Making a New Impression

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this country.

We have the highest medical costs combined with some of the worst outcomes; one of the highest rates of infant mortality among the industrialized world, and also one of the highest rates of death in childbirth for women.

We have the largest and most expensive military in the world, and by any estimate, we are one of the most war-mad nations on Earth. We currently have active duty military personnel stationed in 150 countries around the world.

Our education system is inefficient where it is not simply ineffective. As a country, we don’t read. (So really, I’m not sure why I’m writing this.) We have a biased and often irrational media, run by a steadily shrinking number of corporations and consumed by a shrinking minority of the people.

Wealth and income disparity have been increasing, and our rates of poverty, childhood poverty, and especially food insecurity have been increasing steadily for decades. We also, not coincidentally, have the largest and most expensive prison system, with the greatest number of prisoners of any country on Earth – over 2.2 million adults incarcerated, with another 5 million on parole or probation.

And even fifty years after the civil rights movement, every one of these problems is worse for minority populations than it is for white citizens.

There’s a lot that’s wrong. But despite all of that, there is one thing, at least, that we do right, and it’s more important than all of these: this country is still a democracy, where the votes of the citizenry select our leaders; where we have the power to elect, and to remove, essentially anyone in power over us. If and when the people of this country develop the political will to tackle any or all of these problems, we are the ones who have the power to do so: we set the agenda, we determine the government’s size and shape, and we choose its priorities. The only thing stopping us from at least trying to deal with these issues is ourselves.

And that means that perhaps the worst problem this country faces is this: only about 50% of eligible voters actually cast their ballots in an election. In Presidential election years, it’s around 60%; in midterm elections it’s about 40%; the rate is lower for local and special elections. The primary happened here in Arizona this past Tuesday, and we seem to have set a record for primaries: we cracked a million votes cast. Of course, there are more than three and a half million registered voters in the state, so our record is less than 30% of the potential total. Exciting.

Even though we have the ultimate power to determine our nation’s path, we don’t do it. Not that we can’t, we just don’t. The best thing about this country, and we don’t take advantage of it.

So why don’t we? Honestly, there are a lot of reasons: the biggest is that people don’t think that their individual vote will matter, so they don’t cast it; that’s a tough one to overcome, too, because logically, it’s true. There has never been a serious election won by a single citizen’s vote. Small elections can build momentum for large elections, and so there might be a snowball effect started by a single person’s vote; but even an argument like this one I’m making here, trying to convince people it’s important to vote, has to rely on large aggregates of voters: if all of the citizens who didn’t vote in the last election voted in the next one, they could almost outvote the entire election, in which only 58.1% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Certainly that group of voters would have been larger than either of the groups who voted for the two major candidates. But that fact, while disturbing in the extreme, is still about millions of voters – tens of millions of voters. Nobody can argue that one single person’s vote would have turned the tide.

Then there are the institutional obstacles to voting: the fact that U.S. elections happen on a workday, that polling places are limited and sometimes hard to get to, especially in rural areas; in many cases there are factors that cause voter suppression, sometimes even deliberately, such as pre-emptive removal of voters from registration rolls, or the frequent imposition of ID requirements for voting. The 2.2 million prisoners I mentioned above, along with a large number of the 5 million parolees, have had their civil rights suspended or stripped because of their crimes, often including their right to vote. I myself was disenfranchised by my state, Arizona, in the 2016 primary because even though independent voters, which is how I registered in Arizona in 2014, can vote in primary elections, they cannot vote in presidential preference elections, which is what that primary was called, when we were offered the chance to choose between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. I didn’t get to do it because of that rule and the way the state defined that particular election.

Of course there are circumstantial reasons why people don’t vote: they’re busy, they’re sick, they couldn’t find a babysitter, there were unforeseen complications. When we’re talking about 100 million uncast ballots, the number of people who didn’t vote because they had food poisoning that day is probably in the hundreds of thousands. And I don’t really have a solution to offer there, other than to stay away from the clams; they seem a little sketchy. Also, gross.

But avoiding bad seafood is not going to solve this problem. Of course not. However: the argument that one single voter does not change elections, while true, vanishes in the face of another truth: that the 100 million votes, which are more than enough to swing the last election in any direction at all, are made up of individual, insignificant votes. There is little significance in a single vote, but there is nation-shattering significance in the 100 million votes – and that means that each of those votes contains a small amount of that earth-shaking power. Getting people to stay away from shellfish wouldn’t change a national election; but it would change (I’m assuming) some number of potential non-votes into votes: and in conjunction with everything else we might do, it might just change enough non-votes into votes to actually change the election, change the government, change the country: change the world.

So seriously: stay away from the clams, for at least a couple of days before the election.

In thinking about all of this, particularly while reading the President’s Twitter account, where he stumps for every Republican candidate he can think of, and also in my disappointment over the blue wave here in Arizona in the primary this week (The turnout may have been record-setting, but there were still only about 400,000 Democrats who voted, compared to over 500,000 Republicans. That’s not a blue wave, that’s a red splash with a blue ripple.), I thought of one small factor that, by itself, may not amount to much, but I think does have an impact on election turnout. Maybe even as much as the clams do. And if it isn’t directly causative of non-votes, it does, I think, have some influence: and it’s one of those things that would be easy as well as beneficial to change, in ways other than the effect on voter turnout. Also like avoiding clams, which is good for health and also because they’re gross.

The factor is this: our first impression of elections.

