“Violence Here is the Social Norm”*

Another week, another under-the-radar lunatic goes on a killing spree with his AR-15, and another round of recriminations from gun control advocates leveled at Congress for not passing stricter gun laws, at the NRA for existing at all, and at law-abiding gun owners for not saying “enough” and remorsefully schlepping their weapons to the local police station to give them up.

Gun ownership advocates, as usual, managed to throw off this guilt and continue to insist that putting more guns in more places, carried by trained individuals, will deter the maniacs or at least minimize the carnage.  Each group cites statistics supporting its position, bringing to mind the old saw about statistics being used the same way a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination.

We do have a lot of guns – a recent NY Times article alleges that Americans own some 300 million – four out of every ten private firearms in the world.  We also have a lot of anonymous, deeply troubled individuals who are one fight with the in-laws away from going postal.  No law of God or man can be expected to keep all of society’s crackpots away from all those lovely, deadly weapons, and the gun argument is distracting us from another discussion that we desperately need to have.

Crazy people killing other people – not just with guns, but with rental trucks, homemade bombs or box cutters – is a relatively new phenomenon here.  The U.S. has always had a surplus of firearms and lunatics-in-waiting, but the growing number of high-casualty events seems correlated with our growing fascination with – and tolerance of – brutal, graphic conflict in every form of our entertainment, from TV and movies to the internet to video games to sports, even music. Today, more than ever, potential assassins are at risk of having their worst impulses constantly reinforced whenever they tune in or log on.  Less violence soaked cultures (including a fairly recent version of our own) have suffered fewer, and smaller, mass-casualty incidents, no matter how many guns (or rental trucks) their citizens have access to.  But today America has normalized violence to the point where a crazed assailant has to kill at least a dozen innocent people in order to get noticed.

Focusing on guns as either the root of, or the counter to, this savagery is a cop-out.  Those 300 million weapons are an effect, not the cause, of the culture we have allowed to evolve; a world in which “fake” violence is so pervasive that it has become background static.  Whenever some tortured soul decides to embrace the real thing, we seldom pause to consider his motivation. We are too busy arguing about his methodology.

We have to start recognizing the fake violence that surrounds us for the empathy suppressant that it is and seeing real violence as the insidious cultural sickness that it is.  Until we do there will be more – and given the glorifying publicity lavished on them by the media, worse – incidents of mass murder in our future.  If we really want to stop the bleeding, the discussion has to go beyond the “how” and the “who”.  We need to look in the mirror and ask, “why?”

*Rehumanize Yourself – Sting and The Police

Too Much Success

One of the largest and most-venerable cooperatives in AmericaFair use in Commentary has folded. I read about this in the Garbanzo Gazette, my own small-town co-op’s monthly newsletter.

Berkeley’s co-op was founded in 1937. Back then, many Americans looked favorably on communism with a lower case “c” and people didn’t realize, or denied, that every Communist with a capital “C” country was a dictatorship or oligarchy.

Berkeley was a “first wave” co-op, founded for political reasons but expanding over the years to sell food, hardware, gasoline, and more. On-site childcare was provided as parents shopped and there was even a co-op burial society.

Communes seldom survive much beyond their founders – subsequent generations aren’t as enthused and willing to suffer for the ideal. Perhaps some of that attitude affected Berkeley, but it survived for 80 years and at its peak had over 116,000 members.

There were clear reasons for the failure… Overextending in the Bay Area food marketplace was clearly one and the weirdness of the way their board operated (very contentious) another… [They began cutting programs to save costs.] It was all downhill from there. Garbanzo Gazette

My local co-op opened in 1974 in the “second wave” where co-ops were about “brown rice, organic pintos, tamari and things like that… a quaint little hippie store.” The political angle was still there, but food trends were more important.

I joined (though our co-op is open to non-members) for the bulk dried food and bulk spice sections. The hippie atmosphere continues – incense is a big seller – and some members never step foot in the local Walmart, but that’s not me.

I suppose that’s why our co-op is in financial trouble.

Organic. Non-GMO. Free trade. Cage-free eggs. Quinoa. Supplements. Those trends succeeded throughout America. Huge corporations like Walmart embraced these emerging consumer demands and there are even chains like Whole Foods that specialize in them.

Companies have learned to watch for trends, and buy-out or simply take-over new ideas like meal kits. Blue Apron’s stock is worth half of its IPO and I can buy frozen meal kits at Walmart – fresh kits can’t be far behind. There’s less space for upstarts to persist in the highly-competative grocery marketplace.

