The Non-Apology Apology Is Alive and Well at Wells Fargo and Facebook

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Wells Fargo claims it wants to “earn back your trust,” but their actions and slick advertising campaigns suggest they are being duplicitous. (Photo Credit: Taber Andrew Bain/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Wells Fargo not long ago released a commercial titled “Earning Back Your Trust” that starts with a man on horseback riding in slow motion. The voiceover begins, “We know the value of trust. We were built on it.” The narrator then precedes to burnish the company’s credentials by talking about its history of transporting gold from the West, and that it built on the trust it engendered until it, well, lost its way.

Now, however, Wells Fargo is completely re-committed to its customers, and devoted to “fixing what went wrong.” It’s ending product sales goals for branch bankers. It’s holding itself accountable. “It’s a new day for Wells Fargo,” explains the narrator. “But it’s a lot like our first day.” Meanwhile, The Black Keys’ “Howlin’ for You” plays over the slickly-produced minute-long spot.

Ahem, pardon me if I seem unconvinced. Not only is the song choice a curious one—to me, it seems more befitting of a Budweiser commercial with some ruggedly handsome guy chatting up an equally telegenic twenty-something in a bar—but the ad’s tone also seems off. That is, it seems less of contrition, and more of self-congratulation, as if the company’s storied history more than makes up for any momentary ethical lapses.

But, oh, what an ethical lapse it was. Wells Fargo’s promotion of an aggressive sales-oriented culture was highlighted amid a yet-ongoing scandal involving fraudulent sales to unsuspecting customers, one that saw over 5,000 employees fired, the resignation/retirement of CEO John Stumpf, and over $100 million in fines assessed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other agencies.

Moreover, if recent events are any indication, the banking giant hasn’t learned its lesson when it comes to responsible selling practices. Reportedly, more than 550,000 Wells Fargo customers are believed to have been pressured into buying car insurance they didn’t need last year, 20,000 of whom are believed by the company to have defaulted on their car loans and had their vehicles repossessed as a function of the additional costs. This latest turn in Wells Fargo’s saga had the company potentially on the hook for an additional $1 billion in fines as of the time of this CNN report by Donna Borak and Danielle Bronner-Wiener. Noting the earlier allusion to the bar scene in reference to the “Earning Back Your Trust” commercial’s soundtrack, should we, um, just this put this on the company’s tab?

Two things are particularly striking about Wells Fargo’s ad. The first is that the company professes to be primarily interested in the consumer’s satisfaction, and seems content to hold itself accountable, but asking consumers to trust it to do so when it has violated this trust on a large scale is absurd. It’s like asking the fox to watch the proverbial henhouse, and it’s all but a slap in the face to those who were done financial harm or otherwise were put at risk by Wells Fargo’s sanctioning of a manipulative, underhanded sales culture. It’s why there is a Federal Reserve cap in place on the bank’s growth. Wells Fargo hasn’t proven it can hold itself accountable yet, so why should we take them at their word now?

The second is what’s not in the ad: anything resembling the phrase “we’re sorry.” By the end of the ad, Wells Fargo is pivoting to the future. It’s a new day. Cue images of a horse-drawn carriage surging ahead. Another slap in the face. We haven’t even begun to have the kind of conversation we should be having about your company’s malfeasance, but you’re ready to move on with bluesy rock anthems and images designed to sell even more of your products? Clearly, you don’t get it, and that comments are disabled for the YouTube version of this spot only further convey your tone-deafness. At the very least, you should want to hear what the average consumer thinks about your brand to know how far you need to go to repair your image. Evidently, you don’t want to know. You just want those earnings to hold.

Facebook, facing its own scandal involving the breach of the public’s privacy and trust, issued its commercial “Here Together.” The idea is the same. Once again, it’s about a minute in length, and is designed to remind you about what you loved about the company in the first place—to make friends, connect, and feel “a little less alone” (and maybe, er, stalk that cutie you met in your section of Expository Writing)—briefly acknowledge problems with clickbait, data misuse, fake news, and spam, swear the people running the company will do better, and pivot to the future. A future in which you presumably will continue to use Facebook, invest in it financially, and casually ignore that you have little to no idea about how it uses or sells your information. Again, no mention of being sorry. This whole breach of faith was just a hiccup, a bump in the road. And once again, comments are disabled. Facebook, you get a Dislike from me.

These responses to public outcries from Wells Fargo and Facebook are examples of the non-apology apology, an exercise in linguistics that offers the appearance of sympathy without any underlying genuine remorse, and perhaps even masking irritation at having to acknowledge the other party’s concerns. Both companies seem to indicate “mistakes were made,” but using the passive voice, so as not to implicate anyone specific. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we? Besides, isn’t the Wells Fargo mobile app great? Aren’t you excited that Facebook is planning to create a dating service? GET EXCITED, PEOPLE!

By this token, there is no real admission of guilt among the higher-ups at these companies. Any sense of regret, therefore, is in relation to getting caught, not with respect to betraying the trust of its users. What’s more, their sense of indignation likely reflects an understanding of their prominence. Wells Fargo is one of those financial institutions that easily falls under the heading “too big to fail.” Facebook is one of the preeminent social media apps/sites on the Internet and mobile devices, surpassed only by Google and YouTube in terms of popularity.

If the people scrutinizing their decision-making are lucky enough to fully comprehend what these businesses do—with Facebook, in particular, observers argued that senators charged with questioning CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not—there’s still the matter of how to truly hold executives accountable for failures within their organizations. John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo when news of the scandal facing his company broke, retired and walked away with $134 million. And that’s without a golden parachute! His payout could’ve been that much higher had he been fired and given a severance package!

What’s upsetting about all of this is that Facebook and Wells Fargo, while particularly large and notable examples of it, are not the only perpetrators of public relations disingenuousness, a condition that transcends the corporate realm. Politicians and other public figures, for instance, are renowned for their proficiency with the non-apology apology. How many times have we heard the phrase “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my remarks, but…”?

Implicit in this kind of statement is the notion that the problem may be on the part of the intended audience and not the accused offender, i.e. “you’re being too sensitive” or “you’re upset for some other reason.” You’re right, Mr. Senator, sir. Upon further inspection, I’m the asshole. Sorry for insinuating that the onus should be on the person making public comments in the first place and wasting your time.

If not making some half-hearted attempt to express regret for their actions and/or sympathy for victims and their families, public figures can claim to be transparent while throwing out false or otherwise misleading information. David Fleshler, reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, outlined in a recent piece how Broward County Public Schools, the school district under whose purview Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School falls, has repeatedly insisted that Nikolas Cruz, the shooter behind this tragedy, was never involved with what is known as the PROMISE program—but that this information is patently false.

Even if the PROMISE program, designed to keep at-risk youths from traveling along the school-to-prison pipeline, is somewhat of a red herring being pointed to largely by opponents of gun control, that the school district would knowingly obfuscate this element of Cruz’s history sends the wrong message about the administration’s reliability as a source of information for concerned family members and members of the Parkland community.

Other elements of the district’s interactions with the public of late have been similarly disturbing in their lack of transparency. Superintendent Robert Runcie has claimed that all of Cruz’s school records have been passed along to authorities, but a Broward County detective at a school safety meeting contradicted this assertion. The district has also refused to release any documentation related to these records, citing exemptions under Florida state law that do not apply to school boards, and understated how long Nikolas Cruz had been a student at Stoneman Douglas prior to his expulsion.

Runcie has additionally blocked his critics on social media and has dismissed reports that disagreed with internal accounts as “fake news.” These responses to public inquiries smack of a school district administration that is more concerned with its image than of allaying the doubts of interested parties, and even if its aims are more meritorious, its opacity creates its own set of problems.

Certainly, in financial/economic terms and in terms of the geographical spread of their influence, Wells Fargo’s and Facebook’s lack of transparency are more significant than that of Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. We’re talking millions of users/customers and potentially billions of dollars. That not withstanding, the handling of relevant information by the powers-that-be governing the latter is significant in its own right, owing to a similar perceived lack of empathy and trustworthiness at a place and time where gun violence cost 17 lives—on which you can’t put a price—and when the push for meaningful change on gun policy is so strong.

To be sure, the situation facing the school district is a difficult one. Robert Runcie and others don’t want the point about the need for gun control to get lost in the demand to know details about Nikolas Cruz’s life. To this end, that Cruz was able to buy a weapon legally is not to be diminished. At the same time, offering conflicting reports to families and the media, and restricting the flow of information altogether, exposes the district to all kinds of speculation about its culpability.

David Fleshler notes how the PROMISE program is “controversial” in that its critics argue that the program is too lenient with students, that the system can be “gamed” so that youths can commit offenses so as long as they don’t violate its principles and can time it to earn a clean slate the following year, and that it creates an unsafe environment for the other students in the classroom. Add to this the idea the school district did a poor job of implementing this program and/or tracking Cruz’s interaction with it (Cruz was referred to the program but never completed it), and the narrative of the shooting being primarily fueled by Runcie and Co.’s incompetence as well as the school’s preoccupation with its image becomes that much more compelling—fairly or unfairly.

Superintendent Runcie’s public comments haven’t done much to assuage these concerns either. In a version of the non-apology apology, when asked about why the school district had to backtrack on the assertion that Cruz was never a part of PROMISE, Runcie appeared to accept responsibility (“I’ll take the blame for that”), only to say that he was “conveying what information [he] had received from staff internally, and that’s where we were at that moment in time.” So, wait, it’s the staff’s fault?

As for why he would release incomplete research into Cruz’s history, Runcie replied that he couldn’t tell the media and the public to “wait ’til June when we get our complete investigation done, because there’s a level of impatience out there.” So, wait, it’s the fault of the media and the public for being impatient? Sorry all those kids inconveniently got shot and made you have to do your job, Mr. Runcie.

At the end of the day, the failure of Broward County Public Schools to respond adequately to requests for more information, and to acknowledge more plainly that it failed Nikolas Cruz and his victims, may be, as it is with Facebook and Wells Fargo, about numbers more than people. The PROMISE program, for its good intentions, can have the effect of discouraging communication between schools, law enforcement, and public health agencies, such that touted statistics on lower incarceration rates belie the real danger communities still face of children like Cruz falling through the cracks, so to speak.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of funding. Supt. Runcie has been very vocal about the lack of funding for his school district, the sixth-largest in the nation, as a subset of Florida’s already-low funding compared to the national average (according to Runcie, the Sunshine State ranks 44th nationally in this regard), and recently, the Broward County school board approved a proposal for a homeowner tax increase designed to generate another $93 million to this cause to be voted on later this year.

As legitimate as these needs may be, though, it’s admittedly a tough sell for voting taxpayers when the district’s administration appears less than forthcoming and there are serious questions about how key programs at its schools are being implemented. Plus, from everything I’ve read, there’s no mention at being “sorry” about all the misdirection—not that you’d expect different at this point.


When it comes down to brass tacks, if you’re dealing with any of the aforementioned parties, you’re submitting to some sort of a trade-off. With Wells Fargo, you’re getting the convenience and relative safety (at least compared to smaller financial institutions) of a big bank. You’re also subjecting yourself to the risk that one of more its employees will try to sell you something you don’t need—perhaps without your knowledge, no less. With Facebook, you’re getting the ability to connect with people, share content, and even market a business. You’re also likely giving the social media platform wide latitude to share your information with third parties and to target you based on your identifying characteristics.

As for Broward County Public Schools, reportedly, some of its high schools rank among the best in the nation, including two in the top 500 (Pompano Beach H.S. and Cypress Bay H.S.) and six in the top 1,000 (such as Stoneman Douglas). Whether they are among the safest, however, is obviously a point of contention, and two parents of students slain in the shooting, Lori Alhadeff and Ryan Petty, are running for school board seats in part because of their dissatisfaction with the school district’s perceived lack of accountability, safety, and transparency.

While certainly, criticism of Supt. Robert Runcie and of the PROMISE program on a national front has been particularly strong from conservative publications, Alhadeff is a registered Democrat, and Petty is a Republican. There is room for concern on both sides of the political aisle, especially for those close to the victims of tragedies like the one in Parkland, Florida. Not that it should be welcomed, but death can affect one’s perspective on matters such as these.

Then again, if we’re viewing things in a simplistic and pragmatic manner, what doesn’t possess some form of trade-off? Besides, even if their public responses are lacking, the reactions of entities like Facebook and Wells Fargo are still better than that of, say, lawmakers who regularly avoid their constituents or otherwise confront them in a less-than-conciliatory manner.

