Win, Lose, or Evolve

It’s the end of the year, and though I write (far) less often, I still find myself in a reflective mood as the calendar turns over.  This last year has been difficult for many people who believe themselves to be forward-thinking.  Just when it seemed like we were finally beginning to talk about things that actually mattered–rights for the disadvantaged or oppressed, incremental attention to environmental issues, consideration of a foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than big-dick military saber-rattling, some semblance of rational thought about the appropriate roles of religion versus science in dictating policy decisions–the whole world apparently lost its mind.

Like a lot of folks, I had many thoughts on the election of our current president; what it said about us as a country, what it said about our priorities, what it said to the world about who we are and what we want to be, and what it said to ourselves about ourselves.  In retrospect, the reasons for his election seem fairly obvious:

  1. Too few people in this country vote.  This may be because they don’t care about politics, or because they believe that government has a limited effect on their day-to-day existence, or because we don’t make it easy enough for them to get to the polls, or because they don’t feel informed enough to make a responsible decision, or for any number of superficial reasons, or for the very real reason that people of a certain political bent have made it increasingly difficult for people who don’t share their opinions to exercise their rights (especially if those opinions are accompanied by darker skin).  But, regardless of reason, the fact remains that fewer than half of people old enough to vote do so.  This gives extra weight to those people who are actually able to cast a ballot.  This is amplified in our primary system, where even fewer people vote, leading candidates to go all-in with their appeals to the most passionate and extreme members of their party.
  2. We have fallen into the trap of conflating wealth and notoriety with capability.  Because someone has shown up on our televisions or social media feeds, we credit them with intelligence or wisdom that they have not displayed.  And, if someone has accumulated a large amount of money, we equate that with accumulation of knowledge or ability, whether they did anything to earn that financial standing or not.  We think anyone with any amount of public recognition must have done something to deserve it, forgetting that it is just as easy (if not easier) to get famous acting like a jackass than through genuine accomplishment.  And, by kowtowing to these people, we are only reinforcing the illusion that they somehow are deserving of this recognition, deference, or respect.
  3. Republicans are good at politics.  This is difficult to admit for those of us on the left, but the truth is that Republicans are better at this game than we are.  While we try to appeal to everyone about everything, Republicans have realized that you can’t please everyone on every issue.  But, what they figured out is that you can appeal to a huge number of people, one issue at a time.  That’s how they can win among hard-core Christian Evangelicals, financial conservatives, gun enthusiasts, anti-abortion advocates, racists, misogynists, and nihilists all at the same time, even if these issues don’t appear to overlap.  Our current president has been called all these things, but the reality is that he is whatever he needs to be in the moment.  So long as each of these groups hears what they want to hear about the issue they care most for, they are willing to overlook all the things they don’t like about the Republican platform.  The Democratic party constantly edits its message, knowing that one false step will alienate a chunk of its base.  They have to get everything right on every issue to hold off the protestations of their voters.  Republicans just have to get one thing right at a time, depending on who they are trying to reach at that particular moment.  And, they know that fear is strong.  Democrats try to run on optimism, genuinely believing that things might just possibly get a little bit better.  Republicans can win elections just by scaring people into believing that things might get worse.  Our current president, for all his faults (and there are many), is very good at appealing to people’s sense of fear.  He has demonized everyone, turned the whole world into something to be scared of, and without even offering any respite from that fear, has won support just by convincing people that there really is something to be scared of.

Now that he is in office, his lack of qualification for the job is becoming more difficult to ignore.  He is uninformed, petty, narcissistic, childish, spiteful, and blatantly dishonest.  And, though he appears to be increasingly unpopular, even among those who voted for him, he has done a tremendous amount of damage to our nation and its livelihood just by perpetuating a troubling political trend.  More than anything else, his legacy will be a solidification of the dangerous belief that politics is all about winning.

Through most of this nation’s history, we have been represented in government by people who genuinely had an interest in making our country better.  We could argue endlessly over their methods, or politics, or ulterior motives, or the repercussions of legislation they passed.  But, there was a belief that every decision, regardless of political affiliation, was intended to do some good for the country as a whole.  It is impossible to ignore the xenophobes, warmongers, oppressors, and profiteers who have represented both parties over the years.  But, these traits were secondary, or at least seemed to be.  Now, they represent the entire platform for many of those we have elected to make our decisions for us.

And, even more dangerous than this is the explosion of tribalism in current politics.  Substance no longer matters.  The only determiner of value is affiliation.  Everyone has picked a side, and believes that their side can do no wrong, while the other can do no right.  This is how politics is played now, and again, Republicans are playing it better.  Taxes?  Abortion?  Gun control?  Health care?  LGBTQ rights?  Climate change?  Income equality?  Those are liberal ideas.  That makes them bad.  And, if you want to be on the Republican team, you’re against them, whether they have anything to do with you or not.  That’s why someone buried in debt and struggling to pay his own bills is willing to go to war over the estate tax, and why someone living on the coast watching the oceans creep closer to his own front door can scream about the virtues of burning fossil fuels.  It doesn’t matter whether something is good policy.  It only matters whose policy it is.  This gives people something to hold on to, even as they watch the world burn around them.  It feels good to be on the winning team, even if that team is doing nothing at all to help most of those who support them.

