The Greatest Show on Earth

At the time of this writing, parts of the federal government have been shut down for almost a month. Perhaps we’ll all get a refund on our taxes, though it’s more likely this time without government will cost us more in the same way that food without additives or preservatives costs more at the grocery.

Last year, “Tax Freedom Day,” the day when all of our tax obligations to federal, state and local authorities were met, was 19 April. Government spending in the US then, consumes about a third of the productivity of its citizens. Very little of that money, however, goes to compensate federal workers. Though the federal government is the nation’s single largest employer, excluding soldiers and postal workers, only 2 million Americans work for the government, or approximately .6% of our population.

During the partial shutdown, about 420,000 federal workers will work without pay, and approximately 380,000 will be furloughed. We grieve for those workers and their families. They do not deserve to be political pawns in this current contest of egos. Perhaps Congress can tell us why, given that the salaries of government workers are such a small fraction of the federal budget, the choice was made to withhold their pay but still meet other obligations.

Speaking of Congress, members will receive their paychecks on time (though Congressional staff members will not). About 100 of the 535 members of Congress have elected not to be paid during the shutdown, but fear not; about half of the members of Congress are millionaires, so they’ll be just fine.

Every day now, someone from mass media predicts impending doom should the shutdown continue. Government, it would seem, has become essential to our survival. Apparently we are in a codependent relationship with our own government. How and why this happened is a long story with numerous points of contention, but as for the “who,” that much is clear. Democrats and Republicans did it.

Every successive administration along with every Congress in living memory has managed to increase the size and coercive power of government, speeches and campaign promises aside. Quite recently that trend has begun to reverse. Partial credit for the slight reduction in the size of government can be given to the current Administration, but the reasons are more complicated and that is a story for another time.

If we are indeed at risk because of the sudden inactivity of our dysfunctional government, common sense would suggest that we need to return that portion of the economy appropriated by government back to the free market. However, if one should refer to that process as “privatization,” an adverse reaction would be triggered in those who prefer to socialize the economy.

The irony and the hypocrisy are palpable. Some of the same democrats who vilified President George Bush for his overreach when Homeland Security and the TSA were created are now predicting doom unless these very same agencies are restored to their full might. Some of the same republicans that helped orchestrate that huge increase in the size of government are pointing fingers at “tax and spend” democrats. Partisan politics trumps common sense as well as our national interest.

Ostensibly, this clash of egos is about border security, and again, the stink of hypocrisy is enough to peel back your lips. Just a few years ago, Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and a number of Democrats who now appear to oppose President Trump’s initiatives, all voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The bill passed with bipartisan support. Now some of the same democrats who voted for the act have referred to any effort to impose a physical barrier at the border as “immoral.”

As for the Republicans, the US Chamber of Commerce, a conservative leaning organization which has historically supported Republicans and conservative Democrats, has lobbied repeatedly to block restrictions on immigration in order to maintain a continuous supply of cheap labor. Very little support or acknowledgment could be found among the Republicans for President Obama’s record deportation of our uninvited guests, or his expansion of detention facilities to hold them.

The point is, our elected leaders have been too busy spinning, posturing and seeking political advantage to make any real effort to solve the immigration problem. Republicans want to appear tough on securing the borders to play to their base, but without doing anything that would jeopardize the flow of cheap labor desired by their corporate masters. Democrats want to appear compassionate and avoid offending potential voters, but when they hold the reins of power they discover, like President Obama, the harsh realities of waves of human migration.

At the extremes we have at one end a President who, in order to fulfill his campaign promises, is threatening to declare a national emergency, seize private property and invoke military powers in order to bypass our system of government. This is a solution which may appeal to the extreme right today, but wait until a Democrat president does the same thing or worse in turn. At the other end of the spectrum are the young liberals calling for open borders and evoking discredited theories of socialism to solve the nation’s problems, all to be paid for under “modern economic theory,” which holds that sovereign governments have an unlimited ability to pay their bills simply by creating money.

It’s a circus, but the entertainment value diminishes in direct proportion to the human suffering it causes, not the least of which is the fear and anger driven like a wedge between partisan factions. If it isn’t the greatest show on earth, it certainly is the most expensive.

Write a reply…

The Right to be Happy

Benjamin Franklin said, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

The relationships we have with our fellow humans often present us with a choice between being right, and being happy. Every couple who has been married for more than a month knows this. But humans are and always have been naturally competitive, and we are often prideful as well. You know I’m right about that.

