Diminishing Marginal Utility


Here’s an article by Peter Dun that addresses Black Friday, material acquisition and the behavior of mindful thankfulness. I hope this Thanksgiving week is joyful and fulfilling for you and yours. Keep safe, watch the road, and try not to “blow through the turnoff.”

Pre-Black Friday tip: True spirit of Thanksgiving serves shoppers well

Friday Grab Bag

So Virginia is essentially a purple state: It has a GOP controlled legislature, featuring a madly lopsided majority in the lower House of Delegates and it controls 8 of the state’s 11 Congressional districts. Meanwhile, in recent years every time the Old Dominion gets to vote as an entirety, like say in presidential elections or for statewide office, the Democrats have won, which has led to the former capital of the Confederacy helping to elect the nation’s first African American President… twice, as well as both U.S. Senators the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor and the Attorney General.

Virginia has large “red” sections including pretty much all of the Southside, the western part of the state, the Shenandoah Valley, much of the I-95 corridor between the Northern Virginia suburbs and Richmond. The Democrats control the cities and the inner suburbs. There is a name for this sort of thing: Blue islands in a Red sea, and there are all sorts of reasons for this. The country and the ex-urbs are a lot whiter than the cities, education levels and cultural richness tend to cluster around the urban areas. It is no secret that the cities tend to be more progressive than the outlying countryside with the sometime exception of the beach, Hampton, Tidewater and Newport News where the large number of military personnel can impact elections generally and particularly where defense based jobs are at stake.

So this raises the question: How is it that there are enough Democrats to elect Barack Obama… twice, and make Democratic political fixer and Clinton bag man Terry McAuliffe governor and yet not control the legislature and in fact not have much of a hope of controlling the legislature for years to come?

The answer is complex for sure. It involves certain oddities of Virginia government like the off-year election cycle that has the Commonwealth electing statewide offices the year after national elections which in turn affects voter turnout, the great bugaboo of the Democrats who won the state in the 2012 election when 71% of registered voters came out to give Obama a second term, but often struggles in down ticket races where likely Democratic voters, minorities, students and the working poor tend to stay home. Part of the problem is that the Democrat’s voter base is simply less motivated to come out than the ethnically homogenous, culturally and religiously similar Republican base who are often whipped into action by a media based, talk radio fueled, get out the vote apparatus that over the last couple decades has become very effective. It is an old saw that low voter turnout leads to Republican victories and vis versa. Toss in some attempts at legislative voter suppression, vote “caging,” Citizens United and the lack of any real campaign finance reform, super pacs and the tendency for incumbents to win, and we can begin to see why the GOP can rather easily resist what appears to be a majority statewide Democratic vote.

Going into the election, Republicans held a razor thin margin in the State Senate, 21-19. If they lost a seat to the Democrats the 20 -20 tie would have been broken by the Democratic Lieutenant Governor who would have cast the deciding vote. While several seats changed hands on November 3rd, in the end the split remained 21-19 and Republicans will decide on important committee appointments, budget priorities and judgeships for the next few years. It bears noting that of those 40 seats, the 19 seats the Democrats defended, none was lost. In the 12 races where Democrats actually faced an opponent, the margin of victory was an average of 60.9%. Of the 21 GOP controlled seats, 11 were contested and a Republican candidate won every seat by an average of 59.39%. In the House, where the GOP went into the election with a robust 68-32 seat supermajority the Democrats managed to drag 2 seats back into their column to bring the margin to 66-34, but once again it was the visible lack of any real movement among the legislators that catches the eye.

The Dems started election night with 32 seats, 21 of those seats were uncontested. Of the 11 contested seats, 1, the open second House district just north of Fredericksburg, was lost when Republican Mark Dudenhefer defeated Democrat Josh King by 125 votes in one of the few close elections of the night. While the GOP did lose 2 seats altogether, in neither the House nor the Senate for that matter did an incumbent who was actually on the ballot lose. Just over half the Seats in the Senate were contested, while in the House that number was just over 1/3.

At the Congressional level, where an otherwise purple swing state is represented by 8 Republicans and only 3 Democrats, a look at a map shows just how out of whack the system is.


Three small districts, 2 in the far north and 1 in the east of the Commonwealth serve to represent a Democratic electorate that routinely defeats Republicans at the statewide level, which brings us to the elephant in the voting booth, so to speak.

Gerrymandering, “to manipulate the boundaries (of an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class” is a problem that has existed in one form or another as long as there have been discreet, location-based elections. Democrats have and in some places may still use this time-honored recourse when the option is available. And there is little to no real argument that here in Virginia Republicans have been using the gerrymander to first establish and then maintain their massive lead at the local level.

In the case of Congressional District number 3, which is represented by Rep. Bobby Scott, the only African American Congressman from Virginia (African Americans make up around 20% of the state’s population), recent court rulings have acknowledged (as has the GOP), that that district was basically built to guarantee a safe seat for Scott, and more importantly several safe districts around 3 for Republicans. In other parts of the state, districts appear to have been spread, elongated and otherwise manipulated to create a few very blue districts, ensuring Republicans large majorities everywhere else. At the level of the State legislature in 2010 the GOP-controlled body produced a district map that virtually delivered the GA to the GOP for the next decade, if not longer.

