2018 in Review: Hey, We’re Still Here!

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women newly elected to Congress are a big reason for excitement leading into 2019 despite disappointments in 2018. (Photo Credit: Mark Dillman/Twitter)

Rejoice! If you’re reading this, it means we haven’t yet managed to get ourselves embroiled in a nuclear war and that the future of our civilization as a going concern—despite our best efforts—is still a possibility!

Whatever your outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come, it’s worth looking back on the moments of the past 12 months and revisiting the themes they evoked.

Without further ado, it’s time for…

2018 IN REVIEW: HEY, WE’RE STILL HERE!

Mueller…always a good call.

When the year started, what did you figure the odds were that Robert Mueller’s investigation would still be going? 50% Less than that? At this writing—with Donald Trump and this administration, you never know what might happen and who might suddenly quit or get fired—the Mueller probe into Trump’s presidential campaign and possible collusion with Russia continues largely unimpeded.

This is not to say that its continued operation and final delivery are guaranteed. Jeff Sessions’s watch as Attorney General has ended, and his dismissal created the objectively strange sensation of a furor over his removal by the left despite his support of the Trump administration’s destructive agenda. His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, inspires little faith there will be any obfuscation of the investigation, especially since he has rejected the advice of an ethics official from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation.

With Mitch McConnell the obstructionist refusing to allow a vote on a bill that would safeguard the investigation, there’s little hope Congress will act to intervene should Trump move to fire Mueller. Which, as he has reminded us umpteen times, he can do because he’s the president. Whatever Mueller’s fate, the results of his team’s findings are yet impressive and suggest the probe should be permitted to run its course. Over 30 people and three Russian companies have been charged in the special counsel’s investigation, producing more than 100 criminal charges, and more yet might be on the way.

Despite Trump’s hollow concerns about the cost—Mueller’s probe is a “waste of money” and yet we should fund a wall that a lot of people don’t want—Robert Mueller and Co. have been remarkably effective and efficient. Trump shouldn’t mess with this investigation if for no other reason than not to risk a major public outcry against him.

“Guns don’t kill people,” but more people killed people with guns

Think we don’t have a problem with gun violence in the United States? That there’s an entire Wikipedia entry for mass shootings in the U.S. in 2018 alone begs to differ.

The February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed and another 17 injured was perhaps the most notable for the activism it helped inspire, but there were other newsworthy shootings around the country. Yountville, California at a veterans home. Nashville, Tennessee at a Waffle House. Santa Fe, Texas at the high school. Scottsdale, Arizona in a series of shootings. Trenton, New Jersey at the Art All Night Festival. Annapolis, Maryland at the Capital Gazette building. Jacksonville, Florida at a Madden NFL 19 tournament. Aberdeen, Maryland at a Rite Aid. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tallahassee, Florida at a yoga studio. Thousands Oaks, California at a bar. Robbins, Illinois at a bar. Chicago, Illinois at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.

Gun rights advocates may point to the varying locales of these shootings and suggest that no matter where you go and how restrictive the gun laws, people can still acquire firearms by illicit means and can do harm. In any number of cases, however, shooters haven’t needed to subvert legal channels. Either way, this shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing more restrictive gun laws. It should be difficult for individuals to acquire guns. There are too many guns. More guns means a higher likelihood that people will get shot. This is not complicated.

If you want to talk about mental health aside from the gun issue, I’m with you. If you want to insist that we just need more good people with guns, I’m not with you, but I still think we should talk about it. In the case of Jemel Roberson in the Robbins, Illinois shooting, he was the good guy with a gun, and got shot because he was black. We haven’t come close to solving the gun violence problem in America, and as long as groups like the National Rifle Association will continue to lobby against gun control and resist statistical research into fatalities related to gun violence, we won’t make progress on this issue. Here’s hoping the NRA continues to suffer a decline in funding.

“Stormy” weather

Stormy Daniels alleges Donald Trump had an extramarital affair with her back in 2006. Trump, who denies everything, denies this happened. Meanwhile, someone paid her $130,000 in advance of the election. Who do you believe? Also, and perhaps more to the point, do you care?

I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Daniels’s account. For some people, though, the mere notion she gets and has gotten money to have sex on camera puts her word in doubt. She’s an opportunistic liar looking to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame. Ditto for her lawyer Michael Avenatti, who naturally has political aspirations.

Even for those who might believe her or who would like nothing more than to nail Trump on some dimension, the nature of her profession is such that they might be loath to discuss the matter of Trump’s infidelity and hush money payments. Talking about sex and adult entertainers is, well, icky for some.

In this respect, our willingness or unwillingness to confront this chapter of Daniels’s and Trump’s lives is a reflection of our own set of values and morals. It’s especially telling, moreover, that so many white evangelicals are willing to forgive Pres. Trump his trespasses. For a group that has, until Trump’s rise, been the most insistent on a person’s character to eschew such concerns demonstrates their willingness to compromise their standards in support of a man who upholds “religious liberty” and who exemplifies the prosperity gospel.

