move forward.

For now, unfortunately, we have become less than we should be and there are indications of a worsening trend. Take, for example, the results of a recent survey that points to an alarming rise of intolerance in which one’s own religious belief is used as a defense. We’re familiar with cases of business owners who have refused service to gay couples. This survey found the percentage of Americans who support that form of discrimination rose from sixteen percent in 2014 to thirty percent this year. While that’s still a minority, it’s also a near-doubling of approval in just five years, a tendency that could easily climb much higher.

That same survey found similar spikes in the number of Americans who are comfortable with these businesses also refusing service to Jews and African-Americans. What’s notable and troubling is that this support is rising along nearly every political and religious demographic. It may come as somewhat of a surprise, sadly, that those who consider themselves Christians – specifically evangelical and mainline Protestants – are leading the way in this wave of intolerance.

The people who declare to be followers of the Prince of Peace, the Bread of Life, and the Light of the World are more and more becoming less of a reflection of the Man they worship.

 

I think you can see what’s next

At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, I can’t help but draw comparisons to the Nazis’ policy of Untermensch, a term to describe people whom they deemed as unworthy and inferior. (The word is a direct translation of ‘under man’, a description employed by T. Lothrop Stoddard, an American journalist and author – and Klansman – whose writings on eugenics and race are seen as a major influence in the establishment of the racial purity politics of the Nazi party.) Much as whole races were devalued in the eyes of those in control back in those dark days, we can see parallels today. 

As Holocaust survivor and Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel once said: “…indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victims, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten…”

We need to find a way to convince our friends and neighbors to reverse the trend of hatred and intolerance before we repeat the mistakes of the past.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald July 5, 2019.)

Sympathy for the devil

Charlottesville

There are no good Nazis. Period. Full stop. Our parents and grandparents, those who made up what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation, joined forces with allies around the globe to defeat Hitler’s rampage. We pay tribute to those who sacrificed everything and we salute those who made it back home, each one of them a part of the greatest military force ever seen on this planet.

So I’ll say it again: there are no good Nazis. I’ll also go on record as saying there are no good KKK members.

And yet…

When Nazis, white supremacists, Klansmen, and other organizations with similar goals and desires came together last month in Charlottesville, their purpose was to voice their objection to the removal of statues and monuments that pay tribute to Robert E Lee and other notable figures of the Confederacy. Of course, it was much more than that.

With chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” coming from the tiki torch-bearing crowd, it was clear that the protest was about much more than Southern heritage.

This gathering of angry white men — many of whom wearing what appears to be the unofficial uniform of white supremacists, white polo shirts and khaki pants — apparently feel more emboldened than their predecessors who hid their identities beneath white sheets and hoods. That’s not surprising, considering that so many Americans still can’t handle the fact that a black man was elected to serve two terms in the White House.

They feel bold because, even after their protest march turned violent and resulted in a young woman’s death, President Trump could offer only a lackluster condemnation while also referring to some of the protestors as “fine people”. They feel rewarded by political pundits who, like Trump, engage in a “both sides” argument. Commentators took to radio and television, Facebook and Twitter, and newspapers large and small, taking great care to point out that the neo-Nazis were the ones with permits and First Amendment rights. We were told that everything would have been just fine if only the counter-protestors — those “liberals” and “leftists” — had not stepped in and caused trouble.

I wasn’t anywhere near Charlottesville that weekend but I have no problem saying this: if you were voluntarily marching in a crowd filled with people giving Nazi salutes and spitting out bigoted chants, you can’t expect us to consider you an example of “fine people”.  Our Constitution may allow groups to organize such events and protect even the most vile hate speech, but that treasured document doesn’t tell us we have to praise them for doing so.

The Rule of Law

The Constitution grants many protections besides free speech, of course. We all take for granted our ability to worship as we please, to lawfully own guns, and our protections in matters of criminal court cases. But not everyone agrees.