And, this winning can take many forms.  It’s not just about winning elections or passing legislation.  Often, it is about nothing more than provoking a reaction.  Telling a lie on television and getting away with it?  That’s a win.  Reviving our racist and sexist roots by “Making America Great Again?”  That’s a big win.  Privileged white people crying about how unfair the world is to silence the legitimately oppressed?  A win.  Fighting the media by dismissing inconvenient truths as “fake news?”  That’s a win, too.  This scoring method is skewing how politicians are judged.  The passage of the recent tax plan by the president and the Republicans in Congress was called a win by virtually every news outlet, despite most of them also pointing out the many ways in which it would serve to reward the rich and punish everyone else.  Even though only a few already wealthy people would actually benefit, anyone calling themselves a Republican got to crow about this victory.  This winning matters so much that Republicans are willing to overlook any number of sins.  Let’s not forget that we have a president elected solely on the basis of all the winning he promised to do, despite his history of multiple bankruptcies and admitted sexual assault.

Republicans have changed the game, and Democrats risk falling into the trap of going along with these new rules.  During the election season, Democrats said, “When they go low, we go high.”  This is a noble idea.  I like the idea of avoiding petty insults and remaining focused on the ideals of beneficent governance.  But, the truth is, this doesn’t win elections.  And, without winning elections, our ideals don’t mean a thing.  However, it would be foolish to follow the lead of the Republicans, as they may have over-played their hand.  For years, Republicans have been playing a long game, winning local elections, redrawing districts in a way that tips the scales in their favor, loading judicial benches with judges sympathetic to their politics.  But, they have now sold out to a very small portion of their base: those extremists who vote in primaries, and the wealthy donors who fund their campaigns.  So, while the whole party celebrates each “win,” these are the only groups who actually get what they want.  Extremists get judges who push back against abortion or same-sex marriage, and rich folks get tax breaks that turn their millions into billions.  Everyone else just gets the Pyrrhic victory of laughing at Democrats not getting what they want, but then goes back to their lives, no better off than before.  This is not a formula for lasting success.  At some point, everyone else will need to see some benefit to believe that they are actually winning.  It’s one thing to tell someone about all the jobs that will be created with a border wall, or a new oil pipeline, or lower corporate taxes.  It’s another thing to try to maintain the illusion when those jobs fail to materialize.

To this point, Republicans have been able to scapegoat Democrats for all the misfortunes that Americans are facing.  But, truth will win out in the end.  It has to.  Democrats are far from perfect, but they must continue to have higher standards for themselves.  They must continue to rely on facts and science and morality and compassion to guide them.  They must continue to go high while the Republicans go low, knowing that Republicans are digging themselves into a hole.  Democrats must aim higher, move forward, and become the party that changes the game.  Because, it can be changed.  Republicans have already proven that.  And, if it changed for the worse, we can change it for the better.  Politics can continue to evolve.  It does not have to be this way.  We can make it into what we want it to be.  We can try to actually make positive, progressive change.

So, let’s not be distracted by name-calling, or hung up on “wins” and “losses.”  Those things are fleeting.  We want lasting change.  We need to play the long game.  We need to continue to aim high and force the country to come up to that level.  And, if the Democrats are not willing to be the party that institutes that change, we need to create a new party.  We don’t need to play by the old rules.  If they’re not working, let’s write new rules.  If we truly have a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” we can make the government into whatever we want it to be.  The fact that it was a Republican who originally made that demand shows just how much things can change.

Yes, things are bad right now.  And, losing hurts.  But, let these losses be lessons.  Let them be reminders of the way that we want the world to be, and let them inspire us to continue to fight for something better.

It’s Not About Islam. Just ask ISIS.

Two separate news items regarding Islam came out this week, and though they are not specifically related, there is definitely an important link as far as how Islam is used by terrorists and how it is viewed by Americans.

The first item was a survey from Fox News:

And, while it is not surprising that a conservative news source that has a history of demonizing Muslims and their religion would find that Americans are fearful, it is interesting how the question is phrased.  This is not a question about whether Americans are scared of terrorists, or even specifically of “radical Islamic” terrorists.  Rather, it is a question of whether Americans feel that their “personal way of life” is threatened.

The threat presented by terrorists in general has been greatly exaggerated, at least in terms of attacks on American soil.  And, whether “radical Islamic” terrorism is any greater of a threat than that posed by regular old violent Americans is highly doubtful.  Yet, not only do most Americans fear an attack, they fear that their very way of life is being threatened.

Fear is an often irrational emotion.  People fear things that are very unlikely to harm them—spiders, snakes, enclosed spaces, even speaking in public.  And, while the fear created by these things is very real, that does not mean that the actual danger they pose is.  The same is true of Americans and Islam.  Repeated claims by conservative media, Fox News included, have created a perception that not only should Americans be frightened of “radical Islamic terrorism,” but they should be scared of Islam itself.  They do this by conflating “radical Islam” with the religion as a whole.  But, they are not the same thing.

