The Recipe for a Shooter

On June 14th, 2017, James T. Hodgkinson walked into a baseball field where the Republican congressional baseball team was practicing and opened fire.  In the end 6 people had been injured and the shooter was killed by law enforcement on the scene in a shootout.  It should be no surprise that this is a situation that can easily be made political.  This was not a random act of terrorism.  The intent was to attack members of the GOP, and the shooter knew who would be at the baseball diamond that day, and the political views of this shooter were that of a “liberal”.

Given the growing unreasonableness on the left, such as the suppression of free speech on university campuses and even outbreaks of violence, it might be easy to say that conservatives are under attack by liberals and that we must increasingly become concerned about liberals.  If we look at the trends of mass shootings over the past 10 years I think we can easily see that this is not a partisan problem.  This is just another of many mass shootings in this country.  Another act of terror of the many that go through our news cycle, where nothing gets done.  But if we want to look at direct response to shootings that were politically based, when Gabby Giffords was shot, nothing was done legislatively because of that incident so it doesn’t seem likely anything will change now.  However, this administration hasn’t been terribly predictable so who knows?

When the name of the shooter was identified, knowing that he shot at Republican politicians, I was immediately interested in who the man was, because I was worried that his political views would be on the democratic side and that in the face of our current administration this might spell trouble for other liberals.  I imagine it is similar to the feeling a good law abiding Muslim must feel when a shooting happens.  Hoping the shooter isn’t a follower of Islam.  My Google search brought me to his Facebook profile.  This was literally a minute after his name had been released by the news.  I immediately saw that he was a Bernie supporter and was anti-Trump and naturally I groaned.  Several posts were public as is typical on any profile that shares stories.  What happened next was something I did not expect.  People began commenting on those posts.  Within a minute, hundreds of comments had been made with the larger proportion of those comments being insults hurled at the shooter.  The ugliness of humanity laid bare before me, and it was painful to see watch some meaningless rage.  One might argue that had this rage been directed to the actual shooter, maybe we could somehow have sympathy for such actions, but the shooter was dead.  The only people that could possible see this was family.  The anger could only hurt people who were only guilty of knowing the shooter.  No information about his family supporting him had been reported.  He could have been divorced, estranged, hated by them.  Perhaps they knew the man he once was and were simply saddened by the whole situation.  They were perhaps as appalled as anyone else at what Mr. Hodgkinson had done, and were simply grieving at the death of a man they thought they knew, or once knew.  I don’t understand people.  Unless a shooter actually killed somebody that I loved, I can’t imagine myself feeling enough rage to do the equivalent of “spitting on his grave”.

But I then reflected on my initial reactions to the shooting.  They were none too virtuous either.  Worried about how my “group” might be perceived in the future.  And yes even the thought of the irony of Republicans against gun laws, paying some penance for their views floated through my brain.  I am not proud of it, but perhaps this is what we’ve become in a society full of these incidents.  Of course, it’s also natural to have such thoughts, but what actions you take are, in the end, more important.  Despite my thoughts I did not get angry and lash out at anybody.  No shame or mocking.  This is a serious and sad incident and that is the most important position we should take on this matter. And as I saw comment after comment pour out I knew there was something important to be learned here, and wanted to take a few days to collect some thoughts and see what that might be.  I am not sure I’ve completely figured it out, but unfortunately I can’t help but worry that things aren’t going to get better here in the U.S. anytime soon.

CNN laid out quite distinctly all his liberal viewpoints, and that he was anti-GOP, and frustrated by the corruption and income inequality in this country.  The entire laundry list describes most people I know in my life who would never do something like this.  And yes, of course you never know, but I can at least say that probabilistically 99% of the people I know will not do something like this.  When we say that shooters like Dylann Roof are racist and that’s why he did what he did, or that Mr. Hodgkinson was a liberal or Bernie supporter and that’s why he did what he did, is this a fair thing to say?  I don’t believe so.  It ignores the many people who share similar views but don’t do these types of things.  We know John Lennon’s shooter was inspired by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, but we know that millions of schoolchildren have read the book and certainly had no murderous thoughts because of the book.  The first thing that we have to be honest about, if we truly hope to lessen violent crimes like this in our culture, is that people who do these kinds of things are the confluence of more than one factor.  For any one behavior or trait, or any one environmental influence that you find in the shooter, you will find no solution to what makes somebody do this.  In the population of people that represent any one behavior or influence you will find far more non-killers than killers.

I should point out that there is one trait that all these acts of terrorism have in common.  The killer is male.  Yet of course we will still find far more males who aren’t killers, but it should at least make us ponder, what is it about being male through nature or nurture that increases the odds that they will become a perpetrator of these types of mass shootings?

One of the main points to come out about the shooter is his domestic abuse charge.  Why would someone like this be able to legally own firearms?  I’d like to look at this from two perspectives.  On one hand, it’s easy for everyone to get up in arms about a domestic abuser having a gun, given how often women are the target of incidents with firearms, this should be a no-brainer.  And maybe it is, although there are apparently some loopholes as discussed in the Slate article I just linked, but here is the problem:  he was never convicted.  This matters.  It must.  If we simply start denying people rights based on charges, then the rule of law has no value.

