What Children Learn From Their President

 

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A U.S. president wears many hats, some unwittingly. Officially, (s)he is the chief of state, the chief executive, the commander in chief, the chief citizen, the chief diplomat, the party chief, and the chief administrator.  Unofficially, she is other things, including the global figurehead of the United States as a whole, and — what we often don’t think about enough — a role model for children.

For a period of 8 years, American children and their parents were fortunate to have Barack Obama in the White House. He was the epitome of grace under fire, of coolness and confidence under the harshest and slimiest attack (of which there were too many to count), of cheer and good will toward all. And many other qualities of sound and admirable leadership.

But kids have not always been so lucky.

Richard Nixon taught them that the end justifies the means. Ronald Reagan taught them that style triumphs over substance. George W. Bush taught them that family connections are more important than ability. And now we have number 45, who is teaching them all of the above plus much, much more.

They are learning that they can lie brazenly, outlandishly, constantly, without fear of repercussions.

They are learning that bragging, threats and pettiness are considered signs of “strength”.

They are learning that, contrary to what adults have been teaching them for years, bullying is really cool and gets you lots of admiring attention.

They are learning that selfishness and narcissism are the ultimate virtues.

They are learning that if you are rich and powerful enough, you can get away with anything.

They are learning to never accept responsibility for their mistakes and misdeeds — and they should just lie, deny, cover up and deflect blame to someone else.

They are learning to pick scapegoats for any problem they have been experiencing.

They are learning that instant gratification is all that matters.

They are learning that childish insults and attacks against other people will make themselves feel more important.

They are learning that there is no need to learn anything about anything if they pretend to know everything about everything.

They are learning that it doesn’t matter what they actually do, as long as they can convince enough people to believe whatever they say.

They are learning that there is no need ever to grow up because childish behavior will be rewarded superlatively.

It will be a few years before we see how these lessons really bear fruit.  But for once, we’d better hope like hell that kids aren’t paying attention.

 

 

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Second Amendment Follies, Part 1: An Inconvenient Clause

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Let’s be clear: Americans have a right to own guns. But it’s not a constitutional right. And it’s not a “God-given” right. It’s a right conferred by the rulings of a “conservative” Supreme Court, in a grotesquely distorted reading of the Second Amendment.

But in the interests of accuracy and satisfying curiosity, let’s consider the Second Amendment in more detail. We’ve touched on this topic in a previous discussion, but it was hardly exhaustive. In fact, it was quite cursory, and was designed to show that the amendment is a semantic mess that, at the very least, casts serious doubts on the gun culture’s claims of a constitutional right to be armed. And as long as there is one scintilla of doubt, then you cannot say (as many do) that there is an absolute right enshrined in the Constitution to tote a hogleg.

The gun culture tries to dance around the actual meaning of the Second Amendment in several ways. First of all, it simply ignores the first part of the sentence, the inconvenient explanation for its existence:

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…

And instead, gunsters just cut to the part they actually like…

…the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

You seriously will hear many of them simply quote that second half as representing the entire Second Amendment (as on that handy-dandy magnetic sign pictured above), perhaps followed by a haughty “what part of that don’t you understand?”

How about the part they omitted? The part which, as we mentioned before, could be construed as the actual subject of the sentence. The part which, whether one reads it as the subject or not, is placed at the beginning and is clearly crucial to understanding the Amendment’s meaning and purpose.

Even when they acknowledge this elephant in the living room, the gun fanatics try to diminish its importance. They often try to dismiss the opening as merely a “justification clause” while the second half is the actual “rights clause”; or alternatively, “prefatory clause”, and “operative clause”. Nice words, but they don’t change anything: the beginning clause still expresses the purpose and reason for the amendment being drafted in the first place: i.e., to ensure a “well-regulated militia”. The gun culture’s conclusion that “gun rights” were not meant to be limited to this purpose alone is based on clues extraneous to the amendment itself, and indeed extraneous to the constitution. (Incidentally, in strict grammarian usage, the two phrases referred to are not really “clauses”; but since that’s the label they’re commonly given, we won’t be sticklers on this point for the time being.)

Suppose you opened up a cookbook and found a passage like this:

A well-made fruitcake being necessary for a traditional Christmas celebration, you should make certain to have a supply of citron on hand.

Would you conclude that this sentence was written to encourage everyone to stockpile citron, all year long? Or would you conclude that it was written to help ensure a well-made fruitcake?

Another tactic the gun culture (and right-wing extremists in general) often employ is playing the “original intent” card; if the Constitution doesn’t say what they want it to, they try to discern what the framers really meant. They do this in part by just playing psychic, though they try to buttress their claims by scratching through an endless supply of documents for “historical context”.

Now certainly historical context is, up to a point, useful and even vital. It’s important, for instance, to understand what words like “militia” and “arms” meant to the framers who used them. But the “original intent” crowd often turn historical context into a bottomless pit by mining all manner of documents for clues that are really tangential to the point under consideration. I recently had someone try to argue with me, for instance, that the Civil War was really not about slavery because her great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy, and by god he had other motives, and if I would just read all the letters and other papers left by the other Southern peasants, I’d see that they had other reasons for fighting. No doubt. But they weren’t exactly the ones who made the decision to declare war, were they? The ones who did make the decision were quite unequivocal about their motive.

An excellent illustration of how the gun culture utilizes this tactic can be found in what is surely the ultimate compendium of gun culture propaganda: Gun Facts , which is intended to address every “myth” that has been, is being, or ever will be, perpetrated by the “gun control” advocates. It covers gun culture talking points of every possible breed, from mass shootings, to children and guns, to gun laws, to microstamping to concealed carry — and of course to the Second Amendment and court rulings as well. A sleek PDF of Gun Facts can be downloaded for free; and oh by the way while you’re at it, you also can purchase another book heavily marketed within its pages that betrays the real NRA agenda: drawing a bead on “liberals”.