Quite simply, Islam poses no threat to the American way of life, whatever that is.  Even if we ignore for the moment that Americans, and their respective ways of life, differ greatly based on any number of factors—geography, economic status, race, gender, sexual preference or identity, and, yes, religion—it is easily provable that Islam does not infringe on this in the slightest.  How?  Easy.  Islam is already here.  There are currently over 3 million Muslims in the United States, and that number is growing rapidly.  And, that has not done a thing to threaten the right of all Americans to live however they please.  In fact, it could be argued that Christianity, at least in its more extreme interpretations, is a far greater threat to individual freedoms than Islam is, not because it is any more restrictive, but simply because it is so much more common.  This threat can be seen in the repeated attempts to legislate against abortion or LGBT rights, things that are protected by law but condemned by some Christians (and, to be fair, some Muslims, too).  It could be argued that Christianity and its values are the very “American way of life” that is under threat.  But, this too is incorrect.  The American way of life, at least as laid out by the Constitution, is one in which all citizens are able to choose for themselves how they would like to live.  And, again, Muslims are doing nothing to change this.

Yet, the media has created an atmosphere of fear in which Islam has been determined to be “un-American.”  And, this somehow makes it a threat to whatever is “American.”  However, 3 million Muslims would argue that they, and their way of life, are just as American as anyone else.   But, it is not about Islam, it is about fear.  A fabricated threat of Islam is merely something to be afraid of.  And, this fear, like most others, is completely irrational.

This brings up the second news item about Islam that came out this week, an AP report that ISIS deliberately recruits fighters with little knowledge of Islam.  It found that those with less knowledge of Islam or Shariah (the system of law based on the Quran and Islamic teachings) were much more likely to be radicalized than those with greater knowledge of the religion.

This shows that while terrorism is indeed a threat, there is little correlation between terrorists and Islam.  This is why the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” is a red herring, one that President Obama, among others, has tried to avoid using.  These terrorists are not really Muslims, radical or otherwise.  They are simply violent people using a false interpretation of a religion to justify committing violent acts.

The AP story gives several examples of ISIS-linked terrorists who have little or no knowledge of Islam.  It even quotes a CIA official as saying, “Religion is an afterthought,” and that most of these terrorists are instead, “reaching for a sense of belonging, a sense of notoriety, a sense of excitement.”  Further, the piece cites an Islamic scholar in its determination that ISIS propaganda is “counter to Islamic laws that forbid terrorism, the murder of non-combatants in war, the imposition of Islam on non-Muslims and other criminal activity.”

Again, it is not about Islam, it is about fear.  Terrorism is scary.  ISIS is scary, too.  But, ISIS is not really an Islamic group, and their beliefs do not represent those of all Muslims, any more than the beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church represent those of all Christians.  Fear is a powerful thing.  Religion can be powerful, too.  ISIS has perverted Islam to inspire people to do terrible things.  It is this same perverted view of the religion that Americans are scared of.  But, that is not Islam.  ISIS knows that.  Americans need to know that, too.


Nothing will Prevent All Gun Deaths…but, That’s not the Point

A week into the new year, guns have been getting a lot of press.  Notably, President Obama has been very vocal in his intention to enact executive actions that he believes will help reduce deaths due to gun violence.  But, predictably, there has been an equally vocal backlash in opposition to both the President and his proposals.

Much of the opposition is related to the nature of the president’s proposals.  Because his attempts to enact laws regulating things like background checks and the amount of ammunition that weapons can hold have been blocked by Congress, he has now chosen to act through executive actions.  These are a way to bypass Congressional opposition, but they also do not hold the same power as law, instead serving more as guidelines for the enforcement of laws already on the books.  Still, gun-supporters are outraged by any attempts to regulate firearms, including those intended to keep them out of the hands of dangerous people.  But, Obama’s actions are legally sound, giving opponents little to do but rally behind their talking points and their general dislike of the president.

These attacks on the president have taken two basic forms.  The first is to mock him for his recent show of emotion.  In a speech detailing his executive actions, Obama shed a few tears:

Some have argued that this is a show of weakness by the president, or that his emotion has clouded his judgment.  I would argue the exact opposite.  Obama’s emotion shows that he is thinking quite clearly, and gives a strength to his arguments that dispassion would not.  The fact is that people getting killed by guns should make people sad.  Even more, it should make them angry.  Anything else shows a lack of humanity.  The president has obviously thought deeply about this, and his anger and frustration at being able to do nothing to stop it is showing.  He is also a father of two daughters, and a husband to a wife that he would be devastated to lose.  So, he has empathy towards those who have suffered just this kind of loss due to gun violence.  This empathy has made him even more determined to do something, even if Congress will not support him.  He is committed to act independently–not necessarily because he wants to, but because he has been forced to–and this shows a tremendous amount of strength.