Speaking of Florida and gun violence, Sen. Marco Rubio, who has received upwards of $3 million from the NRA and has been a notorious no-show at scheduled town halls before his constituents dating back to last year, received the “Three Billboards” treatment from activist group Avaaz after his insistence that stronger gun laws would not have presented the Parkland school shooting, with the message “SLAUGHTERED IN SCHOOL/AND STILL NO GUN CONTROL/HOW COME, MARCO RUBIO?”

As with the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, these billboards are a reaction to an act of brutality involving a child (in Florida’s case, more than one child) and the subsequent perceived indifference or faulty prioritizing from those figures sworn to protecting and serving the most vulnerable people under their jurisdiction. Even if you don’t agree with Avaaz’s methods, the allusion seems all too appropriate.

In short, yes, lack of accountability and transparency in public companies and governmental organizations is not a novel concept. Following a near-catastrophic financial crisis brought on by reckless behavior by the very people who were supposed to help safeguard against this eventuality, however, and in an era in which Americans, fed up with politics as usual, are rejecting “traditional” norms alongside a president who flouts accountability and transparency as a raison d’être, bad behavior yet matters.

Banks that fund pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline at the expense of the environment and Native American land now increasingly run the risk of seeing customers take their money elsewhere. Social media companies that fail to protect their users and their users’ information risk people abandoning their service. Politicians who ignore their constituents invite primary challenges from activism-minded candidates. As prominent as some of these icons of their respective fields are, this is not to say they can’t experience palpable losses.

Mark Harmon’s character Leroy Jethro Gibbs on the show NCIS memorably is quoted as saying, “Never say you’re sorry. It’s a sign of weakness.” Not only does Gibbs break this rule at several points during the series, though, but his numerous failed marriages suggest a pattern of toxic masculinity to which the viewer should not necessarily ascribe. For organizations like Wells Fargo and Facebook, and even down to more regional entities like Broward County Public Schools, the non-apology apology as a means of saving face rings hollow. Do you want to earn back our trust or preach togetherness? Ditch the commercials and interviews, say you’re sorry, and do what you claim you’re going to do. At the end of the day, it’s not a hard concept.

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We Want “Gun Reform”—So What Does That Mean?

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After a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 people dead, the call for “gun reform” is more than apparent. Without specificity in what that means and how to combat the gun violence epidemic, however, vague attempts to bring about positive change arguably won’t help the cause. (Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert/AP)

While those directly involved with the movement and others sympathetic to the cause may view it in a more redeeming light, Occupy Wall Street, for many, will remain little more than an historical footnote, or worse, an outright joke. For all the attention raised by OWS about corruption in government, economic and social injustice, and the greed of Wall Street—remember “we are the 99?”—there are any number of retrospective criticisms about Occupy Wall Street after the fact that, if they don’t explain why the movement has all but dissolved, they at least speak to its limitations. Among the major criticisms of the Occupy movement are that it was characterized by a lack of clear policy goals or message, a lack of minority representation, that it targeted the wrong audience (i.e. Wall Street, as opposed to Washington), that it was populated by privileged white “slack-tivists,” and perhaps biggest of them all, that it did not produce the kind of lasting legislative change needed to inspire participants and sustain its momentum. To this day, within progressive circles, some of which formed from its ashes, OWS remains a cautionary tale of sorts owing to how quickly it died out, as well as a reminder of the challenges that liberal-minded organizations still face today.

In the wake of the recent Parkland, Florida shooting that resulted in 17 deaths and has since captivated the thoughts of a nation, the calls have been widespread and loud for meaningful action on gun control/gun law reform. In truth, a response of this magnitude, the likes of which hearken back to initial reactions to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, seems overdue. That mass shootings in schools can and likely will continue to happen, though, because they have continued after the massacre in Newtown, or even the Columbine High School shooting—which will see its 20th anniversary in April 2019—brings the same questions of sustainability and potency to bring about change of this activist energy that dogged the Occupy movement.

Back in October of last year, Liana Downey, an author, strategic advisor, and teacher, penned an op-ed about the inherent flaw in asking for “gun reform” wholesale. For all the finger-pointing done toward Republican lawmakers and the NRA for standing in the way of measures like expanded background checks and bans on assault rifles and various other semi-automatic or fully automatic firearms for civilians, Downey finds fault with activist groups that lack specificity in their goals and the language they use. She writes:

CBS News reported that the response of democratic legislators to the Orlando Massacre was to “shout down Speaker Paul Ryan and demand a gun control bill.” Was that helpful? It sounds like action, but what were they actually asking for? Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America told supporters on social media to “use this form to call your US senator and demand action on gun violence now, and pass it on.” What action? Terms like ‘gun control’ and ‘gun reform’ are notoriously vague. Do they mean tightening background checks or that the government is “coming to take your guns”?

This ambiguity is deliberate. Knowing full well that the pro-gun lobby is quick to raise the cry “they’re coming to take our guns”, most politicians and protesters — even those in support of reform — hide behind indirect terms, in the hope that they won’t ruffle feathers. Yet the opposite happens. Those who lobby on behalf of the gun industry, whose job it is to keep demand and supply of guns growing, seize on the lack of clarity and paint a doomsday scenario for gun owners.

The problem caused by the lack of a clearly-defined goal is two-fold. The first, as Downey explains, is that it galvanizes support amongst the “opposition,” as it were. In this instance, those who oppose gun control out of concern for what it means for their ability to own guns outright worry about greasing the slippery slope toward repeal of the Second Amendment, perhaps fueled by a general sense of distrust toward the federal government. The second, though, is that the lack of direction makes it hard to build and sustain a movement. Nearly 20 years removed from the Columbine tragedy, advocacy for gun control has been, as Liana Downey terms it point blank, a “failure,” because it has been unclear, because it hasn’t defined an end game or measurable goals, and because it hasn’t done enough to inspire. That is, on the last point, while our anger and sadness might naturally prompt us to want to take action, vague notions of effecting “gun reform” do not exactly tingle the spine, to borrow from Downey’s verbiage.

For her part, Downey suggests establishing a concrete goal of cutting the lives lost each year due to gun violence in the United States in half—roughly 15,000, according to available statistics from the last five years—and in doing so, echo the strategy of similar campaigns that have proven successful, such as the reduction of deaths due to drunk driving by some 12,000 fatalities per year due to the advent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Not only does this goal provide guidance for activists, but as Downey argues, it allows one to be scientific. Downey goes into length about hypothesis testing with respect to reducing opportunities for fatal gun violence to occur, and I’ll let you parse through the diagrams and such if you feel inclined. Suffice it to say, though, that having a clearly-defined mission makes tracking deaths and compiling statistics on gun violence easier. Which is especially helpful when the Center for Disease Control has its funding to research effectiveness to reduce gun violence cut or blocked by Congress. Thanks a f**king lot, NRA.

Of course, this still leaves the matter of the political power that gun manufacturers and the gun lobby possess. Where there are laws or proposed bills to protect firearms and ammunition makers on either the supply or demand side, there is usually the influence of lobbyists to be found. As Liana Downey views the relationship between proponents of gun control and those more resistant to reform, there are two options for the former: 1) diminishing the influence of gun manufacturers, or 2) inviting them to the table to help achieve the goal of reducing gun-related deaths. Re #1, while this is possible, with the NRA so entrenched in the realm of congressional politics, and so organized and capable of mobilizing its base, to boot, this is agreeably tough sledding. Re #2, however, with the goal of reducing and tracking gun violence firmly established, any refusal of the gun lobby or sponsored members of Congress to act becomes political fodder for those who want to advance legislation which will bring about meaningful, positive “gun reform.” Or, as Downey puts it, it becomes clear that those who stand in the way of change “value money, not Americans.” Indeed, if we can’t agree to this end, we seemingly never will.


Much of the focus on the Parkland massacre, as it invariably does with any mass shooting, has been on whether or not this tragedy was preventable. From the various profiles I have seen online of the shooter (I refuse to name him because I believe this attention should be devoted to the victims, not the perpetrator of such violence), he would seem to fit the stereotype of the would-be school shooter. A sufferer of various mental health disorders. A loner. His mother recently died. He was upset after a break-up with a girl. Expelled from the very school he shot up. And, of course, he seemed to really, really like guns, as evidenced by disturbing social media posts attributed to him. It also appears the FBI was made aware of his potential for violence as recently as last month, but indicated that it failed to follow established protocols that would’ve resulted in the shooter being assessed as a “potential threat to life.” Aside from the obviously regrettable notion that the Florida shooting may have been averted, that this gives, ahem, ammunition to the likes of Donald Trump, who has decried the U.S. intelligence community as a matter of self-preservation and because he is a wannabe dictator, as well as Gov. Rick Scott, a man with an A+ rating from the NRA, is unfortunate in its own right.

Whether we want to play psychologist and figure out what went wrong with the shooter, or take on the role of internal affairs and wag our fingers at the school district or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or even take on gun and ammunition manufacturers for their supposed culpability in these events—personally, I favor only holding manufacturers responsible in cases where they knowingly or negligently sell to the wrong people or a defective product, or for deliberately misleading the public and investigators—the above concerns shouldn’t take us away from the central discussion we need to be having about what steps we can take going forward to reduce gun-related violence and deaths in America. This is where Liana Downey’s concept of hypothesis testing with respect to variables which may lead to a decline in the fatality rate comes in, whether regarding a change in the sheer number of guns in our country, legal restrictions on access for certain individuals, technological improvements designed for safer use, or some other modification to existing laws and policies. Whatever is likely to have the biggest impact and can feasibly be put into place, that should be the focus.

This is not to say, it should be stressed, that the subjects of mental health and of accountability for law enforcement related to school shootings like this aren’t meritorious and shouldn’t be pursued. As someone diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I support increased attention to mental illness and removing the stigma that too often accompanies people who deal with associated disorders. I also believe in accountability at all levels of government, though I am wary of assigning blame when it is recognizably difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of the movements of all people within a given area or to respond in a timely manner to an imminent threat of violence. As I understand, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the shooting, had recently conducted drills designed to bolster preparedness in the case of violence such as this. This may have prevented additional loss of life, but 17 lives were still ended on the day of the shooting, and a community is still coming to grips with its devastation. There’s only so much that can be done in these circumstances. The point, before you or I fail to be able to see the proverbial forest for the trees, is that these are worthy conservations to be having, but separate from or in addition to the gun control issue. Besides, it’s not as if mental health issues are a prerequisite for mass murder. In fact, numerous doctors have responded critically to President Trump’s insistence on talking about the mental health of the shooter in the aftermath of the tragedy.

That the national consciousness is as devoted as it is to bringing about political change is commendable. However, as Occupy Wall Street or perhaps even the #MeToo movement would teach us, we need to be clear and specific in what we’re asking for, and we need to make sure we follow through in measuring and tracking the variables that will have the greatest impact in reducing deaths related to gun violence. To put this another way, “gun reform” is an admirable pursuit, but as Liana Downey and others would insist, it won’t get us anywhere.

 

Will America Ever Make Real Progress on Gun Violence?

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A scene at a makeshift memorial after the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas earlier this month. Sadly, this is just another chapter in the continuing story of all-to-frequent gun violence in America. (Photo Credit: Courtney Sacco, Corpus Christi Caller-Times)

I can only imagine what the family and friends of those lost in the Sutherland Springs, TX church shooting are feeling, and while my emotions and opinions pale by comparison, after hearing of this recent event marked by unimaginable cruelty and loss of life, my immediate reaction was not of anger or fear or frustration or hopelessness or sadness, but of a vague resigned exhaustion over it all. Another week, another mass shooting. The same questions and suspicions. Who was the shooter? Were there warning signs about his intent to kill? Was he affiliated with ISIS or some other terrorist organization? What was his political orientation? Did he suffer from some personal trauma or mental illness? I’m sure you can think of more examples of the type of analysis that accompanies these sorts of tragedies, but that’s not my point. The point—one that I’m sure is not lost on scores of Americans on both sides of the aisle—is we’ve been here before. Aurora, Charleston, Columbine, Fort Hood, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook Elementary, Tucson, the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, VA—the list of sites of high-profile mass shootings goes on and on, and exceeds what I can or would want to remember. Moreover, when considering these flashpoint instances of extreme violence, the freshness and overlap is such that it exacerbates the extent of our hurting and our sorrow. Before we are even done grieving and saying our prayers for the victims and loved ones of one event, another one occurs and our focus shifts. With act after act of gun violence, a bad dream becomes a recurring nightmare accompanied by the fear we’ll never wake up.

