A Few Words About Events In Charlottesville

Given the superheated national dialogue regarding the conflict, violence, injuries, and deaths surrounding the “Unite The Right” rally that turned a lovely college town in Virginia into a battleground, I approach this topic with some trepidation. I worry that offering my thoughts will turn me into a target for trolls. I am frustrated that being a white male turns my opinions on many topics into an opportunity for someone to chastise me for my white privilege—which is a fairly annoying way to tell me that my viewpoints are not worth considering. I am concerned that somebody whom I have never met and who knows nothing about my life, my experiences, or my values will “dox” me, enable harassment at my home and workplace, and brand me as a bigot and hater around the world thanks to the global reach of social media—leaving me with absolutely no hope of redeeming myself through reasoned discussion.

Deep breath….

  1. The white supremacists marching and shouting in Charlottesville—all 500 of them, according the Associated Press—need to engage in some serious soul-searching. If these kinds of twisted and hateful thoughts are your life’s preoccupation, you’ve got some major personal issues to resolve.
  2. The bonehead who drove his car into a crowd deserves nothing but our contempt.
  3. The young woman who was killed is a tragic victim. My condolences go out to her family and friends.
  4. The deaths of two police officers in a helicopter crash is a senseless, unnecessary accident that diminishes us all.
  5. Any attempt to use these terrible events for political advantage should be resisted. This will do absolutely nothing but harden hearts and close minds.
  6. As impossible as it may be for some to believe, the vast majority of Americans are reasonable, caring, and respectful people who find it immensely frustrating that the idiotic actions of the very few are consuming the attention of the many. It is also worth asking whether the intense interest of the mass media in this kind of moronic behavior further encourages and legitimizes it.
  7. Larger lessons about the attitudes of our nation cannot be gleaned from the actions of a tiny group of losers. Just as I derived no useful understanding about America or Americans from the sniper murders of five Dallas police officers last year, I see the confrontation in Charlottesville as nothing more than an example of the sad power of crazy, stupid, and angry people to hurt the innocent.
  8. I agree with a quote widely attributed to M.K. Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” As tempting—and perhaps personally satisfying—as it might be for the “Antifa” (Anti-Fascist) counter-demonstrators to punch, kick, and shove those espousing hatred, it is an urge that must be resisted. Of course, those lining up to fight back against idiocy might find this terribly unfair, but if you want to occupy the moral high ground, you have to demonstrate more restraint and maturity than the average six year old child.

The big picture moral of the story here seems straightforward enough. We need to keep in mind that those who are lost, angry, and embittered can cause great harm to others. Community mental health services might help some get their lives back on track, but most cuckoos are destined to remain cuckoos no matter what we may try to do to help them. Sad to say, therapy and medication have limited power to change hearts and minds warped by hatred.

In the final analysis we best serve ourselves and the interests of our nation by being alert to problems, open to thoughtful discussion, and firm in our resolve to never let fringe groups dominate our public spaces or private thoughts. Giving too much attention and credence to the rantings of extremists of any sort gives them much more power over our lives than they deserve. We should obviously not ignore virulent racists for the simple reason that we should never ignore any problem in our communities, but we need to avoid generalizing the bizarre and hurtful behavior of a few individuals to our entire country and its people because by so doing we only create problems where they might not exist, turning all interactions into ones fraught with suspicion or fear—and that would be a victory for those whose lives are consumed by hatred.

 

 

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Doom and Gloom For The Democrats

Over the span of human history individuals and groups have found it advantageous to predict disaster. A sense of impending catastrophe motivates your followers, creates some temporary group cohesion, and calls into question the intelligence and motivations of those who are against you. If you can convince others that the world as we know it is about to end, the resulting crisis atmosphere also bestows enormous power to both manipulate and intimidate your opponents to reach your desired ends.

There are, however, two problems inherent in this approach. If the world doesn’t end in a reasonably short time, those who were willing to temporarily line up behind you are apt to quickly lose all faith because they think you a fool. Worse yet, if the disaster you predicted is not averted, those who put their trust in your skills and judgment will banish you from the tribe.

Now that we are finishing the seventh month of the Trump presidency, I believe we are seeing this dynamic play out—in a big way.

