Friday, June 24, 2016

Guns and Posers

For about 30 years (ca. 1982-2012) I wrote a more or less monthly column for my old hometown’s newspaper, The Ledger, of Polk County. Sometimes my writing was rewarded with hate mail, and it gradually dawned on me that the two topics that generated the most hate mail from my fellow Floridians were guns and racial equality. The writers of the hate mail loved the former and hated the latter. At first I didn’t see a link between these two issues, but finally I got it: what connected them was paranoia, irrational fear of a supposed threat. So if you want to receive hate mail, I recommend you write a piece like the one I'm working on here - a quick blurb that does not show love for the gun industry.

Today Orlando, of all places, has become associated with gun control issues, and this, along with the Democrats’ Congressional sit in, forces me to think about guns, something I generally don’t like to do.

   Orlando, Florida - my Boring, Boozhie Neck of the Woods

 Actually, when the killing at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub took place, I was in Canada attending a wedding with my family. Because of this, I didn’t feel the emotional impact as powerfully as I might have, had we been home at the time. The impact did get to me, however, yesterday when I visited the site of the crime and saw the many comments and symbols left by caring individuals on behalf of the victims. I was surprised at how quickly I was reduced to tears at the site. Perhaps it was because it is a hangout for a lot of people who are dear to me - friends and former students.

           Pulse - With Wall and Memorial Markers

While we were in Canada, my wife and I had dinner at a Toronto restaurant in which a friendly waiter chatted with us about our trip. When we mentioned we were from the Orlando area, the mass shooting came up at which point he said to us, “That was an attack on my community.” At first I didn’t get what he was saying, and I asked him if he was also from Orlando. “No,” he said, “I’m gay.”

I should have understood more quickly. After all the Orlando killer didn’t target Pulse because of the city in which it was located.

       Winter Park's First Congregational Church 
                Birthplace of Rollins College

But back to guns. A terrific article in the current New Yorker by Evan Osnos digs into the multiple strands that bind the arguments over guns together. One point that leaps out at me in his piece is the fact that the gun industry is fundamentally anxious to maximize its profits by boosting sales. This, of course, is normal capitalism, when normal products are at issue.

What makes the “maximize profits” precept problematic here is that the proliferation of guns is resulting in deaths that need not occur – a few of which Osnos’s article describes. The current scenario, in which the gun industry, bolstered by the lobbying power of the NRA, pushes gun sales to the limit, reminds me of the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 60s. Tobacco executives at that time, though they knew their product was killing people by the thousands, peddled a bogus story that helped it maximize profits, no matter the cost in lives.

As Osnos writes at one point, “…a whistle-blower named Robert Hass, who had been Smith & Wesson’s marketing-and-sales chief, said that companies knew far more than they admitted about how criminals obtained guns, and that ‘none of them, to my knowledge, take additional steps…to insure that their products are distributed properly.’”

Of course they don’t, because capitalism says you must maximize profits, and taking such steps would surely put a dent in those profits. It seems the magic of the marketplace can make both ethics and lives disappear in a puff of smoke.

Osnos concludes his terrific piece with the comment that the pro-gun and anti-gun worlds are growing further apart to the point where each side is coming to see the other as wishing to inflict harm. I can’t say I disagree with this entirely, though as someone who would like to see stricter gun controls, I don’t think of myself as exactly “anti-gun.”

I can sympathize with hunters, with people who, misguided though their ideas may be, would like to have protective guns in their households, and so on. What I don’t have any sympathy for are such grossly misguided notions as that household guns are necessary for our “freedom,” and that increased regulations are somehow the tools of tyranny. These ideas are - not to put too fine a point on it - nutty. And I am especially hostile to the linking of ever-increasing gun sales to the raw avarice of the profit motive – a motive that has no regard for the bloodletting it triggers.

            On the Memorial Wall outside of Pulse

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Shaking Things Up

Do you know who Jeffrey Lord is? Maybe you aren’t familiar with the name, but you’ve probably seen the face on TV. Here it is:

                     (Thanks CNN)

Jeffrey Lord almost always appears with a picture of a smiling, waving Ronald Reagan over his shoulder, right next to an American flag. The message is so obvious as to not really qualify as subliminal: “My man, Donald Trump, is today’s Ronald Reagan.”

This message is part true and part bullshit. It is true, for example, in that both Reagan and Trump can be said to be grossly ignorant about foreign affairs. And it is true because both made up for their general ignorance (foreign and domestic) with a glad-handing salesman’s persona aimed at winning over voters’ loyalty.

Salesman Reagan presented himself as a good-natured all-American guy who would make America walk tall in the world. Trump doesn’t pretend to be good-natured. His message is that he can make America great by sticking it to Mexicans, Muslims, Chinese and other deserving types, and that only he can do it because he is one goddamn amazing human being.

But ultimately Trump is more anti-Reagan than Reagan. His core followers are largely people who have suffered because of the Reagan revolution and who are pissed off at the way they’ve been shafted.

The Reagan revolution transformed the economy by peddling a humongous lie. Namely “Government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.” On the basis of this whopper, Reagan pushed through tax reform that allowed millionaires to keep much more of their wealth than they had in the past. At the same time this reform plunged the nation into unprecedented debt. And who has to pay off this debt? Not the millionaires on whose behalf Reagan created it, but all of us. Thus were today’s one percenters born.

Reagan also thought that the (evil) government shouldn’t pay for students’ college education and tried to eliminate the Department of Education altogether. One consequence of the post-Reagan stinginess in government support for education is soaring student debt.

Finally, the general push to the right initiated by Reagan was picked up and intensified by the tea party fanatics. Their mantras are “We hate Democrats and RINOs” and “Compromise is betrayal.” Their adamant refusal to engage in give and take with their political adversaries has resulted in multiple government shutdowns, damage to the United States’ credit rating, failure to confirm a qualified Supreme Court nominee and across the board inaction on a number of important issues. This breakdown in governance has heightened the notion that government is broken and politicians are incompetent.

Post-Reagan America is a place where the rich are richer than ever, and the government does less than ever to protect the middle class from debt and to help the poor get back on their feet. But many of Trump’s core supporters are infuriated because the government hasn’t done enough to help them. This makes them distrustful of traditional Republicans – those same Republicans who have transmogrified Ronald Reagan into a demigod.

So why would Jeffrey Lord try to convince voters that Trump is the new Reagan? I think it’s partly because a lot of voters haven’t figured out how much damage Reagan did to the middle and working classes, and partly because Reagan is remembered mainly as a powerful, iconoclastic figure who shook up Washington.

I’m willing to grant that Reagan was that.

The question now is, how much more “shaking up” can we take?

                                America 2020. 

“Okay, so maybe voting for Trump was a mistake, but I didn’t like the way Hillary handled her emails.”

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

What Rough Beast Indeed

                    The Fetid Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

A shape with bulging body and head of orangutan,
A gaze blank and uncomprehending as a newt's,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of bewildered citizens.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That ten months of incredulous sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a scornful bully,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Cleveland to be crowned?

(I beg for forgiveness from the ghost of William Butler Yeats.)