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The 1619 Project

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2019

The first Africans to be brought as slaves to British North America landed in Port Comfort, Virginia in 1619. Thus began America’s 400-year history with slavery and its effects, which continue to reverberate today. With The 1619 Project, the NY Times is exploring that legacy with a series of essays and other works that “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” The Columbia Journalism Review explains:

Contributors consider various modern quandaries — rush hour traffic, mass incarceration, an inequitable healthcare system, even American overconsumption of sugar (the highest rate in the Western world) — and trace the origins back to slavery. Literary and visual artists drew from a timeline chronicling the past 400 years of Black history in America; their work is presented chronologically throughout the magazine. Taken together, the issue is an attempt to guide readers not just toward a richer understanding of today’s racial dilemmas, but to tell them the truth.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who came up with the idea for the project, writes in an essay:

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.

Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.

Bryan Stevenson writes about America’s criminal justice system:

The 13th Amendment is credited with ending slavery, but it stopped short of that: It made an exception for those convicted of crimes. After emancipation, black people, once seen as less than fully human “slaves,” were seen as less than fully human “criminals.” The provisional governor of South Carolina declared in 1865 that they had to be “restrained from theft, idleness, vagrancy and crime.” Laws governing slavery were replaced with Black Codes governing free black people — making the criminal-justice system central to new strategies of racial control.

These strategies intensified whenever black people asserted their independence or achieved any measure of success. During Reconstruction, the emergence of black elected officials and entrepreneurs was countered by convict leasing, a scheme in which white policymakers invented offenses used to target black people: vagrancy, loitering, being a group of black people out after dark, seeking employment without a note from a former enslaver. The imprisoned were then “leased” to businesses and farms, where they labored under brutal conditions.

And Jamelle Bouie on power in America:

There is a homegrown ideology of reaction in the United States, inextricably tied to our system of slavery. And while the racial content of that ideology has attenuated over time, the basic framework remains: fear of rival political majorities; of demographic “replacement”; of a government that threatens privilege and hierarchy.

The past 10 years of Republican extremism is emblematic. The Tea Party billed itself as a reaction to debt and spending, but a close look shows it was actually a reaction to an ascendant majority of black people, Latinos, Asian-Americans and liberal white people. In their survey-based study of the movement, the political scientists Christopher S. Parker and Matt A. Barreto show that Tea Party Republicans were motivated “by the fear and anxiety associated with the perception that ‘real’ Americans are losing their country.”

Update: The Pulitzer Center has a study guide to go with The 1619 Project, including a free download of the entire magazine issue (no subscription necessary).

Update: The 1619 Project is now a podcast series as well.

The United States of Guns

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2019

Like many of you, I read the news of a single person killing at least 20 people in El Paso, Texas yesterday and another person killing at least 9 people In Dayton, Ohio early this morning. While these are outrageous and horrifying events, they aren’t surprising or shocking in any way in a country where more than 33,000 people die from gun violence each year.

America is a stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of gun violence. We’ll keep waking up, stuck in the same reality of oppression, carnage, and ruined lives until we can figure out how to effect meaningful change. I’ve collected some articles here about America’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, most of which I’ve shared before. Change is possible — there are good reasons to control the ownership of guns and control has a high likelihood of success — but how will our country find the political will to make it happen?

An armed society is not a free society:

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

We’re sacrificing America’s children to “our great god Gun”:

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains — “besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily — sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Roger Ebert on the media’s coverage of mass shootings:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Jill Lepore on the United States of Guns:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths:

The only guns that Japanese citizens can legally buy and use are shotguns and air rifles, and it’s not easy to do. The process is detailed in David Kopel’s landmark study on Japanese gun control, published in the 1993 Asia Pacific Law Review, still cited as current. (Kopel, no left-wing loony, is a member of the National Rifle Association and once wrote in National Review that looser gun control laws could have stopped Adolf Hitler.)

To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you’ll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don’t forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Australia’s gun laws stopped mass shootings and reduced homicides, study finds:

From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%, with the researchers concluding there was no evidence of murderers moving to other methods, and that the same was true for suicide.

The average decline in total firearm deaths accelerated significantly, from a 3% decline annually before the reforms to a 5% decline afterwards, the study found.

In the 18 years to 1996, Australia experienced 13 fatal mass shootings in which 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 were wounded. There have been no fatal mass shootings since that time, with the study defining a mass shooting as having at least five victims.

From The Onion, ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens:

At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

But America is not Australia or Japan. Dan Hodges said on Twitter a few years ago:

In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

This can’t be the last word on guns in America. We have to do better than this for our children and everyone else whose lives are torn apart by guns. But right now, we are failing them miserably, and Hodges’ words ring with the awful truth that all those lives and our diminished freedom & equality are somehow worth it to the United States as a society.

America’s Cars Are Heavily Subsidized, Dangerous, and Mandatory

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2019

This is a fascinating & provocative article from law professor Gregory Shill: Americans Shouldn’t Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It. The first line of the piece sets the stage: “In a country where the laws compel the use of cars, Americans are condemned to lose friends and relatives to traffic violence.”

Let’s begin at the state and local level. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions-laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards-zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.

Further entrenching automobile supremacy are laws that require landowners who build housing and office space to build housing for cars as well. In large part because of parking quotas, parking lots now cover more than a third of the land area of some U.S. cities; Houston is estimated to have 30 parking spaces for every resident. As UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup has written, this mismatch flows from legal mandates rather than market demand. Every employee who brings a car to the office essentially doubles the amount of space he takes up at work, and in urban areas his employer may be required by law to build him a $50,000 garage parking space.

Cars and car ownership are massively subsidized on a state, local, and federal level and our laws and regulations have built a nation where cars are mandatory and “driving is the price of first-class citizenship”.

Why are we taxing bus riders to pay rich people to buy McMansions and luxury electric SUVs?

And this speed limit thing is just eye-poppingly fucked up:

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that speed is a top risk factor in motor vehicle crashes. Yet the most prominent way of setting and adjusting speed limits, known as the operating speed method, actually incentivizes faster driving. It calls for setting speed limits that 85 percent of drivers will obey. This method makes little provision for whether there’s a park or senior center on a street, or for people walking or biking.

