Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Major League Escort Service

Ya know;  at first, it sounds pretty cool.

A Major League baseball player getting a police escort to arrive at his game on time.

Who wouldn't like a police escort when your plans are changed at the last minute, and you have to be someplace really important, really, really soon?

Yesterday afternoon, that's the predicament in which Texas Rangers rookie Joey Gallo suddenly found himself.  He was trying to make it up from suburban Austin along a traffic-choked I-35 to the Rangers' ballpark here in Arlington, smack-dab between Fort Worth and Dallas.  And it was rush hour, which here in North Texas starts at approximately 3:30 in the afternoon, and ends around 7pm.

In the best of circumstances, it's a three-hour drive between Austin and here - four with moderately-bad traffic.  Reaching the Fort Worth area during rush hour?  Well, just make sure you have plenty of gas.

If you're an important employee at one of the biggest companies here in the Lone Star State, you might get a chauffeur-driven SUV, but you're still not going to get a police escort.  However... if you're an employee of a popular company in town... then it seems the cops are all too willing to help you out.

Gallo admits that he was speeding fairly recklessly on his way up from Round Rock, near Austin, and hauling through the exurban town of Alvarado, on the southern fringes of Fort Worth's sprawl.  That's where the police met up with him, but not to give him a ticket for driving dangerously.  He had played in Colorado the night before for the Rangers' minor league team, and had gotten back late to their hometown of Round Rock.  He was asleep at 1:30 yesterday afternoon when he got the call - literally - up to the major leagues, which meant he had to be in Arlington for last night's game, which was scheduled to start a little after 7pm.

Why the Rangers waited so long in the day to call him up is their business.  I don't understand the mechanics of baseball, which is as much of a business as anything these days.  But if Gallo was so important to the team last night, why didn't they put him on a plane?

It's not like either Gallo, with a Major League contract, or the Rangers are hurting for money.  Southwest Airlines has three daily non-stops between 3:10 and 5:00 in the afternoon, costing $231.  And Southwest doesn't charge baggage fees!

I realize that police escorts are fairly standard practice for signature sporting events, and bus caravans for prominent teams.  I've seen police escorts on our freeways for the fleet of Dallas Cowboys buses on gamedays here in Arlington.  When we've had big-ticket college events, I've seen tour buses for those teams being escorted by a squadron of motorcycle cops.  But those are rent-a-cops, off-duty officers, hired in advance so on-duty cops don't have to give the appearance of favoritism.  And it's for the entire team, not just one player.

Perhaps it's being generous to allow that the Rangers figured getting Gallo a police escort was a better use of public dollars than Gallo wrecking out at a high speed, and tying up first responder dollars all afternoon.  But how many heart surgeons rushing to the hospital for a critical surgery, for example, get a police escort?  For 40 miles?  That's approximately the distance Gallo was escorted.  According to Google Maps, the trip should take 42 minutes in normal traffic.

As it was, a pop-up thunderstorm delayed the game's start by about an hour.  And Gallo hit a spectacular fifth-inning home run clocked at 110 mph.  So things worked out just fine for him.  However, despite Gallo's homer, the Rangers ended up losing the game.

When it comes to reinforcing the perception that our society's elites just get more special privileges than the rest of us, however, the Rangers lost just a little bit more.

Update August 9, 2016:  The top law enforcement agency in the state of Texas has deemed Gallo's escort as "not appropriate" and the matter will be "addressed internally."

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Brooklyn's Finntown has Officially Died

Back in the 1970's, my aunt enrolled in a Brooklyn driving school.

A New York City native, and living fairly close to a subway stop, she technically didn't need to drive, but being an independent woman, she figured having a drivers license provides a measure of independence.

Half-way through her first drive with an instructor, she was so exasperated by the experience, she pulled the car over, in the middle of Brooklyn traffic, put it in park, got out, and stalked home - on foot.

I'm sure the instructor was as relieved about my aunt's decision as she was.

Helena Laitinen, in 1986
My aunt, Helena, passed away yesterday at a memory care facility in Florida, never having gotten a driver's license.

My aunt never married, never had children, never earned a lot of money, and never was what I would call "happy."  Contentedness proved elusive for her.  Yet she had many friends, could be extremely generous, and was loyal to the point of obsession.

A century ago, her childhood neighborhood in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, was America's center of Finnish culture.  It was called Finntown, but the number of Finns in Sunset Park was never more than 10,000, which isn't large by New York City's ethnic standards.  New York's Finns tended to be clannish, living within several blocks of the picturesque city park with stunning views of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan. 

There were at least three Finnish churches; Lutheran, Congregational, and Pentecostal.  They had a large social hall called Imatra, built in 1908; a rambling, rickety wood structure notable for being the first public building in the neighborhood with its own electricity, provided by an on-site generator.  At first Imatra did not allow liquor, but by the time I visited it in the late 80's, about the only thing people frequented in it was its bar.  Yeah, Finns are known for their prodigious consumption of alcohol, and they had several bars in the neighborhood.  And a newspaper, New Yorkin Uutiset, for which Helena's father often wrote short stories.  In Finnish, of course.

My grandfather was one of those Finns who loved his liquor.  In fact, he was one of Finntown's biggest boozers, squandering on alcohol whatever money he and my grandmother, a cleaning lady, earned.  Family life for Helena and my father was utter misery.  The horror of having that kind of person as a father and male figurehead in her family deeply scarred my aunt against the male gender, and I heard her comment frequently about how much she generally disdained men.  That's one reason why she never married.  She was going to prove with her life that she could be happy without a husband.

And she found some solace in hard work, for which even that purportedly egalitarian bastion of capitalism, cosmopolitan Manhattan, was supposed to reward employees regardless of gender.  Yet Helena constantly fought the economic stigma of being the clerk, the secretary, the editor, the legal assistant.  Even when she worked for a powerful female attorney at a prestigious Midtown law firm, just off Park Avenue, both the female attorney and my aunt would commiserate about how both of them didn't receive the same pay for their efforts as men in the same positions.  And Helena's boss would know - her husband was also an attorney, and she knew how much more he earned than she did.

(At least Helena's boss and her husband could mourn how much less female attorneys earn in Manhattan while enjoying their sprawling Central Park West apartment, Pennsylvania country house, and live-in nanny.)

Despite being good at the jobs she held over the years, however much she was paid, Helena's main identity came from her native Finntown, even while the neighborhood changed completely during her lifetime.  As white flight surged through New York after World War II, Helena and her mother, my grandmother, remained committed to Finntown.  When they pooled their money to purchase a better home than what they'd endured during the worst of my grandfather's inebriation, they didn't move out to the suburbs like their Finnish friends were doing.  No, they moved to a bigger apartment one block up the street - the same street on which Helena ended up living about 98% of her 88 years.

My grandfather died before my parents ever met.  An apparent heart attack killed him in the foyer of their new apartment.  My grandmother got home from work first, then Helena.  Then my Dad, who said he literally had to step over his father's corpse to get inside the apartment and close the door.  For quite a while, the three of them stood, silent, looking at the lifeless body of one of Finntown's most incorrigible boozers.  They were relieved, mostly.  Finally, my Dad said aloud, "I guess we need to call somebody to take him away?"

For my aunt, my grandfather's death provided a sort of freedom, but she couldn't escape the shadows and demons with which he'd tortured his family in that neighborhood.  Some people would flee the place where so much pain had been inflicted upon them.  But not Helena.  As much as she loved Finntown culturally, I think the main reason she stayed was so she could somehow try to redeem her awful childhood as the tall, angst-ridden daughter of a hardened alcoholic.

A few years later, my parents got married and set up housekeeping in a much better Brooklyn neighborhood until I was born. Then Dad was transferred Upstate, and we left the city. Mom and Dad spent years trying to cajole Helena and my grandmother to at least move to a better neighborhood, especially since the thought of suburbia made them blanch. 

