Category Archives: social policy

I Have a Thing for Older Men

cousteau.jpg (483×357)Settle down, now. That thing isn’t sexual attraction, though that now that I’m getting older myself, a mad crush might not be inappropriate.

No, the thing I have for older men is admiration. There are just some men who strike me as Cool Old Dudes. That “Most Interesting Man in the World” from the Dos Equis commercials would be one if he were only real.

What are the qualifications for making my list of Cool Old Dudes? They don’t have to be hunky or even distinguished looking. But they do have to have had interesting lives. Done things. Gone the distance. Remained relevant. They are men who have impressed me with their depth and special qualities that count far more than looks.

Probably the first man who ever made my Cool Old Dudes list was Jacques Cousteau. The man invented SCUBA gear, for God’s sake, and then used it to explore “The Undersea World” and make all those extremely cool documentaries that I watched as a kid. As he got older, he just kept getting cooler, sailing the Calypso to somewhere new where there was something to discover. Long after you’d have thought he would have given it up, he kept strapping on the tanks and out-diving men half his age.

Patrick Stewart makes my list, too. From the time he played Jean-Luc Picard while eschewing a wig, he seemed cool to me. How many actors portraying leadership, non-comedic roles are willing to take that leap? Then he became even cooler when he championed causes like domestic violence, women’s rights, Amnesty International, and PTSD. There’s nothing like using your fame to support righteous works to make my list.

There’s also his friendship with Ian McKellan. It’s Cool to see Old Dudes just goofing around like that. Stewart’s Totally Cool video of him singing country and western songs for charity shows that though he’s an actor with numerous Shakespearean roles under his belt, he’s not so stuck up that he can’t be silly on occasion.

One of my personal heroes, Willie Nelson is a Cool Old Dude. Starting at a time when Nashville just didn’t understand his kind of music, he kept doing it his way until finally the rest of the world caught up with him. One of the Coolest things about him is that he’ll sing and play with literally anyone, from Keb’ Mo to Julio Iglesias. Over the years he’s put out albums of blues, reggae, old standards, and tributes to everyone from Lefty Frizzell to Frank Sinatra.

Add to that his work for Farm Aid, even after all these years; his movie and TV career; his appearance on Steven Colbert’s Christmas special; and his membership in the country supergroup The Highwaymen, and you’ve got a non-stop Cool Old Dude who’s also known in Democratic circles for his liberal politics.

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama, also makes my list, not just because he is a religious leader, but because of his world travels, his many appearances promoting peace, his support for Tibet, and his beautiful smile. He lives as a refugee in India and promotes the welfare of Tibetans,  as well as speaking about the environment, economics, women’s rights, non-violence, interfaith dialogue, physics, astronomy, Buddhism and science, cognitive neuroscience, reproductive health, and sexuality. Hardly anyone, young or old, is that completely Cool.

Bob Keeshan, perhaps better known as Captain Kangaroo, was also a Cool Old Dude. Nearly everyone (at least those my age) remembers him from his children’s show, which offered nonviolent, engaging content for youngsters. Outside of his show, Keeshan was a tireless and passionate supporter of and speaker on children’s causes, including abused and neglected children and violent ads shown during children’s programming. He’s also one of my Cool Old Dudes that I met in person, when I interviewed him for Early Childhood News.

And no list of Cool Old Dudes would be complete without former president Jimmy Carter. As a president, he gave up control of his peanut farm to avoid conflict of interest. As a former president, he is still living his faith and working – actual physical work into his 90s – building homes with Habitat for Humanity. He continues to speak out on issues such as torture, women’s rights, and reform within the Southern Baptist Church.

There are other Cool Old Dudes out there, in private life as well as in public. Do you have someone to add to the list?

 

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Early Childhood Education: Then and Now

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Back in the ’80s, I edited a magazine called Early Childhood News. It was aimed at owners and operators of day care centers (as we called them back then), though there was content that was of interest to employees as well.

Times have changed. But how much? A lot of what concerned early childhood educators back them reverberates through the field today, although sometimes in slightly altered form. Here’s what the experts are saying now.

Abysmal Economics. Back in the ’80s, child care worker pay was a big concern, as was the cost of child care. Government subsidies to child care centers and workers seemed like the answer but went nowhere aside from Head Start. Many mom-and-pop child care centers popped up in homes around the country, a good number of them unlicensed; they were the only kind many parents could afford. As low as teacher pay was in accredited centers, professional child care was out of reach for the poor and even for large parts of the middle class.

Not a lot has changed. Government being largely unresponsive on the subject, and child care tax credits making little actual difference, parents began to turn to employers as sources of care. Alas, only a few forward-thinking companies provided any on-site care for their employees’ children. The Baby Boomers were aging out of the parenting years and, as good a benefit as it seemed, child care in the workplace never took hold.