On the other hand, women know all too well about this kind of abuse.  It is very difficult to get a conviction for domestic violence.  What happens if your abuser threatens worse if you report them?  What happens if you do report them thinking, well they will be behind bars so I’ll be okay.  But what happens if you report it, but the cop doesn’t take you seriously?  Or the justice system fails you?  In reading about Mr. Hodgkinson’s domestic abuse case (it was against a daughter and a friend of the daughter), the case seemed a bit strange.  Though charged, he was never convicted because the victims never appeared in court?  Why would this be?  Perhaps they knew his temper.  Perhaps he threatened them. These are all likely scenarios and so the question then becomes, how do we deal with this type of person.  If we believe that evidence is still necessary for conviction, how do we get more people to come forward about their abusers?  How do we protect those victims adequately during and after their case, win or lose?  This is a problem we’ve been trying to tackle for years and there has been some progress, but not enough.  The progress that has been made has been a result of the rise of feminism.  Yes you may actually have to become a feminist if you want to make the situation better for those who experience domestic abuse.  And just because I am sure somebody reading this might say men are the victims of domestic abuse too, I shall freely admit that, yes, this is true.  But that doesn’t mean believing in gender equality is going to make you forget about male victims.  In fact, fighting gender stereotypes that oppress women actually makes things better for men.  Narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity also play into why a lot of men don’t get believed when they say they are victims of abuse.

Finally, we can’t ignore the role mental health plays when it comes to these types of incidences.  In reading about the shooter, beyond the domestic violence incidences, it is clear that he has a history of anger problems.  Anger has been linked recently to gun violence (link is an article that links to the peer-reviewed study but is only the abstract).  From the article:

“Swanson believes that it could be more effective to, instead of looking at mental health history, look at a prospective gun buyer’s record of misdemeanor convictions that could indicate impulsive, explosive and violent behavior.”

The paper also has a somewhat alarming graphic about men who experience excessive anger and gun ownership.

This is only one study and hopefully more research will be done in this area.  It seems also relevant then to ask, where does the shooter’s anger stem from?  Something in his childhood?  Is it some chemical imbalance in his body?  Is too much anger a mental health issue?  I would say yes, but there are a lot of people out there who get angry.  Like many things, any emotional reaction you find exists on a spectrum among people.  We could easily find someone out there who has anger problems but not quite as much as Mr. Hodgkinson, and some people with a little more.  Where do we draw the line and say, “this amount of anger is unhealthy, this amount of anger is healthy?”  And isn’t it more on how we act on that anger?  The study points again to convictions, but if there are none what then? How else might we learn about anger issues?  There are still stigmas for receiving treatment for any type of emotional struggle we are going through are still strong, especially for men.  In our society being aggressive and angry is valued for a man.  Such stereotypes imply that if you were to get help you would be seen as weak and less masculine.  Also, many people think of mental illness as only some condition you are born with or as something serious like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or dementia.  Things like anxiety, depression, anger are things people think we should always be able to control.  Unfortunately, this is not the case and excessive bouts of these things, even if it is temporary within your lifetime can lead to some pretty unhealthy outcomes.

So far, I don’t think I’ve said much new, but I guess one of the other facets of this incidents that inspired me to write this post was to look at the political activism of Mr. Hodgkinson.  Here is a person who has been active politically for some time.  He was a local business owner, was constantly engaged in various political causes.  Signing petitions, getting others to sign.  He was wrote opinion pieces to his local paper.  He volunteered for political campaigns.  Despite his anger problems, here is a man who, at least for a solid portion of his life, tried to solve the problems in society through engagement with people and the system on a non-violent platform.  I’ll quote once again from Sam Harris, because I think these words are very poignant here “…all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence.  That’s how we can influence one another.  When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are.”  The end of Mr. Hodgkinson’s life are indicative of a man who was suffering mentally.  He was living out of a van, he looked like he was homeless.  Had sold most of his things just to move to D.C.  These aren’t the normal decisions someone makes and at the age of 66, it seems likely that there was at least some brain deterioration going on.  But here was a man who believed strongly about the world not being right, and he wanted to make it right.  And for many years he engaged in that activity non-violently.  Maybe he wasn’t the best representative for his cause, but he also wasn’t wrong.  There has been growing income inequality, the government is corrupt and colluding with the top 1%, and poverty increases in this country.  These are good things to get angry about.  Here is a man who tried for much of his life to use words, and I couldn’t help but thinking of the Sam Harris quote.  The causes the shooter was fighting for really matter, for many of us it feels like words ARE insufficient, and here we have someone showing up with a gun.