Mom came to believe that my grandmother was willing to move, but she didn't want to leave Helena.  And Helena was adamant about staying, even as the neighborhood was disintegrating before their very eyes.  Crime became rampant, buildings became vacant, hoodlums moved in, stores on the avenues closed.  Vandalism exploded, and graffiti was everywhere.  The streets were dangerous, even in broad daylight.

One of Helena's single girlfriends moved to Virginia and raved about how beautiful and safe it was.  "Come to Virginia," her friend nagged Helena.  Others were nagging from New Jersey, Long Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Florida.  Even Staten Island.  But no, Helena and my grandmother would insist:  All the Finns can't abandon Finntown.  Things would improve any day in Sunset Park.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse.

I remember one afternoon when we were visiting Helena and my grandmother, and other friends were also in their third-floor apartment, when suddenly, shots rang out down the block.  We all fell to the floor, except my elderly grandmother, who after years of scrubbing floors on her hands and knees, could no longer get down on her hands and knees.  The gunshots kept coming, and police car sirens screamed and whooped.  Before long, the entire block was full of cop cars, people shouting; pandemonium.  My grandmother sat in her chair, looking at all of us on the floor, listening to the shoot-out outside, her face in her hands, laughing with embarrassment at the absurdity of it all.

Then the church which Helena had faithfully attended since she was born closed. Its pastor and his wife, dear friends of Helena and our family, moved to Florida to minister to the legions of Brooklyn Finns who'd resettled down in the Lake Worth, West Palm Beach, and Boynton Beach area.  It seemed as if all of my family's friends were encouraging Helena and my grandmother to escape Sunset Park while they still could.  But they didn't.

One day, while at her job in Manhattan, my aunt received a call from the police back in Brooklyn.  Apparently a gunshot had gone through the living room window of their apartment, and would she come home to let the cops inside, so they could retrieve the bullet for their investigation?

I remember Helena found particular encouragement in the fact that, while the city was going to you-know-what-in-a-handbasket, the police still wanted to follow up on that one bullet.  See?  Things can't be all that bad, right?

Up the block, in Sunset Park itself, thugs literally bombed the Olympic-sized swimming pool, and the cash-starved city left it in shambles for years, unable to fix it.  Mass transit, upon which my aunt and grandmother relied almost exclusively, since Helena refused to get a drivers license, became ridiculously dangerous, dirty, and unreliable.  Yet they stayed put.

Things got so bad, when my grandmother had an aneurysm and fell backwards down a flight of stairs in their apartment building, it took Helena about half an hour, frantically scanning the yellow pages, to find an ambulance company willing to enter their neighborhood after dark, before the days of 9-1-1.

After my grandmother's death, we again tried to convince Helena to at least move to a better neighborhood in the city, if she didn't want to leave it entirely.  Yet she refused.  She had plenty of excuses:  Sunset Park was so crime-ridden, she couldn't get anything if she tried to sell her apartment.  If she left Finntown, who'd be left to carry on the Finnishness of the place?  Anyplace else, she'd have to learn to drive, and she didn't want to try that again.  Things had to get better; how much worse could they get? 

But it wasn't optimism that fueled her determination to say.  I believe it was an overwhelming urge to somehow redeem her awful childhood.

Thankfully, Helena was never mugged, raped, or even physically threatened.  Her apartment was never burglarized.  As one of the few white women left in the neighborhood, and an exceptionally tall one at that, I think Helena came to relish her distinguishing presence on the sidewalks, the bus, and at the subway station.  She came to represent resistance, and tenacity despite the neighborhood's stunning decline.  She had grit, she was strong, and she wasn't going to let a bunch of punks and welfare cheats drive her from her home.

And it certainly seemed like there were a lot of welfare cheats.  Young men sat on brownstone stoops all day long, ogling their personal luxury cars parked at the curb, obtained through no legal means.  When Helena went shopping at the only grocery store left in the neighborhood - a filthy den of rotting produce and past-sell-by-date staples - she was often the only customer not paying with food stamps.  Or purchasing copious amounts of beer and cigarettes.

She'd yell at the neighbors on her block who were doing and selling drugs.  She wasn't scared of the dealers; she was indignant towards them.  She'd scream out her third-floor windows at Latinos playing their salsa music too loudly.  She'd walk up to parents on the sidewalk whose kids were using foul language, and she'd angrily critique their lax parenting.  Sure, some of the newbies in the 'hood who grew accustomed to Helena's rants would curse her to her face, but it only fueled her defiance.

And plenty more people pretty much left her alone.

Indeed, except for some chatty neighbors in her apartment building, my aunt was soon very alone in her neighborhood.  She'd visit dear friends who'd moved elsewhere in Brooklyn, and she had her work in Manhattan, but on her block, she was the last holdout.  The last Finn.  A few elderly Finns remained scattered around the old Finntown, but the good old days when Finns didn't need to speak or write any English to flourish in the neighborhood were long gone.

As best as I know, today, there are approximately five - maybe eight - Finns left in Sunset Park and the original Finntown.  Down from 10,000 at their peak.  The handful who remain keep to themselves, and were never as involved in New York's Finnish cultural community as Helena was.  They live on 41st Street, between 7th and 8th avenues, across the street from a revitalized Sunset Park, and amidst a boom of Chinese immigrants that has driven housing prices through the roof.  Indeed, Helena enjoyed a bit of validation for her years of holding out, as the Chinese practically invaded the crumbling shell of her neighborhood, beginning in the 1990's.  Storefronts that had been empty for decades were re-opened.  Restaurants moved in.  Decrepit vacant buildings were torn down and shiny, modernistic, ugly new ones - tall ones! - were erected in their place. 

On Helena's block, the Chinese crammed into every house, even living in illegal basement apartments.  Helena would stand at her third-floor windows every morning, marveling at the swarms of Chinese who would emerge from every doorway and march towards the subway station.  That many people hadn't gone to work on her block in a generation.  She was pleased to see such industriousness, even though she knew that many of those poor souls were in Brooklyn illegally, having sold themselves to human traffickers who were literally holding each of them for tens of thousands of dollars in ransom.  Money Helena's new neighbors faced years of repaying, many working long hours in virtually sweatshop conditions.

When she began to develop dementia several years ago, my family finally convinced her to move to a retirement center in Florida.  She sold her 700-square-foot apartment for $300,000, a staggering sum for her, but still a pittance compared with similar apartments in far better neighborhoods in trendier parts of the city (and not quite half what similar apartments are selling for today, just a few years later).

Her death yesterday represents dementia's continued toll on my family, after my Dad's passing from Alzheimer's last fall.  Thinking back on all of the friendships both Dad and Helena maintained from their childhood days, growing up in Brooklyn, nearly all of those friends have died from some sort of memory-related illness as well.

One of the responsibilities Helena assumed for herself back in the old Finntown was being a nurse for older Finns who had remained, like her.  And in Florida, as her mind was taken from her, Helena was visited by younger friends who'd long ago moved from Finntown to Florida.  It wasn't the most ideal set-up; we'd asked Helena if she wanted to relocate closer to family in Michigan or Texas, but she chose Florida, because that's where most of her Finntown friends were now.

Throughout her entire life, Helena obsessed over her Finnish roots far more than the rest of us in her small family have.  But it wasn't just her Finnish roots that gave Helena her identity.  She seemed driven by a desire to re-craft for herself a life that could suffocate all of those painful childhood years as the daughter of a Finnish alcoholic.

Sunset Park's dismal decay during the worst years of New York City's urban blight couldn't shift Helena's focus.  The crime, the graffiti, the stolen, stripped cars junked on the avenues, the empty stores, the vandalized subway stations couldn't force her to abandon an intention I doubt she herself fully understood.  It was as if she'd already become hardened to the hardness of life in a ghetto.  She saw what was happening, but instead of making her flee, it made her more fierce in her resolve to fight.

Was it foolishness on her part?  Some would say it was.  Was it unrealistic?  Without knowing if Helena really knew why she refused to move away, it's hard to tell if she found any measure of peace by staying.  It certainly never looked to the rest of us like she did.

Of one thing we can be certain, however:  My aunt hated giving up.  Yes, she gave up on driving - car, instructor, and all.  But that was about it.

