About Evil

CNN published a thoughtful article today that expounded on President Trump’s characterization of the Las Vegas shootings from a week ago as “an act of pure evil.”  Daniel Burke’s comments there resonated with thoughts I have had as information has surfaced on the shooter.

Some want to describe the shooter as a domestic terrorist, but no purpose has been discovered for his actions to date.  Others label him as insane, but other than having a propensity for gambling, his amassing of guns and his apparent mistreatment of his girlfriend, he seems, to this point, to be much like your average middle-aged man.

That lack of distinction from any of us is deeply troubling to me.  It implies that the capacity for unthinkable evil lies in each of us, which make the plots for Steven King’s novels all too passé.

We are all too familiar this year with the evils that occur through “acts if God” or the spontaneous destruction that nature can yield.  What is troubling to me is that we too are capable of mindless evil on a massive scale.  It can be by a people who go on with their lives in the face of genocide, the daily accrual of damage to our world or acts of unprovoked war.

It seems that we, as individuals, are equally capable of pure evil, a reality that I struggle to comprehend, even with the events of this week.  Johnny Cash’s line from Folsom Prison Blues, “I shot a man, just to see him die” suddenly becomes all too real.

I suppose we may be too sheltered in suburbia from people like that to recognize that pure evil does lie in some heartless hearts.  What seems all the worse is that this particular shooter seemed like one of us.  Efforts to uncover something to distinguish him may yet find a motive, but it will never explain evil on this scale.

None of this line of thought in any way diminishes my earlier comments on the need for sensible gun control laws.  The ability to convert a rifle into a fully automatic weapon multiplies the impact of an evil act exponentially, and the fact that seemingly normal individuals are capable of senseless and pure evil makes gun control all the more essential.

Burke ends with a quote from the philosopher James A.K. Smith,”Evil didn’t have the first word in this world,” he said. “And I don’t expect it to have the last.”  Perhaps we are capable of good as well.

 

 

 

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Bearing Grief

A footnote following the Las Vegas shooting of Sunday night notes the, once again, dramatic increase in gun purchases following the most recent and for now worst mass shooting in our sad and ongoing past that is our apparent future.  In a perverse and sick consequence, gun manufacturer stocks rise notably following significant mass shootings, while lobbyists and gun advocates repeat again that now is not the time to discuss gun control measures.

There have been over 1500 mass shootings in our country since the end of 2012.  We have had 273 year-to-date, and October 1 is only the 275th day of 2017.  If these tragedies occur daily, when is the right time to discuss sensible gun measures?

I purchased a .22 caliber rifle years ago to deal with water moccasins that lived near my home.  After the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, I got rid of it because I felt powerless to do anything more to stem the senseless violence we endure.  After the Gabby Giffords shooting, I joined the gun control group she founded, Everytown for Gun Safety.  Sadly, the gun lobby has grown too radicalized in its ideology and too powerful through its political donations for reasoned debate and sensible measures to be considered in this country.

In 1996, Australia suffered its worst mass shooting, resulting in gun measures removing over one million guns from the populace.  We are, in fact, the only developed nation that has little to no gun control and have, by far, the worst levels of gun violence.

We suffer from vastly more gun violence here than any other developed country in the world, as this chart depicts.  Interestingly, in all but one of the countries named most of the deaths are self-inflicted. We have more homicides alone than virtually all the countries shown.

Nicholas Kristof, a conservative writer, wrote today about the need for sensible gun control measures.  We need a license to drive or even to marry.  We may own our homes, but they are rightfully subject to safety laws.

The NRA quotes from the Second Amendment as scripture in promoting its radical agenda of an unrestricted right to guns.  They gloss over, however, the language within the amendment that justifies, and should limit, the rights they espouse.  It begins, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State….”

One could debate the relevance today of the amendment itself, since militia have passed into obscurity, now that we – unlike then – have a standing army.  What part of “well regulated”, however, prohibits reasonable gun safety laws?  Perhaps it is too inflammatory to say that legislators that take donations from the gun lobby have blood on their hands.  Surely though, there is a reasonable middle ground.