Arizona’s Joe Arpaio, the notorious former sheriff, stomped on the Constitutional rights of many Americans. Specifically, he was found to have violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Ordered to stop his actions, Arpaio not only continued his abuses, he bragged about his exploits. Found guilty of contempt and facing a possible jail sentence, Arpaio was instead pardoned by President Trump, whom the sheriff had vigorously endorsed during the 2016 campaign. The message couldn’t be more clear: when it comes to protecting his friends or the rest of us, Trump will side with those who do him favors.

Where’s the outrage?

You’d think that such blatant abuse of presidential power would cause Trump’s supporters to sour on him. You’d be wrong.

Remember those stories that flooded talk radio and social media in recent years? The ones that said President Obama was going to cancel the 2012 election? Or the ones that said he would cancel the 2016 election, giving himself a third term? Those stories were not just silly, they were incredibly irrational.

We don’t have national elections. We don’t have a singular presidential election. We have thousands of presidential elections. Every state, every county, every individual precinct. They’re not operated by the federal government, and they’re not controlled by the president. In order to cancel a presidential election, you would have to convince every polling place to refuse to print ballots and power up the voting machines.

It would take absolute agreement of the election boards in every one of those communities to stop our electoral process. Since we’re not living in a dictatorship or in some science fiction novel, you can surely see that it is impossible.

And yet, over half of Republicans said they support cancelling the 2020 election if President Trump proposed it. If congressional Republicans joined the president’s call, the number of Republicans who would approve climbs even higher.

The people who were practically tearing their hair out at the notion that President Obama would somehow circumvent the laws of this nation are now willing to allow President Trump to do just that.

Defending Nazis. Violating basic Constitutional rights. Making a mockery of our elections. I would ask, “What’s next?”, but I don’t think I want to know.

Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald September 7, 2017.)

True colors?

Trump WaPost

It amazes me that the President of the United States of America said this today:

“George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down—excuse me—are we going to take down—are we going to take down statues to George Washington? What about Thomas Jefferson?”

That is what a Klansman would say to defend himself, by making comparisons to our Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave owners.

Trump is a dangerous man. He stands for the ideals of the extremists of the white nationalists, and that’s not what America stands for.

I hate labels

shirt label

Recently I purchased a few tee shirts. Nothing fancy, I just needed some new ones for casual wear this summer. They’re cheap and comfortable… but they’re also irritating. That’s because they all have a large white tag on the inside of the shirt, sewn into the seam that runs down the side. It’s not as soft as the shirt — it almost seems to be made of a blend of plastic and paper — and it’s positioned close to the hem, right near my waist. Because of where it’s located, the tag often causes the hem of the shirt to flip over, as if the whole point of its existence is for everyone to see it. Since the shirts have another tagless label inside the back of the collar with the size and washing instructions, I don’t see the point in having to add this extra annoyance.

I could always cut it off, but I know better. When you remove tags like that, there’s always that one heavy thread left behind, one that looks and feels like fishing line. (I swear, someone in that factory keeps a tackle box next to the sewing machine.) That one thread, while not visible most of the time, will feel like I’ve got a Ginsu steak knife poking me in the side. No thanks, the label stays put.

My guess is the same genius who put that label in my shirt had something to do with the design of my blue jeans. Why? Because there’s a tag in my jeans that is constantly peeking over my waistband. While this tag is soft and doesn’t cause any physical pain, it does lead to some embarrassment. I feel those judgmental glances from other shoppers as I walk down the aisles of the grocery store, so I reach down and try to discreetly tuck the tag back inside my waistband.

I could remove it,  but I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s that one razor sharp thread lurking nearby, ready to strike. Besides, this tag is marked with the jeans’ size, an important detail now that I’ve reached a point in my life where I have to have jeans in different sizes depending on whether I had dessert the day before. Nope, that label is going nowhere.

Sometimes they don’t have a purpose. Sometimes they hold vital information. So, like it or not, some labels just have to stick around.

But not all of them. There’s a few labels we could live without.

