Friday, December 15, 2017

To Roy Moore

Mr. Moore — I have a hard time calling you "Judge", for reasons that will become clear — you have spent most of your adult life, so far as I can tell, lecturing others on God's will, which happens to dovetail neatly with your own.

I'm sure you believe you're concurring with God, as a faithful believer should. But has it ever occurred to you that your certitude may have blinded you to your own shortcomings?

You're obviously intent on converting this nation — fallen, in your eyes, from grace — to one that accords with your view of God's will.

How has your effort been going?

Are you reaching anybody who didn't already agree with you?

Have you had any success at bringing the nation closer to God?

I'd say you're not as successful as you'd like to be, with the latest evidence being your defeat in your race for Senate. (By the way, what did you expect to accomplish as a Senator, one of a hundred in a body that is but one of two legislative arms in a government that has two other branches?)

Obviously you're up against a formidable foe — but do you know who that foe is?

I won't assume you think you're up against Satan. However, I do think you think you're up against wickedness.

I think the truth is a good deal more discomfiting. You're up against not just a more generous, more open view of what the United States can be, but a more generous, more open view of Christianity.

You want the rest of us to turn to God but you want that the same way a bad teacher wants students to embrace his subject. You scold. You ominously warn of terrible consequences for ignoring your will. The difference is that a bad teacher can assign grades that actually have consequences.

Your eagerness to find fault with everyone else renders you not just unpalatable, but untrustworthy. I, for one, learned the hard way not to trust the judgment of coworkers who never found fault with their own work. They have the largest of blind spots and their work cannot be trusted. Hence my inability to call you "Judge": though you've made judging others your life's work, you cannot bear to be corrected and that's the sign of an untrustworthy arbiter.

If you had a trace of humility, a scintilla of awareness of the possibility you could be wrong — if, in short, you recognized that you, too, are human and therefore fallible — you might have reconsidered your judgmentalism a long time ago. It's still not too late to ask yourself how well, or even whether, you're really serving God's will.

I doubt you will. I'm afraid you're too invested in the certainty of your own righteousness, and the equal certainty of the wrongness and wickedness of everyone who doesn't agree with you.

Wouldn't it be delightful if you proved me wrong on this score?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Kate Steinle verdict

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was found not guilty of not just first- or second-degree murder, but even of manslaughter, in the death of Kate Steinle. He was convicted solely of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

I don't hold with the demonization of illegal immigrants that Trump rode to the White House, but Garcia Zarate doesn't push my pity buttons. He is a serial illegal crosser of the border and whether or not the gun went off accidentally, he was responsible because he shouldn't have been here in the first place and he sure as hell shouldn't have gone anywhere near a gun.

I didn't follow the trial but I was surprised that the prosecution asked for first-degree murder, as even to me, who only saw the initial news coverage of the shooting, it seemed clear Garcia Zarate wasn't aiming at Steinle. I agree with one legal analyst who blasted the prosecution for overplaying its hand: by demanding too much the prosecution may have left the jury no opportunity to deliver a verdict of, say, voluntary manslaughter. I can't otherwise understand this fiasco.

Garcia Zarate might not have aimed at Kate Steinle but in my mind he killed her. Even if you buy the defense argument that it was all an accident, it was an accident that never should have happened because Garcia Zarate was not supposed to be in the country. No matter what else his attorneys say, they can't get around that stubborn fact.

Garcia Zarate has not struck me as a genius but he should understand how lucky a break he has caught. He'd better not push his luck by entering this country ever again.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The unexpected opportunity Trump has opened

We're not quite at the end of the year yet but I thought it was a good time to think about where the U.S. is as a country, and what the presidency of Donald Trump has meant for us.

If you voted for Trump because you wanted him to enact certain policies, I think you have to ask yourself not just whether he has enacted those policies, but whether he has showed any interest in enacting them, or whether he has been effective at arguing for them.

He has done high-profile speeches and press conferences touting his intention of boosting the coal industry and thereby saving jobs, and indeed restoring lost jobs in that industry. If you work in the coal industry and you don't own a coal company, has his presidency helped you?

He promised to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Obviously he couldn't do that singlehandedly: Congress had to pass legislation that he could sign into law, and Congress famously failed to enact such legislation despite trying repeatedly during 2017. Did Trump help those efforts?

He repeatedly proclaimed his intention of ending immigration of Muslims during the campaign. He has issued multiple executive orders trying to do just that, and multiple federal judges have ruled against those orders. At least some of those judges cited Trump's campaign speeches and his tweets after becoming president as evidence of his animus to justify blocking those executive orders. The Supreme Court overruled some of those lower-court rulings to give partial effect to one of those executive orders. That counts as at least a partial victory for him. But was he helpful to this effort?