I accept that there is a place for guns in our society.  Assault weapons and Saturday night specials, however, simply don’t belong.  If you live in many rural areas or if you hunt, having a rifle or shotgun makes plenty of sense.  In a city, I’d say you are better off with a can of bear spray, which requires little to no effort to aim and is apt to disable more quickly than a bullet in most cases.  One shocking statistic reports that half of all firearms here are owned by just three percent of Americans.

I understand the attraction many have for a well made weapon and the sense of security that it can foster, however false that may be.  If we could only talk rationally though, thousands of innocent lives could be saved.  Let’s hope that all has not yet been said in this arena.

 

 

 

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History Lesson

Sixty years ago today US Airborne troops escorted nine black students into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, marking the beginning of public school integration in the South and in much of the rest of the nation.  I have visited Central High, which is now a National Historic Site, and was struck by the reflections of hate depicted in the museum there – something I believed was foreign to us now.

Instead, I find that we are living in a time in which our President defends white supremacists and decries demonstrations that highlight the inequalities in our society still today.  Students of all races can now attend public schools, but the quality of education has eroded in many places to the point that, despite dedicated teachers, more time and effort is spent on discipline than education.

Even more, it is economic opportunity that has eroded most in the time since Little Rock.  Wealth has become increasingly concentrated in white elite households at the expense of minorities and even many of the poor working class whites that elected their President.  The fact that this man rose to one of the economic elite beginning with a housing business that he was given by his father and that discriminated against minorities, simply magnifies the sorry irony that comes in looking back sixty years today.  In the words of Ronald Reagan, “Are we better off today…?”

And so, with the effects of natural devastation still fresh in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico, we instead are focused on whether the act of kneeling during the National Anthem should be banned.  It was telling that the act or one man, Colin Kapernick, an excellent quarterback who is now unemployable in the NFL, has become a statement adopted by scores of players to refute the President’s tirades against free speech.

The flag naturally reflects, for some, a symbol of their way of life.  The reality, sadly, is that opportunity is not within the reach of many.  Nothing could be more American than for those left out to voice their dissent.  The fact that they have chosen to do so by silently kneeling could not be more humble, respectful or appropriate as a personal statement.  We have religious groups that do not salute the flag or sing the anthem.  Such is their right and, as Americans, we should honor that freedom, not condemn it.

I have heard some say that a protest during the National Anthem is the wrong time to speak out.  I might agree if the form of protest interrupted the act, but taking one knee is anything but disruptive, except to the consciences of those of us that might need to be more aware.  The anthem verse we sing after all, ends with the words, “The land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

It saddens me that some attempt to co-opt the flag into a divisive symbol.  I sometime hear them sing the words to the song written by Lee Greenwood after the Russians shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”  We should all celebrate that freedom.  Through sitting at the front of the bus or at the lunch counter, one black woman and a handful of black youth spoke volumes and changed our land. Jesus wrote silently in the sand, when asked to condemn an adulteress.  Tradition says that he wrote the sins of the hypocrites standing there, but the message in his silence survives to this day.

When all is said, a quiet act can speak volumes.

 

 

 

 

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How Fragile We Are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are…

Sting

 

Perhaps the only way any one person can carry on, in the face of all that nature and life presents, is to live in denial of how fragile life really can be and often is.  Sadly for now at least, Houston is a poignant and painful reminder of how small and puny we are.

I have spent enough time at sea and along its shore to know how small one person can be in what a “mere” gale or storm may present.  Hurricane Harvey’s deluge of rain stands as orders of magnitude more massive than anything ever recorded anywhere in this country and all too comparable to an entire monsoon season in all of India.

Large areas have received over 40 inches of water from the storm and as much as 10 more inches is expected.  Weather forecasters had to add new colors to their rainfall maps to illustrate these rainfall amounts.  Seattle, which is one of the rainiest areas in the country, receives around 40 inches in an entire year.  Hurricane Katrina dropped about 10 inches of rain, by way of comparison, though its greatest damage came from its storm surge.