The insistence on being right affects not only individuals, but large groups of people. In politics, it has been institutionalized to a point of paralysis.  There were many times in our history when we became so adamant in our opinions that we eventually went to war to prove who was right.

In between breakups, divorces and wars we can, individually or collectively, regain some of the humility necessary to acquire new information or suffer someone else’s opinion. We usually enjoy periods of  general peace and prosperity under those conditions.

In the Age of Information, however, we have become quite confident again in our opinions, having googled every source that agrees with us, and opinion is joined at the hip to identity.  This is not a formula for happiness at a time when a fragmented national identity is struggling to reform. “There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong,” and apparently being right is a zero-sum game. The broken news reports every day that we aren’t as happy as we used to be.

The trouble is, this competition of ideas is not fun. It isn’t a game anymore. It’s not even a sport.  We struggle to have even a civil debate, much less a cordial one. We are conditioned now to frame things, instead, in terms of conflict, to “fight” for our causes and “slam” our opponents. Or so it is reported, repeatedly, endlessly, and in detail.

It’s primarily verbal, of course, this fight to see our opinions prevail, this pixelated virtual reality of hostile adversaries fighting for what’s right. Too much media and not enough social, coming to you live and late breaking. But it’s all just theater, isn’t it? Well, it is until the pent-up unhappiness starts to affect our decision-making. Am I right?

There’s not much we can do about the theater. We can choose not to click on the provocative link, to ignore any headline that contains the words “fight” or “slam.” This goes directly to the prime motivation behind provocative headlines, as clicks are the life blood of corporate media.  But we’re addicted to drama. Media serves it up because we consume it, and addictions are not easy to overcome.

We can keep our opinions to ourselves. But that, too, is difficult when identity is ascendant and everyone we know is posting and tweeting like a flock of mockingbirds.

So if we can’t stop ourselves from consuming the drama, and if we just have to keep putting our opinions forward, what can we do to keep the peace? We’ll close with more timeless wisdom from Benjamin Franklin, who said, “I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition.”

Ask anyone who has been happily married whether what Franklin said is true.





Forever War

About ten years ago it began to be popular so say “thank you for your service” to veterans and active duty members of the armed services. It was a sign of the maturing of our social consciousness, and sorely needed after a generation of Vietnam veterans came home to both apathy and hostility from a conflicted public. Many of us were learning at last to separate the soldier from the war, to support the former without condoning the latter.

We’ve had many opportunities to cultivate this particular insight, though we seem to need regular refresher courses.  In the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War and the Global War on Terror, over 1.1 million American men and women lost their lives.

I was lucky to be in the Marine Corps during one of those rare periods in our recent history when the involvement of our armed forces in police actions and nation building was at a minimum. I was also fortunate never to send a child or a sibling off to war, or wait for a parent’s return, though there are many stories in my family about what it feels like to experience these things. Until recently, these were just stories, poignant, but long ago and far away.

Last week it became a lot more personal when I said goodbye to a friend on his way to one of those sandy places on the other side of the globe where we have sacrificed almost 7000 American lives and spent about a trillion dollars in the global war on terror.

My friend is a young man who had already chosen a path of service, just beginning his career as a police officer, just starting to settle into his new life and career,  but when his national guard unit was called up, with no hesitation and no regrets, he was prepared to go. At a recent holiday gathering I said goodbye to him with a lump in my throat.

It’s hard for me to imagine what his parents must be feeling, the worry and uncertainly that never completely goes away, the sleepless nights, the visceral anger, and the dull ache. Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So yes, we support the troops, God bless them, and we sincerely thank them for their service. They are the best of us. But as our forever war drags on into its second decade, we remember also the sacrifices made by the families of those men and women who serve at the convenience of our government. The gratitude we extend to our soldiers should be shared generously with those who wait and worry and pray, and to those of you who do, thank you for your service as well.

Surely there is more that we can do beyond giving lip service to the gratitude we feel for someone else’s sacrifice.  Is it not also our duty as well as our right to require of our politicians who, on paper at least, work for us, that they end this forever war? That they cease making enemies for us to fight? That there be an accounting of the costs in blood and treasure for the sake of those young people who are about to join a war that began before they were born? Scarcely in the history of the world has one people existed as the natural enemy of another. Enemies are made on the Wall Streets of the world, not the Main Streets. Is it learned helplessness that keeps us silent, or are we content with sacrifice as long as it doesn’t affect us personally?

