Guns, Criminals, Constitution & Policy

Since writing this piece, a week after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando (12 June 2016), we’ve lost tens of thousands of lives, due to gun violence. The majority of them were not mass shootings, but those are the events that make the national news, most often. Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe (TX), Stoneman Douglas, & yesterday, in Annapolis, MD, to name but a few. Two things haven’t changed in the past 2 years; Congress hasn’t passed any meaningful legislation addressing the means with which the violence is carried out and people are still acting on their worst impulses, driven by extreme rhetoric from our “leaders”. This is America.

Seung-Hui Cho, the student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University, in 2007, had no criminal history. Adam Lanza, killed 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and was not, prior to this act, a criminal. James Holmes, killed 12 people in Aurora, CO, wasn’t a criminal. Jared Loughner, Tucson, AZ, killed 6, not a criminal. Robert Stewart, Carthage, NC, killed 8, not a criminal. Jeffrey Weise, Red Lake Reservation, MN, killed 9, not a criminal. James Huberty, San Ysidro, CA, 21 killed, not a criminal. This list is but a small segment of the larger list of people who have been found guilty of murdering multiple persons in what we refer to as “mass shootings“. It is also a list of individuals who, prior to their crime, had never been convicted of a criminal offense. “No prior criminal history” is a common refrain found in many of the news reports discussing these and other (not all) mass murder events. It is for this reason that I am not worried about criminals getting their hands on guns.

The NRA and some of its supporters try to persuade us that it is not the average Joe who is committing these crimes, it is the work of criminals. We are reminded daily that if there are new gun restrictions, they will limit non-criminals (your average citizen) from obtaining guns; the criminals, however, will “always be able to get guns”. The problem with that narrative is that it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. When many of the mass shooters have never been found guilty of anything more than a misdemeanor (if that) by the criminal justice system, how can we call them criminals? The fact that their criminal history begins, and ends, with one act, should be a wake-up call to lawmakers; preventing criminals from committing these types of acts may not be their number one concern.

The next group to be blamed is rather difficult to pin down because of the varied behaviors that can be seen as normal or not normal depending on whose doing the assessing. Those individuals who are experiencing mental illness, hard to manage stress (post-traumatic, chronic, acute, et al.), or depression, are often singled out as “more likely” to engage in these kinds of acts. This provides another convenient excuse for the gun extremists (which are few in number compared to the millions of gun owners nationwide); when the shooter is found to be mentally unstable (which may or may not include  those who are religiously intolerant, or affiliated with extremist views), they lay blame somewhere other than the weapons. But here too, these actions are not, in and of themselves, criminal. In the majority of these cases, criminal activity has occurred only after the shooting commences. So why does the vocal minority insist on talking to us about criminals getting guns and people who are mentally unstable, and armed, as a great danger to society? These folks aren’t the biggest concern, not even close.

Our society already watches out for those with criminal records. We “know” who commits crimes and we know some of the reasons why. We know about recidivism rates (and some programs that are working to decrease recidivism), and we keep our collective eyes peeled for the known “bad guys” who might try to do additional harm after serving their time (or they might not harm anyone). But we don’t have heightened senses for those who have never been charged with, nor found guilty of, a crime. They are the people we interact with every day.

Sure, most of us have talked about someone behind their back, with our spouses/partners, co-workers, pew-mates, bar buddies, and the like, about “his crazy rants“, reckless ways, violent vocal outbursts—concerning their wives, girlfriends, kids, neighbors, boss, local police, F.B.I., the President, et al. Yet, we assume that they, like so many others who have stated their disgust concerning the most recent “nuisance” in their life, are all talk and no action; because, really, who would act on these kinds of threats, especially after spouting off in front of numerous people—in public places.

Even Omar Mateen, who had some fairly normal teenage difficulties in his youth, was accused of domestic abuse, and is now known for perpetrating the worst mass shooting in our history, was not a criminal, in the eyes of the law. He was investigated and found to be a bit more of a threat than our friends Steve, or Ron, or Earl, or Pete, who like to talk big about what they’re gonna do to this, that, or the next person that “pisses them off”; but at the end of the day, everyone assumes it’s inane loud-mouthing, woofing, acting the fool, and all other manner of ludicrousness. So I ask you to think about the “criminal” and “mental illness” arguments that are made by some of our fellow citizens. Does it really make sense to concern ourselves with the known criminals when law enforcement is already paying closer attention to them? Should we really be watching our back constantly, because who knows when a person suffering from a malady of the brain is nearby? Or would we be better served to focus on what’s happening with the amount of gun violence in our culture; like, someone with a gun making a snap judgement, or maybe shooting up a street, or planning a massacre at a church, schoolrestaurant, club, workplace, or not planning it.

