Thursday, December 31, 2015

The False and Featherheaded Patriots Blown Far by Breezes of Bull

By Bob Ferris
 “An electrician, a diesel mechanic and a fire chief come together to discuss Constitutional Law…”
The above is joke and punchline all in one, but it is also the lead-in to a situation unfolding in Burns, Oregon now that the self-identified “militia” have inserted themselves into the legal proceedings involving the father and son ranchers who are awaiting incarceration after being convicted of illegally setting fire to Bureau of Land Management lands adjacent to their ranch to their southeastern Oregon holdings.  The militia folks are waving their copies of cherry-picked and purposely incomplete phrases of the US Constitution as rationale for the local sheriff to hold the ranchers and prevent them from being taken to federal prison.  The sheriff has rightfully refused perhaps, in part, because he has read the US Constitution and understands the Supremacy Clause as well as others relating specifically to this situation.

Have no fear because Ryan Payne is on the job enforcing a Constitution he has clear not read or understood.
Sound a little Bundy-like?  Well it should because one of the main militia activists (pictured above) is Montana electrician Ryan Payne (1,2,3) who was a vocal actor in the illegal standoff in Nevada and the diesel mechanic in this equation is Cliven Bundy’s son Ammon from Arizona.  And they are rolling out the tired and completely without grounding argument that Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution limits the size of properties that the federal government can hold within states (see below).
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings; — And
 To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17
I suppose when the fire chief in question saw this language he was “intrigued” because taken out of context and not understanding the genesis of this clause (click on sections of the clause to get legislative explanations here) it seems to say something kind of similar to what these two yahoos are claiming.  I suspect too that the fire chief is also not familiar with how new states are formed or that the Oregon Constitution established the Department of State Lands expressly to manage lands ceded to them by the federal government to fund education (something that is obviously needed).   And the fire chief certainly seems unfamiliar with the “Property Clause” of the US Constitution below which clearly stamps Bundy and Payne’s arguments as the cow flop they are with the phrase in bold below.
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.” Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 (see here for discussion on this topic and here for analysis by Congressional Research Service).
Now I do not expect that everyone should know and understand the US Constitution completely—folks spend their entire lives studying this document.  That said, if you are travelling to another state, taking up an assault rifle, and dressing yourself in paramilitary fashion to defend some principle in this document—putting your life and the lives of others at stake—you had better have read and understood all 4,543 words of the original document as well as the 3,048 words contained in the 27 amendments (for point of reference the average children’s book for 7-10 year-olds is 10,000 words).

I would also suggest that if you are someone or a member of a family who has repeatedly tried to argue your “vision” of what the US Constitution says in local and federal courts and lost as often as you have tried (1), some self-awareness might kick in that should trigger the thought that you are not the best one to teach others what the US Constitution says or does not say.  It is also interesting that someone who was surprised that they were tasered twice while climbing onto a federal vehicle during a tense stand-off with armed participants thinks they might have found the legal loophole they seek in a document written mainly by people who spoke multiple languages, studied the classics and were the brightest of their day.

While I am on this roll, I will also say that the reporting on this in the Oregonian is faulty.  Why, for instance, was it so easy for the reporter to cite the irrelevant Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 known as the “Enclave Clause” offered up by Payne and Bundy and not mention the relevant “Property Clause” or the Oregon Constitution which completely nullifies their argument?  And why use the phrase “federal government claims title” which could imply that ownership is legitimately disputed when it is not having been established by Constitutional Law, the Oregon Constitution and the Congressional legislation that established the State of Oregon in the first place?  The public would have been better served with facts about the legitimacy of the underlying arguments offered by the outside agitators than cute stories about signs and pugnacious parents.

Mr. Payne, Mr. Bundy and others of their ilk likely see themselves as "patriots" of some form or another.  Given the facts it is really, really hard to credit that claim as they are actually acting in a manner contrary to the very document they claim to embrace.  Moreover, they put themselves and others at risk and are quite frankly lying to themselves or others (or both) each time they roll these arguments out or wrap themselves in a flag they have not taken the time to know or understand.