By some measures 9 to 11 trillion gallons of water have fallen thus far in Houston and more is sadly to come.  It is hard to fathom (sorry for the pun) how much that of a deluge that really is.  It would take 15 days for all of the people in this country to use that much water.  By another measure, that measure amounts to all the water evaporated across the entire world in a single day.  For more comparisons, see The Week, and the Washington Post.

Flood insurers count in terms of 100 year measures.  Climatologists talk about 500 and 1000 year events.  Sixty inches of rain is considered a once in a million year risk.  None have meaningful comparisons for Harvey, whose name is perhaps most associated with an “imaginary” rabbit in an underrated film staring Jimmy Stewart.  This flood is unprecedented, and perhaps Biblical.  Sadly, there are news reports today that a protective levee in the region has broken, threatening even more destruction.

There are hints and a few records of floods in history.  The one given Noah’s name could have been the breach of the Straits of Gibraltar or the demise of early Minoan civilization by way of earthquake and tsunami.  The 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston now sadly pales in comparison with the flooding from Harvey.

It is impossible to say whether climate change contributed to this natural disaster.  The unusually warm waters of the Gulf certainly contributed to the rainfall by allowing the air to hold more moisture.  Gulf water temperatures have regularly been this warm in recent years, just as sea ice in the Arctic has all but disappeared in the same months.

What we do know is that the lives and livelihoods of all too many have been devastated and it will take years for them to recover.  You can blame God, global warming or whatever you wish, but there are people now who need our help.

Social media is flooded with questions about a Houston mega-church that has refused to open its doors to those flooded from their homes.  At the same time, the “Cajun Navy” of Houston’s local boaters has reached out like the private and merchant mariners of Dunkirk.  Luke recorded a meaningful question for today and every day, “Who do you think was a neighbor?”

It was on this day in 2005 that Katrina made landfall.  I was returning home on a cross-country flight that day and our plane was diverted by the storm.  A few days later I flew on a relief flight to Baton Rouge to help residents there deal with FEMA.  I was amazed at the resilience of the people I met and stunned at their gratitude for the little I could do.  We must all do what we can now.

Follow up Friday, September 8, 2017:

On this day, actually this night, in 1900 the city of Galveston was destroyed by an unnamed hurricane, and today hurricane Irma is leaving a trail of its own destruction through the Caribbean with an eye toward Florida.  Winds as high as 150 MPH and rains of 12 to18 inches are expected.

Much of Houston is still underwater from hurricane Harvey and one report says that the total rainfall for the area was as much as 27 trillion gallons.  That is enough water to serve the city of New York for 50 years. The death toll there stands at 35.  Irma is likely to be vastly more deadly, as entire islands are reported to have been overrun by its storm surge.

 

 

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Elvis Lives?

Forty years ago today, Elvis Presley died while sitting on the toilet in his Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee.  Or so the story goes.  Elvis would, or might, be 82 today.

I am old enough to have listened to Elvis in my formative years and to appreciate his larger than life story of a poor Mississippi boy who wandered into Sam Phillips little recording studio to make a record for his mother, only to become the King of Rock and Roll.  The first time I went to Graceland, I passed by his grave and saw a big-haired – and also big – woman on the ground next to the flowery grave crying real tears.  Just for fun, my wife and I renewed our vows at the chapel there a year ago.

I remember hearing the news of his death as I turned into my driveway that August morning in 1977.  I found it hard to believe, and it seems that more than a few continue to doubt his death.  You can find a chronicle of the conspiracy theories around his death here.  There are almost as many Elvis conspiracy sites on the Internet as there are cat videos.  I even have somewhere – please don’t judge – a copy of a National Enquirer with the headline, “Elvis Abducted by Aliens.”  Who could resist?