If you haven’t heard the term, “forever war,” it is perhaps a more honest description of what is otherwise known as the global war on terror. Eisenhower warned us about forever war in his farewell address to the nation. Yes, the seeds of forever war were planted a long time ago, but it was during the administrations of Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama that the business of conflict was elevated to an art form.

How soon we forgot the events leading up to the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein, which opened  Pandora’s Box and destabilized the middle east for generations! Does anyone in America remember Clinton’s wars, the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, cluster bombs in Serbian markets, the disruption of the Yugoslav economy and the destabilization of southeast Europe? Millions are alive in the Balkans who do remember. Tens of thousands are dead who don’t.

Does anyone remember the blatant lies about “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, or were we all soothed into forgetfulness by smiling photos of good friends, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush,  globe-trotting together? Did we get a warm, fuzzy feeling when George W. passed Michelle O. a piece of candy during John McCain’s funeral? Remember President Obama, the all time champion drone striker and weapons dealer, selling American arms all over the globe?  What about President Trump, who is on track to exceed even Obama’s world record at arms dealing?

And speaking of President Trump, blunt, unpredictable, unpopular President Trump, who was eviscerated for trying to normalize relations with Russia, attacked for pulling troops out of Syria and criticized for planning to reduce our presence in Afghanistan, what do we make of his actions? What do we make of the instantaneous push back of politics and punditry headlined and dramatized by mass media?

Who can say? What can we infer from the unified chorus of peace loving liberals, hawkish neoconservatives (republicans and democrats) and corporate media mouthpieces shouting their panic and outrage over the possibility that we might choose to remove thousands of our sons and daughters from harm’s way?

Yes, I know. Fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them at home. We’ve heard that for almost 20 years now, long enough to expect that some kind of resolution be forthcoming.   Remember when Shelby Foote,  in that great Civil War Series,  told the story of a Confederate soldier talking to a Union soldier across the picket lines one night? The Yankee soldier asked the Rebel, “Hey Reb, why are you fighting?” The Rebel soldier answered, “Because you’re down here.”

Is it possible that maintaining military bases inside sovereign nations, supporting brutal dictators,  destroying economies, turning infrastructure into rubble and killing tens of thousands of civilians just might do more to cause terror than to prevent it?

But as the cards are shuffled and terrorists become allies and allies become adversaries,  and as decades of bombings, missile and drone strikes and sanctions finally begin to fragment and diminish those who “hate us because they hate freedom,” the forever war needs new enemies. Enter stage left, Russia and China.

The think tanks tell us that we need to fear Russian and Chinese hypersonic glide platforms capable of defeating most if not all of our countermeasures. Billions of dollars in research and development will be necessary to counter this threat, and if you invested in Lockheed Martin, you’ll be happy to know that they were just awarded a sizable contract to help us catch up.

Of course, fool-me-once citizens might have a few questions. Given that governments are capable of lying (remember WMD’s) we might reasonably ask if what they say is true. It might very well be true, but given that we spend more on defense than the next seven countries combined, is it not also reasonable to ask why we are playing catch up with someone we “defeated in the cold war?” I suppose money doesn’t buy what it used to, or maybe the ruble goes a lot farther in Russia than the dollar does here.  We might also ask why the recent Defense Department audit was off by trillions of dollars, but that’s another story.

One of the benefits of living in a nation which promotes free speech is that armchair diplomats and sofa-ops soldiers, and all kinds of people with no skin in the game, are free to express their opinions on any subject. Many of us are beginning to question how our opinions are formed. I want to respond to one opinion in particular.

Go ahead and tell me that we have to fight them over there, that it’s dangerous to consider disengaging from the nation destroying, widow making,  migrant producing enemy factory of forever war.  Tell me that we’re foolish to reduce tensions with well armed adversaries (and their relentless tweets and subversive Facebook posts). Tell me that you’re eager to send a son or daughter to fight. Tell me that you’re ready to volunteer yourself.