I think you're getting my point here. If you wanted Trump to bring your concerns front and center, he may have done that: he is a master at drawing public attention. But has he actually been helpful at addressing those concerns?

It's possible to blame any number of other people and institutions for Trump not accomplishing more than he has. But look back on his time in the presidency and ask yourself: has he done a really good job of advancing your concerns?

If you have concerns about his effectiveness as an advocate, you should consider the present moment an unrecognized opportunity.

Fair-minded opponents of Trump (and yes, they exist) are coming around to the idea that his electoral victory was a rebuke to the existing political order. It wasn't just Democrats, but Republicans too, who ignored you who propelled Trump to the White House. A pox on both your houses, your votes said. Some of you probably felt that he was a flawed messenger, but Americans have a long history of voting for the lesser of two evils and hoping for the best.

Now, acknowledging all of this, do you think he's doing a good enough job actually getting the rest of us to listen to your legitimate concerns?

You have an historic opportunity here to force a real and productive conversation on where the country is going and why you feel left out. But Trump is a terrible spokesman for you. He doesn't inspire anybody to listen.

If you think that as a country we can work together to arrive at solutions that are more positive, that work for a lot of us, is Trump really the best guy to make that happen? Don't you think that your legitimate concerns about your own lives deserve a spokesman (or spokeswoman) who not only genuinely shares them (which I doubt Trump does) but who makes the rest of us respect those concerns by making us respect him?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Where harassment is concerned, take nothing for granted

The New York Times finally ran the piece I'd been expecting somebody to run: "Men at Work Wonder if They Overstepped with Women, Too".

If there's one thing any man who claims to be aware of the possibility of sexual harassment in the workplace should know, it's that even the wokest man needs to do a gut check periodically.

We all fall into behavioral ruts and stop paying attention to how we're acting when we're comfortable. That's not a bad thing: to be on eggshells all the time would drive us insane. But it's precisely when we're comfortable, when we think all's right in our little corner of the world, that we can fail to see that something's wrong.

We don't see it because we're comfortable and we assume all's well. And that's the problem.

After quoting a number of men who wonder if they are behaving appropriately, or might have behaved badly in the past without knowing it, the piece pivots to men who aren't worried. One company founder queried his female employees:

“I came into the office and said, ‘Hey, guys, I’ve got a question for you: This sexual harassment stuff, all these things, do you guys ever worry it’s going to happen here?’” Mr. Lencioni, 52, recalled. “And they were like: ‘No, because we know you. We know who you are.’”
Maybe the women in that office were being perfectly truthful. However, if men should have learned anything from the recent spate of harassment stories coming to light, it's that the harassed party often doesn't feel that he or she can afford to speak up: the power dynamics of the work environment make them fear for their jobs and even livelihoods. The higher up the man who's asking is, the more likely people will think they need to tell him what he wants to hear.
Other men said they had not talked about workplace harassment with anyone because they already knew what they needed to know. “This is a liberal town,” said Philip Rontell, a real estate agent in Walnut Creek, Calif., who added that he supported the #MeToo campaign. “We all already know this stuff.”
No offense to Mr. Rontell but that is possibly the dumbest attitude one can have. If as a man you think you already know everything you need to know about harassment, you are part of the problem.

The number of reports of harassment by high-profile men in different vocations is only the tip of the iceberg: I'm certain of that. That kind of behavior afflicts high-status men because to an extent every man has enhanced status in this culture. You may think you are despised by the world but if you are male, a woman in the same circumstances has it worse than you do.

Even if you are a paragon of equal-mindedness and proper behavior, you need to be on guard because male privilege is baked into this society's morés.

Businesses need to have systems that allow employees to report harassment, and those systems need to respond promptly and equitably. Yes, it's a giant headache for managment and it's open to abuse — but can you honestly say that not taking proactive steps to discourage harassment is a reasonable response to what we've been seeing these past few months? Indeed, if you consider the Catholic Church's horrific sexual-abuse outrage (made infinitely worse by the Church's attempt to hide it), we've known about institutionally-facilitated abuses for decades.

As a man you don't have to walk on eggshells all the time but you — we — can't afford to be complacent, either. We have a giant blind spot that our culture permits us to ignore too often. That has to end — and the first step, as always, is to admit we have a problem.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The child-man shames us all

Children should be seen and not heard. That was a behavioral edict from my childhood that I, like every child, resented. It was a counterproductive rule, too, as it tended to squelch kids who were wise enough to see that the emperor had no clothes but who were raised to respect their parents.

Still, I wish we could apply that dictate to the child-man in the White House.

I'm not sure which is worse, his instinctive bullying of those he can bully with impunity or his colossal, unfailingly astonishing ignorance. At the moment, I give the edge to the latter following a report in the Japan Times headlined, "Trump said 'samurai' Japan should have shot down overflying North Korean missiles".