Incidentally, there is a simple but quite reliable litmus test for gauging the probable reliability of any such source of gun “facts”; just check to see whether it places obeisant faith in the absurd “statistic” of 2.5 million defensive gun uses per annum. If it does, there’s an excellent chance it will be just as sloppy about the rest of its “facts”. Gun Facts does, and is. (It also fails another telling litmus test, parroting the claim that Nazi Germany “established gun control” in 1938.)

The main tactic the author uses in the “original intent” argument is to cite passages from several state constitutions (written before and after the U.S. Constitution) that declare residents of those states have the right to be armed for individual purposes. This supposedly demonstrates that the Second Amendment was drawn up with the same intention. See if you can follow the logic here: (a) Several states had constitutions that enshrined an individual right to “bear arms”; (b) the framers of the U.S. Constitution were familiar with these provisions; (c) they did not insert such a stipulation into the U.S. Constitution; (d) therefore, they meant to insert such a stipulation into the U.S. Constitution.

The author also mentions that during the deliberations on the Second Amendment, one senator proposed inserting the words “for the common defense”, but this suggestion was voted down. Evidently, he concludes that rejecting that wording also means a rejection of the concept. (In fact, “for the common defense” is, for one thing, redundant when you already have “well-regulated militia”).  And note the logic here: the absence of a phrase about the common defense means the whole concept is null and void, whereas the absence of a phrase about individual defense means this is clearly what the founders had in mind.

Not content with having shot himself in both feet, the author then turns around and shoots himself in the ass as well by quoting the first draft of the Second Amendment:

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.

Talk about an inconvenient clause. Why would there be a provision for conscientious objectors if the purpose of the amendment is to guarantee individuals the right to go deer hunting or gun down illegal immigrants invading their homes? Yes, this clause was eventually eliminated (after being retained in the second draft). And evidently, the Gun Facts author believes, in Orwellian fashion, erasing the text of it erases it from ever having existed at all. But if you’re talking about original intent, it’s hard to argue that the framers had private gun ownership in mind when they talked about military service and religious objections. It’s very clear that they were really talking about a well-regulated militia, whatever that means.

And just what that means is something we’ll be looking at in the next installment.

 

 

A Field Guide to Political Labels

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“Liberal”? “Conservative”? “Left-wing”? “Right-wing”? “Neocon”? “alt-Right”?”Progressive’? These are all terms that get thrown around quite a bit these days, along with several others that are considerably less complimentary (e.g., “libtard” “wingnut” and “snowflake“). They get used and misused and abused so much that their actual definitions are as blurred as the original shape of melted ice cream. So let’s see if we can sort them out, shall we? This is not going to be a comprehensive treatise, mind you; just a bare-bones approach to getting definitions straight. And yes, it will be rather subjective — but still quite accurate.

The two anchor categories are conservative and liberal. In broadest terms, conservative means cautious, resistant to change; and liberal means loose, generous, open to change. Neither is inherently a bad quality, nor are the two qualities inherently in conflict.  A person can be liberal in some situations and conservative in others; or both in different senses in the same situation. Both are, after all,  relative qualities. The conflict occurs only after we get more specific in ideological application — when we add “isms” and capital letters.

Conservatism

Among the best definitions of conservatism, in the political and ideological sense of the word, are surely these by Merriam-Webster:

2 a disposition in politics to preserve what is established
b a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change; specifically such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (such as retirement income or health-care coverage)
3the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change

Classic conservatism, then, is a devotion to tradition above all else. And this means that it is implicitly (and even explicitly) a reverence for hierarchy. In traditional conservatism, the rich are above the poor, males are above females, whites above blacks, religion above secularism, Christianity (in Western society) above other religions, and of course one’s own country above all others. Conservatives have been defenders of theocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, patriarchy and nationalism. They have championed slavery, segregation, strict gender roles, and all manner of class and caste systems.

One of the greatest contradictions of conservatism and its contemporary incarnations (which we’ll get to shortly) is that on the one hand they promote a draconian black-and-white approach to crime, encompassing the death penalty — the attitude that human nature cannot be improved, that people are either good or bad, and the bad apples are generally beyond reform. Yet on the other hand they promote a central role for religion in governance; and not only does Christianity at its best promote compassion and forgiveness, but Christian dogma hinges on the concept that human nature can be reformed drastically and instantaneously by the mere act of religious conversion.

Liberalism

The same lexicographers also have an excellent definition of (classic) liberalism:

a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy (see autonomy 2) of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (such as those involving race, gender, or class)

Liberal shares a the same roots as liberty; and liberalism is at its best a striving for liberty from oppression. Specifically, in political terms, classic liberalism (which was first used to designate a formal ideology probably in the early Nineteenth Century) aimed to throw off the yoke of the religious establishment and the aristocratic establishment, which often are intertwined. But even before the coinage, settlers came to America prompted by the former type of liberalism; and revolutionaries in America established a new nation prompted by the latter kind.

The removal of aristocratic and theocratic rule, of course, means that some other type of government structure must be installed in their place if you don’t want pure anarchy. And the criticism often leveled against liberalism is that the government structures themselves may become oppressive. Sure, that can happen. And if it does, that government is no longer liberal.

Progressivism

At some point, liberals realized that true freedom demands equality, and thus requires more than just eliminating sources of oppression; it also requires proactively making sure the playing field is level as possible for everyone.  You can’t achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number” by just letting things take care of themselves — because oddly enough, those born on the top rungs of society tend to do whatever it takes to stay there.

