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/

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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.

 

 

Who Needs the Department of Education?

Once when I was traveling with my mother, we met a woman from Australia and discovered that, despite the fact that we all spoke English, we still had cultural differences. My mother told her about this wonderful vest I had with all the pockets so I could keep my money, passport, photo equipment, maps, bus schedules, brochures, snacks, and other gear handy. (It was from Banana Republic.) Slowly I realized that to the Australian woman, “vest” meant “undershirt,” and she was getting a very odd idea of how I carried around my travel supplies.

She also said that she couldn’t understand how there could be a different speed limit in every state, especially since we had 50 of them. (Australia has six.)

“That’s nothing,” I said. “You should see the liquor laws. Those can vary by county or even city or township – when and where you can buy beer, wine, and liquor, if they allow it at all; what days and times liquor stores can be open; and so on.”

That’s not unlike how the education system in the United States works. “Local control” of education is held sacred in many schools and districts, even if it means that students in one state learn about evolution while others don’t, or that school boards have control of curriculum instead of states, or that children in certain states use textbooks the content of which is dictated by people in other states.

It’s a patchwork and a hodge-podge, and a big mess. Attempts to make school funding more fair, to eliminate de facto segregation, and to standardize curriculum are loudly and effectively resisted.

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, is at best a loose cannon. Her nomination was confirmed by only the slimmest of margins – hardly a ringing endorsement for her agenda. And what is that agenda likely to contain?

More patchwork, more hodge-podge, more mess. In addition to waving the banner of local control, Ms. DeVos is a proponent of private and charter schools, which suck students and money away from the public schools. And she promotes the practice of home-schooling, which can be beneficial or not, depending on the skill and oversight of the home-schoolers, and what they teach their children.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we may not have to deal with whatever changes Ms. DeVos would like to make, since shortly after her confirmation it was announced that the entire Department of Education was slated for destruction.

Why do we even have a Department of Education? It was broken off as a separate Cabinet-level department from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now called Health and Human Services). For over 35 years, its function has been to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on U.S. schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” It had almost no influence on curriculum or standards until 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. It has been opposed since its inception as being unconstitutional because education is not mentioned in that document.

Most of the Department of Education’s mission has been related to ensuring equal access to education, promoting legislation that particularly addresses access to education for children with disabilities. Under the Department’s aegis, these children have been determined to be entitled to a “free, appropriate, public education.”

Ms. DeVos has expressed opinions at odds with the laws that guarantee these rights for disabled students, especially IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Parents of children with disabilities and educators who work with those populations were particularly vocal opponents of her confirmation.

What this all means for education is a profoundly unsettled question. What will Ms. DeVos be able to accomplish before the Department disappears out from under her? Will the laws regarding access to education be weakened or even repealed? It’s almost certain that more and more matters will revert to local control, with all the confusion and inequities that system fosters. Will parents who want specific educational outcomes for their children be forced out of public schools and into home-schooling or private schools (if they can afford them)? Will families have to relocate to districts or even states with compatible educational programs and goals?

Increasingly, it’s going to be difficult to call the U.S. system of education a system at all.

Crashing Political Parties

By the time this post is up, President Trump will have been inaugurated and many parties will have held many parties. And a lot of people have a lot to say about that, on both sides.

Because that’s what there are – two sides. Apparently, this is one situation in which there is no middle ground. For or against. Admiring or appalled. People who attempt to take a middle position – wait and see – are derided as “the problem” themselves, or apologists, or pie-in-the-sky dreamers. Any suggestion that we try to understand the other side (whichever that is) and their problems is met with a resounding “No! Why should I?”

I have been steering clear of the fray. I voted, and I have an opinion regarding the outcome. Those who know me well probably have no trouble guessing for whom I voted and what I think of the outcome. But I have avoided posting about it on my Facebook timeline or here (though I did write a few quasi-political posts – http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ol, http://wp.me/p4e9wS-qv, http://wp.me/p4e9wS-o2). I knew that my opinions were not likely to change anyone else’s opinions. I have used sources to refute some misconceptions and fake news, but since the threads went on without anyone noticing my contributions, that hardly counts.

I refused to get involved in the ugliness before the inauguration, and I refuse to now. My decision to stay out of the – I hesitate to call it a discussion –  may have cost me friends. There has certainly been a lot of if-you’re-not-for-us-you’re-against-us thinking, and if I do not declare myself, I become, in some minds, against everyone else.