U.S. President Donald Trump has said Japan should have shot down the North Korean missiles that flew over the country before landing in the Pacific Ocean earlier this year, diplomatic sources have said, despite the difficulties and potential ramifications of doing so.

...

The U.S. president said he could not understand why a country of samurai warriors did not shoot down the missiles, the sources said.

It's understandable that defense technology wasn't something he followed in his private life as a licenser of his own name and professional foulmouthed braggart, but once he became president defense technology became part of his job. Nobody expects him to repair the systems if they break down but he goddamned well should have checked what those systems could do before shooting off his mouth about them. (News flash for DJT: it ain't easy to shoot down ballistic missiles. Ask anybody who worked on Reagan's "Star Wars" program in the '80s.)

Nor can any of us, as private citizens, be expected to know other cultures intimately, though I think it would serve us well if we did. Again, though, a president has a responsibility to learn enough about them that he doesn't insult them or make asinine assumptions about them. Trump sounds like he thinks Japan is still stuck in its feudal era hundreds of years ago. I wager his idea of Japanese culture comes from Hollywood's warmed-over efforts to depict historical Japan. How else could he have missed Japan's decades-long efforts to renounce (or more accurately, to ignore) the fanatical militarism, not to mention racism, that led it to commit atrocities before and during World War II? How else could he have missed the U.S.'s historic efforts to get that war's aggressors to stand down and embrace pacifism not merely as an ideal but as a core element of their modern national characters?

No country is summed up by its leader: she or he represents only some of that nation's multiple facets. In the case of the U.S., I regret to say that Trump is sadly representative of some of our most woefully ignorant and belligerent citizens.

However, on behalf of the majority of voters who did not choose him in the last election, I offer an apology for our impossibly ignorant, boorish, and reckless chief executive. He is a sadly exemplary distillation of much that is awful in the U.S.-American character: arrogance, boastfulness, hostility to rational thought, xenophobia. His ignorance will result in more ethnic and cultural slurs being uttered before his time on our national and international stage is up.

But I call on you, our fellow humans who live in other nations, to remember that however badly he may slander you, we are subject to his rule.

You might wish we would rise up and overthrow him. Some of us might even wish that, too. That, though, would be a betrayal of our principles of self-rule. In fact, that would be a final act of submission to Trump, who embodies the dead-end principle of strongman rule. We can't let him undo our national character, which was forged in opposition to monomaniacal self-interest and arbitrary rule.

The price of holding fast to our principles of self-rule, however, is endless embarrassment about the child-man who cannot comprehend the job he isn't doing.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Trump and condolences

Trump said something insensitive to the widow of a soldier recently killed in Niger. She also said Trump struggled to remember her husband's name. And Trump has been in a name-calling spat with a Congressional Democrat, Frederica S. Wilson, over not just his initial remarks to the widow but also his subsequent efforts to deny that he said what he said. Even White House chief of staff John Kelly has gotten into the fray, backing his boss and belittling Wilson.

This is a big deal to the family, of course, and I can't blame them (including the soldier's mother, who has also weighed in) for being upset.

However, why the hell are the rest of us following this story?

Trump didn't commit gross malfeasance here. He was simply Trump, a man who doesn't feel empathy — who, by the evidence of a lifetime's worth of stories, doesn't even comprehend it on an intellectual level. And be honest: most of us are not good at consoling even those we know well, and the most skilled and empathetic can drop the ball now and then.

So at a human level, however much you may hate Trump, cut him some slack about the call. You might have stuck your foot in your mouth, too, if you were simultaneously contending with the other demands of the presidency.

His subsequent denial and fight-picking with Wilson are a different matter, of course: he was a whiny idiot for getting into it with her, and Kelly lost a lot of his own patina by joining his boss in the pile-on. Whether you think Wilson behaved appropriately by calling Trump out in the first place, Trump and Kelly have made things worse for the White House.

But again, this is business as usual for Trump the troglodyte. It's a classic distraction from his other woes, a distraction that takes advantage of the halo the country has built up around the military since Reagan's days. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders even had the gall to say to a reporter, "If you want to go after General Kelly that's up to you but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that's something highly inappropriate".

It's important to know that the White House press secretary has the same contempt for the First Amendment and the role of the press in our republic that her boss does. Nevertheless, again, this is something we already knew: any Trump loyalist is going to parrot his undemocratic sentiments and probably shares his authoritarian instincts at some level.

So, whether or not you believe Rachel Maddow's hypothesis (which some might call a conspiracy theory) that Trump picked this fight to distract from diplomatic missteps in Chad and adjoining West African nations, the fact is that the Trump administration's inflaming of the controversy surrounding this condolence call is a deliberate distraction from bigger issues.