In other words, equality requires progressivism, which is often used interchangeably with liberalism. But while progressivism is liberal, liberalism in not necessarily progressive.  Officially declaring racial discrimination illegal is liberal. Taking practical measures to actually prevent it from happening is progressive.  An official Progressive Party flourished in the U.S. in the first half of the Twentieth Century; it was neither the beginning nor end of American progressivism, lower case. The American Revolution was not only distinctly liberal, but quite progressive. Likewise Social Security, the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, female suffrage and civil rights legislation.

Not all such measures are going to be effective, but at least liberals and progressives are willing to experiment.  Affirmative action was intended to address racial inequality, but proved itself to be problematic. Other measures fail because they are sabotaged by reactionaries (defined below). The informal movement which has been named (rather inappropriately) “political correctness” started as an effort to foster respect for other demographic groups by urging people to be mindful of their terminology and iconography. But it has been branded and spun as censorship and totalitarian “thought control”, which is quite the contrary of what it was supposed to be. (More about “political correctness” in a future discussion.)

One contemporary philosopher who recently critiqued “liberalism” (and he was really talking largely about progressivism) posited that it ultimately is doomed to failure, because if we keep improving the human condition, we eventually will reach a state at which no other improvement is possible. And wouldn’t that be terrible! But aside from the astronomically dubious chances that such a plateau ever could be achieved in the lifespan of the human race, the very premise hinges on the false assumption that progress travels in a straight line. In fact its course takes many backs and forths and zigzags and loops.  Who ever could have predicted, for instance, the progressive responses necessitated by the AIDS epidemic?

Radicalism

Although the word radical  gets injected into political discourse quite a bit, radicalism in not a political movement, nor is it even per se a political term.  It’s simply a modifier frequently attached to political terms.  It’s often used as a synonym for extreme , but technically it’s a bit more specific. The word is derived from a root meaning… well, root  (as is radish).

A radical approach, then, is one that aims to get to the root of something, totally root it out, and establish something else in its place from the roots up. An overthrow, a revolution, a new order. Once again, we can point to the American Revolution, which was not only liberal and progressive, but rather radical. Note, however, that it is by no means just liberals and progressives who are capable of being radical.

Left (wing) / Right (wing)

When representatives met to draft a new constitution during the French Revolution, the aristocrats were seated on the right and the commoners on the left.  This arrangement has filtered down into the figurative lexicon of political discourse ever since. And it’s unfortunate, because for one thing, it reinforces the attitude among conservative types (as if it needed reinforcing) that their position is all that matters — that they are, in that other sense of the word, always right. Conversely, non-traditionalists are viewed as being left out or left behind.

Many of us who happen to be southpaws are quite aware of this linguistic bias.  From the Latin word dexter meaning on the right, comes dexterity , meaning skilled or agile; while  the French gauche, meaning left, has come to mean crude or awkward.  And the Latin sinister meaning left or on the left has come to mean underhanded, malicious and downright evil. They’re merely words. you may say; but mere words do affect attitudes (which was the inspiration in part for “political correctness”).

Nowadays, when we speak of “left wing” or “right wing”, we’re generally referring to extremism — and not in a complimentary tone. If the wingers are especially extreme and unhinged they may be called “wingnuts” — which theoretically could be a loony at either end of the spectrum, but in practice the term is almost always applied to those on the right.

Wingnuts are people who spin separation of church and state as “taking God out of the schools (or courthouse, or whatever)”; who spin journalists’ reporting of facts that clash with right-wing convictions as “liberal bias” in the media; who spin abortion as “killing babies”; who spin protests against (Republican) presidents as “hating America”. And so on. And on and on. They often make a conspicuous display of “patriotic” gestures, and assail the patriotism of anyone who doesn’t copy them — indeed, they assail the patriotism of anyone who doesn’t concur with their beliefs. It’s also very characteristic of right-wing fanatics in any age to regard science as an enemy, and try to suppress scientific facts that undermine right-wing dogma — which is a great many facts.

Republican / Democrat

In our time, Democrats are known for dallying with interns and secretaries, while Republicans are known for dallying with underage boys — while lecturing about “family values”. Republicans are thought of as the party with no heart, while Democrats are thought of as the party with no spine. And not without some justification; certainly the Democrats are all too willing to compromise and cooperate, while Republicans regard cooperation and compromise as signs of weakness — after all, they’re “right” aren’t they?

Decades ago, Will Rogers quipped “I’m not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” The point is, alas, just as valid today. No matter how strong their platform or their candidate, Democrats have an uncanny knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

There’s no guarantee that Republicans will be conservative/ right-wing or that Democrats will be liberal/ progressive/ left-wing, but in both cases the odds are substantially increased. But this hasn’t always been the case, and certainly not on every issue; the names Republican and Democrat have been applied during the history of the U.S. to a wide range of ideological platforms. This is something that Republicans often forget (assuming that they ever learned it in junior high history class in the first place), particularly when they are accused of promoting racism. When that happens, they are likely to respond that, hey, it was the Democrats who fought to defend slavery in the Civil War — even though at other times these same Republicans are likely to deny that the Civil War was really about slavery at all.

What they are forgetting, or ignorant of, is that the two major parties have both altered their stances drastically since then, particularly in regard to race matters — on which they pretty much have exchanged positions altogether. Portraying today’s Republicans as champions of emancipation because a party with the same name fought for it a century and a half ago is rather like saying that Henry Fonda must have opposed the Vietnam imbroglio, since Jane did. It’s inexcusable to be that ignorant about either your own party or the opposition.