My co-op is losing its niche in foods, and the niche of people-who-hate-Walmart simply isn’t big enough. The board is looking for a way to survive, but a recent attempt to add a restaurant failed. Maybe local-sourced food can be a winner, but we’re not a big farming region. Besides, I see one of the smaller, non-Walmart, groceries is selling local meats, so the niche may already be filled.

Berkeley’s demise points to pluses and minuses. More people have access to food trends, and trends will be more standardized than in the past. Crazy trends will spread more quickly with corporate power behind them, but so will beneficial ones.

Of course, when a trend runs its course and is dropped by Walmart (which, for example, has very little bulk dried food today, and when’s the last time you saw a giant-chain-store salad bar), small competitors don’t benefit because they’re long gone.

You can’t fight progress. At least, not for long.
Read more about the Berkeley co-op.

America’s Civil War – When Will We See the Last Battle?

I was all set to write about climate change and the bond market, Traitors' flagwhen I found myself dragged back into the Civil War. We’ve posted before about the lead-up and execution of America’s Civil War and it’s distressing modern remnants, but only recently have I come to appreciate how deeply the evil remains embedded in America.

I saw the incredibly bizarre statement of an American general, John Kelly.

During an interview Monday night on Fox News, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that “the lack of the ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”

His comment was swiftly countered by confounded observers, who pointed out that the Civil War was fought over slavery and that compromising on slavery would be morally unconscionable — and that the country did strike such compromises for decades and they did not, in fact, prevent war. NPR

If anything demonstrates we should offer the military respect, but not deference, this is it.

Starting with the Constitutional compromise that preserved slavery in the South, many writers have listed the nation’s shameful willingness to leave black Americans enslaved – to compromise on slavery. If today’s Americans are ignorant of our original sin, our education system has truly failed.

If the South hadn’t demanded slavery be extended into America’s western territories, how long would we have lived with the horrible compromise of our Founders? Would there still be slaves in America today?

I have fallen into political correctness myself, have silently tolerated monuments to Confederate leaders who sacrificed thousands of lives to perpetuate slavery. Perhaps I can understand how a war-weary nation abandoned black citizens to Jim Crow, but what excuse do I have?

Today I have a president who condemns NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem but celebrates the statues of traitors against America. The Confederate Battle Flag was carried into war against the Stars and Stripes. Its display outside of museums and history books shows more disrespect against the America Flag than a stadium full of protesters.

Of course, not many people would be upset by Confederate monuments if real-life bias had disappeared. Symbols can lead us to action. It’s time to face our past and future with courage, to reject trolls aiming to inflame our divisions, and create a more perfect union.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

We Need Dumber Phones

I’m probably not the first and certainly not the only person to observe that as smartphones get smarter, the people using them seem to be getting dumber. We have all witnessed drivers weaving along as they fumble with a text or pedestrians barging into traffic with their noses glued to their screens.  Annoying, and all too often tragic; casualties among drivers and walkers are up dramatically nearly everywhere.  Also not surprising.   The draw of a palm-sized device through which one can access everything and everyone all the time is difficult to ignore, even when its use threatens our physical well-being.  But the bigger threat posed by smartphones, and the insidious marketing strategies they enable, may be to our minds rather than our bodies.

Smartphones have placed more information at our disposal than we can possibly use, and many human brains find this data avalanche perplexing, if not overwhelming.  Some form of filtration might be useful, and the clever programmers at Facebook, Amazon and a hundred more Big Media companies stand ready to help.  Their algorithms scour your browsing history and analyze your reading habits, your media consumption, even your grocery list, to compile a dossier of your personal preferences. Through ads, suggested websites and “those who looked at this also might enjoy seeing that” prompts, they turn you into a demographic of one,  a “one” that can be specifically targeted by marketers every time you log on.  In the process, you are subtly encouraged to ignore any influences that might broaden your taste in books, clothing, cars, organic produce – or news outlets.  Of course there are a thousand other sources of information out there, but the algorithms don’t want you to bother with those.  Your time is too valuable.

The unintended (perhaps) outcome of this assistance is a populace that is becoming  accustomed to letting computer programs perform its due diligence. An app may be a great way to shop for underwear, but do we really want Facebook to choose which political or economic commentary we want to absorb?  Because while some marketers only want to “help” you decide which brand of running shoes to buy, others want to “help” you decide which news stories best fit your political leanings and which ones are fake.  A few (rhymes with Prussians) may even be using your predilection for indifference to influence your vote.