Watching the continuing vilification of Hillary Clinton since last November has been as transfixing as a train wreck. Her transformation from putative President-Elect to pariah has been both quick and merciless. Those who once touted her competence and celebrated her nomination are now often openly contemptuous of both her record and campaign. As comforting as the fervent belief in Russian chicanery is for many Democrats who are still shell-shocked by the election results and pining away for impeachment, the legacy of Hillary Clinton will always be that she somehow lost the election to a man who was widely considered unelectable—and embodies the repudiation of their party’s core beliefs. A fall from grace so swift and precipitous is almost without precedent in American politics.

In addition, President Trump’s dogged pursuit of his agendas on trade, immigration, healthcare, regulation, and the environment in the face of nearly universal opposition from the entrenched government bureaucracy and mainstream media has provided an instructive lesson regarding the limitations of crisis creation. Although this early phase of Trump’s administration has been an incredible uphill slog with a mix of both victories and defeats, the self-regarding Washington bubble is rapidly deflating. After all the supremely confident pre-election assurances that the changes Trump advocated would lead to instant and total catastrophe, the Democratic Party doomsayers seem stupefied. The facts that the sun still rises, jobs are being both created and reclaimed, and the lives of those outside of Washington-area zip codes are, by and large, either unaffected or improved since the Inauguration continues to erode their tattered credibility—and leaves them scrambling for a new message.

Consequently, Democrats face an existential question: If your leader has failed you and the predicted disaster has not occurred and validated your predictions, where do you go from here? This is clearly the problem that is roiling the Democratic Party at the moment—and causing a lot of doom and gloom among the Party’s faithful. Even worse, Bernie Sanders’ true believers and the stubborn remnants of the business-friendly Clinton wing are engaged in a self-destructive battle that does little to advance a coherent and compelling message—which is why no one seems to be able to understand where the Democratic Party now stands. Wistful efforts to anoint blank slate candidates such as Senator Kamala Harris are only further evidence of the ideological confusion that must be somehow crafted into a winning platform for 2018 and beyond. Winning Democratic leadership must come from the trenches—not a high-priced fundraiser in the Hamptons.

Waiting for a miracle—a pile of Russian gold in Donald Trump’s garage or a birth certificate proving that he was born in Moscow (wouldn’t that be ironic?)—is not going to save the Democratic Party. Nor is it a good idea for leadership to continually denounce all the remaining Democratic apostates who are still pro-choice, work somewhere other than a tech company, government agency, or non-profit organization, and (gasp!) sometimes meekly suggest that personal responsibility is more helpful than government handouts.

To fashion a winning coalition the Democratic Party needs new leaders who will rebuild trust that transcends party lines, offer solutions that are affordable, empower individuals rather than government or interest groups, and include rather than divide. Whether this is possible in the short term is questionable given the internecine divisions that now exist within the Party, but one can only hope that it will somehow be possible—someday soon.

Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

To give the 1960’s countercultural guru and drug enthusiast Dr. Timothy Leary his due, he claimed his most famous saying—from which this commentary takes its title—was not meant to advocate a life of addled indolence. There is, however, little doubt that some variation of his advice has taken hold in a great many corners of American society, and even Cheech and Chong would be shocked at where we are today.

A recent article in the Washington Post contained these terrifying statistics about America’s current disastrous epidemic of drug abuse:

“In 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, heroin deaths alone surpassed gun homicides for the first time. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs. A recent federal study found that prescription painkillers are now more widely used than tobacco.”

The article goes on to note that prescription overdose deaths have been rising since 2000 despite state and federal efforts to crack down on the abuse of these drugs.

It would, of course, be impossible to not point a finger at the pharmaceutical industry. Their aggressive marketing of all manner of drugs to cure every side effect of living our normal daily lives has been disingenuous at best—and outright quackery at worst. Although improvements in medications have made many diseases and maladies more bearable and even provided cures for some which were previously a death sentence, we have also been sold the notion that annoying or inconvenient variations in human behavior or function are now problems worthy of a visit to the doctor—and more and more of our lives are now wrapped up in gulping pills to cure more and more newly discovered “illnesses”.

Is your child is too rambunctious? We’ve got a pill for that! Are you shy around strangers? We’ve got a medication to cure you! Need to pep up? We’ve got you covered! Need to wind down? We’ve got something for that too! Sweaty? Yep! Not sweaty enough? Sure thing! Too hairy? You betcha! Not hairy enough? Step right up!

The predations of the pharmaceutical industry—now free to advertise their wares to a credulous and yearning public—are successful because they take advantage of two signal human weaknesses: our attraction to easy solutions and our desire—born of our insecurities—to “perfect” ourselves and our lives.