We all know that first impressions can make a difference. They don’t always, and even in the cases where they do, subsequent interactions can entirely overwhelm that first impression: my wife’s first impression of me was that I was cute but dumb; then she thought I was an arrogant jerk; and then she realized that I was cute but socially awkward. It’s the third impression that found the truth – though there’s a pretty strong argument for that first impression, I’ll admit. (And probably for the second.) I almost lost my chance at my favorite college job, my position as a custodian at the Civic Auditorium, because my initial interview gave my boss the impression that I could not work with managers – my application said that my previous two jobs had ended because of personal conflicts with management. Fortunately, they listened to my explanations of those personal problems (In one case, the management was badly mishandling the clientele, and I couldn’t abide it; and in the other case, the manager had a crush on the very beautiful woman who is now my wife, and resented that she made it all the way to that third impression of me and the dates that came afterward) and gave me a chance, which led to my five years of work for the Civic.

But those first impressions mattered. I have two examples where a bad first impression was overcome, but that’s because I don’t remember most of the situations where I made a really bad first impression: because those first impressions led to – nothing. Those are the dates I never went on, the jobs that never even called me back. There are more of those than the other kind, for me as for all of us; and first impressions have a lot to do with that.

And what are our first impressions of elections, of voting? In the most informal sense, it’s the mock-democracy – the deMOCKracy, if you will (I’m sorry about that. But not sorry enough to take it out.) – of voting to decide where to go for a night out, or what to do with a group of friends. In essentially every case where we vote for something like that, the outcome is a foregone conclusion, the vote is a sham, and the only point is to make the loudest dissident shut up so we can all just go to Olive Garden. The person who calls for a vote is the one who realizes that they have the majority on their side, and if they can get everyone to abide by “Majority Rules,” then the argument is over and they win, without all the bother of having to convince everyone. In some cases the vote is even shadier, because these are the kind of elections where parents decide that their votes count twice. We’ve all done this, and we do this still, and while it isn’t good governance, it’s also not very easily connected to national elections; as young people we may realize these elections are fixed, but we also realize that it’s probably okay if we just go ahead and go to Olive Garden, and that while it’s unfair that Mom and Dad get two votes each, we also realize that we kids have the power of the Whine Veto. (The Whine Veto is when a child overrides parents’ votes through whining: “Mooooooooooommm, Iiiiii dooooonnnnnn’t WWAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNAAAAAAAAAA go to Olive Garden!” “FINE! We’ll go to McDonald’s!” If Mr. Trump could do the same thing, he’d be the most effective president in history, in the sense that he’d get a lot of things done. Would they be the right things? How much do you like eating at McDonald’s? Or, more realistically, eating Trump brand steaks at Mar a Lago?)

Those votes, in this argument as in life, don’t really count. No: the first place we encounter actual voting for actual elections, on a smaller than national scale, is in school. When we elect student council officers. That, I would argue, is our first impression of the democratic process in this country: and not only does it give us a bad first impression, but it’s also an accurate bad impression, because the things that are wrong with student body elections are also what’s wrong with our national elections.

First of all, there are the candidates. For every serious student body candidate, for every student who wants to do a good job and help out the school and the student body, there is a goofball who runs because they think it’s funny, and at least two candidates who run because they want the attention, they want to win for the sake of winning, they want to put “Student Body President” on their resume. And so it is in our national elections: for every Barack Obama, John McCain or Mitt Romney, there’s a Vermin Supreme, a Deez Nuts, or a Donald Trump. (Note: I don’t mean to ride Mr. Trump in this piece; but I maintain that there was nobody in this country who was as surprised by his election win as he was himself. Actually, his wife might have been more surprised.) And though Harambe, who was at the time of the 2016 election not only a gorilla, but also dead, only got a small number of write-in votes for president, sometimes, the joke candidate wins.

My high school elected two very capable young men to the position of President and Vice President for three years, alternating positions between them. They were good guys; they did a good job. Then our senior year, another guy ran as a joke. He was a nice guy, but not really presidential; he wasn’t involved in student body activities, didn’t have any leadership experience, didn’t really care about school politics; he just thought it would be funny to run. And as students do around the country, the rest of us thought it would be funny as hell to vote for him, instead of the two guys we actually wanted to have as student body president.  And of course, I don’t have to tell my fellow American citizens, he won. And I will say he took it on, tried hard, and did a decent job; but the lesson to be learned is – well, it’s one we clearly haven’t learned as a country, because people wrote in Harambe.

I would argue that it’s student body elections that teach us to vote based on humor and irony, rather than considered and rational opinions.

Speaking of Harambe, one of the student body elections at the school where I now teach featured a poster that made a joke about Harambe, and who he would have voted for had he not been killed. There’s another aspect of elections where student body campaigns echo, or foreshadow, national elections to the detriment of our democracy: because student body election campaigns, even more than the candidates, are a joke. The kids slap up some homemade posters, heavy on the glitter; they make a single speech, usually during lunchtime; and then people vote. That’s not a campaign, that’s a plug for a would-be You-Tuber: Click like and subscribe if you enjoyed this poster, if you laughed at this speech. There aren’t any discussions of issues or causes, no proposals made other than the most basic; student elections are pure identity politics, nothing but a popularity contest. If people don’t vote for their bestie, then they vote with their sense of humor (if they’re not voting for the cutest candidate, that is.).

How does that prepare us for a substantive debate of the issues, for an election that will help set the course of our entire country for some number of years? It doesn’t. It does help to prepare us for elections that run entirely on attack ads, negative campaigning, gotcha media strikes, manufactured scandals, and of course, partisan politics, where people vote for their team and not for the other team for no other reason than that. And look: that’s exactly what we have.

Again, I’m not trying to argue that student body elections are the cause of our current madhouse of a democracy; but first impressions do matter. We see trends in student body elections that recur in national elections, and unless those flaws are inherent in the system, inborn in us and therefore inescapable, then what this repetition shows us is that we vote as adults in the same way and for the same reasons that we vote as children.

So the question is, why do we vote that way as children?