Dear All:

Within the next few days I am going to write a piece in GREEN DREAMS that starts to frame what we—the actual owners of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—think that the occupiers have done wrong legally and that requires punishment. I would ask folks to speculate on exactly what charges should be leveled and what rational punishment should be applied and to whom. Please let me know what you think and your ideas in the comments section of this post and others. I know that these might range from firing squads to atomic wedges, but this is a serious set of questions that we should address and by doing so and by conducting a public dialog on this issue help those trying to assess the public appetite for doing something. Thank you for your help and interest in this important concern.

And please enter the public dialog on Jail the Bundys, Now and encourage others to do the same.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Just Because It Sounds Right

By Bob Ferris
“The claim that this is some constitutional right to mine is just facially and legally ridiculous.” Nick Cady Legal Director of Cascadia Wildlands on Jefferson Public Radio piece.  

Because I am aging I can look back at a long set of experiences and make comments based on the collective impact or impression of something.  Today I am reflecting on the idea of something “sounding right” not being the same as “being right.”  I am sure that “we are a Christian nation” sounds perfect to some, but it is not true.  I am sure too that when Cliven Bundy said that the federal government had no authority over him and his cattle that “sounded right” to him too even though it was built on a tower of specious arguments.  And now as the suction dredge mining moratorium goes into effect in 2016, I am sure that Oregon suction dredge miners who are saying that suction dredge mining is a “right” think that “sounds right” as well.

Perhaps it is the fault of those Holiday Inn Express commercials that everyone with a mouth suddenly becomes a legal or science expert but at some point folks need to take a serious, self-assessment and understand that struggling through high school is not a stepping stone towards being a constitutional scholar, brain surgeon, climate scientist or other highly technical position.

This is not completely about intelligence but rather similar to thinking that a Swiss Army knife is the only tool you will ever need to work on your car.  The Swiss Army knife is a wonderful and praise-worthy tool but it is not a torque wrench.  Suction dredge miners talking about suction dredging as a “right” (suction dredging is actually a “process” which is subject to regulations) is really a lot like a Swiss Army knife trying to measure foot-pounds of torque.

Certainly the motorized miners are fine spokespeople for their avocation and are passionate, but they are simply not trained or otherwise equipped to speak authoritatively on the legal aspects of this topic.  The same applies when the miners talk about impacts of their activities on salmonids, food chains and the hydro-dynamic qualities of streams.  Not even a stay in a Holiday Inn Express will save them here.

Although I rightfully single out these miners here, this criticism applies to a broad group of Americans who think that watching the nightly news on Fox or listening to talk radio are adequate and appropriate substitutes for academic achievement or informed reason when they are not.  It is with wry irony and great sadness that I watch the panic of those understanding that the GOP brand is rusting and ready to crumble because "the base" they created specifically for a Donald Trump-like candidate is rising on its wholly manufactured legs and howling the crazy echo of their own rhetoric—because it “sounds right.”  The Oregon suction dredge moratorium, and the California one too, are good starts in turning the tide but we need one in Washington as well and then so much more to switch us from a pattern of embracing what “sounds right” to one that emphasizes what actually is “right.”

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Warty Whirlpool of Absolutism

By Bob Ferris

My wife and I drove south this past week to make our annual pilgrimage to the place of our meeting (and to see the sun a bit too).  As we drove through California’s Central Valley we saw a number of billboards offering up the false choice between food and water.  The implication being that agricultural water was sacrosanct and that should be the end of the discussion.  If you eat, you want agriculture to have unfettered access to aqua.  

This approach bothered me not only because of the “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude and monumental lack of awareness, but because this seems to be all that we see now days in terms of political dialog.  The need for sane reform on guns suddenly becomes “they are coming to take your guns.”  Industry concerns over the regulatory implications of climate change become multi-million dollar campaigns of denying well-established science.  And the movement to allow people to lead their lives as they see fit—a core and evolving principle of the American experiment that we like to call "freedom"—suddenly becomes a war on Christianity.  It is like so many kindergartners who have been told they must nap only to escalate their anti-nap advocacy through crying jags and tantrums.