As a matter of law, the operating speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law-speeding motorists-to rewrite it: speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal.

Ok, this is one of those articles where I want to excerpt every paragraph…just go read the whole thing. (via @olgakhazan)

Update: Eric Jaffe shared some interesting bits from Shill’s recent paper, Should Law Subsidize Driving?, in a Twitter thread.

Until the 1910s, “street parking was broadly outlawed: if you owned a car in a city, you were responsible for storing it, just as you would be any other piece of movable property.”

“Tax subsidies for commuting prioritize driving. Those who walk, bike, or carpool to work, and in some cases those who take transit, pay other people to drive to work.”

Never realized (or forgot) that CAFE fuel economy rules — generally a good thing — have a loophole that “light trucks” don’t need to be as fuel efficient as cars. “Light trucks” have come to mean SUVs, which means SUVs are easier to produce. No coincidence that the share of “light trucks” has soared from 20% in 1976 to 69% of market today. The upshot, of course, is that SUVs are much worse for pedestrian safety: you’re 3.4x more likely to be killed if hit by an SUV vs. a car.

How The Shawshank Redemption Humanized Prisoners

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 01, 2019

The Shawshank Redemption came out in 1994. Although crime rates had already started falling across the country, the media (with shows like COPS) and government (Joe Biden & Bill Clinton’s push for a crime bill now considered disastrous) were still pursuing and glorifying a punitive criminal justice system. But as this excellent video by Pop Culture Detective explains, Shawshank offered 90s audiences a different view of prison and the criminal justice system.

On a narrative level The Shawshank Redemption is a movie about the power of hope in the face of extraordinary hardship. But underpinning Andy Dufresne’s story we also find a blistering critique of the prison system and criminal justice policy in the United States.

In the film, the audience gets to see the system as harsh & corrupt and the prisoners as, well, people — human beings worthy of rehabilitation. In the 25 years since Shawshank debuted (and bombed) at the box office, public opinion in America has shifted away from the punitive view of the 90s to the more humanistic perspective embodied by the film.

See also Running from COPS, Sexual Assault of Men Played for Laughs, and Ava DuVernay’s 13th. (via waxy)

How Do You Feel About the American Flag?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2019

In Flag Code, Karen Good Marable shares her experience of the American flag growing up and in the wake of the 2016 election. This paragraph in particular resonated with me unexpectedly:

Perhaps it was in this moment I happened upon the house, unremarkable but for a small American flag jutting out of its frame like a rhinoceros horn. I hesitated at the sight of the banner so close to my home and was suddenly wary. Weary. I saw the flag and without thinking thought it code: Patriot. MAGA. Make everything white again. Even with all I know about the history of Black people in this country, I’ve never been afraid of the flag. On this day, however, I felt how I feel when I see the Confederate flag: Unsafe. My breath shallowed. When did this happen? When did the sight of an American flag flying from a private residence become something that gave me pause? Perhaps it was the untrusted whiteness of my new neighborhood. Perhaps my reaction was a kind of PTSD, a result of that summer’s back-to-back televised police killings of unarmed Black men or the murders at Mother Emanuel the year before. Perhaps it was the ridiculous victory of Trump. I saw the flag and remembered what I had been warned time and again about “progressive” Atlanta: Drive thirty minutes outside of the perimeter in any direction and it’s a whole different story.

While I share little of Marable’s life experience, I realized while reading her piece that I’ve developed a similar unsafe feeling about the flag. It’s not a voluntary thing — it’s something that has built up over two+ years of seeing American flags in photos of MAGA rallies & white nationalist marches but not so much at Black Lives Matter marches or pro-choice rallies. I’m sure you’ve also noticed the correlation between seeing an American flag emoji in someone’s Twitter bio next to the MAGA hashtag and the tendency of that person to act like a misogynist asshole. While it’s hardly a new thing, the aggressive, intolerant, nationalistic right has been particularly effective in visibly wrapping themselves in the flag lately. It’s great branding for them, but it’s not doing the flag any favors.

The United States of Guns

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 01, 2019

Like many of you, I read the news of a single person killing at least 12 people in Virginia Beach, Virginia yesterday. While this is an outrageous and horrifying event, it isn’t surprising or shocking in any way in a country where more than 33,000 people die from gun violence each year.

America is a stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of gun violence. We’ll keep waking up, stuck in the same reality of oppression, carnage, and ruined lives until we can figure out how to effect meaningful change. I’ve collected some articles here about America’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, most of which I’ve shared before. Change is possible — there are good reasons to control the ownership of guns and control has a high likelihood of success — but how will our country find the political will to make it happen?

An armed society is not a free society:

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

We’re sacrificing America’s children to “our great god Gun”:

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains — “besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily — sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Roger Ebert on the media’s coverage of mass shootings:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Jill Lepore on the United States of Guns:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths:

The only guns that Japanese citizens can legally buy and use are shotguns and air rifles, and it’s not easy to do. The process is detailed in David Kopel’s landmark study on Japanese gun control, published in the 1993 Asia Pacific Law Review, still cited as current. (Kopel, no left-wing loony, is a member of the National Rifle Association and once wrote in National Review that looser gun control laws could have stopped Adolf Hitler.)

To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you’ll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don’t forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Australia’s gun laws stopped mass shootings and reduced homicides, study finds:

From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%, with the researchers concluding there was no evidence of murderers moving to other methods, and that the same was true for suicide.

The average decline in total firearm deaths accelerated significantly, from a 3% decline annually before the reforms to a 5% decline afterwards, the study found.

In the 18 years to 1996, Australia experienced 13 fatal mass shootings in which 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 were wounded. There have been no fatal mass shootings since that time, with the study defining a mass shooting as having at least five victims.

From The Onion, ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens:

At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

But America is not Australia or Japan. Dan Hodges said on Twitter a few years ago:

In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

This can’t be the last word on guns in America. We have to do better than this for our children and everyone else whose lives are torn apart by guns. But right now, we are failing them miserably, and Hodges’ words ring with the awful truth that all those lives and our diminished freedom & equality are somehow worth it to the United States as a society.