Now these actions are under court scrutiny, and the Justice Department has attempted to invoke elements of the Voting Rights Act (although Republicans managed to cripple much of the enforcement sections of the law in recent Supreme Court rulings) in regard to Scott’s district on the basis that the gerrymander was based – as it most certainly was – on race, which is illegal. Unfortunately, we will have to wait and see if the gerrymandering for less racial and more politically practical reasons can survive the courts.

We at APV believe that at least part of the solution to the political games being played over redistricting would be a bipartisan commission that drew the lines based on population, proximity and other factors without input from politicians on either side of the aisle. Safe districts that look like political Rorschach tests only serve to depress an electorate that is already historically cynical about the democratic process. We will be watching the courts since the Republican GA has made it clear it has no interest in fixing this problem.

Here are some recent articles and resources:





-by Scott Price, APV President

Behind the Curtain


“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” ~L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

While the news stream is focused on one issue of importance, other critical issues are often under-reported. A peek behind the curtain this week reveals one such story by the editorial board of the New York Times.

“With each day that passes without a vote on Judge Restrepo and [67] other nominees, Republicans undermine the justice system, and the biggest victims are ordinary Americans who cannot count on fully functioning courts.”

Confirm President Obama’s Judges

‘Tis the Season


Just in time for the Holiday season, Delegates Hugo, Gilbert, Habeeb, and Loupassi of the Virginia House of Delegates are calling on Governor McAuliffe to refuse the resettlement of Syrian refugees for the next two years. Delegate Hugo said that the legislation proposed is in response to recent terrorist attacks in France, “Before we can allow further resettlement in Virginia, we must have full confidence in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its procedures. Virginia is a welcoming state, but our first priority is the safety of our citizens.”
Of course, there is no evidence that Syrian refugees are the cause of any terrorist activities, certainly none in the United States.

Just to put a little skin on this story, here’s what’s actually going on in a Syrian refugee’s life.

“As the days passed [in Yarmouk, Syria], the shelling got heavier. Stray bullets came through their bathroom wall. One morning, Hassan woke Waed and told her they had to move downstairs into his parents’ apartment, where it was safer. She got up, closed the door, and went back to bed. “If you want to go, go,” she said. “This is my house, and I’m not leaving it.” She wasn’t trying to be a martyr; she just couldn’t let it go. No matter how rational it might have been to move, it was more comforting to close her own door to the world falling apart outside.

Regime snipers had set up on the rooftops. Several of the main streets of Yarmouk were now closed off like this, and when people had to cross them, they would dash across in a zigzag pattern to make themselves difficult targets.

She walked along the sidewalk, nervous yet determined. She and Hassan needed money to eat and the snipers targeted young men, so there was no way for him to work. Besides, there was almost no food for sale in Yarmouk anymore. The checkpoint blocked flour and gas from getting in. No one was allowed to bring in more than one bag of bread.

Rather than risk the checkpoint and its snipers, or wait for the intermittent UN aid packages, many started breaking into shuttered shops and abandoned houses to find something to eat. Within weeks, the camp’s complicated social hierarchy was obliterated. One neighbor of Waed’s parents, a well-respected historian, was now looting for bags of macaroni with his wife to feed their five-year-old twins. To cook them, Ghassan Shahabi and his family pulled doors and windows from abandoned apartments and lit a fire outside.

One night, it snowed, and people went outside to make snowmen. Ghassan, his wife, Siham, and their children were bundled up in blankets by a fire in the street, a warmer spot than their freezing apartment.

Ghassan and Siham grew hungrier. One day, they decided they couldn’t take it anymore. During the morning window when the checkpoint opened, they put the twins in their car, drove into the city, and bought 25 bags of bread. The next day, on their way back in, a soldier searched the car and found their stash. Only one bag goes in, he told them, and the car has to stay out of the camp. Siham and the kids got out of the car with their one bag, then a soldier called from the other side of the checkpoint.

“Ghassan Shahabi,” he shouted. “Never mind. It’s okay. Go ahead and come in with your car.” Maybe the soldier had seen the kids and had a change of heart? Siham and the girls got in the backseat. Ghassan drove ahead. A sniper bullet pierced the window and went straight into Ghassan’s back, and then the gas tank was hit and erupted in flames. Ghassan’s lifeless foot continued to press the gas pedal. The car drove a ways down Yarmouk Street and crashed into a wall. People rushed to pull the screaming kids out of the car. They buried Ghassan immediately.”

That’s when Siham decided she could no longer stay in Yarmouk, Syria. That’s where Siham’s life as a refugee begins.

“In the days that followed, Siham and the children gathered remnants of bread where they could find them and warmed them on the fire. After eight days, she decided, “If we die, we die. It’s better to die by sniper fire than by hunger.” They paid someone to drive them to the entrance of the camp. Snipers shot along the road, and when they got out of the car, they saw a man and a boy lying dead on the street. They ran to the checkpoint and got out. Eventually they found their way to Lebanon.”

10.8 million Syrians—half the population of the country—are now in need of humanitarian assistance.

This year, Germany committed to take in 25,500 refugees. Sweden has agreed to resettle 1,200. The United States has taken a mere 156 Syrian refugees, and according to a State Department spokesman, the majority of them applied before the crisis.

