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.)

Bonus to “It’s all Greek to me”

A bit of trivia as a sidenote to this column:

Aeschylus was a playwright and poet known for his tragedies, of which only a handful exist today. The death of Aeschylus, if the legend is true, was caused by a head wound that resulted from an eagle dropping a tortoise on the victim’s head, as depicted by Finiguerra’s work below.

308px-Death_of_Aeschylus_in_Florentine_Picture_Chronicle
By Maso Finiguerra. – 15th century Florentine Picture Chronicle by Maso Finiguerra., Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40931928

 

 

It’s all Greek to me

greek alphabet

It is a sickness which somehow comes with every tyranny: to place no trust in friends. Aeschylus, “Prometheus Bound

 

Maybe it was a case of too much feasting during the Thanksgiving break. It could have something to do with overdosing on football. And there’s the desire to find somewhere else to be rather than listen to another family argument over whether it’s “stuffing” or “dressing”. Whatever the cause, I found myself searching Google for any little distraction that could help clear my mind of the holiday blahs.

How I ended up skimming through obscure ancient Greek tragedies is anybody’s guess, but that’s where I found the quote that begins this column. Strangely enough, it seems to fit nicely with recent headlines. 

They have eyes, but…

As the impeachment of President Trump heats up, the speculation intensifies. Will Democrats in the House be able to make a convincing argument? Is there a single Republican in Congress who is willing to put Country ahead of Party? Could the entire process work to Trump’s advantage, giving him the inside track toward a successful re-election? It’s impossible to guess, so I encourage you to avoid betting on the outcome. But there are a few things we know for sure.

We know that it was a team of Russians – NOT Ukraine –  that orchestrated a social media campaign designed to interfere in the 2016 election, working to mislead the American public with false propaganda. We know that Russian hackers managed to gain access to voter databases and political playbooks. And we know that all this was done with the approval of and under the watchful eye of long-time KGB agent Vladimir Putin.  We know what happened because our intelligence agencies told us what happened. Their overwhelming conclusion that Russia was responsible cannot be ignored. These are Americans who take their work – and our lives and security – seriously. You might be able to argue a point here, a point there. But when non-partisan, seasoned professionals bring the facts by the truckload, it’s time for you to set aside the Facebook rumors and show them some respect.

But that’s not where we are, America. We no longer can count on the average American putting trust in the facts. Instead, millions of otherwise practical adults are forfeiting their common sense, turning their minds over to whichever loud and flashy internet meme is the latest to capture their attention.

Or, whichever loud politician in an ill-fitted suit is shouting into the nearest microphone.

Have we no shame?

I find it embarrassing that so many people continue to stand behind this president. He may appeal to their deeply-held prejudices and fear, or they just might be so disengaged that they just don’t care if Trump is lying to them on a daily basis. But I just can’t understand how they can allow some of his most egregious actions to go unchallenged.

This president not only refuses to believe evidence of Russia’s malfeasance as provided by seventeen intelligence agencies, he bends over backwards to give Putin special favors. 

Trump works against the advice of military leaders, putting our service members and allies in grave danger and effectively handing control over to tyrants.

He publicly degrades our legal system, granting pardons to some and dangling a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in front of others.

The president can’t deal with the honest testimony of Americans in Congressional hearings, so instead he and his closest supporters falsely attack the integrity and loyalty of those who dare to come forward. I’m guessing that the Ghost of Joe McCarthy is giving Trump a thumbs up.

He has even used the pardon of a convicted Navy SEAL as a means of claiming his support of the armed services, even though that decision throws the entire military justice system under the bus.

And still, his followers think he can do no wrong. 

Once upon a time, the Republican Party claimed to stand for law & order and unending loyalty to our troops. If that were still the case, then our president would consider our intelligence agencies and military to be his bestest friends. But as Trump continues to quack like a tyrannical duck, Aeschylus’ quote seems to be more accurate with each passing day. 

What good will come of this?