One thing that hasn’t changed as child care workers morphed into early childhood educators is the fact that salaries remain so low that such work cannot provide a living wage. NPR had this to say about salaries for a typical worker:

Why would she teach preschool when she could make a heck of a lot more money teaching kindergarten? … In some places, we pay early childhood teachers less than fast-food workers, less than tree trimmers. As a country, we’ve acknowledged the importance of early learning and yet, when you look at what we pay those educators, it doesn’t add up.

This despite the fact that preschool teachers are increasingly well educated – NPR reports that 24 state preschool programs require a bachelor’s degree for the main teacher in the classroom and 45 percent of preschool teachers working with children ages 3-5 have a bachelor’s degree. Even in a credentialed center with educated teachers, salaries still put early childhood workers below the poverty line.

Still, parents find it difficult to pay for child care. Care.com’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey reports that:

One in three families (33 percent) now spend 20 percent or more of their annual household income on child care. Seven in 10 families report paying rates higher than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ definition of affordable care, while nearly one in five families spends a quarter or more of their household income on child care.

Yet child care is a service that few can do without:

American families will go to great lengths to pay for child care. In fact, 26 percent would put themselves in debt or further debt to pay for child care, and parents report they’ve saved less money (54 percent) and made major budget cuts (41 percent) to pay for the rising cost of care.

Even family planning is affected. The same study finds that “one in three families (33 percent) say the cost of child care influenced their family planning, in that they either waited longer to have children or had fewer children than they would have liked because of child care costs.”

Education versus play. The term “child care” seems to be fading out in favor of “early childhood education.” Along with that change comes an increasing focus on academics.

While it is true that many children come to kindergarten unready to learn, a debate still rages about what the role of the child care center is – early education versus play. “Academic” centers abound, to the extent that some of them appear to be mini-kindergartens. Some parents apparently eat this up, perhaps thinking that for the to-them-exorbitant price of child care, their children had better be learning something.

PBS, in a focus on teachers, had this to say:

“Most kindergarten teachers will tell you what they really value is the opportunity to teach kids when they show up at school prepared and ready to learn. It’s not so much that teachers value that the kindergartner can read or write. They value that the children enjoy learning, have a set of experiences that got them used to a classroom setting, and know how to engage adults and kids in another setting,” [Dr. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia] says.

Play-centered environments have their champions as providing that kind of readiness. They say that play-centered learning is more than mere play. In play-centered (or as they often say, “child-centered”) environments, children can learn not merely socialization skills, but preparation for learning without all the academic trappings. Preschools that feature exploratory science equipment (such as water tables and sand tables), well-stocked libraries of good-quality children’s literature (and story time to go with it), art areas, and other manipulatives and play centers are actually imparting valuable lessons about the way the world works. The NEA is a particular champion of play-centered care.

These two trends, the economics of child care and the push-pull between academics and play, are likely to continue. Absent better salaries for both workers and parents, early education centers will have to choose between offering learning and play if they cannot convince the public that they are two sides of the same coin.

 

Gaslighting America

Gaslighting appears to be the latest “trend” in emotional abuse. Articles abound on the subject, from definitions of the term to checklists of signs to analysis of the abuser and the abused. I’ve written a number of times about gaslighting, in particular how it relates to mental health.

The next topic that has been appearing under the headline “gaslighting” is whether the American people as a group are being gaslit. Let’s take a look, shall we?

To start with a definition, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the gaslighter denies the other person’s perception of reality, with the intention or the effect of making that person think that she or he is crazy. There are a number of classic emotional abuse techniques involved such as isolation, projection, dehumanizing, and others. It is usually an intensely personal interaction between two people, though it can also happen when more than one family member “gangs up” on a relative, for example.

But increasingly now it is being said that an entire group – the American people (or some subset of them) – is being gaslit by another group.  Call them the Powers That Be or more familiarly the Government with a capital G.

Let’s take one example, climate change. We know, according to almost every climate scientist, that climate change and global warming exist. Yet the Government has instructed various of its agencies to remove any mention of climate change from their documents and websites.

Is this gaslighting? No. The statements that deny what we know to be happening do not lead us to believe that the Government’s version of reality is true and that we might be crazy. We merely believe that the Government is wrong. These are examples of obfuscations, misstatements, hiding information, or outright lies. But they are not gaslighting.

Take another example of denying reality, statements by politicians. Some of these are untrue (that is, lies), but in many cases, video or audiotapes exist that prove them wrong. Either the politician did not say what she or he claims was said, or has changed stances since the original statement.

Is this gaslighting? No. We either believe the original statement or we believe the new statement. At no point do we consider our beliefs, our perception of reality, to be crazy. We believe either the old statements or the new statements, but they conform with our perception of reality and we resist believing the statement that denies it.