Republicans have even been known to recast themselves as champions of civil rights in the Sixties, since a larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (82% to 69% in the Senate, 80% to 63% in the House). But these figures are misleading. Actually, a larger number of Democrats voted for the Act (46 to 27 in the Senate, 153 to 136 in the House); but the percentages are reversed because there were a lot more Democrats and many of them hailed from Dixie. In fact, it was geographic origin and not party affiliation that was the overriding factor. When you break the parties down by geography, Democrats scored higher in every division. Among Northern states, it was 98% to 84% in the Senate, and 95% to 85% in the House. Even among Southerners, 5% of Democrats in the Senate and 9% in the House voted for the measure, compared to a grand total of ZERO Republicans.

Incidentally, the proper designation is “Democratic Party”, and not “Democrat Party”. The latter is a haughtily dismissive appellation applied by right-wingers only. And come to think of it, “Grand Old Party” is arguably a rather inappropriate nickname for the newer of the two parties. All of this betrays the Republican Party’s chronic problem with getting facts straight.

Reactionary

Another holdover from the French Revolution,  reactionary describes an individual who wants to take things back to the way they were in the past. While this word, like wingnut, theoretically could be applied to a fanatic on either end of the ideological spectrum, it applies in practice almost exclusively to those on the extreme right.

Neoconservatism

These days, when people talk about “conservatism”, they almost always mean neoconservatism , which has dominated the Republican Party since at least the advent of Ronald Reagan. While true conservatism is cautious about change and clings to the status quo, neoconservatism actually seeks severe change — by reversing change that has been effected by liberalism and progressivism. It is, in other words, rather radical, which is actually the opposite of conservative (that’s why I so often put “conservative” in quotation marks).

Neoconservatives, in short, are today’s reactionaries. You will often hear them use oxymorons like conservative movement and even conservative revolution. Neocons want to take us back to the Golden Age of the Fifties, as their warped memories portray it: a time when there was no drug abuse, no welfare, no secularism, no homosexuality, no black power movement, no violence, no crime, no abortion — after all, these things didn’t receive nearly so much media attention, so apparently they must not have existed, right?

Furthermore, they attribute the existence of that lost Cold War Shangri-La to a raft of incredibly silly factors: capital punishment, parents spanking kids, enforced prayer in schools, people attending church more frequently, tamer pop music, shorter hairstyles for men, censorship of profanity in the media, etc., etc., etc. Neocons frequently have been known to speak glowingly of Joe McCarthy, and to excoriate the decadent era of the Sixties, which ruined everything. Above all, they abhor liberalism (or what they perceive as liberalism) as the supreme evil, a plot to destroy America.

Still, neocons do have many values in common with traditional conservatives: they value hierarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, theocracy, patriarchy, nationalism and warmongering, to name a few.  But they are often more subtle about how they promote these supposed virtues. Whereas conservatives in the old days blatantly argued for racism on the grounds that the white race was superior,  neocons are more likely to just deny that their policies promote racism — and indeed to deny that racism even exists.

Neocons also like to pursue the golden fleece of “limited government”, but how they (don’t) put it into practice is quite another matter. Contrary to the persistent spin, it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are the party of “tax and spend“. And not only do they pass excessive legislation, but much of it is of an intrusive nature, aimed at restricting such private matters as sexuality and reproductive freedom, self-expression and freedom of (from) religion.

When they hawk the fool’s gold of “deregulation”, they are being either disingenuous or inexcusably naive — as if they believe that if they can eliminate government controls, human nature will become perfect overnight, and we will be living in a Star Trek utopia.  But as law professor Joel Bakan sums it up so nicely:

When you deregulate, you’re not reducing the state’s involvement one iota. You’re merely shifting whose interest government is acting for.  Every time the state rolls back standards for environmental quality, worker safety or consumer protection in the name of deregulation, what’s actually happening is that the state is creating more rights for corporations, and throwing more power behind the enforcement of those rights. In a deregulated economy, the state remains heavily involved in the economy, but now on the side of corporations rather than on the side of citizens and the environment. (Utne magazine, June 2006)

Couldn’t have said it any better.

Alt-Right

The Alt-Right (or alt/Right, as it is often written) is a very new faction, or rather a new term to describe an ideological sector that has been around in some form for a long time. It is an even more extreme form of neoconservatism that openly embraces white supremacy, white nationalism, islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia, homophobia, male chauvinism, and violent memes directed toward its perceived enemies. It has wormed its way into the Republican mainstream, and was instrumental in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. And no, there is no such thing as the “Alt-Left”.

Libertarian/ libertarian

Yes, there is a difference. The word libertarian, lower case, has been around since the Eighteenth Century. Like liberal, it shares a genealogy with liberty, which was originally its primary focus. In short, libertarians originally were essentially the same as liberals. In fact, the two words have been used as near-synonyms as recently as 1960 or so.

But the official Libertarian Party, capitalized, is a rather different animal, though not an incompatible one. It was formed in 1971 (essentially by one man), largely because some people felt that modern liberalism had strayed too far afield from its roots. And while it adopts some positions that are considered “liberal” — supporting same-sex marriage, ending capital punishment — it has others that are considered more right-wing — abolishing the IRS (not necessarily an exclusively right-wing proposal) and championing “gun rights”.

In practice, however, Libertarianism tends to fall discernibly on the right end of the spectrum — indeed, 12 percent of Republicans identify themselves as having Libertarian sympathies, compared to 6 percent of Democrats. You’ll hear Libertarians attack “liberalism” fairly often, but how often do you hear them attack “conservatism”? It’s quite likely that one of the main reasons the Libertarian Party has been unable to establish itself as a viable third party alternative is that it has been unable to distinguish itself sufficiently from the Republican Party.