I think it’s mostly cynicism and despair, honestly. As students in school, we are all too aware that we don’t control things. That the student body president, even if we elect one that is after more than a bullet point on a resume, is really not much more than a bullet point on a resume. That the aspects of school life that are controlled by the elected student officers are not the important aspects; that they are ceremonial, maybe even just distractions. Like a president who gives speeches, who hold press conferences, who streams out comments on Twitter, but who doesn’t really do much of substance to change the lives of ordinary citizens, certainly not on his own. We know it as students, and we suspect it as adult citizens, and so the natural response is to either vote as a joke, or to not vote at all: because to participate sincerely is to get played for a sucker. “You thought this mattered?” our fellow says, and rolls his eyes at our naivete; rather than face that, we write in Harambe. We go to work, or stay home, rather than drive to the polling place on the second Tuesday in November. Just like we did in high school. I said “we” elected a pair of nice young men as our student body president and vice president for three years, but that was a lie; I never voted in those elections. I never cared.

When it comes to national elections, that indifference, that desire to avoid looking a fool, is wrong. Elections do matter, now; votes do matter. In high school, they probably don’t: and therein lies the solution I’d like to suggest. Because just like fighting the influence of bad clams, I think it is at least possible that student body elections help to suppress at least some votes, because people who go through elections that don’t matter may not care enough to vote in the very next election available to them, which may be a national election the November after they graduate high school – or even while they are still in high school, if they are 18 their senior year – and if they don’t vote in that one, they may not vote in the next one. I think that probably happens, and when we’re talking about 100 million non-voters, it may happen hundreds of thousands of times.

Here’s what I propose. I say we make student body elections matter. Doing so would be simple, and would actually have a number of benefits: all we have to do is make student leadership positions matter. We have to allow student council members to have real power. They should win a place on the school board. They should have a seat in administrative meetings, at least ones that don’t relate to confidential matters. They should actually be able to speak for the student body, in some way that genuinely matters at the school.

If the position was more than a ceremonial sash, then the elections would become more serious, almost instantly. The students would care who was representing them if that representative could actually make a difference in their lives; and in a high school, that is not only possible, but preferable. There are a large number of aspects of daily high school life that don’t matter much to the adults in the room, but matter quite a lot to students. Like the dress code. Like the tardy policy. Like off-campus privileges. If a student body president could actually fight for and win those privileges, then students would elect a president who could do those things, and they wouldn’t vote for Harambe.

Doing this wouldn’t just change the votes and the elections. It would also change the leaders: it would prepare those students for positions of larger responsibility. It would show all of the students that elected leaders can and should make a difference in the lives of their constituents. It would show all of us that democratically elected leaders can have some impact, despite the Powers That Be looming above and behind them. It would also make public schools more responsive to the will of the student body, which, I would argue, is sorely needed all on its own merits. I’ve watched my school grow more and more autocratic and dictatorial, for no reason other than they can and because they don’t care how the students feel about it; I’ve watched my students grow more angry, and also more cynical and hopeless about it; and then I see my fellow Americans. I see 30% voter turnout. I see candidates like Joe Arpaio, the 86-year-old convicted felon who ran for Senate in Arizona, and pulled in over 100,000 votes – ten percent of the total, almost 20% of his party’s total votes. I see that, and I wish those people had written in Harambe.

But really, I wish to find a way to change these trends, to make our elections and our democracy into what they should be. And though I don’t think I can stop people from eating clams, I think I might be able to get them to make a change in high schools. We can, and we should, for all kinds of reasons. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this country: let’s make this one right.

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Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World

Image result for the demon-haunted world

The Demon-Haunted World

by Carl Sagan

Published the year he died, Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World is a haunted book. I haven’t read his other work (Though now I plan to), but this one seems darker than what I had imagined his work would be like. It’s not hopeless or despairing; it’s a serious warning about a serious problem, and what seemed to me like a fairly frustrated attempt to cut through a thick layer of hogwash on a specific issue that obviously bothered Sagan quite a lot: namely the idea of alien abduction.

The general warning about the serious problem is the overall thrust of the book, and it is about the need for a free people to think skeptically. Sagan being who he was, he came at the idea from a scientist’s perspective; he describes at length the need for scientists to be skeptical, to be willing to question anything, most particularly their own most cherished beliefs. He gives example after example of scientists describing the need to build beautiful, elegant theories that explain great answers to great questions – and then tear them down completely when those theories are contradicted by the evidence. He talks about the shift from Newton to Einstein to quantum mechanics, and he talks about how astrophysicist Fred Hoyle was able to contribute as much to the field of astronomy when he was wrong as he was when he was right (and in both cases his contributions were prodigious, Sagan says).

Because Sagan is not only talking about science, and because he practiced what he preached, he makes a concerted effort in this book to talk about the flawed nature of scientists, the scientists who did more harm than good, the ones who told themselves they could ignore the ethical responsibility of considering the potential uses of their discoveries – a deception, Sagan argues, as he states unequivocally that the extraordinary power of modern scientific discoveries and the technology that comes from them imposes a greater responsibility than ever before for scientists to act as ethically as possible in considering what potential harm could be done by their work, and taking action to minimize that harm. He talks about the various ways that science can be manipulated and used to do harm; though he is also clear that none of that harm tells us that science is itself harmful or bad or should be feared or avoided. Knowledge is power, and power can be used to do – well, anything; but ignoring the power doesn’t protect us from it, it simply makes it easier for someone else to use it harmfully.

What else is Sagan talking about other than science itself, than the beauty and power of the scientific mindset, of skeptical thinking and a reliance on repeatable experiment and observable data? He’s talking about everything, really. There isn’t an aspect of life or modern society where a skeptical mindset would be inappropriate. The book covers a lot of aspects of society and culture; the exploration of the alien abduction myth, rather than simply being a screed against a continuing falsehood that Sagan, as an astrophysicist, took personally; he goes back through history and connects the alien abduction myth to past myths, of fairy abductions, of divine intervention in the lives of mortals. In addition to showing how a skeptical mindset quickly takes the alien abduction story apart, he also shows how it could be used to remove a dozen other pernicious ideas in our culture, including racism, sexism, and nationalism.

