Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Night/Knight Rises: Aurora, Guns and American Culture

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, now Aurora. Add to this the dozens of school shootings in the last few years, and the shootings that take place almost daily in numerous urban communities. Have we lost our minds as a culture? What happened in Aurora is a tragedy of huge proportions, but our failure to act to these and previous shootings, speaks to a deeper sickness at the heart of our culture.

What happened Thursday night/Friday morning in the Aurora, CO movie theater is lunacy. This goes way beyond Second Amendment Rights. How does a 24 year old neuroscience PhD student legally buy an assault rifle, a 12 gauge shot gun and two Glock pistols? What justification is there for a young man with no military or police training to obtain weapons whose only purpose is to fight in war? What keeps our legislators from passing common sense gun laws that would require someone buying military-style weapons to undergo an extensive background checks and provide a justification for purchasing such high-powered weapons? We make truck drivers and bus drivers pass a more rigorous test, why not those purchasing high powered weapons?

In spite of incidents like Aurora the mainstream media consistently reports that there is no political will to change anything. The Republicans have been filling their coffers for years with National Rifle Association (NRA) money, and Democrats decided after losing the 2000 presidential race that guns were a non-issue. Despite the rhetoric on the right, the Obama administration have done more for the gun lobby than his card-carrying predecessor. So while the Republicans court the gun lobby, the Democrats spinelessly sit on their hands. (See article "For Democrats, Guns Are Bad Politics")

The media line that there isn’t political will in the country for gun control is an oversimplification. Consistently, polls show that when asked, a significant majority of people in the U.S. prefer some sort of gun control, but it’s not a critical issue for most of them, one on which their vote might hinge. However, for ardent gun-enthusiasts, often whipped up by NRA propaganda, “gun rights” as they call them, are such an issue. They often utilize the slippery slope argument – that banning or limiting assault rifles will eventually lead to the abrogation of the right to own any weapon. Moreover, the NRA spends a ton of money, almost more than any other political interest group, to keep legislators at federal and state levels from acting on any proposed gun control legislation. Thus, politicians get pressure and money from the pro-gun lobby, and little push back from those who think we need common sense gun legislation.

However, there is more that goes unnoticed and unspoken. The shooter, James Holmes, obviously dressed up to look like Batman – dark suit, gas mask, bullet proof vest. Reports further indicated that a few years ago he also had a fascination with the Joker character in the previous Batman movies. We like to kid ourselves that the violence that regularly fills our movie, TV and computer screens has no effect on us. It is only when someone goes a little over the edge that we notice the violence that permeates popular culture. James Holmes simply allowed the violence to go too far – but all of us support it, pay for it, and imbibe it.

Despite all the rhetoric about how liberal Hollywood is, the gun industry and the movie industry work hand in hand to assure there is adequate “product placement” in their movies. During the era when Clint Eastwood was creating the “Dirty Harry” movies, sales of the 44 Magnum that he used in those films went through the roof. In fact while officials at Glock won’t publicly admit this, what happened the other night was a boon for their business. Gabrielle Giffords was also shot with a Glock and following her shooting in Tuscon 18 months ago Glock experienced a spike in sales. Let’s not kid ourselves-shootings like Aurora and movies like “The Dark Night Rises” are good for the gun business -  and the gun executives are counting the money as we speak.

While we can shake our heads and wring our hands at what happened the other night, what is needed is a significant change in our culture’s relationship to guns. There have been too many incidents and too many victims for anyone reasonably to call it an “isolated incident.” Now, the NRA will respond with their favorite line: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” True enough, but people with guns kill more people than those who don’t. On my recent visit to Scotland I talked with folks about the fact that they don’t have gun violence. Guns are not widespread; even most Scottish policemen don’t carry guns. Now they have violence, but the number of fatal victims is far less. Why? Simply because their culture is not captive to guns like ours.

People of conscience can no longer fail to act. It starts with looking within and examining our own fascination with violence. How captive are we to shows like “24”, “Boardwalk Empire” or Batman that ooze with excessive and gratuitous violence? Moreover, what kind of pressure can we put on our state and national legislators to take action to at least limit the kinds of weapons people can buy and the frequency with which they buy them? We can demand that our legislators repeal the Tiahrt Amendment, and conceal and carry laws, while renewing the assault weapons ban. We can demand that our state legislators pass “one gun a month laws” and requirements to report lost or stolen guns (these laws would cut down on the illegal gun trade, the former would limit the legal gun trade.).