I am not trying to make this man seem like some sort of hero, but it made me wonder, given that this was clearly an attack on a political party, what is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?  Numbers and organization?  I think the collective population, regardless of their beliefs, can feel helpless as words seem ineffectual in influencing change.  There are so many people in this world and the weight of it is enormous given the rate we can receive information about all the terrible things happening in it.  It’s more weight than our evolution prepared us for, and as one person it can easily feel like the only way to make an impact in it is to really get noticed.  And violence gets you noticed.  Mr. Hodgkinson has far more people thinking about him then he ever did being involved in politics throughout his life.  So when you have anger issues, problems with gun laws, problems with domestic abuse, a patriarchal society, a corrupt government that doesn’t respond to the people, increasing poverty, how many more people like Mr. Hodgkinson will pop out of the woodwork?  Can we stop them all?  Perhaps this is a commonality among all of these types of shooters.  A desire to be impactful in a world that feels unchangeable or a world that is changing with the feeling that it’s leaving you behind.  Either way, the amount of women doing these things is so negligible that it seems worth asking the question why men seem more susceptible to this type of behavior.

There are no easy answers here, and it’s time we stopped pretending there were.  One’s politics and religion certainly play a role, but so many other things do as well.  Let’s not aim for simple correlations and blame that solve nothing.  We know there are societies where this isn’t as big of a problem.  We are NOT helpless when we work together to build something better.  Change, however, does not happen overnight.  It takes patience and perseverance.  I still hold hope that we can find that change through conversation instead of violence, but I won’t lie and say that a worry that violence will continue to rise grows in the back of my mind.  As I think about all those people hurling out rage on Mr. Hodgkinson’s Facebook page, I wonder which angry person is the next to become violent.  Which one of those angry people has a gun, and with the right confluence of factors is the next one to use it.  For all my talk about conversation, I worry that not enough people are listening anymore.

In the Words of Sam Harris re: Trump

I have wanted to do a blog post on Sam Harris for some time.  I’ve had trouble sort of knowing where to begin.  My first introduction to his work was his short book, or perhaps long essay, on free will.  I found him to be an excellent thinker.  Then I noticed that he was being attacked a lot by the left and I wanted to learn why.  Like many great thinkers, they can seem unfeeling, and I do think there have been many instances where atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris have been taking completely out of context.  For them ideas are not something that can be handled in a sound bite.  They like to break down arguments into their components and take a line of reasoning in a particular direction and test it out.  And I can see why people find distaste for Dawkins at times, and after reading a lot of Sam Harris I can see why there is distaste for him as well.  But I would say if you don’t like Sam Harris it’s because you haven’t really read what he has to say and have been going by what critics say about him, or you find what he has to say uncomfortable.  He is critical of the left, even though he himself is clearly a liberal.  Like me, he is against bad ideas.  And he is very good at reasoning what is a good idea and a bad idea.  In this era of identity politics it seems like there should only be us and them and Sam Harris is trying to find common ground.  Trying to promote reasoned discourse.  I connect with him for this reason, and I connect with him because he is scientifically minded, and I find him to be brilliant.  That doesn’t mean that I always agree with him.  I’ve come to a place in my life where I feel sure enough of my intelligence that I can even disagree with someone I find profoundly brilliant.  I’ll tell you this much though, if you are a liberal, you do yourself a disservice if you’ve written him off.  Whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing, if you want to be liberal and progressive, truly try to take in what he is saying and follow his logic, it will at the very least lead to some quality introspection.  Proving him wrong through reasoned arguments will make you richer than dismissing him on an emotional level.

The main reason for this post is that I was listening to his podcast called Waking Up With Sam Harris, and there was a segment that was so wonderfully said that I had to transcribe it and share it.  I know myself, my wife, and many that I know have been feeling this sense of complete disbelief at Trump’s win.  Not that Republican’s won, but Trump in particular.  It’s so obvious to many of us what a complete liar and con man he is, and he’s not even a good one.  It makes 100% sense why many people would vote for almost any other Republican candidate, but in many ways Trump still remains a mystery to many.  We can read story after story about why Trump won, but in the end, there is still this sense that many other politicians could have also had this appeal.  Anyway, Sam Harris here simply breaks it down perfectly and provided structure to my disbelief in all this, and why I find Trump as such a dangerous person to be president of this country and why I worry about our future and wonder if we, as a nation, can head in the right direction once again.  So without more of my rambling I wanted to share these words with you from episode #64: Ask Me Anything 6.

“There is a difference between truth and lies.  There is a difference between real news and fake news.  There is a difference between actual conspiracies and imagined ones.  And we cannot afford to have 100’s of millions of people, in our own society, on the wrong side of those epistemological chasms.  And we certainly can’t afford to have members of our own government on the wrong side of it.  As I’ve said many times before, all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence.  That’s how we can influence one another.  When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are. So we have to create the conditions where conversations work.  And now we’re living in an environment where words have become totally ineffectual.  This is what has been so harmful about Trump’s candidacy and his first few weeks as president.  The degree to which the man lies, and the degree to which his supporters do not care, that is one of the most dangerous things to happen in my lifetime, politically.  There simply has to be a consequence for lying on this level.  And the retort from a Trump fan is “Well all politicians lie.” No.  All politicians don’t lie like this.  What we are witnessing with Trump and the people around him is something quite new.  Even if I grant that all politicians lie a lot.  I don’t know if I should grant that.  All politicians lie sometimes, say…but…even in their lying they have to endorse the norm of truth telling.  That’s what it means to lie successfully in politics (in a former age of the Earth).  You can’t obviously be lying.  You can’t be repudiating the very norm of honest communication.  But what Trump has done, and the people around him get caught in the same vortex, it’s almost like a giddy nihilism in politics, you just say whatever you want.  And it doesn’t matter if it’s true.  “Just try to stop me”, is the attitude.  It’s unbelievable.