In addition, highlighting the incidence of mass shootings in the United States, in part, obscures the totality of gun-related violence in the country today. As of November 11, the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit formed in 2013 to provide free public access to information about gun-related violence in the U.S., recorded 53,197 gun-related incidents in 2017 alone, 13,375 resulting in death and another 27,338 resulting in injury. This includes 310 mass shootings, 633 instances of children 0 to 11 killed or injured, and 2,825 instances of children 12 to 17 killed or injured; these events, it should be noted, may be concurrent, but the numbers are still upsetting. Even more disturbing is the notion these tallies do not even reflect the majority of gun-related deaths in America: suicides. Over 60% of fatalities involving guns in the United States are self-inflicted. To top it all off, it’s not as if the gun violence situation is getting better. According to the Center for Disease Control, firearm-related deaths in the U.S. rose in 2016, the second straight year of an overall increase in mortality rates after close to 15 years of being largely unchanged. Even if the spikes may be due in large part to violence in places like Chicago, where many of us essentially have come to expect firearm-related deaths and injuries, the specter of guns casts a long and dark shadow on America’s profile. According to a study published in February 2016 in The American Journal of Medicine, Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than in other developed countries, and 25 times more likely on average to be killed by guns than in the 22 other high-income nations referenced in the study. Even when suicide rates are comparable between the U.S. and a given high-income nation, Americans who take their lives are eight times more likely to do so with the help of a gun. These kinds of numbers would appear to be beyond the power of positive spin to put a shine to them.

It’s about this point in the gun law reform discussion that, in the face of verifiable quantitative data about just how profound the problem of gun violence is in America, the argument usually shifts to consideration of Second Amendment rights and discussions of mental health. Concerning the former, this provision of the Bill of Rights is interpreted as the “right to bear arms” for all people, and as many might contend, perhaps gun ownership shouldn’t be a right so much as a privilege. Certainly, the “right” to bear arms pales in comparison to the rights to, say, food and water, and furthermore, blindly pointing to the existence of the Second Amendment ignores the context in which it was created. That is, this right of gun ownership was intended for militias—not every Tom, Dick, and Harry—and I’m reasonably sure the Founding Fathers were not imagining semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles, or the like when including this provision in the Bill of Rights. As for the latter, the concern for mental health in this context is a red herring. Gun advocates who point to mass shooters as “unstable” sorts are doing so primarily because it is a convenient out. To put this another way, if these people were so concerned about improving mental health and access to affordable, high-quality treatment in the United States, they wouldn’t wait until there’s a tragedy to talk about this matter—nor would they resort to stock answers like this when prompted to respond to acts of unspeakable violence.

Otherwise, critics of gun control cling to the notion that having one or more guns in this situation—you know, not possessed by the shooter but by someone who intercedes to stop him or her—would save lives, and/or separately allude to the perpetrator not being a “responsible” gun owner. This time, I’ll begin with the latter. Identifying someone as a responsible gun owner is a nebulous distinction. By this, I mean to say that there doesn’t appear to be a broad consensus as to what constitutes responsible gun ownership. Is it keeping a firearm in a locked box or safe? Is the weapon stored separately from the ammunition, or does one keep it loaded out of necessity to act fast in the event of an intruder? I may be merely telegraphing my own ignorance about gun ownership as a non-owner here, but standards of care or safe storage look to vary by locale or with the assumption of risk of the user. I personally don’t want a firearm in my house for my own protection, and I definitely would not want a gun in the house if I had one or more children under my roof. On the part of the former, there’s a term for this belief: “the good guy with a gun” assumption. Even with respect to the Sutherland Springs massacre, Donald Trump and his FOX News-watching brethren will point to instances like Stephen Willeford, neighbor and bystander, shooting the assailant in the leg and torso and chasing him in a car after the fact. Not only did this all still equate to a loss of life, however, but the evidence suggests these types of interventions are outliers more so than the norm. We all are not John McClane in Die Hard. Trying to play hero could get you or other innocent people killed.


While much ado is made about who uses firearms in cases of extreme violence, why they do so, where and when the shootings take place, and how they go about procuring these deadly weapons, in looking at the big picture and trying to answer the big question of “What can we do to reduce gun violence rates in America?” the obvious crux of the matter is that there are simply too many guns. Statistically speaking, there is about one gun for every person in the United States, far surpassing the next-closest nation. As apparent as the problem of access to guns is, any action that is retroactive in nature to address the pervasiveness of the gun violence crisis is liable to produce a conflict of epic proportions, one that would see clashes between the liberal left and conservatives and libertarians who hold individual and states’ rights sacrosanct. Myth-making or not, the NRA and other Second Amendment supporters seem to have succeeded in spreading the narrative that the “godless” left is “coming for your guns.” Cue Charlton Heston’s famous line about prying his gun from his “cold, dead hands,” and so on and so forth. That there wasn’t a more significant backlash in the wake of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by an armed “militia” led by Ammon Bundy speaks to our national fixation with guns, not to mention it highlights a profound difference in the way whites with firearms and people of color with firearms are approached. With story after story about blacks being shot by police during routine traffic stops or low-level arrests, it appears only too likely the occupation in Oregon would have transpired much differently—and with way more bloodshed—if these armed militants were black or brown.

If taking people’s guns is therefore not a viable answer, and if people aren’t willing to cede possession of their weapons, looking forward, how do we enact policy that allows us to make real progress on the subject of gun control and gun violence? Going back to the idea of gun ownership being a right versus a privilege, let me deal in the context of an analogy, as I so often like to do on this blog and—annoying my friends and family in the process—in my personal life. Automobiles, like guns, involve pieces of metal moving at relatively high rates of speed. Based on their size, weight, momentum, and other factors, cars et al. have the power to injure and kill. This applies to not only drivers, but pedestrians as well, a thought reinforced by an alarming number of recent acts of violence on innocent bystanders at political rallies and as part of terroristic attacks. Owing to how dangerous operation of a motor vehicle can be, ownership and use is more of a privilege than an absolute right. Beyond the potential limitation of cost, there are numerous proverbial hoops through which to jump if one is to legally be able to share the road. You must be of a certain age specified by the state in which you reside, you must pass both a written and road test, you must register and insure your vehicle, and you must regularly maintain it, not merely for issues of performance and long-term viability, but to pass inspection and satisfy federal standards designed to ensure safety and to limit the emission of substances regarded as damaging to the Earth’s environment. These provisions of law, mind you, did not happen overnight, but are a function of the efforts of automobile safety advocates and other interested parties. Buying, driving, and owning a car is, in short, a big deal.

In terms of overall utility, a gun is far less useful than an automobile. With respect to a car, this may be a necessity for the individual, especially if his or her job/profession involves driving and relying on public transportation is impractical. Guns, meanwhile, are designed to intimidate, injure, or kill. Sure, there’s the notion that a firearm can be carried and owned as a measure of self-defense, but even then, the optimal outcome is that shots aren’t fired. In this sense, guns primarily confer the benefit of a sense of protection for the holder—even when this may be illusory. (By the way, don’t even get me started about the use of guns in hunting. If we’re talking about it as pure sport, I have no regard for this “tradition.” Play a deer-hunter simulator, why don’t you?) So why are guns so much more readily available in the United States when they have a far less redeeming social value than something like a motor vehicle. By now, it should be evident that the gun lobby in the United States has more clout and more influence than most single-issue advocacy groups. Whether or not you approve of their stances on various topics under the gun control/gun law reform umbrella, the National Rifle Association, represented in its lobbying efforts by the Institute for Legislative Action, is effective in impacting policy and mobilizing its members and supporters. Like President Trump, the NRA appeals to anti-government types and stokes feelings of anger and fear that “their” way of life is at risk of being taken away by runaway liberalism. It also makes use of gun clubs, gun magazines, gun shops, and other methods of communication to amplify its voice. The NRA is as entrenched a group in American politics as they come, and this has made, to a large extent, resistance to change so resolute.

So, does this mean that the gun lobby is unassailable and that positive steps forward become too long and heavy to take? No, I don’t believe this is the case, and I think analogies like the car vs. gun binary can be instructive. In saying this, I am mindful of the reflexive defense employed by gun advocates that cars kill thousands of people a year and we don’t blame the cars for the violence they help create, so why vilify guns? For one, as we’ve talked about heretofore, a car’s worth to society easily exceeds that of a gun’s. Guns are not critical to the American economy like cars are, nor are they essential for most people’s survival. In this respect, the comparison to automobiles as brutal killing machines is an apples-to-oranges parallel. Moreover, assuming we are putting dissimilarities aside in line with the wishes of Second Amendment fanatics, let’s put our money where our mouth is and treat gun ownership like car ownership. Let’s require that prospective gun users pass both a written and physical proficiency exam before they can become licensed to carry and operate a firearm. Let’s mandate that these weapons, like cars, get registered by their owners, and furthermore, that these owners obtain proof of insurance in the event of an incident. In the interest of safety, and if we can do this for cars and other vehicles, why can’t we do it for guns? In the case of a car accident, your seat belt and/or the airbag might save your life. In the case of a shooting, unless you happen to be wearing a bulletproof vest, the odds of not dying are decidedly not in your favor.

The straightest path to progress on this issue is a legislative one, and whether we are talking reform at the federal or state level, it initially appears we are chasing our tails by offering a solution at odds with the wishes of the gun lobby. The pursuit of advancement on gun law reform, however, was always going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and commensurate with the notion of the long haul for gun control, changing the political process and elevating new leaders to become lawmakers will take time. Both of these efforts are worth the time and energy, though, as much as our sense of exasperation over the same tragedies repeating themselves ad nauseum—not to mention the sheer stupidity and embarrassment of the Trump administration—may be. Despite the bluster of the NRA and other Second Amendment apologists, most Americans want sensible measures enacted to limit the ability of individuals who would do harm to others to legally procure deadly weapons, even if, in specific cases, existing gun laws may not have been sufficient to prevent a tragedy such as Sutherland Springs. We’re all sick and tired of hearing about these kinds of shootings. Let’s not allow our fatigue to bring us to a state of complacency when authentic change is possible.

When the NRA Points, Three Fingers Point Back

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Dana Loesch talks shit about other people’s outrage, but she’s sure good at acting like she’s outraged herself. (Image Source: Screenshot/YouTube)

We are in the midst of a culture war. Well, at least as some on the right would have us believe. President Donald Trump, for one, has used this kind of rhetoric to great effect on the campaign trail and continues to try drive a Russia-sized wedge between his supporters and the mainstream media. Recently, conservative talk radio host, television personality, and author Dana Loesch delivered a diatribe along these lines that got a lot of attention—mostly for the wrong reasons, but still. Loesch’s depiction of the United of States of America today on behalf of the NRA is nothing short of “madness,” a word she herself uses in setting a near-apocalyptic tone. Here are her words, and if you haven’t seen the video (you can Google it if you want—I’m not linking to that shit), I swear I am not making them up:

They use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse “the resistance.”

All to make them march. Make them protest. Make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding — until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.

And when that happens, they’ll use it as an excuse for their outrage. The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.

I’m the National Rifle Association of America. And I’m freedom’s safest place.

Apparently, our country is on the brink of catastrophe, and the NRA is America’s last hope for salvation and freedom. You know, not to self-aggrandize or anything. Dana Loesch’s rant is an emotionally-laden one, so on some level, it seems unfair to really sift through her comments and pick them apart. Then again, this is propaganda which has the power to motivate and influence people’s decisions, particularly in a negative direction, so—what the hell—let’s tear this speech to shreds. My $4.63 (two cents, adjusted for inflation):

They use their media to assassinate real news.

As opposed to fake news? Which is the real news and fake news, in this equation? Just checking. If we’re going to be conjuring images of unrest and trying to raise doubts about the fairness and soundness of the mainstream media, we should know who our so-called friends and enemies are, right? Right? Not only is Loesch remarkably vague in this demonization of the other, but she’s using some awfully loaded language from the jump. “Assassination” usually applies to the murder of someone notable or revered. Loesch could have used “kill” or even “destroy,” but instead, she chose to invoke a context in which the President is under attack and in immediate danger. Never mind that Donald Trump has been a consistent aggressor with respect to the news media, even going so far as to re-Tweet a depiction of himself nailing the likes of CNN with a wrestling move. For someone in the crosshairs, Trump sure lashes out at the MSM a lot. It’s at least a two-way street, but our President would imagine it as nothing more than a witch hunt—even when the news media has largely pulled its punches, sacrificing a certain standard for the sake of clicks, ratings and views. In other words, both sides have been doing their part to diminish a free press.

They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler.

OK, so the “Donald Trump is Hitler” angle was always apt to be overblown, but when the man is being cheered on by David Duke and white nationalists across the globe, it’s not a completely absurd comparison, especially not when someone like Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s stepsister, has accused Trump of “acting like another Hitler.” I’m actually less concerned about Dana Loesch’s allusion to Hitler here, and more disturbed by the attack on schools as a bastion of liberal indoctrination. If teaching children to respect women and people of other nations, races, and faiths is wrong, then so be it, because you’re sure as hell not getting that from our President.