What about general statements about reality? Suppose the Government says the economy is booming, but all you see around you are failing businesses, people out of work, people working multiple jobs to get by, or working people living below the poverty line. The Powers That Be are denying your perception of reality and they usually have statistics to “prove” it.

This may indeed be gaslighting. We are left to wonder which is true – our perception of reality or the Government’s. The Government has an ulterior motive for denying our perception of reality – to put forth their own vision and say that theirs is true and ours is wrong. We might indeed be tempted to doubt the evidence of our own perceptions and wonder: Is that true? Is the economy really in great shape? Maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe I’m crazy to hold the view I do.

The antidote to this kind of gaslighting is to do work that few of us are inclined to or able to do – our own research. Most of us are unequipped to do in-depth research on economic theory and the sociological implications. All we can do is rely on the perceptions of others, perhaps people we consider to be experts or people who share our perception of reality. Support of this kind is one of the ways to defeat gaslighting.

The temptation here is to pinpoint one specific area of the Government – one politician – and claim that he is gaslighting us. I won’t go into specifics because I fervently dislike diagnosis as a distance (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-AT). But let’s say that a politician denies nearly every perception of our reality and calls the people who disagree crazy.

This is only gaslighting if we are tempted to believe that we are crazy. The essence of gaslighting is that the abuser replaces our perception of reality with his or her own. There may be people who disagree with said politician, but few of them are tempted to abandon their own views of reality in favor of his.

I would call what is happening in these cases “attempted gaslighting.” If we do not give in and accept or consider that the other person’s point of view is or might be valid, we cannot be gaslit.

Strength, support, and the light of day are the antidotes to gaslighting. As long as we keep a firm hold on our reality, or belief in our own sanity and the validity of our perceptions, we can resist attempts to gaslight us.

 

The Artist and the Art

person with body painting
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

How much do we owe the artist for creating art? And when I say art, I mean not just paintings and sculptures, but music and lyrics and books and films and podcasts and TV shows and more – you know, the things we can’t live without, according to a recent meme. What do we owe the people who create?

Respect. First, we should acknowledge that what they do is worthwhile. Life would be a lot less interesting – and meaningful – without all those things I just mentioned. And I’m not just talking Art with a capital A here. I’m including people who write trashy novels and sing pop songs and paint sad clowns. There are people who like those things and enjoy them. Who am I to judge? (I don’t include people who script so-called “reality” TV. Those people aren’t artists, even if their audiences love them. So I guess I do judge, some.)

Money. Making art takes time and as we all know, time is money. Making art takes skill, and we pay for that too. Making art takes practice, which is another expenditure of time.

Too many people try to cheap out on art. They try to haggle over price, or claim that they (or a monkey) could do it as well (then why don’t they?) or offer to “collaborate” and split the proceeds with the artist who does the work. Do you haggle with your plumber? That takes time and skill and practice too and makes your life more liveable.

Funding. Sadly, few people make a living making art. (I am lucky to know a few who do.) For the rest, there are few sources of income, other than a “day job,” which saps one’s energy and the time needed to make art. There are some sources of funding, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and not-for-profit outlets like National Public Radio and PBS. But when budget cuts need to be made, these public- and government-funded efforts are usually the first to be gutted. Let’s acknowledge that they serve an important purpose and need our support, even if pledge drives are annoying.

Absolution? Here’s the question. Do we owe an artist our attention if he or she has a quality or does something in personal life of which we don’t approve?

Of course, for example, if you don’t approve of swearing, you can choose not to give your money to novelists or filmmakers or comedians who sprinkle f-bombs liberally in what they create. You don’t enjoy that and that’s cool.

But what if you disagree with an artist politically, socially, or religiously? Does that make their art any less valid? Some of the people who make glorious, memorable art have done vile things or hold beliefs repugnant to some. How do we measure that against their art?

If an artist indulges in hate speech or racism or homophobia, that’s a perfectly valid reason to dislike him or her. But is it a reason to say that the person’s work no longer has value? Should a person’s vile behavior toward women or gay people (to use but two examples) end his or her career? Maybe. But does it devalue the work already done? There are certainly differing opinions and of course we must make our own choices about whom to support with our money or votes.

But is left-wing or right-wing ideology enough to make us boycott a person’s art? Do you go to see a film that has a person in it who disagrees with you politically?

Personally, I can no longer view the movie M*A*S*H with the enjoyment I once did because of the infamous shower scene, and I even squick at certain scenes in Young Frankenstein, one of my favorite films, because they make light of rape. But I can’t deny that they are great films and I don’t boycott the works of their creators.

What should we think about the flawed artist? Do we call them out for racism or sexism, for example, or continue to enjoy their art? Or somehow manage to do both? Perhaps we can no longer enter into that person’s art with the joy that we once did, or perhaps we might prefer not to expose children to such ideas (though they will surely encounter them in real life). But do we give a pass to someone whose work means a lot to us? Or do we hold everyone to the same ideal standards?