America Doesn’t Care About Its Children

posted by Jason Kottke   May 28, 2019

Annie Lowrey writing for The Atlantic last summer, How America Treats Its Own Children.

This is a country that professes to care about children at their youngest and most fragile. But here, for every 100,000 live births, 28 women die in childbirth or shortly thereafter, compared with 11 in Canada. This ratio has more than doubled since 1990, despite the medical advances made in those decades, where it has gone down in other high-income countries. Black women are three times as likely to die giving birth or shortly after birth as white women. Black women in the United States die having a child at roughly the same rate as women in Mongolia.

It is a country that professes to care for babies. But in the United States, the infant death rate is twice as high as in similarly wealthy countries. Premature birth and low birth weight are common ailments, with lifelong and even intergenerational effects.

This is a country that attempts to support low-income mothers with tax benefits, food stamps, health insurance, and the Women, Infants, and Children program. Still, it spends less of its gross domestic product on family benefits than all other OECD countries, save for Mexico and Turkey, which are far, far less wealthy. It spends less than half as much as Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Sweden.

Higher rates of incarceration, lack of access to medical care, little or no parental leave for child birth, poor education, low government spending on children…the list goes on and on. Wealthy and middle-class parents can afford to provide many of these things for their children, but if you’re poor, forget about it. This is shameful…America’s “every person for themselves” ethos should not extend to our children.

The Persistent Myth of the Empty American Frontier

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

The author and popular historian David McCullough has a new book out called The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. I don’t really know where to start with that title (heroic? ideal?) but in her Slate review, Rebecca Onion says that McCullough’s brand of Manifest Destiny-laden American history furthers “the lie that the ‘frontier’ was an empty Eden waiting for American expansion”.

This poem embodies another “pioneer attitude” — the idea that the land was prehistoric, suspended in stasis, before the arrival of white people, and needed to be properly brought into production by the kind of work only “stalwart” settlers could do. This idea, repeated over centuries, aided Manifest Destiny, even as Native settlements like the Miami town of Kekionga boasted cornfields, gardens, and cattle herds. McCullough is approvingly repeating one of the founding myths that justified stealing land from Native tribes — and it doesn’t seem like he even knows it.

Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin agrees in a NY Times book review:

And whatever praise Manasseh Cutler and his supporters might deserve, their designated Eden had an original sin: dispossession of the region’s native inhabitants — paradise lost, indeed. McCullough plays down the violence that displaced the Indians, including the actual Ohio people. He adopts settlers’ prejudiced language about “savages” and “wilderness,” words that denied Indians’ humanity and active use of their land. He also states that the Ohio Territory was “unsettled.” No, it had people in it, as he slightly admits in a paragraph on how the Indians “considered” the land to be theirs. That paragraph begins, however, with a description of the Northwest Territory as “teeming with wolves, bears, wild boars, panthers, rattlesnakes and the even more deadly copperheads,” as if the native people were comparably wild and venomous, to be hunted down, beaten back, exterminated.

Eight Ways to Teach Climate Change in School

posted by Jason Kottke   May 02, 2019

According to a poll conducted by NPR/Ipsos, over 80% of American parents want climate change to be taught in our schools, but only 42% of the teachers polled say that they teach it in their classrooms.

If they don’t hear about it at home, will kids learn about climate change in school? To answer this question, NPR/Ipsos also completed a nationally representative survey of around 500 teachers. These educators were even more likely than the general public to believe in climate change and to support teaching climate change.

In fact, 86% of teachers believe climate change should be taught in schools. In theory.

But in practice, it’s more complicated. More than half — 55% — of teachers we surveyed said they do not cover climate change in their own classrooms or even talk to their students about it.

The most common reason given? Nearly two-thirds (65%) said it’s outside their subject area.

NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz shared 8 Ways To Teach Climate Change In Almost Any Classroom, regardless of what subject you teach.

5. Assign a research project, multimedia presentation or speech.

Gay Collins teaches public speaking at Waterford High School in Waterford, Conn. She is interested in “civil discourse” as a tool for problem-solving, so she encourages her students “to shape their speeches around critical topics, like the use of plastics, minimalism, and other environmental issues.

I am, however, still hung up on the 12% of teachers polled who said that the world’s climate is not changing.

Climate Poll Teachers

States of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 01, 2019

For his series of documentary short films, States of America, Brad Barber is profiling one person from each of the 50 US states.

In the United States, you might be born one place, go to school or work in another, then pack it up and move somewhere else for a thousand different reasons of choice or circumstance. You might have been born in another country. What is it that ties us to these places and makes us adopt them as our home? How does our state affect who we are and how we identify ourselves? What makes us from there?

For Wisconsin, Barber profiled Xong Xiong, a member of the Hmong community whose parents moved there from a refugee camp in Thailand.

Xong was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand but moved to Wisconsin as a child after her family couldn’t safely return to Laos following the Vietnam War. There she grew up as part of a large influx of twice dislocated Hmong refugees who were not always welcomed with open arms in the small city of La Crosse. Despite her experiences with racism, poor integration, and detachment from her own culture, Xong is determined to help the younger generation born in America stay connected.

Xiong lives not too far from where I grew up as a kid. The subject of the Vermont short film lives pretty close to where I am now:

Here’s a trailer for the series. (thx johan)

America Is Becoming Steadily Less Religious

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2019

According to new data from the General Social Survey, the number of Americans who answered “no religion” in response to the question “What is your religious tradition?” is now greater than those who identify as Catholics or evangelical Christians. Ryan Burge shared this graph of the trends from the past 50 years:

No Religion Trend

The “no religion” trend has been growing steadily since 1991. But as this piece notes, it’s tough to tell exactly why people are answering the question that way.

Even then, those who claim “no religion” are not inherently atheists or agnostics: A 2017 Pew Research survey found that only 22 percent of “nones” listed not believing in God as the most important reason for their lack of religious affiliation.

(via @heif)

The Most Endangered Animal in Every US State

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2019

The Most Endangered Animal in Every US State

The Most Endangered Animal in Every US State

The Most Endangered Animal in Every US State

The Most Endangered Animal in Every US State

The Most Endangered Animal in Every US State

These visually striking posters showcase the most endangered animals from each of the 50 US states.