Take politics, for example. We apply labels to ourselves and each other all the time, and not often for useful, constructive reasons. I mean, what’s the benefit of calling someone a liberal or a conservative, as if that one word completely defines who we are and how we think and what we believe. We’re humans, fully capable of changing our minds, so who’s to say that we can be categorized with a simple one word description? Can we be thought of as a liberal on Monday and, depending on some random experience, suddenly be transformed into a conservative by Wednesday?

But, you say, people DO change their opinions about important topics, so why not give them the label that makes sense at the time? Again I say, because we are complex creatures. No one word can truly and accurately capture every thought, urge, or belief, so why bother?

It’s the same with those among us who call themselves Republicans or Democrats. Really, when it comes to the two major parties, there’s no point in saying that you “are” one or the other. Yes, you can tell people that you are a member of a party, but registering as one or the other should be seen as merely a step you take in order to vote… not as if you’re joining a special fraternity.

Remember, political ideologies change. It wasn’t that long ago that Democrats dominated the Southern states. In the days of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, it was primarily Southern Democrats who were in opposition. Decades earlier, the Ku Klux Klan tended to build its ranks with people who were more aligned with the Democratic party. And, after all, it was a Republican who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, encouraged to do so by liberal Northerners from his own party.

But that was then. Today, the South is overwhelmingly Republican, and not because all the Democrats moved away. Nope, it’s the same people with the same views. They just switched parties after a Democrat in the White House signed some documents and told them they had to start treating everybody as equals.

You know what’s funny? Those Southern Republicans like to say they are from the party of Lincoln, the same guy who freed the slaves. I doubt that Abe would recognize his party today.

I wonder what label Lincoln would give himself.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald July 7, 2016.)

If it quacks like a duck

white-duck

As I wrapped up this column, the early results of the March 1st Super Tuesday primary/caucus states were coming in. While it’s still way too early to say that any one candidate has it in the bag, it’s also very clear that Donald Trump continues to hold a commanding lead in the battle for the Republican nomination. Think about that: a man primarily known for product huckstering and reality television is actually being considered as a contender for the position of Commander in Chief of the most powerful military known to mankind. That right there should be enough to keep you up nights clutching your security blanket.

Over the course — so far, that is — of his run for the presidency, Mr. Trump has relied on little more than his brash persona to rise to the position of frontrunner. He consistently outperforms his rivals in public opinion polls, a fact he gleefully shares with every open microphone. In the debates, he has used a combination of insult, innuendo, and interruption to further dominate the field.

Trump has used his time in the spotlight to attack not just his opponents, but also members of the media, Hispanics, Muslims, the disabled, and puppies. (Okay, he hasn’t attacked puppies yet, but the campaign isn’t over.)

Okay, fine. That’s his style. Trump likes to get in your face, to put you on the defensive from the start. If it takes a personal attack, he’ll go there in order to gain the upper hand. Maybe that works in the most cutthroat aspects of the business world, but is that what we should expect from the leader of the free world?

Sadly, Trump’s style is rubbing off on his opponents. They’re peppering their own speeches with insults and crass one-liners. People who want to be taken seriously in the race for the highest office in the land are reduced to making jokes about the size of their opponent’s… hands. What’s next… “Your mama’s so fat”?

We expect to hear candidates taking the low road when talking about the opposing party. But these frenzied attacks within the Republican party are absolutely juvenile.

I find it hard to believe that clear-thinking members of the Republican party want a man like Trump as their nominee. And yet, many do. Maybe you’re one of them. And that’s your right. You can and should vote for the person you think is right for the job.

But be sure you know what that vote means. You see, when you vote for a candidate, you’re endorsing everything they say. Everything. Oh, sure. You may not agree with every comment, every position, every fiery insult. But when you plant a political sign in your yard or slap a sticker on the back of your car, you are saying that you are 100% behind that candidate… no matter what. Even if that candidate can’t bring himself to immediately and unequivocally reject the Ku Klux Klan. But that’s exactly the type of person who is leading the way for the Republican nomination.