Like many Republicans, Libertarians preach the virtues of “limited government” — some have even advocated for the privitization of police forces. But while Republicans tend to oppose government programs that enact progressive reform because they enact progressive reform, Libertarians tend to oppose them because they are government programs. It has been said jokingly (?) that Libertarians regard it as government overreaching if the city picks up their garbage. The chances are pretty good that you’ll hear them spout the “anti-collectivist” twaddle of the Ayn Rand cult.  Moreover, they often can be found in bed with the NRA; and infatuation with weaponry is (usually) a distinctly right-wing trait.

Nonetheless, the wide ideological swath among Libertarians indicates that they tend to be much broader minded and more tolerant (not to mention better informed) than Republicans, and definitely more so than neocons/ reactionaries.  But they do have their share of birthers, creationists, anti-vaxxers, climategaters and flat earthers.

Socialism

In the current climate, you’re most likely to hear socialist used as a term of disparagement, applied as a knee-jerk reaction to Democrats/ liberals/ progressives. But while socialism does utilize the concept of liberalism — and even progressivism — it is not in itself a political ideology. It is, rather, an economic ideology. The basic idea of socialism is that the people control the means of production, and the proceeds go to benefit both the common good and individual citizens in proportion to their contribution and/or need. Of course you need some kind of government system to make it function, but there is all manner of leeway about what kind of system. Accordingly, you have many different flavors of socialism: e.g., Democratic Socialism, Libertarian Socialism, Green Socialism, Revolutionary Socialism, Fabian Socialism, Market Socialism, Utopian Socialism and even Christian Socialism.

No nation has an entirely socialist system, but a great many nations, including the U.S., have long employed socialist ideals to some extent. And several nations are nearly totally socialist, and despite the potential drawbacks (high taxes, for one), it has worked out rather well for them.

Communism

Once the favored bogeyman of reactionaries, the commie label isn’t quite so much in vogue as it once was. But by no means has it gone away. It’s still often applied as an insult to anyone who is left-leaning, and often is construed as synonymous with socialist. But there are many important differences, with perhaps the most important being that under communism, private property is abolished and replaced by the concept of “usership”. While both systems in theory strive for equality among classes, and even a class-free society, the reality is that under communism there is equality only among the working class, but there is still a ruling class, with an iron ceiling between the two.

Another distinction that gets perhaps more press than it deserves is that a communist system is officially atheist — which has prompted many reactionaries to conclude that since communism is atheist, atheism must be communist.  Furthermore, they conclude that atheism itself is an ideology, and that it is directly responsible for the atrocities committed by (nominally) communist regimes.

In reality, communism has embraced atheism precisely because atheism is not an ideology. Communist rejection of religion is based not just on its being a competing ideology, but also on its being a competing power structure that wrests away a portion of control from the state, and perpetuates the class structure that communism seeks to eradicate. The great Communist Messiah Karl Marx indicated that he believed religion would die a natural death if communism flourished. Accordingly, there was no reason for the state to be overtly hostile to religion or persecute its practitioners  — although that little wrinkle was certainly added by some of his later disciples. That said, there is such a thing as Christian communism.

Although communism is, like socialism, primarily an economic system, one could make a much stronger case that it is also a system of governance. Because while socialism can be practiced under a wide variety of governments, communism demands central control.  The decisions are not made by democratic process, but by an oligarchy, a dictatorship, a one-party state. Wealth is not distributed for the benefit of the people but for the benefit of the state. One could also argue (quite successfully) that pure communism has never been actually applied. Every country that has ever had a go at it has devolved into oppressive, even genocidal totalitarianism. It is the prime example of a system that begins with liberal impulses and morphs into something that is the opposite of liberalism.

Fascism

Finally we come to the f-word, which is used almost as often as the other one. It has become the default smear to brand anyone whose policies you don’t like as a fascist. In the past, there was at least a general understanding that fascism is historically a form of right-wing extremism. But in recent years neocons, in their tireless quest to demonize “liberals” above all else, have undertaken a propaganda campaign to rewrite history and proclaim that liberalism spawned fascism. Just for good measure, they also have declared that fascism spawned liberalism. Seriously. Meanwhile, they also brand “liberals” as communists, apparently blissfully unaware that communists and fascists were on opposite sides of the Great War. (We’ll address the myth of “liberal fascism” in the future.)

As with other ideologies, there are different kinds of fascism — though the two main varieties, at least historically, have been the Italian (under Mussolini) and the German (Nazism, which is what most people associate with fascism). Perhaps the main difference is that Nazism promoted a strict class structure, and the inherent superiority/ inferiority of races and classes. Both varieties believed in fierce nationalism, strict gender roles, warmongering, corporatism and — most important — absolute dictatorship, even to the extent of the state controlling media.

The United States has long incorporated certain hints of fascism. But never has it done so to such an extent as its installation in the White House of a white nationalist, isolationist, dictatorial corporatist.

…………………………………………

And there you have it, a rundown on the primary labels and categories of political ideology as practiced in the U.S. today. It’s quite possible, however, that in a few years this list could look very different.

 

New Year’s Message: The Greatest Offense

Doctore Who

I’ll admit it: I have committed the greatest offense of them all. And I did so willingly and gladly. Many, many times.  It’s an offense, indeed, that is the primary purpose of this blog. It’s an offense that can lose you “friends” and elicit a great deal of hostility toward you. It’s an offense that can prompt many in the media to revile you as public enemy number one.

What is this unforgivable sin? It’s challenging people’s beliefs.

Most people do not want their beliefs challenged. In fact, most people are more defensive of their beliefs than they are of their homes, their families, their money. There’s a little speech in the play Inherit the Wind in which schoolteacher Bertram Cates notes that because he dared to teach evolution in school, the townspeople look at him with more hatred in their eyes than they would if he were a hardened criminal. There may not have been so much animosity toward Cates’ real-life counterpart, John Thomas Scopes, but he was put on trial for teaching scientific fact that conflicted with fundamentalist dogma.

