Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Category: America

The Rise of the Lowest Common Denominator

Today, scientists will introduce a new vaccine through the World Health Organization to three African countries in a pilot program designed to prevent malaria. Three hundred sixty thousand children each year will receive the vaccine, which has a 40% success rate in preventing the disease. 40% may not sound impressive, however, when you consider 435,000 people die of malaria each year (a child dies every two minutes from the disease, 250,000 children alone in Africa) this “complementary malaria control tool” is better than nothing at all. This is a victory for humanity and a proud moment for science.

This news comes on the same day (April 24, 2019) when, in the United States, a record 681 cases of the once eradicated measles disease have been reported. Twenty-two states report instances. The previous record for an entire year was 667 in 2014. Again, it’s only April 24th. This is a loss for humanity and an embarrassing moment for rational thinkers.

Science, I believe, is in its infancy. We pose far more questions each year than we answer. But as Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Knowing there are unknowns (both known and unknown!) keeps science humble and curious. Each step forward reveals new questions, new problems, but more knowns (even if they are known unknowns).

Research into the demographics of “anti-vaxxers” always identified them as living on the outskirts of both political parties, but recent analysis has identified a distinct skewing toward the far right. The same conspiracy believing, science ignoring (climate change, pollution, flat earth), demographic who consider education to be an elitist, global cabal and who embraced the plain-spoken crudeness of a New York billionaire as their savior, believing he tells the truth, is a victim of the deep state and the mainstream media and was fully exonerated by the Mueller report. The echo chamber from which they obtain their news meets their confirmation bias, and anyone disagreeing is ignored and scorned as unpatriotic.

Fortunately, some African children will benefit from scientific advancement, children not of privilege or means, but beneficiaries of scientific progress. At the same time, some children in the United States will suffer from an entirely preventable disease because first world freedoms afford even the ignorant the right to put them in jeopardy.

As Harlan Ellison wrote, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.” Unfortunately, specific demographics of our society have all of the answers when the rest of us are convinced of less and less each year, embrace that limitation, and continue to seek wisdom.

Thomas Paine wrote, “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.” In a country where education should be celebrated, instead, we seem to elevate the lowest common denominator — shame on us.

Today

Picture1We are divided. We are angry. Regardless of what side of the political chasm you stand on, we each scream at ears that cannot hear. Each side can site their own origin for our condition, but increasingly, our cold civil war is getting hot.

And now we have lunatic sending bombs to critics of the president while the president continues to pour gasoline on the growing firestorm.

Words are my religion. They are far more important to me than physical persuasion. Books are portals. Carl Sagan wrote as part of his incredible Cosmos series,

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

And yet, in our hurry-up world of 280 character pontifications, arguments and debates are reduced to ad hominem attacks and ad reductio gotchas. We are a heavily armed society with hair-trigger sensitivities and no sense of personal responsibility. That’s a terrible combination.

Cicero wrote, “He only employs his passion who can make no use of his reason” and I understand the sentiment. As of right now, three bombs have been sent to New York City. My son lives in New York City. This individual has subjected everyone handling these packages (whether politically likeminded or not) and everyone around them to harm from within a potential blast radius. I look at Google Maps to identify where the newest bomb has been located and then see where my son should be at that moment. I am a civilized man, but also a father. I do not own a gun, and I treasure words. However, as a father, should I encounter the individual sending these bombs, I would not hesitate to punch them in the face.

Perhaps that makes me part of the problem, maybe I’m merely a parent, regardless, we all must do better. And it starts at the top. And it begins with the individual. The president leads, and we are responsible for ourselves. I’ll do my part. Mr. President? #Vote

Rules

Rules

 

Following the news that the Trump family cheated us out of over $497.80 million in estate taxes comes news that son-in-law and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner paid little or no federal income taxes between 2009 and 2016. Couple that with the “still being audited” bullshit being run by Trump as the reason why he “can’t” release his tax returns and we can only guess whether we, as taxpayers, are subsidizing the current kleptocracy at an over or under $1 billion price tag.

And yet, at this point, we have been conditioned by the daily shitstorm of Tweets, rants, insults, and societal oversteps that we simply yawn. Shame on us. Our gag reflex at the absurd and unacceptable has been blunted by repetition and callused by social media. But Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” That is the freedom we should be seeking, that is the independence we should be searching for and celebrating, not whether our president weirdly hugs a flag or misrepresents a football player for kneeling before a game.