How does the GOP expect to be seen as a party that welcomes people of all races and faiths, yet the head of the pack fumbles something so easy as disavowing the Klan? Maybe Trump’s not a bigot. Maybe he’s just willing to accept support from anyone no matter how despicable.

Republicans like to invoke the name of Ronald Reagan. I never voted for Reagan; I disagreed with many (but not all) of his policy stances. But I thought he was a good man, loyal to his party yet pragmatic enough to know that sometimes you have to give a little to get what you want. Ronald Reagan would never have stood for the shenanigans we’ve seen in this campaign. You never heard Reagan insult and ridicule his opponents on the debate stage. You never saw Reagan mocking others for their disabilities. And you absolutely did not see Ronald Reagan hesitate to condemn those individuals and groups who espouse bigotry and hatred.

In fact, when the KKK publicly endorsed him in 1984, he wasted no time in slapping them aside:

 

”Those of us in public life can only resent the use of our names by those who seek political recognition for the repugnant doctrines of hate they espouse.

”The politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood.”

 

But that was over three decades in the past. Ronald Reagan probably couldn’t get elected in today’s Republican party.

In this election, support whoever you wish. Just remember that the sign in your yard, the bumper sticker on your truck, the name printed on your ballcap… tells people a lot about you as well. Choose carefully.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald March 3, 2016.)

 

My home sweet home

god-bless-america

I consider myself a lucky man. I was born in what I am convinced is the greatest country on earth… and I’ll bet you feel the same. In fact, no matter what differences we may have, I’m sure that’s one piece of common ground where we will mostly agree. I say mostly because, just like no two snowflakes are alike, no two people have exactly the same opinions on every single topic.

But that should not be surprising. We are humans, not machines, and each one of us is unique. Each of us is shaped by personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We have our own likes and dislikes, our own strengths and weaknesses.

Part of what makes each of us so different… and so special… are the influences of our surroundings. Where we were born, where we were raised, where we have lived, learned, worked… each of these places has given us opportunities to grow, to expand and enhance how we make decisions in life.

Each one of us is different, yet each one of us is uniquely American. So why are so many people trying to drive us apart?

In recent history, we’ve heard many politicians talk about “real Americans”, as if some of us are more worthy than others because of where we live. During the 2008 campaign, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, in an appearance in North Carolina, referred to the “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America”. She later apologized for suggesting that certain places were more pro-America than others, but the message was delivered: Palin and others like her were clearly saying that some of us are less patriotic because of where we live.

Typically, it’s the small towns that tend to get the good vibes from such politicians, while our nation’s cities are pointed out as examples of what’s wrong. And that’s not entirely fair.

Sure, it’s easy to look in the urban areas of America and find fault. Every city from coast to coast has its less pleasant neighborhoods: rundown housing, abandoned businesses, areas you would rather avoid. But I challenge you to take a closer look in your own hometown. I’m sure you’ll find the same kind of decrepit homes, empty storefronts, and piles of garbage. It’s just that the cities have more people living closer together… more people per square mile than the rural areas… so we’re more likely to turn a blind eye to the problems close to home. Does the happenstance of such negatives in the cities make the people there less worthy of the label “American”?

Some folks say that the problems are found mostly along our East and West Coasts, and they’re partly correct. But the reason is because those areas are where you find the highest concentration of people. Naturally, you’d expect to have more concerns in areas of larger population. It’s just plain common sense. But is it fair to blame the cities?

Sen. Ted Cruz must think so. Recently, his campaign ran an attack ad against fellow Republican candidate Donald Trump. In it, Cruz points out the differences between himself and his rival by saying that Trump represents “New York values, not ours”. Clearly it had an impact, because Cruz credits that ad for helping him defeat Trump in the Iowa caucuses.

I have to chuckle at the irony: Ted Cruz was once the beneficiary of a Sarah Palin endorsement, but now that she’s a recent addition to Team Trump, she finds herself in public opposition to a man she once strongly supported. Oh, how quickly they turn on each other!