I think that it’s good that we are reexamining and discussing our attitudes about art and artists in the larger world, and examining our feelings about their behavior. But I still think that local, regional, and unknown artists deserve our support. We generally know nothing of their private lives and can’t judge them that way. Does the guy who plays guitar so well at open mike night cheat on his wife? Does the local food blogger sneer at her trans neighbor? Our communities don’t have the power of Hollywood’s searchlight. All we usually know of local creators is their art and whether we find it great, good, mediocre, or bad.

Even the making of mediocre or bad art is worthwhile. One can always get better with practice. And sometimes people can become better human beings with practice. Not often, perhaps, but I’ve seen it happen.

 

Satanic Panic and Politics in America

The U.S has long been uneasy with the idea of the occult, from Harry Potter to Halloween parties. But the most extreme form of fear occurred in the 1980s, when panic swept America. “Stranger Danger” and “Good-Touch/Bad-Touch” were taught in schools. Someone – many someones – were after America’s kids.

But these weren’t ordinary pedophiles the nation learned to fear. They were occultists. Satanic. Devil-worshippers. And they wanted our children for acts that were unholy as well as sexual. Black masses. Ritual killings. And of course there were the run-of-the-mill child pornography rings, made up of community leaders.

The center of the “Satanic Panic” was daycare centers. As Vox magazine pointed out:

Although it was a time of economic growth and financial prosperity, the Reagan Era was also a time of unease centered on population growth, urbanization, and the rise of the double-income family model, which necessitated a sharp rise in the need for daycare services. As a result, anxiety about protecting the nuclear family from the unknown dangers of this new era was high.

Uneasy with the idea of women of child-bearing age entering the workforce, society seemed bent on convincing them that leaving their children in the care of others was fraught with danger. Unspeakable danger. The worst anyone could envision. So bad that no one could be trusted.

The only safe thing to do was to stay home and keep your children under your own eyes at all times. The ultimate expression of this was the McMartin Preschool case and the ensuing trial.

Rumors of sexual abuse at the daycare center run by the Buckey family mushroomed into florid accounts of ritual abuse. Arrests were made. The community was outraged.

The Institute for Psychological Therapies explained it thus:

The formal charges were wrapped in a conspiracy theory that portrayed the defendants as satanists who used the preschool as headquarters for a vast kiddie porn/prostitution empire that produced millions of child sex photos. The children were allegedly drugged and forced to participate in satanic rituals and sex games with teachers and strangers at both on and off campus locations. During those episodes the children encountered turtles, rabbits, lions, a giraffe, a sexually abusive elephant, dead and burned babies, dead bodies in mortuaries and graveyards, goat men, flying witches, space mutants, a movie star, and local politicians.

The allegations seemed literally unbelievable, impossible in fact, but arrests were made and a years-long trial began. The call to action took the form of “Believe the Children!”

The result? Reports of similar atrocities around the nation and indeed around the world. More and more daycare owners and workers accused.

But the bottom line? Few convictions – none in the McMartin case – and many elsewhere that were later overturned. A new focus on how therapists should interview children for forensic purposes. And perhaps some women frightened out of the workplace, but no end to the profound need for daycare (although funding for that was another matter entirely).

By 1992, reported Vox, “the Department of Justice thoroughly debunked the myth of the ritualistic satanic sex abuse cult.” But the panic didn’t end there.

Flash forward to the 21st century – the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. Then there was “Pizzagate.” According to Salon, “this bizarre pizza-pedophilia piece of make-believe seems to have struck the right kind of nerve in this simultaneously gullible and paranoid time to become a lasting, serious concern.”

Accusations focused on a Washington pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong. It was another theory based on dreadful, unthinkable threats to children.

There were rumors of human trafficking and child abuse in a seemingly innocent pizza place. Again the allegations veered into absurdity, such as emails contained code words – “cheese pizza” for “child pornography” because they have the same initials. Salon noted: “If ‘pizza’ is code for pedophilia, the rumor mongers reasoned, clearly a pizza restaurant is the dungeon where all the horrors go down.” The crimes were said to take place in the pizzeria’s basement. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the shop had no basement. (It’s perhaps notable that one of the accusations in McMartin was that much of the abuse occurred in underground tunnels, which didn’t exist either.)

As compared to the “Satanic Panic,” it didn’t gain much traction, except with one sorry citizen who believed it so wholeheartedly that he showed up at Comet Ping Pong Pizza with a rifle.

But, like the “Satanic Panic,” Pizzagate had a political subtext. Well, not even a subtext, really. The thing that made Pizzagate special was that it was an attack on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had only a vague connection to someone who knew someone who visited the pizzeria. It was unclear what her involvement in the supposed human trafficking/pedophile ring might have been, but it was clear from emails, the conspiracy theorists claimed, that she knew all about it.