There are more than a few movies claiming that Elvis’ death was faked.  Elvis is Alive is one.  The Identical claims that is stillborn brother actually lived and took over Elvis’ identity after his death.  You can access descriptions of other bizarre films at the same link.  One example is Bubba Ho-Tep, in which Elvis and John F. Kennedy are said to be kept in a nursing home, where they find an Egyptian god who rises from the swamp nearby.  Actually, it is worth seeing.

Far and away my favorite is Finding Graceland, starring Harvey Kietel, who goes about being, or believing, he is Elvis, while helping the downtrodden that he comes across.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it is poignant.  But then there are so many tales of Elvis that still touch hearts today.

I suppose we still miss you Elvis, wherever you are.

 

 

 

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A Look Back and Perhaps Forward

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Attributed to Mark Twain

 

On this day, August 8, in 1974, Richard Nixon became the first and, so far, only U.S. President to resign from office.  It was a tragic moment for the nation, regardless of one’s politics, age or persuasion.

It had been a long two years since the Watergate burglary of June 11, 1972.  The Senate had begun an investigation in February of 1973.  Following the resignation of his Attorney General at the end of April, Nixon was forced to allow the new A.G., Elliot Richardson, to name a Special Prosecutor.  In October, he fired Richardson and the Deputy A.G. for refusing to fire Cox.  Robert Bork, the third in line at the Department, did fire Cox.  Interestingly, Bork was later nominated by the next Republican President, Ronald Reagan, for the Supreme Court, but was rejected due to controversial positions he had taken in certain publications.

Historians, with the advantage of hindsight, tell us that the firing of Cox made Nixon’s departure inevitable.  It’s hard to say whether that was true, but, having lived through those times, there seemed to be a public consensus that Nixon’s action was beyond any standard of justice, propriety or decency.  This sense was reinforced in April of 1974, when the Supreme Court forced Nixon to release the transcripts of Oval Office conversations.  Apart from the legally damning portions, the ranting and abusive language used by Nixon troubled even his remaining supporters.

This period reminded me of a time I have written about earlier, when the tide of public opinion turned against Joseph McCarthy and his campaign of accusations meant to tear down others for his own benefit.

American was deeply divided in 1974 over many things that were centered over racial and generational divides, relating to everything from the Vietnam war to racial equality.  We are also divided today in an almost tribal conflict between polarized political identities.  We now have a President who boasts of sexual groping and has claimed he could get away with murder.  He seems to measure loyalty by the extent one believes his obvious lies.  Once again we have a prosecutor that the President has threatened to fire.  In fact, this President has even mulled publicly about pardoning himself.

History may or may not repeat itself, but Nixon’s case offers two valuable insights.  First, it took a terribly long time for justice to prevail and for Nixon to leave office, facing certain impeachment and conviction in a Senate that could no longer support him.  Second, public opinion, long tolerant of his conduct, did ultimately turn against him.

We are living in a time remarkably similar to those days.  None of us knows what will happen when all is said and done.  It is wise though to stop and think about the past, because the perspective may be something of a guide today.  As for me, I think of Welch’s words to McCarthy, “Have you no decency?”

 

 

 

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A Thought Experiment

A thought experiment is a way to test an answer to a question too big or small for science to verify.  Einstein’s speed of light train and Shroedinger’s cat are two examples from science, though you will find others in philosophy and mathematics.  It is, in a sense, a way for man to play God.

In that context, a theological thought experiment came to my mind recently.  It bears a relationship with the fifth proof of God’s existence by Saint Thomas Aquinus (his argument by design ), but with a different purpose.

Instead of proving that there is a God, let’s begin by simply assuming that he, she or whatever does exist and was responsible for the Creation.  Stay with me if you don’t believe in God, because my little experiment may have still something meaningful to say.

Let’s assume as well that what one creates says something about the creator.  That should be a simpler premise to accept.  The posts in this blog, for example, would probably lead you to conclude that I’ve been around a while, try to view issues with a bit of perspective, am not that conservative – at least in today’s context –  and want to share my thoughts while remaining relatively private.