The second way to attack the president is to accuse him of overreach.  Many on the right have compared Obama to a tyrant, dictator, or king, saying that he should do nothing unless he can convince Congress to act with him.  But, he is not writing law.  He is merely acting to make existing laws more effective.  His actions boil down to a few basic guidelines:

  • Increasing the number of dealers who will need a license to sell guns (thereby decreasing the number of sellers who are not required to run background checks on potential buyers)
  • Increasing funding so that more people can be hired to complete background checks within the required three-day timeframe (potentially eliminating the possibility of selling a gun to someone who would have failed a background check had it been completed in time)
  • Eliminating barriers that keep some mental health records from being included in the background check system
  • Enforcing rules requiring the reporting of stolen or lost guns
  • Increasing funding for research to make guns safer

None of these are radical ideas.  They are common-sense attempts to solve a serious problem.  Guns are getting into the hands of people who should not have them, and these people are using them to do terrible things.  We should all want to find a way to stop that from happening.  These actions are what Obama is doing, since he is being prevented from doing anything further.

Even more pervasive than the attacks on Obama are those on the perceived ineffectiveness of the proposed actions, the most common argument being that they would not have prevented any of the recent spate of mass shootings that have plagued the country.  This is partly true.  In most cases, the shooters in these incidents obtained their guns legally.  However, better mental health reporting could have prevented some from passing a background check.  And, the shooter in the South Carolina church would have failed his background check had it been completed in time.  But, because it took longer than the three-day window, he was sold a gun, which he then used to kill nine people.  So, these actions could very well have prevented some of these mass shootings.  But, even if they couldn’t, that isn’t the point.  Mass shootings make for good ratings on the nightly news, but they account for a tiny fraction of all gun deaths.

Using even the broadest definition of mass shooting shows they led to fewer than 500 deaths last year.  And, while every one of those deaths is tragic, they are dwarfed by the estimated 10,000 gun homicides that occur annually, and even further by the additional 20,000 gun suicides.  Many of these homicides are acts committed against an intimate partner or family member by someone with a history of violent behavior.  And many of the suicides are impulsive acts that would not have been successful had the person not had easy access to a gun.  These are the types of incidents that Obama’s actions could help prevent.  And, these tragic and often invisible deaths are just as important as those glorified on the news.

So, I commend the president on his actions.  I only wish he had the power to do even more.  The missing piece of any true gun-violence prevention effort is one that causes the greatest uproar any time it is even mentioned.  There are currently somewhere around 300 million guns in the United States.  But, there is no way to know exactly how many, where they are, or who has them.  The solution to this is simple.  All guns should be registered.

Registration should be part of any gun violence prevention proposal, and it is instead treated as a non-starter.  The only way to truly address gun violence and to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people is to know where guns are and whose hands they are in.  The argument that gun registration will lead to confiscation has no basis in reality, but is somehow accepted as truth.  There is absolutely no evidence that registering guns will lead to taking them away from anyone other than those who have demonstrated that they should not be allowed to possess them in the first place.

Like with all “gun control” proposals, registration would do nothing to change the status quo for those who legally own guns and handle them safely.  But, opposition to regulations is an admission of the dangerous nature of guns.  Law-abiding gun owners have nothing to lose by accepting new safety measures, and should support them.  Even more, they should support greater education regarding guns and crime.  People should know that overall crime rates are declining.  They should know that a gun in the home is far more likely to be used against someone in the home than an intruder.  They should know that owning a gun is an option, but not a necessity.  They should know the pros and cons of gun ownership, and that is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.

But, rather than the freedom of choice over whether to own a gun, the gun lobby favors scare-tactics that encourage everyone to own a weapon, with or without the proper training or safety measures.  They know guns are dangerous, as illustrated by their attempts to prohibit doctors from talking about them as a health risk.  This makes their support for universal ownership especially suspect, as the only people who stand to gain are gun manufacturers, not other gun owners.  Yet, they still perpetuate fantasies of “good guys with guns” saving the day against “bad guys with guns” who are allegedly around every corner, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Still, the right to own a gun is protected by the Constitution, and it is not going away, even with the president’s recent executive actions.  But, that has done little to quiet the outcry.  So, one more time, law-abiding gun owners of America, no one is coming for your guns, unless you’ve done something to prove you are not capable of handling the responsibility that comes with gun ownership.  But, you should support any measure that force others to take that responsibility as seriously as you do.


New Year’s Thoughts and Resolutions

As we begin a new year, it is natural to look both forward and back, to review the mistakes made and aim to avoid them and do better in the future.  In this spirit, I humbly resolve to:

  • Write more.  The entire purpose of this blog is to voice my opinion, and to participate in a dialog that shares opinions and rallies support for causes we collectively believe in.  By using facts and logical arguments, my intention is to educate and convince, and to show people that minds can be changed with words instead of just through force or threat of violence.  But, this cannot be done at all if I do not do my part.  So, I will write, as often as I can, and I encourage others to do the same, either in the comments here or on their own (but I would ask you to share a link to any writing, so that others may find it and continue the discussion).
  • Learn more.  I should claim no real expertise on matters of the world or of politics, but I often forget that.  I have a basic understanding of many facets of this country and those who govern it, but I can (and should) always seek to have a greater understanding.  I can never know all there is to know, but I should strive to learn as much as I can.  For some of this, I will have to rely on you, the readers and commenters, to point the way.  Show me what I do not know.  Correct me when I am wrong.  This is a collaboration, even if I am the one leading the discussion.
  • Do more.  Words are only a small part of the battle.  The rest depends on action.  So, I will try to be more active.  I will volunteer in my community.  I will write to my elected representatives.  I will sign petitions.  I will vote.  Instead of merely shouting into the abyss, I will engage in the world and make my actions match my words.  I will be part of the solution, rather than just a voice in the crowd.