Again, Salon nailed it:

Hoaxsters and the deranged collaborated to create a compelling and nonsensical story about depraved, satanic elites operating with impunity. This struck a chord with people who have long seen the mainstream media and politically powerful and well-connected people as manipulative and evil.

Especially if those implicated are people the theorists don’t like, such as working mothers, daycare center workers, or Hillary Clinton. Does it seem odd to anyone else that, while pedophilia is statistically a predominately male crime, women seem to be at the bottom of the dogpile, the subtext, the unseen movers?

References

http://www.ipt-forensics.com/journal/volume7/j7_2_1_9.htm

https://www.vox.com/2016/10/30/13413864/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-explained

https://www.salon.com/2016/12/10/pizzagate-explained-everything-you-want-to-know-about-the-comet-ping-pong-pizzeria-conspiracy-theory-but-are-too-afraid-to-search-for-on-reddit/

School Shootings and the Tipping Point

Teen activists may hold an answer to school shootings.

I say “may” and “an answer” because each shooting is different. There’s no one reason for them.

There is a common denominator. It’s not mental illness, or divorce, or bullying, or the Internet, or video games, or no prayer in schools, or toxic masculinity, though each of those may be a contributing factor in some school shootings.

The common denominator is that school shootings are, well, shootings. Before we address the contributing factors, we must address that.

To do that, we must talk. Negotiate. Problem-solve. Not rant, spout slogans, or pass around memes. Not blame mythical “crisis actors.” None of that will help. Let’s discuss what proposed solutions are feasible, practical, and actually helpful.

This time the kids are taking the lead and speaking up. Mandatory suspension means their walkouts may fail, at least if they walkout until Congress does something, as was suggested.

But other students are speaking out in other ways – talking to the media, visiting elected officials and attending sessions of legislative bodies. Encouraging voter registration among their peers.

And you know, these efforts may fail as well. It’s difficult to get your message across when you’re trying to get the attention of people who live and die by ballots, not bullets.

Here’s the thing, though. With the Parkland school shooting, we may have reached a “tipping point” in our society. Even if legislation doesn’t work, as so many say it won’t, there is a force that can catch the nation’s attention.

Grass-roots activism.

Here I won’t praise the efforts of the 1960s, when under-30s protested and helped stop a war, though I surely could.

What I want to talk about is attitudinal change. Societal change. It can happen and it has happened.

Think about the things that used to be commonplace and succumbed to pressure from groups and individuals.

Smoking is a prime example. Despite push-back from tobacco lobbies and cigarette manufacturers, smoking has tapered off in public and in private. Restaurants started with smoke-free seating areas and now in some states are completely smoke-free. Public buildings and many private ones are too. Smoking around young children is particularly looked down on.

Why? People spoke up, including teens (see truth.org). And society reacted. Look at old movies and how many characters in them smoked. Then look at modern movies and notice how few do. It’s almost like someone realized that these characters are representations of our changing society and – perhaps – role models for kids, even if only subliminally.

And look at drunk driving. MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving – changed society’s view of drunk drivers and prompted legislative change; for example, getting states to lower the limits for what is considered “impaired,” holding drinking establishments responsible for taking the keys from patrons too wasted to drive, and requiring harsher punishments for repeat offenders.

Non-legislative solutions are having an effect as well – the “Designated Driver” idea and PSAs that say “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” There are smaller, local efforts too, such as providing free cabs on the holidays associated with over-indulgence.

What happened in both examples was that society reached a tipping point. After so many deaths and so much ill health, individuals and groups decided that the prevailing practice had to change.

And change it did.

There are reasons to believe that the Parkland shootings may be that tipping point for change. For the idea that school shootings are not just an everyday reality – or shouldn’t be.

Businesses are cutting ties with the NRA, for one. These are protests that will get attention because they are backed up by dollars.

Sure, many teens (and adults and businesses and law-makers) will ignore the issue. Even teens succumb to the “it can’t happen here” mentality. But others are saying that it can and does happen anywhere. In elementary schools, where the students are too young to mount effective protests. In colleges, where students should.

And in the surrounding society, people are saying, “Enough already with the thoughts and prayers.” Even sincere ones have changed nothing, and insincere ones substitute for actual change.

Likely the change that is coming will be incremental and slow. And after the tipping point is reached and the mass of everyday Americans demand real answers to school shootings, maybe we can turn to the related factors like acceptance of bullying and the broken mental health care system. Grassroots efforts and public education are key.

But first, let’s listen to the kids. They have the most to lose.

 

The Nature of Terrorism

According to the definition of “terrorism,” we have some pretty half-assed terrorists out there.

Merriam Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Another definition says: “a surprise attack involving the deliberate use of violence against civilians in the hope of attaining political or religious aims.”

And the word terrorist is defined as “a person, group, or organization that uses violent action, or the threat of violent action, to further political goals….”