So, you’ve never served, never said goodbye to a son or a daughter, a husband or a wife or a parent as they left home to travel thousands of miles to a place where they will be almost universally despised, and where not even the nation they’re supposedly helping to “build” wants them to be there? You don’t even know anyone personally who served? Well. You must be a Congressman or a Senator (or a network commentator or a former president or presidential hopeful). If you are, there’s a better than 80% chance that you have no skin in the game of war. That’s right, for most of you whose responsibility it is to allow, or not to allow the sacrifice of American blood and treasure, it might as well be a game, because you suffer no consequences from your actions.

Go ahead and try to press your argument by enumerating all the returns that we (the tax paying public) have received from our multi-trillion dollar investment in destroying and rebuilding countries, and how the loss of 7000 American lives was worth the sacrifice. We’re not listening. We know who you are. We know you by the fruit of your labors. You came to Washington to do two things: To get reelected, and to work tirelessly to figure out ways to privatize profit while socializing risk.

Hopefully enough of us will see you for who you really are that we can send you back home.








Another Christmas Story

My mother loved her Christmas ornaments, and like many mothers she kept certain ones for many years. Carefully wrapped and stored away after the holidays, they would reappear just after Thanksgiving. Our Christmas tree hosted the most unlikely combinations of sparkling shapes; simple childhood gifts and class projects from the ghosts of Christmas Past. Some were cute, some gaudy, and to teenage eyes, embarrassing reminders of the youth we were so impatient to leave behind.

If we are lucky, we will collect memories of many embarrassing moments, and enjoy years of youth and innocence to remember and comfort us later in life; years when the wonders of life are many and the responsibilities few, years when Christmas vacation lasts the entire winter and Santa Claus is as real as the cookies and milk carefully placed next to the tree on Christmas Eve.

In the country, there are certain rites of passage that often accompany the holiday season, and as a young lad I was convinced that the Christmas day after my 12th birthday would bring that long hoped-for present so often desired by boys and girls lucky enough to grow up in the rural South. I was certain that  would be the year I received my first real firearm and be able to join the adults on a grownup deer hunt.

It must have taken someone a long time to wrap the long, beautifully decorated rectangular box I found under the tree that year, but I cannot for the life of me remember the color of the paper or the bow I so hastily tore away. I do remember every inch of the Harrington and Richardson single shot 20 gauge inside.

Soon to come was the excitement of waking up long before daylight on the morning of that first hunt and having a hunter’s breakfast, a cold bacon and egg sandwich, just me and my dad moving quietly in the kitchen trying not to wake up the house. I remember the way the stars sparkled in the crisp winter air; the ride in the old pickup from the farm to the hunting ground and the last minute advice on cover and concealment. I can still hear the crunch of dried twigs in the dark, and the whispered advice from Dad about how to balance my weight, placing my feet carefully to move silently.

I was well concealed before dawn, nested in pine straw and leaves with my back propped against a suitable tree with low hanging branches for cover. Time never passed more slowly or with greater anticipation as I listened, straining my ears for any telltale sounds that might signal the approach of my prey. When a deer finally did come near my location, well scouted by my dad in anticipation of this momentous event, the only sound I could hear was my heart pounding.

The flash was blinding and the blast deafening when I pulled the trigger. The gray shape of the deer disappeared into the mist and the pounding of my heart was replaced by a loud ringing in my ears as I struggled in vain to hear what direction my quarry might be headed. I had been warned that a spooked or wounded deer might run for quite a distance before settling down, and I was prepared to wait, quiet and watchful until I got my bearings again.

I waited with all the patience a 12-year old could muster, until I thought I heard a likely sound some distance from my vantage point.  I headed as quietly as I could in that direction. A thickening mist was rising from the ground and I could barely make out the shape of the trees. After half an hour of carefully picking my way through branch and bramble, I stepped into a small clearing just as I thought I saw the shape of my prey on the other side. I took one more step into the clearing for a better look, but I never got the chance.

Just as I stepped forward, the ground beneath my feet collapsed and I went straight down about four feet into a hole, landing hard on the flat of my feet with a thud. I saw stars for a moment, and as I blinked them away, looking up, I noticed with some trepidation that the end of my nose was about a foot away from an old moss covered tombstone.

I don’t know what congregation lived and died on that forgotten ground, abandoned long enough to grow a mature stand of timber. I don’t think I was ever able to equal the feat of acrobatics I performed when I shot straight up out of that sunken grave like a fish jumping out of water. I think I may have actually levitated when I came up out of that hole. I’m not sure that I have ever run away from a place so fast in my life. I have no memory of how I found my way back to the truck.