The ability to sort through reams of data and separate the good stuff from the background noise is like any skillset; if you don’t use it, you will lose it, and the evidence of our disuse is pretty stark.  Something like 95% of Google searchers never make it past the first page of results.  Is Google really that good, or are we just getting too lazy to look at page two?  Most readers of newspapers – remember newspapers? – glance at a story’s headline and skim the first couple of paragraphs.  There’s a reason it’s continued on page 9, but in the Age of the Smartphone brevity is king.  And speaking of brevity, there’s Twitter.  If erudition is a sign of intelligence, what to make of a medium wherein proper spelling and capitalization are MIA, punctuation marks have facial features and the deepest exchanges are more shallow (and shorter) than a 6th grader’s book report?

Google, Twitter, Facebook, now Siri and Alexa – they are all waiting for us on our smartphones, waiting to answer questions we didn’t really ask, waiting to tell us what they want us to know.

Our personal devices may not literally be sapping our intelligence, but they are certainly making us less intellectually rigorous.  In the long run, that may amount to the same thing.

Legacy of Uranium Mining in the Southwest Falls on Navajo Nation

I recently drove through the Navajo Nation reservation in northeastern Arizona. I was on my way to view the eclipse from Idaho, hurrying along the interminable Route 191, idly watching the dry landscape go by. I’d never been there before but words on signs began to tug at my memory – Diné, Shiprock. This is the reservation featured in Tony Hillerman’s novels, by officers Leaphorn and Chee.

I only found images of large and lovely healthcare centers

I only found images of large and lovely healthcare centers

In several little towns I noticed simple store fronts with simple signs – Uranium Care or Uranium Treatment. I’m not sure which it was. They came up and passed by faster than I could grab a picture. I’m not sure now about the words on the signs. What was that about?

A google search at home immediately made it clear.

Uranium mining on the Navajo Nation helped America win World War II, but at an ongoing cost “throughout the once worthless desert landscape of the reservation.” earthisland

Mining companies blasted 4 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land between 1944 and 1986. The federal government purchased the ore to make atomic weapons. As the Cold War threat petered out the companies left, abandoning more than 500 mines. NPR

Maybe early ignorance and the press of war could excuse sloppy and dangerous practices in the 1940s. Perhaps it was fair to ask citizens to bear this burden to defeat the evil of Nazism and the Axis Powers. After all, some paid with their lives in battle. And who, besides the people living locally, were likely to take most of the mining jobs in a remote section of the Great American Desert?

We soon knew better. I myself started work in America’s Nuclear Weapons Complex in 1981. Safety was a priority, and worker health carefully monitored and studied. Today, because of my job, I have certain benefits – part of my compensation for the job I did. By my time, the hazards of exposure to radioactivity were managed and a lot of the complaints about Rocky Flats are hyperbolic. But there’s another American story.

“When they did the mining, there would be these pools that would fill up,” she says. “And all of the kids swam in them. And my dad did, too.”

Many Navajo unwittingly let their livestock drink from those pools, and their children play in mine debris piles… Cancer rates doubled in the Navajo Nation from the 1970s to the 1990s. NPR

I know the people who conscientiously worked at Rocky Flats to ensure worker and public safety. And clean-ups are underway in Arizona:

“We’re spending a lot of time making sure that the polluters pay, so it isn’t the federal taxpayer” … But one-third of the mining companies have shut down or have run out of money. The federal government knew about some of the dangers decades ago, but only started the cleanup in recent years. NPR

I also know, from my recent service as a volunteer fire fighter, that it’s easy to say the words “thank you” and easy to slap a sticker on your car’s bumper.

But who wants to pay? Not my war, not my decision, I’ve got my own problems – entirely understandable. If it weren’t that way, maybe we’d be mired down in the past instead of building a brighter future. Luck plays a huge part in anyone’s life – some draw a good hand and others don’t.

I didn’t find any pictures on the internet of the modest clinics I passed – I’m sorry I didn’t take my own. These people from a different place and – some – a different time are brothers and sisters I never knew.

Sometimes history leaves me sad.

Don’t be a Jerk – discussing politics, religion, and policy

DebatingSocThis is a repost, but I think it applies more than ever: I attended a lecture by Dr. Benjamin Cline at Western New Mexico University: How to Talk About Religion and Politics Without Being a Jerk.  The world would be a better place if we all tried.

Cline discussed why our passions run so high on these topics: religion and politics are at the core of what makes life worth living for each of us.  They underlie much of what we do.  Our ideology is tied to the meaning of life as we each see it.  It’s our basis for deciding what’s valuable and what sources of information to trust.  Cline asks us to forget the old etiquette advice to avoid these subjects.  We need to talk about them, and to succeed we need to stop being jerks. Continue reading