It looks now that the House is just days away from voting on assorted articles of impeachment, sending the case to the Senate for a possible trial. As I’ve said many times before, there is no chance that Mitch McConnell and the Republican-controlled Senate will vote to convict the president, no matter how strong the argument and evidence. But wrapping up the impeachment proceedings quickly actually works to the benefit of Democrats running for congressional seats, if not also those seeking the White House. By forcing Republicans to go on the record and give the president a free pass, voters will be encouraged to take out their frustrations at the ballot box. Democrats will make the argument that Republicans can’t be trusted to stand up for the Constitution and the rule of law. 

It’s a risky strategy that just might work. But I’m not willing to bet the farm on it. Not yet, at least.

 

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

All for one?

penny

E pluribus unum. Even if you never studied Latin, that fairly simple phrase is probably very familiar. You may have only a passing interest in American history, but those words surely stand out. As one of the traditional mottos of the United States, it says so much about our nation. Directly translated, it means “Out of many, one.” It represents the union that formed when the original thirteen colonies became a cohesive single nation. 

What e pluribus unum says to me is: we are all Americans. We can have different philosophies and opinions, but at the end of the day we can look around and say that each one of us is a building block that, when brought together, form a unique and successful nation. We are individuals, sure. But we are also the flesh and blood of what we proudly declare to be the greatest country on the planet.

And yet, many among us seem to take great pleasure in pushing us apart.

Opinions are like…well, you know

In most presidential elections, we are handed a mixed bag of candidates. Some stand out as possessing leadership skills while others appear to be in the race just to become famous. With a combination of creative speechmaking, expensive advertising, and the good fortune to make fewer mistakes than the opponents, one candidate eventually outlasts the pack and is nominated by the Party to lead the ticket going into the Big Show. Since the USA’s political structure is not that much different than our love of competitive sports, the choice comes down to a head-to-head matchup of one Democrat and one Republican. And then, the real fight begins. 

But it’s not limited to the two main opponents. The primary system may in theory be a means of separating the best from the rest, but hard feelings can and do get in the way. By pledging support to an individual candidate early on, some voters just can’t bring themselves to maintain that excitement when their choice doesn’t survive the process. And that lack of enthusiasm can create just the opening that gives the troublemakers the opportunity to make a little political mischief.

We saw that in the 2016 campaign, coming at us from across the nation and from nefarious global interests. We can expect much more in the next election. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar or a fool. More likely, both.

 I’m sick and tired of…

The nastiness comes at you from all directions. From the president on down, our elected officials can capture your attention with a personal appearance, a featured interview, or a handful of (often misspelled) words in a tweet. The politicians do a mighty fine job of confusing the masses.

Complicating the mess are the millions of pundits, professional and amateur, who find a way to get their message to you. Nationally-distributed TV and radio shows, websites, social media, newspaper columns… all are fertile territory for political discussions. Full disclosure: yours truly is one of that multitude, with this column (and blog site) mostly devoted to providing my two cents on the subject. 

I like to think that I provide a fact-supported viewpoint, though I’m not so naive to think that everyone will agree. But I would hope that my readers can see that I present an opinion without resorting to the childishness that is so easily found on pages just like this one.

Our current political climate seems to depend heavily on misinformation and name-calling. Distorting (or simply ignoring) the facts is a given, as are verbal attacks of an increasingly dangerous level. For many, it’s not enough to just disagree when faced with a contrasting opinion. The very notion that someone has a totally different way of thinking is all it takes to cause otherwise rational adults to toss aside any sense of civility. 

Our nation’s editorial pages are flooded with letters and opinion pieces that serve no purpose except to question the intelligence and patriotism of others. The writers take great pleasure in finding new ways to say the same hateful things. But what they seem to miss is this obvious fact: When you have nothing to say in defense of your candidate or position except to attack the other side, you really have nothing to say.

…being sick and tired

Is there a solution? Can we mend the wounds that all this divisiveness has inflicted upon our fellow Americans? Sadly, the answer may be “no”. Or, at least, “not yet”. The brokenness that we live in can’t be repaired with one hand. As long as it is more satisfying to draw attention to the things that separate us than to embrace the ideals that bring us together, we cannot expect to heal.