What I do remember is the sound of my dad’s joyful laughter as we drove back home that morning. He told me something then that I have always cherished, that though I may have missed my buck, I bagged a good story that would be worth a lot more to me as the years went by.

Memories are a lot like those favorite Christmas ornaments my mother kept so carefully. The number and variety we keep, the way we display them or keep them wrapped up and stored away, this is how we decorate the story of our lives. If we are fortunate, when we consider them all, the ones that sparkle, the unlikely shapes, the ones we are proud of and even the embarrassments, we will enjoy a bit of the same sense of celebration we feel when we look at a Christmas tree.

Not So Great

Last week we remembered the 77th  anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which triggered The United States’ entry into WWII.  Every December 7th we acknowledge the sacrifices made by that great generation, and rightly so.

Not too many years ago, that first paragraph could have been shorter. There was no need explain the significance of Pearl Harbor.  Over 16 million men and women served in the armed forces during WWII.  Since then, three generations have grown up with a parent or grandparent who remembered. Today, less than half a million of those  veterans are still alive.  We are rapidly losing the living memory of that devastating conflict.

There are few who remember Admiral J. O. (Joe) Richardson, the commander of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor until 1940. Admiral Richardson repeatedly warned President Roosevelt about the dangers of a Japanese attack, and the Admiral closely monitored Japanese movements to give the fleet time to vacate the base should the need arise.  In 1940 he wrote Roosevelt to strongly recommend the immediate removal of the fleet to San Francisco.

By 1941, the US had been able to decipher encrypted Japanese communications and for months our government knew that the Japanese government had decided that war was their only option for survival. However, when Admiral Richardson pressed Roosevelt on the danger to the fleet, Roosevelt’s reply to the Admiral’s concerns  was, “Joe, you just don’t understand that this is an election year and there are certain things that can’t be done, no matter what, until the election is over and won.”

After the election, Roosevelt fired Admiral Richardson. Nevertheless, as late as 13 days before the Pearl Harbor attack, Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, wrote in his diary, “He [Roosevelt] brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps (as soon as) next Monday [December 1], for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

The story of how the United States, in an effort to limit Japanese expansion,  effectively cut off Japan’s oil supply in the months leading up to WWII, is rarely mentioned in history books.  The Japanese knew that they would quickly run out of oil unless they were able to capture new supplies in the Dutch East Indies, but they also knew that the United Stated would oppose them unless their navy was able to cripple our Pacific fleet.

Then on 25 November, Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent Japan an ultimatum demanding that they withdraw from China. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor 12 days later, killing 2,403 people, sinking or damaging eight battleships, and destroying 188 airplanes.

History books  persist in absolving Roosevelt of any knowledge or responsibility for the attack on Pearl Harbor.  We continue to groom the image of the United States as an innocent victim of Japan and Roosevelt as a great president, but the truth is much more involved. It is almost Byzantine in its complexity.

There is no doubt that Roosevelt did extraordinary things  as president. He rose to the challenge presented by  very trying times.  But his elevation to “greatness” (and the same is true of any president) is motivated as much by politics as any desire to realistically appraise his time in office.

“Greatness” is cheapened by our habitual use of the word.  We take serious note of the “path to greatness” of people who chase balls or read lines for movies. “People worship” has plagued us since before humanity worked its fingers to the bone to build pyramids for their god-kings.  Thousands of years later we are still a culture obsessed with celebrity and “great” individuals, and as such we are vulnerable to the most egregious manipulation.

I’m all for respecting the dead, and choosing to emphasize the good that people did when we remember them. But I also believe that when you take on a leadership role you give up the right to that indulgence. In continuing our long tradition of whitewashing the records of dead presidents and other elected leaders we promote a shallow and cursory understanding of history. When we expunge our mistakes from the record, we make it harder to avoid repeating those mistakes.

Stirring the Pot

Every family has at least one. Every neighborhood and office and every classroom has them as well. We’re talking about gossips: people who spread rumors and stir the pot. Our brains are wired to emphasize the negative, but some of us are addicted to the onslaught of neuropeptides that wash through our brains when we’re indulging in drama.