What’s missing from terrorism as spoken of by the media, politicians, and the general public? The goal. The coercion. Especially when discussing “domestic terrorism,” most of the examples have no goal. When no goal can be accomplished or even named, what you have is crime, not terrorism.

Oh, certainly some of them have goals – pointless, ineffective ones. The 9/11 attacks had a goal of destabilizing U.S. political, military, and financial structures. In that sense, it was terrorism. But as a goal, it was poorly thought-out. Political, military, and financial power in the U.S. are simply too complex and decentralized to be destroyed or even much hindered by destroying a symbol of that power.

Destroy the Pentagon and military power remains (not that the bombers succeeded in destroying the Pentagon). Destroy the World Trade Center and American capitalism carries on. Eliminate the White House and structures exist for the government to continue. While those events were powerful as symbols, as attempted coercion, they had the opposite of the effect intended. They did not weaken U.S. power; if anything, they increased it.

Goals of more “successful” terrorist actions have been more precise, and more effective. The terrorist acts of the Irish Republican Army resulted in the release from prison of members of their organizations. The domestic Islamic terrorism of the Taliban caused women in Afghanistan to abandon jobs and other freedoms for fear of violence against them. The violence and threat of more violence coerced them into altering their behavior.

Compare the lack of effectiveness of “Islamic terrorism” in the U.S. Any Sharia law enacted? No. Any convicted prisoners freed? Any populations so terrorized that they abandon former freedoms and daily routines? These shootings and bombings have been crimes, but not actual terrorism. Or at least not terrorism successful in its objectives.

And what of “lone-wolf” terrorism in the U.S.? (Let’s remember that Timothy McVeigh was not a lone wolf. He had accomplices. And they caused terrible death and destruction, but not terror in the sense of attempted coercion.) David Koresh’s Branch Davidians did not have an apparent goal. They caused fear for the people held hostage and for the lives of the government representatives trying to remove them from their compound. But they posed no real threat to the ATF, the U.S. government, or the population of Waco, TX – only to themselves and their children. The Unabomber’s schizophrenic efforts seemed random to anyone who could not follow his demented logic, because they were, indeed, random and unhinged.

The anthrax scare was perhaps the most ineffective of all. While ostensibly targeting the media and the Congress (again, to what supposed effect?), they primarily caused terror among tabloid mailroom employees and assistants who open mail for higher-ups. Fear, maybe. Terror, no. There were no demands, no goals, no proposed change in potential victim behavior.

In the U.S., the most “successful” terrorist actions have been those against abortion clinics and gay meeting places. Abortion clinics have not been eliminated (at least by bombings and shootings), but employees have in response to the death and destruction quit their jobs or instituted complex and expensive security measures. Bombings and shootings at gay night clubs and hate crimes against individuals, for example, have not eliminated the gay population, of course, but they may have had a chilling effect on the gay community and their willingness to speak up, gather in public, and feel secure in public spaces.

And what of other “terrorist” attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing? Did that event have its desired effect of bringing attention to the situation in Chechnya? No. What does the citizen-on-the-street know about Chechnya? Any more than before? That bombing and other attacks have been expressions of impotent rage, futile protests, and deadly crimes, but they have not been terrorism.

Calling these actions “terrorism” gives them a power they do not have. Terrorism is meant to alter the everyday behavior of people or institutions. To some small extent, they have done that. Americans are more vigilant, more suspicious, more angry, but not more ready to give in to the goals (if any) of the terrorists. That suspicion and anger are in many cases too widespread and likewise devoid of specific achievable goals, but they are certainly not effects that supposed terrorists intended.

The terrorists have not won. Yes, they’ve killed and maimed and destroyed property and lives, strained our resources, and made us unreasonably fearful. But they’ve hardly accomplished anything.

 

 

 

What’s With All the Crazies? Are They Crazy?

Yes. Yes, they are.

And no, they’re not.

I say yes, because so many political extremists out there are acting, well, crazy.

And you can define  “crazies” any way you want – alt-right, alt-left (two handy meaning-free terms), in-office, out-of-office, politicians, your Facebook friends, your Uncle Ned, whatever. We’ll just leave out for the moment the tin-foil hat squad.

Whoever your opponents are, there’s more than a fair chance that some of them are acting irrational, delusional – some variety of crazy. Is it crazy to run down peaceful protestors? Yes. Is it crazy to still be battling over the outcome of an election that happened close to a year ago? Yes. Is it crazy to carry rifles in Walmart? Yes. Is it crazy to spend news air time on the First Lady’s shoes? Yes.

Most of all, though, people are acting paranoid. Everyone on the “other” side is out to get us, destroy America, or at least scare the pants off us. Conspiracy theories abound. And nearly all of them are crazy. (I wrote about this a short while ago: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-AH).