Many people use the argument that a person’s blog or Facebook page is like a party the person is hosting, and the host is entitled to say anything he or she wants. This is as good an analogy as many others. But its corollary is that I do not have to remain at the party, or accept invitations to future parties. (I do agree that a person who behaves boorishly at a party can or should be ejected, but that tends to lead to really boring parties, with everyone nodding and shouting the same thing.)

When most of the invitations I see are to ad hominem parties (attacking a person instead of her or his relevant behavior, statement, stance, or action) and ones where only one opinion may be shouted, I prefer to play online bingo. I have taken a break from social media (except to post my blogs) a couple of times last year, and I feel another such fit coming on.

I don’t have a problem with online “parties” that involve sharing verifiable information or organizing to oppose a perceived injustice by legal means. But have you noticed how many suggestions are of the “hang ’em high” variety? I’m not talking about just one end of the political spectrum, either. One may be more likely to invoke firearms as a solution, but both are “sharing” in the gloating and finger-pointing and obscene memes and vulgar nicknames. I refuse to engage in dialogue with anyone who says either “rethuglicans” or “libtards.”

I understand the need to vent when one is disillusioned, outraged, insulted, ignored, or otherwise upset. Doing that venting in public, or even at one’s own party (which the virtual neighbors can “hear”) is no doubt satisfying, especially if one is particularly clever at inventing epithets. But it does no good, and only makes the divisions wider.

Yes, yes, I know I can just keep scrolling, but not without seeing hateful memes and pictures at the very least. I feel the same way about them as I do about photos of abused animals: I don’t want to see the carnage even if I support the cause. But I digress.

Blogger Jim Wright (www.stonekettle.com) often says,”If you want better government, be better citizens.”

I would add, “If you want better parties, be a better host. Or guest.”

Poor? Mentally Ill? Sorry, You’re on Your Own.

Poverty and mental illness have something in common.

There is a stigma attached to both.

Both are seen as moral failings. If only people tried harder, worked more, improved themselves, they could lift themselves out of poverty. Without relying on anyone else’s help, which would be shameful.

And if only people stopped being so negative, looked on the bright side, smiled more, thought more about others, their positive mental attitude would make all those shrinks and pills unnecessary. They wouldn’t be shooting people with assault rifles and sucking up tax dollars for disability payments, which is shameful.

Society can’t afford poverty and it can’t afford mental illness. Why should we make the effort when the poor and the mentally disturbed don’t?

Why should these two conditions both be associated with such stigma and for such similar reasons? It’s simple. People don’t want to think that poverty or mental illness could happen to them.

The truth, however, is that a vast number of Americans are living one paycheck or one illness away from poverty, and one in four or five Americans will face a mental or emotional disorder at some point in their lives. And they are afraid. So they tell themselves that the conditions only affect Other People. And those people must be stupid or lazy or unmotivated or something, or they wouldn’t be poor or mentally ill in the first place.

And that’s where stigma begins.

And what are the consequences of stigma?

Well, first of all, it means that no one wants to spend money alleviating either condition. If these Other People can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps and improve, the thinking goes, why should we pay them not to? Job training programs, child care, higher minimum wage, insurance coverage, community mental health centers, treatment programs for addiction, need to be paid for some way, but not with our tax dollars, by God!

And it means we don’t want to look at the Other People for fear of seeing ourselves. Don’t put halfway houses, group homes, unemployment offices, treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals, and other reminders in our neighborhoods. Not In My Backyard!

It’s not just a failure of compassion, though it’s that too. It’s not just a failure of the social “safety net,” though it certainly is that as well. It’s also a failure of the imagination – what would it be like if poverty or mental illness should happen to me? The reality is too unpleasant to think about, so don’t.

And while we’re talking about unpleasant, let’s mention the place where poverty and mental illness intersect – homelessness. Don’t we assume that homeless people are both poor and mentally ill? As such, spending money on them is doubly wasted. Why bother? It’s not like it’s going to help. Poverty, homelessness, and mental illness are incurable, after all. (Unless a person can cure their problems without outside help, of course.)

So what’s my stake in all this? Am I a bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder who wants to cure society’s ills and make us all foot the bill for it?

Well, yeah.

But I’m also living month to month on my income. My husband makes only a bit over minimum wage. We have both, at one time or another during our lives, been on unemployment and/or food stamps. We have no nest egg or emergency fund. It wouldn’t take much in the way of reversals to wipe us out. Even at that, we’re relatively privileged.