Here’s the story of the Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly from Colorado:

Colorado’s exotically-spelled native butterfly lives among snow willow patches high up in the San Juan Mountains. It has an ornate, retro look: rusty or light brown wings neatly segmented with inky black lines. Unfortunately, the Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly’s beauty has played a part in its downfall. Collectors, as well as trampling by people and livestock, have reduced their number to just 11 colonies.

We kill the things we love. (via moss and fog)

The Partisan States of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2019

The Atlantic recently teamed up with polling and analytics company PredictWise to build a county-by-county map of political open-mindedness in America.

US Map of Political Prejudice

In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. (In fact, people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives, as Mutz describes in her book Hearing the Other Side.) By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be.

We see this dynamic in the heat map. In some parts of the country, including swaths of North Carolina and upstate New York, people still seem to give their fellow Americans the benefit of the doubt, even when they disagree. In other places, including much of Massachusetts and Florida, people appear to have far less tolerance for political difference. They may be quicker to assume the worst about their political counterparts, on average.

If you click through to the article, the interactive map will let you see how prejudiced your county is. There are also maps for Republican on Democratic prejudice and Democratic on Republican prejudice.

This map is a little bit bonkers…I can’t wrap my head around some of the results. Why are Florida and South Carolina so polarized while the states surrounding them are not? And look at New York…aside from NYC, there’s relatively little polarization right up against a very polarized New England and Pennsylvania. Utah sticks out among western states but you can probably chalk that up to Mormonism. Is this a methodology problem or is it due to something fundamentally different about the states and/or their governments?

A Japanese Illustrated History of the United States from 1861

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2019

Japan Us History 1861

Japan Us History 1861

With the 1853 arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry on the shores of Japan, the isolationist country was introduced to the United States in a rather American fashion: trade with us or we’ll open fire. Faced with a seemingly overwhelming military force, the Japanese opened their country to foreign trade in the years following. Published just a few years later in 1861 by writer Kanagaki Robun and illustrator Utagawa Yoshitora, Osanaetoki Bankokubanashi is an illustrated history of America that provides a glimpse into how the Japanese perceived their new trading partners.

For instance, the two pages above feature George Washington fighting a tiger with his bare hands and John Adams battling a massive snake with a sword. As Japanese historian Nick Kapur notes in this thread, the book also contains illustrations of a burly Ben Franklin wielding a cannon as well as many other amazing and fantastical scenes. (via open culture)

The Case for Impeaching Donald Trump

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2019

In the cover story for the March 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum clearly and methodically lays out the case that Congress should begin the impeachment process against Donald Trump.

The oath of office is a president’s promise to subordinate his private desires to the public interest, to serve the nation as a whole rather than any faction within it. Trump displays no evidence that he understands these obligations. To the contrary, he has routinely privileged his self-interest above the responsibilities of the presidency. He has failed to disclose or divest himself from his extensive financial interests, instead using the platform of the presidency to promote them. This has encouraged a wide array of actors, domestic and foreign, to seek to influence his decisions by funneling cash to properties such as Mar-a-Lago (the “Winter White House,” as Trump has branded it) and his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Courts are now considering whether some of those payments violate the Constitution.

More troubling still, Trump has demanded that public officials put their loyalty to him ahead of their duty to the public. On his first full day in office, he ordered his press secretary to lie about the size of his inaugural crowd. He never forgave his first attorney general for failing to shut down investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and ultimately forced his resignation. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told his first FBI director, and then fired him when he refused to pledge it.

Trump has evinced little respect for the rule of law, attempting to have the Department of Justice launch criminal probes into his critics and political adversaries. He has repeatedly attacked both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His efforts to mislead, impede, and shut down Mueller’s investigation have now led the special counsel to consider whether the president obstructed justice.

Appelbaum’s article has already swayed the impeachment opinions of James Fallows (“this piece…changed my mind”) and Stewart Brand. This short video is a good overview of the piece (which you should read in full anyway):

This, for me, is the critical part of Appelbaum’s argument (emphasis mine):

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

With a newly seated Democratic majority, the House of Representatives can no longer dodge its constitutional duty. It must immediately open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and bring the debate out of the court of public opinion and into Congress, where it belongs.

Reading this, I was struck by a real sadness. What a massive waste of time the Trump presidency has been. America has urgent challenges to address on behalf of all of its citizens and they’re just not getting much consideration. Instead, we’ve given the attention of the country over to a clown and a charlatan who wants nothing more than for everyone to adore and enrich him. Meanwhile, the US government and a populace bewitched by breaking news is stuck in traffic, gawking at this continually unfolding accident. And we somehow can’t or won’t act to remove him from the most powerful job in the world, this person that not even his supporters would trust to borrow their cars or water their plants while on vacation. What a shame and what a waste.

How We Talk About Racism in America is Wrong

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2019

For Vox, Jane Coaston writes about why Republicans took 15 years to act on House member Steve King’s racism. I found her point about how racism has become an insult to be wielded or avoided (depending on your perspective) rather than a useful descriptive term of behavior or views really interesting.

The way we talk about race and racism in the United States is wrong. In short, we think of “racist” as an insult rather than as an adjective. And we have narrowed down the concept of racism to an almost ludicrous extent, in effect often excusing real racism — such as that espoused by people like King — and its impact on nonwhite Americans because it is not literally wearing a hood or setting a cross alight on a lawn.

Later on in the piece, she quotes historian Ibram X. Kendi (who was a frequent guest on the excellent Seeing White podcast series) about this unhelpful shift.

“I think that the way a better part of America defines what a racist is someone who self identifies as a white nationalist or a white supremacist,” said Ibram X. Kendi, a historian at American University and author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. “Someone who is in the Ku Klux Klan, someone who says the n-word, someone who engages in racial violence. Anything else, according to them, is not racist.”

We tend to define racism in a way that will not implicate our own views or ideas. “I think people define racism in a way that exonerates them. If they can narrow [the definition of racism] as much as possible to things they are not saying or doing or are about, that leaves them off the hook,” Kendi continued.