Literally nothing is more important to most people than holding onto their beliefs at all costs. In 1954, an Illinois housewife named Dorothy Martin proclaimed that God had given her a message that the world would end on December 21 of that year. But the faithful would be saved by a UFO. She assembled a sizable cult of followers who prepared for the end. And when neither the end nor the spacecraft did come, were they deterred? On the contrary, they were more steadfast in their beliefs than ever, declaring that because of their faith, God had decided to spare the entire planet.

Writing about this phenomenon in 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance, which is now a standard fixture in the lexicon of popular discourse. And for very good reason. Typically, when people experience cognitive dissonance — i.e., when the facts conflict with their beliefs — they alter their facts rather than alter their beliefs. Just as the UFO cult did.

As Doctor Who observed almost exactly 40 years ago:

You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views.

I make it a point to avoid trying to convince anyone of anything. Because people do not want to be convinced of anything except what they already believe. And confronting them with contrary information only causes discord. The best you can do is put information out there for anyone who’s interested and hope it eventually trickles down to those who most need to hear it.  Challenge beliefs, but not in the face of the believers.

For many centuries, virtually everyone in Europe believed, because of the story of Adam and Eve, that women had more ribs than men. Until around 1543. When somebody finally got around to actually counting them.

Here’s hoping this will be the year when people start counting ribs.

The Great American Outrage Industry

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As mentioned in a previous post, almost everybody has heard about the NFL protests spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick. And almost everybody has heard from people who consider Kaepernick an ungrateful un-American bratty commie librul traitor who is, somehow or other, being disrespectful to America’s military veterans. But relatively very few people hear that a great many veterans are in fact quite supportive of him and the other protesters. Why this discrepancy?

In a nutshell, it’s because social media (and to a very large and increasing degree, media, period) is not fueled by messages of support. It’s fueled by outrage, which has proven to be a highly profitable industry over the past few decades.  A certain flatulent radio personality whose name rhymes with “hush” was the pace-setter for this industry starting in the eighties; but even before him, it was pioneered by the likes of Wally George, Joe Pyne, Morton Downey, and going way back, Father Charles Coughlin.

Purveyors of outrage aren’t primarily concerned about how accurate their claims are. Nor are they concerned about how cherry-picked their facts are, nor how slanted their presentation is. Their big overriding interest is provoking a reaction. And they will even nudge that reaction along by raising their voices, pounding on their desks and, in general, behaving like charismatics at a tent revival. It’s not about information or ideas. It’s all about rage and hate.

This has always been the case. But in more recent times, the gods of demagoguery have plunked a huge gift into the laps of the propagandists and manipulators. Social media, and particularly Facebook, are in many ways the ideal vessels for the dissemination of toxic ideological bullshit. This is brought home quite forcefully by a couple of recent TED talks.

In one of them, geek philosopher Tristan Harris discusses how tech companies are competing for dollars by competing for your attention. And the most effective way to get and keep your attention is to promote outrage.

 

The other TED talk comes from sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who warns that we are building a dystopia just so consumers (that’s us) can click on ads. That, for social media itself, is the real payoff — the promotion of advertising. When teamed with the demagogues’ campaign to foster outrage, it’s a powerful combination that manipulates public opinion and action to a greater extent, and in more subtle ways, than most of us would ever imagine.

 

What complicates the situation even more is that at present there is, as at no other time in memory and probably in U.S. history, legitimate reason, especially for Americans, to be outraged.  The nature and the actions of the current regime in Washington, as well as the social forces that allowed it to seize power in the first place, are more than enough to make us fume.  But here’s the problem. There is, among much of the American public, a tendency to dismiss such outrage, thanks to the Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome.

If you mention how disturbed you are by the current White House Occupant, his supporters are likely to respond, “Well, hey, we put up with Obama for 8 years, so you will survive T—p. Get over it.”

Of course, that’s the hugest false equivalence in the galaxy.  A typical sin for which Obama was savagely attacked was using the wrong kind of mustard on his hamburger. No, really. In contrast, the current W.H.O. is calling Nazis “very fine people” and bringing the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war with a puerile pissing contest. But you will get nowhere with his supporters trying to point out these differences. And you will certainly get nowhere expressing outrage.

You’re likely to find that your Facebook friends fall into one of two camps. On the one hand, there are the full-fledged members of the Cult Of Trumpery — who, when you vent about the current W.H.O. will promptly respond that they’re delighted and relieved to have a real  president for a change, after that socialist Muslim Kenyan atheist, and besides, emails Benghazi make America great again.

Then on the other hand, there are those who have their eyes wide open — perhaps too much for their own peace of mind. They’ve already been on the receiving end of a great deal of disturbing information, so much that they feel shell-shocked, and may even be tuning it out to the point of taking a hiatus from social media.

But that’s exactly what the current regime is counting on. They benefit greatly when the public is either uninformed or docile or preferably both.

It’s a difficult balancing act, to be sure. You want to help people stay informed, but you don’t want them to become so numb that they no longer hear what you’re saying. And you don’t want them to dismiss you as just another angry voice in a whole beehive of them.

So yes, go ahead and post troubling information on Facebook. But be very selective — realize that most unpleasant news will be something that your friends already have heard or easily can find out. No need rubbing it in. Stick to highlighting tidbits that few people would be aware of otherwise. Temper them with hope, humor and good will. And spread them out, separated by unrelated social media posts like… well, photos of your cat doing tricks or something.

Above all, avoid delivering huge chunks of unremitting outrage. Remember that when you do, the beast is feeding off your angst. And that beast is getting very fat indeed.