It’s beautifully done. This is a lovely book, fascinating in its ideas and easily digestible in the presentation of them. And as I said, it isn’t hopeless: Sagan also makes sure to express to the reader his unquenchable curiosity and his enormous capacity for wonder, which he also says must be fostered and encouraged along with the skeptical mindset; because when our cherished ideas are disproven by the evidence, when the flaws in our reasoning are found by our own penetrating, skeptical questions, it is our sense of wonder and our need to feel awe that makes us look again for a new answer to replace the one we just discarded. Wonder makes us get up and try again, after we knock ourselves down; and the combination of those two qualities is what gives this book its hope.

The thing that makes it scary is that Sagan wrote it twenty years ago. And on the first page – the first damn page – he said this:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

[…]

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Yeah. This book scared me, all right. I hope it also inspired me. I do intend to use one entire chapter/essay in my classes this coming school year, to try to make that candle burn a little brighter, if I can; and I would like to recommend that everyone read this book when you get the chance, because after Sagan finishes talking about alien abduction, he talks about democracy, and the need for scientific skeptical thinking and also scientific wonder and awe, to save our democracy, to save our country. And I for one think he was right.

Letter To My Congresswoman

I’m an American high school teacher, so as you can imagine, this last week has been a time of turmoil. And for the first time — a fact which I find shameful– this latest school shooting has actually driven me to do something. I wrote my representative in Congress, Martha McSally, who is currently running for the Arizona Senate seat that will be vacated by the retiring Jeff Flake, about gun control.

I should have done this many times in the past, and I can’t justify my own inaction. I’ve argued about this topic for years, but to say that I’ve never voiced my opinion to the people who can actually do something — well. I’ve done it now. Sent the email ten minutes ago. I will also be sending a version of this to every candidate who runs for McSally’s seat — one which will probably be hotly contested, considering the political climate in this country and the fact that this is a Democratic area with a Republican representative — and I welcome anyone who wants to use this as a framework for their own letter. Steal it, steal a paragraph, steal everything you want. Do more than I have done. Let’s see what we can make happen.

February 23, 2018

To Representative McSally:

I am an independent voter living in Tucson, in the 2nd Congressional District for Arizona. I am an educator: I have taught high school English for eighteen years, for the last four at Sonoran Science Academy, one of the premier STEM charter schools in the state – the only high school in Tucson which Governor Ducey visited this past year. I am writing to you despite knowing that you are currently very busy, seeking a new job in addition to performing the duties of your current position, because you should know that I will also be seeking a new position, and quite possibly a new profession, unless you and your fellow Congresspeople can do the right thing. Unless you bring some sense to the debate over gun control, and specifically firearms in schools, then Tucson, and Arizona, and this country will lose thousands of outstanding teachers and educators. Like me.

The sense I seek – the sense I demand – in this debate has three elements, one positive change, one negative stance, and a general direction. The positive change is simple: Congress must repeal the Dickey Amendment of 1996, which prohibits the Centers for Disease Control from performing any research into gun violence in this country if said research “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” I find this law appalling, entirely apart from my stance on gun control, because it is nothing more than enforced ignorance: it is a law passed by our government intended solely to limit and suppress knowledge. It flies in the face of science because it presumes an outcome and refuses the research for fear of that outcome – but it is entirely possible that the outcome of that research would be evidence against gun control! There is absolutely no reason to prevent the CDC from investigating the causes of gun deaths, and 30,000 reasons to allow that research to go forward, every year. I say that as an educator, not as an advocate for gun control; the truth is always better than ignorance, and I for one would gladly change my stance on gun control if the evidence supported such a change. Congress must allow the CDC to dispel our ignorance, to teach us why this problem is unique to the United States. That knowledge, suppressed for twenty years, is why this debate is still so acrimonious: because we do not know the facts behind it. We do not know if the right to bear arms is a cause of those 30,000 annual deaths, or if it prevents even more deaths while contributing to none. We are left searching for reasons, for answers, while the body that could provide us with several of those answers sits with its hands tied. Please: make this the first action you take regarding this debate. Jay Dickey himself regrets his namesake law and argued for its repeal in 2012, after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Strip away the veil of ignorance, and let us know the truth. Repeal the Dickey Amendment.

The negative stance I would ask you to support has to do with a common reaction to the atrocity of school shootings. I have been a teacher since 2000, and I was in school to become a teacher when the massacre happened at Columbine; I have watched, again and again, as maniacs with firearms have devastated communities by targeting our children. Every time this happens, whether the debate remains local or expands to include the entire nation, at some point, someone will suggest arming the teachers. This time the suggestion came most clearly from our president, Mr. Trump. He Tweeted that “Highly trained, gun adept, teachers/coaches would solve the problem instantly, before police arrive. GREAT DETERRENT!” Allow me to state, unequivocally, that this is false. Highly trained teachers is what this nation already has, but we are, as we should be, highly trained in education, not in combat. I would never presume to lecture you, who have been in combat, on what that experience means and what training and preparation went into making it possible for you to fight for our country, but I am entirely and absolutely sure that I do not have what you had. I do not have the training, I do not have the preparation, I do not have the will to fight. My classroom is not a battleground, and I am not a warrior. What’s more, I will not become such. Turning me from an educator into a fighter would destroy too much of what I need to be successful in my profession: it would change my relationship to my students, it would change my view of myself and my role, it would change the priorities for my continuing professional development and the allocation of resources. It would make my position untenable for me, and if it ever becomes policy, I will quit. I will quit immediately and without reservation, and I will not be alone: please recognize that thousands and thousands of teachers feel as I do. The country already has a teacher shortage, and a longstanding problem with hiring and retaining quality educators; do not make it worse by misunderstanding who we are and what we do. I will never carry a weapon in school, and I will never fire on a student. Don’t ask me to.