Most people don’t want to “get rid of the 2nd Amendment“; they just want some common sense measures to decrease the number of atrocities occurring in our nation. Policies that make it more difficult for anyone to obtain certain types of weapons or weapon accessories (high-capacity magazines, etc.) would be a good starting point. No, that won’t prevent all non-criminals (or criminals) from getting their hands on a weapon but it would likely prevent some of them—and that is better than none.

It is also better if the next mass shooting (because there will be more) takes the lives of 5, rather than 10, or 30, instead of 50. The families of those who are killed will be no less upset knowing that there were fewer victims of the violent act; the benefit, however, would be in knowing that fewer friends and family members were grieving the loss of a loved one. The cost of doing nothing is so much greater than any benefit inaction would generate.

Liberty Bell - Philadelphia, PA
Liberty Bell – Philadelphia, PA

If you’re reading this and thinking, the cost of any restriction on my rights to fully take advantage of the 2nd Amendment for my benefit is a cost I cannot bear. I would say, you might be kind of selfish, and furthermore, you’re never going to legally get your hands on the type of weaponry you would need to engage with a real military unit (you can’t afford an F-16), so why make such a fuss about restrictions aimed at saving lives. The idea of a militia (as referred to in the 2nd Amendment (Amendment II: 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.)), acting as a military force against a standing army,  no longer exists. We aren’t fighting the Red Coats anymore, technological advances (and having the most lethal military forces in the world) have rendered local militias mute, for this particular cause. The Constitution, to include the Bill of Rights, must adopt to the changes in our society while meeting the challenges of upholding the intent of the Framers.

What we need right now is lawmakers who are willing to look at current policies and make adjustments to outdated laws in addition to instituting new ideas. This applies not only to assault style weapons but to mental health counseling services and policies aimed at moving our civilization towards a more open and accepting society; we are, at best, a cautious and private society (especially to anyone who appears different from us) and at our worst, we are angry and hateful, particularly when we feel our social mores, our “way of life”, is threatened.

Hate is the primary driver of violence. This is not a theory, or some notion that a wise philosopher came up with while sitting atop a mountain, it’s a fact. People don’t generally kill, or maim, or injure other people because they love them or find them funny; they perpetrate these actions because of hate. In all it’s forms, hatred makes us want to lash out at someone/something. Maybe the person who caused us to feel “this way” or maybe the person that happens to be close at hand. The recipient of our rage is not as important as our inability to control it. Hate is the emotion that feeds the desire to do harm, and it’s become a bit too rampant in the present day. It must be addressed; and the laws that tackle it must have teeth.

Legislating anti-hate policy is never easy, but Americans are not ones to shy away from a challenge. We have football (American Style) and Hockey, Baltimore and NOLA, Lumberjacks and Miners,  and of course, we have Marines. We aren’t short on tough. But some of our lawmakers are short on courage. They lack the fortitude necessary to do what is right because it is unpopular with certain constituents and supporters. They are neither valiant, nor virtuous. They think first about themselves (i.e. re-election) and then about everything else. I don’t think of that as particularly American in character.

This may sound like a pie in the sky scenario, legislating acceptance and tolerance, but I’m not convinced that it can’t work. Sometimes, in order to create change, it is necessary to try the unthinkable. Maybe it could start with making civics and civility a more relevant piece of our educational curriculum. And communities could spend more time and money on making their members feel like they are part of the same gang (might even be an opportunity for some job creation here). Celebrate the uniqueness (the differences) that each group within the community contributes (just don’t get stuck on those differences, move forward to find similarities that are shared). Pretend, if necessary, that you like meeting new people; and in time, you might actually start to enjoy it.

Vanilla—It Ain’t White

What happened to vanilla? Seriously. When was it that vanilla came to be associated with a shade of the color white, and an adjective describing “bland”—and why? Who would commit such an injustice to a product of the beautiful Vanilla planifolia (a member of the orchidaceae family)? And what, you’re probably thinking, does this have to do with policy? Well, quite a bit.

The history of vanillaproduction” started in the geographic locale of the Aztec Empire (previously controlled by the Teotihuacán and then the Toltecs), in what we now know as Mexico (North America) and was cultivated by the Totonac. With the arrival of the Spanish into this region (circa 1520) and other areas in the Western Hemishpere, the Old World and New World underwent drastic changes. The movement of ideas, disease, precious metals, technologies, foodstuffs, and spices, et al., which would come to be known as the Columbian Exchange, dramatically changed the course of both hemispheres (this period also saw the annihilation/genocide of millions of indigenous peoples and several empires, by Columbus, Cortés, and other conquistadors, and their men). And the “exchange” of vanilla, to the Old World, was the first step in vanilla’s story of becoming a colour no longer tied to the plant’s origins. 