 

Vanessa and Her Media Bias Chart

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As my  schedule puts me behind in posting original material, I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to a lady named Vanessa, if you’re not already familiar with her. She is an attorney in Colorado who writes a modest little blog called All Generalizations Are False, with which I am quite impressed.  Its centerpiece, at least for the time being, is a chart that lays out bias and reliability among the major U.S. media outlets.

We live in a very visually-oriented world. You can hear and read a lot about media bias, but for many people, nothing helps sort it all out like this visual aid, which is informative, easy to follow, and pleasing to the eye.

It’s likely that anyone who sees it will quibble about the accuracy of the placement of one or more of the outlets thereon. I myself would have placed National Review both farther right and farther down the scale of reliability; but then this is based on my own personal experiences with it and its editor (which I really must tell you about one day) rather than a systematic examination such as Vanessa has conducted. She notes that she has received more feedback about CNN than anything else, and she even devotes a separate post to this.

There are also other posts on her site worth reading, mostly concerning observations about the media. I have found Vanessa’s writing to be consistently informed, insightful and eloquent. I look forward to reading more of it.

How to Curb Gun Violence (Really)

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Mass shootings like those in Las Vegas and Sulphur Springs, terrible as they are, are only a small taste of the carnage that goes on in America on a daily basis, courtesy of firearms. Most of it slips under the media radar; it’s only when a bunch of people are killed all at once that the lead holocaust is considered newsworthy. It’s only then that the media start talking about what can be done about it.

And the line of thinking from most media talking heads goes like this. If the shooter was a Muslim, we need to tighten immigration laws. If the shooter was Hispanic, we need to build a wall. If the shooter was black, we need more prisons and tougher laws. If the shooter was white, thoughts and prayers will do the trick. And above all, protect the Second Amendment.

And the causes of all this violence? Well, in addition to immigration, some of the causes that have been seriously suggested are: video games; Hollywood movies; Barack Obama; day cares; the “liberal media” (hey, I guess if the violence isn’t reported, maybe it won’t exist); mental illness; antidepressants (nothing like hedging your bets); abortion; “taking God out of our schools” (not sure how that’s even possible, since God is supposedly everywhere); “gun control”; not beating kids enough (to teach them violence is wrong, don’t you know); not enough guns out there; and, of course, the victims of the shootings.

The actual causes of gun violence are varied, complex and even to an extent inscrutable. So are the remedies. But as difficult as solving the problem may be, there are really just a few simple principles that we need to keep in mind.

1. Weave a web of regulation

Quite simply, a society should regulate the hell out of firearms. There’s no valid excuse for not doing so, no matter how much distaste you have for “big guvmint” cramping your right to shoot things up.  One of the gun culture’s popular sayings is “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” — which is irrelevant, since regulation is not about “outlawing”.  When you are required to be tested before obtaining a driver’s license. and stick to the speed limit, and drive in the right lane, does that mean that the government is trying to “take away” your car?

Regulation is not the final solution, by any means; on the contrary, it’s just the first step, a necessary foundation.  It’s something that we can’t afford not to do, if we want to avoid a broken windows effect that invites crime and carelessness.

Of course whenever you propose firearm regulation,  someone is bound to respond with another old tried and false big fat floppy red herring: “Criminals don’t care about laws”. Well, their victims might not “care about” bullets, either, but they’re still just as dead. Who the hell cares what criminals “care about”?  The real questions are (a) what kind of message do we want to convey, and (b) do gun regulations (“gun control” in the haughtily dismissive vernacular) help reduce crime.

The evidence is very strong that they do, both when we examine states within the U.S. and when we examine countries around the globe. Japan, to take just one example, has very strict laws about types of firearms allowed, registration, background checks, renewal periods and penalties. And it has, on average, about 30 gun deaths per year (and as few as 6). In contrast, the U.S. (with a population about two and a half times as large) has about 30,000 gun deaths per year.

2. Think long term

Still, even if the U.S. adopts the same gun policies as Japan, that doesn’t mean that America will suddenly become Japan.  They are very different nations with very different histories and cultures.  Japan has a culture of respect and courtesy and a constitution that explicitly states the nation will never again resort to aggressive warfare.  The U.S., on the other hand, has a long tradition of people believing (incorrectly) that they have a constitutional and/or god-given right to build up their own private arsenals without restriction.  And a long history of brutally enslaving and exterminating entire races of people — with the aid of guns.

We here in the U.S. have developed a mythos that brandishes the almighty gun as the infallible key to conquest and power. That mindset won’t be changed overnight. And the effects of gun legislation or any other reforms cannot be expected to manifest immediately.

3. Get creative

When we talk about measures to curb gun violence, we’re not just talking about “gun control”. To tackle a problem of this scope and complexity, we really have to think outside the ammo box. Strangely enough, one of the most interesting proposals came in jest(?) from a comedian. Actually, that’s not so strange; comedians tend to possess the kind of insight that politicians and pundits rarely do. In any case, this is what Chris Rock said in 1999:

You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control… I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars… people would think before they killed somebody if a bullet cost five thousand dollars. “Man, I would blow your fucking head off– if I could afford it. I’m gonna get me another job, I’m going to start saving some money, and you’re a dead man. You’d better hope I can’t get no bullets on layaway”. So even if you got shot by a stray bullet, you wouldn’t have to go to no doctor to get it taken out. Whoever shot you would take their bullet back, like “I believe you got my property”.

Doesn’t it indeed seem logical that making bullets prohibitively expensive would reduce the number of times people fired them? Furthermore, the extra fees could be in the form of taxes that could go toward further steps to reduce gun violence and/or to clean up the mess it leaves. And what about target practice, you ask? Well, with today’s technology, it surely would be possible for virtual bullets to substitute adequately for the real thing.