They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse “the resistance.”

We’ve heard this line ample times before, especially from the right. Why do these celebrities have to wax political all the time? #StayInYourLane, am I right? Except for the idea that politics affects pretty much everything else, and these celebrities are not only entitled to their views, but arguably should be engaged when the direction of the country is involved. I don’t denigrate Scott Baio for expressing his conservative political views. Maybe I might denigrate him for lacking talent as an actor, but like I said, he can say and think what he wants. This is America. Speaking of views, what, pray tell, is wrong with a politician like Barack Obama commenting on “the resistance?” It’s literally been his job to be involved in politics, and he led the freaking country for eight years. If Trump is doing a shitty job, who better than his Barack-ness to render his opinion having done the same job?

All to make them march. Make them protest. Make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding — until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.

Um, Ms. Loesch, it’s American tradition to march and protest, not to mention completely legal unless it veers into the realm of violence and destruction of property. Even then, you’re describing a minority of instances and bad actors, and while we’re on the subject of the police and of bullying and terrorization, what about the fear that people of color face when they are made to understand that being stopped for a broken taillight may end up in their effective murder at the hands of an officer of the law? What about someone like Philando Castile being shot several times despite trying to warn the officer who stopped him that he was legally carrying a weapon? That to me is madness. Not to mention racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia can and should be called out and decried. There’s this notion going around that political correctness is holding us back as a nation, but it’s burdensome only to those who don’t practice it and who don’t genuinely believe people should be loved and respected.

And when that happens, they’ll use it as an excuse for their outrage. The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.

Let’s get this straight: I don’t hate the police. I respect the job they do, thank them for keeping us safe, and appreciate the danger many of them face every day. I would even concede that most who wear the badge are good cops, and I think most Americans, liberal, centrist, or conservative, would feel the same way. Nonetheless, when officers of the law do not do their jobs correctly, or otherwise act in bad faith, that outrage is arguably warranted, especially when police forces show little interest in trying to admonish police for their bad behavior or even actively try to suppress the evidence. Again, any protests should be respectful and non-violent, but this is not to say they are unfair, and furthermore, one might submit that if anyone should want bad cops exposed, it’s others within their ranks.

Enough about our women and men in blue, however. Loesch here talks about fighting a “violence of lies” with “the clenched fist of truth.” First of all, what the heck is a “violence of lies?” Based on the dictionary definition, she is either referring to the conscious act of trying to hurt, damage, or kill something, or a strength of emotion/destructive force. Either way, it’s an odd turn of phrase, akin to calling a group of cows a gaggle. Besides, she points to the left and cries foul, but the same can be and has been said about the right, and I may be biased, but the criticism is way more justified.

One last thing: the clenched fist is a symbol of the resistance you have taken great pains to demonize. You and your conservative ilk are in power now, so kindly, ahem, step off, or else I have a new hand gesture involving a particular finger and pejorative meaning waiting in the wings


The thing that always gets me about the National Rifle Association and appeals to “freedom” is that it always seems as if the organization and its supporters are depicting a situation by which the “godless” left is coming for their guns. Except I never actually hear anyone on the left say we should take away the right to bear arms. This last election cycle, Hillary Clinton distinguished herself from Bernie Sanders by appearing tougher on guns, even going as far as to support the families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting in a bid to bring suit against gun manufacturers. (I myself, perhaps unsurprisingly, sided with the latter, because I don’t see the value in such litigation except in instances where the manufacturer clearly was at fault in creating a product that malfunctions or knowingly sells to a criminal element, but this point may be debated.) Still, even Clinton has never advocated abolishing the Second Amendment outright. Sure, she and others (including myself) may call for a restriction on sales of military-grade weapons to civilians, but this seems pretty sensible. Of course, “sensible” may be a relative term when it comes to gun policy and gun reform in the United States, but do with this sentiment what you may.

While we’re speaking in “sensible” terms, let’s state something which is obvious, but nonetheless bears repeating. The purpose of guns is to harm, intimidate, and kill. Sure, it may be used for hunting, but that still fits the bill. #DeerLivesMatter. Otherwise, people may blow off steam and practice their target shooting, though if they really wanted, they could—I don’t know—go to the bar instead. The most legitimate reason why anyone not already required to carry a firearm per their job or role should own a firearm, as I see it, is for defense of his or her home. Beyond that, the justifications largely appear to fall flat. Guns result in pieces of metal moving at high rates of speed. In this respect, they are like cars, huge masses of metal which are designed to move at high rates of speed. Cars, like guns, have the potential to kill. For this reason, before being able to legally drive one, people must first be old enough, and must pass both a written and road test. Because they can cause destruction, including to one another (not to mention they can cost a shit-ton), there are any number of car insurance companies as well. Automobiles, in short, are a big deal and require the requisite know-how and safeguards to operate, but hey, they get you where you need to go.

So, let’s get this straight: cars, which are comparatively much more useful than guns, require much more documentation and proof of proficiency than guns, devices designed solely to frighten, maim, and/or end a living thing’s existence. Wait, what? Relatively speaking, it is frighteningly simple to get a gun legally in the United States of America. A June 2016 report by Doug Criss for CNN put this matter in jarring perspective when it considered how a gun is easier to get than any number of things in this country. As noted, it is easier to get a lethal weapon than a driver’s license. You don’t need to pass any knowledge or proficiency exams, nor do you even need, in most cases, a license or permit. Furthermore, whereas new drivers in a state like Maryland must go through a probationary period, there is no such requirement for firearms. Just go to the shop, get a gun and some ammo, load that sucker up, and get to shooting!

Criss provides other examples as well, and of considerably less danger, to boot. For a passport, you need to prove your identity as a citizen, file paperwork, submit a photo, and wait about six weeks for processing, whereas with guns, if buying from a private seller, you likely don’t even need a background check. You may be limited to the amount of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine you buy in a month because it can be used to make meth; no federal law places such a limit on the number of guns you can purchase. For a divorce, it may take several months to finalize; the most stringent gun buying laws in individual states would have you wait mere days before you can take home your shiny new lethal weapon. Even getting a puppy may require you to be 21 or older, provide personal references, and submit to a home visit when adopting from an agency. A gun is nowhere as cute and cuddly, and necessitates no home visits or personal references. And, as we’ve firmly established, it can kill you.


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Donald Trump, being an asshole. As usual. (Image Source: CNN/Screencapture)

The influence of the National Rifle Association as a subset of the larger discussion of the issue of money in politics should trouble Americans regardless of their political affiliation, though certainly, those on the left particularly concerned about this matter should be especially alarmed. Not only is the NRA obviously well-connected in terms of access to politicians and availability of funds to devote to lobbying efforts, but they are also well-organized in terms of communicating with their membership and putting them on a path to action. In a piece from last year for NBC penned in the wake of the Orlando shooting, Leigh Ann Caldwell explored how the NRA exerts influence beyond mere political contributions to individual candidates. The Association can give to the major political parties as well as committees within their ranks at both the state and national level. Its five-million-plus members can also donate of their own accord, not to mention the NRA has its own super PAC and 501(c)(4) organization for the purpose of political campaigns. To top it all off, and perhaps most significantly, the NRA communicates constantly with its membership, informing them about gun-related votes, advising them how to vote, and even spelling out how specific lawmakers voted on the issues so as to apply political pressure accordingly, with people at the ready to send E-mails, letters, and phone calls in line with this function. Oh, and they register people to vote, too. At a time when Republican efforts to curtail the vote for the Democrats’ traditional systems of support are as strong as ever, this detail is not insignificant.

So, how do we solve a problem like the NRA? The answer is both a simple one, i.e. funding resistance efforts, and a complicated one, in light of how entrenched its power is and how effectively it marshals resources when a vote is involved. Back in 2014,  Tim Dickinson wrote about how to beat the NRA in seven not-so-easy steps for Rolling Stone. Though perhaps a bit obvious, though decidedly necessary to mention given its history and investment in politics heretofore, the first step Dickinson outlined was committing to a generation-long battle against the gun lobby. With that, the next recommendation was to develop a local strategy of supporting gun control initiatives to amplify the position of the pro-reform White House. Of course, now man-baby Donald Trump is President, so the equation changes quite a bit, but the point of acting at the state and community level is yet highly relevant.

The other five steps vary in terms of how compelling they are, notably if you happen to be a progressive like myself, but they are worth deliberating. #3 involves politicizing disaster, because the NRA already does it and little has moved the proverbial needle outside of “making a political issue of the tiny coffins of dead children in the wake of a school shooting.” In advertising, they say sex sells, but maybe the anti-gun-violence activists among us need to fight fire with fire and play on the public’s emotions. Along these lines, #4 involves taking swift action to capitalize on tragedy. As Dickinson would have it, think less Barack Obama and more Andrew Cuomo. #5 is to bring Big Money to the table. This seems to be akin to dancing with the devil, but there is value in the idea that this money would be linked to a broad base of gun control activists with their own ability to donate and vote to the cause. #6 is to “think bigger than mayors, moms, and martyrs.” That is, create a movement that isn’t limited to concerned mothers and families of victims, and that has a simple message about ending gun violence and making communities safer. Finally, #7 involves preparing for setbacks and retaliation from the National Rifle Association. After all, if, in the wake of shooting after shooting, we are still lagging behind in terms of the use of background checks, waiting periods, and limiting sales of weaponry designed to kill the most people in the shortest amount of time, we need to understand that the NRA is primed to play both offense and defense. So far, it’s been a winning formula for the gun lobby.

Speaking of setbacks, Dana Loesch’s propaganda rant on behalf of the NRA was criticized not only by proponents of gun reform, but many gun owners as well as being a bit much. Still, if we would expect this to seriously hurt the National Rifle Association and its ability to recruit, we would be patently naïve, and we should be duly worried about how some of the organization’s supporters might interpret Loesch’s broad message. Loesch et al. frame this is as a “culture war,” but some might heed the call to action armed with more than just the clenched fist of truth, if you catch my drift. Lastly, in accordance with Tim Dickinson’s ideas, we must understand there is no, ahem, silver bullet when it comes to fighting the NRA’s influence. It will take money, it will take community involvement, and most of all, it will take time. When the NRA points, three fingers point back in terms of its contributions to limiting the freedom of Americans everywhere to enjoy safety without the fear of gun violence. If you think this is a self-defeating principle, however, feel free to talk to those onlookers at the Trump presidency still waiting on impeachment.

President Obama, Stand Up for Standing Rock

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President Obama, you spared two turkeys for Thanksgiving. After a holiday in which many Americans looked past the brutal history which belies the narrative told by white America, don’t look past the people of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. (Image retrieved from stupiddope.com.)

As part of his presidential duties, Barack Obama pardoned, in time for Thanksgiving, the final turkeys of his tenure from the highest political office in the nation. As a lame duck president, if Obama wants more than the sparing of two birds to add to his legacy in his final days as POTUS, he should stand with the people of Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and their supporters—before it’s too late.

Let’s walk things back a bit, though. What exactly is President Obama’s legacy, and what do we make of all this business in Standing Rock? On the first count, well, it’s complicated. Ask five different people what they think about Barack Obama’s eight years in office, and you’ll likely get five different responses. According to the most recent Gallup polling, at any rate, on approval of the job President Obama is doing, from the period spanning November 14 to November 20, 2016, 56% give the man a thumbs-up. This figure is under the high watermark of 69%, the average set across the three-day period from January 22 to January 24, 2009, when Obama was just settling into his new role as leader of the free world, but significantly better than the 38% nadir he registered numerous times after that 69% zenith, most recently in September of 2014. To put this in historical perspective, Barack Obama’s 32nd-quarter rating is about four percentage points higher than that of U.S. presidents across history. It is roughly equivalent with the approval rating enjoyed by President Ronald Reagan at the same point in his presidency (57%), a few points behind that of Bill Clinton (63%), and, ahem, leaps and bounds ahead of George W. Bush (29%). So, per the vox populi, Pres. Barack Obama is in line with what we’d expect from a person of his stature, and even slightly better.