Fast forward 200 years and we might find the next clue in the color mix-up. Ice cream was gaining in popularity in 18th century Europe (according to historians), and when a fearless culinary madame/monsieur mixed vanilla into a batch of ice cream, I believe the “white” fallacy was born. As the base of ice cream is, yep, you guessed it, cream, the thick and fatty substance that is strangely similar in color to today’s perceived shade of vanilla, it would make sense that over time people eating vanilla ice cream would wrongly assume that vanilla was white. But this doesn’t help explain the other part—bland, plain, blah, meh.

Over the next couple of centuries, ice cream became America’s favorite dessert (even in ice cream deserts). And naturally, the colors that were most commonly associated with the frozen treat: white (vanilla), brown (chocolate), and pink (strawberry), also came to have additional significance.  Here’s where we may find part of the background on vanilla’s “plain Jane” problem. Whether it was due to the seemingly more decadent taste of chocolate (and all that went along with the desire to have something “other/different”), or the memories of a dish of freshly churned ice cream with just picked wild strawberries mixed in, after a Fourth-of-July celebration, the widespread availability of “regular” vanilla didn’t seem to evoke the same type of emotion. Which leads me to believe that the passage of time, combined with the desire to believe what is placed in front of one’s face, has led to the misconception of vanilla’s True Colors. As a society, we believe vanilla is both white, and boring, neither of which bear any resemblance to the true character of this most flavorful and versatile spice.

So now that we’ve determined who and what is responsible for this catastrophe of maligned color designation, lets talk about other instances where time and indifference have contributed to beliefs that are neither true nor sensical (which is akin to sensible). And then, I’ll discuss the importance of truth in labeling and the deleterious effects of buying products that are not what we think they are (this is where policy comes into play).

We currently accept a great deal of what is presented as fact, so long as the presenter is acceptable to our ears and eyes. The effects of such marketing/propaganda have helped shape current debates, policies, historical inaccuracies and general attitudes. Ask 10 people why the U.S. Civil War was fought and you’re likely to get one of three answers:  Three might say slavery, two might look at you like your speaking Shyriiwook, and the other five would likely say States Rights. Both answers are correct, in a way. However, many people still believe that the war was primarily about States Rights. And while we can say it was related to that idea, we must explain that the one right that was by far the most important (to the men who controlled the States), was the right to own human beings (slavery). Some “smarty pants” might spout off a list of rights that includes: taxation, tariffs, trade, freedom from federal powers, blah blah blah (they sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher). Yet, they leave out the fact that the Bill of Rights, specifically, the 10th Amendment, covered many of the State’s concerns. And, when one looks more closely at each of the “concerns”, they all have direct links to slavery, i.e. the South’s primary economic driver. So while this long held belief (State’s rights), as a stand alone argument, is essentially wrong, incorrect, untrue, a lie, we are still talking about it as if there’s some doubt as to the veracity of the real reason for our Civil War, the enslavement of human beings.

A short list of other time-tested fallacious fabrications, fictions, falsifications, fibs, and falsehoods includes: ♠ Jesus was “White”—kind of like vanilla, Jesus was a darker shade than the one he is often purported to resemble; ♣ the term “race” as used to describe different ethnicities—just plain wrong; ♥ we don’t lose 50% of our body heat through our noggin (this is not an excuse to go without a hat when it’s -20°); ♦ trickle-down economics will lift all boats—think about it, if you could make 10 million dollars a year by working more hours or fewer, which would you choose? Well, wealthy business people think the same, if they can work less, hire fewer people, invest less capital in new ventures and still make the same amount of money, why bother with all the extra nonsense. They have vacation homes to visit (not just 1 little cabin in the Northwoods), yachts to party on, polo matches to watch, and politicians to influence…they’re busy folks. So lets get on with the process of making income/wealth inequality grow; ♠ and while we’re on the topic of finance, “money can’t buy happiness”—I’d be happy to make a wager with anybody who’s looking to lose some money. Sure, after a certain amount of wealth is earned, we wouldn’t expect to gain as much “utility” from an extra million or two; but for anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck, or is unemployed and relying on the social insurance programs administered by government agencies, money can and does buy happiness. ♣ and a couple more recent illustrations of this phenomenon: ♥ you have to be smart to be successful—George W. Bush (I’m not hating, just pointing out the obvious); ♦ and, guns are just tools, like shovels, rakes, garden hoes, etc.—guns were designed with one purpose in mind, and it wasn’t skeet shooting. Guns were the next big thing in the evolution of individually controlled killing implements. While many people use them for shooting clay pigeons, beer bottles, pumpkins, and the dust off of a fly’s wing, they are still designed to end a life, be it human or animal. That, I would argue, is a far cry from what most “tools” are designed to accomplish.