My life is extremely important to me and me alone. My story will appear in no history book, my children my only legacy. I get up, go to work, do my best and I pay my taxes. We are all the result of our circumstances and our decisions based on those circumstances. I have raised children the best I could while making mistakes for which I will forever be ashamed. That said, they are the best thing that has ever happened to me and the best thing I will ever leave this world. I have willingly sacrificed a career to be a caregiver. I have buried my wife and tried to find happiness in a world I hardly understand. In other words, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about me. And I pay my taxes. I am happy to do so. I enjoy driving on paved roads. I complain about potholes. I enjoy living in the United States. I complain about military spending. I enjoy pizza. I complain about being too heavy. I still think I can hit a fastball and I see wrinkles in my neck.

But I am tired of playing by the rules when the rulers do not. I doubt Donald Trump has paid any taxes in the past 20 years. None. And he claims to be worth $10 billion. Jared Kushner paid little or no taxes over an 8-year period. And he’s worth $324 million. How many potholes would that have filled? How many schools would that have built? How many teachers would not have to buy their own supplies with that influx of taxes? Not to mention the $497.80 million Donald’s Daddy bilked us out of over the years by funneling money to his children. How many veterans, that the president claims to adore, could he have been personally treated or outfitted?

Having been raised Roman Catholic, and hard-wired with intrinsic guilt, the old saying, “How can you sleep at night?” always played in my head. That was always the guilt trip for past transgressions. Too late for future improvements. I always liked to play it in advance with the opportunistic, “What would I do in that situation?” This has afforded me the chance to make decisions, not always the correct ones, that I could defend to my children at a future date. “What did you do about gun violence after the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, dad?” I can answer that.

But kleptocrats answer to neither guilt nor history. To the question, “How can you sleep at night?” Trump answers, “Fine, either in the White House or in one of my gold palaces.” To the question, “What did you do about climate change?” Trump will answer, “Got us out of the Paris Climate Accord, watched the icebergs melt and the polar bears starve to death (before poor Don Jr. and Eric could shoot them to death), watched Florida sink into the Atlantic, and spent my gazillion, tax-free dollars golfing and eating KFC. I’ll be dead before the air is too toxic to breathe and burns you to ashes. Now go pay your taxes, suckers.”

 

Celebrate Knowledge

Professor Hawking

“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”

 

Earth has lost one of its great thinkers. Stephen Hawking died at age 76.

Consider this: Professor Hawking was born 300 years to the day after Galileo died and died on Albert Einstein’s birthday. If he stood on the shoulders of other intellectual giants, perhaps his most significant achievement lies in the number of scientists who have followed him into science. He sought answers from the cosmos and conveyed it to the masses.

In an age where we celebrate celebrity, where fame is counted in magazine covers and computer clicks, Professor Hawking was famous for his mind! Today that seems as fundamentally difficult to grasp as Hawking radiation. And yet, in an America whose president conveys policy and fires cabinet secretaries in 280 characters or less, Professor Hawking, along with Jacob Bekenstein, was able to describe the thermodynamic entropy of a black hole in eleven characters.

Bekenstein-Hawking Entropy Formula

Celebrate Professor Hawking’s life today and contemplate what we value. Consider valuing health over drama, love over money, and intellect over fame. Idolatry is not the answer, knowledge is.

Happy Pi day.

Groundhog Day, Again

I’m pissed, and I’m tired, again. We’ve had another mass shooting in America. Surprise!

Our Founding Fathers (capitalized for respect!) were human, both flawed and determined. Their intellect and debate resulted in the living breathing document we call the Constitution. It, like them, is flawed and determined. It, like them, should not be considered sacrosanct. As a living, breathing document, created by humans, not gods, it is malleable to time. It is time we repeal the Second Amendment and confiscate the guns.

Sorry, Mr. President, sorry Congress, the United States is not burdened with higher levels of mental health issues than other countries. It is merely awash in guns. That is the problem. And until we face it, “active shooter” training in schools, emergency direction notices before movies, “thoughts and prayers” after every shooting from gutless politicians led by Republican intransigence at the direction of their NRA marionette masters will result in a continuing momentary sense or shock followed by a pandemic ennui throughout the public.

We now consider mass shootings and daily gun violence the new normal in America. The rest of the world also sees it as the new normal in America, and wonders why. We don’t even bother to wonder why anymore. This is not normal and should not ever be considered normal. Gun violence is a scourge injected into our society by flooding our lives with guns. Guns or drugs, it’s the business model. Flood the streets with them, deposit the cash, sit back and watch the inevitable, ensuing death metastasize. And the solution? More guns! Guns as the answer to fear caused by guns. Good marketing technique! A terrible shift in our collective consciousness.