In discussions about the danger of these extreme, uni-dimensional approaches you can always count on some armchair philosopher rolling out the tired illustration of the cylinder that when viewed from different perspectives becomes either a square or circle.  It makes me want to shake my head in frustration, because they are not proving the value of particular perspectives, but rather making the case that these limited and singular perspectives yield false impressions just as we have seen time and time again in the various versions of the blind men and the elephant parables.

So how did we get here and what are the solutions?  My sense is that we incrementally abrogated our civic responsibilities in favor of allowing repackaged trade or industrial associations like the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Rifle Association or American Petroleum Institute to paint the “square” or “circle” on the wall and then tell us to salute it.  They and others are assisted in this by the Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council, Fox News, a myriad of think-tanks and many who would rather you not turn your head in the slightest to see that alternative perspectives exist or to otherwise use your noggin.

I think the solutions are two: leadership and education.  We need leaders who are honest in their assessment of problems and balanced in their prescriptions for solutions.  Yes the water situation in California is dire and many of us do dine from that coastal cornucopia, but that does not mean that all crops need to be grown everywhere nor that current agricultural practices cannot and should not use less water.  Leaders—those who are taking us forward—have to speak about the “cylinder” and cannot simply cling to their own personal elephant tail (or snowball) and craft solutions based on that limited and incorrect understanding.

And education is so very critical in all of this.  All countries but particularly the US live and thrive based on the collective intelligence of their populations.  When we drive our national brain towards the Bronze Age rather than the Electronic Age by dumbing down text books with the clutter of intelligent design or by eschewing fact checkers we not only embrace the flawed “circles” and “squares” but inhibit those who will one day tell us that even the "cylinder" is too limited a view and we need to keep open to that to be world leaders.

Absent these changes we are pulled backwards and backwards in a whirlpool.  Our only options for progress are those that pull us up and out of this sinking narrowness.  So here's to hope for a strong and visionary hand on the tiller and the collective strength of mind to pull us cross-current to safer waters.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Lessons from Refugees

By Bob Ferris
Syrian refugees in Turkey.
I have been meaning for some time to write a piece on the Syrian refugees.  Part of that comes from the situation itself which is deplorable and my anger over some reactions in the US.  Part of it too comes from the wonderful cartoon of Patrick Bagley (and congratulations on your Pease Prize, Patrick) expressing the very American characteristic of accepting refugees with open arms.  And part of it comes from a profound and deeply engrained feeling of empathy as members of my family first found refuge on this continent nearly 400 years ago and continued repeating the practice until 1795 when my last refugee ancestors Joseph Gales, his wife Winifred Marshall Gales and their children Joseph (aged 9), Winifred (aged 8), Sarah (aged 7), Thomas (aged 5) and Altona (aged 1) disembarked from the good ship William and Henry in Philadelphia on July 30, 1795.

Now in this it is important to differentiate between immigrants and refugees.  For example, Donald Trump’s grandfather Frederick and the Koch brothers’grandfather Harry as well as Rupert Murdoch were and are immigrants who came to these shores simply to make money.  They were not being persecuted for religious or ideological beliefs nor were they leaving their natal lands to avoid being unjustly put to death or being imprisoned.  Refugees on the other hand experience all of these latter hardships and more.

Typed transcript of Winifred Gales recounting of her distress when Joseph was forced to leave England or face trial from The Gales Family Papers 1815-1939 
But these are hardships often stirred profoundly by a stick of firmly-held principles.  Here the Gales are good examples.  When gentlewoman and novelist Winifred Marshall married commoner and journalist Joseph Gales in 1784 she knew she was going to be disinherited by her family who objected to the match solely on the grounds of social class.  She stood on principle as did Joseph when he printed the works of friend Thomas Paine—particularly The Age of Reason—in his publishing house in Sheffield, England and sold them in his book shop.  And they both stood on principle when they espoused religious tolerance, became Unitarians, opposed slavery, and stood up against boxing and also bull-baiting.  The end result being that officials were sent after Joseph who was then forced to flee to Germany for had he stayed he would likely have been tried for treason because of his printing and selling of the Paine piece thus risking a noose or transport to Botany Bay. Soon thereafter a very pregnant Winifred boarded a leaky ship with their four children to rejoin her husband near Hamburg on the Elbe River in Altona where their daughter Altona was born.