Lastly, I would ask you to join me in moving the gun control debate in a general direction that I hope you will be able to support. I recognize the right to self-defense and the concomitant right to keep and bear arms. I oppose authoritarian government, and applaud the democratization of physical force through the private ownership of firearms. But the reality is that the ready availability of firearms, particularly of weapons that have uniquely destructive properties, allow for the unequal and devastating use of force in a way that reduces individual rights: one 19-year-old man’s ability to purchase an AR-15 and “countless” magazines has taken the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to pursue happiness, away from thousands of students. While of course such simple measures as a waiting period for semi-automatic rifles, or an age limit of 21 on the purchase of long guns, or a limit on magazine capacity, or a universal background check system, would not stop all massacres and would not affect the majority of gun deaths, the simple fact that such measures would stop some massacres, and would reduce gun deaths, without materially affecting the right to bear arms or the ability of Americans to defend themselves, makes these measures requisite. It makes them necessary. It makes their continued absence a failure and a dereliction of duty. I myself was inspired to write you, an action I have not taken in the past, by the political will and activity of the victims of the Parkland shooting; I consider myself to be derelict in my duty in not having taken up this cause in the past with the same vigor and determination that these teenagers are showing us now. I am a teacher; I am an adult; I should have been fighting this fight, not waiting for children to fight it for me. Had I fought for these measures in the past, had everyone who agrees with me done so, had all the congresspeople and elected leaders in this nation done what we all (I hope) know to be the right thing, then this particular massacre would not have occurred. That weighs on me, and though I don’t hope it weighs on you, I hope you can empathize with me about it. I hope you can understand the determination that I now have, that this situation not continue as it has in the past, that we not let this moment sink back into oblivion and change nothing and do nothing. I will not take up arms and fire on a student: but neither will I be silent while madmen do exactly that.

I hope you can agree with me on these three actions: to repeal the Dickey Amendment and allow the CDC to investigate the causes of gun violence; to oppose the absurd idea that our schools should encourage or require teachers to carry arms as a means of defending students from attack; and to press for some common-sense gun safety measures that would help to regulate arms without removing any citizen’s inalienable right to self-defense. Please believe that my vote, and my support, depend on that agreement.

Sincerely,

Theoden Humphrey

I said I would still rant a little.

Let’s talk.

I know I just said last night that I was going to reduce the rants and move towards a simple journal about my experience trying to be a published writer. I also said I was terrible at arguing. Both of those things are true.

But also, I think that continuing the conversation is vital to our democracy. People frequently blame our president for his continuous denigration of the media, and you can see the results in how frequently that charge is echoed by his supporters; but the free press alone is not enough to protect our country and our liberties. We all need to think about it, and talk about it. The women’s marches, last year and this, are a wonderful example of citizens participating in the conversation, and the interview I heard this morning on NPR in which a woman criticized the marches for not having a clear message was, I think, missing the point. If you are determined that the answer must be clearly known and entirely solidified before you speak up, before you take action, then you’re assuming that the answer is simple, and therefore so is the problem.

We’re talking about our country. Our democracy. It is not simple. Especially not when you also include women’s rights in our society, women’s issues within our culture, gender politics, and the culture of sexual assault and harassment in the conversation. I recognize that the woman making the comment on the radio was trying to say that we should limit the conversation to a single talking point, but then it becomes easy to discard because that single talking point doesn’t affect everyone. Sometimes a single issue should be the exclusive focus, but sometimes it should be broader. Both types of conversation are necessary: a marriage can’t be considered healthy just because the two people have figured out who does the dishes, but no marriage can go on without figuring out who does the dishes.

So here’s a conversation I came across and that I would like to participate in. Not as an argument, just a conversation. It’s a couple of days old, now, but if Fox News will let me, I will link to this blog in the comments, and see if anyone gives me a response. I welcome responses of any kind.

It’s an op-ed called The Truth About Trump’s First Year, by Allen C. Guelzo, a professor of history at Gettysburg University. The first victory for the president, according to Professor Guelzo, is simply that he is still president:

 

But despite the Russia investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, despite the unrelenting fury of the princes of the op-ed pages, despite President Trump’s hiring of staff he was forced to fire, and despite his much-criticized tweets, the president is still in charge at the White House. And he appears to be wearing down all but his severest critics.

 

The last sentence is the thesis of the essay (though Guelzo goes a bit further than that by the end of the piece), that the President is convincing all and sundry that, actually, he’s doing a better job than we have given him credit for. The slant of the piece is apparent in the list of “despites:” the Mueller investigation is not over, of course, and Professor Guelzo does not list the various elements of the investigation that have already called the president’s actions and associations into question; the “unrelenting fury of the princes of the op-ed pages” is a wonderfully loaded phrase, calling into question both the rationality and impartiality of the pundits, and also implying they are undemocratic, unlike the Man of the People in the White House (I will not point out that Mr. Guelzo is himself declaiming on the opinion page, as I’m doing the same; but I will include this picture of the Man of the People.);

Image result for trump private residence the tweets are “much-criticized” not because we’re all biased against the President, but because the man should not Tweet as he does – and nearly every interview I hear with a supporter of the President says the same. You think there’s broad bipartisan support for DACA? Run a poll on whether or not Twitter should close the President’s account. So I think that Professor Guelzo is already discounting things that should not be discounted, in any assessment of the President’s first year in office.