While public opinion can inform history’s larger judgment of a president’s impact on the country, perhaps it would prove more instructive to view Obama’s two terms through the lens of major events within them. Accordingly, let’s review his seven-plus years and change and see what stands out:

Stimulus package/Economic policy

Even the most hard-hearted Republican critics of Barack Obama as President of the United States would probably tend to acknowledge the guy was handed a pretty rough deal in light of economic happenings at the time. The country was reeling from the global financial crisis known here in the U.S. as the Great Recession, and in a move designed to prevent the American economy from complete collapse, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, which authorized $787 billion in spending to combat the negative effects of the recession. The Obama administration contended that the various measures enacted under ARRA were necessary to avoid an even worse fate for the nation. Of course, this argument seemed all but lost on GOP lawmakers; in an example of the kind of partisan conflict Barack Obama’s initiatives would experience throughout his time in office, ARRA would only make it to his desk to be signed on the strength of Democrats’ votes, with just three Republican senators voting yea as the bill worked its way through Congress. Emergency spending bills, threats of government shutdowns—Jesus, the GOP really likes to play chicken with the U.S. economy, don’t they?

The Obama administration lobbied for a second such “stimulus package” later in the year, but this would fail to pass. By this point, Republican assassination of the legacy of the ARRA was well under way, with the idea of a “stimulus” bill proving wildly unpopular with the public. Still, it is not as if President Obama’s policies didn’t make an impact even beyond the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Speaking of large cash infusions to institutions, Obama presided over a second auto bailout to the tune of $9.3 billion more. Pres. Obama also signed into law a federal minimum wage increase up to $7.25, which is great for the workers it affects but falls well short of the $12 minimum wage Barack Obama himself had sought and which Hillary Clinton had stressed as a part of her economic plan during her campaign.

As for post-recession trends during Obama’s two terms, median income has yet to rebound from its 2007 pre-recession rate, prompting fears those incomes will never return. GDP growth has been positive, but not overwhelming. Short-term interest rates only recently increased after staying near zero for most of the Obama presidency. Finally, unemployment has seen a decline from its 10% peak in 2009, and lately has been hovering around a rate of 5%, but this figure is somewhat misleading owing to things like comparisons between part-time and full-time workers as well as inability to account for those who have given up looking for work. Broadly speaking, one might judge Barack Obama’s presidency, in economic terms, as one which averted disaster, but otherwise has been uneven to minimal in the benefits it has promoted in these key areas.

Other economic policy stances

The political hot potato that it always seems to be, the national debt has also been a topic of considerable discussion during Obama’s tenure as POTUS. While other countries faced austerity measures related to the global financial crisis, U.S. government debt has grown under Barack Obama’s watch, paving the way for conflicts along politically ideological lines concerning whether or not spending should be slashed in key areas. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, or the Simpson-Bowles Commission, was commissioned in 2010 to address ways in which the United States might significantly lower its debt. Numerous individual measures were suggested as part of this report, though the analysis that resulted from the Commission was broadly encapsulated by calls for spending cuts (e.g. cutting into our bloated military spending) and tax increases. Of course, suggesting we spend less on the military and take more from wealthy Americans generally doesn’t sit well with the GOP, so perhaps unsurprisingly, these proposals never received a vote of approval in Congress. Oh, well. The academic exercise was fun, wasn’t it?

Even before Barack Obama took office in 2009, Republican lawmakers were primed to give him hell on matters of the nation’s debt ceiling. When the GOP, buoyed by surging popularity of Tea Party Republican politics, cleaned up in the 2010 mid-term elections, and their voice got that much louder in the House of Representatives, debates over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling and/or effect significant cuts in areas like entitlement programs and military spending grew that much more contentious. Obama, to his credit, tried to negotiate with John Boehner and the other House Republicans on these matters. Predictably, that didn’t work in terms of a “grand bargain.” Instead, we got the Budget Control Act of 2011, which raised the debt ceiling, kicking the proverbial can down the road as per the usual, as well as established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which also didn’t work, and provided for budget sequestration, which would automatically take effect in case Democrats and Republicans couldn’t reach an agreement through the Committee. Which, of course, it did.

Later on in Obama’s presidency, in October 2013, there was a fun little government shutdown, again resulting from an impasse on concerns of a budgetary nature—this time, over whether or not to defund ObamaCare. The end result of that political kerfuffle was a resolution to end the shutdown, fund an omnibus spending bill, and raise the debt ceiling—again. The above conflicts, viewed out of context, can be viewed as a hallmark of a presidency helmed by a divisive leader. In reality, though, it takes two to tango, and since achieving a majority in the House and the Senate, Republicans have been every bit the stubborn obstructionists we might expect from lawmakers deferring to party politics. In other words, for all the griping about Batack Obama’s failure to reach across the political aisle, GOP lawmakers were awfully quick to slap at his hand on the occasions he did eke it out.

Foreign policy

There’s so much material here it’s difficult to know where to begin. We might have to look at some of the highlights within the highlights, so to speak. Here are just some of the areas that helped define Barack Obama’s time as the so-called leader of the free world:

1) Afghanistan and Iraq

Much as President Obama inherited an economic shit-storm with the advent of the Great Recession, the man inherited a veritable quagmire in the Middle East after George W. Bush plunged us headlong into armed conflict in not one, but two, countries. Noting the challenges presented by America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama should be afforded some understanding with respect to the tough decisions he was forced to reckon with as Dubya’s successor. Of course, this is not to absolutely meant to exonerate him either. On one hand, Barack Obama, a vocal critic of the Iraq War during his initial campaign, was instrumental in the substantial drawing-down of troops stationed in Iraq, at least prior to the rise of ISIS.

On the other hand, as advised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, Obama authorized the expansion of American servicemen and servicewomen to a high mark of 100,000 in Afghanistan before signing an agreement to leave major combat operations to Afghan forces. If there’s one major criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the ongoing situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, from my perspective, it is that it has been too eager to spin a narrative of success and close the book on our efforts in these countries when the ever-present threat of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and, within the former, the Taliban, exists and causes unrest. By the same token, this is not to meant to overstate their danger, but only to consider that the way in which we fight wars is changing, and to put a timetable on completion when deep ideological divisions lie behind conflicts on international and national levels almost invites that schedule’s destruction.

2) China/East Asia

China has been a toughie for Barack Obama as President, no lie. While more recently, the emerging power has seen a slowing of its economy, its overall improvement in stature on the world’s stage has meant that President Xi Jinping and Co. have been eager to whip their dongs out and swing them around. In particular, the U.S. and China have shared a rather tentative relationship of late, with periodic spats over issues like arms sales to Taiwan, climate change, cyber-security, handling of North Korea, human rights, and territorial disputes. If nothing else, though, the apparent declining support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—an agreement meant, if nothing else, to assert American economic presence in Asia alongside the People’s Republic—seems to have saved Obama from a potential stain on his legacy.

Speaking of North Korea, by the way, um, it’s still there, and still working on nuclear weaponry. Sweet dreams.

3) Cuba

So, that whole thing about Cuba being on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list is done with. Also, recently, diplomatic relationships have been restored between Cuba and the United States, and economic restrictions have been loosened. Shit, Obama even went to see a baseball game down there! Cuban-American relations, in short, seem to be on the upswing. Then again, if Fidel Castro’s parting words before his recent passing are any indication, the U.S. would be wise to proceed with caution, and perhaps vice-versa. Castro wrote caustically that Cuba does not need any gifts from “the Empire,” and furthermore, that Barack Obama has not tried to understand Cuban politics. While it may seem as if everything is hunky-dory now, seeds of resentment toward America may yet exist in Cuba and elsewhere in lands touched by communism.

4) Drone strikes

Perhaps one of my biggest gripes with Barack Obama’s foreign policy stances over his tenure was that his administration saw an expansion of the drone warfare program set upon by George W. Bush. The predominant criticism with this bit of policy shift is that for all the terrorist figureheads “neutralized” by strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, numerous civilian casualties have resulted, including those of American citizens. A drone strike was even used to intentionally take out Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen and Muslim cleric with ties to al-Qaeda, controversial in its own right for essentially being an extrajudicial killing OK’d by the Commander-in-Chief.

It seems more than vaguely hypocritical for the United States to police the world and portray itself as a white knight of sorts when it goes around bombing other countries, killing innocent people, and apologizing with a note saying “Oops!” We may not be terrorists per se, but indiscriminately flexing our military muscles with little regard for collateral damage is a sin in its own right. And Obama is guilty in his own right, to be sure.

5) Gitmo

The obstruction of Republicans notwithstanding, that President Obama has been unable to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay as intended—a goal he has reaffirmed year after year, at that—has got to feel like a disappointment for both he and human rights advocates. Sure, strides have been made in reducing the number of captives at the naval base there, as well as ending the practices of “enhanced” interrogation techniques and referring to those being held in detention as “enemy combatants,” but that detainees can still be held indefinitely without being charged is gross overreach on the part of the United States government. From where I’m sitting, Gitmo’s legacy is a stain on our national character, and potentially giving Donald Trump and his appointees broad access is deeply troubling.

6) Iran

Republicans tend to get all worked up about where we are in our relationship with Iran, with two main triggers in this regard. The first is America’s resolution with Iran concerning the latter’s agreement to limits on its nuclear program and access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in return for reducing sanctions. To be fair, it doesn’t exactly warm the cockles of one’s heart to have to negotiate with a country that has more or less made “Death to America” a national slogan. Nonetheless, outside the realm of Congress and with no disrespect to Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, it would seem as if there is high approval for such an accord, and I, for one, feel better about having some sort of understanding in place and approaching the situation with a greater sense of diplomacy than George W. Bush and his hawkish administration did.

The other issue that gets GOP politicians and conservative theorists alike all hot and bothered is a supposed $1.7 billion “ransom payment” (includes interest) to the Iranian government in return for the release of three American prisoners. The timing was suspicious, as I’m sure many on both the left and right can agree, but not merely to minimize this controversy, but I also don’t know what evidence there is that these monies were wired for the express purpose of hostage release. It’s bad optics, yes, but there is the possibility it is just that.

7) Libya

By now, most of America’s fixation on Libya seems to involve the events surrounding the attack on Benghazi. I remain critical of the Department of State’s handling of this situation, as I believe requests for more security and resources at the diplomatic mission were ignored by Hillary Clinton’s department, and suggesting she isn’t culpable because she wasn’t made aware of the deteriorating situation in Libya rings hollow when it can be argued that she should have been more aware, especially when she and others within the Obama administration were instrumental in pushing for Gaddafi’s deposition. While perhaps not the most egregious chapter in the book of Barack Obama’s presidency, America’s involvement in Libya during his two terms also doesn’t do much to allay concerns about our nation’s “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude when it comes to addressing international and national disputes.

8) Osama bin Laden

Oh, yeah. We killed that f**ker. Moving along.

9) Russia

Relations between the United States of America and the Russian Federation seemed to be moving in a positive direction, at least during Obama’s first term. Our president and their president signed a major nuclear arms control agreement. Russia joined the World Trade Organization, and the two countries were doing business again. The U.S. and Russia—Russia and the U.S.—we were like BFFs! And then Vladimir Putin took the reins again in Russia, and that got shot to shit. With actions such as the annexation of Crimea, repeated incursions into the Ukraine, and propping up the deadly regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Putin’s militarism has put his country on a course directly at odds with the “reset” Barack Obama had envisioned for U.S.-Russia relations. Most recently, probable interference of the Russians in American electoral affairs—needless to say, so not cool. Obama has caught a lot of flak for not meeting Putin’s shows of force with the same contentious spirit, but I applaud his administration’s levelheadedness, as too much fuel on the fire could lead to an escalation of any conflict, armed or otherwise. Sometimes, restraint is the best policy. Looking at you, President-Elect Trump.

10) Syria

Speaking of Syria, it’s a mess. Assad, insurgent forces, ISIS, Russia, and the U.S. launching airstrikes—and the proud people of a country with a rich history caught in between. It’s a devastating situation, and no doubt you’ve seen some of the photos of the carnage. In November of last year, Barack Obama announced a plan to resettle some 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States. If you ask me, the number should probably closer to 100,000—conservative Republican rhetoric be damned. Though the civil unrest is a conflict of a military nature, the suffering within Syria is a fundamentally human issue. Pres. Obama did not cause this war. He and Hillary Clinton did not give rise to ISIS. As such, he alone cannot solve the complex problems within the Syrian state. Alongside cooperation with neighboring countries, what we sorely need is compassion for the people affected by the fighting in Syria.

Social policy/domestic initiatives

Again, there’s a lot of ways we could go with topics under this heading, but seeing as we’ve already been through a lot of material, I’ll try to be briefer on this end. The domestic initiative most synonymous with Barack Obama’s presidency is, of course, the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as ObamaCare. There are a lot of ObamaCare haters out there, and in light of this antipathy, even staunch Democrats have found themselves hard-pressed to defend the ACA. For my part, though the initial execution may have been flawed (recall all those early problems with Healthcare.gov), this initiative does put us closer to where we need to be in terms of universal healthcare—which is a right, mind you, or should be. The notion of any sort of mandate, be it required of employers or individuals, it would seem, really sticks in the craw of its detractors, but despite the hooting and hollering about government overreach from the right and railing about the burden on small businesses, having large numbers of uninsured Americans creates its own costs, and potentially larger ones at that down the road. ObamaCare is not perfect, but to label it an outright failure is more than a little misleading.