Finding ways to span this chasm between people, finding ways where we can reliably influence one another, through conversation, based on shared norms of argumentation and self-criticism, that is the operating systems we need.  That is the only thing that stands between us and chaos.  And there are the people who are trying to build that, and there are the people who are trying to take it down.  Now one of those people is people is president. And I really don’t think this is too strong.  Trump is, by all appearances, consciously destroying the fabric of civil conversation, and his supporters really don’t seem to care.  I’m sure those of you support him will think I’m just winging now in the spirit of partisanship.  That I’m a democrat, or that I’m a liberal, but that’s just not the case.  Most normal Republican candidates, who I might dislike for a variety of reasons like Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, or even a quasi-theocrat like Ted Cruz, would still function within the normal channels of attempting a fact based conversation about the world. Their lies would be normal lies, and when caught there would be a penalty to pay.  They would lose face.  Trump has no face to lose.  This is an epistemological pot latch.” (Sam Harris then describes what a pot latch is: a Native American practice of burning up your prized possessions as a way of showing how wealthy you are).  “This is a pot latch of civil discourse.  Every time Trump speaks he’s saying, “I don’t have to make sense.  I’m too powerful to even have to make sense.”  That is his message.  And half the country, or nearly half, seems to love it.  So when he’s caught in a lie, he has no face to lose.  Trump is chaos.  And one of the measures of how bad he seems to me is that I don’t even care about the theocrats he has brought to power with him, and there are many of them.  He has brought in Christian fundamentalists to a degree that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, and 10 years ago I was spending a lot of time worrying about the rise of the Christian right in this country.  Well it has risen under Trump, but honestly it seems like the least of our problems at this moment.  And it’s amazing for me to say that given what it means and what it might mean to have people like Pence and Jeff Sessions and the other Christian fundamentalists in his orbit, empowered in this way. ”

Resist my friends.

Opposition and Divisiveness

This is going to be a little bit of a rant, so if it seems like I forgot to breathe at times, don’t worry I assure you I’m alright. 🙂

We’ve all heard the tone of those who voted for Trump, maybe they were third party voters, or didn’t vote at all “let’s give him a chance”, “let’s see how he does”, “I am going to support him since he’s my president”.  As nauseating as this can be, there is something worse to me that’s driving me up the wall.

“You’re being divisive”.

This is hard for me to understand.  Look, there is no question that we are a nation very much divided right now, and we need to, somehow, try to unite as a people.  There is no question about that.  During the past 8 years I heard people say all sorts of ridiculous things about Obama being a socialist, death panels, taking away everybody’s guns, and host of fabricated tales mean to discredit the president and his administration.  I tried presenting counter information without name calling.  I did not see their disagreement as divisive, just somebody who wasn’t informed or had a different point of view.  I never accused anybody of being divisive.

Now all of a sudden everybody on the right is concerned about how divided this nation is, and at that by opposing Trump’s terrible ideas we are being divisive.  When the right said they didn’t like the ACA, did anybody tell them to shut up they are being divisive?  That they aren’t helping?  To get behind the president?

I am a scientist.  I try to base my opinions based on something, and defend my point of view.  Sometimes my information isn’t the best and I own up to it.  But when my disagreement is being labeled as divisiveness, this is pure distortion and I will not take ownership of that label.  I’m not being derisive to people personally, but I will challenge ideas that I think are harmful.  And these people who label me as being divisive were never calling out people on their own side for the same behavior.  I mean if you know a large portion of the country is pro-choice…shouldn’t you tell your pro-life friend to stop posting videos of bloody fetuses on Facebook?  Never seen that happen once.  Never seen a Republican tell the birther’s they were being divisive.  I’ve never seen a Republican ever tell another Republican they are being divisive for posting something that the other side disagrees with.  But all of a sudden liberals are all divisive.  We are the ones causing division.

It’s not divisive to make abortion illegal, to normalize sexual assault, to call scientific consensus a hoax, to label illegal aliens as drug dealers and rapists, to build a giant wall, to freeze immigration on refugees if they are Muslim, to say gay people can’t marry the people they love, to say you are going to lock up your political opponent in jail….an entire campaign run entirely on divisiveness.

And because I not only resist those notions, but can defend those positions with evidence and statistics, that is deemed divisive.