Yesterday evening, as her caregivers were putting her to bed, she stopped breathing, and one of them gently jostled her.  "Helena!"  She called out in alarm, "You've stopped breathing!"

Reportedly, Helena's eyes briefly opened, and she shot the caregiver one of her trademark cold, hard glares.  And then she closed her eyes, and softly took one final breath.

She always did like having the last word.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Doesn't Individual Agency Still Matter?

Have you heard about it yet?

It's the new non-fiction book by J.D. Vance about why poor white people seem disproportionately enamored by Donald Trump's candidacy for president.  Entitled Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, it's become an instant best-seller and a topic of conversation across several prominent conservative websites.

And while I haven't read the book, I'm struck by how it helps to represent the eagerness with which a certain segment of American conservatism is trying to figure out the hold somebody like Trump has secured across a vast stretch of of a mostly white, mostly less educated, mostly poorer cross-section of the electorate.

And it's not just the legions of faceless, nameless middle Americans who are gushing over Trump.  Evangelical blue-chips like Focus on the Family's James Dobson are eroding their credibility by championing the billionaire developer.  They're twisting Scripture and invoking platitudes about a religious Americanism that brazenly defy orthodox theology.  Churchgoers across the country are lapping it up, fretting amongst themselves about what is going to happen to our country if people don't overlook Trump's glaring flaws and vote for him anyway.  And people like me who are voting third party this year?  Many conservatives who've reluctantly decided for Trump say we're throwing away our vote, and saying we're part of the Hillary problem.

Actually, if Democrats weren't so busy fighting amongst themselves, they would see that all of this hand-wringing by Republicans actually spells deeper trouble for Hillary than whether or not the Russians helped expose the DNC's obstructionism towards Bernie Sanders.  These past eight years have not been kind to this country socially and economically.  More single women are raising families than ever before.  Wages for all but the One Percenters have been stagnant.  Even with a black man in the White House, racism seems worse now than when the Obamas first moved onto Pennsylvania Avenue.  The wars started by George Bush and his neo-cons have spiraled out of control and out across the Middle East like Whirling Dervishes.  Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - of all things - at the start of his presidency, Obama has instead presided over an incessant drumbeat of terrorism and bloodshed.

People are afraid.  Americans are watching their paychecks purchase less and less, and we're watching Europe being bombed by disgruntled Muslims.  Our government is currently fixated on existential topics such as men using the women's restroom, while voters want to see genuine progress on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy and national security.  It doesn't matter that Trump has no concrete plans for how he's going to strategically and effectively address the problems he clearly can identify.  Shucks, we all know what the problems are.  Yet both Trump and Hillary seem more preoccupied with name recognition than policy creation.

Which is where Vance, the author, chimes in.

One of the reasons Vance says he wrote his book is to provide a bit of a kick to the American electorate's rear end.  In one of the more provocative interviews he's given during his book's publicity tour, Vance is asked by's Rod Dreher if voters will even tolerate being told that many of their problems aren't the fault of their own government:

"We’re no longer a country that believes in human [individual]agency... To hear Trump or Clinton talk about the poor, one would draw the conclusion that they have no power to affect their own lives.  Things have been done to them, from bad trade deals to Chinese labor competition, and they need help.  And without that help, they’re doomed to lives of misery they didn’t choose."

In other words, our elections have turned into one big "look what you've done against me" and "what can you do for me?" parody of self-reliance that actually perpetuates the notion that, contrary to what many conservatives say they believe, the government holds the key to a better life.

So we get really afraid when we consider that people like Hillary could be at the helm of the entity that supposedly influences our lives the most.  And that fear makes people like Trump practically salvific in terms of his audacity to suggest that, first, America is a decrepit morass of dysfunction (which, as the world's largest economy, we're obviously not - yet, anyway); and second, that all it will take is one loud-mouth CEO to build walls and renegotiate contracts, diplomacy and civil rights be damned.

Of course, other countries have had leaders like that in the past, and what usually ends up happening is some sort of upheaval, when the ordinary people realize that their individual liberties have become diluted by the person they hoped would do the opposite.

When it comes to the concept of "individual agency," that scenario is what our elections are supposed to help us avoid.

(That's another reason I'm voting Third Party.)

Friday, July 22, 2016

A Prayer of Christ-Loving Voters

Dear Lord, our Creator, God

We come to You as Your children, living in this time and place in Your universe, right now, in the United States, facing yet another election season, with difficult choices to make. 

Perhaps many of Your faithful children have already been approaching Your throne of mercy to find grace to help our need for direction, solace, and encouragement.  If we are acting on what we believe, You have received many prayers such as this from us, as we realize that our only hope is in You.

Yet, considering the attitudes many of us take, at least in the public square, it doesn't seem like we're behaving like people who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with You.  And maybe that's because we're not coming to You with our concerns for our nation as You invite us to.  You tell us in Your Word that You delight to hear our pleas, because our prayers indicate our dependence upon You, and remind us that You alone can work for our good and Your glory.  We may be Your agents of change upon this planet, but the extent to which we can represent Your change is based on the degree to which we allow Your Holy Spirit to reveal Your truths to us, and produce Your desired fruit in each of our hearts and lives:

Love.  Joy.  Peace.  Patience.  Kindness.  Goodness.  Faithfulness.  Gentleness.  Self-control.

Perhaps it's because we're Americans, proud citizens of a nation with a history of self reliance and individualism, that we often forget to let You lead us.  We invoke Your name in our pledges and civic pageantry, but then we often seek to work out our own ways for our own ends, with Your truths as a metric of mortal morality instead of the very source of eternal life.  We believe what we want to believe, we listen to whomever we want to listen, we fear what mortals tell us to fear, and we enjoy what mortals tell us to enjoy.

We forget that prosperity is not guaranteed simply by hard work.  We forget that to whom much is given, much is required.  We don't love our neighbors nearly as much as we love ourselves.  And often, it doesn't seem as though we love You more than we love ourselves.

We confess that sin can seem relative to us.  We confess that Your holy standards aren't necessarily ours.  We confess that with the easy hype and rabid rhetoric which consumes our politics, it's simpler to trust in platitudes and promises made by those who want our vote, rather than Your promise that walking Your path of life isn't going to be easy.  The more we read Your Word, we learn of the many warnings You give those who would follow You; warnings of oppression by people who don't love You; warnings against being gullible towards people who say they love You, but don't; warnings about being seduced by the pleasures of this world that are only temporary.

Indeed, perhaps it's because we're Americans, and proud of our democratic heritage, we think we can vote our way out of problems, peril, poverty, or persecution.  Yet You tell us that affliction is part of the call for people who claim Your holy Son, Jesus Christ, as their Savior.  We tend to balk at things that make us uncomfortable, or may even kill us, yet Christ took sin itself on His shoulders for Your people.  He knew agony that we will never know, thanks entirely to Your mercy, and Your promise to never give Your people what we deserve because of our sins, failings, shortcomings, and hardened hearts.

We thank You for calling us to Yourself.  We thank you that You have given us the promise of eternal life in Heaven with You.  We thank You for the promise of Your Holy Spirit to be here with each of us, now, in real time, to give us comfort and guidance.  Thank You that when we avail ourselves of Your holy resources, You provide what we need, when we need it, and in the amount that we need.  Please help us to realize that what You provide might not match what we expect, and might not come when we expect it.  Nevertheless, please help us remember that Your grace does not expire, or run out.  Thank you that Your love for us will never end.

Yet here on this Earth that You have created, many other things will end.  Peace eventually ends, as do wars.  Wealth is seldom permanent.  Nations rise and fall.  Political parties come and go.  Companies are launched and go bankrupt.  Technology is invented and becomes obsolete.  Illnesses come and go.  You even tell us in Your Word that You alone enthrone kings, and You dethrone them.  So please remind us, again, Lord, that Your love for us will never end.  Spare us, O Lord, from despairing for things that have never been designed to last.  And strengthen us, O Lord, to be advocates for those things that will last forever.