Clearly, some among us have no use for unity. They thrive on bitterness and will do and say whatever is necessary to keep us at each others’ throats. It is up to mature, thinking Americans to reject the bullies and blowhards. Are we up to the challenge?

 

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald November 7, 2019.)

The time has come

steampunk-wall-clock

Benjamin Franklin was quite a character. He was a statesman, a writer, a ladies’ man, an inventor, and a word thief. You may remember old Ben’s famous quote, “..in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” That was part of a letter in 1789 in which Franklin was summing up his thoughts about our nation’s then-new Constitution, but in doing so he borrowed that now-famous quote from the author of “Robinson Crusoe”. Daniel Defoe penned the phrase, “Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believ’d,” in 1726, but even he was not afraid of stealing a good line when he saw one. A few years before Defoe included that thought in “The Political History of the Devil,” it was Christopher Bullock who wrote, “’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes,”

We can argue about original thoughts – and 18th Century plagiarism – but this much is clear: Bullock, Defoe and Franklin were each very sure that some things are inevitable.

And now, so is the other “I” word.

 

Im-Peachy Keen

I’m not alone in thinking the Democrats in Congress would never get to this stage. When it comes to using the powers granted to them in the Constitution, the current majority party has been dragging its feet like it was a child unwilling to leave the house on the first day of school. Obviously, their hands were somewhat tied for two years as the Republicans controlled the House as well as the Senate. But in the wake of the 2018 midterms, the Democrats found themselves back in the driver’s seat and once more had the ability to convene hearings and issue subpoenas. (More on that later.)

 

And so here we are. Most Democrats in Congress have now decided that impeachment of President Trump is the logical, necessary next step. While impeachment is indeed a political act, it is also the formal process established by our nation’s founders to investigate possible wrongdoing of the president and, if the evidence is convincing, to remove him from office. While I don’t see it going that far (not with Republicans firmly in control in the Senate), I also had doubts that Democrats would summon the courage to do more than hold the occasional hearing and generate soundbites for the evening news.

 

Reading is fundamental

There are many people who are telling us that the entire idea of impeaching Donald Trump is a waste of time and money. They point to the Mueller report and make ludicrous claims of “total exoneration” and “no collusion”, but these feeble arguments have no foundation. Anyone who has actually read the report knows that Robert Mueller and his team drew no conclusions about collusion since that is not a legal term and by itself carries no true significance. What Mueller did find was conclusive evidence that the president and others within the administration were involved in a multi-layered scheme of obstructing justice. Don’t just take my word for it. It’s all right there in black and white if you’re willing to read it

Yet the Democrats should have known that the investigation would never lead to an early end of the Trump presidency. Mueller’s hands were tied by a Department of Justice policy that prevents the indictment of a sitting president no matter how serious is the crime. Yes, the president really could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and not be arrested. (At least, not while in office.) Besides, how could anyone expect much from an investigation in which the Attorney General, who was hand-picked by the president, has final say?

But while Mueller’s findings may not provide the meat and potatoes that many Americans hoped for, the new whistleblower revelations just might. It’s too early to determine what might unfold, but I’ll say this: if the accusations that have already been revealed are not true (which is the argument by the president and his supporters), then why is Mr. Trump sending the Attorney General and others around the globe seeking the influence of other countries in our own system of government and our elections? That kind of panicked response is not what you would expect from an innocent man.

 

Don’t look for a Battle Royale

So the Democrats will convene impeachment hearings and issue subpoenas. At the time this column was coming together, President Trump’s personal attorney Rudi Giuliani was named in three subpoenas from House committees. But don’t expect much to come from that. Although he is always happy to appear on camera and spout utter nonsense, Giuliani is likely to simply ignore those Congressional edicts. He won’t provide documents and probably won’t show up to testify. It’s up to the Democrats to decide if they’re willing to use their Constitutional enforcement powers or if the administration will be allowed to continue to thumb its nose at the process. 