Now some 26 U.S. State Governors are attempting to block Syrian refugees from coming to the United States. It’s difficult to fathom the level of callousness involved in this decision driven primarily by fear, it seems, or worse some perverse political calculation that leaves starving people to starve during one of the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

An Internet Meme regarding the Christmas season and Middle Eastern refugees (a.k.a., Mary and Joseph seeking shelter from Herod’s horrific edict) seems appropriate as a reminder of what Christianity is supposed to be about–especially for a country that takes so much pride in its ostensible Christian behavior. Or maybe, more to the point,  a famous quote by the secular Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

~by Jack Johnson

The Hunger Game


Redistricting Virginia

Ridistricing Virginia

We must end political gerrymandering, by Nicholas Mueller, cuts to the chase with common sense. “Under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, our votes must count on equal ground with every other vote. (…) If we, as Virginians, want our districts to grant equal voting power regardless of race or political affiliation, we must learn the lessons of this competition and change who is drawing the lines.”

Supreme Court takes up Virginia redistricting case However, now that the Supreme Court has agreed to review Virginia’s redistricting ping-pong ball, it’s hard to say what will happen. They might send it back down as indicated by a qualifying add-on: “whether appellants lack standing because none reside in or represent the only congressional district whose constitutionality is at issue in this case.”

Joie de Vivre

When Mark Danner wrote about the El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador that occurred way back in 1981, he included an anecdote that has stuck with me over the years. The El Mozote massacre in many ways compares in its horror to the recent attacks in Paris—although there were many more killed. By some estimates, the numbers easily quadruple the deaths in Paris. Somewhere between 730 and 800 civilians were slaughtered. But as in Paris, those who were murdered were innocent victims, not carrying arms or in uniform, merely going about their daily lives, hardly understanding how they would soon become fodder for America’s proxy war against Communism in El Salvador. As in Paris, the attacks were spread out over the entire village center, not just one family or one target. As in Paris, weapons included grenades and machine guns. As in Paris, the victims were going about their everyday life with no hint as to what would come although everyone knew that a low level war was going on, they didn’t think they’d be affected, at least not so violently, nor so soon.

In El Mozote, the villagers were rounded up and men were separated from women and children. The women were systematically raped and then shot; the men were shot out right. This took place over the course of one night. Such violence had become almost banal in the annals of the El Salvadoran war but El Mozote stood out because of its scale. And there was one other thing that Mark Danner caught in his description of the massacre for the New Yorker Magazine, an anecdote I still cannot shake.

There was a girl who had been raped many times during the course of the afternoon, and “through it all, while the other women of El Mozote had screamed and cried as if they had never had a man, this girl had sung hymns, strange evangelical songs, and she had kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest. She had lain there on La Cruz with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing — a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, and their wonder began to turn to fear — until finally they had unsheathed their machetes and hacked through her neck, and at last the singing had stopped.

Now the soldiers argued about this. Some declared that the girl’s strange power proved that God existed. And that brought them back to the killing of the children.
‘There were a lot of differences among the soldiers about whether this had been a good thing or whether they shouldn’t have done it,’ the guide told me.”

One wonders at the nuances of such a debate.


Paris is not alone, of course. Just two days ago, two ISIS suicide bombers killed at least 43 people and wounded more than 230 in attacks on a heavily Shia Muslim community in Beirut. But there the victims of the ISIS attacks were characterized in the U.S. media as Hezbollah human shields and blamed for their own deaths based on the unfortunate coincidence of their geographical location. Some right-wing pundits even went so far as to justify the ISIS attacks because they were assumed to be aimed at Hezbollah.

There was also an ISIS massacre in Turkey in October of this year that left approximately 128 people dead and 500 injured at a peaceful rally for a pro-Kurdish political party. Also, just this last September, our Saudi-led coalition bombed a Yemeni wedding killing 131 civilians, including 80 women.

Massacres are not news. Our bearing witness to massacres that we find especially piquant for whatever reason is news. Not that Paris isn’t horrific: it is. But so is a slaughtered wedding party in Yemen, so is 128 deaths in Turkey and the killing of innocents in Beirut. So is the massacre at El Mozote.


At the time of the atrocious 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda was a relatively small and isolated group. Middle Eastern expert, Dr. Juan Cole characterized them as minor players, hardly global threats, barely tribal threats. But the U.S.-led war and occupation of Iraq created conditions that allowed al-Qaeda to grow and metastasize, spreading from one militarized war zone to the next. ISIS grew out of the smoldering ruins of our petite bete, our sectarian plagued civil war in Iraq. Some of its key militants are ex-Baathists Sunnis from Saddam Hussein’s regime who were essentially disbanded and dis-empowered at the order of Donald Rumsfeld under the Bush administration. That’s why they are militarily effective. According to Foreign Affairs, “The Islamic State’s current leader, the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent time in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. Cells organized in them, along with remnants of Saddam Hussein’s ousted secular-nationalist Ba’ath party, make up some of the Islamic State’s ranks.” Their feverish devotion to a rigid strain of Sunni Islam we can thank Saudi Arabia for—from which much of the funding also comes.

But how can we stop them? Well, we might try not paying them anymore, by cutting off their funding source. Reports out of Syria claim the ISIS militants are some of the best paid fighters in the region, earning $350 a month, a good pay for the area and their funding comes principally from Saudi sympathizers and oil sales. A recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine notes that “Oil extraction constitutes the Islamic State’s largest source of income. The group is estimated to produce forty-four thousand barrels a day from Syrian wells and four thousand barrels a day from Iraqi ones. The group then sells the crude to truckers and middlemen, netting an estimated $1 to $3 million a day.”