Thus, while some of us may not care about Stormy Daniels personally or may not find campaign finance law riveting, there’s still larger conversations about sex and money in politics worth having. Despite what nonsense Rudy Giuliani might spout.

FOX News continued its worsening trend of defending Trump and white supremacy 

Oh, FOX News. Where do we begin? If we’re talking about everyone’s favorite source for unbiased reporting (sarcasm intended), a good place to start is probably their prime-time personalities who masquerade as legitimate journalists.

Sean Hannity, now firmly entrenched as FOX News’s night-time slot elder statesman with Bill O’Reilly gone, was revealed as a client of Michael Cohen’s (yes, that Michael Cohen) and an owner of various shell companies formed to buy property in low-income areas financed by HUD loans. Surprise! That surprise extended to Hannity’s employer, to whom he did not see fit to disclose a potential conflict of interest when propping up the likes of Cohen and Ben Carson, or his adoring viewers. Not that they care, in all likelihood. Hannity tells it not like it is, but how they want to hear.

As for more recent more additions to the prime-time schedule, Laura Ingraham, when not mocking Parkland, FL survivor David Hogg for not getting into colleges (he since has been accepted to Harvard) or telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” denounced the “massive demographic changes” that have been “foisted on the American people.” She says she wasn’t being racist. She is full of shit.

Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, remained the go-to guy for white supremacist viewpoints, questioning the value of all forms of immigration and more recently deriding immigrants as poor and dirty. He has lost more than a dozen advertisers since those latest comments. Good. The only criticism is that it took them this long to dissociate themselves from Carlson’s program.

FOX News has seemingly abandoned any pretense of separation from the Trump administration in terms of trying to influence the president’s views or tapping into his racist, xenophobic agenda. It hasn’t hurt them any in the ratings—yet. As those “demographic changes” continue, as television viewership is challenged by new media, and as President Trump remains unpopular among Americans as a whole, however, there is no guarantee the network will remain at the top. Enjoy it while you can, Laura, Sean, and Tucker.

Turns out big companies don’t always do the right thing

Facebook, Papa John’s, and Wells Fargo would like you to know they are very truly sorry for anything they may or may have not done. Kind of.

In Facebook’s case, it’s selling the information of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm which did work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was founded by Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon). It also did a piss-poor job of weeding out fake news and hate speech and has since taken to relying on a questionable consortium of fact-checkers, most suspect among them The Weekly Standard.

Papa John’s had to reckon with the idea John Schnatter, the company’s namesake, is, well, kind of a racist dick. They’ve been battling over his ouster and his stake in the company ever since. As for Wells Fargo, it’s still dealing with the bad PR from its massive account fraud scandal created as a function of a toxic sales-oriented corporate culture, as well as the need to propose a reform plan to the Federal Reserve to address its ongoing shady practices (its proposals heretofore have yet to be approved).

In all three cases, these companies have sought to paper over their misdeeds with advertising campaigns that highlight their legacy of service to their customers or the people within their organization who are not bigoted assholes. With Facebook and Wells Fargo in particular, that they continue to abuse the public’s trust conveys the sense they aren’t truly repentant for what they’ve done and haven’t learned anything from the scandals they’ve created.

Unfortunately, cash is king, and until they lose a significant share of the market (or the government refuses to bail them out), they will be unlikely to change in a meaningful positive way. The best we can do as consumers is pressure our elected representatives to act on behalf of their constituents—and consider taking our business elsewhere if these organizations don’t get their shit together.

Civility, shmivility

Poor Sarah Sanders. It seems she can’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or go out for a meal with her family without being harangued.

While I don’t necessarily think people like Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller should be denied the ability to eat (although it’s pretty f**ked up that Miller and Nielsen would go to a Mexican restaurant amid an immigration crisis), calls for “civility” are only as good as the people making such calls and the possibility of substantive action in key policy areas.

People were upset with Michelle Wolf, for instance, for telling the truth about Sanders’s propensity for not telling the truth by making allusions to her as Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and by referencing her smoky eye makeup as the ash from burned facts. Members of the press tripped over themselves to comfort Sanders and to disavow Wolf’s performance. But Wolf was doing her job, and told truth to power. It’s Michelle Wolf who deserves the apology, not habitual liar and Trump enabler Sarah Sanders.

I believe we shouldn’t go around punching Nazis—as satisfying as that might be. That said, we shouldn’t allow people to dispense hate simply to appease “both sides,” and we should be vocal about advocating for the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable populations when people like Miller and Nielsen and Sanders do everything in their power to pivot away from the Trump administration’s destructive actions. After all, it’s hard to be civil when children are being taken from their mothers and people are being tear-gassed or dying in DHS custody.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh. (Photo Credit: Ninian Reed/Flickr)

There’s something about Alexandria

Love her or hate her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived on the national stage following her upset of incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th congressional district.