Just as we have a fantasy belief that eating fat-free foods will make us thin without the bother of exercise or that purchasing an expensive new laptop computer for our academically struggling child will guarantee future admission to an Ivy League college, so do we easily delude ourselves into believing that health, happiness, and success is available if we can find the right pill to swallow. The shamans of the tribal past would find the pill-sized hopes hidden inside our medicine cabinets, gym bags, bedside tables, and purses to be entirely unsurprising.

Of course, our routine use—and shocking abuse—of powerful and highly addictive opioid painkillers is another step beyond. If we knew how many of our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are gulping Norco, Percocet, and OxyContin—or perhaps even shooting heroin or snorting cocaine—in daily dosages sufficient to stun a cow, we would likely be shaken to the core. This is obviously an issue that puts all manner of medical practitioners on the front lines of any solution, but it also speaks to something deeper, darker, and more disturbing happening in towns and cities across America where the desire for the numbing escape these drugs provide for many has nothing to do with a physical pain.

It would be foolish to deny that many people like to get high, but most somehow manage to get through their freshman year of college only slightly worse for the wear, a few brain cells short yet ready for the productive lives lying ahead. There have, of course, always been a few who never really grow beyond their partying phase of life, and these men and women have always spent their lives dealing with the chaos and health problems that have resulted.

However, we need to ask what has so changed within ourselves that we are now landing in emergency rooms, rehab centers, or the morgue in such astonishing numbers—lives ruined, families destroyed, and communities devastated.

Many are wondering why Americans are now so often using these potent painkillers, but I ask a different question: Given the grim and aimless lives so many are now forced to live, why would you not turn to narcotics for relief from the emotional and spiritual hurts that somehow must be endured—day after day after day. If you look back over the span of human existence during the past several thousand years, we have counted on three facets of our lives for the purpose and pleasure that helps us deal with the daily rigors and challenges we all must face: our families, our faiths, and our work. Unfortunately, all three are under siege by societal, economic, and political forces that are eroding the foundations of much of American life.

Soaring divorce rates, single parent households, out-of-wedlock births, and lonely latchkey kids: All of this and more is grinding down families across our nation. Organized religion—now often derided as the last refuge of the ignorant and bigoted by the intelligentsia—is in full retreat from the onslaught of our ever more permissive society. Work that offers dignity and pride of craft has been often replaced by “McJobs” that offer little beyond a meager paycheck, and more workers are daily told that their livelihoods are being shipped abroad—or being replaced by a robot or piece of computer software. Taken individually, these trends are profoundly disturbing; all three together are an assault upon everything that many of us hold dear.

Those who wonder why so many voters are revolting against the status quo fail to understand that many Americans blame our national leaders for their blithe lack of concern with the agony that so many feel today. We don’t want another pointless regulatory commission, another ossified agency, or another clock-watching bureaucrat explaining just how wonderful the latest round of new and improved government policies will make our lives—long after our bones have already been picked clean. Until our elected and appointed officials get it through their thick skulls that our country and its people expect leadership that supports families, respects faith, and empowers American workers, they can expect little beyond our cold contempt and volcanic rage.

Until this happens, don’t be surprised if many Americans turn to a narcotic haze to provide some respite from the empty charade that so many of our lives have become. This might not be a great long term plan, and it certainly carries along its own measure of misery. However, for many who are desperately lonely, spiritually bereft, and physically exhausted, a little drug-induced escape makes more sense than not.

Perhaps Our Compassion Needs A Little Push

Some news stories entertain us. Some arouse our curiosity. Yet others raise concerns.

However, on occasion we encounter a story that makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up and leads us to wonder just what in the heck is happening to our world—and just such a one recently tumbled out of the great state of Florida.

For those of you who may not have heard of this particular—and disturbing—event, please allow me to summarize:

On July 9th a man named Jamel Dunn drowned in a pond, and his body was later found. Local police were alerted to a cell phone video that documented Mr. Dunn’s drowning—and the five teens present can be heard taunting and mocking him from the shore as he struggled. None offered assistance, and no one thought it was necessary to use that cell phone to call 911. Their apparent glee as Mr. Dunn finally slipped beneath the surface of the water is both chilling and appalling. As there is no law on the books that affirms a responsibility to offer assistance or summon it, it seems the charges that can be levied against these uncaring young people begin and end at the level of a misdemeanor, which is a shock in itself.