We wring our hands and lament the “impossible,” multifaceted response required to address gun violence. No! The answer is simple. Remove the guns. No guns, no gun violence. That is my position. Call me a Democrat, call me a liberal, call me an asshole. I don’t care. No guns, no gun deaths. The Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth, ending prohibition. Write a new Amendment abolishing the Second. And then have a big bonfire for the 300 million plus guns in an America with a new normal.

MLK, Jr. Today

MLK MonumentToday we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in America. We mark it under a racial cloud because of what our president said recently about African and Caribbean nations. “Shithole/Shithouse nations” according to our, at best, racially obtuse president, and at worst, racist president.

Solomon Northup, in Twelve Years a Slave, wrote, “There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet… it may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s coming as sure as the Lord is just.”

Northup wrote that in 1853, eight years before the outbreak of the American Civil War, 10 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, 12 years before the ratification of the 13th Amendment, 76 years before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, 111 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and 115 years before King’s murder. And today, 50 years after King’s assassination and 165 years after Northup’s account, we are still paying the price of what President Obama termed “America’s original sin.”

There are epochs in history, categories into which we place significant events. We may consider ancient history to encompass the construction of the great pyramids or the rise and fall of Rome.  And we may believe the American Civil War to be “ancient” within the framework of the United States’ existence. Too quickly we relegate events to history and therefore outside an era upon which our brains must examine events contemporaneously. If we think of an event as being “history,” we can, to a certain extent, dismiss it as being old and no longer relevant.

Consider this, then: Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 89 years old today. Conceivably still living, had he not been murdered in 1968. His contemporaries, those also born in 1929 and still among us include journalist Barbara Walters, actor Christopher Plummer, actor/comedian Bob Newhart, actor Ed Asner, author Eric Carle, and actor Max von Sydow. Dr. King was only 39 years old when he was murdered. This April 4th will mark 50 years since his slaying. By 2008, King had been dead longer than he had ever lived. Imagine what he might have achieved, where we might have been as a nation concerning race relations, had he lived these past 50 years.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is not the monument in the photo above that I captured in Washington, D.C. last summer touring the city with my children. Do not let the black and white pictures you have seen or grainy, less than 1080p online video fool you. He is a contemporary man who was trying to make the world a better place, not an ancient figure no longer relevant. He words still give rise to voices now because we still have work to do.

Perhaps the rise of nationalism and xenophobic tendencies we see, not only in America (Trump) but all around the globe, is cyclical. At its worst, we devolve into world wars. I hope that what we see today is a venting, a voice being periodically given to those otherwise so staggeringly ignorant we usually must drag them kicking and screaming toward a better future for all creatures living on this small blue dot careening through the universe. I hope that this is only a venting and authoritarian plutocracies do not get a foothold. I hope that we will again celebrate President Kennedy’s (via Ted Sorensen) aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” and we are not moving toward a future resembling 1853 or some other cataclysmic date in our collective “ancient” history.

Now?

Enough

Is it too soon to talk about gun violence prevention after the murders in a Texas church?

Too soon? Insensitive? Politicizing?

Then can we talk about it related to Las Vegas?

No? Still too soon?

What about Orlando? Still too soon?

Yes?

Charleston? Roseburg? San Bernardino?

Really?

Washington Navy Yard?

Still? Hmmmm.

Surely Aurora?

No?

Okay, Sandy Hook?

No? Really? 5 years ago, almost?

Okay, you tell me. What time frame needs to pass before we can discuss an incident?

 

 

 

Still waiting.

 

No other country ranks their mass killings like the United States. No other country needs to rank them! No other country needs to rank the mass murders in their churches like the United States. Something is very wrong here. Sorry, Mr. President, Americans are not any more mentally deranged than any other country. The difference is access to guns. When is enough enough? When will Congress address this? Why do we tolerate inaction? Oh, sorry. Still too soon?

Publius ad absurdum

 

“Bill rejected coverage for my new knee,” bemoaned Karen as she read the form letter with the very personalized facsimile of Bill’s signature.

“You’re kidding!” exclaimed Harry. “And after I sent him that Bundt cake and paid for his lawn to be thatched!”

“I know!” continued Karen. “What is this country coming to if the head of the homeowner’s association can’t see his way clear to providing coverage for necessary medical procedures. And just because I told his wife, Claire, that I liked their old flowerbed better than that mulch monstrosity they now have!”