Now then, let’s look at the problems associated with products that are labeled as (ex.) ƒ(x) = 36x + 5, but what you actually end up with is pistachio pudding. What happened? How did that function of (x), that I bought with my hard-earned money, turn out to be pistachio pudding? Well, maybe the celebrity endorser pitching the product wasn’t being completely honest with you. Or maybe you wanted to believe that you could get a real Rolex for $150. because that guy on the corner with the table of nice watches really needed the money and that’s the only reason he was selling it so cheap. Sometimes, nobody is any worse for the deal. The knockoff Prada handbag made the buyer happy to have a replica that looked legit, and the salesperson made some money. The problems occur when you are unknowingly endangering yourself or others.

Do you remember the toxic drywall that was imported from China and caused (and is still causing) plumbing, electrical, and health problems across the South? How about the formaldehyde trailers that were delivered to displaced Gulf Coast residents after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in 2005 (because that’s just what every dislocated person wants after a catastrophic event, more health problems)? Ever asked for a Coke at a restaurant and gotten a Pepsi, or is it Royal Crown, no, wait…it’s “cola”, something sharing a few of Coke’s qualities, carbonated water, caramel color, caffeine, but definitely not the same as Coke. Big or small, these things matter. When we’re told we are buying, or being provided with, one product, and later find that we’ve gotten something that is close to what we assumed we were getting, but not quite the same (and in some cases extremely different), we have reason for concern if not downright outrage. Sure, the generic cola won’t kill us (we hope), but if you’ve been looking forward to lunch (at the place your project manager recommended), thinking about that patty melt with bacon, perfectly deep fried tater-tots, and the crisp refreshing bite that hits the back of the palette after taking a big swig of real Coke, and instead you get a lackluster mouthful of overly saccharine cola, your lunch break letdown won’t ruin the rest of your day (your coworker did that by accidentally squeezing the jelly out of his donut and onto your shirt sleeve), but you might return to the office feeling a bit more deflated than when you left, and now you have to go into a post-lunch meeting with the same project manager, the one who tells you to smile more, with one less reason to smile and one more reason to leave anonymous hateful little notes on his desk.

Again, a short list of items that you may want to double check prior to purchasing (or maybe you like to live dangerously): ♠ fish—the mislabeling of seafood is bad for three reasons: you might be paying too much for an inferior product that doesn’t taste as good, the people working on the fishing boats are enslaved, and you could be unwittingly eating a fish that is currently over-fished/not sustainable; ♣ sunglasses—if you’re not concerned about your eyes long-term viability, don’t worry about this; conversely, if you hope to keep your sight top notch into your golden years (so you can watch the paint dry), make sure you’re getting the real deal; ♥ fragrances/cosmetics—some of the chemicals etc. that are being used in the fakes are toxic and/or gross; ♦ pharmaceuticals—no commentary necessary here, but, think about the cost and the potential consequences of getting a drug that is potentially the same but due to lack of oversight the dosage might be high, or low, and make you more sick, or simply fail to cure what ails you; ♠ flea & tick products—many are good, some are not, and your pets are not the only family members that can be affected.

Mislabeling of products, and inaccurate classifications run the gamut from “no big deal” to “holy shit, that coulda killed me”; these are issues I think about when I hear people relating boring and white (like this guy appears) to vanilla. Vanilla is anything but boring and most certainly not even close to any shade of white. And while the vanilla farmers of Mexico, Madagascar, Comoros, et al. may not care what you believe about vanilla, so long as you’re buying it, I think of the vanilla lie as a type of “gateway drug” to believing, and even promoting, other untrue and possibly slanderous/historically inaccurate theories. Fertilizers, pesticides, nutritional supplements, comestibles, and other products are regularly found to be noncompliant with generally accepted consumer product safety measures/standards.

To be clear, I know that vanilla ice cream, frosting (butter cream or others), protein powders, yogurt, etc., etc., are shades of white (and sometimes very bland) due to other ingredients. However, these products, and others, have coloured our perceptions about actual vanilla characteristics. When we make assumptions about something based on false pretenses, we fail to consider the background as well as the implications and ramifications for future generations. Policies that fail to address flawed or distorted belief systems (thank you South CaroliniansGov. Haley) and overlook misleading (intentional or otherwise) product statements can have serious negative consequences, both known and unknown.

Anytime someone is trying to sell you something, or sell anyone else something, take a piece of advice from Suzanne Massie, “Trust but verify”.