On other dimensions of domestic policy, Pres. Obama’s initiatives, if not particularly far-reaching, can be once more understood within the context of an obstructionist Congress. Barack Obama signed into law a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but only on the strength of support from Democratic lawmakers. Though the Obama administration saw a record number of deportations, Obama himself has been a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act, and signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy into law—even though he has been fought tooth-and-nail on both issues. Attempts to pass sensible gun law reform have been, in a word, cock-blocked by Republicans’ subservience to the NRA. And anyone thinking Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency would magically fix what ails the nation in terms of racial prejudice has full permission to go screw. As recent political events have brought to the forefront, there is a lot of deep-seated racism present in the United States, the likes of which Jesus Himself couldn’t hope to overcome. To those who would brand Barack Obama as a divider and not a uniter, I must express my doubts about how seriously you were willing to be united in the first place—that is, on terms other than your own.


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Mr. President, you shed tears for the victims of gun violence. Will you do the same for the people of Standing Rock Indian Reservation and the planet? (Photo Credit: AFP)

Full disclosure: I used and thank Wikipedia’s page on Barack Obama’s presidency for serving as a template for my personal opinions on his administration’s policies in light of the challenges he has faced. If you do check that link, you’ll notice I omitted two sections. One is science, technology, and the environment, a lot of which I found to be dry and uninteresting, quite frankly, and since this post is long enough already, I opted to scrap it, though environmental concerns are related to the discussion soon to follow. The other section, meanwhile, is ethics, and it is at this point which I’ll strive to make the connection to Standing Rock. Overall, I feel Barack Obama, who easily outpaces George W. Bush in leadership skills and sound foreign policy navigation (not exactly the most difficult achievement), if I may say so myself, has done a fairly good job at steering the nation along a path of incremental progress, a job made that much more difficult by the obstinacy of the GOP.

This notion of the virtue of incremental progress, however, in itself a limiting factor, and thus, in general terms, is at the same time a major criticism of the Obama occupancy of the White House—that his policies haven’t gone far enough, even noting Republican resistance. Don’t get me wrong—I like Barack Obama. As a person, I think he’s got a great personality, not to mention a beautiful family and a wife and First Lady in Michelle who may be as capable a leader as he, if not more so. Nevertheless, there are points where I disagree with the President, a notion some Democratic Party loyalists treat as tantamount to disrespect or even heresy. On an economic front, as alluded to earlier, I disapprove of Obama’s stubborn adherence to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As a true Bernie Sanders devotee, I also find fault with his administration’s seeming unwillingness to go beyond the provisions of Dodd-Frank, as many would agree is necessary to keep Wall Street in check, including but not limited to reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, not to mention his extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. Within the sphere of social policy, too, for all the reforms made in the intersection of the criminal justice system and drug laws, the war on drugs still rages on, and the DEA is still wont to equate marijuana with a drug like heroin, while substances like alcohol, opioids and tobacco are easily accessible.

Additionally, invoking again matters of ethics, for a president who vowed that lobbyists wouldn’t find a place in his White House and that his administration would be the most transparent in history, Barack Obama has waffled if not deliberately violated these precepts. If we add the revelation of the existence in 2013 by Edward Snowden of the PRISM mass electronic surveillance program as a function of the NSA, the willingness of the Obama administration to cross ethical lines, if not legal and constitutional lines, is all the more unsettling. If we bring contemplations of social and moral responsibility into the mix, meanwhile, while, again, Obama has fared significantly better than his predecessor, as regards the environment, it’s yet a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Pres. Obama has identified climate change as the biggest threat the nation and world faces, and has set forth legislation on numerous occasions designed to cap carbon emissions and overall reduce the United States’ emissions footprint. On the other hand, Obama has only nixed domestic offshore drilling and other projects like the Keystone XL extension because they weren’t economically viable, not for strict adherence to environmental principles. Do as I say, not as I’d do if the money were better.

Enter the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Some background information, first. Energy Transfer Partners, a Fortune 500 natural gas and propane firm, seeks to construct a pipeline that would run from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota to a point in southern Illinois, going underneath the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and part of Lake Oahe near Standing Rock in the process. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the proposed pipeline would have little to no impact on the surrounding area. This assessment, however, has been judged by outside observers as being rather limited in scope, failing to analyze the situation in terms of a potential area-wide environmental impact, and since being asked to conduct a full-scale review by various related agencies, even the Corps has acknowledged it needs more time to make an adequate assessment on the impact the Dakota Access Pipeline could have.

That’s the good news, the delay. The bad news comes with how little attention the progress of the Dakota Access Pipeline project and the protests of its completion have received until recently, and just how severe the backlash has been against protestors from security guards contracted by those involved with the pipeline project as well as law enforcement siding with the corporate entity. There have been reports of guard dogs and pepper spray used on protestors, as well as concussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons in freezing conditions, not to mention the use of the criminal justice system to intimidate and silence journalists. Even if some protestors were being unruly, though, as North Dakota state police have alleged, this use of force appears disproportionate and harsh. What’s more, this treatment would seem to run at odds with how other superficially similar situations have unfolded. Making an allusion to the extended occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by armed militants, the coiner of the term Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza had this to say:

So let me get this correct. If you’re white, you can occupy federal property … and get found not guilty. No teargas, no tanks, no rubber bullets … If you’re indigenous and fighting to protect our earth, and the water we depend on to survive, you get tear gassed, media blackouts, tanks and all that.

The disparity seems pretty telling. In America, the sanctity of Indian lands and water sources evidently pales in comparison to the whims of the fossil fuel industry and white privilege. If you’re pumping vast sums of oil or you’re Caucasian and packing heat in vague protest of government overreach, you stand to fare better than a Dakota Access Pipeline protestor or, say, a black person stopped by the cops for a minor traffic violation.

Thankfully, in light of the apparent brutality shown toward these protestors, along with the sheer number of people who have stood with Standing Rock, not to mention several entertainers and other celebrities who have drawn attention to the plight of the reservation’s Sioux citizens and others who have suffered for the cause (for Christ’s sake, they arrested Shailene Woodley, of all people! Shailene Woodley!), average Joes like you and me are taking notice. One voice above all, though, would carry considerably more weight, and since I spent some 3,000 words talking about him just now, I think you know to whom I’m alluding. Barack Obama has been notably silent on matters of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, as were Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton once it became, for all intents and purposes, a heads-up contest for the presidency.

It’s not like his involvement hasn’t been sought, either. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader and voice for the Great Sioux Nation, has pleaded with Pres. Obama to keep his word with recognition of treaties with native peoples and to act when they are violated. Bernie Sanders has spoken at a protest in front of the White House and personally appealed to the President to act against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and other senators have urged him and his administration to do a more thorough environmental assessment of the project’s impact, as well as consider consulting more directly and openly with tribal representatives. Obama himself has even acknowledged Standing Rock Reservation and the associated protests by name on more than occasion.

Acknowledgment of the problem helps, and I encourage those of you who support resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline to use the hashtag #NoDAPL in your social media posts and dialogs. But we need action—not just from people like you and I—but from our leaders, those with the most direct path and power to affect change. And Barack Obama is at the top of the list. As noted, Obama and Co. has killed offshore drilling projects and the Keystone XL extension—though not necessarily for the purported altruistic reasons. Going back to his legacy, though, if ever there were a time to stand for something on principle, it would be now, and standing with the people of Standing Rock and the future of the planet over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the fossil fuel industry. President Obama, if I may address you directly, sir—you are a lame duck president. Your political party just had its ass handed to it in the election, despite the results of the popular vote for the president, in part because people are fed up with politics as usual and the incremental progress paradigm of yesteryear. And while party loyalists and more moderate liberals may support you no matter what, those of us disenfranchised with the status quo are asking for more, and to boot, those on the extreme right are intent on destroying the best points of your legacy.

Which is why, Mr. President, now is the time to act. Stand with Standing Rock, because Donald Trump almost certainly won’t. Re-write the narrative. Leave one final meritorious page in the storybook of your presidency. I, concerned citizens around the world, and the planet itself will thank and remember you for it.

Thoughts on Mental Illness Awareness, from Someone Who Suffers from Depression and Anxiety

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Part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s ongoing campaign to de-stigmatize depression and other mental illnesses. (Retrieved from nami.org.)

One of my favorite lines—and I mean this wholly facetiously—from opponents of restrictions on firearm ownership in the wake of some mass shooting is the notion the problem is not a gun control issue, but rather a mental health concern. It’s not the gun’s fault—it’s the crazy people who decide to shoot up a classroom, movie theater, or office. This is like when a jihadist invokes Allah when firing upon innocent bystanders, and suddenly, the fact that he or she is carrying an assault rifle is unimportant—it’s “radical Islam” that’s to blame. And presumably Barack Obama and/or Hillary Clinton. If the GOP had their way, they’d blame those two for AIDS, ISIS, swarms of locusts, and any number of deleterious phenomena observed in the world today. For members of the NRA and like-minded staunch defenders of the Second Amendment, there is always some way to argue or excuse away the role guns play in mass shootings and homicides, and thus resist the call for sensible gun law reform. Guns don’t kill people—people kill people. If the killer wanted to, he could have gotten that gun illegally anyway. Maybe if the victims all had guns, this crisis could have been averted. Yes, more guns! Guns, guns, guns! Let’s make sure we put the safety on while we jerk off to the sight of our precious, wonderful guns!

Now that I’ve shaken an angry fist at gun apologists, let’s revisit the whole mental health angle. Why I hate this mention of mental illness in relation to violence—you know, besides the free pass given to the gun lobby amid all the misdirection—is that the desire of those who point to mental health to do something substantive about the pervasiveness of suffering in adults and children in the U.S. is dubious, at best. These mass shootings are about mental illness, huh? Well, do you want to do something about mental health and mental illness in this country, then? You’ll volunteer your time to work with and interact with at-risk individuals? No? How come you only talk about mental health after someone terrorizes a college campus, or walks into a church and starts unloading? Maybe we’re all just not praying hard enough for all this gun violence to end. Gee, golly gosh!

If those naysayers who jump at the chance to throw mental illness under the proverbial bus and stand in the way of common-sense gun law reform were to legitimately consider how much of a mental health crisis the good ol’ U.S. of A. realistically faces, they would stand to be astounded by the numbers behind the trends. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, on its official website, cites several statistics that hint at how severe and widespread mental illness is in America in this day and age:

  • Close to 44 million adults in the United States experience mental illness at some point in a given year, with 10 million of them suffering from a “serious” mental illness that “interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
  • More than 20% of people aged 13 to 18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point.
  • Roughly 18% of American adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.
  • About half of all American adults with some form of substance abuse disorder also experience some kind of mental illness. Mental illness is also prevalent among the homeless, as well as juvenile and adult criminal offenders.
  • Last year, just over half of children between the ages of 8 and 15 received mental health services.

These are clearly not insignificant figures. Additional statistics cited by NAMI highlight the implications of the high incidence of mental illness in the United States:

  • Serious mental illness costs us close to $200 billion in “lost earnings” annually.
  • In terms of human cost, on average, people with serious mental illness die 25 years earlier than their counterparts without it.
  • For adults aged 18 to 44, mood disorders such as depression are the third-most common cause of hospitalization.
  • Suicide is the 10th-most common cause of death among Americans, and for people from age 10 to age 24, it is the third-most common.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program, around 20 veterans die each day as a result of suicide.

You can accuse the National Alliance on Mental Illness of fabricating or skewing these tallies all you want, but at face value, the data are staggering. Indeed, based on the prevalence of mental illness in the United States, whether moderate or severe, chances are you know someone in your personal life who suffers from some sort of anxiety disorder, mood disorder, or both. I could say I don’t, but I’d be lying. Not only do I know a number of people who suffer from some sort of mental illness, or playing the amateur psychologist, suspect some do, but I’d have to ignore my own hand being raised.