“I liked it better when the cities and towns used to control healthcare,” said Harry, wistfully.

“Me, too,” Karen said softly. “The Henderson’s moved from Cypress Heaven to Wimbledon Estates and Ken lost coverage for his cancer treatment. A “pre-existing condition” they said. Remember when the city used to cover healthcare?”

“Remember? I can remember when the state used to provide coverage! And my parents remember when the federal government used to cover it! Something called Obamacare, after that old guy, Brock Obama. Used to be president.”

“My parents remember that too! They said it provided coverage for the majority of those who didn’t have coverage, but then something called the Tea Party obstructed Obama on everything he tried to do, just so they could prevent him from succeeding. That was standing up for your principles! Of course, then Supreme Leader Trump was elected, isn’t that quaint! They used to elect leaders! And in order to make the federal government smaller, he transitioned most essential services to the states, who in turn, transitioned it to the cities and towns, who, ultimately, transitioned it to the homeowner’s associations.”

“Yeah, I’ve read about that. Back when Supreme Leader Trump was just the president he said the federal government should only be responsible for dealing with things like North Korea. Of course, that was back before we had a coalition with North Korea, Russia, and China against the aggressors from South Korea, Australia, and Canada.”

“Strange, though, the federal budget still runs a deficit. I wonder what might cause that?”

“In fact, I looked it up on EuroGoogle, the illegal search engine not associated with the officially mandated WikiLeaks search engine, and the federal budget in 2016 was half the budget of 2020. It seems that when essential services were transitioned to the states, the budget for the military doubled. I guess that’s why they make us drive half-tracks and tanks now instead of sedans and SUVs.”

“I guess. But back then you didn’t get free upgrades on handguns, rifles, and silencers. Talk about pre-existing conditions! Can you imagine living in a country where it wasn’t mandated that everyone openly carry his or her firearm? How barbaric! What were people supposed to do? Talk to one another? Trust people? Come on!”

“Anyway, I guess I’ll have to continue using this wheelchair. We can’t afford the surgery and maybe Ken’s cancer will just go away.”

“Let’s pray it does.”

“Did you hear about Madge?”

“No! Is she okay?”

“She’s fine, but was raped.”

“I don’t understand. Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“I’m afraid so. She’s now got a pre-existing condition and will lose her health coverage.”

“That doesn’t seem fair! I mean, I could understand it when Claire lost her coverage after she left David because of the domestic violence. After all, she used to wear those jeans that showed almost all of her ankle, but Madge? She didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Well, to paraphrase that great statesman, Mo Brooks, why should all of the good people, who’ve led good lives pay for those who haven’t.”

“Will she be okay?”

“Oh, sure. She’s still got her job. Although teaching over at Glen Estates Heaven Cypresswood isn’t what it used to be.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I mean, that subdivision lost quite a few residents after the deportation squads cleaned the Others out.”

“Oh, right. They had non-Christians over there. Yikes!”

“Well, at least if she loses her coverage and her job she’ll be among those like her.”

“Hey, like the Supreme Leader had inscribed on Trump Patriot Lady after he had that silly Statue of Liberty renovated, “Made America Great Again.”

“Thank God for Trump!”

Women

“That we have the vote means nothing. That we use it in the right way means everything.”  Lou Henry Hoover, First Lady of the United States 1929-1933

As we wind down to the end of a presidential campaign that feels as if it’s been going on since the early Bronze Age, the overarching story of this election can be summarized in one word – women.

It began with the nomination of a woman by one of the two major parties. It devolved into stories about the treatment of women by the nominee of the other major party. And it will be settled by the largest demographic within the voting public – women.

According to one recent poll, Hillary Clinton is leading among women by 33%. Eric Trump famously made the mistake of posting a map showing his father ahead nationally but omitting the fact that the map showed what the results would look like if only men voted. Here is that map:

if-only-men-voted

The map shows Mr. Trump winning the White House with an Electoral College tally of 350 versus 188 for Secretary Clinton. Unfortunately for Eric Trump, people noticed, and the response was savage. Here is the obverse map showing what the election results would look like if only women voted:

if only women voted.png

As you can see, Secretary Clinton would win the Electoral College with a staggering tally of 458 votes versus Mr. Trump’s meager 80 votes. And therein lies the story of this election. Women will decide the outcome. Here is Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site on the potential effect this disparity would have on the general election:

“To put those numbers in perspective, that’s saying Trump would defeat Clinton among men by a margin similar to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson in 1952, while Clinton would defeat Trump among women by a margin similar to … actually, there’s no good comparison, since no candidate has won a presidential election by more than 26 percentage points since the popular vote became a widespread means of voting in 1824. To get to 33 points, you’d have to take the Eisenhower-Stevenson margin and add Lyndon B. Johnson’s 23-point win over Barry Goldwater in 1964 on top of it.”