Your name, O Lord, will last forever.  Your Love, O Lord, will last forever.  Your glory, O Lord, will last forever.  Even if we can't see it now, it exists as surely and as strong as it ever has.  Even more so than anything any political party or politician could ever hope to achieve for themselves, or for our country.

So help us to remain strong in You, dear Lord.  Help us not to waiver in temptation.  Help us not to become impatient.  Since we cannot possibly know what You have planned for our country, help us to remain confident in what we do know:  That You want us to remain faithful to You.

And as we are faithful to You, O holy Father, You will be to us ever more faithful, since although it is not in our nature to be faithful, yet faithfulness is part of Your character.  And You will deliver us in Your time.  You will be merciful to us.  May people around us see us hope in You, and be themselves convicted and transformed by Your Holy Spirit.  Despite the challenges facing us individually and as a nation, help us to be steadfast in You, and You alone, being salt and light, and doing the religion You describe as being pure and faultless:  Caring for the disenfranchised, and keeping ourselves from evil.

May this be so, dear Lord, even now, even this election season, and through whatever comes, through Your sovereign providence, we pray:

In the holy, righteous, everlasting name of Your resurrected Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ!


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Trumpless Cruz Got This One Right

Can you hear them?

The howls coming from Cleveland, Ohio, and the legions of Republican parrot-heads dithering over Ted Cruz's non-endorsement of Donald Trump at their convention last night.

It's pretty ugly when conservatives boo somebody encouraging them to "vote their conscience."

Hey, everybody else is caving in and mortgaging their integrity to support Trump, the most bizarre candidate the GOP has ever fronted for our presidency.  Why can't Cruz?  After all, in many respects, Cruz is Trump-light, especially when it comes to ego, hyperbole, and schoolyard dust-ups.

Why is he getting so holier-than-thou now, especially since even Indiana's venerable Mike Pence has agreed to butler Trump in the White House?

Well, my friends, if you don't believe the religious, Scriptural reasons for why people who vehemently disagree with Trump shouldn't feel compelled to vote for him anyway, consider this.  It's something your parents probably told you when you were a kid.  If you are a parent, it's probably something you've told your kids.  And it directly applies to politics.

"It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."


Even in politics, it isn't whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

How do Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump play the game?  And it really is a game to each of them, isn't it?  Granted, the American presidency involves a lot more than a kiddie league scrimmage, or even a major league rivalry.  Yet the principle still applies, doesn't it?  Especially since so much more is at stake?

Indeed, there's a bigger picture here than who will occupy the Oval Office during the next four years.  This election is bigger than political parties.  It's about whether integrity still matters.  It's about whether we're serious about putting somebody in the White House who doesn't see the presidency as a vanity play.

And as a voting American, you get to affirm your convictions.  Do you believe the person who, euphemistically speaking, would be the "leader of the free world," should be accountable to somebody other than themselves, or are you merely a lackey in their quest for power?

This election really isn't any more complicated than that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Milo Tweets May Absolve Cake Bakers

Before yesterday, I'd never heard of Leslie Jones, or Milo.

I'd heard a new Ghostbusters movie was out, but that's about it.

Well, Leslie Jones is an actress who stars in the new Ghostbusters.  And Milo is a right-wing, flaming gay writer for the ultra-conservative Breitbart website.  And for the record, since this will become pertinent shortly, Jones is black, and Milo is white.

And yes, you read that right about Milo's sexuality and politics:  His name is Milo Yiannopoulos, and he's a Roman Catholic, pearls-and-rhinestones-wearing, loud-and-proud homosexual activist who hates Islam, advocates against ultra-feminism, and embraces the Republican party.  And he's not just a Log Cabin Republican, with a button-down Oxford dress shirt over a rainbow tank top.  Milo flaunts his sexuality in virtually everything he does, and writes.

And yes, he writes passionately about his distinctly unique worldview.  It's a worldview not unlike Donald Trump's, to whom Milo refers saucily as "Daddy."  Blatantly narcissistic, entirely unconcerned with how he might offend others, and convinced (or trying to sound convinced) of his own innate legitimacy.

Consider just a brief portion of his now-infamous Ghostbusters review, which he brazenly entitled "Teenage Boys With T---."

"I went into Ghostbusters with a clear and impartial mindset, like some tall, slim, and devastatingly handsome statue of justice.  (But no blindfold. It would be a crime to cover up these eyes.)  Ugh, I don’t know what to tell you.  Ghostbusters is terrible.  It’s more obvious than the reading on an EKG-meter in Zuul’s bedroom... The beloved franchise from our childhood with a stake driven through its heart, head chopped off, body burned and buried at a crossroads... Ghostbusters, the film acting as standard bearer for the social justice left, is full of female characters that are simply stand-ins for men plus a black character worthy of a minstrel show..."

It gets raunchier, but you get the point.  Indeed, this is not your father's GOP fanboy.  Conventional liberals consider Milo a conundrum at best, and a turncoat at worst.  How could a guy who stereotypes say should be left-wing actually be so right-wing?  Talk about radical.

For her part, Jones is a comedienne who plays on NBC's Saturday Night Live, and has worked her way up through the entertainment industry moonlighting in occupations as various as a UPS driver, justice of the peace, and an interpreter, even though she only speaks one language.

And as a black woman earning a living as a comedienne, Jones has adopted a particularly stilted persona on the social media website Twitter, posting such bombastic tweets as the following:

She's posted more stuff like that, but you get the idea.

So anyway, you put two people like Milo and Jones on the same website, and let them duke it out with tweets, and you can imagine the stuff that gets posted online for all the world to see.

But then, a few days ago, Jones cried foul, and Milo's Twitter account got deactivated.  And many pundits within the liberal media industry are elated.  One more conservative voice silenced, and on the politically-correct Twitter to boot.

After all, Twitter is a for-profit company, not a public utility or a branch of the government.  It can set its own policies for how its customers use its product, and it can do what it wants with its customer's accounts.  Violate the user agreements on any social media platform, and the company owning that platform can revoke your privileges.

As popular and ubiquitous as many social media platforms have become, a lot of us forget virtually all of them are privately-owned and controlled.  And apparently, in this case, Twitter's user agreement states that it will not tolerate the "targeted abuse of individuals" on its platform.

For its part, as a proud provocateur even before Milo came along, Breitbart has wasted no time plastering its website with articles seething with rage at Twitter's treatment of its rising star, Milo, and complaints of censorship.  It's almost beside the point that Milo's tweets (which we can't see anymore, since his account has been deactivated) were directed at one person, Jones, whereas in many of the racist-sounding tweets chronicled by Breitbart, Jones rarely calls out any one individual for her brand of excoriating humor.

Shades of difference, perhaps, but it looks like there's enough of a difference for Twitter to feel justified in its banning of Milo, without a similar action against Jones.  And if that's how they want to parse their user agreement, I guess that's Twitter's call.  At least, unless Breitbart wants to sue.

Yet, doesn't the duplicity already seem obvious here?  Sure, there are laws against defamation of character, which include libel and slander.  But is what a movie reviewer considers a good review of a bad movie defamation?  And can what a professional comedienne considers humor be defamation?

That would be for a court to decide.  Meanwhile, it sure appears as though for all of its sanctimonious lip service to free speech, plurality, and progressivism, the arch defenders of political correctness are whittling away the First Amendment whenever what's said under the First Amendment doesn't suit their ideology.

Remember when so many Americans burned flags during raucous protests around the country?  Many conservatives wanted to ban flag-burning, considering the act a despicable lack of patriotism.  Yet isn't flag-burning actually a robust (albeit misguided) demonstration of the vitality of the First Amendment, upon which our patriotism is based?

Sure, a person who burns the flag is saying more about their personal lack of appreciation for the entirety of what our flag represents.  And it also underscores how little the demonstrator knows about how good they have it in this country... such as having the very right to desecrate one of America's basic symbols.