About six or seven years ago, I was formally diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In some ways, I feel as if this should not be surprising to those who know me personally, though maybe it is only obvious to me because a) naturally, it involves me, and b) I tend to dwell on these kinds of matters, perhaps more than the average person would. On the anxiety front, I often feel that by the end of the day, the cumulative sum of the situations that cause me stress have me outright exhausted. When I’m driving somewhere unfamiliar or a place that tends to be crowded, I obsess over how and where I’m going to park my car long before I get to my destination. Direct eye contact with people is a challenge, and I’m often so consumed with fear about saying something that will offend the other person or even anticipation of what the other person will say that I find it hard to engage with people in the first place. The act of public speaking is enough to turn my throat into the Sahara Desert and choke my interior train of thought such that getting through a 10-minute speech is a chore. Sometimes, my leg or foot will shake because I’m nervous just thinking about something—and I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I worry about the future. I sweat it when items in public spaces at work are not where they’re supposed to be. I could go on, because the circumstances that cause me anxiety in a given day are myriad and limitless, and it’s at times a struggle to focus on the task at hand and to remind myself there’s only so much I can control. You’re probably exhausted now just reading about this!

As for the depression aspect, I’m not about to tell you a sob story about how I wasn’t hugged enough as a child, or how Daddy didn’t tell me he loves me, or how I had no friends, or how hard I’ve had it growing up. Truth be told, I’ve probably had it better than most. I’m very fortunate to have lived in a town that’s relatively safe (knock on wood), with parents that support me, a job, an education, a car, a roof over my head. I’m grateful for the things I have. And I think because of these things, some people will think that I have no reason to be depressed. Right then and there, though, I feel like this sentiment taps into misconceptions and misunderstanding about depression. Through my Internet search, I came across a number of lists of “myths about depression.” Five myths about depression. Seven myths about depression. Nine myths. Ten myths. That there are so many of these mythical lists is vaguely depressing in it of itself, but I digress. Here are some of the more common ones:

1. “Depression isn’t a real illness.”

F**k off, it isn’t real! If we’re having to argue to get past this point, we already might be at an impasse, but depression is, um, an actual thing. It just so happens the causes behind depression are potentially complex, so while it may be tempting to write off the whole illness just because it’s harder to understand, it doesn’t necessarily make it correct.

2. “Depression is purely emotional/mental.”

Except that it’s not. Just ask someone with symptoms of depression and you’re likely to hear about any number of physical symptoms that manifest as a result of suffering from this mental illness. including aches and pains, fatigue, and insomnia. Besides the notion that antidepressants target specific parts of the brain and neurotransmitters. But forget about it. It’s all in people’s head.

3. “Depression is a sign of weakness.”

You know, for a long time, I actually believed this. Depression is not the result of some weakness of character. Often times, depression is mediated by some traumatic event or specific set of circumstances, but not always, and either way, on behalf of those who suffer from depression or depressive symptoms, this much should inspire sympathy, not criticism. In fact, for people like myself who are able to live with depression—albeit with a lot of help and not without occasional lapses, if you will—the ability to cope makes us stronger, not weaker.

4. “Depression is just a fancy word for ‘sadness.'”

Wrong. Sadness is a symptom of depression, but like any emotion, is temporary. Depression, meanwhile, is a chronic condition often marked by sadness, but in other cases, there are feelings of apathy or emptiness, and since anxiety and depression have a tendency to co-occur, some people who suffer from depression simply live in a state of constant tension. It’s not just a shade of blue with people who deal with depression. It’s a permanent coat of paint that weighs on those it affects.

5. “Depression is always related to a traumatic event.”

Much as not all traumatic events lead to depression, not all depression is caused by the death of a loved one, a divorce, a serious injury, or some other watershed moment. Depression and its symptoms, by definition, occur over a prolonged period of time, and they tend to recur among people who struggle with this illness. In other words, as often tends to be the case, people do not “snap into” depression, so the idea they can simply “snap out” of it would seem likewise ill-conceived.

6. “Antidepressants cure depression.”

Do pain pills cure headaches and other maladies? No, they block the pain. The underlying cause or causes of the discomfort are still there. The same concept applies with antidepressants. They may alleviate symptoms of depression, but owing to the complexity of this mental illness, the root of the problem must be dealt with at more than just a physical level. What is typically recommended in treatment is a combination of prescribed medication OK’d by a psychiatrist and regular therapy sessions with this same professional or by a licensed psychologist. Of course, this means of combatting depression tends not to run cheap, which is why, in large part, so many Americans eschew treatment. When the stigma of mental illness is not enough to deter those individuals who might benefit from professional help, the cost factor might instead be the deal-breaker.

As is a trope of ubiquitous advertisements for prescription medicines, all too commonly, the possible side effects are numerous and potentially worse than the problem being treated. Returning to the example of pain pills, a risk of extended use not talked about enough in today’s climate of healthcare is the chance the user will become hooked on this class of drugs. As for antidepressants, the list of common side effects from prolonged use includes agitation, anxiety, blurred vision, constipation, dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue/sleepiness, insomnia, irritability, nausea, sexual dysfunction, and weight loss. And worst of all, suicidal thoughts and urges may increase as a result of taking antidepressants, which is bad enough, but all the more troublesome when you consider THIS IS THE MAIN F**KING REASON YOU’RE TAKING THESE DRUGS IN THE FIRST PLACE. To die in a terrible way, and a terribly ironic way, at that, seems especially tragic.

For me, these side effects are nothing compared to what happens when I don’t take my meds. Because they have such a short half-life, necessitating a daily dose, forgetting to take a scheduled pill produces some noticeable physiological effects. First, I start getting headaches and stomach aches, and swing more easily between happy and irritable moods. Then, the vertigo sets in. If I somehow were to run out or miss on back-to-back days, it starts feeling as if some sort of electric pulse is continuously moving through my head, making it that much harder to get to sleep, and even when I do finally get there, my dreams will often be so scarily strange I’ll end up waking up in the middle of the night anyway, reluctant to go back to sleep and risk another bizarre nightmare. There’s nothing that says one has to be on medication for as long as he or she lives if he or she suffers from a mood disorder like depression (bonus myth!), but I am not about to start lessening my prescription for fear of what might happen. I understand I may be a lifelong taker of antidepressants, as much as I might wish otherwise.


Why the public service announcement on mental illness and the personal reflections? Do I want your pity, or something? Like I said, there was a time when I thought my depression was a weakness of mine, but now I understand it is not only more common than I once believed, but something that is a part of who I am—without letting it totally define me and how I live my life. So, no, it’s not pity I seek. Rather, part of the reason I bring this all up is trying to help in some small way reverse the stigma placed on mental illness in our society. The late Mitch Hedberg had a funny joke about alcoholism being the only disease you can get in trouble for, contrasting the normality of the sound of “Dammit, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” with the absurdity of the comment, “Dammit, Otto, you have lupus!” But I think mental illness should be viewed the same way as the latter, rather than that of the former, which, too frequently, it is. After all, if you have trouble seeing, you see one or more vision specialists. If you have allergies, maybe you see an allergist or try some over-the-counter remedy. Why should be it different with depression, anxiety, and the like? There’s no shame about it—or at least there shouldn’t be.

The other big idea with this whole post here is to promote awareness of, well, awareness. It turns out October 2 through October 8th is Mental Illness Awareness Week. I just happened to hear about it in passing; otherwise, I wouldn’t know myself. And I’m guessing you were probably oblivious of this fact, too—through no fault of your own. The state of healthcare in the United States is a larger concern, but mental illness, as pervasive as it is among both the adult and youth populations in America, deserves to be at the forefront of the conversation of improving this aspect of life in the U.S., and internationally, as well. Mental health should be more than a throwaway reference after mass shootings, and we need to strive as a society to speak against the various misconceptions that dog and stigmatize depression, in particular, and those who suffer from it. Depression is real. It is not all in people’s heads. It is not a problem at which to throw drugs and fix just that simply. The more we as a country ignore this fact, the longer it will take to find an authentic solution to the high incidence of people with mental illness, and the longer those who suffer from it are at risk of severe health problems or suicide. From someone treated for anxiety and depression, it’s time to shine a light on mental health and mental illness. For those of you who may be in the dark yourselves, it may make all the difference.


For more information on Mental Illness Awareness Week and how you can help spread the word on this event and on mental health awareness in general, please click here. Thank you.

These Things Need Buzzers or Mute Buttons, and Other Observations from the First Presidential Debate

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Sure, they’re all smiles now, but belying their grins for the photo op is a shared unquenchable thirst for winning. And designer suits. They like expensive clothing. (Photo retrieved from foxnews.com.)

Well, the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has come and gone and the results are in—people are curled up in the fetal position because one of these two will become our next President and they don’t really like either of them! OK, so maybe I’m not speaking for everyone watching, but I tend to wonder how much what was said in the debate will actually change people’s opinions on whom they plan to vote for come November. As for who won the debate, I’m not here to try to pass judgment. After all, I’ve watched boxing fights after which I was pretty sure one participant should emerge victorious because he seemed to dominate the other boxer, but left to the judges’ decision, the actual results were completely the other way around. If you ask the candidates and their campaigns, each side would definitely say they were the winners. For what it’s worth, early polling suggests the American audience thought Hillary won, though I’m more loath as the days go by to trust the veracity of some of these surveys, if I may say so.

But like I said, I’m not here to crown a winner. I seek only to provide commentary where I think it warranted, as well as to offer suggestions for how future presidential debates may be improved. With this behind us, let’s take a narrower look at what went down in the first presidential debate—you know, if we can stand it. Might I suggest some unhealthy snacks or some liquor to sustain you as you read through?

UNITED STATES OF JOE’S ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY COMMENTS ON THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE

1. First of all, let me confess that I didn’t actually watch the debate, which was starting before I had even gotten home from class. To be fair, though, I probably would have been distracted by watching my Fantasy Football team’s hopes of a win go down in flames anyway. To the tandem of Devonta Freeman and Coby Fleener, who proved instrumental in my defeat, let me say that I hate you both with the passion of a thousand burning suns.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system (not really), since I didn’t see the event live, I can’t really comment on what kind of job Lester Holt did as moderator. The general response of viewers and pundits, though, seemed to be a positive appraisal of Holt’s handling of the affair. Although let’s be fair—next to the dumpster fire that was Matt Lauer’s presiding over the Commander-in-Chief Forum, pretty much anything halfway decent would feel like a great success. Kudos, Lester! You’re better at taking Donald Trump to task than Jimmy Fallon!

Achieving Prosperity

2. As you might already know/remember from viewing the debate on television, the opening segment was devoted to “Achieving Prosperity.” Sounds like something in Trump’s wheelhouse, doesn’t it? The candidates were first asked about what they would do to stimulate job creation. Hillary Clinton gave her familiar lines: the wealthy need to pay their fair share, let’s invest in infrastructure, raise the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, affordable child care, debt-free college, close tax loopholes, was there anything on the Democratic Party platform I didn’t check off? Donald Trump, meanwhile, railed about China and Mexico and vowed to cut taxes, and also said he was going to renegotiate a lot of trade deals. Because it’s just that simple.

When pressed specifically on how we get companies to bring jobs back to America, Trump was, well, largely incoherent, and pivoted to the notion NAFTA was a bad trade deal. Which may be true, but that doesn’t answer the question. The best the man of the orange and thin skin could come up with was that he wouldn’t let corporations leave, but whether this involves the threat of taxes should they relocate, or literally stopping them at the airport and barring them from getting aboard their overseas flights, Trump’s remedy is woefully impractical.

3. The candidates, under Lester Holt, moved swiftly onto the next question. Well, at least the moderator tried to make that happen. Holt attempted to segue into a discussion about taxes, but first, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had to argue about taxes before they could, well, argue about taxes. To be fair to Clinton, Trump started it, talking about how Clinton would jack up taxes and he would slash them and how wonderful that would be for the US of A. Hillary then countered by saying Donald’s loose semblance of an economic plan would jack up the national debt, while hers would reduce it. Then Donald Trump was all, like, nuh-uh. And Hillary Clinton was all, like, yuh-huh. And then Trump was all, like, whatever! When the dust was allowed to settle, Trump tried to suggest that the wealthy were going to create tremendous jobs. (Except they don’t.) He also—and give El Diablo his due—mentioned eliminating the carried interest loophole, by which wealthy hedge fund managers are allowed to claim a more favorable tax rate by classifying their income as capital gains, even though there is no legal basis for this, and even though President Obama could apparently totally f**king end this practice with little more than a phone call but hasn’t. Then Clinton was alleged to have been given two minutes to respond, but her opponent wouldn’t shut his big yap.