Vanilla Bean/Pod, not white, more deep, dark, rich, brownish black
Vanilla Bean/Pod, not white, more deep, dark, rich, brownish black

Owl City – Vanilla Twilight

If you’d like to see the difference real vanilla can make in a simple way, buy a vanilla Coke (if you can find it) and make a vanilla Coke using Mexican Coke. The flavor differential is significant.

New Orleans: Where It’s At & Where it Could Be—10 Years On.

NOLA & Gulf Coast Favorites
NOLA & Gulf Coast Favorites

The city of New Orleans was established by the French, in 1718. 45 years later, the Spanish had taken over the city, and the rest of the Louisiana Territory (by way of the Treaty of Fontainebleau). And then, 40 years after that, the Spanish allied themselves with France, and returned the Territory to the French, allowing Napoleon to sell the reacquired land to the United States (1803); and for about .04¢ an acre, President Jefferson scored the city that would become one of America’s greatest cultural icons.

202 years, and many tropical depressions, hurricanes and other weather related events, later, the Crescent City was pummeled by Katrina. Since official record keeping began, Hurricane Katrina (to include floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain via the compromised levees) has been the most destructive storm to hit the Gulf Coast. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was responsible for more lives lost, and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was more intense, but in sheer devastation of land, buildings, economic loss, and displacement of people, Katrina stands alone.

It should be noted that while Hurricane Katrina was ultimately responsible for producing the weather conditions that caused the levees to fail, the failure of those levees is seen by many as a man-made disaster that exacerbated the naturally occurring disaster that was a storm of epic proportion.

The word “unbelievable” is one that I almost never use, mainly because it’s not applicable. In the aftermath of Katrina, however, I seem to find the word “unbelievable” most apropos when describing the failures of the local, state, and federal, government response. Considering the technology that was available, the wealth of resources our nation (and our allies) had to offer, advanced logistical capabilities, and the extending of hands from tens of thousands of people, one would think that the situations that occurred in the Superdome, with policing issues, foreign aid, FEMA, and displaced citizens, would have been avoidable, but alas, they weren’t. From President Bush lying about “[nobody] anticipat[ing] the “breach of the levees” to Mayor Nagin failing to order a mandatory evacuation of the city, the dereliction of duty was seemingly in every public office; from NOLA’s Central Business District to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, the entire post-hurricane SNAFU was, and still is, UNBELIEVABLE!

But let us not dwell on the past, too much. Instead, let’s think about where NOLA is and where it could be. 10 years is, relatively speaking, a long time in a young person’s life. Most children born in 2005 will be going into the 4th or 5th grade this fall. They are more than 1/3 of the way through their K-12 education. While those who were in 1st or 2nd grade will likely be Juniors or Seniors in high school. And, in New Orleans, that means charter schools, for the most part.

New Orleans Public School system is now (since the 2004-05 school year) an amalgamation of “regular” public schools (operated by Orleans Public School Board (OPSB)) and public charters (managed by the Recovery School Board (RSB) or the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)). As of the 2013-14 school year, a total of 44 Boards of Education were operating 87 schools in New Orleans; 30 of those schools were operating as Independent Charter Schools and are overseen by the (BESE). As The Cowen Institute-Tulane University points out in their annual report, this number of boards, each with its own policies and procedures, does not lend itself to equitable opportunities or equal treatment of students. Nor does it make good sense fiscally.

The students of these schools are not vastly different from students in other large metropolitan school districts, with a couple of exceptions—they are dealing with the traumatic effects of at least one life altering event (for many students, the number is higher) and they are guinea pigs for a post-Katrina education governance system. They have their struggles and successes in and out of the classroom and they are engaged in social media, sports, and music, as well as debate, chess, and theatre. But they also have a district with 92% of students attending charter schools (which have varied track records, just like public schools, but with less stability) and are more likely to have undergone severe stress due to Katrina and the events that occurred in their everyday lives, after the waters receded.

For the past 10 years, New Orleans’ citizens have been trying to get back to some semblance of “normal”. To say its been a tough road would be akin to saying, getting hit in the face with a tire iron might sting a bit. These kid’s lives have been turned upside down, sideways, and inside out; and the adults have experienced just as much chaos but with even more responsibilities i.e. stressors. Events like those that were brought on by Katrina and the ensuing failure of the levees and multiple government entities are enough to make the strongest people break.