These are simple resolutions, and I don’t know how successful I will be in keeping them.  But, they are my goals for this year.  And, if I can accomplish them, I will be a better man at the end of this year than I am now, and I will have contributed more and done more than I did in years gone by.  And, that will make this year a good year.

It Is Not Enough To Be Right: Using Truth As A Weapon

As the old year comes to a close and a new one begins, it is natural to reflect.  And, to progressives, last year was marked by various victories and defeats.  For all the expansions in health care coverage, same-sex marriage rights, decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, and positive job numbers, there were setbacks in racial relations, police brutality, income inequality, and even Congressional representation.  But, it is important to note that none of these are actually wins or losses.  They are merely steps forward or back in a fight that is far from over.  It is easy to forget this, as many of these steps backward certainly felt like losses, and progressives–myself included–want so badly for the steps forward to be wins.

This reality was put into perspective by David Kaib in a piece titled, “Every inch won should lead us to demand more.”  The entire post is well worth a read, but there were a few portions I found to be especially good reminders that each step forward is not an end of a fight, but rather a toehold for a new attack.  His piece begins by pointing out that even our “victories” are not always what they seem.  He uses the example of the proposed minimum wage increase.  A push for $10.10/hour by President Obama and many Democrats is progress, but it falls far short of the $15 demanded by workers.  Settling for the smaller wage is not a win, it is a concession, further diminished by the fact that loopholes and partisan politics mean few will actually see their wages rise to $10.10 any time soon.  Victories are not made of half-measures.  There are numerous examples of similar concessions dressed up as progressive victories.  The Affordable Care Act has led to millions of people getting heath insurance, but to celebrate it as a win ignores that the real goal should have been universal Medicare-style coverage for all Americans.  A step in the right direction does not mean that the fight has been won.  And, to fawn over notable progressives is to be blind to the fact that they are still outnumbered in Congress by those on the fringes of the right.

Kaib says:

The inclination to declare premature victory seems to me a common affliction, as evidenced by the responses to the election of Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Bill De Blasio. Another example is the victory laps taken in response to a small number of members of Congress embracing ideas like Social Security expansion or postal banking. Celebrating steps along the way is essential, but too often it seems like the first steps are treated as evidence of a changed game.

And, he is correct.  It is not enough for a few members of Congress to embrace progressive issues.  They need to fight for them.  They need to win over other members of their party.  They need to propose legislation, and most importantly, they need to pass it.  Now, the realities of being a minority party in Congress make the latter goal highly implausible, at least for now.  But, that does not mean that it should be dismissed as a goal.  Why admit defeat without fighting the fight?  And, it is not just our representatives who must wage this battle.  We must play our part by demanding it of them.  We must support candidates who take a bold stand on truly progressive issues.  A stalemate in Congress is no reason to propose anything less than everything we want.  Even if Republicans oppose voting rights, or women’s health care, or gun control, or environmental regulation, we should not stop fighting for them.

For many progressives, the thought of being on the “right side” of an issue is enough.  The thinking seems to be that patience will win out in the end, that sooner or later, everyone else will come around and see the light.  After all, if what is right is evident to us, surely everyone else must see it eventually, right?  And, fighting is so ugly and uncivilized.  Instead, we gather our facts and our altruistic ideals and wait for the world to catch up, hoping that truth or science or simply compassion for other humans will do our fighting for us.  And, that is why we have to settle for half-measures instead of full victories.  We cannot win if we are not willing to fight.

Kaib continues:

People love the idea of winning without a fight. You see that in the hope of many Democrats that the Republicans will be so extreme that voters will reject them without Democrats having to take a stand on anything. You see it in their insistence that demographic changes will lead to the demise of the Republican Party, despite the fact that those demographics are malleable and a product of politics. You see it when people offer charts and stats alone as if bare facts ever convinced anyone of anything, or their efforts to argue in favor of (mildly) liberal ends from conservative starting points. You see it in the efforts to avoid taking stances that conservatives will oppose (as if they won’t move to oppose what ever previously reasonable position liberals take.) You see it in the simultaneous claim that the ACA is a great success and a frustration its opponents are still pushing back.

But, we cannot win without a fight.  That is why we must not only be willing to fight, but eager.  We must identify the things that are worth fighting for and then take a stand, boldly.  Being right is simply not enough.  Truth can be a weapon, but we must wield it.  It gives us an advantage, but it will not defeat ignorance or folly if we do not use it.  It can change hearts and minds, but only if it is unsheathed.  And, that means charging into battle.  We can make the change we want, but we have to earn it.  Change will not happen unless we make it.

Kaib–and Frederick Douglass–agrees:

I love the idea of winning a fight. I love it because our opponents are wrong and deserve to be beaten. I love it because winning begets winning. I love it because, as Frederick Douglass taught us, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

He emphasizes the word “fight,” and that is important.  The fight–the struggle–is what matters.  Our opponents are wrong, and they do deserve to be beaten.  And, each step forward makes the next one more attainable.