The outcry against the attacks in Paris have been universal. I, too, condemn the senseless brutality, but in particular I like Charlie Hebdo’s response to the ISIS brutality (and, after all, that organization is well acquainted with the cruelty of such monstrous violence)… The magazine writes, “Paris is our capital. We love music, drunkenness, joy. For centuries lovers of death have tried to make us lose life’s flavour….

They never succeed.”

Tonight I am going to In Light at the Virginia Museum to celebrate art, life and beauty in a way a Parisian might. Or even an El Salvadoran girl might, one who died singing her last song of praise. The El Salvadoran soldiers argued that somehow “the girl’s strange power proved that God existed.”
Maybe so, maybe not, but as Charlie Hebdo puts it,

“Lovers of death, if God exists, he hates you. And you have already lost, both in heaven and on Earth.”

~Jack Johnson

Friday Grab Bag is BACK!

After several years on hiatus we’re back. 4 or 5 articles that we hope highlight an issue we’re interested in. This week: The Media and the GOP nomination.

In our first article Media Matters calls out the Grey Lady, the Paper of Record for falsely equating the Clinton campaign’s tempest in a teapot problem with Mrs Clinton’s grandparents’ origins and the fairly universal absence of anything approximating truth from anyone in the GOP primary scrum. For the record, Ms. Fiorino, Dr. Carson and Mr Trump in particular are either genuinely delusional or they suffer from a form of lying Turrets syndrome that produces a sort of explosive expulsion of blatant, checkable falsehoods whenever they approach a microphone. You may not completely trust Mrs. Clinton, but the differences are obvious and extreme and our media papers them over with he said, she said banalities. And as for Senator Bernie Sanders, he apparently doesn’t lie … so there’s that.

“I think that as the GOP continues to dissolve into its component parts, racist nativists, corporate shills and religious nags, and as the pure nonsense that drives these groups becomes more clear, the media will struggle more and more for credibility when deploying the “both sides do it” rubric that has served them for a generation.” Scott Price, APV President

Rather than report on the phenomenon of falsehoods from Republican candidates and how those campaigns are responding to reporting and fact checking of those stories, the Times instead chose to create a false equivalence and pretend that the problem is “bipartisan.”
NY Times Stretches To Turn GOP Candidate Lies Into “Bipartisan” Problem

It’s called “Working the Refs” and the GOP and the boys at FOX have a long history of this sort of thing: Seething GOP candidates escalate their CNBC grievances

Eric Alterman at the Nation notes in reference to the CNN debates in October: ’ It would take an entire issue of this magazine merely to catalog the falsehoods Tapper and Hewitt let slide that night. They ran the gamut from national security to economics to vaccination to climate change to immigration. George W. Bush did not “keep us safe,” and it was his administration, not Obama’s, that ensured both the US exit from Iraq and the growth of ISIS. The Iran deal does not rest on self-inspection, and Iran did not invite Russia into Syria. Vaccinations do not cause autism. Climate change is not in doubt, and attempting to address it would not “destroy” the economy. Undocumented immigrants do not cost taxpayers $200 billion a year. Social Security is not going insolvent. Hillary Clinton is not being investigated because she “destroyed government records.”

Believe me, I could go on (and on). These lies, half-truths, and outright crazy statements were so stupid as to be offensive to common sense. And yet because Tapper and Hewitt chose not to challenge them, CNN was not only not supporting democratic debate but actively undermining it.
How the Media Gave Carly Fiorina a Free Pass to Lie About Planned Parenthood

Here’s the wonderful Charlie Pierce: ” I have come to the conclusion that it is very easy to be a Republican presidential candidate. First of all, to paraphrase J.R. Ewing, once you give up truth, the rest is a piece of cake. Second, and most important, you really only have to memorize one answer.”
I Have Come to the Conclusion That It’s Very Easy to Be a Republican Candidate

The problem of course is that people like Pierce and Alterman are on the so called liberal side of things and so must of course be marginalized as partisans while shams like Drudge and Breitbart, sources so prone to lying in their own right that no self-respecting journalist would site them as sources … and yet as everything from the Swift boaters to ACORN to the Planned Parenthood hoax shows, the MSM is deeply complicit in spreading lies that once would have remained on the conservative fringe but now sweep through the internet and cable news like wild fires.

So far no one calls the GOP candidates on their lies. They mention that so and so may have misspoken or have made controversial statements, heavens forbid that Donald Trump is a liar or that Ben Carson or Carly Fiorino are demonstrably delusional or else lying … instead we hear the tired old saw that “both sides do it”. It’s just this type of valueless, conservative relativism taught in ivory towers like Liberty and Regent Universities and spread by FOX and the intertubes that encourages a consequence-free attitude to the truth in the hacks currently running for the most powerful office in the world (how’s that for turning conservative rhetorical tropes on their heads). And PS, if you need a spare Pyramid to store your grain in … I know a guy.