In his view, rather than “racist” being “a descriptive term with a clear-cut definition,” we have turned it into a “fixed derogatory putdown,” an insult. He told me that “by conceiving it in this way, we create a culture of denial in which everyone denies being racist but very few people know what a racist is.”

In effect, the term “racist,” which has an actual meaning, has now been turned into a schoolyard insult.

The Flag of the Popular Vote

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2019

Flag Of The Popular Vote

Toph Tucker has designed an algorithmic version of the US flag called the Flag of the Popular Vote, where the size of the stars and stripes are proportional to the current populations of the original 13 colonies (stripes) and current 50 states (stars). There’s also an animated version with tiny new stars appearing when new states are admitted into the union and the stars & stripes shift in size as populations grow. This New Aesthetic flag reminds me a bit of Rem Koolhaas’ proposed EU flag.

Americans Greatly Overestimate Racial Economic Equality in Our Country

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2019

One of the defining features of the United States is a deep and long-lasting economic inequality between white and black people in terms of wages, income, and especially wealth.

Average wealth for white families is seven times higher than average wealth for black families. Worse still, median white wealth (wealth for the family in the exact middle of the overall distribution-wealthier than half of all families and less-wealthy than half) is twelve times higher than median black wealth. More than one in four black households have zero or negative net worth, compared to less than one in ten white families without wealth, which explains the large differences in the racial wealth gap at the mean and median. These raw differences persist, and are growing, even after taking age, household structure, education level, income, or occupation into account.

Despite the magnitude and persistence of this inequality, Americans (both black and white) vastly underestimate racial gaps in income and wealth.

For instance, one question in the study asked: “For every $100 earned by an average white family, how much do you think was earned by an average black family in 2013?” The average respondent guessed $85.59, meaning they thought black families make $14.41 less than average white families. The real answer, based on the Current Population Survey, was $57.30, a gap of $42.70. Study participants were off by almost 30 points.

The gap between estimate and reality was largest for a question about household wealth. Participants guessed that the difference between white and black households would be about $100 to $85, when in reality it’s $100 to $5. In other words, study participants were off by almost 80 points. Participants were also overly optimistic about differences in wages and health coverage.

The full paper is here. Closing that gap will be challenging, in part because the often racist mythology around it is persistent. In a report called
What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap, the authors conclude “that the wealth gap is structural in nature, cannot be solved through the individual actions of blacks, and can only be solved through ‘a major redistributive effort or another major public policy intervention to build black American wealth’”.

A Short History of the US Economy 1945-2019

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2019

Morgan Housel, an economics writer and venture capitalist, recently took a crack at summing up (in just 5000 words) what happened to the U.S. economy since the end of World War II. Even if you disagree with it (or parts of it), the whole thing is worth a read. I think this captures a large part of the main point:

Everything in finance is data within the context of expectations. One of the biggest shifts of the last century happened when the economic winds began blowing in a different, uneven direction, but people’s expectations were still rooted in a post-war culture of equality. Not necessarily equality of income, although there was that. But equality in lifestyle and consumption expectations; the idea that someone earning a 50th percentile income shouldn’t live a life dramatically different than someone in the 80th or 90th percentile. And that someone in the 99th percentile lived a better life, but still a life that someone in the 50th percentile could comprehend. That’s how America worked for most of the 1945-1980 period. It doesn’t matter whether you think that’s morally right or wrong. It just matters that it happened.

Expectations always move slower than facts. And the economic facts of the years between the early 1970s through the early 2000s were that growth continued, but became more uneven, yet people’s expectations of how their lifestyle should compare to their peers did not change.

Along with this:

The biggest difference between the economy of the 1945-1973 period and that of the 1982-2000 period was that the same amount of growth found its way into totally different pockets.

This reminded me of Matthew Stewart’s piece from The Atlantic that I read when it came out but never blogged about: The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy.

When it comes to the division of wealth, many Americans believe that the country is split between the 1%, which possesses a significant share of the country’s money, and the 99%, or “the people.” In reality, The Atlantic writer Matthew Stewart argues, 9.9% of the population comprises America’s new aristocracy, which often “takes wealth out of productive activities and invests it in walls.” But this group of people is rich in more than mere money, and its constancy poses an insidious threat to the promise of American democracy.

The related video is a good 3-minute summary of Stewart’s piece.

Women’s Rights and the Policing of Pregnancy

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 28, 2018

The New York Times is running a series of editorials on the erosion of women’s rights in the American judicial system at the expense of extending rights to “clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings”.

You might be surprised to learn that in the United States a woman coping with the heartbreak of losing her pregnancy might also find herself facing jail time. Say she got in a car accident in New York or gave birth to a stillborn in Indiana: In such cases, women have been charged with manslaughter.

In fact, a fetus need not die for the state to charge a pregnant woman with a crime. Women who fell down the stairs, who ate a poppy seed bagel and failed a drug test or who took legal drugs during pregnancy — drugs prescribed by their doctors — all have been accused of endangering their children.

The introduction also contains a reminder that Republicans were for abortion rights until they realized it was politically advantageous for them to rail against them to rile up evangelicals and divide Democrats:

Out of concern for individual freedom, the Republican Party once treated abortion as a private matter. When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the land, in 1967. As late as 1972, a Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Republicans thought that the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her doctor.

The Ubiquitous Collectivism that Enables America’s Fierce Individualism

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2018

Forbes recently released their 2019 “30 Under 30” list of “the brashest entrepreneurs across the United States and Canada” who are also under 30 years old. A persistent criticism of the list is that many of the people on it are there because of family or other social advantages. As Helen Rosner tweeted of last year’s list:

My take is: all 30 Under 30 lists should include disclosure of parental assets

In a piece for Vox, Aditi Juneja, creator of the Resistance Manual and who was on the 30 Under 30 list last year, writes that Forbes does ask finalists a few questions about their background and finances but also notes they don’t publish those results. Juneja goes on to assert that no one in America is entirely self-made:

Most of us receive government support, for one thing. When asked, 71 percent of Americans say that they are part of a household that has used one of the six most commonly known government benefits — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, or unemployment benefits.

And many people who benefit from government largesse fail to realize it: Sixty percent of Americans who claim the mortgage-interest deduction, which applies to homeowners, say they have never used a government program. If you’ve driven on public roads, gone to public school, or used the postal service as part of your business — well, we all rely on collective infrastructure to get ahead.