Kaib then reminds us the value of having a “utopian demand.”  We can aim for small victories, but aiming higher can yield greater rewards.  It is not foolish to want more than what seems easily won.  This type of grand ambition is required to truly make any kind of drastic change.  Why settle for $10.10/hour if we deserve $15?  Why settle for insurance for some when we should have insurance for everyone?  Why settle at all?

There is no room for subtlety. Only bold stands will work.  The refusal to settle for anything less than victory is the only way to move forward.  Deep down, we know this, but sometimes we need to be reminded.  We must march, we must shout, we must vote, and we must fight, because we must win.

I Do Not Think That Means What He Thinks It Means – Bill Maher and Free Speech

This is almost old news at this point, but it still bears commenting on.  Bill Maher has no idea what “Freedom of Speech” means.  Like many of the pundits he criticizes, he thinks that anyone choosing not to listen to him is impinging upon his rights, rather than exercising their own.

First, some background:  Bill Maher made some comments on his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” disparaging Muslims.  He was joined by fellow atheist and Muslim-basher Sam Harris, and the two proceeded to claim that all Muslims believe the same things that extremist terrorist groups do, and therefore, all Muslims are evil and violent.  His panel (other than Harris) disagreed, with actor Ben Affleck most vocally objecting:

This exchange naturally garnered a lot of media attention, largely due to Affleck’s celebrity, as Maher himself later noted.  But, in reality, this particular argument differed little from Maher’s usual opinions of Islam as a religion and of the Muslims who practice it.  He has regularly demonized them as being violent, ignoring the fact that the terrorist groups he cites as his example represent a minuscule fraction of the entire Muslim population of well over a billion people worldwide.

But, this additional attention to Maher’s views on Muslims led some students at the University of California to petition to cancel a planned appearance by Maher at their winter commencement ceremony.  Of course, Maher was outraged, arguing that this constituted a violation of his freedom of speech:

To defend himself, Maher referenced comments made during a HuffPost Live interview with Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author.

 “Bill Maher’s not a bigot. I know him,” Aslan said on HuffPost Live.

“If even my most respectable critic who’s a Muslim says this, what leg does this protest have to stand on?” Maher asked during Friday’s episode of “Real Time” on HBO. “He and I disagree on stuff but he’s always welcome on the show. That’s how it’s done, kids!”

Ignoring the ridiculousness of his defense and its similarity to the “some of my best friends are black” defense offered by many accused racists, Maher is missing the larger point.  It doesn’t matter if he’s a bigot or not (though I would argue he is), and it doesn’t matter if his argument is correct or not (though I would argue it isn’t).  What matters is that he is not entitled to speak at a commencement ceremony and the possible retraction of an invitation for him to do so is not a violation of his freedom of speech.

Journalist Rula Jebreal offered a detailed takedown of Maher’s position regarding Muslims on the same episode of his show in which he called out the Berkeley students (and later in an interview with Salon):

But, as convincing as she was, Maher was unfazed.  He continued to argue that the facts were in his favor.  His belief is based largely on a single poll reporting that a majority of Muslims in Arab countries said that execution is a proper punishment for those choosing to leave the religion.  Aside from the flaws in basing an argument on a single poll, it must be recognized that any poll like this is inherently flawed itself.  Just like polling in this country says that most people go to church every week despite evidence to the contrary, it is only natural that a poll about religious belief in countries ruled by extremist Muslim governments would show respondents agreeing with even the most extreme tenets of that religion, whether they actually believe them or not.  Of course, it is entirely possible that most Muslims do in fact think all heathens should be executed, but it’s not very likely.

However, this argument over the validity of Maher’s position misses the larger point.  No one is limiting his freedom of speech.  He has not been silenced or arrested or punished.  On the contrary, he has a television show which allows him to say whatever he would like to an audience of millions.  His opinion is not being muted, it is being amplified.  And, the students at Berkeley have no obligation to offer him yet another venue for disseminating his beliefs.  In fact, they are free to voice their disagreement with him and tell him that he is not welcome.  To paraphrase Maher, that’s how it’s done.

Maher likes to argue in regards to another section of the First Amendment that freedom of religion is also freedom from religion.  The same applies to speech.  Maher is free to say whatever he likes, and everyone else is free not to listen.  I can’t stop him from voicing his opinion, but I don’t have to invite him into my house.  That is how the First Amendment actually works.  But, Maher disagrees:

Maher noted the irony students at Cal wanted to uninvite someone based on comments they made, given that this year is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus.

“I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore,” Maher said.

And, apparently, they didn’t teach the First Amendment at Cornell, where Maher studied.

More Experimentation, Less Reporting, More Dead People

After a high-profile botched execution, as well as numerous others nationwide, Oklahoma is finally doing something to change capital punishment, but what they are doing is the wrong thing.  Many of the problems are due to experimentation with various drugs and their dosages after access to traditional execution drugs has been cut off.  Unfortunately, instead of banning the death penalty, or even putting it on hold until a more humane method can be found (though I would argue that no execution can be humane), the experimentation will continue, but with more drugs and less transparency.

As The Oklahoman reports:

The April 29 execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett lasted 43 minutes and sparked an Oklahoma Public Safety Department investigation, which included recommended changes to protocol.