Look, I am not saying their aren’t a great deal of liberals calling people names, or calling Trump names gets us nowhere and is arguably divisive.  But posting tips for activism, pointing out hypocrisy, presenting one’s viewpoint in a reasoned manner should not be seen as divisiveness.  One person, who dropped me off of Facebook, even told me that my divisiveness was of the kind that would lead to war.  And this was somebody who told me that she doesn’t vote for any party that doesn’t support banning abortion and told me Trump would restore morality to the country.

So I’m not sure what you want from me.  If it’s silence, that isn’t going to happen.  I am going to keep presenting what I think are informative and well-argued articles, and I am still going to reasonably explain why I think a certain action or ideology is wrong.  People act like I don’t spend a great deal of time trying to understand other points of view, I’ve reached across the aisle more than anybody has reached across to me to understand my point of view and I’ve actually adjusted a number of my positions on issues as a result of it.

So when somebody who denies the existence of climate change is put in charge of the EPA, or a white nationalist is put on the National Security Council, or a completely unqualified person is put in charge of the Department of Education and you are silent about it.  You are the one being divisive.  You are the one who voted for someone who used divisiveness as a tactic to win your support.  I am speaking out because you won’t, because I feel we will all lose at the hands of the people in charge of government.

And in the end, if you still think that’s being divisive, well then I can accept that, because I have no business being on the side of someone who, if they find my viewpoint disagreeable, can’t engage in civic discourse about it.  I still bear you no ill will, but I have a country to worry about and I really don’t have time for your hypocritical judgment.

Rant over.

Paying Lip Service to the Forgotten

For many people that I know and that I see around this country, the idea that a person like Donald Trump could be this close to the presidency is simply baffling.  A place we find it hard to empathize.  I am a person who always tries to remain optimistic.  The more pessimistic about things, the more I try to find that silver lining, that thread of understanding, and try to open the door to a more enlightened and positive mindset.  It is very difficult to do this about Trump and those who support him.  However in that journey I came across a couple of media pieces that have help.  One is this video piece done by The Guardian in the UK.  It is very well done and closely examines McDowell county in West Virginia and speaks to the desperation that many people are facing and why they would hang their hopes on someone like Trump.

The main thing that I want to discuss is this article from Cracked.Com.  Every once and awhile I’ll across a thought provoking article from this satirical site and this is one of them.  There are many points that I agree with, and few points that are hard to swallow, and I had to remind myself that I did have to open my heart a little bit more than I had.  There are also some important points that I disagree with, or rather omitted points that I think provide for a more fair approach to the subject.

Rural vs Urban voting
                        Rural vs Urban voting

The main thrust of the piece is that when you look at a map of blue vs. red, the state map that we often look at during elections gives us a false idea for how that break down happen.  The map in the article clearly shows that blue vs red is really urban vs. rural.  The fact that blue has been taking precedence nationally I think is fairly indicative of that demographic shift to an urban dominated country.  My state of Pennsylvania is a good example of how the urban centers of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia dominate the voting population even though most counties tend to be very conservative.  There are very many counties like the one investigated in WV in The Guardian video, and poverty and drug use is high.  As the Cracked article points out, rural America is a forgotten group of people and grows smaller and thus is paid less attention to over time.  Our country was once much more agrarian, many rural counties had factories or mines and all these things allowed small town and rural America to thrive.  This however is not the world we live in anymore.  As the article points out, even for the most part pop culture has left rural societies out of the conversation.  We forget where food comes from.  We are concerned about the mistreatment of urban minorities, but show little concern for the extreme poverty that many who live in rural areas or small towns live in.  The deterioration of their livelihood with no plan put into place for how to give these people a chance to better their situation.

Republican politicians often talk about two Americas, and in some way they are right.  They often talk about the good hard working folks in “any town” USA, and they are right.  How many times do democratic politicians even really actively campaigned in rural areas and made their concerns part of their platform?  I will concede that to many liberals, the needs and lives of rural America are forgotten or ignored.  I included.  We may find their attitudes deplorable, but let us also, at the very least consider how deplorable their lives have become over the past 40 years as jobs have moved overseas and that most of our food is produced by big companies and industrial farming.  And here comes Trump, who addresses the “common man” who says he’s going to bring coal jobs back (even though they aren’t coming back), who says he’s going to lower everybody’s taxes, who says that he’s going to bring companies from overseas back (he’s not), and make America great again.

My criticism with the article I linked is that (and maybe this is a problem with the media) we aren’t getting people who come to the fore, supporting Trump, and really making nuanced arguments about the difficulties in rural America.  What we have is a slick NYC businessman as far from rural as you can get being supported by people who rail against immigrants (even though they themselves were immigrants), who want religious law to influence government law (no abortion, end marriage equality), who shout patriotism without substance, who want to build gigantic walls that would only further their economic challenges, and who literally find their candidate’s offensive views on women to literally be no problem at all.