But let’s see how the President is wearing down his critics. The first issue raised is ISIS: Guelzo refers to a New York Times op-ed that discussed the collapse of the Islamic State this past year; the author, Ross Douthat, who describes himself in the piece as focusing primarily on finding fault with the President’s actions, grudgingly gives the President some of the credit for ISIS’s collapse:

So very provisionally, credit belongs where it’s due — to our soldiers and diplomats, yes, but to our president as well.

But Douthat’s argument isn’t terribly good, either:

I mean the war against the Islamic State, whose expansion was the defining foreign policy calamity of Barack Obama’s second term, whose executions of Americans made the U.S.A. look impotent and whose utopian experiment drew volunteers drunk on world-historical ambitions and metaphysical dreams. Its defeat was begun under Obama, and the hardest fighting has been done by Iraqis — but this was an American war too, and we succeeded without massive infusions of ground troops, without accidentally getting into a war with Russia, and without inspiring a huge wave of terrorism in the West.

Right, so as Douthat himself states, the war effort began under Mr. Obama, and was fought primarily by troops from the countries involved – Iraqis in the struggle to overthrow ISIS in their country, and Kurds and Arab soldiers in Syria; at least 160,000 fighting troops, and about 2,000 U.S. advisers, plus the American personnel carrying out airstrikes and artillery support – and so I immediately have to question how much of an American war this was. Yes, we were involved; but the President changed very little about that, he didn’t send more troops, didn’t appreciably change the strategy or the resources, didn’t bring new allies into the coalition. He gave the U.S. generals more freedom in deciding strategy, but how much influence did that really have? Were our generals behind the actual strategy as carried out by the fighting men? And then the success markers Douthat lists – we DIDN’T send in thousands of American troops, we DIDN’T get into a war with Russia, we DIDN’T inspire new terrorists (Well. Not yet. Right?) – I mean, that’s a low bar. I didn’t do any of those things, either. Can I have credit for the victory? (Snark aside, this article from the Guardian makes a compelling argument that the collapse of the actual Caliphate was inevitable, and that we have not yet seen what will come of ISIS as a stateless terrorist organization, which is what we have made of al Qaeda and the Taliban – both of which we are still fighting. I think this is not much of a victory at all, let alone a victory for the President. I will also say that the collapse of the Islamic State is a good thing, and that U.S. forces do deserve some credit.)

Next in Professor Guelzo’s argument is this:

Douthat’s observation was followed by never-Trumper and fellow columnist Bret Stephens’ insistence that, despite the collapse of ISIS and other achievements, President Trump must remain beyond the pale because he lacks “character.”

What Stephens didn’t say was that the Constitution does not list “character” as a prerequisite for the presidency, nor do voters necessarily reward it – or punish a perceived lack of character.

The issue of “character” certainly did nothing to affect Bill Clinton, or, for that matter, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Stephens’ attack was a pout, and when pundits turn to pouting, it means they have lost faith in their own argument.

This is, unsurprisingly, a poor rendition of Stephens’s argument. Stephens, who calls himself a conservative, discusses how the conservative viewpoint was once the one that touted character as the most important criterion for political office; he describes how the President’s particular personality has had harmful effects on his own administration. He makes a dozen points to support his contention, and to dismiss them all with “Well, character’s not in the Constitution!” is a pretty ridiculous red herring. Guelzo’s other point about character not affecting Clinton or Kennedy or Johnson is obviously false: Clinton was destroyed by the Lewinsky scandal, and Gore was sunk by the same torpedo; whether or not Kennedy would have been affected by character assassination was made moot by the other assassination. Professor’s Guelzo’s argument regarding this President seems to be that if one gets elected, and does not specifically violate the requirements in the Constitution, then that shows that one is satisfactorily performing the office.

I suppose we’re not going to talk about the emoluments clause. Did you know that Trump never even set up the blind trust (which wasn’t going to be that blind since his children are not exactly disconnected from him) for his company? I didn’t know that either.

Guelzo then refers to a third New York Times columnist, David Brooks, who wrote about how people meeting the President are surprised to find that he’s not actually a lunatic in person. I suppose that’s a victory. This is followed with these critiques of the left’s response to the President’s inauguration:

[A]s we turn the page on President Trump’s first year in office, the dirigible of anti-Trumpism is assuming an amusingly deflated look. It actually began deflating in the first few weeks of the Trump presidency, after Antifa thugs gave the “resistance” a self-inflicted black eye and a “Women’s March” made the wearing of funny hats its biggest accomplishment.

All right: so “Antifa thugs” that gave the resistance a black eye is only valid from a specific point of view, one that was looking for a black eye to give the left after the largest single protest movement in the history of humankind – which, apparently, only accomplished the wearing of funny hats. I think the only response to this is to reverse it: the white supremacists in Charlottesville gave the President’s party a black eye, which they tried to cover up with their MAGA hats. No, that’s not all the Republican party and the conservative movement accomplished in the last year, and the very worst elements affiliated with the right should not taint that entire half of the political spectrum. So too with the Women’s March or Antifa, which all by itself should not be tainted by its worst members – none of whom, I will say, drove their car into protestors.

What’s next, Professor Guelzo?

President Trump succeeded in getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed to fill the seat on the Supreme Court vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. In addition to Gorsuch, the Senate has confirmed 22 Trump nominees for federal appeals and district courts, with another 43 awaiting action.

What’s more, as Jonathan Adler of the Case Western Reserve University Law School has said: “The overall intellectual caliber of Trump’s nominees has been as high, if not higher, than any recent predecessor. That’s almost the opposite of what you might have expected.”

Okay, this is certainly an accomplishment; the appointment of Justice Gorsuch was one of the most pivotal issues that swung traditional conservatives to support the rather unconventional candidate picked by the GOP’s base. Turns out that this is actually an impressive number of judicial appointments:

Trump ranks sixth of 19 presidents filling the highest number of judgeships at the Supreme, appellate and District Court levels in their first year in office, while Obama ranked tenth, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis Friday.