Lockett was killed with a three-drug cocktail never before used in the United States, and the new protocol allows the state to continue using the most controversial of the drugs, midazolam. It also allows the state to continue using a single IV in the femoral vein, a procedure the state Public Safety Department investigation found to be central to problems that occurred during the procedure. Media witnesses for executions have been cut by more than half, from 12 to five.

Midazolam also was used in two recent problematic executions, one in Ohio and another in Arizona. The new protocol increases the amount of the drug by five times. It also requires the medical professional inserting a single vein IV be trained to perform the procedure. Traditional lethal injections in Oklahoma utilize two IVs, one in each arm.

So, a drug that has been problematic in numerous cases will continue to be used, just in greater doses.  And, just in case things continue to go wrong, fewer than half as many journalists will be allowed to witness the procedure.

Both these developments are troubling.  The drug involved, midazolam, has not been proven to work properly.  So, increasing the dosage, even by five times, does not guarantee that it will now work the way they hope it will.  This means that the next person executed in Oklahoma by this method will be nothing more than a lab rat, as they tweak the procedure to try to find the best way to end a human life.

And, while I suspect no member of the media enjoys watching a person being executed, their role in the process is vital.  It is essential that the state be accountable for how they carry out the sentence they have imposed.  They must answer for mistakes they make, not try to cover them up.  Especially now, when scrutiny is high, they should be making efforts to be more transparent, not less.  Limiting media access shows they are trying to hide something.

The best possible solution to the difficulties in executing people would be to just stop executing people.  But, short of that, it must be done in the most humane way possible, with full transparency and accountability.  And, citizens must be sure their state knows what it is doing.  These new measures prove that they do not.


Taking Guns Away from Dangerous People is a Good Thing

There are many things about living in California that frustrate me terribly.  But, things like the gun legislation passed this week remind me that, for all its flaws, my adopted home state still has more common sense than much of the country.

As the AP reports:

California will become the first state that allows family members to ask a judge to remove firearms from a relative who appears to pose a threat, under legislation Gov. Jerry Brown said Tuesday he had signed.

This legislation comes as a response to the shootings near the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California earlier this year.  But, even without the tragedy that provoked it, this is a measure that should have passed long ago.  It is obvious that keeping guns away from people who pose a threat to others is an easy way to save lives.  However, it is unusual that such a common sense solution can become law.

Even pro-gun folks can see the good in this idea, though they of course find a reason to object to any legislation that keeps guns away from whoever wants to own them:

“Our concern is not so much what they intended to do; our concern is with the method they put in place to address people with mental or emotional issues,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. “We think this just misses the mark and may create a situation where law-abiding gun owners are put in jeopardy.”

But, what Paredes fails to see is how this prevents situations where common citizens, both with and without guns, are kept out of jeopardy.  Isn’t that far more important?  And, even for those aiming to protect the right of gun ownership, it is easy to see that some people simply should not have access to weapons, and that guns in the wrong hands can do a great deal of harm.

There is no reason to believe that this law will do anything to keep guns out of the hands of so-called “responsible” gun owners.  Just like background checks, this is legislation that will affect only those who should not own guns.

And, it is not just mass shootings that could be prevented.  As Don Thompson at Talking Points Memo writes:

Advocates say its greatest use actually might come not in preventing headline-grabbing murderous sprees, but in helping families deal with loved ones who are in danger of taking their own lives or who might be so angry or distraught that they could turn a gun on family members.

When about two-thirds of gun-related deaths are suicides, and homicides involving family members are far too frequent, enabling family members to remove weapons from the home can save lives, both their own and that of a potential suicide victim.

Of course, the actual success of this measure cannot be judged yet.  But, as gun-control advocate Amanda Wilcox says, “It’s hard to know how much it will be used or how much it will prevent.  It only takes avoiding one loss for this to be worth it.”

The NFL is Driving Me Away

There are few things in this world that I love more than football.  I have been a fan and avid watcher of the sport for more than three decades.  Some of my fondest memories involve games watched with my father or with friends.  I have spent my hard-earned money on tickets and merchandise, and countless hours reading about my favorite team and even playing fantasy football.  I have been a loyal consumer of the product that the NFL has been selling, and it has brought me great joy.

So, why are they driving me away?

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I guess I always knew there was a dark side.  After all, this is a sport based on violence and brutality.  Sure, there is strategy involved, but that strategy still involves gigantic men destroying their bodies.  And, the ungodly amount of money involved cannot help but corrupt those who run the league.  But, somehow, I was always able to ignore all of that because I loved watching the game so much.  I have been a loyal fan, willing to turn a blind eye.

But, I cannot pretend to be blind anymore.

Today’s news about Ray Rice is the tipping point perhaps, but it is merely one of many illustrations of just how corrupt the NFL has become.  Like any big business, they are driven by profit, and as long as the money keeps rolling in, they are willing to condone just about any sort of behavior.