Here’s what we know: we are living in disturbing times. Too many people have decided that they’d rather ignore the obvious than give any credence to any facts that run counter to their own deeply-held convictions. In the end, there will always be those who refuse to be convinced. Admitting that they were wrong, that they were so easily deceived by a career con man, is more than they can accept.

 

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald October 3, 2019.)

Occupation: Foole

jester

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Most of us are familiar with that proverb which assures us that we can blame the trickster who catches us in a con the first time, but the fault belongs to us if we allow ourselves to be misled by the same deception a second time.

But what if we still don’t learn from our experiences? What does it say about us if we fall for the fraud over and over again? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me yet again, shame on… Facebook?

 

The real “fake news”

Perhaps nowhere today is there a more prolific source of foolishness than social media, particularly those websites that encourage users to share pictures and videos but without the benefit (or, some would say, hindrance) of a guide or editor, someone who would guarantee that the information posted for our viewing entertainment is also honest and truthful.

It’s one thing if we start off with the knowledge that the thing we’re about to see is a work of fiction. After all, no one really believes that there really are little orange men who work in a chocolate factory or that an evil clown with a red balloon is hanging out in the storm sewer. That’s just make-believe, and we can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, right?

Or so we think.

And hope.

Sadly, we’ve all heard stories of sweet little old ladies who received a phone call from the “police” with the news that their “grandson” was in trouble and were conned into giving credit card information to the caller to pay a hefty fine. It’s along the same lines as those random email requests from a so-called Nigerian prince who needs your help to pay a routine transaction fee to help release several million dollars from a locked bank account for which you will be handsomely rewarded.

Those and many other stories are nothing new. People have been cheated and swindled since the dawn of time. What’s changed are the methods used and the motivation. What once was an effort to steal money and property from the unsuspecting now is often replaced with seeking to confuse the victim in order to spread rumors. Much of the time, the goal seems to be to provoke fear and anger, often tied to politics. 

Not surprising. These days, everything is tied to politics.  

 

It’s really not that hard, people

What’s truly surprising is how quickly people can be convinced to believe the most outrageous claims. Take for example the multitude of tall tales that flooded the internet before, during, and after the 2016 presidential election. (You KNEW I was going down that path, didn’t you?)

You probably heard the story claiming that there was a certain pizza shop in Washington DC tied to a child abuse ring and that there was a hidden tunnel leading from the restaurant’s basement to various locations around the city. Without reading any further, most people would call such reports utterly ridiculous. Unfortunately, the story was amplified throughout social media, embellished with even more lurid details. Major media outlets joined in — Some, perhaps, treating it as a joke but others? Not so much. — and repeated the story enough that many people started to accept it as truth. It didn’t help that some reporters labelled the story “Pizzagate”, thus giving the public an easy title for the non-existent scandal. Of course, it only takes one lunatic with a gun who believes the lies and decides to play judge and jury, and that’s what happened in this case as an armed man who was motivated by the news reports fired several shots inside the restaurant. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it wasn’t the first time that innocent people were placed in danger over a foolish prank. And it wasn’t the last.

That’s just one example of the misuse of the internet to quickly spread a lie. If you want to see more, just open up your favorite social media site. There’s probably a few in your timeline right now.

(SIDE NOTE: I strongly urge my friends in the news media to stop thinking they have to give every little thing a cutesy name ending in “-gate”. Watergate was a real criminal event that disrupted our nation and led to the embarrassing resignation of an American president. Let’s stop trivializing real news stories by making these phoney tales sound legit.)

A matter of choice

Let me be clear: I’m not calling for the elimination of social media. But I am saying that we need to be more responsible about what we say and what we post online. Look at it this way: we pay entertainers to lie to us. We expect them to tell us a story, to pretend they are someone they’re not. That’s the kind of lie that’s harmless. 

It’s when we allow people with bad intent to flood our brains with lies in order to manipulate our lives and the way we vote, that’s when things go downhill. Unfortunately, it’s up to each one of us to prevent propagandists from controlling our thoughts and actions with false information. As Mark Twain once said, “How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!”

*A special tip of the hat to the late George Carlin whose work provided this month’s title.

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

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.)