But what’s so bad about “New York values” anyway? Isn’t the Big Apple the same city that we all looked to with admiration through tears on 9/11? Didn’t we all feel the pain with the devastation of the terrorist attack? Didn’t we all feel the sense of pride and determination as the city not only recovered but has flourished in the years since? Don’t we all point to the rebirth of the area that once was the home of the World Trade Center towers and say, “This is what we Americans do: we bounce back, better than ever”?

But demonizing the biggest city in the nation is exactly what Cruz did, and it worked.

Isn’t it time we bring an end to this divisiveness? Shouldn’t we stand up to people like Palin and Cruz and tell them we’re sick and tired of being told that some of us aren’t as good as the rest?
We’re all Americans. We’re all, each and every one of us, part of the greatest country on the planet. We come together when one of us is attacked by a foreign enemy; we likewise should support each other when one of us is condemned by a mere politician.

 

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald February 4, 2016.)

The rise of the disgruntled

Just about seven years ago, shortly after President Obama took office, pockets of unrest started forming throughout the nation. Some of those groups began identifying themselves with variations of the Tea Party name, holding rallies and other events that generally focused on fiscal matters. Some of these independent groups said that their use of the Tea Party label was a throwback salute to the rebellious Boston Tea Party event of 1773. Others were more specific, saying that the TEA acronym stood for “Taxed Enough Already” and that their push was for major cuts in taxes at all levels, even if that meant eliminating some government services.


It seems strangely (and conveniently) coincidental that the movement grew to prominence at precisely the time that Democrats regained the White House with the election of the first non-white president. Defenders of the Tea Party’s honor have made claims that the roots of their cause took hold well before 2009, though one is hard pressed to realistically remember any such activity. Of course, people have been complaining about taxes since the first tax was collected.


As the assorted Tea Parties were gaining strength, the USA saw growth within another sub-culture… the sovereign citizen movement.  Essentially believing that the federal and most state governments have no authority, these individuals often refuse to pay taxes or fees imposed by government agencies. Many don’t register their vehicles, obtain driver’s licenses, or even use ZIP codes… as these are enacted by a government they don’t recognize.


Probably the most famous personality of the sovereign citizen realm is Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who for over twenty years has refused to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federally owned land. Bundy became somewhat of a cult hero when a standoff developed between the US Bureau of Land Management and a group of armed supporters. The matter ended without violence when government officials withdrew, effectively giving Bundy a victory. As this column was being written, three of Bundy’s sons are organizers of an armed occupation of federal property in Oregon, clearly emboldened by their family’s previous encounter.


There have been other notable occupations of federal property — Alcatraz, Wounded Knee — that ended in violence. But then, those occupiers weren’t white dudes with Twitter and Facebook accounts. But I digress.


A third faction that has gained in popularity over the past few years are militia groups. Usually heavily armed and self-trained, less than 200 of these anti-government groups were known to exist in 2008. Fueled by fears of a possible government crackdown on gun ownership helped the growth of these groups throughout the country, even though no real effort to limit the rights of Americans to own guns has materialized. Of course, just the implied threat, real or imagined,  is enough to motivate gun sales and discourage most elected officials from considering legislation that could be seen as impeding the average American from purchasing whichever weapon he so chooses.


It is right about here that someone will argue that President Obama’s plans for executive orders that, if fully enacted, could curtail gun sales. But most of what the president is offering are just suggested guidelines, and the strongest would require funding that the Republican-led Congress is not about to approve. Meanwhile, gun dealers are reporting a huge boost in sales… so let’s put aside any worries about how the government is going to empty out the Average Joe’s gun cabinet.


Nope, there’s no way the government is going to do anything to disarm the citizenry. But it is also clear that the government is no closer to solving the problem of gun violence.


So far, we’ve discussed the Tea Party, sovereign citizens, and militias. As diverse as these groups may be, they have many similarities. They all distrust government. They all have big problems with government actions like taxes and regulations. And they all saw intense growth in reaction to the 2008 election.