If you’re a devotee of FOX News, it’s probably the latter. The incoming first-year representative has joined Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi in the vaunted space of people to be booed and hissed at for pretty much everything she does. She took a break before the start of her first term? How dare she! She refused to debate Ben Shapiro? What is she afraid of? As a young Latina socialist, she ticks off all the boxes their audience possesses on their Fear and Hate Index. All without spending an official day on the job.

Like any inexperienced politician, AOC has had her wobbles, chief among them when she flubbed a question on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, she has handled the numerous attacks on her on Twitter and elsewhere with remarkable deftness and grace. More importantly, she appears ready to lead her party on key issues, as evidenced by her outspokenness on the concept of a Green New Deal.

Party leaders may downplay the significance of her upset primary win, but Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence, to many, heralds a progressive shift for Democrats, one in which its younger members and women are not just participants, but at the forefront. At a time when establishment Dems only seem more and more unwilling to change, there is yet reason for genuine excitement in the Democratic Party.

John McCain died. Cue the whitewashing.

I don’t wish death on anyone, but John McCain died at the right time. That time would be the era of President Donald Trump, and by contrast, McCain looks like a saint.

McCain is best remembered for his service to the United States and for helping to kill the Republicans’ intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But we shouldn’t brush aside the less-savory elements of his track record. As a Trump critic, he still voted in line with the president’s agenda most of the time. He was a prototypical war hawk, advocating for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a proponent of armed conflict with Iran—even after all he saw and endured in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, though he is celebrated for defending Barack Obama at a town hall as a good Christian man (though he didn’t specify that he’d be worth defending if he were actually a Muslim), he was an unrepentant user of a racial slur directed at Asians and he signed off on the unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. A lot of the fondness he receives now from journalists likely stems from the access McCain gave reporters while on the campaign trail. Even his vote not to quash the ACA was done with a flair for the dramatic that belied the seriousness of its implications.

John McCain wasn’t the worst person to inhabit the U.S. Senate. But simply being more civil than Donald Trump is a low bar to clear. Regardless, he should be remembered in a more nuanced way in the name of accurate historical representation.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh.

There were a lot of shameful occurrences in American politics in 2018. I already alluded to the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the immigration situation and of ripping apart families. The White House also seems intent on hastening environmental destruction, doing nothing to protect vulnerable subdivisions of the electorate, and pulling out of Syria as an apparent gift to Assad and Vladimir Putin.

And yet, the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court somehow became the most galling example of D.C. partisanship witnessed in sometime. Of course, any discussion of Kavanaugh would be incomplete without the mention of Merrick Garland. On the heels of Republicans’ refusal to hear him as a nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia and after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, things were already primed for tension between the two major parties.

When reports of multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct dating back to Kavanaugh’s high school and college days surfaced, though, the GOP’s stubborn refusal to budge and choose a new candidate was downright appalling. Kavanaugh didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony on the subject of these accusations, lashing out at the people who questioned him, insisting this investigation was a partisan witch hunt, and assuming the role of the aggrieved party like the spoiled frat boy we imagine he was and perhaps still is.

Kavanaugh’s defenders would be wont to point out that the rest of us are just salty that “they” won and “we” lost. Bullshit. Though we may have disagreed with Gorsuch’s nomination and conservatism prior to his being confirmed, he didn’t allegedly sexually assault or harass anybody. Brett Kavanaugh, in light of everything we now know about him, was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans should be ashamed of this chapter in American history, and this might be a good segue into talking about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Just saying.

Death by plastic

In case you were keeping score at home, there’s still an ass-ton of plastic in the world’s oceans. According to experts on the matter, the global economy is losing tens of billions of dollars each year because of plastic waste and we’re on a pace to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?

By all means, we should keep recycling and finding ways to avoid using plastic on an individual basis. Every bit helps. At the same time, we’re not going to make the progress we need until the primary drivers of plastic waste are held accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever—looking at you.

In terms of world governments, China is the worst offender hands down, and numerous Asian countries line the top 10 (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia), but we’re not exactly above reproach. In fact, with Trump at the helm, we’ve been active in helping water down UN resolutions designed to eliminate plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is not an isolated problem, and it’s not going away either. Literally. That stuff lasts a long time. We need to stop plastic production at the source, and push back against companies like Nestlé who exploit downtrodden communities with lax water safeguarding laws. This isn’t a game.

The Dems flipped the House, Brian Kemp stole an election, and other observations about the midterms

It’s true. Though Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, Democrats flipped the House, presumably paving the way for Nancy Pelosi to return to the role of House Majority Leader. Groan at this point if you’d like.

With the Dems running the show in the House, there’s likely to be all sorts of investigations into Donald Trump and his affairs. I mean, more political and financial, not the other kind, but you never know with that guy. That should encourage party supporters despite some tough losses. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz from Senate, despite being way sexier and cooler. Andrew Gillum likewise had a “close but no cigar” moment in the Florida gubernatorial race. Evidently, voters preferred Ron DeSantis, his shameless alignment with Trump, and his thinly-veiled racism. Congratulations, Florida! You never fail to disappoint in close elections!