See you next week:)

The Main Thing I learned from the Republican Debate Tuesday Night

The fourth Republican presidential debate took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but might as well have been taking place in outer space. Or as Gary Legum has observed, “the entire Republican primary, and really the entire party, exists somewhere outside the bounds of space and time. There is no reason to think they are ever coming back to Earth.” So I didn’t really watch the debate, myself, or rather, didn’t listen to it, but I did ‘see’ it with mute on so that I wouldn’t have an aneurysm.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson were mute pantomiming creatures, remaining center-stage as the top front-runners despite ongoing controversy over statements by both. I read later that Trump doubled down on his pledge to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants embracing an old Eisenhower program you can read about here called (I am not making this up) “Operation Wetback” … But apparently that didn’t faze the intrepid audience who were probably disappointed that no one had called for the crucifixion of immigrants along the Tex-Mex border –you know, as a warning.

Trump only faced boos for complaining about rival Carly Fiorina, she of the Consumer Protection Bureau breeds Communism insight.

Meanwhile, I also learned that Senator Ted Cruz delivered the night’s biggest gaffe when he failed to list all five of the government agencies he wants to shut down, saying something like….
“Five major agencies I would eliminate: the IRS, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, uh, the Department of Commerce and HUD.”

Leaving aside the merits of shutting down these departments—one of which provides all the major funding for the U.S. government—the fact that you can’t even NAME the departments you’d like to eliminate seems rather shoddy preparation for being dictator du jour or president or whatever it is Cruz thinks he’s doing on that stage.

All during the debate, hundreds of thousands of hard working people protested outside as part of a nationwide “Fight for 15” day of action. A hike in the minimum wage– which hasn’t happened in nearly a decade– is desperately needed for our sagging lower and middle classes. It’s one of the few simple and smart decisions that could immediately help the majority of people in this country.

But when moderator Neil Cavuto asked Donald Trump if he was sympathetic to workers around the country who were demanding that the federal wage floor be more than doubled, Trump responded “I can’t be, Neil. The reason I can’t be is we are a country that’s being beaten on every front, economically, militarily. There is nothing we do now to win.” Yes, I don’t know what that means either. Luckily, I didn’t hear it come out of his mouth or I might have thrown my copy of Bankruptcy for Billionaires and Bimbos through the television set.

Asked for his own take on the issue, Ben Carson said it would be misguided to raise the minimum wage. In particular, Carson said he would be concerned that such a raise might keep young African-Americans out of the job market—which relieved me a little as at least he didn’t say it would lead to slavery.

But Rubio hopped on it first chance he got, saying, “In the 21st century, it’s a disaster.”… “If you raise the minimum wage you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine.”
And we certainly can’t have people being more expensive than machines.

So, in a nutshell, the three front-runners—Trump, Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio—all agreed on opposing any hike in the minimum wage. Consensus! Now the interesting factoid in all this is that a minimum wage hike is very popular across party lines—both Republicans and Democrats like the idea. But the people funding this nonsense don’t like it so much, so you get answers that pretty much conflict with what the majority of the Americans want and need in order to lead a decent life. Or you get Marco Rubio explaining how what we really want is… “more welders and less philosophers.”

That makes sense, right? Because if you have too many philosophers practicing stuff like logic, God only knows what our public discourse might look like.
-Jack Johnson
Donald Trump Just Endorsed ‘Operation Wetback’ at the GOP Debate

Shooting Down Solutions


An Onion article dated May 27, 2014, a little over a year ago, was titled “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”
In that span of a year there have been over 400 more gun shooting massacres. Just this year alone we have had more massacres than days. The Onion piece is funny (and sad) because despite our unwillingness to recognize the obvious, we really are the ONLY developed country where this type of things happens on a regular basis. Yet, despite the Onion satirical jab, there are bountiful solutions. The gun manufacturers and their lobbyists just exert more energy shooting them down than our politicians do trying them out.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, after DC banned handguns, gun homicides fell by 25 percent and gun suicides fell by 23 percent. There’s a solution. Even more dramatically, after Australia banned automatic, semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns and initiated a buyback program to take 700,000 guns out of private hands after a horrific mass shooting nearly 20 years ago, they have not had a single mass shooting since. Gun homicides fell by 59 per cent and firearm-related suicides fell by 65 per cent with no consequential rise in homicides and suicides by other means. There’s another solution. (You can read a related write-up on the Australian gun program written shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre, here.)

Thorough background checks, municipality bans on handguns. State wide bans, nationwide bans. Boom, boom, boom. These all work. It’s not magic; it’s a numbers game. Background checks limit the sale of handguns, or better. Bans will never eliminate all firearm violence, but the fact that they dramatically reduce firearm violence is indisputable. The fewer handguns available in circulation the fewer deaths by homicide or suicide and the numbers bear out what practical application of logic would tell us – if you take away a weapon whose only purpose is killing another human, you reduce the number of humans killed. So when we shrug our shoulders and say things like, ‘alas, it just can’t be done.’ What we are really saying is yes, a deeply selfish portion of our population is willing to concede some 33,000 American lives to violent deaths yearly (not to mention the hundreds of thousands injured or maimed every year) because they think as a society that’s the trade-off we should make. Apparently, that’s what we mean by American Exceptionalism. They make this devil’s bargain in order to house a weapon whose sole practical purpose is to put themselves and anyone near them at greater risk for murder or suicide.