Typed transcript of Winifred Gales on the Brittannia sailing with her children to Hamburg to rejoin her husband in The Gales Papers 1815-1939
It is difficult in reading of the Gales’ catalytic principles leading to their serious travails not to think there are likely parallel factors affecting the Syrian refugees.  Their clinging to those principles and then having to uproot themselves to flee persecution often in leaky and dangerous boats is eerily similar.  Those with families and principles understand that these choices are not easy nor are they taken lightly.  And while there will be those who are aghast that I would ever compare an educated woman of privilege with a Syrian refugee, my sense is that when Winifred Gales held her young son Thomas to her bosom and he asked why she had subjected him to the hardship described above, the material differences between her and a Syrian mother with a scared and soaking child on a struggling boat become very, very slight.

The William and Henry dropped seven souls on the landings in Philadelphia on that fine day in July. What did the newly formed US get for its open arms policy at the point?

Joseph Gales Sr.
Joseph Gales Sr. (1761–1841) Joseph bought and sold a paper and helped found a Unitarian congregation in Philadelphia before leaving to settle in Raleigh, North Carolina.  There he founded the Raleigh Register in 1799, served at the state printer, and held the office of mayor of Raleigh from 1819-1833 and from 1840 until his death in 1841.  He also trained many journalists and printers including two of his sons (see also 1,2,3)

Winifred Marshall Gales (1761–1839) Winifred continued to write and was credited with being the first female novelist in North Carolina when Matilda Berkely was published 1804.  (see also 1,2,3)

Joseph Gales Jr.
Joseph Gales Jr. (1786 - 1860) Joseph worked for his father and other publishers until 1810 when his father facilitated the purchase of the National Intelligencer in Washington DC from the same individual who once purchased his Philadelphia paper.  It should be noted that the British burned the Washington, DC offices during the War of 1812, because they considered both father and son traitors.  Joseph Jr. also served as mayor of DC from 1827-1830 and was a founding partner in Gales & Seaton.  As mayor he broke ground on the C&O Canal. (also see 1,2,3)

Winifred M Gales Johnson (1787-1825)  Winifred married General Robert Ransom Johnson from a prominent North Carolina family in 1804 on the 20th anniversary of her parent’s wedding.  She died at 38 and some of her children were raised by her mother and father.

Lt. Col. Thomas Gales
From The North Carolina Booklet Volume VII page 4 (July, 1907)
Thomas Gales (1790-1815)   Thomas wanted to become a lawyer rather than a printer which challenged his father.  Around the age of 20 he moved to Louisiana and in 1812 was appointed Judge Advocate for the region with the rank of Major.  For a time in 1814 he was an aid to Andrew Jackson and was with the General when we took Pensacola back from the British and there are stories that he was the one that pulled down the Union Jack.  He apparently developed connections at this time with some southern tribes as there is also mention of him in connection with Gales Indian Corps.  He eventually resigned his Lt. Colonel commission in 1814 to become Indian Commissioner.  In 1814 he married Eliza Ray Hennen Yates and they had a daughter Eliza Rae Gales in 1815.  Tragically when Thomas was looking for housing in September 1815 for his new position as Commissioner, his wife passed away. He followed her in November.  Eliza Rae Gales was raised by her maternal grandmother and became the second wife of George Douglas Ramsay making her my great-great-great grandmother.  (see also here 1,2,3,)

Sarah Weston Gales Seaton with Julia and Augustine.
Sarah Weston Gales Seaton (1790 - 1863) Sarah married William Winston Seaton who once worked for one of her father’s fiercest competitors (as in: beat you with a cane in the middle of street competitors) and then ran his own paper coming to work at the Raleigh Register and ultimately becoming a partner in the National Intelligencer and Gales & Seaton with his brother-in-law. (see also here 1,2,3)

William Winston Seaton
Altona H Gales Forster (1794 - 1827) Altona married Presbyterian minister Anthony Forester who initially felt remorse over the Unitarian beliefs of his wife and in-laws.  In his discussions with them he read more and more about Unitarianism and eventually converted himself (see more here 1,2).