One can hardly summon the words to describe just how horrifying all of this is.

Of course, the next—and entirely natural response—is to complain about the desensitizing effects of violent media and video games, the decline in our personal morality, our loss of a sense of shared community and responsibility, or the effects of neglectful (or absent) parenting on the youth of our nation. Although all of these factors may have played some part in the response—or lack of one—to Mr. Dunn’s struggles and demise, I wonder whether we are seizing on facile excuses that avoid the core of the issue before us.

We are, sad to say, not a naturally compassionate or gentle species, and the history of humanity is knee deep in the blood of others. Although we like to believe that we have outgrown our ancestral aggressions and evolved into a higher form than our forebears, the worldwide conflicts of the 20th century and many regional slaughters that continue around the globe to this very day seem to contradict the notion that we have entered an enlightened era of reasoned debate and spiritual awakening. Brute force—or at least the threat of it—still typically wins over uplifting rhetoric. One need only to remember Joseph Stalin’s blunt dismissal of the power of the Pontiff—“The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”—to properly understand the harsh limitations of moral suasion.

However, with all this said and true, there seem to be problems more worrisome affecting many of our young people today—and it is difficult to discern what they might be. When one adds up the broken—and breaking—homes where so many young people are raised today, an ever more coarse society, rampant drug use and abuse, and the economic stresses affecting so many households, one might find some reasons for what ails today’s youth, but I find these explanations to be unpersuasive on the whole. There seems to be more to consider.

First off, we need to ask whether our youth are actually more violent and troubled, or we simply perceive this to be the case. Although it is fashionable—and sadly acceptable—to roundly criticize the behavior and demeanor of young people today, I wonder whether the mass media finds the misdeeds of the dysfunctional few generates more viewers and readers than the plain fact that most teenagers are trying to do the best that they can in a bewildering and difficult world. Some follow the unhappy path of these Florida teens toward nihilism and numbness—and the pity we feel for Mr. Dunn for having crossed their paths might extend to these young people as well. All are, in their own ways, victims.

Still, the cell phone video and the comments captured on it are disturbing, and they speak to another unique problem facing young people today, the ready opportunity to document their mistakes on their cell phones right along with all the adults in this world who wish they had never sent that sexy text message, posted a drunk selfie, or engaged in a video chat with someone intent on embarrassing them. What has marked our world since the start of the 20th century—and has accelerated with lightning speed in only the last decade or so—is our ability to document man’s inhumanity to man or our own foolishness. Are we more shocked by hatred, violence, and indifference to the suffering of others simply because we can now so easily and thoroughly document and share it?

So are young people today more cruel or uncaring than previous generations? Stories that defend this idea are great click bait and may touch upon some uncomfortable truths about the most troubled of today’s youth, but to make such an assertion demonstrates what an insular and comfortable bubble so many of today’s commentators inhabit.

Just as we in the developed West are insulated from the horrors of war by our reliance on smart weapons and drone warfare, so have incredible changes in neighborhood policing helped to buffer many of us from the end results of daily human conflict. As much as some might decry this reality, infinitely more aggressive and sophisticated police techniques have successfully turned the tide of crime and violence in many corners of our society thanks to vast technologically-driven improvements in surveillance and detection. Those who complain incessantly about our terrifying young fail to realize that we now live in the safest society in the history of the civilized world—although some urban neighborhoods still suffer from elevated crime rates due to gang activity or localized issues The brutal behavior of some young people against this relatively placid background seems to scream out by comparison.

And what does all this mean in regard to those idiotic Florida teenagers who filmed a man drowning—and were later pleased and proud to share the video record of their cruelty with others?

On the continuum of human behavior, both their actions and inaction brand them as bullies and braggarts with no regard for others. Their obliviousness to human suffering and lack of concern with personal consequences certainly flag them for mental health evaluation, and some court-ordered supervision and treatment could provide some benefit, but I am eternally dubious about the practicable outcomes possible through modern psychology. Whether any of these youngsters will have further dealings with the legal system—their utter heartlessness could mark them as either future attorneys or defendants—will be for another day to tell.

However, the inability of law enforcement to hold them responsible for their actions speaks to grievous flaws in our laws—and only further sharpens our revulsion regarding their behavior. Perhaps something good can come from this horrible, terrible circumstance—although I am certain this is cold comfort for Mr. Dunn’s family and friends.