At this point, you may be wondering:  What does flag-burning have to do with Twitter's deactivation of Milo's account, which is reported to be permanent?  His account has been temporarily deactivated twice before, a history which is fueling the debate over Twitter's actions, which look like an egregious violation of free speech.  Legally, since it remains unclear if Milo's tweets are legally defamation of character, don't we have to give him the benefit of the doubt?

And if we don't, and we say that private enterprise can self-police the activities they deem appropriate with their product, do you see what that means?

If Twitter can censor Milo, why can't cake bakers respectfully decline business that doesn't honor their religion?  (Even if progressivism and its intolerant tolerance is becoming its own religion these days.)  What about photographers who say their faith prevents them from photographing a gay wedding?

"Hmmm...!"  Right?

I'm not sure what Milo believes about gay marriage, except some of the things he's written seem to indicate that he's not entirely convinced gay marriage is essential for homosexuals to feel like a legitimate part of American society.

Ironically for Milo, this third - and apparently final - account deactivation is the latest in a string of Twitter-involved conflict in his life.  Last year, at an event he was headlining in Washington DC, a bomb threat was tweeted in and the FBI evacuated the venue, only to find no bombs.

It doesn't appear as though Twitter deactivated the account of the bomb threat tweeter.  Instead, the account was deleted by its user hours after they'd tweeted their threat.

Queries for Christ-Loving Voters

[God] removes kings and establishes kings...  Daniel 2:21

By [God], kings reign...  Proverbs 8:15

The authorities that exist have been appointed by God.  Romans 13:1

Far be it from me to tell you how to vote.

As far as any of us knows, Americans still live in at least a semblance of a democracy, so we have the right to vote for whomever we like.  Yet this particular presidential election year, for almost all of us, the person for whom we'll vote has become perhaps the most contentious presidential decision of our lifetime.

How did we get to this point in our country?

How many die-hard Democrats and Republicans truly like and endorse their respective party's presidential candidate?

How many partisan voters are simply going along with their respective party's marching orders, convinced that at least their opposing candidate has to be the worst option?

And true, while there are some differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, how can anybody really argue that those differences aren't merely various shades of black?

How can America's voters of any party be able to identify what needs to change in our country, yet support either Hillary or Trump?

Why do we continue to let our mainstream media tell us that Hillary and Trump are our only two choices?

Why do we perpetuate the fallacy that following Christ is a society's mainstream thing to do anyway?

Why do liberals consider Hillary a Democrat, considering the types of people who have funded her family "charity" to the tune of billions of ill-gotten-dollars?

Why do evangelicals continue to insist that God is a Republican, considering the character of this year's Republican candidate?

Consider this poetic description of God's sovereign power over our affairs, from Psalm 18, written by King David:

I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.  I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies...

With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.  For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down... 

[God] trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.  You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great... 

You delivered me from strife with the people; you made me the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me.  As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me...

The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation - the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me, who delivered me from my enemies; yes, you exalted me above those who rose against me; you rescued me from the man of violence. 

According to this psalm, Who has the right to take vengeance?  Do we voters?  Does Trump, or Hillary, or any other politician?  Or does God?  Note that even King David credits God with avenging the wrongs done to the nation of Israel.  And what does God value?  Our submission to Him, mercy, purity, humility, gentleness... even in a time of war.

How much do you think the hedonistic mindset of conventional politics, nostalgic patriotism, and brittle ethnocentrism have warped the perspective with which we Christ-followers should be voting?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Elusive Proof in Pulse Shootings Serves Caution

Wow.  This is awkward.

According to the FBI, so far there is no solid evidence that the guy who shot up Orlando's Pulse nightclub was targeting gays.

Back in June, when Omar Mateen slaughtered 49 people in America's worst gun-related attack, all of us - you, me, the police, self-described former gay lovers of Mateen's, the FBI, and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch - presumed it was a hate crime against gays.

It seemed so obvious.  A Muslim guy shoots up a club catering to people whose sexuality is technically, in Islamic law, punishable by death.  His first wife says she suspected he had gay tendencies himself.  Pulse patrons insist he frequented the place.  The entire narrative constructed for the world via the media was one of hatred towards gays.

And to be sure, the FBI hasn't proven that Mateen didn't hate gays.  They simply haven't found any actual proof that he did.  And without proof, obviously, a motive is hard to prove.

After all, people saying they've slept with somebody isn't proof.  People saying they've seen somebody posting entries on gay dating apps isn't proof, either.  The FBI says they've checked out Mateen's personal technology devices and found no evidence of him scrubbing gay links off of them.  And of the websites and apps Mateen could have used to connect with other gay men, as in all social media, it's common for users to delete posts and accounts, so it doesn't mean much if Mateen did.

His first wife's suspicions?  That's not proof.  It wasn't part of their divorce paperwork, so if she didn't bring it up then, why bring it up now?

And the FBI can't find any survivors of Mateen's massacre who will testify that he was cursing gays and uttering hate speech against them as he shot Pulse's patrons.

Again, all this isn't to say that Mateen didn't intend for this to be a hate crime.  Shucks, maybe Mateen intended for it to be a hate crime against Muslims, since the narrative adopted by so many of us has become distinctly tilted against that religion and its lack of politically-correct tolerance or Christian compassion.

But what we do know is that we all rushed to a pretty big judgment that, over a month later, cannot be proven by any credible evidence.  We don't know why Mateen did what he did, except that he seemed to calculate that the more innocent people he killed, the more evil his notoriety would be.  And that was an accurate calculation on his part.

Still, don't you think that if he was planning such an atrocity, he'd want us to know why?

Or was he so off-the-wall berserk he didn't care?

Weird, huh?

Actually, it seems things that used to be weird to us are becoming less so.  As our nation continues to lurch from one crisis to another, and our society convulses with angst over racism, gay marriage, gun control, extremist politics, xenophobia, America's unprecedented marginalization of Christianity, and a host of other issues, it's easy for us to forget that what we think we see happening around is may not be what's actually happening.

We focus on narratives that seem the most plausible to us, but the things that seem the most plausible to us often are filtered through our own personal worldview lenses that have been crafted by our personality, ethnicity, intelligence, and emotions.

For example, blacks generally believe they are targets for police oppression, if not brutality.  Whites generally believe blacks are exaggerating the whole cop thing.  Meanwhile, there are over 300 years of tortured racial divisions here in America that have created two distinct worlds - black marginalization and white privilege - that we've only just begun to deconstruct as a country.

America's Civil War officially ended in 1865, but public education wasn't officially desegregated until 1954.  "Separate but equal" Jim Crow laws didn't end until 1965.  And racism is but one way we all - whether black, white, brown, blue, green, fuchsia, whatever - look at the reality we think we see without learning the facts.  We don't wait for investigations of cop shootings to be concluded.  We're often confused and frustrated by trials as they're argued in courts of law.

Part of the problem is that, regardless of our skin color, we're increasingly impatient and easily entertained - two characteristics of us humanoids that have been egregiously exploited by our rapacious media industry.

Most of us remember the song, "Dirty Laundry," released by Don Henley in 1982.  It's a song mocking the commoditization of the news by America's mainstream media.  The lyrics were as true then as they are today.  Here are just a few:

I make my living off the evening news (which has morphed into today's 24/7 social media cycle)
Just give me something-something I can use (for ratings or click-throughs to sell commercials or web advertising)...

We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blond (only attractive reporters still get on-air time, even in our supposedly egalitarian media industry)
She can tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye
It's interesting when people die (even though so many people get murdered these days, you'd think we'd be jaded to it all by now)

Can we film the operation (or the police chase, or the shooting, or the riot)?
Is the head dead yet?  (after all, the race to be first with the news means accuracy is expendable)
You know, the boys in the newsroom got a running bet (and the politicians have their spin already calculated)
Get the widow on the set!  (and milk it for all it's worth, because angst sells)

You don't really need to find out what's going on (soundbites and tweeted memes are all people want)
You don't really want to know just how far it's gone...
When it's said and done we haven't told you a thing (but you'll be convinced that we have).

In today's era of seemingly endless turmoil, both here at home in America and around the world, it's easy to let the media tell us how to view what is happening.  Facts often become shrouded by opinions and emotions.  Truth seems to be relative to the person processing its application to their own life, family, aspirations, and fears.  