The thinking among gun activists seems to fall into three camps. First, there is denial. Despite glaring evidence they refuse to acknowledge basic reality: according to multiple studies, the presence of a firearm in the home raises the risk of suicide or homicide. The American Journal of Epidemiology found that the risk of dying from a firearm-related homicide or suicide was greater in homes with guns. The health risks of owning a gun are so established and scientifically incontrovertible that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2000 recommending that pediatricians urge parents to remove all guns from their homes.

Notice that the recommendation doesn’t call for parents to simply lock up their guns. It stresses that the weapons need to be taken out of the house. Study after study has been conducted on the health risks associated with guns in the home. One of the latest was a meta-review published in 2011 by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Among many chilling statistics, Hemenway found that Children in the U.S. get murdered with guns at a rate that is 13 times higher than that of other developed nations. For our young people aged 15 to 24, the rate is 43 times higher. And although massacres make the headlines, the day-to-day death by readily available firearms is now a frighteningly banal affair.

“The presence of a gun makes quarrels, disputes, assaults, and robberies more deadly. Many murders are committed in a moment of rage,” writes Hemenway. “For example, a large percentage of homicides — and especially homicides in the home — occur during altercations over matters such as love, money, and domestic problems, involving acquaintances, neighbors, lovers, and family members; often the assailant or victim has been drinking. Only a small minority of homicides appear to be the carefully planned acts of individuals with a single-minded intention to kill. Most gun killings are indistinguishable from nonfatal gun shootings; it is just a question of the caliber of the gun, whether a vital organ is hit, and how much time passes before medical treatment arrives.”

The same holds true for suicides. Gun owners and their families are not more suicidal than non-gun-owners, research shows. Nor are they more likely to have a history of depression or other mental health problems. But they — and their families — are at significantly increased risk of successfully taking their lives with a gun. The reason: guns are more lethal than other methods.

According to Hemenway, one study found that “in states with more guns, there were more suicides (because there were more firearm suicides), even after controlling for the percentage of the state’s population with serious mental illness, alcohol dependence or abuse, illicit substance dependence or abuse, and the percentage unemployed, living below the poverty level, and in urban areas.” But “there was no association between gun prevalence and a state’s nonfirearm suicide rate,” he adds.

Other statistical evidence points to the same basic set of facts: States with the highest gun ownership rates have a gun murder rate 114% higher than those with the lowest gun ownership rates. Also, gun death rates tend to be higher in states with higher rates of gun ownership. A recent study looking at 30 years of homicide data in all 50 states found that for every one percent increase in a state’s gun ownership rate, there is a nearly one percent increase in its firearm homicide rate. So those who think themselves safer by carrying a firearm presumably are the same set of people debating the validity of evolution, man-made climate change and the effectiveness of vaccines. As a category we’ll loosely refer to them as the troglodyte contingent because despite ample evidence of sunlight, they still prefer to live in their own dark mental caves.

The next category is the defenders, they acknowledge the statistics, generally, but argue that their incredible skills, split second reflexes and years of training make them a splendid candidate to carry a firearm for self-defense. Unfortunately, their optimism remains unproven by even the most cursory view of the evidence. A report by the Violence Policy Center released in June of this year found that “American gun owners are far more likely to injure themselves or someone else with their firearm than to stop a criminal.” In an analysis of FBI and other federal government data in 2012, the center said, only 259 “justifiable homicides” involving a private citizen were reported, compared to 8,342 criminal homicides committed with a gun. Put another way, for every justifiable homicide involving a gun, 32 criminal homicides carried out with a firearm occurred. And that does not take into account “tens of thousands” of gun-related suicides and unintentional shootings. For every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home. In 2011, nearly 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to stop a crime. Although, in one survey, nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property, a closer look at their claims found that more than 50% involved using guns in an aggressive manner, such as escalating an argument. A Philadelphia study found that the odds of an assault victim being shot were 4.5 times greater if he carried a gun. His odds of being killed were 4.2 times greater.

Loosely grouped in this camp, too, are those who argue that self-defense is not just defense against criminals but against the police and the state, in general. The stupid here involves not just a failure to recognize facts on the ground, but a whole other set of delusional beliefs about the danger of the government, the state and an incredibly warped perception of one’s ability to take on, for example, the State Police, the National Guard, or the U.S. Military. In order to arrive at this camp, one must believe in the inherent malevolence of our system of government in addition to a wildly expanded (and dangerous) belief in raw violence as a method to effect change; a revolution brought to you by a hundred and one over overwrought action movies.
Should people so delusional even be allowed to own a butter knife, much less strut around with a 9mm?

Finally, there are the constitutional scholars of the right who like to play a game of whack-a-mole with the Bill of Rights and Judicial Activism. Some amendments are good and we must adhere to original intent; some amendments are bad and we just need to get rid of them. Some amendments are useful and some amendments are sad. Graciously, our conservative judiciary has taken upon itself to decide which is which. The bedrock amendment for the conservative movement in general is the Second Amendment, which they interpret without apparent knowledge of its historical context or its grammatical structure.

So let’s take a trip in the way back machine. Around the time that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution (i.e., the Bill of Rights) were being passed, the tension was between the states and a wannabe federal government. The fear of the founders was that a newly formed federal government would devolve into some form of despotism. They were looking to England and the recent abuses of the crown. There was also a quite conscious fear among slaveholding states that the right of their slave patrolling militias might be stripped under federal law. In the South, militias were regulated by the states, as Thom Hartman notes, writing in TruthOut, “It’s the answer to the question raised by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained when he asks, “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?” If the movie were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question, because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer: Well regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.”