Perhaps the worst of these close losses was Stacey Abrams, edged out by Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race. If you ask Kemp, he won fair and square. If you ask anyone else with a modicum of discretion, he won because, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he closed polling stations, purged voters from the rolls, failed to process voter applications, and kept voting machines locked up. Kemp’s antics and the shenanigans in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District give democracy a bad name, and beckon real voting reform championed by grassroots activists. After all, if Florida can restore voting rights to felons—Florida!—the lot of us can do better.

George H.W. Bush also picked a good time to die 

Like John McCain, I didn’t wish for “Bush Sr.” to die. Also like John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle extolled his virtues at the expense of a more complete (and accurate) telling of his personal history.

Bush, on one hand, was a beloved patriarch, served his country, and had more class than Donald Trump (again, low bar to clear). He also was fairly adept at throwing out first pitches at baseball games, I guess. On the other hand, he campaigned for president on dog-whistle politics (see also “Willie Horton”), pushed for involvement in the first Gulf War by relying on fabricated intelligence, escalated the war on drugs for political gain, turned a deaf ear to people suffering from AIDS, and was accused by multiple women of trying to cop a feel. So much for being miles apart from Trump.

Was George H.W. Bush a good man? I didn’t know the man, so I can’t say for sure. But he was no saint. Nor was his son or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any other president. He led the country. Let’s not erase his flaws in the name of “togetherness.”


I chose to review these topics because I covered them at length on my blog. This obviously doesn’t cover the sum total of the events that transpired in 2018. Let’s see.

Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA and rolled back Dodd-Frank, extending our use of warrantless surveillance and making it more liable we will slide back into a recession. That sucked. Devin Nunes released a memo that was reckless, misleading, dishonest, and not quite the bombshell it was made out to be. That sucked as well. Our national debt went way up and continues to rise. American workers are making more money because they are working more, not because wages have risen.

What else? Trump got the idea for a self-congratulatory military parade—and then cancelled it because people thought it was a waste of time, effort, and money. DACA is still in limbo. U.S. manufacturing, outside of computers, continues its downward slide. Sacha Baron Cohen had a new show that was hit-or-miss. Oh, and we’re still involved in Yemen, helping a Saudi regime that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

So, yeah, in all, not a whole lot to get excited about in 2018 on the national news front. Moreover, that there seems to be mutual distrust between liberals and conservatives dampens enthusiasm for 2019 a bit. And let’s not even get started on 2020. If you think I’m raring to go for a Biden-Trump match-up (based on current polling), you’d be sorely mistaken.

And yet—step back from the ledge—there is enough reason to not lose hope. Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a record number of women won seats in Congress. Ayanna Pressley became the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the first Democratic Latina governor. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were elected as the first Native American women to Congress. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first Muslim women in Congress. Guam got its first female governor in history in Lou Leon Guerrero. That’s real progress.

Indeed, while Donald Trump as president is intent on standing in the way of progress, and while his continued habitation of the White House is bad on so many fronts, his win has been a wake-up call to ordinary people to get involved in politics, whether by running for office, by canvassing for political candidates and issues, or by making their voices heard by their elected representatives one way or another. Politics can’t be and is no longer just the sphere of rich old white dudes. Despite the efforts of political leaders, lobbyists, and industry leaders with a regressive agenda as well as other obstacles, folks are, as they say, rising up.

There’s a lot of work to do in 2019, the prospect of which is daunting given that many of us are probably already tired from this year and even before that. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, and the immediate rewards can feel few and far between. The goal of a more equal and just society, however, is worth the extra effort. Here’s hoping we make more progress in 2019—and yes, that we’re still here to talk about it same time next year.

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.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

The Trump Presidency As Religious Cult? Not As Weird As You Might Think

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Scholars of religious studies such as Reza Aslan warn that support of Trump by some white evangelicals is like that of a religious cult, which would present a clear danger to our country. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Creative Commons

In November of 2017, avid Donald Trump supporter Mark Lee, as part of a panel of Trump voters speaking with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, spoke about Trump’s possible collusion with Russia in the context of religious faith. His comments, which made the rounds on the 24-hour news cycle/water-cooler political discussion loop, were truly astonishing to many. Here’s the one that had people, if not up in arms, scratching their heads:

Let me tell you, if Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell him, “Hold on a second: I need to check with the president if it is true.” That is how confident I feel in the president.

You read that right. Hold on, Mr. Savior, I have to ask President Trump if what you’re saying is God’s honest truth. Beyond the seeming absurdity of this scenario—Jesus returned just to tell Trump supporters about his connection with Russia?—the expressed faith in Trump above all others (and I am not using the word faith lightly) was duly baffling.

When Camerota pressed Lee for additional context, Lee, a pest control business owner who expressed vague notions of Trump being an advocate of the little guy, America-first, a drainer of the swamp, and a non-politician, stressed his belief that Trump is a good person, and that he (Trump) “has taken so many shots for us.” Presumably, that “us” is the American people, and any backlash is related to jealousy of his constant “winning.” Dude can’t help it if he’s so famous, handsome, and rich—that’s just how he rolls.