The president has appointed 23 judges, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a dozen appellate court judges and 10 District Court judges. Obama appointed 13 judges—Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, three appellate court judges and nine District Court judges.

Source

Of course, context is everything. You know that, Professor: you’re a teacher. You teach history, for Pete’s sake. Why would you drain all the context out of this, if not to achieve a slanted partisan talking point?

Context:

Trump’s success comes in part from the fact that the GOP holds a slim majority in the Senate, which confirms Trump’s picks. In addition, Republican senators in Obama’s first five years blocked three dozen judicial nominations, Politifact found. Democrats used a simple majority to pass most judicial confirmation votes, not a super-majority of 60.

“Nominations pretty much came to a halt until the start of the Trump administration when the Senate started quickly confirming his nominees,” University of Georgia law professor Susan Brodie Haire told the LA Times.

Source

 

And as to Professor Guelzo’s comments about the intellectual prowess of Trump’s nominees, this is why he went with the opinion of a single pundit using a single subjective metric:

However, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has rated four of Trump’s nominees as “not qualified,” which is close to 14 percent of his picks and a higher percentage than recent presidents.

Of the 23 confirmed judges, only nine have previous judicial experience and most have backgrounds in litigation in either private practice or government. The association bases its ratings not on candidates’ politics, but their “integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament,” its guidelines state.

And while 23 confirmed appointments and 43 awaiting processing is impressive,

There are still more than 140 vacancies in the federal judiciary.

Source

 

Context, Professor.

At this point in the piece, however, Professor Guelzo does take on a more fair and balanced view of the President’s first year in office.

And despite an undeniable string of misfires with Congress (especially on the “repeal and replace” of ObamaCare), there are now more grins than grimaces among Trump loyalists from the increasing number of successes the president has scored over trade deals (withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership), the repair of the crucial diplomatic relationship with Israel, the decline in illegal border crossings, and the economy.

I mean, the withdrawal from TPP may have been a victory, but I have heard nothing but negatives about the renegotiation of NAFTA, the withdrawal from the Paris Accord, the attempted scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal. I suppose we have improved our relationship with Israel, though of course there are two sides in Israel and we have pleased the hardline conservative faction while upsetting the more liberal faction, so it’s more that the President shifted our relationship with Israel than that he repaired it; the President’s decision to move the U.S. embassy has also made our relationships with Arab nations much more difficult, especially Jordan, a nation whose population is 30% naturalized Palestinians, with another 2 million Palestinian refugees living in the country.

So what’s the clear victory here? Must be this:

“It’s the economy, stupid,” was once a Democratic battle cry; it may now become President Trump’s.

The Dow Jones industrial average has soared from 18,259 on the day President Trump was elected to over 26,000, in what one analyst called “the most doubted bull market of all time.” New jobs created topped 200,000 in December, driving the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent – the lowest in 17 years.

 

I mean, how can I argue with this?

Luckily for me, I don’t have to. Professor Guelzo argued it for me.

 

Anti-Trump diehards will argue that these are not really Trump accomplishments at all, but the last successes of the Obama years. There is probably some truth in that. The reality is, though, that it’s irrelevant.

Every president takes the credit (or assumes the blame) for what occurs on his watch, and harvests the votes afterward.

 

Simply put, I don’t think the truth is irrelevant. I don’t think the ability to “harvest votes” (A strange phrase, when one thinks that every vote is a person) justifies all. He’s right, of course, that every president takes credit for things that aren’t his doing; but that sucks, and we shouldn’t accept it, let alone encourage it.

So let’s tell the truth. President Obama was not the greatest president in history. Nor was President Clinton. The Democratic Party has done some really bad work in the last two decades, including the catastrophe of the 2016 primaries that led to Hillary Clinton’s nomination. (Some specifics: President Obama never dealt with Guantanamo; the continued and in some ways intensified involvement in Middle East nation building – the longest war in our history, presided over by Obama longer than any other president including Bush – has had terrible consequences; Obamacare is a travesty of a gutted compromise when what we should have had was single-payer healthcare, or nothing. President Clinton ravaged the welfare system, took down the Glass-Steagall Act and thereby was the single most important precursor of the 2007 Wall Street collapse, and yeah, really did lack character in important ways, which have continued to resonate to this day. And the 2016 primaries? Superdelegates and collusion among the DNC leadership, anyone?) I also have argued and will continue to argue that the President should not be impeached until and unless he is proven to have committed high crimes and misdemeanors against this nation, just as I argued that President Clinton should not have been impeached just because he cheated on his wife; the idea that he lied about it and therefore perjured himself was too much of the snake eating its own tail. I think the Russia investigation is important to restore some faith and credibility to a democracy that got invaded by Russian hackers; but I doubt that it will bring down the President, and unless Mueller finds evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by the President, evidence that has so far been nonexistent, it should not bring him down.

And on the other hand: it’s the economy, stupid. Our current President deserves little if any credit for the unemployment rate, which has been going down steadily since its height in 2008-2009. The arguments that conservatives have been using to knock that progress, that the official unemployment rate doesn’t include those who gave up looking for work, and that the current rate doesn’t reflect the number of people who are underemployed, are still true. The bull stock market only increases wealth disparity, as it concentrates more wealth in the hands of those who had the money to invest big in the market before it went up, an issue which the tax overhaul only intensified, and no amount of short-term tax cuts for the 99% can counteract. Income inequality is the number one place where our entire government, of millionaires for millionaires, fails to act to protect our country and our citizens; I hope I don’t need to actually argue that the election of a billionaire real estate developer has not brought progress on this issue. The deficit and national debt have been increased, as it always is by the majority party when they are in control, and despite past Republican claims that they would rein in spending, despite the President’s claims that he would drain the swamp and oppose the entrenched Washington interests. Did you see, by the way, that the President has now said that he will campaign for incumbents? Or at least that he’ll avoid primaries?