Given that human behavior often changes for the better only when a penalty is involved, perhaps we need to change our local, state, and federal laws in order to enact felony penalties for failing to report harm or potential harm to others. If we can require that educators be “mandated reporters” in cases of suspected abuse or neglect, we can certainly ask everyone to affirmatively act as his brother’s—or sister’s—keeper in order to save and protect lives. It seems nonsensical that any of us should be legally allowed to turn away from another in distress, and this strikes me as a change in the law that is long overdue.

We, of course, expect that everyone will watch out for everyone else without prodding or threat, but the case of these Florida teens is unique only because of the careful self-recording of their unconscionable conduct—people often fail to do what is right without anyone ever noticing it. I realize that civil libertarians are going to complain about the potential for new and improved laws to turn us all into “spies and snitches”, but I suspect that the benefits far outweigh any potential drawbacks. I am certain that I am not the only one who would rather everyone in the vicinity be legally compelled to pull out their phones and call the police if an old lady is being bludgeoned by a group of thugs. They need not jump into the fray themselves, but bystanders should be held criminally accountable if they do not phone for assistance.

Perhaps this is just weary life experience talking, but I no longer presume others will inevitably do what is right when asked to speak up to protect a stranger—or even a close family member. Therefore, it could be to our benefit to recognize this human shortcoming and move to remedy it. We might hate the fact that pushing people to do what is right is necessary, but it seems by far the wisest course of action.

We can, of course, still do what we can to reduce the violence in movies, television, and video games so they do not harm our children. In addition, focusing on improving our morals, building our communities, enhancing our personal connections to one another, and increasing our quality time with our families would be all for the good. However, a recognition of our flaws and limitations as human beings is also necessary so that we make changes to our laws that will compel us to help one another—just in case such actions do not come naturally.

We’re Still Living In The “Age of O.J.”

I was living in Buffalo, NY when O.J. Simpson took his famous “White Bronco Ride” in 1994. In a city for which O.J. was both a sports legend and local icon, the shock and sense of loss was perhaps even more devastating than the sudden death of a close friend or family member. However, as crushing as events were for my fellow Buffalonians, the tawdry and disconcerting 15 months that followed were even worse for the rest of America because they helped to cement into place the soul-destroying tabloid culture that now dominates our daily lives.

O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the double murders of his estranged wife and an acquaintance back in 1995, but he has been in a Nevada prison for the past nine years after being convicted for his role in a botched 2007 Las Vegas hotel room robbery. He will, however, be paroled this October—now an aging and arthritic “model prisoner”.

Ironically, he will be futilely attempting to slip away into anonymity within the world of ceaseless speculation, relentless rumormongering, and empty fame that his 1994-95 saga helped create. In the post-O.J. world all aspects of our culture and politics have become captive to made-for-TV (or Internet streaming) contrived controversies, bizarre scandals, and faux news—all resulting in the crushing cynicism that essentially owes its monstrous lineage to the circus surrounding his chase, arrest, and murder trial.

He was acquitted of murder, but the rest of us were sentenced to a lifetime of inane and scandal-ridden infotainment. Now glued to our flat-screen televisions and smart phones, we experience our world as less a sober discussion of our shared values and illuminating experiences and more a gladiatorial contest of screeching individuals and outlandish insults curated by media puppeteers chasing ratings and paychecks. Tabloid culture sets the norms of our lives and our nation.

Right and wrong have ceased to have any meaning. There is only transitory titillation and sensationalized speculation regarding our leading celebrities—or perhaps celebrity leaders masquerading as politicians—that provide our daily dose of outrage. We hold profound opinions regarding the most insignificant people and matters, yet we are largely uninformed about those important issues that will affect our real lives.

Little wonder we cannot concentrate on improving our communities and country.

Those 15 months of “all O.J., all the time” fed our morbid obsession with caring passionately about that which is truly inconsequential—and here we are today. We focus on foolish behavior and petty conflicts, but almost no time is devoted to matters of actual consequence in our lives, and our willful ignorance leaves us vulnerable to demagoguery and deceit. The names change, the salacious and scurrilous scandals slip and slide, and the world goes round and round. Over two decades after the advent of O.J. and his impact on media and our society, we are now too distracted by dramatic dysfunction to even understand just how lost we really are.

Kardashians, anyone?