I think the article makes some great points and I think that in the end if we are going to survive as a nation than “WE the people” has to mean something.  We all have to do a better job at reaching across the aisle.  And this is one of my posts that is much as a call to action to me as anyone else.  I struggle sometimes when I see someone come on TV speaking hate and intolerance, but I don’t want to become a person who writes that person off as a loss cause.  So if there is this other America that is disenfranchised and needs are help than I am happy to do so, but that doesn’t mean I am going to turn my back on women, on racial minorities, religious minorities, on LGBQT people to do so.  Both sides have to want to heal the divide and that means that we have to start seeing everybody as important whether it is racial vs urban, all races, creeds, sexual orientation.  There are a lot of problems that we all have in common.  Let’s start there, and I think you’ll find that if we worked out those things first, a lot of the other things wouldn’t matter so much.

A Letter to Bernie Sanders

Dear Bernie,

First, I hope you don’t mind me calling you Bernie.  You have from the start of your campaign felt like one of us.  Something no other candidate has been able to pull off.  So many presidential candidates seem so out of touch with the large majority of the population, and so the first thing I want to thank you for is being is so accessible to so many of us.  Hell, you even flew coach.  At the age of 42 I find that exhausting and I’m not doing the intense amount of traveling and campaigning that you were. This is just one of the many things I have to thank you for in this letter.

I want to thank you for running a brilliant campaign.  You used social media in a way that no other candidate has done before. To communicate with young people and get them excited about politics (as they should be) is important.  I also know it was a way to get attention that the corporate media wasn’t going to give you.  I imagine the excitement you could have generated in this nation if you had been given similar exposure as your democratic running mate and the progress that could have been made if you were elected.  You certainly deserved it and exposed the fact that the media isn’t trying to respond to the will of the people, but trying to bend the will of the people towards their narrative.

I want to thank you for running a clean campaign.  You made it clear right from the beginning that you had a message and that you wanted to talk about the issues.  You didn’t attack your opponents with meaningless minutia, but gave fair and substantive criticism of their political positions, policies and plans. It’s easy to get disappointed by the election process when it seems like slinging mud at each other is something that has to be done if you want to get elected.  When it seems like pandering has to be part of the process.  You generated so much support by being an honest politician and simply talking about the problems that you would have to face for the job you hoped to be elected for.  I hope that you will be an inspiration for politicians in the future, because we quite simply need more who run their campaign the way you have.

I want to thank you for not using a SuperPAC.  The marriage between big business and government has to end and you lived that message during your campaign.  You depended on support from the people, the unions fighting for the people, and you did amazingly well.  The fact that you gained so much support and won so many hearts without playing by the rules that so many politicians today feel they have to play by gives me some hope for the future of this nation.  You are the only candidate who took the term “public servant” to heart, instead of being the “corporate pawn.”

By not being bought, I want to thank you for always having the courage of your convictions.  You have a long history of political consistency.  This is rare in of itself, and I am sure you had many advisers suggesting that you waver from that in order to get elected.  Even close friends might have suggested that, just knowing the good you could do if elected, but you took the high road and trusted that if being true to yourself got you this far, it might even get you to the highest office of the nation.  Whether we like or dislike a candidate we deserve a group of people to vote for who are exactly who they appear to be.  Gandhi famously said “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  You seem to have always lived by that creed.  I am so grateful for that, because I simply thought that candidates like you didn’t exist anymore.

That face. The kind he’d give to the media when they were asking pointless questions. 🙂

Finally, I want to thank you for changing the conversation.  You were substantive and intelligent when talking about the issues.   It may be that there are different or even better solutions to our problems but you never backed down from an honest conversation about them.  You changed the conversation from one that was divisive to one that was inclusive.  You talked in red states.  You talked at Liberty University.  You avoided talking about religion, which has no business being in our political system, but more importantly, because you knew that regardless of one’s individual beliefs we must focus on our common aims than our differences.  We must realize that there is more that binds us than separates us.  You showed political courage even when you didn’t have to for the simple reason that you wanted to suture the tear that seems to be worsening and threatens to move the people of this nation further apart.  You genuinely want to help all citizens of this country, you care about the oppressed, the marginalized, and the unlucky.  You demonstrated so much compassion and integrity.  We sink or swim together and you seem to be the only one who really gets that.

My heart is broken that you didn’t win.  However, my heart is lightened by what you accomplished in this primary.  When a virtuous and honest man comes to the fore it forces a lot of people to ask questions about their own character and so I hope that even if you can’t be president, the greater thing you accomplished was that you created a better political climate going forward.  We need that combination of empathy and courage from the men and woman who want to be political leaders in our country going forward.  Thank you for being an example for those who follow you.

Sincerely,
Swarn Gill

Social Media, Fear, Change and Love

It has been a rough past few days.  Even though I thought I had thinned my social media friends to a group of more reasonable people, you still end up seeing the most ridiculous comments come up under friends’ threads in regards to the Syrian refugee situation.  And still there are others that you feel obligated to keep as friends, but at this point I just feel like I can’t do it anymore.  While I feel that it is important to not isolate myself intellectually, what I see through social media does not present me with intellectual diversity, only differing opinions.  Opinions not based on any evidence, but simply fear and rhetoric.  Is it important for me to know that such viewpoints exist?  Sure.  But I know they exist now, and I think it’s time to be done with it.  Let’s face it.  Social media just isn’t the place to change anybody’s mind.  There was one person whose opinion I influenced in my entire 7 years or so on Facebook.  I remember it fondly.  It was a beautiful moment.  Perhaps I hoped I could relive that moment again somehow, but either I’m utterly awful and changing people’s mind, or social media just isn’t the place to do it.  Or maybe it’s both.  Either way the result is the same.  My sanity and well-being is more important, because being bombarded with the kind of people there are out there just drains me of my strength. And I’m not talking about ISIS.  I expect evil to exist, but I also expect us to fight that anyway we can.  Not just with guns, but with the most powerful weapon we have against hate and that is compassion and love.  And I just don’t see enough of it right now.