And… the lines between them are increasingly blurred.


I’m not saying that these three groups have exactly the same goals. But it’s really hard to tell where one stops and another starts. Log onto a random Tea Party website and you’re just as likely to see a discussion about the Second Amendment as you are efforts to trim taxes. Talk to a militia member and you’ll hear complaints about entitlement programs. And the Bundy family is proof that a large feature of the sovereign citizen movement is the combination of anti-tax sentiments and gun proliferation.


One thing is certain: you won’t find too many Democrats in those groups. And that’s a big problem for the GOP. You see, if the Republican party allows itself to be defined by those on the fringe, it has virtually no chance to field candidates who can draw votes from outside their own party.

And that’s a recipe for disaster come Election Day.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald January 7, 2016.)

Born in the USA?

My great-grandfather was born in Europe. He met and married my great-grandmother there and a few years later moved to the USA. Over time, they raised a family. They were poor by most standards, but they worked hard — my great-grandfather was a cobbler and his bride was a seamstress — and they were good members of their community.Their children were born here… in the United States… and were each given a priceless gift at birth: citizenship. Because she was born within the borders of this nation, my grandmother instantly became a citizen, something that could never be taken away.
Or could it?
There is a growing movement in certain political circles aimed at ending the practice of birthright citizenship. It’s a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail, and the opinions on both sides are strong, even if the arguments are a bit weak.
The Fourteenth Amendment officially became part of the Constitution in 1868 and since then its opening sentence became the standard for recognizing who is, actually, an American. The amendment’s Citizenship Clause states:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
There it is, plain and simple. If you were born here, you belong here. You’re one of us. (Of course, there are a few exceptions, such as children born to foreign diplomats.) But not everyone is happy about that.
Growing out of the long-running debate over immigration reform, the question of whether to continue the practice of birthright citizenship has taken its place as one of the key discussion topics in the current race for the White House. Candidates, commentators, and coffee klatchers are arguing, sometimes fiercely, about whether a baby should have such a right.
Naturally, those in favor of changing the status quo are quick to point to undocumented immigrants — the so-called “illegal aliens” — and calling for rejection of automatic citizenship for their children. Those who seek to preserve the 14th Amendment as is are just as forceful in arguing that its language was carefully selected to assure that all born here are given equal treatment despite the origins of their parents. After all, some of the first to benefit from the amendment were former slaves who previously had no legal claim to citizenship.
You can be sure that those on the side calling for change would claim that they are only concerned with the undocumented, that they would have no problem with granting citizenship to the children of immigrants who are here with legal documentation. But I have to wonder if it would stop there. Given the power to strip away birthright citizenship from one group, how could we stop the government from ruling that others are also not worthy? Couldn’t such authority lead to refusal of citizenship to people of a certain race or religion?
Couldn’t we see a government that would make such a change retroactive, thus revoking citizenship… and all of its privileges including the ability to vote… from existing citizens? It sure would be an effective means of shutting down your critics, wouldn’t it?
What makes me even more suspicious of the intentions of those pushing this movement is that we aren’t hearing anyone complaining about babies born of parents from places like, say, Norway or Italy or Canada. No, the argument is firmly centered on the children of immigrants who cross our southern border.
What’s further troubling is that the argument is coming from the political right, whose party is sorely lacking in support from the Latino community. Such an unbending stance against citizenship at birth… especially one that is clearly aimed at people who come to the USA from Mexico and other nations to our south… is certainly not helping the Republican Party in its efforts to include people of color under its tent.
That is, if the GOP is still making the effort.
I just read a report projecting the 2016 election turnout broken down by race and its results aren’t enthusiastic for a party that alienates non-white voters. In fact, a party that turns its back on people of color will find that it is virtually impossible to win on the national stage.
I’m not a political consultant, but if someone came to me and asked what I thought would be a good strategy, I’d suggest that being a party of ideas and goals makes more sense than building your platform on exclusion and turning back time.
(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald September 3, 2015.)