And paranoid means crazy, right? (Unless, as the saying goes, “they” are out to get you.)

Well, not actually. “Paranoid” is a clinical term from psychology, and it has a specific meaning: Paranoid Personality Disorder is an actual psychiatric condition, manifested by, among other things, “generally unfounded beliefs, as well as … habits of blame and distrust, [which] might interfere with their ability to form close relationships,” as WebMD says.

Those traits your political or social opponents may have, but most of them don’t also:

  • Read hidden meanings in the innocent remarks or casual looks of others
  • Perceive attacks on their character that are not apparent to others; they generally react with anger and are quick to retaliate
  • Have recurrent suspicions, without reason, that their spouses or lovers are being unfaithful

The fact is that none of us (except perhaps psychiatrists) can diagnose a person as paranoid or any other variety of mentally ill without having met the person and performing detailed interviews and tests (I’ve written about this too: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6F).

So, if by “crazy” we mean “mentally ill,” then no, the political and social “crazies” are not “crazy” as a group. Their tweets and posts and dinner table conversation are simply not enough to declare them mentally ill.

This is also true of public figures. We can say that Donald Trump, to choose an example not entirely at random, has narcissistic traits, or is a narcissist in the garden-variety meaning of the word, but we cannot say that he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, an actual clinical diagnosis. We may think he’s crazy, but we can’t say whether he’s mentally ill.

Our readiness to label people, both our acquaintances and public figures, with loose pseudo-psychiatric terms raises a number of problems, particularly stigma.

Labeling is a convenient way to dismiss a person who disagrees with you without listening to what he or she has to say, or considering the possible validity of an argument or even a statement of fact. He’s a Southerner; of course he’s a racist. She’s a liberal; of course she’s a snowflake. If we can apply a label, we can make an assumption about a person that may or may not be true. (It can also lead us into “Not all X are Y” arguments, which are seldom productive.)

Stigma comes with the label “crazy” or mentally ill. People with diagnosed mental disorders are too often assumed to be violent, out-of-control, homicidal (or suicidal) maniacs – and therefore not worth listening to, despite the fact that their cognitive abilities are generally not impaired.

As for terrorists, they are in common understanding automatically mentally ill, so anyone you label as a terrorist is automatically insane. And we’re far from agreeing who is and is not a terrorist. (Antifa? Greenpeace? The NRA? The DAR?)

So, bottom line. “Those” people may be crazies, may act crazy, talk crazy, believe crazy things, but it is not accurate or helpful to call them crazies. I know I’ll catch hell for this. But I’m not being an apologist for reprehensible behavior.  I just think that how we talk about people affects how we treat them. And that matters.

Now, as for the tin foil hat squad, they’re mostly harmless. Let’s leave them alone.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Things Are as They Appear

There was a furor and a spell of blocking and unfriending in one of my social circles last week. It seems that a person well known in the group and respected for her considerable talent voiced the opinion that the terrorist incident in Charlottesville was a “Wag the Dog” exercise meant to distract the public from other topics.

For those of you not familiar with it, Wag the Dog was a 1997 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. In it the fictionalized President of the United States manufactures an international incident to cover up a real scandal he is afraid might embarrass him and derail his administration.

The reasoning in terms of Charlottesville breaks down. But the general gist was that the car plowing into a crowd was a manufactured incident, meant to make the trouble-making protestors look sympathetic and the well-intentioned marchers look evil. This take on events fell apart rapidly when it came to light that the driver of the car actually was associated with “alt-right” or white nationalist causes.

But the tactic of switching blame has been used before. The tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, were believed by some to be a “false flag” operation in which anti-gun forces staged the entire incident to promote their own agenda and make gun-owners and the NRA look bad. It was even rumored that some of the mourners were actors who go around to various such events and fake distress for the cameras.

These are far from the only conspiracy theories that have taken hold and outlived attempts to debunk them. The 9/11 attacks are particularly fertile ground for the “truthers,” as the theorists often style themselves. But there are others. From the McMartin Preschool to the Malaysian airplane’s disappearance to the “pizzagate” child sex ring rumor to the death of JFK and on and on, many among us refuse to take any news story or public horror at face value.

Notice that these assorted accusations of dastardly schemes and heinous cover-ups come from both sides of the political spectrum: President Bush’s administration created the 9/11 attacks to justify a war. President Clinton and assorted cronies killed Vince Foster and made it look like suicide.

Never mind that for these conspiracies to be true, an impossible chain of events involving thousands of people (not one of whom ever screwed up the plan or spilled the beans) would have had to be either participants or in the know. None of these things could have happened outside a Tom Clancy novel or a Jerry Bruckheimer film. And no private citizen or group could have uncovered the “truth” if such things had happened.

That is to say, they are fictions. And believing them doesn’t make them true. Unexplained aspects are just that – not able to be verified or explained because evidence doesn’t exist or for some other reason.