When I look at the above, I do not see much that this group of seven Gales refugees did that has caused anything, but benefit to this country.  And I do not think that their stories are that unique except perhaps for their level of accomplishment.  They loved their new country and sacrificed much on the altar of public service to make it better.

Now as to the Syrians refugees, we have several questions to ask.  The first is why would these refugees act any differently than other refugees who we have helped in the past?  Yes, there will be some cultural challenges as there always are, but adoption of and adjustment to new cultures take time. Now to those who would ask what about the possibility of ISIL salting the ranks of the refugees to do us harm, my responses would be two. The first is the refugees themselves are fleeing ISIL so it seems unlikely they would voluntarily be complicit in bringing them along.  Moreover, this is likely the wrong question because we should be asking whether or not ISIL will still try to send or recruit operatives in the US to cause us problems regardless of whether we accept the refugees and the answer to that is: Yes.   Essentially we gain nothing from denying them access, but put at risk that which has so often helped us: Crops of grateful new Americans striving to repay our generosity and earn their place in this great country.

Epilogue and After Thoughts

1934 photo of students in front of the Gales School in Washington DC that was built in 1881 and closed in 1944.  After acting as a homeless shelter the school is now the home of the Central Union Mission.
Many of the these Gales refugees are somewhat forgotten even in my own family, but they linger in the shadows.  My younger sister's middle name is Gales and my brother-in-law named their sailboat Merry Gales in honor of this.  My mother has a miniature of Lt. Col. Thomas Gales on her bedroom dresser and my Uncle Pat Ferris has the full and deeply-sad portrait in his living room.  And I used to saunter by the Gales School in my walks around DC and have visited Eliza Ramsay's Grave at Oakhill Cemetery and mean to visit Winifred, Joseph Jr. Sarah and William's graves in the Congressional Cemetery when next I hit DC.  Thinking about the legacy of Joseph and Winifred I cannot help but believe that they would be happy with all of us who descend from them who write in any fashion or think it is important to stay informed.  I would also think that they would love that the school named for their son helped children for nearly half a century and now helps the homeless. And I would have to believe that they would welcome these Syrian refugees with open arms looking for rooms and housing options even before asked we should indeed learn lessons from these refugees.  

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Beheading Hatred and Extremism

By Bob Ferris

Though of differing religions and sects these protesters seem to be more alike than different and that is important to note as we try to move forward and beyond extremism.
This past weekend I was treated to seeing a post on Facebook of a decapitated woman wearing a black bra and blue jeans.  The picture was on a site associated with an organization known as Rescue Christian Missions run by Keith Davies (1,2,3) and Walid Salameh (AKA Walid Shoebat) who are trying to raise money to rescue persecuted Christians from places like Egypt and Pakistan through an umbrella organization called the Forum for Middle East Understanding (FFMU).

The person who posted this message was reacting mainly to the gruesome image of this woman and the narrative that she was an Egyptian Muslim who fell in love with a Coptic Christian, converted to Christianity and was later killed in this bloody manner by her family.  (Note: Even Shoebat admits the picture in question is not really of this woman which is eerily similar to the "using an unrelated photo to evoke emotion" story around the fake Planned Parenthood abortion videos).  My Facebook friend’s posting comment focused on the tragedy of someone being killed like this in the name of God. But then the thread got ugly and very anti-Syrian refugee quickly with some “Christians” saying that this type of behavior was going to happen in the US if the Syrians were allowed to immigrate and that the Muslim religion was really nothing but a "cult."