Any number of observers might choose not to share Mark Lee’s views. Heck, I sure don’t. Still, as extreme as Lee’s stances might seem, they may not be that far off from other people’s admiration for or faith in the current President of the United States. Reza Aslan, author, commentator, intellectual, and religious scholar, recently authored a video for Big Think about his notion that the Trump presidency is a religious cult. At first blush, Aslan’s comments might seem as grandiose as Lee’s. Trump as a cult leader? And his devotees are the ones who have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid?

For all our skepticism, though, Aslan does make his case in a very well-thought-out manner. First, before we even get to “why” certain Americans feel compelled to hold up Donald Trump, there’s the matter of “who.” Aslan cites a statistic that 81% of white evangelists who voted in the 2016 election went for Trump. That’s pretty significant, especially when considering that’s a higher percentage than George W. Bush received, an actual white evangelical. What else is significant about this figure? Well, for one, 67% of evangelicals of color who voted cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. Thus, when Aslan instructs us not to ignore that there is a racial element to Trump’s support, we would be quick to agree that he ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.

As to why, however, white evangelicals “acted more white than evangelical” in their backing of Trump, as Aslan and others have put it, one element Aslan points to is the influence of what is known as the prosperity gospel. Loosely speaking, this is the idea that financial success is God’s blessing, and through faith, preaching the word of God, and, of course, generous donations, one’s material wealth will increase. In other words, if the Lord didn’t want you to have that Mercedes-Benz, he wouldn’t have made it so dadgum shiny. This is the sort of Christianity that Aslan explicitly dismisses and rejects, associating it with the likes of “charlatans” like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, but given Trump’s boasts of wealth and ostentatious displays of such, it makes sense that Christians who adhere to this doctrine would back him, even when his spiritual credentials are, er, lacking.

Additionally, Aslan points to Trump’s promises to afford secular benefits to white evangelical groups and other religious affiliations. In Trump’s apparently ambiguous vows to “give them back their power,” Aslan points to Trump’s willingness to defend Christians in their goal of making a stand on specific issues—even if he may not agree with their positions on those underlying issues—as well as his indication of intent, for instance, to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations like churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Just a few days ago, Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of the Treasury not to find churches guilty of “implied endorsements” much as secular organizations wouldn’t be. Never mind that this could help create a slippery slope that allows churches to bypass campaign finance laws and effectually become partisan super PACs. That sweet, sweet support from the religious right is too much to ignore.

Meanwhile, all of this may merely be prologue to a separate conversation we need to be having about Donald Trump, morality, evangelicals, and the intersection of the Venn diagram of their circles. As Reza Aslan insists, none of the above explains why white evangelicals have gone from a voting bloc that has insisted on a candidate’s morality as a significant qualification for office to one that eschews such concerns—in the span of one election cycle, no less. To reinforce this idea, Aslan highlights the fact that, re Trump, self-identifying atheists were more likely to consider morality as important than white evangelicals. So much for being “values voters.”

As Aslan reasons, this is more than can be reasoned away by talk of race or the prosperity gospel or the Johnson Amendment, and points to a different conclusion: that Trump, his presidency, and his most influential supporters have turned a significant portion of his white evangelical base into a religious cult, and a dangerous one at that. From where he (Aslan) stands, all the signs are there. For one, he points to Trump’s infamous remark that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose votes as being a kind of prophetic revelation. Aslan also alludes to statements made by Pat Robertson that he (Robertson) had a dream in which God took him up to Heaven and Trump was seated at His right hand—the space traditionally reserved for Jesus Christ—and Robert Jeffress, Robertson’s pastor, who said that he (Jeffress) prefers Trump as a candidate to someone “who expresses the values of Jesus.” Suddenly, Mark Lee doesn’t sound so out of place.

The implications, in short, are scary. As Aslan instructs, cults, particularly when confronted by the realities of the world, do not tend to end well. The Trump presidency, for all its claims of stability and success, by most objective accounts is on the brink of collapse, its central figure “spiraling out of control,” as Aslan puts it, and the subject of regular conversations about impeachment or other removal. In the perhaps likely event that leadership fails, the response for cult followers is often to double down on the group’s mantra, and this creates, at least in Aslan’s mind, a very perilous situation for the country at large. As he closes his address, “The only thing more dangerous than a cult leader like Trump is a martyred cult leader.” Ominous, indeed.


Reza Aslan is a religious scholar, and since he often approaches worldly matters from a spiritual frame of reference, even with his treatise on why Donald Trump’s presidency is a religious cult, there would likely be doubters and dissenters on this point. On the right, because so much of politics these days involves taking sides, this is all but a given. Naysayers would undoubtedly highlight Aslan’s Iranian heritage and Muslim beliefs (in reality, his faith is more complex, having been born into a Shia Muslim family, converting to evangelical Christianity, and then converting back to Muslim, all while largely regarding religion as nothing more than a series of metaphors and symbols designed to express one’s faith), as well as his anti-Trump animus (after Trump’s comments on the 2017 terrorist attack in London in which a van struck and killed pedestrians on London, Aslan referred to POTUS as a “piece of shit” and “man baby,” comments that, ahem, didn’t go over too well with then-employer CNN). Never mind that that Aslan is a theologian and literally talks about, thinks about, and writes about this stuff for a living. Because he doesn’t care much for Trump, his opinions must therefore be invalid, right?