Sadly, that wasn’t the only trouble the Gulf Coast would experience in a relatively short time frame. Adding a financial meltdown that started in late 2007, and turned into the Great Recession, heaps trouble on top of difficulty. The impact was, according to some economists, less severe in a Gulf Coast that was just starting to recover. However, with billions of dollars of aid being pumped into specific sectors for rebuilding, outside groups bringing in manpower and putting money into a few areas in the regional economy, and many citizens still not back home, it may mask the true impact of the recession on the locals. Either way, it definitely had an effect on the local industries which had to, post 2005, repair or replace physical facilities (and boats), hire and train new employees, deal with insurance companies and government personnel, and do it all while trying to manage the stress brought on by the initial act and compounded by the secondary and tertiary issues that followed. Then, as if a National Recession wasn’t bad enough, B.P. had to bring international pain to the Gulf.

The 2010 oil spill (TransOcean/BP) that killed 11 rig workers, lasted 87 days (and then some), and pumped about 5 million barrels of oil into the lifeblood of two major industries (fishing and tourism), was the blow that could have sealed the fate of the great cultural entity that is NOLA. And truthfully, New Orleans, and the greater Gulf Coast region, affected by: 1) government malfeasance; 2) the Army Corps of Engineers; and 3) Katrina; have struggled to make it back; many have likely been hanging on by a very thin thread. But don’t “misunderestimate” them; they will not give up, they will not quit.

And this includes the young people. THEY ARE TOUGH! Mentally, Emotionally, and Physically; much tougher than any child should have to be. But that is the hand they were dealt, and they are, All In. The future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is secure, if not quite certain of where It will be in 50 years. The policies that are implemented, and the people crafting those policies, will play an important role in determining what that future looks like.

A lot of policies have been implemented in the post-Katrina era. Many have not had adequate time to be judged, others are failing to one degree or another, and some have had success, if limited. And this is good. If no new policies had been tried, it would have been a sign that the people were giving up. So long as the political affairs continue, imperfect though they may be, the community will survive and eventually, if not quite yet, thrive.

Three major catastrophes in five years would be too much for many cities. But yet, there it is, NOLA! The City that Care Forgot. The people who brought us so much of what is central to many of our everyday lives. Who Dat think they gonna wreck The Big Easy. Resilience, Tenacity, and Fortitude, are key characteristics of a 26.3er; so too are they abundant elements throughout Southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. They endured decades of the “Aints“, the loss of the Jazz (now in Utah, that’s still weird), and gators the size of an AMC Pacer. They don’t scare easy and they’re in it for the long haul.

So when people would say, in the months and years proceeding late August of 2005: “why should ‘we’ rebuild a city that sits below sea level?”, I’d reply, “Because in addition to Mardi Gras, Sazeracs, and Southern Hospitality, NOLA has provided us with 3 iconic pieces of what it means to be ‘American’ (regardless of whether or not you enjoy any of the three): Jazz music, Creole cooking, and Truman Capote. To not rebuild New Orleans would be like the Polish not rebuilding Warsaw; or Japan not rebuilding Tokyo; and our nation, on 26 August 1814, saying, “eh, it’s just our Capital, let’s not worry about it”. Without New Orleans, America would be just another superpower with a bunch of Nukes, a wealth of world-class cheese and beer, and a long list of World Champions who never played a team from beyond our shores (and Toronto’s Jays and Raptors rosters are largely staffed by guys from the country that lies just South of Canada) .

So here we are, 10 years later. New Orleans and Coastal Louisiana, as well as parts of Mississippi’s and Alabama’s Gulf Coast are still rebuilding, still renewing, still rehabbing—lives, physical structures, and the many interconnected pieces of the larger Gulf Coast community. It is hard to imagine what life was like for the residents of this region over the past 10 years. But we know it was hard for all and exceedingly difficult for a good many. And we also know they are coming back, one step at a time. So if you have the means, and you’re not opposed to having “Too Much Fun“, head on down to The Crescent City and Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler.

Here are a few additional links to some music, articles, and information relating to New Orleans and this story.

Rebirth Brass Band: Move Your Body-The Funky Biscuit

Hot 8 Brass Band: Sexual Healing

The Atlantic: The Big Comeback     By: Derek Thompson

Los Angeles Times: Recalling Days of Despair in the Superdome    By: Kim Murphy

The New Orleans Advocate: 10 Years Later 

Preservation Hall Brass Band: Iko Iko

Terence Blanchard: Levees—–From: A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).

Kermit Ruffins: Drop Me Off In New Orleans

The Animals: House of the Rising Sun

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts—–A Spike Lee Documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the entire hot mess of government disfunction.