By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South. Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave uprisings. After all, slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias (this explains an awful lot about the South’s so-called ‘gun culture’ as well).
Furthermore, Patrick Henry was convinced that the power over the various state militias given the federal government in the new Constitution could be used to strip the slave states of their slave-patrol militias—paranoia in the plantation ruling elite class is nothing new, after all—and perhaps not entirely unwarranted. He knew the majority attitude in the North opposed slavery, and he worried they’d use the Constitution to free the South’s slaves. He argued that southerner’s “property” (slaves) would be lost under the new Constitution, and the resulting slave uprising would be less than peaceful or tranquil:

“In this situation,” Henry said to James Madison, “I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone.”

The first draft for the Second Amendment read as follows: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.” [emphasis mine]
But Henry, Mason and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government. So James Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state,” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” [emphasis mine]

Thus, concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security and [slave] property of the separate states led to the adoption of the Second Amendment as we know it today.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote about this in an excellent essay last year for the Washington Post: “The Second Amendment expressly endorsed the substantive common-law rule that protected the citizen’s right (and duty) to keep and bear arms when serving in a state militia. In its decision in Heller (the recent Supreme Court decision that knocked down a municipal handgun ban in DC), however, the majority interpreted the amendment as though its draftsmen were primarily motivated by an interest in protecting the common-law right of self-defense. But that common-law right is a procedural right that has always been available to the defendant in criminal proceedings in every state. The notion that the states were concerned about possible infringement of that right by the federal government is really quite absurd.”

He suggests fixing the problem by adding five words to the Second Amendment to accurately reflect the original intent so that it would read as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.” [emphasis mine]

The odds of this happening in an environment in which the vast majority of so-called gun rights activists are in deep denial about basic scientific facts approaches nil; approximately the same odds that this time next year we won’t be faced with another 33,000+ senseless murders, a thousand or so more suicides, the same set of useless politicians, cynical lobbyists and greedy gun manufacturers all too happy to absorb the loss of life, so long as they can keep selling us their guns.

Stars and Bars

CPAC '96

Statues like flags are ridiculous things. They sprout out of a fevered dream of history and with just a little time they grow stale. Their fields of red no longer resonant as blood, their extended bronze arms point aimlessly to a slice of serene blue. As symbols, once they lose their initial value to prop up a cause or venerate a person for some godforsaken battle, they become light with irony, ripe for mocking.

The occasional historian or amateur student of the past will point out this or that detail, but to the passing crowd, they are chunks of bronze baking under a summer sun, with funny names and sometimes overly earnest faces. Our state capital hosts a perfect satire of George Washington. In battle regalia, he sits astride his steed, right arm directing our attention dramatically toward the un-seeable James. Ah, how spectacularly serious he is! How earnest the conjurer of clay who put it all together, high on the pedestal, to symbolize his unattainable stature. The two words follow, statue, stature. A clever lawyer who once gazed from the nearby General Assembly Building used Washington’s horse’s prancing derriere to make a more substantial point. We are always looking up someone else’s ass. That’s what statues do, too.

Everyday tourists stop and snap Instagrams of George to pass along on Facebook, proof of their travels to the exotic realm of our Southern capital. There’s a kind of buffoonery in all this activity, but a little history making as well. For the thoughtless recipients, a short summary text will suggest how they should be understood. For the serious students, an overwhelming urge to correct and revise, shouting out details that change subtly the way this thing, this metal, this clothe should be viewed. So, though funny, it’s instructive, too. The value isn’t in the thing, itself, but the conversation that we might have.

I have now read at least three dozen articles on ‘the meaning’ of the Confederate flag. No doubt, the same earnest discussion will whirl around the statues of the generals who decided to cast their lots with the slave owners and plantation looters nearly two centuries ago. Their greatest feat, of course, had nothing to do with the war they provoked by refusing to rely on slave labor; but in the mind bending ways they changed the history of their defeat. Huzzah! Could Mad Men or Madison Avenue have galvanized a more brilliant campaign? You may thank the ladies of the Daughters of the Confederacy for these efforts, and various Confederate leaning charities. For the only worse thing than going down in ignominious defeat, economically as well as militarily, is to be told that the reasons for which you fought– a man’s honor, or your ‘way of life’, or your sense of privilege and entitlement– is a groundless lie, supported by nothing but the vapors of a fevered imagination. Or worse, to be told that you are a black person, or a poor person’s equal. Alas, to be no better than all those others you sought to define yourself against, and earnestly subjugated with violence when necessary, or with cajoling when not. It’s a wistful feeling too, this loss….Had it not been for the calamity of the war, you might have continued your subjugation of blacks (and poor whites too, when we get down to it) in your highly refined manner until the end of time.

Yes, that loss was unforgivable, and, of course, the Ladies of the South would not have it! Heaven forfend! So they formed their clubs and got right to work. They organized burials of Confederate soldiers, established and cared for permanent Confederate cemeteries, organized commemorative ceremonies, and sponsored impressive monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate cause and tradition. The Daughters of the Confederacy were “strikingly successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks.” By World War I, the United Daughters of the Confederacy grew from 17,000 members in 1900 to nearly 100,000 women. The Weekly Sift does a nice job describing the ideological gist of the so-called Lost Cause narrative these groups promoted:

“Sadly, the childlike blacks weren’t ready for freedom and full citizenship. Without the discipline of their white masters, many became drunks and criminals, and they raped a lot of white women. Northern carpetbaggers used them (and no-account white scalawags) as puppets to control the South, and to punish the planter aristocrats, who prior to the war had risen to the top of Southern society through their innate superiority and virtue.”