Stop rewarding the media for keeping this story alive.

And media, stop falling for the oldest trick in Trump's playbook. Get your heads out of your asses. Tell us what he doesn't want us to know — what we need to know.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Enough is never enough

I heard a Congressional representative — a Democrat, of course — say "enough is enough", referring to the slaughter in Las Vegas.

Fifty-nine dead and some five hundred injured as of this moment. The worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Well, that's what most are saying. I think the Newtown (Sandy Hook) massacre was the worst. More have died in Vegas but the Newtown victims were children.

At any rate: dozens dead, hundreds injured. But is enough, enough?

Well ...

No. It should be but ... no, it isn't. It won't be.

To my mild surprise it was Bill O'Reilly who put his finger on the problem, though it's not so much a problem for him as the whole point. He wrote:

This is the price of freedom. Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are.
That precisely sums up the effect of the laissez-faire attitude toward gun ownership espoused by the most zealous gun-rights advocates, including but not limited to the National Rifle Association and its supporters. They will never come right out and say that mass murder is "the price of freedom" (specifically, the freedom to own guns), but it's the logical conclusion of their unrelenting drive to make even the merest discussion of gun control politically impossible.

(Why did BillO blow the secret? Because he has adopted the NRA's fatalistic stance that gun control is futile: "[H]aving covered scores of gun-related crimes over the years, I can tell you that government restrictions will not stop psychopaths from harming people." What he does not say is that those psychopaths would have to work a hell of a lot harder to harm the same number of people if they didn't have access to firearms that can be modified to shoot a lot of bullets in a very short time.)

But back to the salient point: this nation will never say "enough is enough" as long as enough gun owners and gun rights advocates hold fast to the principle that mass killings are an acceptable price for unfettered access to guns.

Gun rights advocates demand that every possible contributing factor to mass shootings be investigated and addressed by legislation — except for gun ownership itself. Gun ownership is not only axiomatically sacrosanct (i.e., you can't ask why gun ownership is an untouchable right), but isn't the root cause of the shootings, gun-rights advocates claim.

That position is no longer credible.

Whenever a mass shooting occurs, the NRA and its allies unfailingly denounce criminals and/or the mentally ill and/or unjust local laws that prevented "good guys" from carrying weapons that could have redressed the balance with the shooter.

Let's see how feasible addressing each of these (putative) alternative factors is.

  • Criminals should not have guns, we're told by the NRA. Well of course not. The trouble is that many of the mass shooters of the 21st century weren't criminals until they committed their mass shooting. The Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, for instance, had no criminal history.
  • Mental illness of a sufficient degree should disqualify one from possessing a firearm. However, we are nowhere near understanding the mind well enough to make such judgments infallibly. If you argue that the answer to mass shootings is a test that can tell whether a person will ever commit mass murder with a gun, you aren't being serious. You're trying to postpone the discussion indefinitely.
  • Now, about those good guys with guns whom some claim are the solution to mass shootings: how exactly would these good guys, with their presumably street-legal weapons, have stopped Paddock? He was around a thousand feet from his victims, thirty-two stories above them. He had the element of surprise and his victims (and would-be counteraggressors in the crowd) had no shelter. To analyze the situation well enough to figure out the shooter's location would require a person with rare presence of mind and coolness under fire.

    Yet assume that in a crowd as large as the one in Las Vegas, a few such people would have been present. They would have to have brought their weapons with them, the concert's organizers would have to have assented and it would have to be publicly known that audience members could be carrying.

    • Would you feel comfortable attending an event where an unknown number of your fellow eventgoers were armed?
    • What if they were drinking or imbibing other controlled substances? Could the organizers require total sobriety as a condition of carrying within paid areas?
    • Would you be comfortable assuming, as you would have to, that all those armed attendees were genuine good guys, rather than bad guys taking advantage of the permission to carry?
    • If shooting broke out, could law enforcement figure out who were the good guys and who the bad guys?
    (There's also the question of how common weapons that can shoot accurately over 1000 feet are among the civilian population. I have no idea.)
Talking about criminals, the mentally ill and "good guys with guns" is all smoke and mirrors. It's an attempt to distract us from the reality that while we all agree that the wrong people shouldn't have guns, we cannot discern with certitude who the wrong people are. Absent mind-reading, which would (or at least should) raise privacy objections that make gun-ownership arguments look trivial, we will not be able to keep guns out of the wrong hands — as long as the nation's default position is that gun ownership is a right that outweighs virtually all others.

If we want to address the plague of mass shootings, we have got to stop treating gun control as taboo. Greater restrictions on firearms and ammunition are presently our only practical options.

Until gun-rights advocates acknowledge that reality, enough will never be enough.