For the non-shameless-Trump-backers among us, though, there might similarly be reluctance to characterize the President’s following in terms of a destructive religious cult, since these societies tend to remind us of devices of works of fiction set in apocalyptic times. To this, I submit people may be understating just how abnormal Trump and his presidency are. Besides, as many would aver, we are in the midst of a crisis right now, one primarily borne of climate concerns, but not without worry over its political stability. Trump just pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal without an apparent replacement strategy. Does this make the world safer? Does this instill confidence that the U.S. is a country that honors its agreements and is therefore worthy of trust? On both counts, the answer is a resounding “no,” and that should inspire concern from Americans regardless of their political orientation.

Then again, maybe it’s just that devout Christians can be hypocrites or otherwise twist the Bible to suit their purposes. Phil Zuckerman, professor at Pitzer College and someone who specializes in studies of atheism and secularity, among other topics, penned an essay shortly after Donald Trump’s upset 2016 electoral victory regarding the role of religion in the election’s outcome. Zuckerman—who also cites the statistic about 81% of white evangelicals voting for Trump, as well as 56% of American voters who attend church at least once a week going for the orange-skinned one—points to other disappointing tendencies of the Christian right.

For one, they tend to regard men as superior leaders and reinforce values that support male dominance over obeisant females. They also hate, hate, hate homosexuals, and tend to fear and hate other religions, dividing people into a saved-unsaved binary. Furthermore, fundamentalist Christians place a stronger emphasis on authoritarianism, and mistrust and reject the science which clashes with their faith. Or, as Zuckerman frames this, they are a sanctimonious lot, a subdivision of the American electorate that touts morals and yet voted en masse to elect someone in Trump who is the epitome of immorality. As with Aslan’s criticisms, people would be wont to use context to dismiss Zuckerman’s views. He made these comments not long after Election Day, and thus was probably harboring strong feelings at the time of his piece’s publication. Also, he’s interested mainly in secular studies. Maybe he just hates religious types. PROFESSOR, YOUR BIAS IS SHOWING.

Maybe, maybe not. Irrespective of Reza Aslan’s invectives directed at President Trump and Phil Zuckerman’s discontent with strong Christians for voting for someone clearly not of the same mold, this sense of devotion to Trump by a significant portion of the American people is startling and disconcerting, especially in light of the comparisons between Trump and Jesus. These are the same kinds of “values voters” who, say, conceive of gun ownership as a God-given right. Fun fact: the right to bear arms is a constitutional amendment contained in the Bill of Rights, not one of the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill. Gun ownership increases the likelihood you will violate this precept. How does one reconcile these two apparently competing interests?

One oft-cited biblical passage, Matthew 10:34, in which Jesus is believed to have said that he “did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” may just as well speak to Christ’s existence dividing (as a sword would cut) people based on their belief, if not a faulty translation from the original Koine Greek. Psalm 144 in the Book of Psalms, another quoted portion of the Good Book, has been translated as, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle.”

This is context-dependent, however. David, in speaking of bodily strength, ascribes true strength to God, and prays to Him to rescue him and his people “from the cruel sword.” In this context, David is King of Israel at a time when war among rival groups is common, and what’s more, the ending of the psalm expresses a hope for peace. This seems like quite a departure from the rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, which would have you believe in its promotional videos that America resembles a scene from The Purge. Lock ’em and load ’em, ladies and gents. Conflict is brewing, and nothing shouts His love like the cold steel of a .45.

Mark Lee’s pro-Trump comments seemed crazy at the time of first utterance, and a mere six months later, still do. As the Trump presidency wears on, though, at least until anything manifests with respect to impeachment or other means of removal, and as Donald Trump’s support from his base not only holds steady, but grows, one wonders whether Aslan’s depiction of Trump as a salvific figure, as something more than an inspiration to those blinded by patriotism, is accurate. For white evangelicals who support him, in particular, Trump’s actions should prompt them to look critically at their set of beliefs and the importance of morality to their worldview. Whether or not their apparent abandonment of their principles holds beyond Trump’s presidency, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess, and is hard to approach with any sense of faith on the part of those who already don’t believe in him.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

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.

But Seriously, About Those Background Checks…

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There are a lot of reasons people have against expansion of background checks for gun sales, and by and large, they blow. (Photo Credit: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

You may have heard the Senate was scheduled to vote on four pieces of legislation regarding gun control. Well, it happened—and all of them failed to pass. Big shock, I know. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s  (D-CA) proposal to allow the Attorney General to deny firearms and explosives to suspected terrorists was defeated 53 – 47, falling short of the needed 60 votes to pass. Sen. John Corryn’s (R-TX) bill to permit authorities to delay a gun sale if a judge rules there is probable cause to deny the firearm outright failed by the same margin. A proposal from Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to expand background checks for all gun purchases, even through gun shows and online, was split 56 – 44. And Sen. Charles Grassley’s (R-IA) bill to increase government funding to run background checks without requiring their expansion likewise failed to reach the magic number of 60, with Democrats reacting negatively (and understandably so) to an amendment which would allow people involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution for a “mental illness” to buy a gun once released.