Billions of dollars in revenue are dependent on that addiction. Gossip has become institutionalized to a degree never imagined by the architects of the age of information. Technology has allowed the gossip column to escape the relatively benign confines of the newspaper and merge with mainstream media, where little effort is made to separate fact from interpretation, and where the ideals of the Fourth Estate have been subsumed by political and corporate agendas. Unless you read technical journals, every page is an opinion page, and even scientific studies are not immune to financial motives.

We’ve had this discussion many times here over the years, but I was motivated to revisit it by some recent efforts to stir the pot.

At our house we indulge in holiday media this time of year, and any of the Peanuts classics, any appearance by Rudolph, and a growing list of holiday movies are likely to be enjoyed on a chilly night by the fire from now until January, and a time tested stack of holiday music emerges from the closet to stand ready by the sound system. Unfortunately, this year mainstream media couldn’t wait to tell us that some of our holiday traditions and childhood classics are now part of the battle ground in the culture wars.

Battle ground. Culture wars. Observe how important framing can be in stirring the pot or surreptitiously advancing a point of view independent of the facts. We grew up conditioned to believe that what was important enough to appear in print or on the screen was true and relevant. So when a headline appears simultaneously on diverse websites and in local television news reports, it must be important.

This year we were told that Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving is racist because of how the kids were seated around the table. We found out that Santa’s reindeer are misogynistic because Rudolph’s alpha-male father preferred to take on the risk of searching the arctic wastes for Rudolph himself, to the exclusion of Rudolph’s mother and girlfriend. We were dismayed to find out that Dean Martin’s classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” encourages rape culture.

Should we laugh or be offended? Surely there are other choices, including the choice to disregard this “news” entirely. The Thanksgiving story was compiled from a selection of tweets, and the story begins with “viewers have suggested.” The same was true for the headlines about Rudolph. As far as I can tell, the story about the song was recycled from “A Line By Line Takedown of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ which appeared in the Huffington Post in 2014.

There are billions of tweets and other forms of social media posts ever year. If you look for them, on any given day you can find people discussing the conspiracy behind the effort to convince people that the earth is round rather than flat, including the fake moon landings.  If I wrote a column for The Daily Mail on a slow news week, I could copy and paste a few of those tweets and say, quite truthfully, that “viewers have suggested…” The story might be picked up by Drudge and the Huff Post and if a major network needed filler between shootings and stabbings, it could then be repeated across a network of hundreds of local affiliates. Someone scanning the headlines over a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning might be dismayed to discover that the Flat Earth Society had attracted such a large following.

Stories like this are produced every day by keyboard “journalists” who do little more than cast their nets into social media for the tackiest and most prurient catch they can find. Sometimes it’s a simple (and lazy) effort to grab our attention. Sometimes the motive is more insidious. If I wanted to motivate, for example, conservative voters to go to the polls, what better way than to headline the “culture wars” and the ongoing “attack” on our values. If I wanted liberal voters to turn out, I would remind them of the desperate need for resisting that deplorable basket of “isms”

Several times now we have discussed here how that, though the world continues to improve across almost all of the metrics by which we judge success, the fear that the sky is about to fall at any moment is persistent. We can thank politics and media – and the internal wiring of our own brains – for this.

Nevertheless, people act on their beliefs no matter how skewed those beliefs may be, and if we can believe numerous studies and the science of sociology, our partisans on the left and right are more ideologically divided than at any time in recent memory, and the great exhausted middle is not motivated to forward any candidates who reflect the more balanced views of the majority.

And now my friends we have reached the point where, as my grandfather used to say, we are about to “quit preaching and go to meddling.” The view from the middle is this:  For many of the years when media was more conservative and when the nation itself was, in fact, more conservative, the ascendant right did not often speak kindly of those on the left. Today, however, the majority of mainstream media except for Fox News promotes a viewpoint well to the left of center. Younger and more technologically savvy citizens dominate social media. They are not any kinder to the “other side” than the other side was to them when they dominated the narrative. The pendulum swings both ways.

For the sake of the country, I hope that the center holds, but in order to do so we must overcome our exhaustion and continue to engage in the narrative. We must not be lead or discouraged by the toxic flow of information of unknown motive and provenance that passes for news today, and we can blissfully ignore any efforts to re-frame Charlie Brown and Rudolph in order to promote someone’s effort to stir the pot.




Fired Up

When the fires were raging around Paradise, California, many of us had an extra measure of compassion for the people who lost their lives or saw their homes destroyed. It was only two years ago, almost to the day, that Towns County was squeezed between two large fires, and parts of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, were destroyed.