Even the sources from which we each choose to access the news can themselves be choices we make based on our worldview - a worldview that may not be accurate.  We Americans consider ourselves fortunate to have so many sources for news and information, at least compared with people in more oppressed countries.  But we can't let our own biases be a substitute for objectivity, especially when we live in a country where there are so few penalties for inaccuracies in the news.

Yet there are penalties, of course, for interpreting the facts inaccurately.  Those penalties, however, are often subtle, and only become noticeable after a long time of accumulating, one biased report after another, one misguided conclusion after another, one exaggeration or one omission after another, like a dripping faucet.

As it is, today's news from the FBI that there seems to be no proof Omar Mateen was brutally homophobic will likely be glossed over by many of us.  Indeed, a gay activist in Orlando has already dismissed the notion that homophobia was not a primary factor in the Pulse tragedy, calling it "nonsense."  In her mind, and in the minds of many, if gays were killed, and a gun was used, that's enough to justify not only more hate laws, but more gun-control laws as well.

Doesn't it seem that sometimes, our knees are jerking so much, it's surprising we can ever walk in a straight line?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Spot On: Seeing Eyewear as Safety Gear

A freak thing.

After learning that stormy winds blew a panel of wood from a Manhattan construction site onto a passerby yesterday, I was reminded of my own similar brush with construction danger on Gotham's busy sidewalks.

Yesterday's victim, an older man, was hit in the head by the falling wood, and taken to the hospital in critical condition.  It could have happened to anybody walking by.  Just another unsettling reality of big city life.

There's an old joke that New York will be a great city - once it ever gets finished!  And sure enough, with construction sites a ubiquitous part of New York City's experience, most New Yorkers walk past work zones with barely a thought to them.  And considering the many ways pedestrians could become injured by all of the dangers of high-rise construction, whether it's a remodel or a brand-new project, perhaps the only surprise is that more passersby don't suffer a similar mishap as yesterday's.

Mine took place in the early 1990's, when I lived on East 28th Street, and was a regular commuter along the Lexington Avenue 4-5-6 line, which has a local stop at 28th Street and Park Avenue South (a far less prestigious stretch of that famous boulevard).  At the time, there was an old building on the northwest corner of the intersection that was being remodeled in some way, with scaffolding around parts of it, and one of those rickety pedestrian "tunnels" along the sidewalks.

It was a blustery morning, I recall, and I was approaching the subway entrance from the east, along with dozens of other people.  At the intersection, waiting for the light to change, I was looking up, enjoying the bright blue sky, and a small dot of water landed on one of the lenses of my glasses.

Living in New York, having droplets of water hit my glasses was a common occurrence for me, especially in the summers.  Air conditioners, from small window units sticking out of buildings, to those massive machines on skyscraper rooftops, regularly spit their condensation all over the place.  It's not that big of a deal, and frankly, the water created by those units would be far cleaner than what might be in your beverage glass at your neighborhood diner.

At least, I thought this was water.  I remember crossing the street to reach the subway station's Downtown platform, with the breeze whipping around; descending the dank stairwell to the underground platform, with the customary rush of wind coming up the stairwell as express trains blew through the station.  And as I stood waiting for my train, the dot of water was still on my glasses.

Odd, I thought.  With all of the air that's been blown over my glasses, this spot of water should have dried by now, and become invisible.  But I didn't take my glasses off to inspect them; Manhattan subway platforms during rush hour congestion aren't the best place to take off one's glasses and hold them up to the light.

So I rode down to my usual stop, got my toasted sesame bagel "with a schmear" (of cream cheese), walked down to my office building, and got to the 25th floor... and the dot was still on my glasses.

When I reached my desk, the first thing I did was take off my glasses, and wouldn't you know it?!  It wasn't a dot of water on my plastic lens after all.  It was a small hole!

Whatever liquid had landed on my glasses back up at 28th Street wasn't water, but some sort of corrosive chemical that burned a hole half-way through the plastic lens of my glasses!

My co-workers, most of them native New Yorkers, were only mildly interested in my discovery.  I, on the other hand, was a bit more excited.  "What if this whatever-it-was hit my naked eyeball?"

Fortunately, the optician's shop where I'd purchased the glasses was located a few blocks away in the Financial District, so I quickly called them up, and they told me to come on over.  An optician examined the lens with one of those magnifying glasses like jewelers use, and he held both my glasses and the magnifier over for me to take a look as well.  The hole had burned itself almost clear through the lens.

"If that residue that flew onto your glasses had actually landed in your eye, you'd be at the hospital right now, not this eyeglass store," I remember him marveling.  It took a couple of days for them to re-make my one lens, at a cost I don't recall.

Suffice it to say, ever since that morning in Manhattan, I've never once seriously regretted having to wear glasses.  Over the years, as surgeries and lasers have become more sophisticated, and the need for glasses to correct vision problems has been drastically reduced, I take a moment and think back to how that pair of spectacles may have saved me from severe optical damage.  From a freak speck of some unknown corrosive chemical that was being carried along by Gotham's fickle wind.

People have suggested that I should have gone to that construction site on the corner and asked them what they were using that could have become airborne and damaged my glasses.  But since I couldn't prove the chemical actually came from that construction site, meaning the contractors there would care even less about my story than my co-workers did, I figured it wouldn't be worth it.

So, what's my point?  Isn't it clear?  Although glasses can be inconvenient - and even annoying, now that I have to wear bifocals - I know they can be worth the bother.

Indeed, for me, "four-eyes" has a distinctly comforting ring to it.  After all, it's better than "three-eyes."  Or "one-eye."

Then again, maybe having to wear an eye patch would make me look more enigmatic and rugged...

I can hear myself now:  "I don't always visit New York City.  But when I do, I wear my glasses."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Be Partial to Impartiality


It's what Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn't have when it comes to Donald Trump.

It's what Donald Trump doesn't have when it comes to Islam.  Or Mexico.  Or Hispanics in general.

It's what a lot of America's media doesn't have when it comes to peaceable coexistence between racial groups.

According to Merriam - Webster, being impartial means not being biased.  It means "treating or affecting all equally."

Yet can a professional judge - let alone a sitting justice on none other than the United States Supreme Court - consider herself impartial if she tells the New York Times that it would be better to move to New Zealand than endure a Donald Trump presidency?  Clarifying* her comments to CNN, apparently so we'd know she wasn't merely having a "senior moment," the octogenarian called Trump a "faker."

Should The Donald win the White House, and act on even a fraction of his bizarre policy notions, much of what he does likely will end up in the courts, and the Supreme Court may become quite busy deciding cases directly influenced by him.  Ginsburg even hints at such a possibility in her remarks to the Times.  So is she willing to recuse herself from those cases?

Because as a judge, she's supposed to be impartial.  And obviously, she's not, and she's proud of it.  Otherwise, why would an otherwise savvy and experienced justice say such things to such prominent media outlets?  Granted, she's also said some pretty biased things regarding her enthusiastic support of abortion, which obfuscates any impartiality she's supposed to have on the highly contested practice.

Trump, for his part, is now calling for her to resign.  But although even the Times - relishing its role in this latest presidential controversy - is also chiding Ginsburg for her bluntness, it's not exactly illegal for a Supreme Court justice to grant interviews or share personal opinions in a public forum, whether they're about a presidential candidate or abortion legislation.  It's not wise for any judge to do, but there's nothing forcing Ginsburg to resign.  Nevertheless, if Trump wins (or if the presidential election itself is contested), and business comes before the court involving Trump, legal experts are saying she's almost certainly going to have to recuse herself every time, because she won't be able to feign impartiality.

Of course, Trump has built a wildly unconventional presidential campaign on mocking the concept of impartiality.  Everybody knows he's partial to all sorts of things, from beautiful women to, ultimately, himself.  He's proudly biased against Muslims, anybody south of America's border with Mexico, and just about anybody else who disagrees with him.