Treme: HBO Series – Produced by David Simon & Eric Overmyer—-Great series that gives one a taste of New Orleans amazing music scene and what life was like in New Orleans after Katrina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rugged Individualism: It’s Not Really So Real

There is a myth that persists in our society, a myth that the rugged individual (RI)(read: male, usually White, tough, rough, “self-made man“, does it “his way”; think – John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Indiana Jones, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and the Marlboro Man) is the one who gets things done and makes our country the military, economic, and “moral” superpower it is. He explores new places or ideas, fights the “good fight”, goes his own way & finds success, and usually saves the day—in one way or another. He is the reason, some believe, that America is great. He is also the role model for those who wish to remake America in his image (that is to say, without government policies that intervene in social or economic affairs—for the most part). They say that this RI personality trait lies within the social fabric of American society, it’s part of “our” DNA. The only problem with this kind of thinking, is that it’s leaving out 95% of the story, and anyone who is not of the male gender. Rugged individualism isn’t really real.

The other 95% of the story tells of how these tough guys were often raised by families that cared about their physical, mental, and likely spiritual, well being. Additionally, they were raised in communities (be it rural, urban, or the netherworld that lies between) where neighbors helped neighbors, believing in the notion that the whole is greater than any individual part. Without this solid foundation upon which they were raised (that the well-being of the local polity and its constituents take precedent over any one individual), it is doubtful that the more interesting 5% of their story would ever occur.

It should also be pointed out that rugged individualism, the American type, is not exclusively practiced by the male species nor dominated by the descendants of European Americans; men & women of all ethnicities have practiced some form or another of this character trait ever since our continent was first inhabited by Native Peoples more than 10,000 years ago.

Whether the communities that raise these RIs chose to act in a collective manner because of the biblical teachings they heard on Sunday’s, or because they knew that their community was stronger if every person was healthy, educated (in whatever professions were important to the continued existence of their inhabitants) and engaged in furthering the group’s well being, they worked together for the common good. This fraternal style of living arrangement does not preclude any RI from performing heroic acts, or spending long, lonely, hours developing a plan/model for a new venture; but at the end of the day, the solo acts are only one small part of the lived experience of every individual’s greater existence. The ongoing support from friends, family, neighbors, teachers, community, et al. is far more important in any success achieved by “The Great One”, and in the telling of the full story. And this is where some of Americas’ Great Divides have their beginnings.

The real history of our great country is not one of solo actors daring to be great, but rather communal actors being supported in their not truly individual endeavors. While the period of the Columbian Exchange and beyond was filled with the efforts of many capable sailors and crew, we only know the names of the ships’ Captains; they are given all the credit for traversing the oceans and seas.  Similarly, those brave souls who took their wagons Westward are only remembered by their family, or towns for which they are a namesake (the Donner Party exempted), yet the first Governor of each state is prominently displayed on public schools and other buildings/parks/etc. Civil War buffs remember that General George Pickett showed extreme bravery when he led his men into certain slaughter on day 3 at Gettysburg, but those thousands of men who followed Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble, also showed extreme bravery by marching into an open field— knowing the Union Army waited 3/4 of a mile ahead. Certainly, we cannot hope to remember the names of every person who has aided in every successful venture, but neither should we fail to recognize the importance of all those hands that helped to make events possible.

On the one side, the pro RI side, we have people arguing that individuals, not the government, are responsible for taking care of themselves. Whether “care” entails work, medical needs, 2nd amendment rights, education, or basic needs (food, shelter, safety), they argue that individuals should bear the burden of providing for themselves. These folks are more prone to argue for policies that decrease: government oversight generally, business & banking regulations, and taxes.

The other extreme is the far left-end of a socialist-style system (which is very different from a liberal progressive form of gov’t.). Governance of this sort provides many, if not all, of the necessities that people need to survive, though not necessarily thrive; from free or subsidized food and shelter, to healthcare, education, and employment. This extreme doesn’t find much support in the U.S. Neither of these systems, as is, are particularly useful in a modern economy, but they both offer ideas that could, through skillful compromise and some tweaking, be used for the greater good. Compromise, however, according to Cadillac (ads by Publicis Worldwide) and Elbert Hubbard, is for weak men. I would disagree with this premise, as would any wise politician hoping to gain passage of a controversial piece of legislation.

In between the far left and the far right are a wide variety of political ideologies, belief systems, and traditions that dictate, to some extent, regional and personal mores, values, and norms. While it is likely that we (our collective society) agree on far more than we disagree on, some “choose” (aided by various forms of media) to focus on those issues that divide us. The divisive list includes: Roe -v- Wade, 2nd Amendment, proper role of government(s), social insurance & social welfare programs, military spending, role of Christianity in schools/society/gov’t, immigration, minimum wage and the wealth gap (ideal and actual), social justice, and marriage equality. This seems like a big list of very important issues, and it is. But it’s not bigger than the list of items that we accomplish every day.