At the same time, the President has launched an all-out war against immigrants, which has had the effect of scaring millions of people, and therefore both reducing border crossings and increasing tension with other countries; I can’t see it as a good thing in the final summation – though it has not yet run its course, so we’ll have to wait and see before we can judge that. He has agitated our enemies (Iran, North Korea) and insulted our allies (Germany and the EU, the Arab nations, and all of those shitholes). He has, whether Professor Guelzo wants to admit it or not, so soiled the office of the Presidency that even his staunchest allies are forced to turn hypocrite or offer weak criticisms of his Tweeting while ignoring the bullying, the accusations of sexual assault and misconduct, and the clear racism. It’s true that poor character is not the exclusive province of the President; but it’s also true that he does exhibit it to an extent that Americans should decry, regardless of their positions on policy. It’s a tired trope, but I would get fired if I did half the shit that the President does, and I’m only responsible for a hundred or so students. That’s the truth.

Conservatives may be pleased by the reduction of regulations, by the dismantling of the EPA and the Department of Education; they should be pleased by the appointment of conservative judges, particularly Justice Gorsuch. I’m sure corporations are still whooping it up over the tax cuts, and those who are seeing direct benefits, such as the increased wages and the bonuses, should be happy too. The current administration has had victories, both symbolic and practical.

But that’s not the whole story. And the conversation should continue, and continue to be as honest as we can possibly make it.

Spring Break Book Review #1: Angels and Ages

(So here’s the deal: it’s my Spring Break, and I plan to spend it reading. I will be posting as many reviews as I can. Here’s the first, for the book I finished reading Saturday, March 18 — first day of Spring Break.)

Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

by Adam Gopnik

This was an interesting one: one of those “slow burn” sort of books. I came across it at my local used bookstore (Bookman’s in Tucson – Woo! Bookman’s!) in the discount rack, marked down to $1. I had just a day or two before read an article by Mr. Gopnik (Who is a 30-year veteran at the New Yorker) online, and so I recognized the name; even though I have been trying not to buy new books until I clear off my To Be Read shelf –or, rather, shelves – I couldn’t resist the subject matter. So I bought it, and even though I haven’t been able to find time or energy very well of late, what with school-before-Spring-Break, I decided to give it a read.

Odd phrase, that. Am I being generous with my time, granting Mr. Gopnik, and Mr. Darwin and Mr. Lincoln, a few of my hours, growing ever more precious as I age? I am acting as an audience, without which they would be forgotten (Well, at least a little bit. But then, the whole point of the Darwin half of this book is that those little bits, little bits of time and little bits of life, are all there are.). But then again, they are giving me something even better: they are inspiring me.

Mr. Lincoln, who comes off a little bit worse than his iconic status (and rightfully so) nonetheless inspires me to believe in the power of a single man to change things; particularly in the last summative chapter, this book points out how incredibly influential Lincoln was with this analogy: imagine if Boris Yeltsin had been able to maintain the Russian empire, and also install a functioning democracy obeying the rule of law. That is Lincoln’s accomplishment, and though the Civil War likely would have happened without him, and the subsequent events of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and eventual ongoing equality, the country wouldn’t have been the same. He also inspires me because he was a freethinker, an atheist, an introvert, and a deeply literate man.

Mr. Darwin, who comes off a bit better than most depictions and associations of him (and rightfully so) inspires me with his ability to be focused on both the infinite and the infinitesimal. Gopnik shows how Darwin had extraordinary powers of concentration and observation, and these, along with a constant need to ask, “Why is this so? How did this get to be this way?” are what led him to his great world-changing theory – which he knew was world-changing, also knew was absolutely correct (as far as science can ever be absolute or correct), and sought, and found, the best way to pour this thought into the collective consciousness of the world. It is remarkable, Gopnik shows, that a theory that in most people’s hands would have been a mere footnote in biology and likely would have taken generations if not centuries to percolate up through the strata until it hit the top – like, as Gopnik says, Gregor Mendel’s work on genetics – was able to completely shift the world’s conversation from a Young Earth creationism to the truth in a single generation. I also love that Mr. Darwin was so deeply in love with his wife that he delayed publication of his work because it would upset her, and also that his own atheism was softened by the same knowledge: that his devout wife would be upset by too-vigorous protestations of what he knew to be true. Though I don’t have to make the same compromise, I appreciate that he did it for her.

I am inspired, last but not least, by Mr. Gopnik. This is a complicated book; too complicated, in some ways, because the ideas and the writing are dense, and for me, the subject matter a touch too abstract to hold me down while I work my way through it. It’s written like an essay – unsurprisingly, it started as two essays in the New Yorker, one on each great man (United in this book first by the coincidence of a shared birthday – February 12, 1809 – and second by their impact on the world) – and it’s tough to follow, because Gopnik intentionally didn’t write it as a historical/biographical book. Since I haven’t ever read a good biography of either man, some of this book was lost on me. But I appreciate the enormous effort and scholarship that went into all the thought in this book, and the basic thesis that the two men are equally important to the creation of the modern world, Lincoln in the proof of the ability of liberal democracy and the rule of law to survive, Darwin in the revolution he led that changed essentially everything in the world about how we live with science. I appreciate the effort it shows in the density and complexity and beauty of the language Gopnik uses. I appreciate that he shows how Darwin and Lincoln are Darwin and Lincoln – and not, say, Alfred Russel Wallace and Stephen Douglas – because of how extraordinarily good both men were as writers. Both masters of rhetoric. Both able to accomplish what they did because of how Lincoln spoke, and how Darwin wrote, and how both of them argued.

I like this argument. I like how it’s written. I would like to be able to do the same thing as any or all three of these, at least as a writer.

Thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate your time.