His flaunting of hyper-partiality has won him legions of fans who view his brazen narcissism as a welcome respite from political correctness.  Because, after all, political correctness is actually phantom impartiality, isn't it?  At least the way most of its practitioners exercise it.  How impartial can "tolerance" be, when politically correct tolerance is partial to only a certain tolerated viewpoint, to the exclusion of opposing views?

Yet impartiality - not political correctness - still matters in politics, doesn't it?  Especially when it comes to the White House.  While any politician is going to be particularly beholden to a political platform, of course, a president generally is nevertheless expected to present a certain air of impartiality as the principle representative of our diverse nation.

After all, impartiality is key when it comes to the law, which is why Ginsburg is in such hot water.  A president needs to be able to at least conjure the image of justice advocacy when it comes to rationalizing why their policies are good for the country as a whole.  Or why we need to support our cops after five Dallas officers get slaughtered at the end of a racially-motivated march.  Or why the disenfranchised in our society shouldn't be.  Or that our tax codes shouldn't be riddled with loopholes that favor certain taxpayers more than others.

And speaking of that march in Dallas last week that ended so horrifically, consider this:  To what extent is America's media culpable in fomenting an atmosphere of angst and frustration based on appearances, rather than impartial facts?  The media has long ago abandoned any pretense of being impartial, whether it's liberal outlets like the Times and the Washington Post, or conservative websites like Breitbart or the Washington Times.  Shouldn't being impartial mean that we don't rush to judgment based on a knee-jerk analysis of incomplete facts?  Yet in our instant social media world, most news organizations believe that being first with a story trumps impartial accuracy.

If racial profiling and police brutality are genuine problems, then don't they need to be addressed in a manner that brings justice to their perpetrators and for their victims?  How is justice being served when the media, fully exploiting their ability to post propaganda under the guise of breaking news, is never held accountable for its impartiality?

Of course, the question of impartiality in the media extends to issues beyond racism, but these days, racism is a reliable flashpoint that is guaranteed to generate hits for the biased click-bait news websites need to justify their advertising rates.  Indeed, it's a lot easier to trigger national convulsions of rage and sorrow with websites and smartphone apps than it is newspapers, or even the nightly news.

Meanwhile, to the fans of the Supreme Court's most publicly quirky, lace-loving judge, a stiff dose of partiality resonates as robustly as the partiality regularly dispensed by her least favorite presidential contender does to his.  And the media laps it all up.

And we wonder why bias continues to fracture America's supposed Union?

Update 7/14/16:  Justice Ginsburg has released a statement acknowledging that she regrets making such personal comments regarding a presidential contender.  But she did not apologize to Trump for them.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Our Problem is Racism, Not Race!

Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings got it wrong.

Like most prominent voices speaking out against the violence by and against police officers last week, Rawlings told a crowd at Dallas' largest black-centric church yesterday that "race is the big issue."

No, race is not the big issue.  Racism is the big issue.

Maybe that's what Rawlings meant to say, but that's not what he said.  Instead, he reiterated a false narrative that has been repeated by pastors, columnists, so-called social experts, and other public figures these past few days, in which ours is a white-black crisis.

Isn't that itself a form of racism?

Do we have a race problem, when the vast majority of white people and black people somehow manage to live and work in a closer proximity than we ever have before in the United States?  Do we have a race problem when interracial marriage has become relatively acceptable; even trendy in America's more cosmopolitan areas?  Few whites believed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were impaired by their race as Secretary of State under George W. Bush.  Dallas' police chief is a black man, and while several of the city's police unions have complained about his policies over the years, none of them seem to factor his race into their disagreements with him.

Nevertheless, America does have a problem with racism.  An interracial couple I know was asked to leave a large Baptist church in suburban Virginia because some racist deacons (who are white) were uncomfortable in their presence.  An acquaintance of mine here in Texas who is a Muslim from the Middle East once told me point-blank that he didn't like black people.  A black acquaintance of mine from Nigeria told me more than once that he couldn't stand American blacks - try to parse that one out by skin color!

I also understand that many blacks feel like they're some sort of underclass in their own country.  For example, even though I no longer live in New York City, I've written on this blog about my opposition to the NYPD's policy of "stop-and-frisk" that was officially based on skin color, and particularly biased against men.  It is blatantly unConstitutional to rationalize that even if black people may commit a majority of crimes, any black person walking down the street might be getting ready to commit a crime, or might have recently committed one.

When I lived in New York, there were at least two times I still vividly recall when I was mocked by young black people - one time it was men, the other time, women - on the subways for being white.  One time, as I rode in a private automobile full of black friends, being driven by a black woman, as we were going for dinner at Sylvia's in Harlem, we were refused service at several parking garages... until I guessed that the problem was my skin color, and I was in the front passenger seat, where parking garage attendants could clearly see me.  I got out of the car, my black female friend pulled into one of the same parking garages where we'd been denied, and she got a spot without any problems whatsoever.

Granted, that's not the same as being pulled over and having a cop stick his revolver in my face for no apparent reason, other than the color of my skin.  But it lends significant credence to the idea that it's not just white people who can be bigots.

So why can't we call the problem for what it is?  Race isn't the problem, but racism!

Meanwhile, let's recall those famous words of Martin Luther King Jr., who hoped for a day in which his kids would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  Amen!  Right?  That's what I want.  And I know I'm not the only one.

There are many Americans who want to live in peace and harmony, as corny as that sounds.  But we're not white, or black, or brown, or polka-dotted.  We're people who simply want to be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Way Forward After 5 Dallas Cops Die

Last night in Dallas was a powerful example of how one or two rogue players can grossly distort an entire situation to everyone's detriment - whether within police departments, or a civic march.

For however many rogue police officers may be out there, and for however many protesters at last night's march through downtown Dallas who reportedly chanted "f--- the police" and "the whole system is guilty as hell," and however many people admire madmen like last night's shooter, we cannot let the rhetoric of the misled poison the nobility of those with respect for authority.

Five police officers dead.  Seven more cops wounded.  Two civilians shot.  One gunman - who admitted wanting to kill white people - dead after being blown up by a police robot when he broke off negotiations while holed up in a parking garage.  Experts are saying Dallas' death-by-police-robot is a first for our planet.

There is hatred and fear and misery here.  Approximately six percent of the U.S. population are black males, yet of the nearly 1,000 unarmed men shot to death by police in 2015, forty percent were black males.  That is a legitimate problem.

To explore it, and conduct a national dialog in search of a fix for it, we need clear thinking, honest introspection, relevant facts, and a desire for truth regardless of how uncomfortable it might make us, no matter our skin color, ethnicity, gender, or political persuasion.

So, without further posturing on the subject, let's identify some factors that should be considered ("victim" indicates being the subject of alleged police brutality):
  • Racism within police departments; how to diagnose it, how to reduce any that exists
  • Racism within policed communities; how to diagnose it, how to reduce any that exists
  • The extent to which police department employees are encouraged to live in the neighborhoods they serve
  • The willingness with which police officers will raise their families in the neighborhoods they serve (and if they're unwilling, why?)
  • The reasons more black men don't apply for and/or meet the recruiting standards for police jobs
  • Community education standards
  • Economic opportunity (not just whether the victim may have a low-wage job)
  • Prevalence of narcotics or alcohol
  • The role "zero tolerance" drug possession laws play in permanently criminalizing somebody for what may have been a relatively minuscule amount of "youthful indiscretion" (something even the neo-conservative Koch brothers are working to revise)
  • Role of the victim's father in their family
  • Whether or not the victim is himself a father (and perhaps under economic strain as a provider)
  • Whether or not the victim tries to flee the police
  • Whether or not the victim tries to threaten the police
  • Whether or not the victim follows the orders of police
  • Whether or not the victim has mental or emotional problems
  • Whether or not the victim has a background (either as victim or perpetrator) of family violence
  • Whether or not police are aware of a suspect's handicaps (such as inability to hear, or even a limp)
  • The extent to which the victim is engaged in healthy, expressive activities such as church, athletic leagues, and/or mentorship programs
  • The economic, racial, and social diversity of the victim's friends, co-workers, and extended family
If patterns can be found in contributing factors such as these, perhaps the groundwork could be laid to then address symptoms, and even causes.  