Aquinus drew certain conclusions about the nature of God: that he is perfect, infinite and unchanging, but I wonder if the universe and world we live in offer more subtle insights to consider.

Given the size of the universe, God must have a vast imagination and power.  God must also value simplicity and consistency, if you consider the mathematical precision of the laws of nature that we continue to discover.  At the same time, the fact that God chose to allow events to unfold and creatures to evolve seems to say that he is both curious and satisfied not to intervene in creation in at least most respects.

I think God must have a sense of wonder and a joy in beauty, because the majesty of a sunset and the beauty of a bluebird cannot be things that we alone appreciate.  He must also have a playfulness and sense of joy, because so many of his animal creations display those emotions.  If we reflect something of God, he must also grieve as we, and even many animals, do.

There is another side to creation, evil in its natural and human forms, that we struggle to understand.  Where that fits and how it relates to God forms the unsolvable problem of evil that we live with and see the results of daily.  If nothing else, it tells us that God is ultimately incomprehensible for mere humans.

God must also have in mind an end to his creation.  The arrow of time exists for a reason, and the the fact that disorder in the universe or entropy always increases means that, at some point in the long away future, creation will reach an end.

As a sailor, I often look at the sea and wonder.  It is, in its own way, alive – constantly in motion and beyond our ability to tame.  It gives life, provides livelihoods and can take both away without warning.  Still, it draws many to it for reasons too deep to grasp.  Almost like we, or at least many, are with God.

Is there a God?  When all is said, we only answer for ourselves.  Still, creation may say much about him.

 

 

 

 

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A Hero By Any Standard

“I’ve been through worse.”

John McCain

 

As we all know by now, Arizona Senator John McCain was diagnosed this week with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.  Ironically, this is the same disease that felled to last person known as the “Lion of the Senate,” Ted Kennedy.

I stopped after hearing the news to reread McCain’s account of his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.  His courage and integrity through life threatening injuries and torture seems something from another time, and indeed it was.  He almost broke down at one point, but held on through five years of abuse and torture.

As the son of the Admiral over the Pacific Fleet, McCain could have avoided combat like another who ran for and was elected President.  The North Vietnamese offered to release him because of his father’s position, but he refused to leave because there were others who had been held longer.

He still walks with a limp as a result of his injuries, but he held no malice against the nation that held him.  In fact, McCain was instrumental in the normalization of relations between our countries.

Our current president insulted McCain in 2015, saying, “He is no hero…I prefer people who weren’t captured.”  McCain did not respond publicly, to his credit and as seems his style.  I have read that some of his Senate colleagues aren’t fond of McCain because he speaks his mind and heart to anyone, which can be harsh and impolitic.  Unlike our present president though, he makes sure he knows what he is talking about.

I wrote a previous post about another hero of a different type and persuasion, John Lewis.  What they both seem to share is an uncanny ability to turn the other cheek and to rise above the hatred they have every right to feel.  That kind of humility in leadership was once more common.

Post Script:  John McCain returned to the Senate bearing a scar from his recent surgery in time for its health care debate.  He voted in favor of proceeding with debate, but ultimately voted against the final measure apparently because he did not agree with some of the terms and did not trust the assurances given him that the Senate would be able to vote again once the House had acted.  It seems perhaps that he believed there is room for integrity, even in sausage-making.

 

 

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The Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

 

Declaration of Independence

 

Thomas Jefferson adapted his famous list of rights from the works of John Locke, a philosopher of the era.  He substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for Locke’s more conservative “property.  His phrase survived to become part of what defines us as Americans.

The funny thing is that we all pursue happiness, but most of us don’t know what it is.  Some pursue fame as their form of happiness.  Others think of it as wealth, which Jefferson certainly did not intend.

For the moment, let’s go with that definition.  If so, how much money does it take to be happy?  The answer, if you believe the experts, is not “more.”  The pollsters have studied Americans of all stations and have concluded that any amount over $75,000 a year does nothing to increase the markers of happiness for most Americans.  Indeed, more money often leads to more worries and no greater satisfaction with life.