I share this episode for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is that those who are fomenting this type of hatred and bigotry frequently lack credibility and mostly have alternative motivations for stirring folks up like money or power. In this Walid Salameh seems a perfect example.  Little of what he says in terms of establishing his credentials as a former Muslim PLO terrorist and now conservative Christian truly checks out and the list of those calling him on his misstatements and fabrications is long and varied in this country and others (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9).  Yet as we can see from the two included videos Mr. Salameh (Shoebat)—who appears to be a poster child for an IRS audit (see below)—seems to have fooled folks at the Air Force Academy (for more on why the Air Force Academy is vulnerable see here), Department of Homeland Security in South Dakota (see video) and elsewhere into paying him to promote his world views including the tacit and sometimes explicit superiority of Christianity over Islamic beliefs in an apparent violation of the 1st Amendment.

This 2013 IRS form 990 shows Walid Salameh, along with his wife and son, among the board members of Forum for Middle East Understanding. This form shows that he derives no income from this organization which seems inconsistent with his statements made elsewhere (see above videos).  In the 2014 filing Mr. Salameh claims nearly $88K and his son Theodore $32K (see below videos) in reportable income, but there is very little in here that addresses some of the issues raised in the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation about compensation to board members, self-dealing and conflict of interests. 
FFMU granted nearly $200,000 in 2103 to the Rescue Christian Missions which is a project of FFMU under their non-profit status with no indication how this money was spent or for what purposes.  In 2014 this number jumps to $506,250.
Mr. Salameh speaks regularly for FFMU and its project Rescue Christian Missions.  In the 2013 IRS 990 form there are more than $36,000 in speaking fees and more than $86,000 in travel expenses in addition to the $105,739 in speaking fees identified above.  In other words, nearly half the organization budget went to speakers fees or travel in 2013 and the forms claim that none of that went to Mr. Salameh or his family.  
The second reason I relate this story is that we should all be concerned about how much mass media, inter-personal discussions, and our political system are being dominated by the extremes rather than the middle were most of us should reside.  Why, for instance, does this religious dialog often become a debate about whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic extremists are more violent now and historically instead of a collaborative discussion on how we can all work to end extremism?  I can understand why Mr. Salameh wants me to be morally outraged by this poor woman in Egypt and reach for my wallet, but it becomes hard to focus there and remain in the Jesus corner when I also see the Christian home-schooler in this country who apparently beat his poor child to death and then fed the 7-year old to the hogs.  (And before the righteous among you jump to the defense of your particular religion or sect know that extremists from all persuasions commit or enable atrocities—that is why we do and should call them extremists.)

So now we go back to the illustration at the beginning of this piece showing the striking similarities between Christian, Jewish and Islamic protesters.   My sense is that it was easy for Mr. Salameh to switch from Islamic to Christian extremism because they are so psychologically fungible being less about content or contrast and more about the isolation and reason-suspending methodology that actually creates these extremists.  Some proof of this also comes from his son Theodore Shoebat's "enlightened" rants about women in politics (above) or an inquisition for gays (below) that with minor adjustments could have come out of the mouth of any adherent to pretty much any fundamentalists sect.

In this it is no surprise that some are calling on mental health professionals to look at what is being called religious trauma syndrome (RTS) and a few are starting to explore the psychological damage caused by religious immersion and experiences of this nature (see also here). The existence and further definition of RTS (1,2,3,4) is helpful particularly when we scratch our heads and ask why someone says something or takes an action that is illogical or that seems contrary to the philosophies of their own professed religion such as espousing hatred, killing others, or telling obvious lies.