And then she lists some of the ways in which she has specifically benefitted from things like government programs, having what sounds like a stable home environment, and her parents having sufficient income to save money for her higher education.

I went to public schools through eighth grade. My parents were able to save for some of my college costs through a plan that provides tax relief for those savings. I stayed on my parent’s health insurance until I was 26 under the Affordable Care Act. I have received the earned income tax credit, targeted at those with low or moderate income. I took out federal student loans to go to law school.

Juneja’s piece reminds me of this old post about how conservatives often gloss over all of the things that the government does for its citizens:

At the appropriate time as regulated by the US congress and kept accurate by the national institute of standards and technology and the US naval observatory, I get into my national highway traffic safety administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads build by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the environmental protection agency, using legal tender issed by the federal reserve bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US postal service and drop the kids off at the public school.

And also of mayor Pete Buttigieg’s idea of a more progressive definition of freedom:

Or think about the idea of family, in the context of everyday life. It’s one thing to talk about family values as a theme, or a wedge — but what’s it actually like to have a family? Your family does better if you get a fair wage, if there’s good public education, if there’s good health care when you need it. These things intuitively make sense, but we’re out of practice talking about them.

I also think we need to talk about a different kind of patriotism: a fidelity to American greatness in its truest sense. You think about this as a local official, of course, but a truly great country is made of great communities. What makes a country great isn’t chauvinism. It’s the kinds of lives you enable people to lead. I think about wastewater management as freedom. If a resident of our city doesn’t have to give it a second thought, she’s freer.

Lists like 30 Under 30 reinforce the idea of American individualism at the expense of the deep spirit & practice of collectivism that pervades daily American life. America’s fierce individuals need each other. Let’s celebrate and enable that.

How Fascism Works

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

Yale philosopher Jason Stanley recently published a book called How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Sean Illing interviewed him for Vox about what fascism is and isn’t and whether Trump is practicing fascist politics (spoiler alert: yes). I found this bit about how America is particularly susceptible to fascism interesting (italics mine…that is an amazingly succinct paragraph about American culture):

Well, the Ku Klux Klan deeply affected Adolf Hitler. He explicitly praised the 1924 Immigration Act, which severely limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter the US, as a useful model.

The 1920s and the 1930s was a very fascist time in the United States. You’ve got very patriarchal family values and a politics of resentment aimed at black Americans and other groups as internal threats, and this gets exported to Europe.

So we have a long history of genocide against native peoples and anti-black racism and anti-immigration hysteria, and at the same time there’s a strain of American exceptionalism, which manifests as a kind of mythological history and encourages Americans to think of their own country as a unique force for good.

This doesn’t make America a fascist country, but all of these ingredients are easily channeled into a fascist politics.

This has been on my mind lately; here’s what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, reflecting on a trip to Berlin:

With overt anti-Semitism growing in the US (as well as other things like the current administration’s policies on immigration and jailing of children in concentration camps), it’s instructive to compare the German remembrance of the Holocaust to America’s relative lack of public introspection & remembrance about its dark history.

In particular, as a nation the US has never properly come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. We build monuments to Confederate soldiers but very few to the millions enslaved and murdered. Our country committed genocide against native peoples, herded them onto reservations like cattle, and we’re still denying them the right to vote.

See also Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism.

Update: In a video for the NY Times called Is President Trump Fascist?, Stanley goes over the three elements that are always present when fascism takes hold of a country.

Open Culture has a good summary of the video if you prefer to read.

Fascist leaders sow division; they succeed by “turning groups against each other,” inflaming historical antagonisms and ancient hatreds for their own advantage. Social divisions in themselves-between classes, religions, ethnic groups and so on-are what we might call pre-existing conditions. Fascists may not invent the hate, but they cynically instrumentalize it: demonizing outgroups, normalizing and naturalizing bigotry, stoking violence to justify repressive “law and order” policies, the curtailing of civil rights and due process, and the mass imprisonment and killing of manufactured enemies.

The United States of Guns

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2018

Like many of you, I read the news of a single person killing at least 12 people in Thousand Oaks, California last night. While this is an outrageous and horrifying event, it isn’t surprising or shocking in any way in a country where more than 33,000 people die from gun violence each year.

America is a stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of gun violence. We’ll keep waking up, stuck in the same reality of oppression, carnage, and ruined lives until we can figure out how to effect meaningful change. I’ve collected some articles here about America’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, most of which I’ve shared before. Change is possible — there are good reasons to control the ownership of guns and control has a high likelihood of success — but how will our country find the political will to make it happen?

An armed society is not a free society:

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

We’re sacrificing America’s children to “our great god Gun”:

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains — “besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily — sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Roger Ebert on the media’s coverage of mass shootings:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Jill Lepore on the United States of Guns:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths:

The only guns that Japanese citizens can legally buy and use are shotguns and air rifles, and it’s not easy to do. The process is detailed in David Kopel’s landmark study on Japanese gun control, published in the 1993 Asia Pacific Law Review, still cited as current. (Kopel, no left-wing loony, is a member of the National Rifle Association and once wrote in National Review that looser gun control laws could have stopped Adolf Hitler.)

To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you’ll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don’t forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Australia’s gun laws stopped mass shootings and reduced homicides, study finds:

From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%, with the researchers concluding there was no evidence of murderers moving to other methods, and that the same was true for suicide.

The average decline in total firearm deaths accelerated significantly, from a 3% decline annually before the reforms to a 5% decline afterwards, the study found.

In the 18 years to 1996, Australia experienced 13 fatal mass shootings in which 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 were wounded. There have been no fatal mass shootings since that time, with the study defining a mass shooting as having at least five victims.

From The Onion, ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens:

At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

But America is not Australia or Japan. Dan Hodges said on Twitter a few years ago:

In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

This can’t be the last word on guns in America. We have to do better than this for our children and everyone else whose lives are torn apart by guns. But right now, we are failing them miserably, and Hodges’ words ring with the awful truth that all those lives and our diminished freedom & equality are somehow worth it to the United States as a society.