Eventually, what passed for a conversation moved to the subject of Donald Trump’s tax returns, which, as I’m sure you know, he still hasn’t gone and released. Once more, Trump claimed he couldn’t comply with this request because he is under audit. If there’s one thing I have stressed in this blog, perhaps other than the logical fallacy of saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter,” it’s that THIS IS NOT A VIABLE EXCUSE FOR TRUMP NOT TO RELEASE HIS TAXES. THE IRS SAYS IT’S PERFECTLY OK. Trump’s stupid explanations and deflecting with mentions of private E-mail servers notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton brilliantly took the opportunity to insert possible reasons as to why Trump is dodging calls for his tax returns like he (allegedly) dodged the draft. Maybe he isn’t worth as much as he says he is. (Highly likely.) Maybe he isn’t as charitable as he would have us believe. (I can almost guarantee it.) Perhaps, quoth Hillary, it is his hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to Wall Street and foreign banks, or that he has paid little to nothing in taxes over the years.

Donald Trump spins this last notion as a virtue, that he’s a smart businessman. Not only isn’t it like he cleverly came up with the idea for any loopholes he exploits, however, but this also puts him at odds with average Americans who aren’t wealthy enough to be able to afford such preferential treatment. You’re not smart in this regard, Mr. Trump. You’re lucky you were born rich with a daddy who bailed you out when you made dumb decisions, and that you could file for bankruptcy (also not your invention) the rest of the time.

America’s Direction

4. The second of the first presidential debate’s triptych of topics was devoted to “America’s direction,” which, not for nothing, is a depressingly vague category. Not to mention it invites the retort from the peanut gallery at home that the country’s direction is headed straight to “the shitter.” But I digress. Lester Holt first confronted the candidates with the question of how the United States can heal its bitter racial divides. Hillary Clinton stuck to, ahem, her guns, by primarily calling for more comprehensive gun reform. She also spoke in broad strokes about the need to improve community relations between police and civilians, as well as the need to address systemic bias in the quality of education among different groups and to deal with glaring disparities in arrests and sentencing of people of color. Beyond the gun issue, I’m not so sure how convincing her answer was or should be, but as usual, it sounded good in a superficial way.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, spoke about how we need law and order—and he wasn’t talking about Special Victims Unit starring Mariska Hargitay. He also casually dropped the suggestion that stop-and-frisk is a good idea, even though it’s ineffective, unconstitutional, and unfairly targets African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos. Hillary responded with more of how she opened the segment—essentially pandering to the minority vote. Next, when prompted by Holt to comment on implicit racism, Clinton correctly asserted that we all suffer from it to a degree, but you could tell she was framing it in a way so as to drive home the notion she respects police and, at the same time, try not to further alienate potential undecided voters who possess a great deal of respect for officers of the law and, perhaps, are OK with, you know, the occasional murdering of unarmed black citizens.

Then, Donald Trump—ugh. Look, I could try to parse through the gobbledygook that was his response for a coherent message, but let me just pick out the highlights. Trump gave a shout-out to the NRA. He made a quick, offhand remark about no-fly and watch lists. He, apropos of nothing, invoked Clinton’s use of the term “super-predator.” He argued about how crime was going up in New York City without his beloved stop-and-frisk in place—even though this is patently false. And at the end of all this, Lester Holt actually reminded the Republican Party nominee the conversation was supposed to be about “race.” If this isn’t an indictment of Donald Trump’s inability to provide consistent, coherent answers on topics that make him uncomfortable, I don’t know what is.

5. And then came the part when Lester Holt asked Donald Trump about all the times he pushed the narrative that Barack Obama was born in Africa and demanded he produce his birth certificate just to prove him and other conspiracy theorists wrong. Now, before we get to Trump’s part in the whole “birther” controversy, let’s acknowledge that there is a more complicated truth to Hillary Clinton’s side of the story to which the GOP nominee was referring. Once upon a time, in 2008, when HRC was running against Obama for the Democratic Party nomination, her campaign did help to spread this myth. Much as the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton 2016 campaign were apt to latch on to the idea that, say, Bernie Sanders is an atheist to help her chances with more religious voters, it should be no great surprise that Hillary and her handlers would try to gain any advantage to win.

The notion that Hillary Clinton, anyone who has worked on her campaign, or anyone currently serving such a function came up with birtherism, however, is decidedly untrue. The origins are indeed murky as to who or what exactly devised this whole delegitimizing strategy, but regardless, if there was one person who took this awful baton and ran with it, it’s Donald J. Trump. As Holt even noted in his initial question, Trump persisted with the birther train of thinking—even when most Americans were satisfied that Barack Obama was, in fact, born on American soil. That he “succeeded” in getting Obama to produce formal proof of the circumstances behind his coming into this world is an achievement of dubious distinction. Donald Trump should be as proud of his role in the birther movement as he should be of Trump Steaks. And you can’t even eat birtherism. Believe me—I’ve tried.

Securing America

6. Last but not least, Lester Holt moderated a segment called “Securing America”—between one candidate who issued E-mails on classified matters from one or more unsecured private servers and unencrypted devices, and another who suggested the Russians hack his opponent to find missing/deleted messages. (I hear you banging your head against the desk in frustration through the screen over there, and I second that notion.) Things being what they are, Hillary Clinton uttered something vague about “making it clear” to other nations, especially China, Iran and Russia, that we’re not going to take their hacking BS. Donald Trump, as usual, didn’t really answer the question, and implied that maybe it wasn’t Russia who was behind the hacks—even though it’s entirely f**king likely that it was Russia, amirite?

Clinton, in her rebuttal, quickly pivoted to talk of more air strikes against ISIS, because if there’s one thing HRC likes, it’s blowing up parts of other countries. Trump, in his rebuttal to the rebuttal, um, blamed Hillary again for causing ISIS—which indirectly may be partially true, but she sure had a lot of help. Then Hillary Clinton pointed out her opponent supported the Iraq War. Donald Trump said he didn’t—but he’s a big f**king liar. Clinton said we’re working with NATO. Trump effectively said NATO can kiss his ass, and invoked, of all people Sean Hannity in his self-defense about support for the Iraq War. After that, they argued about who has the better temperament of the two for the job. I don’t know—this was probably the low point of the debate for me personally, because I think both of them have shitty temperaments. Go ahead—argue about how you’re both going to help perpetuate our country’s involvement in unending wars in the Middle East in elsewhere, while I curl up into a ball underneath my bed, sobbing gently to myself.

7. In the second half of the “Sky is Falling” segment, as I like to call it, Lester Holt began with Donald Trump about President Obama’s considerations of changing America’s policy on first use of nuclear weapons (as in not using nukes first), asking Humpty Trumpty what he thought about the current policy. “The Donald” rambled on about not “taking anything off the table” and invoking China to help deal with North Korea, before launching into a tirade against our deal with Iran and our cash giveaway which has been likened to a ransom payment for American hostages. Hillary Clinton responded by acknowledging that problems do exist within our relationship with Iran, but that they involve more than just our nuclear deal, and furthermore, that there are other more global concerns to contemplate. She also fired back at Trump’s criticisms of the deal, saying he talked an awful lot about how bad it was without providing a suitable alternative.

As it apparently inevitably had to, the conversation was then steered to who had the right “temperament” and “stamina” to be President of the United States given the gravity of these matters, not to mention Holt’s probing about Donald Trump’s earlier statement that he didn’t think Hillary Clinton has “the presidential look.” Le sigh. Maybe this was the low point in the debate, because after all, much of this is shenanigans. Hillary doesn’t know how to negotiate. Donald can’t be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. Hillary is experienced, but it’s bad experience. Donald has repeatedly degraded women. Hillary has cooties. Donald not only smelt it, but dealt it as well. See what I mean? It’s disenfranchising hearing 60- and 70-year-olds talk like catty teenagers when they’re vying for the country’s top political office, but that’s really the vibe I, for one, get, at least.

The debate was brought to a close by Lester Holt asking both candidates if they would support their rival should he or she win. Hillary Clinton said she supports any democratic result—BUT PLEASE DON’T VOTE FOR THAT ASS-CLOWN TRUMP. Donald Trump said he would, sure, THOUGH THAT CLINTON BROAD DOESN’T HAVE THE CHOPS. Great. You don’t like each other, we don’t like you. Let’s bring on the shots of alcohol already, shall we?


2010 -- Randy Sager
If presidential debates were run like ESPN’s Around the Horn, Donald Trump would be muted ’til the cows come home. (Photo retrieved from espnmediazone.com.)

As noted earlier, I’m not going to get too caught up in who won or who lost, though I’m pretty sure you could tell from the tenor of my responses who had the better performance in the first presidential debate. Of course, all this focus on “winning” and “losing” only takes us so far anyway. First of all, while the winner may stand to get a bump in the polls, this effect may be temporary, not to mention polling data doesn’t always translate equivalently to votes (in fact, often enough, the actual results are significantly different from what even exit polls predict). More importantly, a large swath of the audience likely believes that no matter who wins the debates—or, for that matter, the election—America loses anyway. So, who won the debate? Who cares, that’s who.

From my point of view, aside from any morsels of substance I can find in all that has been said in these debates throughout the campaign season, my interest in this format for political discussions lies in how the whole process may be improved. The following suggestions are ones you and likely scores of others amateur political analysts have come up with, but nonetheless, bear stating or repeating for the sake of concreteness.

JOE IS STILL NOT DONE WRITING, AND HAS SOME IDEAS FOR MAKING PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES BETTER

If they won’t stop talking, mute ’em

The sports talk show Around the Horn on ESPN, in addition to using a subjective scoring system whereby host Tony Reali awards participants points based on the perceived strength of their arguments, is known for its inclusion of a mute button that cuts off a player’s mic for ten seconds when he or she says something disagreeable to Reali (self-promotion, in particular, tends to be rewarded with the silent treatment and a loss of points). I feel a similar sort of system could be employed with presidential debates. If one of the candidates, say, interrupts incessantly (cough, Donald Trump, cough), he or she can be zapped for 10-second increments, or even could be given a more prolonged time-out if he/she can’t behave in a more adult fashion. Not for nothing, but these presidential hopefuls are discussing topics that may affect millions, if not billions, of people, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars. They should be able to act with a certain amount of dignity if they’re going to be interacting with world leaders—and at the very least, make it easier for us average folks to watch on our televisions.

Throw the red flag

If there’s one thing that fans of different sports teams can agree upon, it’s that referees/umpires routinely blow calls. Some are more egregious than others, but to a certain extent, errors in judgment are understandable given the speed at which professional sports are played. Such is why sports like football have implemented a challenge system whereby coaches can throw a red challenge flag, request that the head referee examine video footage of the play in question of which the ruling is being challenged, and confirm, overturn or let the call stand accordingly.

As fast as human beings and spheroid objects move in sports contexts, lies and misleading statements are fast and furious in presidential debates. In light of this notion, I submit candidates should be afforded two or more fact-checking challenges to use at their discretion. If someone claims he or she never called the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” in trade deals, or professes he or she never Tweeted that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, on-site fact-checkers can be consulted to catch candidates in obvious untruths. In fairness, this does run the risk of prolonging already laboriously-long presidential debates, but rather than rely on voters to do their own homework and sift through all of the garbage nominees speak, this could more easily bring the truth to light, as well as shame the prevaricator worse than Cersei Lannister being made to walk the streets of King’s Landing in her birthday suit while her subjects hurl epithets and vegetables at her. OK, maybe not that bad, but you get the point.

Wrap it up!

If you’ve seen any award show like the annual Oscars telecast, you know that when winners go up to accept their well-deserved tokens of appreciation, they tend to run long with their speeches. That’s when the orchestra hits them with the hurry-up music, signaling their allotted time has been spent and that they need to call it an acceptance speech. On a similar note, when candidates are about to go over their specified response time, they should first be given a visual warning like a red light, as stand-up comedians might get when performing in a comedy club, and then when they finally do exceed the given number of minutes, how about we hit ’em with a horn? At least some uptempo clarinet or something—the exact instrument can be negotiated. We should let these candidates for public office know when we say “two minutes,” we mean two minutes, gosh darn it! If you want to talk a bunch of nonsense to get around the fact you lack a strong intended policy, do it when millions of people aren’t watching.

PHYSICAL CHALLENGE!

Am I the only one who doesn’t think a Double Dare-esque physical challenge would be a welcome diversion during these debates? Let’s see Donald Trump talk about stamina when he tries to run through a 10-part obstacle course! Or Hillary Clinton wear designer suits when she knows she could get Slimed! Come on, fellow millennials—are you with me?


These are just some small tweaks that I, humbly speaking, believe would really make presidential debates more enjoyable to watch without making these events any less informative. Although judging by this first presidential debate, the proverbial bar to clear may be fairly low. And who knows—with the right changes and better candidates in the future, when we talk about winners of the debate, we can put the American audience in that category. Until then, we can all dream, right?