I think it’s telling that many of these theories are expressed in military and intelligence terms – for example, “false flag operations,” “black ops,” and so on. Everyone wants to be an expert, especially in fields where few can claim true expertise. Phony experts are even interviewed on television regarding these incidents, giving even more credence to pop psychology and self-styled warriors or spies. Few Americans have ever served in the military and even fewer in the intelligence field, but you wouldn’t know it by watching TV or listening to talk radio.

Now, it’s true that the press can be, and sometimes is, manipulated. Politicians have been known to make announcements that they’d rather not draw attention to on Fridays, so that by Monday, when the next news cycle begins, the story will have been replaced by more recent events. Press releases and talking points can present one-sided, skewed, or outright false information and journalists without the time, resources, or interest to check them let them run as is.

But for the most part, things are what they appear to be. Coincidences are exactly that and not evidence of conspiracies. As Carl Sagan said (though he was talking about something else), “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And by “evidence” he didn’t mean what-ifs or convoluted chains of suppositions or the plots of dime novels. He meant hard facts and physical objects, scientifically verifiable, tangible or observable, and demonstrably real.

Those who support conspiracy theories appear to be motivated by the desire to be “in the know” and feel superior to those of us who are pathetic dupes, unable to see the truth, even when it’s presented to us with passion and conviction. Apparently many people want to live in a world where diabolical Bond-ian villains pet their white Angora cats and invent doomsday devices until a plucky hero foils them. I’d rather not.

Reality is scary enough without flummery, embroidery, and delusion.

 

 

Why Don’t Conservatives Support the Right to Privacy?

Privacy lawThe right to privacy, as defined by the historic Roe v. Wade decision, ought to be something that conservatives could get behind.

Okay, not when it comes to abortion, marriage equality, transgender persons in bathrooms, and other sex-loaded topics. There conservatives appear solidly anti-privacy. As they so often point out, the right to privacy is never mentioned in the Constitution. (Neither is education, which leads some to say that the Department of Education is not legitimate.)

But think about other issues near and dear to conservatives’ hearts and minds. At least to some degree, many of them can be framed as privacy issues.

Gun Ownership. Certainly the main argument here rests on the Second Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights. But if you look past the basic right to bear arms, matters of privacy begin to be involved.

Take gun registration. Many gun owners fear that registration of firearms is a prelude to confiscation of guns at some future date. Opposition to gun registration can be seen as a right to privacy in that context – gun owners want to have privacy regarding the number and kinds of firearms they own, and they believe the government has no business knowing that information.

Property Rights. Land owners, particularly in the Western states, feel they are entitled to make their own decisions about land use privately, without government interference and regulation. Water use, mineral rights, livestock conditions, and other factors, they feel, should be up to the individual farmer or rancher. In these days of drought, for example, why should anyone else get a say in how much water (that exists on his or her own land) the family farmer should be able to use? Who has the right to put restrictions on that and other practices? Aren’t those private decisions?

Medical Decisions. Leaving abortion aside for the moment, conservatives had major problems with “Obamacare” (aka the Affordable Care Act) because they believed that the government should not come between a patient and his or her physician. Of particular concern were the so-called “death panels,” which, if any had been implemented, might have led to government personnel having a say in “when to pull the plug on grandma,” or whether a disabled child was ever going to be a “productive citizen.”

Surely end-of-life decisions and those regarding the amount of treatment a person receives are sacrosanct, the ultimate in discussions that should occur privately between physician and patient.

Looking at topics on which conservatives might wish for a right to privacy, many are usually framed as “freedom from government regulation,” or “freedom from government.” In other words, the conservative position is that government should have no say in private decisions made by private citizens. In these and other cases, freedom from government interference is basically a variation on the right to privacy.

Some religious families, for example, believe that they have the right to privacy when it comes to how – or whether – to treat their children with conventional medicine. Is that freedom of religion? Or is it also freedom from government interference – that is, privacy – in decision-making?

Education, corporal punishment, divorce, and even Social Security numbers and other forms of ID are also seen by some as matters of privacy, and calls for freedom from government intrusion are heard.

Matters get murky, however, when we turn to issues of sex and family. You’d think that what happens in the bedroom (or motel or wherever) ought to be the most private moments there are. But until recently, specific sex acts and even the use of contraceptives were matters in which the government had its say.

Now complicated modern sexual issues are under discussion. The line between public and private behavior is less clear when you think about marriage equality, public bathrooms, HIV status, and gender identity.

The problem is, of course, that the reproductive rights movement has already laid claim to the phrase “right to privacy,” and it has become the basis of their political and social position. The doctor and patient, according to Roe, have the right to privacy when making decisions about the medical procedure of terminating a pregnancy.

And, however much they value privacy, that’s something that conservatives can’t or won’t include in their definition.