Republican Extremism and the Myth of “Both Sides” in American Politics

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 30, 2018

In this video, Carlos Maza talks about how the Republican Party has become more extremist than the Democrats, which has caused our government to cease working in the way that it should. It’s worth watching in full.

Over the past few decades, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have moved away from the center. But the Republican Party has moved towards the extreme much more quickly — a trend that political scientists’ call “asymmetrical polarization.”

That asymmetry poses a major obstacle in American politics. As Republicans have become more ideological, they’ve also become less willing to work with Democrats: filibustering Democratic legislation, refusing to consider Democratic appointees, and even shutting down the government in order to force Democrats to give in to their demands.

Democrats have responded in turn, becoming more obstructionist as Republican demands become more extreme.

Maza references the work of Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who have written several books on Congress, most relevantly 2012’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. The pair have been saying for some time that the present dysfunction in American politics is the fault of the Republican Party, as in a 2012 Washington Post piece titled Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem. and a 2017 piece in the NY Times.

What is astounding, and still largely unappreciated, is the unexpected and rapid nature of the decline in American national politics, and how one-sided its cause. If in 2006 one could cast aspersions on both parties, over the past decade it has become clear that it is the Republican Party — as an institution, as a movement, as a collection of politicians — that has done unique, extensive and possibly irreparable damage to the American political system.

In the video, Maza and Ornstein rightfully criticize the “knee-jerk neutrality” on the part of the news media, the inclination to blame “both sides” for failing to work together on specific issues and for the general dysfunction, and in the process refusing to acknowledge that Republican extremist views and tactics are to blame much of the time. They’re not talking about propaganda outlets like Fox News or Breitbart here, by the way — they’re referring to the NY Times, MSNBC, CNN, NPR, and the like. They argue that this impulse results in Americans not getting a clear picture of how our government is failing. Adam Davidson recently made much the same point on Twitter.

Both-sidism operates at every level. From the highest and most noble aspirations and core identity of journalists to the most cowardly, trying to solve a quick problem on deadline level. It is shoved into the brains of newbies and a source of enormous pride for veterans.

Both-sidism determines who gets hired, who gets promoted or fired, how editorial and business decisions are made.

It is so fundamental that there is no mechanism, no language to truly critique it from within. And little ability to adjust when it makes no sense.

You can see “both sides” at work in stories about climate change (making it seem like the science isn’t settled), vaccines (ditto), and even mass murders (“Billy was a quiet boy who loved his momma until he killed 12 children with an assault rifle”). These kinds of stories do their readers the injustice of not telling them the truth. Journalists need to stop doing this and as readers, we need to push them on it.

But what about the voters? Leading up to next week’s midterm elections, much of the focus of progressive anger has been on Donald Trump. But he seems to me to be a symptom and not the disease. The Republican Party is the disease. Take Trump away and, while that might mean fewer accidental nuclear wars, the biggest problems still remain. As long as Republicans persist in operating as a bloc with obstructionist tactics and producing legislation without meaningful debate against the desires of the people, there are no good Republicans. Vote them out, all of them.

German Remembrance of the Holocaust and Growing US Anti-Semitism

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2018

I spent a few days in Berlin last week.1 One of things you notice as a visitor to Berlin is the remembrance of the Holocaust and the horrors of the Nazi regime. There’s the Jewish Museum, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Topographie Des Terrors, which is an excellent (and free) exhibition detailing how the Nazi terror machine worked.

At the massive train yard at the Deutsches Technikmuseum, they have a dedicated exhibition on how the German rail system was used to transport Jews to concentration camps, including a freight car used in the transports that you could walk into and try to imagine, in some small way, you and your children cheek to jowl with 80 other people, on the way to be murdered. A powerful experience.

Berlin Holocaust Boxcar

Outside a train station, there was a sign listing concentration camps: “places of horror which we must never forget”.

Berlin Holocaust Sign

Just as important, the language they used on the displays in these places was clear and direct, at least in the English translations. It was almost never mealy-mouthed language like “this person died at Treblinka”…like they’d succumbed to natural causes or something. Instead it was “this person was murdered at Treblinka”, which is much stronger and explicitly places blame on the Nazis for these deaths.

As the exhibition at the Topographie Des Terrors made clear, the German response to the Holocaust and Nazi regime wasn’t perfect, but in general, it’s very clear that a) this happened here, and b) it was terrible and must never happen again.

On Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, a man radicalized by the President of the United States and right-wing media walked into a synagogue and killed 11 people.

With overt anti-Semitism growing in the US (as well as other things like the current administration’s policies on immigration and jailing of children in concentration camps), it’s instructive to compare the German remembrance of the Holocaust to America’s relative lack of public introspection & remembrance about its dark history.

In particular, as a nation the US has never properly come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. We build monuments to Confederate soldiers but very few to the millions enslaved and murdered. Our country committed genocide against native peoples, herded them onto reservations like cattle, and we’re still denying them the right to vote.

These things happened in our history in part because powerful people needed an enemy to rally everyone against. It’s an old but effective tactic: blacks, Indians, Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Irish, Arabs, Muslims, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese — they are here to take your jobs, steal your money, rape your women! It’s what slaveowners did to make their forced labor camps socially acceptable to polite Southern society, it’s what the Nazis did to make murdering Jews acceptable to the German people, it’s what the US government and settlers did to commit genocide against Native Americans, and it’s what Donald Trump is doing now. The monuments, exhibitions, and museums I saw in Berlin last week formed a powerful rejoinder to this type of fascism. I think the US really needs to grapple with its history in this regard…or it’ll just keep happening again.

Update: An earlier version of this post stated that one of the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting was a Holocaust survivor. She was not. (thx, vanessa)

  1. I’ll be posting more about the trip later in the week, I hope.

The Gerontocracy is Driving America into the Ditch

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2018

As Eric Levitz writes in a piece called Millennials Need to Start Voting Before the Gerontocracy Kills Us All, younger Americans are under-represented in American political life.

The United States, circa 2018, looks like a place run by people who know they’re going to die soon.