Work (paid and unpaid), caring for family, keeping up our homes, preparing meals, supporting others (mentally, physically, emotionally), taking care of the self, remembering to be nice to people (because one never knows what another is going through), volunteering, and learning, are accomplishments that many people successfully conquer, daily. So why do we insist on arguing about topics that are not of great enough import to get a majority of us to the polls on election day? (I believe they are important enough, but our national voting record tells me I am in the minority).

Part of the problem stems from our lack of understanding each other. We interact with and live amongst people, with whom we share commonalities. This serves to reinforce our beliefs and polarize those who dare to think differently. When we are continually told that our beliefs are right/correct/valid, and we hear the vitriol directed at those with other ideas, it’s natural to assume that “those people” have it wrong. But what if they don’t? Or, what if they do but don’t know it, because no one is willing to engage in civil conversations to understand another perspective. Or, what if the truth lies somewhere in the middle (like the suburbs)? And what about the RIs who claim that all sides have it wrong and that we should rebel against all government action and fend for ourselves (while surrounded by 500 friends and family members, a whole crew of RIs)?

This calls for conversations. Real conversations, one-to-one, face-to-face, “a” to “b”, you get the picture. These conversations take time, and courage, and sometimes cold beer(s). But this is the best way to learn about our differences, our fellow citizens, our brother and sisters, our countrymen/women and those with whom we share so much yet know so little about. Urban and rural people need to connect and learn why each feels the way they do about gun control and gun rights; it’s not as simple as one might think. Republicans and Democrats could learn a lot from talking to each other about the employment, economic, and moral dilemmas that come with income inequality and the pro’s and con’s of unions. Children of privilege could gain new insights into the power of words by talking with Ta’Nehisi Coates. And those Americans in positions of power and/or with greater wealth could speak with folks in middle and lower socio-economic communities and “get in touch” with what it’s like to not be wealthy; possibly giving them pause before spouting off about the minimum wage being one of the Democrats’ lame ideas .

Policies that promote individual risk and reward (such as deregulation of the banking and business sectors or tax cuts that do more for those at the top than those at the bottom) over the needs of the greater society are responsible, by and large, for many of our current economic issues. When more of the wealth (which is finite) is concentrated in the pockets of fewer individuals, it serves to depress an economy. The concept is not complex; if you have less money, you will spend what you have in order to survive and support anyone that depends on you. If you have more money (a lot more), you will invest it, or stash it offshore, or play other sorts of games to keep from paying taxes. Money that is hidden is not helping our economy; money that is spent in local businesses, whether on french fries, fuel, or fixtures for the kitchen, is contributing to the supply and demand cycle that economies rely on.

We have come to this point in our nation’s history (vast economic inequity) in part by crediting individuals with making America what it is today rather than talking about nation-building as an effort undertaken by all of us: enslaved Africans & African Americans; construction, industrial, & agricultural workers; miners; lumberjacks; fishermen/women; teachers; engineers; volunteers; men & women of the Armed Forces; bakers & brewers; salespeople, I.T. professionals, athletes, public servants, thespians & artists of all types, and all the other Americans and immigrants who have taken part in building our country, should be recognized for their substantial efforts in making America the country it is. By placing the elite on a pedestal, we have given them carte blanche to do as they please in all matters financially, legally, and politically; and they have done what is in their best interest, made money for themselves and their friends and left everyone else standing on the far side of the moat.

I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to make money. Money is not the issue; the issue lies in the mindset that those who are the most successful have achieved their goals through nothing more than their own hard work, tenacity, and sheer brilliance, choosing to ignore all the people that have played a role in them reaching their zenith (which tends to lead to less sharing of that created wealth).

While individuals accomplish goals everyday: open businesses, graduate from college, get promoted, win a wrestling tournament, write a book, etc., etc.,;  they don’t do it without the support of their extended family/community. Be it financial, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, they are supported by many people from the various contacts they have made. Additionally, they are encouraged/motivated by loved ones; AND, the Local, State, and/or Federal government(s) provided services (e.g. infrastructure, emergency services/first responders, disaster relief, education, possibly tax breaks, grants & loans, and much much more) that allowed them to focus on achieving their goal.

Rugged individualism is not a myth, but neither is it the whole story. Some people have the innate ability to rise up and conquer whatever is thrown at them. This doesn’t happen through DNA alone, it is a skill that is first learned, then honed, and eventually ready to be used. It only exists because s/he had the opportunity to learn and the time to hone, and finally, the access to a place where using it offers the potential of reaping great rewards.

Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends
Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends

If you’re interested in exploring the political relationship between public and private actors and how policy actions shape societies, read Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox. This book lays out some of the major issues that policy makers have to deal with when considering new policies and the communities they affect.

A few political cartoons about rugged individualism: AlaskaMedia production; RI