 

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) put it pretty succinctly when he said, “Senate Republicans ought to be embarrassed, but they’re not, because the NRA is happy.” It’s no secret that, regarding Congress’s persistence in acting against the desires of a majority of Americans with respect to gun control, the National Rifle Association, a small but powerful (and persistent) group is the one pulling the strings in the Republican Party. With all of the above votes, splits occurred more or less along party lines. So, if you are dismayed by the results of the above exercises in futility, you know who you have to personally thank.

Why is the NRA so resistant to an expansion of background checks, in any form? I’ve heard a number of their talking points before on this matter, but just for kicks, I decided to sift through a more detailed explanation on why the National Rifle Association rejects all attempts to promote gun control. On the official website for the NRA-ILA, or the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s lobbying arm, there is a page regarding background information on background checks in the U.S., the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and various arguments surrounding these topics. The following is my attempt to make sense of the NRA’s rhetoric herein. Feel free to read ahead—or skip down to the conclusion if you think you know where this is going.


According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), 77 percent of criminals in state prison for firearm crimes get firearms through theft, on the black market, from a drug dealer or “on the street,” or from family members and friends. Less than one percent get firearms from dealers or non-dealers at gun shows.

What this citation doesn’t show, however, is that only 2% of all firearm-related crimes in the U.S. are homicides. Flipping this relationship around, the results are pretty staggering. This same report found that 60% to 70% of all homicides from 1993 to 2011 were committed with a firearm. That’s a majority, and it doesn’t even begin to consider those gun-related deaths which are suicides. To speak of the sources of firearms in terms of all firearm-related crimes is disingenuous, as much as insisting that guns are irrelevant in homicide statistics would be obviously foolish.

According to the nation’s leading criminologist specializing in the study of murder, Most mass murderers do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization. They would not be disqualified from purchasing their weapons legally. Certainly, people cannot be denied their Second Amendment rights just because they look strange or act in an odd manner. Besides, mass killers could always find an alternative way of securing the needed weaponry, even if they had to steal from family members or friends.”

This argument cites a column by Northeastern University professor of criminology James Alan Fox, who makes a number of valid points about gun control and mass shooters. The NRA’s reference curiously, though, leaves out the closing of the article. In spite of all of Fox’s arguments which would seem to go against gun control advocates’ contentions, he has this to say about potential legislative solutions:

Sensible gun laws, affordable mental-health care, and reasonable security measures are all worthwhile, and would enhance the well being of millions of Americans. They may do much to impact the level of violent crime that plagues our nation daily. We shouldn’t, however, expect such efforts to take a big bite out of crime in its most extreme form. Of course, a nibble or two from the prevalence of mass murder would be reason enough. And efforts to promote real change in our social policies would be a fitting legacy to the tragedy in Newtown.

In short, even James Alan Fox doesn’t believe in throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater when it comes to gun laws designed to make us safer. Even if these reforms may not stop mass murders, which are salient, newsworthy events, there nonetheless may be merit in passing new restrictions on gun sales.

None of the mass shootings that President Barack Obama named in a White House speech on gun control in January 2016, would have been prevented by requiring background checks on private sales of firearms.

I’d like to give you a comprehensive report which the NRA-ILA cites with this statement, but it doesn’t exist. Even though this claim may be true, the NRA is essentially citing itself. Just a point of caution. Moreover, these are but a few examples that don’t speak to the possible effect of background checks on mass shootings on the whole. This article by Alan Yuhas in The Guardian points to statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety—an organization with a clear bias, but still—that illustrate a negative correlation between states that require background checks for all gun sales and incidence of mass shootings. Meaning as background checks go up, mass shootings tend to go down.

And there are additional food-for-thought-type stats cited in the Yuhas article that don’t relate to mass shootings necessarily, but do invoke a link between domestic violence, guns and fatalities, and likewise suggest background checks might be helpful in restricting access to guns for would-be murderers. All this with a ban on gun research and publishing data that the NRA has, in large part, effected, so think of what else we might find with fewer restrictions on access to data.


Close-the-Gun-Show-Loophole
“There is no gun show loophole. Climate change is a conspiracy invented by the Chinese.” What other dumb conservative ideas can we add to the mix? (Photo retrieved from about.com)

 

But, wait, there’s more! In explaining why it opposes more background checks, the NRA has a number of reasons at the ready related to the notion “gun control supporters are not being honest.” Here’s a sampling of the best points—a dubious distinction, to be sure.

Background checks are not “the most important thing we can do.”