“But eventually the good men of the South could take it no longer, so they formed the Ku Klux Klan to protect themselves and their communities. They were never able to restore the genteel antebellum society — that Eden was gone with the wind [hat tip, Margaret Mitchell!], a noble but ultimately lost cause — but they were eventually able to regain the South’s honor and independence. Along the way, they relieved their beloved black servants of the onerous burden of political equality, until such time as they might become mature enough to bear it responsibly.”

That revisionist and deeply patronizing view of the reconstruction period is now named the Dunning School after its primary proponent, William Dunning. According to Adam Faircloth, Dunning and his ilk, “All agreed that black suffrage had been a political blunder and that the Republican state governments in the South that rested upon black votes had been corrupt, extravagant, unrepresentative, and oppressive. The sympathies of the “Dunningite” historians lay with the white Southerners who resisted Congressional Reconstruction: whites who, organizing under the banner of the Conservative or Democratic Party, used legal opposition and extralegal violence [read KKK] to oust the Republicans from state power.”

Eric Foner highlights the duplicity in this view, and some of the havoc it allowed:

“The traditional or Dunning School of Reconstruction was not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow System. It was an explanation for and justification of taking the right to vote away from black people on the grounds that they completely abused it during Reconstruction. It was a justification for the white South resisting outside efforts in changing race relations because of the worry of having another Reconstruction.”

“All of the alleged horrors of Reconstruction helped to freeze the minds of the white South in resistance to any change whatsoever. And it was only after the Civil Rights revolution swept away the racist underpinnings of that old view—i.e., that black people are incapable of taking part in American democracy—that you could get a new view of Reconstruction widely accepted. For a long time it was an intellectual straitjacket for much of the white South, and historians have a lot to answer for in helping to propagate a racist system in this country.”

To feel the full impact of Dunning-school history, you could watch the 1915 silent movie, The Birth of a Nation, which evokes white hooded Klansmen as heroic knights, saving white Southern womanhood. Birth of a Nation, by the way, was the most popular film of all time until that ultimate paean to the Lost Cause, Gone With the Wind broke its records.

“It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”, said President Woodrow Wilson, cheering a private screening of Birth of a Nation. Robert Wormser does a nice job detailing the effect this massive propaganda victory had for the Lost Cause advocates:

“The film swept the nation. Riots broke out in major cities (Boston and Philadelphia, among others), and it was denied release in many other places (Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis). Gangs of whites roamed city streets attacking blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man killed a black teenager after seeing the movie. Thomas Dixon reveled in its triumph. “The real purpose of my film,” he confessed gleefully, “was to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”

I must confess I do not know if Dylann Roof ever watched Birth of a Nation, but his rhetoric sounds frighteningly similar to Dixon’s and I do know he worried greatly over the fate of Southern white womanhood whom he feared would be defenseless against rape if he didn’t single-handedly kill as many black people as he could. “You have to go.” This weird trope from deep in the bowels of the Jim Crowe South has been a fixture of rightwing paranoia since the days of slave patrols. It’s also nearly the exact opposite of reality for a period when white men appropriated black women at opportune times for whatever their needs might be. Speaking clinically, one suspects there’s not a little transference going on here. If you’re surprised at this, you haven’t been paying attention. The entire Lost Cause story line is based on the idea that the white majority has been unjustly injured by outside agitators who do not understand the loving dynamic of their superiority. The patronizingly glib sound you hear is the echo of Strom Thurmond filibustering with his last breath any attempt to integrate—make equal—the white and black people of his state, even as he fathered an illegitimate child with his black mistress. Is he far from Dylan Roof? Perhaps only in his choice of weapon, the ballot, rather than the bullet. Indeed, Roof reportedly spent a good bit of his internet time perusing The Council of Conservative Citizens whose website Roof cited as a source for his radicalization. The CCC, as it is lovingly known, echoes nicely it’s more famous, if violent, precursor, the KKK. The CCC has also helped deeply conservative candidates across the South, including our very own former Republican Governor, George Allen, who also liked to tout the Confederate Flag.

Here’s a bit of what went down in that church in Charleston last Sunday….While Dylann Roof stood up and pulled a gun from a fanny pack, aiming it at 87-year-old Susie Jackson. Jackson’s nephew, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk him down and asked him why he was attacking churchgoers. Roof responded, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” When he expressed his intention to shoot everyone, Sanders dove in front of Jackson and was shot first. The suspect then shot the other victims, all the while shouting racial epithets. He also reportedly said, “Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.” He reloaded his gun five times.

This is intentional. So are the monuments to the Lost Cause that litter our avenues. So are the flags that decorate our license plates and top our trailer parks. So is the money that flows from white supremacists groups to our politicians. So are the delusional screeds that inspire our Dylan Roofs. To channel William Faulkner, the past isn’t dead, the past isn’t even past. If you’re going to talk about statues and flags, pay attention to who is promoting their presence. The false history offered by these people is an old phenomenon that’s as fresh as last week.


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