I often mention this study to my students, and I find their reactions telling.  Many show signs of disbelief, and I make a mental note that they may be pursuing something other than happiness in their law careers.  Some though find the study intriguing.  They, I believe, are more likely to enjoy the practice of law for itself, and thus find satisfaction in life.

I can’t find the source now, but someone once studied high school athletes to determine which were the happiest.  You would think that football stars, with all their popularity and praise, would be the clear winners.  That, however, turned out to be wrong.  The happiest athletes turned out to be soccer players, who participated for the joy of the sport and the camaraderie that the team bred.

The gold standard for defining happiness seems to be the 75 year and still running “Harvard Study of Adult Development.”  You can listen to its director’s TED talk here.  Over the term of the study, researchers regularly assessed the mental and physical wellbeing of thousands of Harvard graduates and a corresponding number of poor Bostonian youth.  The one defining marker of happiness, and even physical health, was satisfaction with one’s relationships.  The richer one was in this one area, the happier he was with his life.  (The study began with young men, but has expanded to encompass women as well).

All that begs the question, “How happy are you?”

And as a postscript:  Todd Lombardo has written a thoughtful piece, entitled, “You Don’t Have to be Famous to be Great.”  It is well worth your reading.

 

 

 

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Why Do We Vote Against Our Own Interests?

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Winston S. Churchill

Why do poor voters side with politicians who pledge to cut welfare?  Why do middle class voters support those who promise to cut taxes on the rich?  Why do many wealthy voters choose candidates that promise to raise their taxes?  Is voting even a rational choice?

These are not new questions, but I have been pondering them afresh, in light of the current healthcare debate in which those that voted for Republican candidates have enabled those in power to take away Medicare and other funds in order to cut taxes for the rich.  While some of these voters are showing buyer’s remorse, many still support legislation that will directly hurt their interests.

Certainly there are many issues to prioritize in selecting a candidate, and no single representative can align fully with any one voter, much less all those who select him or her.  Some voters go so far as to ignore a candidate’s extreme position on an issue, believing that the government would never actually go through with something so radical.  In a polarized electorate like ours today, that becomes a dangerous gamble, as we can now see.

Some who have studied this paradox suggest that emotions sway many voters, rather than reason. Anger is often cited as one factor.  Many feel left behind by government, the economy and society as a whole. As a result, they lash out against the system and side with candidates that present the same rhetoric.  They are much like those that game theory describes who prefer that no one get anything, rather than have to share.  In a world in which a voter’s economic well-being has been declining for decades, this attitude may not be as irrational as it seems.

Fear is a related explanation.  Regulations and taxes that affect employers prompt fear that jobs will disappear, and so voters judgment is tainted by a simplified view of self-interest.

In a complex world, simple stories often sway voters, even if the stories are patently untrue.  The unfortunately perfect example of the regularly repeated “nasty woman” description of Hillary Clinton is as good, or bad, an example as one could find.

Values seem often to sway voters more than self-interest.  Many times, extreme values take on undue weight.  Guns, abortion, immigration, and bathrooms come immediately to mind.  The unique American value of self-determination prompts many to reject candidates that offer government lifelines for those in need.

One interesting observation I have read is that people select candidates based on their self-image, and not their true interests.  They see themselves as the members of a common group or “tribe,” and vote accordingly.  Few are willing to identify themselves as middle class, much less poor.  They would rather believe they are part of a group that reflects their goals or ideals, even if the group fails to help them get there.

I happen to be a (somewhat) old, white man, whose demographic would put me firmly among traditional Republicans and within the disaffected group who found Trump’s rhetoric appealing.  The first category doesn’t really describe my politics, and the latter could not be further from my views.  You could say that I too do not vote in favor of my personal interests.  The truth, in my case and perhaps for a great many, is that we are all too complex to put in boxes.  When all is said,  we can’t say enough to predict other’s views.

 

 

 

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The Last Word

After all is said and done, more is said than done.

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