President Trump made several comments about the California fires and claimed that the situation was made worse by poor forest management. He downplayed the role of climate change in the tragedy.

The President is prone to shoot from the hip sometimes, with comments that are blunt and confrontational. I can’t decide whether I believe that he simply doesn’t care what people think about his comments, or that he intentionally goads the media into predictable responses.

Predictably, the media erupted in outrage. How dare he attempt to barbecue the sacred cow of global warming, one of the ideological litmus tests of progressive thought!  Celebrities, politicians and pundits were soon generating the headlines we’ve come to expect: Trump “slammed,” “attacked,” “destroyed” and “called out.”

Such headlines are commonplace, now that politics and news have merged with professional wrestling. But there was one celebrity comment that, I’m sorry to say, got under my skin. A famous musician who lives in California, criticized the president for “defying science,”  and after “blasting” the president and anyone who would dare to question the popular narrative of anthropogenic climate change, the moralizing musician urged us to “come together as a people to take climate change on.”

We live in interesting times when a call to unity begins with an insult, but words do not mean what they used to mean.

Let me pause here to say that I reject outright the climate change litmus test for correct thinking, and it doesn’t matter whether that test is administered from the left or right side of the kindergarten. There is, in my view, sufficient data and consensus to demonstrate that the climate is indeed changing. The degree to which humans have precipitated this change and the contribution made by planetary movements, Lorenz energy cycles and solar cycles is still being discovered.

At this point in our history, when humans have populated so many of the areas of the planet that are the most sensitive to change, it’s far more important to decide how we’re going to prepare for change than it is to argue about who or what is responsible.

With fires still smoldering, hundreds of homes destroyed and people missing, a poor choice was made by those who used the tragedy to prosecute a political ideology. That, too, is becoming commonplace.

For the record, in this particular instance, the president, bluntness notwithstanding, was more correct than the musician. The tragedy in California would have been significantly mitigated by better forestry practices. Veteran foresters have warned for decades that  northern California forests needed thinning. Some burned areas were supporting 3-5 times more trees per acre than is considered optimum for a healthy forest in that region.

Controlled burns in California have been delayed or canceled because of lawsuits. Naturally occurring fires have been aggressively fought (sometimes at great sacrifice) before they could do what fire does to manage healthy forest lands. Landowners have been deterred from managing their own properties by restrictive regulations.

These were unintended consequences of laws and regulations that grew out of a sincere, even zealous desire to protect the environment, but that desire does not erase the consequences. Some of the good folks who champion the environment fail to understand that when you add humans to the mix, when you put people on top of mountains, along coastlines, into areas prone to drought or flooding, you change the management formula. Fire has managed forests for millions of years. When you try to prevent fire from doing that job, you are only delaying the inevitable and leveraging its effects.

Of course climate change has made the situation worse, but the musician’s explanation also “defies science,” specifically the science of forestry and long ignored recommendations on how to manage land that has been prone to drought for millennia. The 20th century was exceptionally wet for northern California. 1000 years ago that area suffered two extreme dry spells, one which lasted 240 years and another 140 years. So even though climate change is extraordinary for ephemeral humans, for California, fire has always and will always happen. Even Governor Brown recommended a change in California’s forestry practices – in August – before the fires started.

Longtime readers of this column will appreciate this irony:  On 23 November, The White House released a government sponsored report on climate change which agreed with the anthropocentric (human caused) view and predicted painful consequences for the future. Trump was immediately accused of trying to “bury” the report by releasing it on Black Friday….

We haven’t wasted a lot of energy in Towns County arguing about who is responsible for the weather. In the mountains, we have long known that weather always changes. When the smoke and fires of 2016 quickly erased the memory of the contrived drama of the elections, we were united in our efforts to support our neighbors and the brave people risking their lives on the fire lines. Since then, our Firewise communities have continued to help people learn to work with their neighbors to reduce the risk of wildfire.

It has long been said that everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. That’s not exactly true. So instead of ruining our digestion with politics or worrying about what’s happening on the national stage, we have an opportunity to DO something about climate change, no matter what our beliefs may be. Contact Frank Riley here at the Towns County Herald, call the Commissioner’s office or talk with a volunteer firefighter. Find out about the Firewise community near you, or learn how to start one in your neighborhood.