In closing, I know that some will take offense at the title of this piece and my use of the word “beheading” because it bespeaks of a violent and repugnant act that they (and I) do not endorse.  I will admit that I use that word both for its shock value and metaphorically because the solution to this involves a drastic removal of extremism as a dominant force in our society.  To be honest I do not know exactly how we will accomplish that given the pervasiveness and the massive efforts to keep it so, but I do know that we must radically divorce ourselves from both the products of this abusive methodology and the methodology itself.  And that is tough in a society rightfully based on the tolerance of all religious and their free practice.  But we must figure out a way to get rid of the extremist befouled bath water and keep the precious baby of religious freedom if we want this great nation to survive.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Gun Violence Graphs and the Lesson of the 300 Pound Marathon Runner

By Bob Ferris

I think many of us were confused some by the recent piece in the Washington Post about a massive decline in gun violence in the US coming on the heels of the San Bernardino tragedy and others. Some probably thought: Crap, the media got us again by over-hyping the shootings and making us more scared when we should feel safe or even encouraged by the numbers. Maybe it is just to get us to buy more guns so we can all look more like Nevada Lawmaker Fiore (1,2,3,4) and her family pictured above in their X-mas offering?  Hmm.  But maybe we are just asking the wrong questions and the situation is more complicated and nuanced than some of us understand .

The first thing to realize about the Washington Post piece is that while it presents real numbers, they are not anchored to anything other than our own numbers in the US.  Certainly we have gotten better than what we were, but how do we compare with the rest of the developing countries of the world? The answer to that is in a graph from a 2012 piece in the Post (see above).  And if we look at both graphs combined a picture emerges that kind of reminds me of what a 300-pound marathon runner would say: Sure I finished dead-last again, but look at how my time improved.  We in the US think of ourselves as winners and we should be in this category as well.  But like the hypothetical, large long-distance runner mentioned above, we will likely have to make substantial changes to win, place or show in this particular measure.

Now I will admit that this is a complicated issue and there is a lot of information out there that confuses—some of it purposely.  Like the graph above mentioned in a Forbes piece that attempts to dampen the threat by “demonstrating” that Italian guns are much, much more dangerous than those in the US. That graph makes you think some, but even with all those dangerous guns out there Italy’s gun-related deaths per 100,000 is still considerably lower than the US.  The conclusion that can be drawn from these two seemingly contradictory ideas is that while guns in Italy kill more per unit there are a lot fewer guns in Italy per capita than in the US.  

It is hard to imagine someone less like those heroic pioneers and mountain men who originally carried this type of percussion rifle than Senator Mitch McConnell.
There is a problem with complex, multi-faceted issues that every horror movie fan can tell you about: Just when you are feeling relief from one threat and breathing easily something unexpected will jump out and get you.  So while we should balance our elation over progress on the gun safety front with recognition that we have a long, long way to go before we are leaders in this arena, we should also understand that mass-shootings appear to be on the rise and we have a growing and well-documented powder keg of well-armed and irrational domestic extremists (1,2,3,4,5) sticking their toes deeper and deeper into the terrorism pool with each Planned Parenthood shooting, mosque attack, or open-carry event.  And these extremists get emboldened each time some politician blows more air on the lit fuse with every awkward and unauthentic gun-oriented photo-op and ill-chosen word.  In other words, our rotund runner needs to be vigilant and disciplined on all fronts in order not die while losing weight from clogged arteries because his "friends" keep putting "freedom" fries within too easy a reach.

Senator Ted Cruz doing his part to fan the flames.  
[Disclosure: I am a gun owner and have been for most of my life, though I will admit that I own fewer now than I once did.]

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Wild Pitches, Backstops and Orrin Hatch

By Bob Ferris

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) 
During my time working in the DC area, one of the activities that I occasionally enjoyed was meeting with delegations or citizens from other countries to talk about successful American advocacy and social change methods and how these approaches could be adopted or adapted for use in other countries or not.  I always found value in these discussions as they helped remind me—in spite of challenges and craziness—of the elegant and robust nature of our system of governance.

Of these sessions I remember three most vividly.  The first I did as a favor for a major donor who worked at the State Department and it started as a “short” discussion of how wolves and brown bears could be managed in the newly independent Croatia.  But as each suggestion seemed to be linked to an agency or cornerstone piece of legislation, the discussion quickly ended up being longer and more a primer on natural resource policy, administration and governance.