A lot of the impetus for this e-mail came from reading an article this morning here about fear.  Something I knew, but I reminder of how fruitless the battle is on social media is no matter how many studies or facts you post, ultimately what you are fighting is fear.  People who don’t want Syrian refugees are afraid.  Whether that fear is unfounded or not, this is the culture we live in.  Politicians (especially on the GOP side) and the media love to make people afraid.  People who are afraid are easier to control, the less likely they are to think critically, and the less likely they are to use reason to get them out of that state of fear.  I must ask myself the question then if engaging someone in an issue directly isn’t working, how do I make people less afraid?  I can find no way to easily do that on social media, so I’ve decided that ultimately maybe it’s better that if social media is going to be relaxing and enjoyable than I just need to make it a community that I want to be in.  I’ve thought about dropping Facebook altogether, but with family far and wide, and good friends I want to stay in touch with I know that’s not realistic, but maybe it’s my own weakness, or maybe it’s just age, but I can’t keep getting bombarded with bigotry and hatred every time a tragic event happens and we have the compassionate reaction continues to get treated as the worst idea ever.

To those of you who are afraid.  I wish I could take that fear away.  I wish I could help you realize that statistically, the real things you should be afraid of in this world have nothing do with refugees fleeing for their lives, black people, or gay people.  I wish I could convince you that nobody is coming for your guns, nobody is persecuting you for being Christian, nobody is turning your children autistic or trying to poison you with vaccines, and the anthropogenic climate change is a real problem and not a liberal agenda by scientists.  I wish I could convince you that most people really do want to help you and that most people want to simply enjoy the same feelings of freedom and safety that you have even if you do live in too much fear to really enjoy the life you’ve been given.

Many of you who live in fear, live in a land of what ifs.    I wish I could ask you to ask a different set of what ifs too.  What if things actually get better if we help people?  What if by embracing the unknown it becomes known and we aren’t so afraid anymore?  What if instead of creating more enemies, you gain more friends.  What if defeating an enemy is actually done through compassion than hate?  What if those people who you dehumanize are not that different from you?  What if the difference in whether the outcome of a situation is good or bad, depends mostly on your attitude and that you can make things better simply facing a situation with courage, love, and humility, instead of running and hiding?  And since history teaches that empires often crumble, what I really wish is that you seriously sit down and ask the question what if that destitute Syrian refugee who once had all the comfort in the world but who is destitute, scared and has lost friends, family, and love ones was you?  Really think about it.  Really think about what kindness would mean to you at that point.  Really think about how desperate you might be to even have a remote chance of feeding your children.

And finally to those whose concern for the homeless and impoverished in our own nation have come to the fore.  Assuming you are not just making excuses, then bravo.  We have a lot of people who suffer here too.  We have growing income inequality, a shrinking middle class.  We have a high cost of tuition that prevents many people from getting educated unless they start off life in a great deal of debt.  We have a lack of sex education, we have a lack of social support for families who need more maternity and paternity leave.  We have disparity in public education K-12, and many states that lack funding, accurate historical textbooks, and are forced to not teach strongly supported scientific theories like evolution, the big bang and anthropogenic climate change.  We have a corrupt political system that favors money over serving the people.  We have incarcerated far too much of our population for minor crimes, and a tilted justice system against minorities that prevent them achieving the equal status that law guarantees them.  We have spent vast sums of money on foreign wars that haven’t seemed to make us feel any safer, and have most likely bred more harm in the world than we have helped.  And if this compassion that is overflowing in your heart for your fellow man or woman here in the U.S. I encourage to fight for it every day, not just on days where we talk about Syrian refugees being let into the country.  I encourage you to always be politically active and vote for those people who can bring about the change we need to help our own people.  I even have a presidential candidate just for you. 🙂

You live in a country that over time has helped many impoverished people from other countries.  You have helped women, blacks, and LGBT’s become more equal and gain more freedom.  These are all things to be proud of.  Compassion requires perseverance as well, so don’t ever think you are done.

The Long Silencing of Women

Sometimes I think about this world, and all the problems we have and begin to wonder what kind of world it would be if women were considered truly equal to men.  Imagine all those gifted females throughout history who would have made amazing leaders, who would have made amazing scientists, scholars, inventors, who would have made amazing artists, performers, musicians and who were instead suppressed, killed, treated as property, relegated to one role only.  A society thrives on its intellectual capital.  How much have we lost?  We will never know.