As “once in a lifetime” storms crash over our coasts five times a year - and the White House’s own climate research suggests that human civilization is on pace to perish before Barron Trump — our government is subsidizing carbon emissions like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile, America’s infrastructure is already “below standard,” and set to further deteriorate, absent hundreds of billions of dollars in new investment. Many of our public schools can’t afford to stock their classrooms with basic supplies, pay their teachers a living wage, or keep their doors open five days a week. Child-care costs are skyrocketing, the birth rate is plunging, and the baby boomers, retiring. And, amid it all, our congressional representatives recently decided that the best thing they could possibly do with $1.5 trillion of borrowed money was to give large tax breaks to people like themselves.

See also Dear Young People: Don’t Vote. As Levitz says though, one of the reasons that young people don’t vote is that it’s often more difficult for them than for older people. Making it easier for everyone to vote would alleviate many of these concerns and result in higher turnout, more political engagement, and better representation for young Americans.

Millennials in the U.S. are more underrepresented than their peers in most other developed countries. Primary responsibility for this fact lies with our nation’s political parties, which have made America an exceptionally difficult place to cast a ballot. If Democrats wish to increase turnout among the young, they’d be well advised to implement automatic voter registration, a new Voting Rights Act, and a federal holiday on the first Tuesday in November, when and if they have the power to do so.

Inflexible work schedules, lack of transportation, voter ID laws, fewer polling places, etc…it amounts to voter suppression of young people.

Voter suppression is often, correctly, viewed through a racial or class-based lens — however, these same laws also target younger people. A group that tends to vote more often for third-party and Democratic candidates.

For example, states such as Texas and Ohio require voter identification at the polling place — a college or university ID doesn’t qualify. In Wisconsin, voter ID laws permitted college IDs but not out-of-state drivers licenses, which, local news reported, resulted in many university students getting turned away in the April 2016 primary. In North Carolina, another key state in the Electoral College, hundreds of students cast provisional ballots in 2016, unsure whether their vote would even count because of their strict voter ID laws — which were struck down this year by the Supreme Court, but not before disenfranchising potentially thousands of American citizens.

(thx kate & @lauraolin)

Not Voting Doubles the Value of Someone Else’s Vote

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2018

In his Rolling Stone article on John McCain’s failed campaign for the 2000 Republican nomination for President, David Foster Wallace wrote about how not voting is like shooting yourself in the foot.

If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.

Please check your registration status and register to vote…it takes two minutes. Voter registration deadlines are fast approaching in many US states — there are deadlines tomorrow in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. If you don’t see your state in that list, don’t assume you have all the time in the world…check your status and register to vote anyway.

See also Dear Young People: “Don’t Vote”. (via nitch)

Rethinking American History on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2018

In most parts of the United States, the holiday listed on the calendar today is Columbus Day, which was designed to celebrate Italian-American heritage in America. However, there is a growing movement to replace the holiday commemorating the genocidal Cristòffa Cómbo with one that honors the original human inhabitants of the Americas, Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

In the forefront of the minds of many Native people throughout the Western Hemisphere, however, is the fact the colonial takeovers of the Americas, starting with Columbus, led to the deaths of millions of Native people and the forced assimilation of survivors. Generations of Native people have protested Columbus Day. In 1977, for example, participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America. And it urges Americans to rethink history.

Join me in supporting the Native American Rights Fund today.

Michael Lewis’ New Book: Trump vs. the Federal Government

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 01, 2018

At this point, reading about how incompetent the Trump campaign and White House have been and continue to be — perhaps knowingly, given the viewpoint of some of his advisors and backers about wanting to weaken the federal government — is getting tiring, but Michael Lewis is always worth paying attention to. His newest book, The Fifth Risk, is about how unprepared the incoming Trump administration was to govern the country, to “take control of the portfolio of existential risks managed by the US government” as he puts it. The Guardian has an excerpt:

Chris Christie was sitting on a sofa beside Trump when Pennsylvania was finally called. It was 1.35am, but that wasn’t the only reason the feeling in the room was odd. Mike Pence went to kiss his wife, Karen, and she turned away from him. “You got what you wanted, Mike,” she said. “Now leave me alone.” She wouldn’t so much as say hello to Trump. Trump himself just stared at the TV without saying anything, like a man with a pair of twos whose bluff has been called. His campaign hadn’t even bothered to prepare an acceptance speech. It was not hard to see why Trump hadn’t seen the point in preparing to take over the federal government: why study for a test you will never need to take? Why take the risk of discovering you might, at your very best, be a C student? This was the real part of becoming president of the US. And, Christie thought, it scared the crap out of the president-elect.

Not long after the people on TV announced that Trump had won Pennsylvania, Jared Kushner grabbed Christie anxiously and said: “We have to have a transition meeting tomorrow morning!” Even before that meeting, Christie had made sure that Trump knew the protocol for his discussions with foreign leaders. The transition team had prepared a document to let him know how these were meant to go. The first few calls were easy — the very first was always with the prime minister of Great Britain — but two dozen calls in you were talking to some kleptocrat and tiptoeing around sensitive security issues. Before any of the calls could be made, however, the president of Egypt called in to the switchboard at Trump Tower and somehow got the operator to put him straight through to Trump. “Trump was like … I love the Bangles! You know that song Walk Like an Egyptian?” recalled one of his advisers on the scene.

Ho. Ly. Shit. Incredibly, Lewis’ very next line is: “That had been the first hint Christie had of trouble.” — which makes Chris Christie the most tone-deaf individual in the world? (Probably…Christie was fired the next day, a complete surprise to him.)

The book comes out tomorrow…you can pre-order from Amazon here.

Dear Young People: “Don’t Vote”

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2018

The old white people of America have a message for the young adults of America: we’ll be dead soon but if you don’t vote, you’re letting us determine what kind of world you’ll live in.

Everything’s fine the way it is. Trump…that was us. He’s our guy. Tax cuts for the rich? Hell yeah, I’m rich as fuck. Climate change? That’s a “you problem”…I’ll be dead soon. Sure, school shootings are sad, but I haven’t been in a school for 50 years.

A look at the voter participation rates in Presidential election years confirms that the 65 and older cohort votes at a much higher rate than the 18-29 group.

Voting By Age

If young people voted at a higher rate, our government would look a lot different. (via df)