And while you may not like everything (or anything) about Secretary Clinton, she has worked hard to earn women’s votes. One of her greatest surrogates has been another woman, First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been phenomenally effective on the campaign trail. On the other hand, Mr. Trump has stumbled his way toward the election by demeaning women (among many other groups) and been accused of sexual assault by eleven women. And one of his greatest surrogates has been Mayor Guiliani who has himself had a checkered past with women and who recently suggested that Mr. Trump would be better for the United States “than a woman.” Considering that women constitute the largest voting block in America, wouldn’t it be better for Republicans to embrace women than to shun them if they ever hope to win the White House again. Especially given the inevitable demographic changes altering the United States, all of which favor Democrats and which Republicans have ignored to this point at their peril. Sorry, but gerrymandering can only take you so far.

2016 will be known as the year that a woman shattered one of the greatest glass ceilings left in the world, the American presidency, but perhaps it should be better known as the year that women used their collective voices to change the course of an election and therefore history.

Enough Hatred

There are times in one’s life when we may feel that the world is coming apart at the seams. Life is difficult, and the reasons for our strife are complicated. Likewise, the remedies always seem burdensome and untimely. However, there is no excuse for us not trying to make the world a better place. Our children deserve it, and we should demand it for them.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love – this is an old rule. –The Pali Canon, Twin Verses, no.5

This has been a week of such strife. The murder of black citizens at the hands of law enforcement, the assassination of law enforcement by a heavily armed citizen, and the vitriol expressed throughout social media has done nothing to heal society’s wounds. The naïve claim that love is the answer. And as simplistic as it may seem, they are correct. We should listen to them. Listen to the children who know no racism, no hatred. The comedian Denis Leary stated it best when he said, “Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a 2-year-old son. Know what he hates? Naps. End of list.”

Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins. –Proverbs

We look at the police and see their militarization. We look at American society and see a citizenry armed to the teeth. One begets the other, and this arms race sees no resolution other than a conflict between sides. Gun zealots seem to crave a chance to take up arms against a perceived tyranny of government. This is not unlike religious zealots hoping for an end of days within their lifetime. It is irrational and dangerous.

My life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart. –James Baldwin

The result of all of this hatred is more hatred. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Politicians will make the most of this dissension and attempt to be the answer rather than listening and hearing the needs of their constituents. Where one is hurting, all are hurting. We must try to tamp down the anger and recognize what we all have in common. Under the skin, we are all the same. We are each composed of muscle, nerves, and bone. And a high powered firearm will tear through all of those components, never stopping to see the color of our skin. The carrying of firearms openly in public only caused greater confusion for law enforcement this week and did nothing to stop a deranged shooter. The “thoughts and prayers” of politicians didn’t do anything to bring back the dead or heal the wounded. Some of those politicians who spoke out in support of police officers ignored the reasons for the protests. Indeed, some blamed the protesters for inciting the violence, completely ignoring the reasons for the protests.

Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds. –Henry Adams

Police departments throughout the country need to understand the causes of the anger and do their part to rid themselves of less than exemplary officers. The chief of police in Dallas said this week that his officers need to be perfect 100% of the time. He’s correct and is right in expecting nothing less from his officers. Nothing, nothing warrants the execution of police officers. And nothing warrants the execution of people of color by police at the levels we see year after year. Again, the militarization of police forces is being done in response to the ever more lethal weaponry obtained by citizens. No citizen needs an AR-15. There are no reasonable, rational arguments to support the ownership of these weapons by the public. I’ve heard them all and none of them hold up. On the other hand, I know people who have lost loved ones to the carnage that these weapons can inflict on the human body, whether they be six-year-olds in their classroom or innocent movie goers in a theater.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. –Saint Francis of Assisi

Hatred will solve no problem. Anger will only cause grief. Our country has seen enough grief this week and this year. Let us put aside our prejudices and see those around us as simply people with their own problems and their own issues. Everyone is struggling with something. You cannot see it on their face, but it is there. Give them the benefit of your kindness and we will create the society our children expect of us. Enough with the hatred. Call me naïve and I will thank you.