The second one that stands out was with a Chinese citizen who was working to save giant pandas.  He wanted to know how we—I was at Defenders of Wildlife at the time—were so successful in restoring wolves and if some of those strategies could be used for his pandas.  My heart went out to him because as I rolled out each tool we used they were either missing or associated with dire consequences for the user in China.  I could offer him little, but kind wishes for his citizen-driven efforts.

The third instance, gets to the meat of what I want to deal with in this blog and it was with a formal delegation from Japan while I was at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation—complete with bowing, gifts and an interpreter.  The first portion of the discussion was pretty awkward as the delegates would give long statements or questions that seemed so out of synch with the short translations I was receiving.  I could not help but think then that either Japanese was an extremely inefficient language or that the interpreter was screening quite a bit.

The break-through happened when one of the delegates who was trying to reconcile state functions with federal functions asked the basic question: What is the role of the federal government?  I scratched my chin a little in thought and said: The federal government acts like the backstop in a baseball game preventing wild pitches from going too far when the catcher misses.  The second I said the word “baseball” the formerly dour delegation to a person lit up and they started asking their own questions and helping each other with English words they did not understand.   It was chaos, but productive for all parties.

It took me a long time in this piece to get to this idea of a federal “backstop” protecting us from errant wild pitches and some writer friends of mine would call it poor organization to arrive at one of your main points in the fifth paragraph.  But the build-up and delay is actually part of the point as the catalyst for this piece was Orrin Hatch’s op-ed on the separation of Church and State in the conservative Washington Times where he argues that some select pre-Constitutional sentiments are evidence of his own view on post-Constitution reality vis a vis the Separation of Church and State.  My counter to that would be that the US Constitution and its “backstop” function—that simultaneously protects religion while protecting us from religion along with other functions—evolved during a long and tortuous debate where many set aside strongly held personal beliefs in order to “form a more perfect union.”

It is interesting that Senator Hatch relies heavily on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in his piece, because they both help and hurt his argument.  Jefferson’s religious beliefs were eclectic to say the least being a Deist who owned a Koran he generally espoused religious tolerance and curiosity as well as famously re-writing parts of the Bible so it was more moral lesson and less hocus pocus.   Adams too, as Hatch points out, had strong religious beliefs but as President, he along with Congress signed a treaty with Tripoli (see Article 11) that said that we are in no way a Christian nation.  So Adams could clearly see that his personal beliefs were indeed separate from his duties as President and as leader of a country governed by a Constitution.
"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." American Poet John Godfrey Saxe 
Senator Hatch has also been in Washington a long, long time and has deeply participated in the legislative “sausage making” allowed by the rules of governance embodied by the US Constitution. Because of that he should be fully aware that draft legislation is more a statement of personal beliefs that is then subject to committees, hearings, floor debates, amendments, and ultimately the bizarre process of conferencing which produces a product that is often very unlike what was originally proposed but hopefully is something that works best for the country and is also consistent with the Constitution.  It seems faulty logic at best to think that the process and philosophy that produced the legislation should be a fundamental departure from how the US Constitution came to be—a document not driven primarily by disparate and often conflicting personal beliefs but rather a thoughtful compromise that accommodates and protects most as well as the few.
Lots of room for modification in the system (see narrative).  
In closing, I find it perhaps ironic that Senator Hatch who is a Mormon not born in Utah does not get the value of the above separation from and absence of religious favoritism (albeit not always perfect) at the state or federal levels.  He asks us to look at history, but seems to forget that his own religion did not even exist until thirty-one years after the US Constitution was ratified and was, therefore, a beneficiary of this separation.  Given his beliefs and cultural history he should be sensitized both to the harm of intolerance through atrocities done to the Mormons during their origins and westward migration as well as the impact of their own institutional intolerance on others exemplified by the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  His own experience should inform him too as he has helped those of other religions come to or stay in this country and built mosques that met resistance that if institutionalized would have prevented these actions.  Even if Senator Hatch cannot sort through the lessons of history we should and must.