The NRA-ILA is referencing a quote by Michael Bloomberg about background checks being the “single most important thing we can do to reduce gun violence,” and then cites a number of articles which point to a reduction in crime, none of which list gun control among the reasons crime has declined. That’s all well and good, but first of all, how can we list gun control among those reasons, when the NRA itself has all but single-handedly blocked attempts at reform? Secondly, again, it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison that is being made. The NRA is talking about a reduction in all crime, not just gun violence or mass shootings.

Thirdly, in enumerating the reasons why crime rates have gone down, some of the underlying causes are fraught with their own issues. We’re putting more criminals behind bars, but this is leading to overcrowding in prisons and is hurting whole communities, predominantly those populated by minorities. Policing is more proactive, but it’s not above criticism (allegations of brutality, civil asset forfeiture, a growing militarization of forces—shall I go on?). And there are fewer opportunities for home invasions related to the recession—because people can’t afford to live in their houses anymore or are otherwise have been foreclosed on by their lender(s). Not exactly a rosy picture, is it?

There is no “gun show loophole.”

Hmm, that’s not what Wikipedia says.

“Loophole” is a phony term.

Hmm, that’s not what the dictionary says.

It’s not “40 percent.”

The NRA here is referring to a claim President Obama made regarding the notion 40% of firearms are sold without a background check, which has since been debunked, and quickly hereafter, a record low is referenced in the number of murders in the U.S. Yet again, this is a red herring from the NRA—whatever homicide rates are, there’s nothing to say background checks for all gun purchases can’t be implemented. These are two separate issues.

It’s not “92 percent” either.

OK, fine, how about 90%? Because that’s, like, what a bajillion polls will tell you about the notion that a vast majority of Americans want to see an expansion of background checks. The NRA-ILA points to one vote in Washington state in November 2014 in which only 59% of voters approved a private sales background check initiative as evidence. But that’s one vote in one state! And the initiative still was approved by a majority of voters!


Prior to an exhaustive recounting on the history of background checks on guns in America and the requisite Works Cited list, the NRA-ILA, on this same page, ticks off several gun regulations as proof that “federal gun control laws are already strong enough,” as if these restrictions, in them of themselves, are inherent proof of this logic, such that we don’t require additional considerations for “online” or “Internet” firearm sales. To stress, I am not target the audience for this litany of objections against the U.S. government and their supposed overreach. Nevertheless, a number of these provisions seem fairly sensible to me:

  • Federal law prohibits transferring a firearm to anyone known or believed to be prohibited from possessing firearms. Sounds good to me. If you shouldn’t have a gun, you shouldn’t have a gun.
  • Federal law prohibits a non-licensee from acquiring a handgun outside his state of residence and prohibits a non-licensee from acquiring a rifle or shotgun from a non-licensee outside his state of residence. Cool. On the subject of guns, I feel everyone who owns or sells one should be licensed.
  • Federal law prohibits anyone from transferring a handgun to a non-licensee who resides in another state (with rare exceptions), and prohibits a non-licensee from transferring any firearm to a non-licensee who resides in another state. This is essentially the same idea as the last specification, except involving transfer rather than acquisition of a firearm. Either way, you now know my stance regarding licenses for gun ownership and sales.
  • Federal law prohibits the acquisition of a firearm on behalf of a person who is prohibited from possessing firearms. Exactly. I don’t know how you’d prove that much if you’re the seller, but this seems logical.
  • Federal law also prohibits dealers from selling rifles or shotguns to persons under age 18. Yeah, I don’t know think I need to tell you this, but people over the age of 18 don’t always exercise great caution and judgment when using firearms. So, do I support guns for individuals under the age of 18? Hells to the no!

In fact, now that I get the sense that the major aversion to background checks is that they are supposedly ineffective at deterring gun violence and that they are inconvenient for prospective gun buyers, let me play devil’s advocate, from the perspective of the anti-gun control voter. If an expansion of background checks for all purchases/sales of guns won’t work in preventing gun-related homicides, nor will checking people seeking to buy firearms legally against databases such as that of a terrorism watch list, why not let us try anyway? I mean, are you worried about the potential cost? If so, are you that willing to put a price on measures that might save lives?

Or let’s look at these matters another way. If background checks are a symbol of the overreach of the federal government and of stripping away our personal freedoms, namely that of the Second Amendment, then why aren’t you as concerned about the hypothetical situation of the government invading the privacy of Muslims and others it regards as a threat? Isn’t that overreach and, in all likelihood, a violation of the Bill of Rights? Or is it OK if it happens to someone else, one of them? You can’t have your cake and eat it, too—no matter what Donald Trump says.

Maybe as a non-gun-owner I just don’t understand, but as a concerned citizen, I can’t see any justification for failing to expand the use of background checks for all firearms transactions. Not any good one, at least. We can cherry-pick the statistics that support our points. We can use the Second Amendment as a crutch. We can say “guns keep us safe” until we’re blue in the face. On all counts, though, I think these positions fail to hold up under further scrutiny. Background checks may not have prevented the Orlando shooting or any number of mass shootings in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the right thing to do.