Let’s look at the Rice situation.  Here is a player who was seen as one of the league’s “good guys.”  He played well for a team that won the Super Bowl just a few years ago.  But, he committed the fatal error of doing something awful and getting caught.  To the league, the action does not matter nearly as much as the getting caught.  It would be foolish to believe that Rice is the first player to abuse his partner.  He just happened to do it on camera.  So, since the league could not ignore it, they did the least they could possibly do to quiet the critics.  They condemned his behavior and suspended him for 2 games.  They told us just how seriously they take the issue of domestic violence, then suspended Rice for just one-eighth of the season.  And, they were more than willing to sweep the entire incident under the rug.  But, the public, to their credit, would not let them.  After the uproar that followed what was seen as a far-too-lenient punishment, the league vowed to re-evaluate their policy on domestic violence.  They decided that a six-game suspension should apply to any future incidents.  And, again, they were willing to consider the matter settled.  But, today, after more video evidence was leaked, revealing just how brutally Rice attacked his then-fiancée, they were again pressured into action.  Ray Rice was released by his team and suspended indefinitely by the league.  There is a real possibility that he never plays football professionally again.  But, even after all that, Rice still lands on his feet.  He does not face any criminal punishment, and he has millions of dollars to cushion his fall.

And, the NFL comes out on top.  By allowing all the blame to fall on Ray Rice (and absurdly trying to blame his fiancée for being abused), the league gets to keep selling its product to a fan base that cannot get enough.  This is not to say that Rice should not be blamed.  Of course he should.  He should be blamed, he should be punished, and he should go to jail.  But, the NFL should be blamed, as well, not for the assault, but certainly for how they dealt with it.  They did as little as they could, trying to protect themselves and their product.  That is the game they play.  For the product is all that matters.

This single-minded focus on the game and the profits they reap is what allows them to stand behind a team owner in support of a racist team name.  It is what allows them to condemn the use of illegal (but harmless) drugs like marijuana while pumping their players full of dangerous prescription painkillers.  It is what allows them to ignore the countless brain injuries caused by years of players slamming themselves into each other as hard as they can.  It is what allows them to play their game in stadiums owned by billionaires and paid for by public funds taken away from education or infrastructure.  They address only what they are forced to, only those bits of the darkness that creep out into the light.

I love football, but I don’t like it anymore.  When I see a big hit, I don’t cheer.  I wonder whether the player is destroying his brain and his body.  When I see an owner in his luxury box, I think about fans who can’t afford tickets into the stadium they are paying for.  When I see a player doing charity work and photo-ops, I wonder whether he shows the same kind of compassion to his wife.  Yet, despite all this, I still watch, because I love football.

So, why is the NFL trying to drive me away?  How difficult would it be to actually do the right thing?  Why not condemn the owner of the team with the racist name rather than the woman who was beaten by a man who just so happens to be famous for playing football?  Why not embrace efforts to protect the players who make the league possible?  Why not reach out to the fans who spend the money that has made the league so profitable and address their concerns?  We don’t want much.  We just want to watch football without feeling like we’re supporting all the awful things that happen under the league’s watch.  Is that too much to ask?

Is this REALLY where we should be spending all that money?

News came out today that Bill and Melinda Gates have made a $1 million donation to support a Washington state bill that would require background checks on all gun purchases.  On its face, this is great news, as the Gateses join fellow super-rich folks like Michael Bloomberg, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, and Nick Hanauer in donating towards sensible gun control initiatives.  And, while I wholeheartedly support any attempts to mandate background checks and any other measures that would limit gun violence, I was also a bit saddened to realize just how much money is being spent on this nonsensical debate.

Many are celebrating the Gateses donation, including Cliff Schecter at the Daily Beast:

Gates’s fame brings more attention and further legitimizes the initiative in a way that almost nobody else could. Once the Gates Foundation made it a priority to combat malaria around the world in 2000, it brought down deaths due to the insect-borne disease by 20 percent in 11 years, saving the lives of 1 million African children in the process.

Gates has the ability to grab headlines and make an issue go viral with the constant media coverage he receives, and the financial ability, if he wins, to fund similar efforts around the country. His involvement could be the answer to the public health crisis that makes American children 93 percent of those murdered in the 26 high-income countries around the world.

But, in those paragraphs lies the most tragic part of the entire debate, namely that so much money is being spent on it that could better be spent on other things.  The Gates Foundation has already shown the good that can be done by philanthropic billionaires, and its malaria prevention effort has already saved more lives than any gun control effort ever could.  And, sure, the million dollars donated in Washington is dwarfed by the budget his Foundation spends fighting disease, but even that million dollars could do a world of good if spent elsewhere.

But, because of groups like the National Rifle Association, who spend absurd amounts of money fighting any and all efforts to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people, Gates, Bloomberg, and all the rest are now spending their money fighting against the NRA.  And, the Gateses’ million dollars, along with the $50 million donated by Bloomberg, are still dwarfed by the hundreds of millions spent by pro-gun groups.  The Washington Post details spending from 2010:



Just imagine what all that NRA money could be used for if not for their obsession with guns.  They could fight hunger and homelessness in America, cure disease, or fund research.  But, instead they choose to spend it on making it easier to buy guns.  What a waste.

So, yes, Gates and his billionaire buddies should be applauded for entering the fight against the gun lobby.  Their efforts, and their money, could potentially save thousands of lives.  It’s just a shame that they have to.