These acts are no slippery slope but rather simple steps backing us off the lunacy cliff we as a culture have placed ourselves. Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine – these will happen again until we, people of conscience, take concerted action. Twelve people have died and hundreds are mourning, but we all are crazy if we fail to act to bring some common sense into the way we as a culture sell, monitor and control the guns that are large.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Lament for My Republican Friends

In recent weeks, I have had this recurring thought: “Boy, sometimes it must suck to be a Republican.” No one reading this blog on even a sporadic basis would mistake me for a Republican, but some of my friends and perhaps half of my family are. I grew up with parents who were and still are staunch and lifelong Republicans. I can honestly say some of my best friends are Republicans. And in a strange way I feel for them these days.

So what has led to this unconventional political empathy?

Well, the ink hadn’t dried on the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of The Affordable Health Care Act, and Republicans were eviscerating their (now former) hero Justice Roberts for voting with the majority, and proclaiming that one of their main arguing points in the upcoming elections will be dismantling what they derisively call “Obamacare.” I had just returned from Scotland, where everyone has access to free health care (and I might add free college tuition), and thought “how can you be against providing for basic health needs?" They claim we would have to pay a “tax” (their term), and yet if you read the fine print according the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, only 1.2% of the wealthiest Americans would pay the extra fee. So how can people live telling this lie, so that they can’t be against investing in people’s health? What kind of twisted logic does one have to live with in that state?

Republicans say they are for balanced budgets in state and federal governments (which sounds reasonable), but in such an unbalanced way. For example, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature just passed this year’s budget, and two numbers jumped out at me. The first was $150 million cut from the budget eliminating the “General Assistance Program”, a minimal cash assistance program for the poorest of the poor. The second number was $300 million in tax cuts for the businesses of the state, especially the  cash-rich gas companies drilling in the Marcellus Shelf region. $150 million taken from the poor, while $300 for the corporations – couldn’t we have balanced that out a bit to keep the minimal stipend for the poor and only give the corporations $150 million in tax breaks? Of course then we would have to look at other cuts in public education, health care (there it is again) and basic social services.

Then there is poor Mitt Romney, who says he left Bain Capital in 1999, and yet all the documents say he was in charge until 2002. Apparently in those three years Bain made some decisions that shipped a lot of jobs overseas, which doesn’t look for a guy who says he is an expert at creating jobs. However, I don’t really think it matters because whether he left in 1999 or 2002, I think it’s clear that Romney made his millions making decisions that made lots of money for investors, often at the cost of workers either here or overseas. While the media focuses on the back and forth between Pres. Obama and Candidate Romney on who is the bigger liar, the point is that it was high financiers like Romney and his friends who drove the economy to its current state of collapse, and whether its Goldman Sachs or Morgan Chase or Barclays, the pattern is the same, the leaders made those decisions knowing (1) they would or could hurt the regular investor, while (2) making themselves a whole lot of cash. I must say these guys are really adept at trying to cloud the issue, but the “bottom line” (their favorite phrase) is that they knowingly invested in ways that would benefit themselves, regardless of the cost to others. Those are Mitt’s people, that’s what they do, and he has profited by it, regardless of when he left Bain.

Then there are the other Republican positions on issues that cause me to shake my head, like being against allowing kids brought to this country at a young age and who grew up here to have a pathway to citizenship by way of the Dream Act. Or denying gay couples the right to get married legally. Or dismantling public school systems by defunding them and then blaming the teachers for doing a lackluster job, when in fact time and again it has been shown when schools have adequate resources, up to date materials, and small class sizes the overwhelming majority of kids can succeed. Then there is the fact that Republicans are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association, who oppose any and all gun buying restrictions, when other developed nations who have such restrictions are much safer from gun-related violence, and their hunters still get to go out and shoot. All of these Republican positions seem either ludicrous or just plain inhumane.

Now I know there are arguments for all of these and other Republican positions. However when I explore their views I find they are either logically inconsistent or just plain mean-spirited. My Republican friends and family members are very intelligent, kind and generous people, which is why I feel for them. Now I am sure they must wonder how I can support Obama, which I will say I am lukewarm at best, but only because he has not lived up to his promise. I would have had him go much further on these and other issues than he has gone. And I think the Democrats on the whole have been spineless at times. So feel for me if you will, but my heart goes out to Republicans. How do some of them live with themselves? How transparently greedy and callous does one have to be before he or she looks in the mirror and wonders what you have become?

That’s why I wonder how it must feel to be a Republican; if I were one of them, I would get rid of the mirror, because I wouldn’t want to face myself.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Frederick Douglass: What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

On July 4, 1852, eleven years before the Emancipation Proclamation and 13 years before the abolition of slavery, Frederick Douglass, a former slave and leading abolitionist was invited to deliver an address in 1852. The ironic power of Douglass’ words still ring true, 170 years later. While his subject is the plight of the African slave, let us consider the contemporary relevance of his words for the millions of persons disenfranchised by the “American Dream” today: undocumented immigrants, homeless persons, and the countless poor whose needs remain invisible on the national scene. Douglass speaks for them as he did for the slaves in 1852. What follows are excerpts of the speech.

“Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens: He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The
little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.

 The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable - and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say. I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence, I will proceed to lay them before you. 

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your  National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover  was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the  act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that  act, and that day.

This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your
national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old.

"What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?"
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

 Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation's sympathy could not warm him?

Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation's jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the "lame man leap as an hart."

 But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us.

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.

 You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

 Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, "may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!" To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.

My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave's point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

 There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

 Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this
nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

"Is this the land your Fathers loved,
The freedom which they toiled to win?
Is this the earth whereon they moved?
Are these the graves they slumber in?"

 But a still more inhuman, disgraceful, and scandalous state of things remains to be presented.


Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. "The arm of the Lord is not shortened," and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.

 The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen, in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. "Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God." In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

 God speed the year of jubilee

The wide world o'er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th' oppress'd shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.

That year will come, and freedom's reign,
To man his plundered fights again

God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe.

God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant's presence cower;
But all to manhood's stature tower,
By equal birth!

THAT HOUR WILL, COME, to each, to all,
And from his prison-house, the thrall
Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I'll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive-
So witness Heaven!

And never from my chosen post,
Whate'er the peril or the cost,
Be driven.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

A Dream Come True

This picture was taken on Saturday, June 23, 2012 in the Cullin Hills, Isle of Skye in Western Scotland and represents the fulfillment of a dream. I am with my family on the Trail of the Fairy Pools, a gentle trail that follows a stream up the mountainside and then across the base of the mountain and back down. Altogether the trek took about 4 hours.

Over a year ago, I offered my family the chance to go to Scotland as a Christmas present, and after some minor haggling we chose the last two weeks of June. In making this offer, I had come to realize that my children were growing up and moving on with their lives, that Hannah the oldest was getting married, that Esther was considering moving far away for grad school, and that Phoebe was graduating from college; the opportunities for us to all be together for any length of time would become more difficult to arrange. This was going to be a special time for us to see the country of our Boyd heritage and for me to walk in the Scottish Highlands.

However, about nine months ago, I started having serious difficulties breathing and my foot mysteriously began to hurt so much that on many occasions I had to use a cane. I changed my primary doctor to a young energetic advocate of alternative treatments and preventive medicine, and at our first visit he asked me, “What are your goals?” to which I replied “To hike in the Scottish Highlands with my family in June.” He sent me to a heart specialist, who talked to me about diet, particularly lowering my cholesterol, and she too asked me what my goals were, to which I replied “To hike in the Scottish Highlands with my family in June.” He also recommended a podiatrist, and after several visits, an xray and a MRI, she in turn sent me to a physical therapist who asked what my goals were and again I replied “To hike in the Scottish Highlands with my family in June.”

At the doctors’ urging I changed my diet and to date have lost nearly 30 pounds. The podiatrist told me that all my years of running, basketball, skiing and spraining my ankle in all three, had left the ligaments and tendons in my foot shredded and so I had to rebuild the muscle in my foot. So I did daily stretching and strengthening exercises. I took walks, rode bike, went to the gym and generally worked slowly on strengthening my foot and overall stamina. 

However, the most important thing I did was change my mental outlook. When people look at me “fragile” is usually not a word that comes to mind, but that was the way I was beginning to feel about my physical health. Everything I tried seemed to turn out worse than before, and I had become defeated about the likelihood of regaining my former strength and vitality. I had often said that when it came to my physical health I want to “wear out rather than rust out,” but it felt like the wear out time had come earlier than I anticipated. However, as 2011 turned to 2012, I decided that I was not going to let my physical struggles decide my self-concept. I decided I would do all I could to be healthy for Scotland. While I would like to say my mental attitude changed everything, what changed frankly was my perspective. I was going to go to Scotland; the only question was in what condition.

And when mid June rolled around, I was ready. We started in Glasgow, explored Dean Castle (the historic home of the Boyd Clan) and visited Stirling, St. Andrews and Loch Lomond. We drove through the Highlands, searched for Nessie in Loch Ness, hiked in the Isle of Skye, and walked the streets of Inverness. Then we ended our trip in Edinburgh, climbing Arthur’s Seat just outside the city, watching the Scottish Guard practice in anticipation of the Queen’s Jubilee, walking the streets of old Town, and roaming in the Edinburgh Castle. Our last night was spent on a sheep farm west of Glasgow. The picture above captures it all, as well as the one below taken on our last meal together in Scotland. These pictures represent a special gift. To be able to hike and share a beautiful place with the people I love: a dream come true.