Unfortunately, the actual fixes, of course, will be far more difficult to achieve, since they will require some major restructuring of everything from the personal mentality of individuals involved in the rule of law (which is all of us, frankly), to the delivery of our mental health services.  These are complex systems, from family dynamics to public school standards, that will defy simple political tinkering.

Indeed, can you see the point here?  It's that the issue of conflict between black men and the police won't be resolved by press conferences, marches, or even sermons.  Holding hands and singing Kumbaya only helps for so long.

If this conflict is going to be resolved, it will require the commitment and determination of everyone affected by it.  Which directly mostly involves black men and white cops.  But in reality, it includes all of us, since as this week has shown, we're all affected by it in one way or another.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Two Killings-by-Cop Beg for Answers

Update 7/8/16:  See what I mean about waiting for more facts?  I need to do that myself.  New information reveals that Alton Sterling was not trying to mug the homeless man; it was the homeless man who was pestering Sterling for money.  Eventually, Sterling produced his gun and told him to leave him alone.  For some odd reason, the homeless man felt justified in calling 911 and reporting Sterling.

As a white American male, I can only say one thing.

At least, that's how it feels after two black men were shot to death this week by white police officers.

And the only thing I'm allowed to say is that it's atrocious that black men continue to be killed by white police officers.

Which, of course, is true.  It's atrocious that our society has this recurring theme in which black men are being shot to death by white officers.  Yet to look at it another way, it's also atrocious that we have anybody of any race or gender being shot to death by anybody, period.

Killings should not be part of the American experience.  Neither should racism, or police brutality.  But they are, and we're not dealing with any of these topics very well.

Generally speaking, blacks say whites don't understand how pervasive racism is.  And whites say just because a cop thinks he has to shoot a black man, it's not necessarily police brutality.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a black male peddler named Alton Sterling was shot to death by two white police officers the day after July Fourth.  Two videos posted to social media clearly show that Sterling was on the ground, wedged near a silver Toyota Camry's front bumper, when the officers shot him.  It appears that the officers had Sterling under control, even though he seemed to maintain a semblance of a struggle with them.  But surely the officers could complete their arrest procedure without killing him, couldn't they?

I have to admit, from the videos, their shooting of Sterling looks wholly unjustified.

Granted, word is now coming out of some quarters that a homeless man had earlier called 911 and reported an attempted mugging by a man with a gun.  A man cops would soon identify as Sterling, which would explain how they figured Sterling had a gun.  It still doesn't explain why they believed they needed to shoot Sterling at point-blank range, but it helps create more of a context for why they were wrestling with him in the first place.

But here's the politically incorrect caveat:  We'll have to wait to hear more details about what happened before we'll know for sure what happened.

Meanwhile, last night in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Philando Castile was shot four times by a light-skinned police officer after reportedly being pulled over for a faulty taillight.  After he was shot, and was slumped motionless against her seat, blood oozing from his left side, Castile's fiance logged on to Facebook and live-streamed his dying and her grief in a video that has now gone viral. 

For many today, her video represents the sum total of what happened last night, and the court of politically correct public opinion has already rendered its verdict:  another black man needlessly shot to death by a white cop.

And no, it doesn't look good for the cop.  For one thing, is pulling somebody over for a malfunctioning taillight the best use of the public's law enforcement dollars?  Maybe the guy had been rear-ended earlier in the day?  Maybe he didn't realize something was wrong with his taillight?  I understand the popular "broken window" theory, but do broken taillights fall into that "nip it in the bud" paradigm?

According to Castile's fiance, he did what he was supposed to do, since he was licensed to carry a gun.  He told the officer that he legally owned a gun.  So the cop new that.  What happened next is currently hearsay, but ostensibly, Castile reached into his back pocket for his drivers license.  We can hear the cop, from outside the car after the shooting, while the Facebook live-stream was rolling, curse and say that he'd told Castile not to reach into his pocket.

Why would somebody tell a cop they owned a gun, and then reach into their back pocket to produce it and threaten the officer with it?  That scenario seems to be what the officer thought would happen.  I understand the need for police officers to anticipate dangerous situations, but is Falcon Heights the Wild West?

Then, after Castile had been shot (Four times?  Really?) and obviously incapacitated, why didn't the officer secure his own weapon, open the car door, and offer to help Castile - maybe apply a tourniquet to help staunch his profuse bleeding?  Why does it seem like forever before medical assistance was provided to Castile?  Was the cop in shock?

Clearly, at the very least, the cops in both of these situations seem to have had problems controlling their adrenaline.

But is that racism?  Or is it poor training?

As a white man, I'm not supposed to ask questions like that. 

That's one of the things I dislike about these officer-involved killings.  Now, I don't like it that cops shoot and kill people.  But I also don't like that so many people rush to judgment based on initial information - whether it's a photo, video, or eyewitness accounts - that we receive in the media.  Photos only capture a moment in time, not what preceded the photo.  It's the same with videos, although they usually can capture a sequence of moments in time, which provides a better context for what they depict.  And eyewitness accounts?  We've all heard how notoriously unreliable they can be.

At the same time, however, it also seems as though there's a pattern of black suspect and white cop shootings that won't go away.  Is it because social media makes these shootings more public?  Or is it more sinister, like the possibility that more and more black men are being left behind in our society?  If that is happening, is it because of racism against them, or maybe lackluster schools in black districts, or the notoriously high rate of unwed motherhood in black communities?

What about economics?  Frankly, I can't recall any black victim of a police shooting being an affluent professional.

Is it because black men are stereotyped as thugs?  Some folks complain that when a black guy is shot by a cop, the media usually can match their name with a rap sheet pretty quickly.  We already know that black men are incarcerated at rates disproportionately higher than their numbers in our country.  What systemic faults in our judicial system might be behind such rates?

Then too, why do we have all these white officers in minority neighborhoods?  Why don't black men apply in greater numbers to be police officers?  Do black men perform worse than white men while trying out to be cops?  Why are most police departments still mostly white?  Is there a culture of racism within police departments, even those headed by black chiefs?

We ask these questions whenever a black man gets shot to death by a white cop, but our attention span never seems to last long enough to press for answers.  Or maybe we don't want to hear the answers?

I suspect that even the most racist people among us are angry over these police-involved deaths.  Maybe for different reasons, but I doubt there are many Americans who think this is something that should continue.  People post sound bites, memes, and emojies on social media.  Some protest in public.  Politicians pretend to sound empathetic.  Yet maybe tomorrow, or next week, or six months from now, we'll all be back in this same place, saying this can't continue.

Although it does.  And it will, at least until our attention span on the subject lasts longer than the time it takes for the media to cover a few raucous protests in the aftermath.  Since it appears as though the disenfranchised males of America's black communities are the most common victims of police shootings, our country's better-connected social classes need to advocate first for the answers to basic questions like the ones I've asked above.  And then advocate for the changes that those answers indicate are necessary.

It sounds so simple, but in reality, we individually need to want to change.  All of us, both in terms of how we view people of races different from ours, and in terms of how much we value the moral enforcement of our nation's laws.

The Old Testament prophet Micah answers the question about what goodness is, and it's at once simple yet profoundly deep:  to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Obviously, not every cop is "rogue," and many cops complete long careers without ever firing their gun in the line of duty.  So I wonder if these officers might predominantly be ones who carry Micah 6:8 in their minds - and their hearts - every day when they go out on patrol.  And instead of trying to control their adrenaline, they try to remember that justice, mercy, and humility are the only ways to "do good" in our world.

Of course, it would be helpful if the rest of us - whether we're male or female, black or white, or polka-dotted - tried to remember the same thing.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives

and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,

the oil of joy instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord

for the display of his splendor...

And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God...

“For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing..."

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.

For he has clothed me with garments of salvation

and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness...

For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow,

so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness

and praise spring up before all nations.

- from Isaiah 61