And how much are we still losing?  Here are some important things to note about the state of women around the world:

Women are still very much treated like property.  It has only been in recent history that the dowry system has gone away in many parts of Europe and North America, but it is still quite prevalent in many countries.  The idea that a daughter’s family should have to pay, just to have their daughter become the property of a man, and that failure to give an adequate dowry ends in violence against the woman is deplorable.

If this was not dark enough, when it comes to women being treated as property one only has to look to human traffickingWomen make up 98% of all humans sold for bonded sex or labor.

When women are seen as objects or property rape is even more common place.  These rape statistics are truly horrible to read.  And if you want to get all picky on how hard it is to collect rape statistics and you don’t trust these numbers you can factor in a liberal margin of error and still be see some devastating numbers.  And the difficulty in ascertaining how common rape is, should give you more cause for alarm than less.  Darkness is much more successful remaining hidden than exposed.  Some highlights from the linked article (which is well referenced) is that somewhere between 60-99% of all rapes are committed by men, and 91% of rape victims are female.  Also 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail, and to those who think there is a large amount of false rapes reported, this number ranges only between 0.7% and 8%.  So even by your most liberal margin of error the raping of women is far too common.  Especially given that it is estimated that only 40% of rapes are reported to authorities.  These statistics are largely just from North America where rape statistics are easier to gather. A U.N. study found that “worldwide, a whopping 25% of men (1 in 4) had raped someone in their lives. 1 in 10 (10%) had raped someone who wasn’t their partner.”

Not unrelated to the points above is the greater crime of outright killing of our daughters, both in the womb and without.  In countries where women have limited opportunities for employment, where women will cost their family great financial burden from having to pay dowries, females are aborted or killed as babies disproportionately.  While this number favors countries of India and China, it estimated that about 200 million females are aborted or killed as infants every year.  That is 1/35th of the world population.  In other words 3 out of every 100 pregnancies end in death for that fetus or child solely on the basis of gender.  As I’ve argue before there is a strong correlation between abortion and infanticide and what the cost of that child is to the family.  A woman is a cost and a burden to many families.  There is logic or rationale for why this must be so.

On how much money can a daughter bring to a family if she is uneducated? In a not too terrible statistic 53% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls, however, 2/3 of the illiterate people in the world are women.  Indicating a different quality of education for women, or different amount of time girls are allowed to stay in school.  Educated women make better choices about their health and pregnancy.  For example in Mali, women with a secondary education or higher has an average of 3 children, whereas those with no education have 7.  Women without education tend to not use birth control or even know about it, thus uneducated people, who can provide less successfully for their children have more of them.  In Pakistan the difference between gender in education is an astounding nearly 700,000 less girls being educated instead of boys (although to be fair an even more astounding statistic is that over 5.5 million children are without education in Pakistan).

What do the statistics say about women and politics?  Here is a list of major countries that have only within the last 125 years or so have even given women the power to vote.  For much of “civilized” history women have had little or no say in choosing who governs them.  And how do we stand right now on the role of women in actually governing?  This link shows the incredible disparity in representation in government around the world between men and women.  Perhaps the most telling statistics from this article is that what is considered a successful benchmark for women in government is 30%.  Women make up 50% of the population and yet a goal of 30% is considered admirable. Few countries have reached that benchmark.  Currently only 22% of all national parliamentarians were women.

In science trends are more promising.  Women still only make up 42% of all science careers in the U.S.  A great international study that looks at the role of women when it comes to published scientific papers, finds that males outnumber females as lead authors in every country.  The authors admit that this may be due to the predominance of senior scientists that are men and this may hopefully change in the future, but currently women are still under-represented in science.  The study also notes “despite more than a decade of policies aimed at levelling the playing field. UNESCO data show that in 17% of countries an equal number of men and women are scientists. Yet we found a grimmer picture: fewer than 6% of countries represented in the Web of Science come close to achieving gender parity in terms of papers published.”

I won’t even pretend to have even listed all issues women face.  There are of course many others, a lot of them ripples of the deep impact from the even greater patriarchy of the past.  Even those ripples will take time to calm, and return us to equilibrium.

I am not insensitive also to issues that men face, some are very harmful and perpetuate the very serious realities that women face also.  Men have their burdens, but it is clear than women have the heavier load.  A burden they never chose to carry, a burden that men have given them.  This is not the oppression of a minority; this is the oppression of half of the human population.  Oppression so deep and ingrained that many women are even complicit to their own oppression, thinking that the extra burden they carry is normal and deserved.  I don’t care to point out how religion plays a role in all of this, although gender bias is deeply ingrained in many religious doctrines, and denying many women a place in the religious hierarchy.  The point is, there is zero moral justification for the way so many women are treated in this world.

To all the women who weren’t able or aren’t able to be all they could, I just want you to know that as someone who continues to strive towards being a better feminist, I hear your voices.  It may do no good to wonder what could have been, but we all should be in the business of wondering what could be.

 

*I dedicate this post by my friend Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes.  A more intelligent and compassionate woman you will not meet.