And I have a mental illness – bipolar disorder 2. Without insurance, I could not afford to see a psychiatrist, or buy medication (one of mine costs $800 per month), or get inpatient treatment if I ever need it. Right now my condition is moderately well controlled, but if I should suffer a setback, I might not be able to work at all. And there we are, back at poverty.

These two unfortunate conditions – poverty and mental illness – affect me directly, so I can’t look away and say they only happen to Other People. I know that they affect others more severely than they do me, and I don’t know how those people make it through.

But I do know that stigma isn’t helping any of us.

The Last Eight Years: Things That Didn’t Happen

After the stress of the last eight months or so, we may be tempted to forget what happened in the last eight years – and what didn’t.

I just want to point out:
• No one outlawed guns. This has been predicted every single year during the last eight. If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s always bound to tomorrow. But in fact, even when there is a national tragedy involving guns, various half-assed solutions get batted about (along with thoughts and prayers), but no one with the power to do so ever suggests outlawing guns.
• No one took away everyone’s guns. The corollary. It sounds all gutsy and macho to say that no one will ever take your guns. But think for a minute. Even if this were the law, how would it be enforced? Would jack-booted thugs go from door to door, saying, “Give us all your guns, or else!” There aren’t enough jack-booted thugs in the country, not to mention who would be crazy enough to sign up for that particular duty?
• There were no death panels. If you want to stretch a point, we have the same death panels we’ve always had – faceless insurance bureaucrats who get to approve or disapprove drugs, treatments, and procedures. But government committees who get to decide whether to pull the plug on Granny? No. Just no.
• There were no FEMA reeducation camps. Again, the infrastructure to do this would be impossible: building the camps, rounding up all the ideologically incorrect, recruiting re-educators. Like the Democrats could get that organized. Don’t tell me it happened in Nazi Germany. Reeducation camps didn’t happen here, with eight years to get them rolling. And when there were Japanese internment camps, the U.S. had to apologize and pay reparations. Speaking of which…
• White people did not have to pay slave reparations. Can you imagine getting this past the Supreme Court (as it would surely be challenged), given the conservative majority and decisions like Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act? Can you imagine the tax revolt that would ensue? It’s little wonder that no one even suggested this, much less tried to accomplish it.
• No one attacked Texas via tunnels under Walmart. C’mon, people. Get serious. Not even Tom Clancy or Jerry Bruckheimer would buy this premise. It wouldn’t even make a good summer action thriller, much less actually happen.
• No state seceded. They didn’t during the last eight years, and they’re not going to now. For one thing, that was the spark for the actual Civil War, and no one has time or resources for another one now (although it might make a dent in the unemployment problem). The facts are that any state that seceded, besides being in open rebellion against the government, would lose all their federal subsidies, grants, and other monies, leaving the state to fill in the gaps. Massive state tax increases would surely ensue, and you know how well that would go over.
• Secret weather machines and chemtrails have not affected us. Again, c’mon. We’re into tin foil hat and James Bond supervillain territory. All we need is a fluffy white cat with green eyes to look down its nose at us. Besides, government scientists are too busy responding to Zika mosquito and Ebola threats.
• Osama bin Laden is not still hiding in a cave. Nope. Still dead. (Personally, I think Obama’s press secretary should have had him open every press conference with this.)
• The country did not become a dictatorship run by czars. Looking back on the last eight years, does anyone really believe the Democrats could have pushed through a dictatorship, czar-run or otherwise? Oh, wait, Obama was supposed to do that with the stroke of a pen by canceling elections. Did that happen while we weren’t looking? Or while I was standing in line for an hour to vote?

Doesn’t anyone feel the least bit silly?

I’d say that now we’re going to see similar fears and threat assessments from the liberals, but they don’t have Frank Luntz, linguistic spin doctor extraordinaire, on their side. Can America ride out the new administration the way it did the last one? There may be – will be – have been – incidents of hate and violence and ugliness. There will certainly be protest movements (though I hope they pick a better name than “teabaggers”). Neighbors and families and politicians are not going to get together, hold hands, and sing “Kumbayah.”

But we got through the last eight divisive years. And the eight divisive years before that. I know many people fear mass deportations, internment camps, and war, either civil or nuclear. Are those fears reasonable? Will they come to pass?

Meet me back here in four years.