And for that matter, technology offers a wealth of other possibilities. What about, as a random suggestion, mandating that guns be designed so they only can fire when handled by an authorized user. The point is that there are many, many different ways to approach the problem.

4. Radically alter public (mis)perceptions about firearms

And now we come to the portion of the discussion most pertinent to the content of this blog. Even if the Chris Rock Doctrine proves to be impractical, it at least makes a very important point: in order to combat gun violence, you have to condition the public to think about guns very differently. If you think this suggestion reeks of Orwellianism or totalitarian efforts to “reeducate” citizens, what you need to bear in mind is that the public already has been conditioned, for many generations, to have certain perceptions about guns — and those perceptions are quite faulty.

We have inherited the archetype of the rugged frontiersman who lived and died by his gun,  lionization of the screen personae of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood,  and a false perception that an “armed good guy” has a good chance of stopping an “armed bad guy”. A great deal of what the public believes about guns has come from popular entertainment. This is not to suggest that Hollywood is to blame for the violence, but it is to suggest that Hollywood could play a role in addressing it.

Many people seriously think it’s practical to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand. Most Americans don’t even recognize the sound of a gunshot when they hear it, because they’ve been conditioned by entertainment media to associate gunfire with a totally different sound (an unfortunate fact that could affect how quickly a person can respond and get to safety in an active shooter scenario). In the movies, the good guy mows down the bad guy with both six-guns blazing (which in real life is a difficult feat to pull off); the bad guy dies immediately and the good guy rides off into the sunset without a care in the world.

Imagine instead a film industry that portrays gun violence more realistically and responsibly. Imagine studios that stop promoting action films by using publicity photos that make guns appear sexy and glamorous. Imagine an entertainment industry that routinely gives some indication of how much gunshot victims often suffer before they die, and how long it takes them to do so. Imagine more realistic portrayal of the emotional recoil that people feel when they fatally shoot someone — an effect that can haunt them the rest of their lives. Imagine this knowledge uniformly transmitted through awareness programs at schools like Straight Talk About Risks (STAR). Can we afford to be any more lax with kids about the dangers of guns than about drinking or drugs or sex?

If we instill in the public what horrific deadly implements guns can be (which is one of the purposes of enacting stiff gun laws), chances are not so many people will automatically reach for one to settle a dispute over a parking space. Ironically, we can help reduce gun violence by respecting guns — respecting them for what they are rather than worshiping them for what they are not.

5. Spread civility

Even if everybody had a gun, there would be considerably less violence if everyone behaved civilly. That’s a big pipe dream, of course; there is no way everybody will ever behave civilly, which is precisely why it’s a bad idea for most people to be armed.

The gun lobby likes to say that “an armed society is a polite society”. but the facts just don’t support such a thesis. Americans are armed to the teeth, but America is a seething cauldron of anger and rudeness. In fact, there is some evidence that gun ownership actually contributes to this animosity. In any case, it makes the anger and rudeness far more dangerous. The hostility quotient would be high enough even if left to its own devices. But it’s very far from being left on its own; it’s constantly being amped up by a virtual army of demagogues saturating every corner of American media and American culture. And it certainly doesn’t help matters any that one of them is currently in the White House.

Again, the U.S. will never become Japan. But by exercising courtesy as much as possible, we should be able to defuse many of the situations that lead to violence, and thus lead to shots being fired. Arming a society certainly doesn’t make it polite, but being more disarming can make it a bit more dis-arming.

6. Tame the Testosterone

You hear a lot about mental illness being the cause of mass shootings. Well, it does play a role. But it’s clearly not the only factor or even the most important factor.  There are approximately as many mentally ill women as men. But guess what? All the mass shooters, with one exception, have been male.  In fact more than 75 percent of all violent acts are committed by males, and about 90 percent of killers are male.

Maybe some of this is biological. When my son was a toddler, we made a point of keeping him away from “war toys”, and minimizing his media exposure to weaponry. But he still went around pretending to shoot things with whatever object he could pick up.  Maybe there’s something about having a Y chromosome that makes a person attracted to lethal phallic symbols.

But it’s also unquestionably cultural.  (My son soon outgrew his armament phase, unlike many other males, and as an adult has shown no interest in guns at all.) Violence, and particularly an addiction to guns, is largely learned just as misogyny is. And the two tend to go hand in hand. Is it just coincidence that committers of gun violence frequently have a strictly patriarchal worldview, and often a history of domestic abuse? Is it just coincidence that terrorist cultures are also sexist cultures? Is it just coincidence that the U.S., which is a lead-sprayer’s paradise, is now discovering a widespread, deep-rooted epidemic of sexual harassment that has been right under its nose all along?

Bullet Points

The gun lobby incessantly promotes an obscene, and obscenely profitable, lie: the pulp fiction fantasy that guns make you safer. (This is often bolstered by mythical “statistics” about defensive gun use.) In fact, having a gun multiplies several times the odds that you will be the victim of a crime and/or be shot yourself.  You may assume (as many gun enthusiasts apparently do) that probability is for wusses, and you’ll beat the odds, by god. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to be right. But you might want to consider that guns and gun incidents don’t just affect gun owners; they affect potentially anyone the owner — or a recipient of his bullets — comes in contact with.

It would greatly behoove us to reduce and limit the number of guns in circulation. It should be at least as hard to get a gun as it is to get an abortion,  and their use should be at least as stringently controlled as the use of automobiles.  But we also need to radically alter how the public thinks about guns. And we need to clean up cultural garbage of more than one kind.

All of this constitutes a tall order, and we need to be in it for the long haul. But the benefits would be well worth the effort and minor inconvenience.