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Posts published in September 2020

Disbelieving ourselves to death

johnson

If you could choose just one moment from the last week to capture the utter unreality of our time – and our politics – you could do worse than looking at the highlights of a baseball game played last Monday in Seattle.

The A’s and Mariners split a doubleheader, but the images that linger from the game have nothing to do with home runs or great defensive plays. The dystopian scene that persists is the reality that the game was played in an empty stadium where seats were filled with smiling cardboard cutouts not fans, with many players wearing face masks and wondering why the games had been played at all.

“I think it was OK breathing, but we definitely noticed it,” Mariners centerfielder Kyle Lewis told reporters. “The sky was all foggy and smoky; it definitely wasn’t a normal situation, definitely a little weird.” True statement.

The Seattle skyline – and every skyline from L.A. to Missoula – was obscured by a mile’s high worth of smoke. The air quality this week in four major western cities is among the worst in the world, all brought to the Seattle ballpark and your lungs by the catastrophic wildfires raging from southern California to the Canadian border, from the Oregon coast to Montana.

The West is burning. The pandemic is raging. The climate is cooking. And a sizable percentage of Americans are willingly suspending their disbelief about all of it, still enthralled with the smash mouth nonsense of the biggest science denier since Pope Urban VIII in the 17th Century decreed that Galileo was wrong and the Sun really does orbit the Earth.

The suspension of disbelief, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in 1817, is a necessary element of fiction, or perhaps more pleasingly, poetry. It demands, Coleridge said, that we “transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

You have to want to do this suspension of reality business since it really doesn’t come naturally. A reflective human reaction to things that just don’t seem true is to question what you hear or see. Not anymore. We have reached our “Duck Soup” moment and we are living the line delivered by Chico, one of the Marx Brothers in that 1933 movie: “Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

When told by the secretary of the California Natural Resources department, Wayne Crowfoot, that the record three million acres burned so far this year in that state required a response that goes beyond managing vegetation, the president of the United States blithely mumbled: “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”

Crowfoot pushed back gently on the science-denier-in-chief saying, “I wish science agreed with you.” But like the surly guy who has to win every argument at the neighborhood bar – back when the neighborhood bar was open – Donald Trump said, “I don’t think science knows actually.”

Undoubtedly, his many supporters celebrated more of their “poetic faith” even though every eighth grader in the American West knows more about forests and fire than our president from Queens, the same guy who predicted repeatedly that the virus would “just go away.”

To hear the president on the campaign trail, cheered on by nearly every one of the intellectually bankrupt elected officials in the Republican Party, the pandemic is over, the economy is roaring back and radical thugs are coming to a suburb near you. Reality that doesn’t depend on suspending disbelief would be, as James Fallows wrote this week in The Atlantic, that “Trump is running on a falsified vision of America, and hoping he can make enough people believe it to win.”

The Trump campaign flew into Nevada a few days ago to rally with hundreds of supporters packed shoulder to shoulder in a building in Henderson. The event took place in defiance of not only the state of Nevada’s prohibition against such large gatherings, but the clear guidance of Trump’s own science and medical experts. But, then again, they are all probably “elitists” from liberal colleges and universities. What do they know?

The Nevada rally and subsequent campaign events in Arizona and elsewhere came at the same time as the release of Bob Woodward’s latest book, in many ways, like all Woodward books, a Washington insiders’ version of the presidency as a decades long exercise in suspended disbelief. There is, however, one thing different about this Woodward book. He’s got the tapes.

Back in the spring when Trump was daily trying to happy talk his way through the pandemic he said on April 10: “The invisible enemy will soon be in full retreat.” Three days later he spoke by phone with Woodward who recorded the conversation with Trump’s full knowledge and confirmed that he had been lying to all of us for weeks. “This thing is a killer if it gets you,” Trump said on April 13, “if you’re the wrong person, you don’t have a chance.” Trump went on to call the virus that once was magically “just going to go away” a “plague.”

In an earlier interview with Woodward in February Trump called the virus “deadly stuff” that was “more deadly than your, you know, your — even your strenuous flus.”

At least two things are happening here. Trump was caught in real time lying about a pandemic that will soon have claimed 200,000 American lives, shutdown schools and businesses and devastated the economy in ways we can’t yet imagine. By his ignorance and malevolence, the president, and those most guilty of aiding his mission of chaos and death – read congressional Republicans – continues to wreak havoc on every single one of his constituents. It should go without saying that it didn’t have to happen, and it hasn’t happened in most of the rest of the world. You can look it up.

Second, the president and his pathetically craven enablers are waging a massive propaganda campaign in an effort to win an election, relying on huge doses of magical thinking larded with suspended disbelief.

So, sure, Trump’s doing a superb job. It’s going to get cooler and magically that smoke once it’s gone will never reappear. The “deadly stuff” is nothing to fret about. I mean, after all, who ya gonna believe: A guy who lies for a living or your own eyes?
 

Risk and the attachment of strings

stapiluslogo1

Earlier this year, most of us received a federal payment for $1,200 - twice that for many households with two qualifying people - that came about as close as anything does to being free money.

Our tax dollars paid for it, of course, but we recipients didn’t pay taxes on it, and we weren’t limited in what we could do with it. Some people may have put it in a savings account, but many probably used it to buy things, from beer to medical supplies to a household utility.

For some people this may have felt like a simple windfall; for others, who lost work or otherwise saw financial pressures, it may have been a lifeline. From a national, big-picture, perspective, there was another benefit. The economy, cratered by a pandemic, was experiencing a massive loss of circulating money, which in turn hurt businesses and other organizations and the people who were paid by them, and - in another turn of the wheel - damaged the governments and non-profits on which people rely.

That massive infusion of money helped; our economic situation would be worse if it hadn’t happened. In the case of the individual payments, part of what helped was the simple fact that we recipients didn’t have to worry about how we could use the money. Whatever we did, as long as the money was put to use, would help keep the wheels turning.

Another part of the massive federal payout was the part of the CARES Act that, in a somewhat similar way, gave to state governments big piles of money to spend, partly with the same goal in mind - to keep economic activity chugging along. Governments, more than individuals, ought to take care to spend wisely, and the states have adopted a variety of approaches for doing that. Sometime soon, someone ought to analyze those approaches and try to determine what worked best.

In Idaho, Governor Brad Little tried to be deliberate about the money and, as would make sense, get as much value for it as possible. But this federal money didn’t arrive entirely without strings attached. Among the requirements was that the money be used for a purpose that related to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of Little’s efforts was this: Give about $200 million in grants (some of it but not all to counties) as reimbursement for public safety costs linked somehow to Covid-19. The money would be used for public safety budgets (possibly including some public health costs), which account for a significant piece of the cost of a county budget, so you might think the counties would swiftly grab for the bucks.

Some of them have. But not all. A number of counties are turning down the free money, and their reasons don’t relate to simplistic ideology or stubbornness. They do have practical concerns.

Idaho’s second-largest county, Canyon, is turning down about $10 million. Why? The county’s controller was reported as saying, “the U.S. Treasury guidance says funds can be used for expenses reasonably necessary for coronavirus response, while the Office of the Inspector General states documentation for payroll expenses must be available to prove the expenses were related to COVID-19.” It might mean, for example, the sheriff’s office would have to document how its activities have been driven by the pandemic - which costs and how many working hours are specifically related to it. That might be hard to do, and could be easy to challenge.

The county clerk warned taking the money “could be trouble down the road.”

Some other counties, including Latah, have expressed similar concerns.

Others are less worried. Ada County is taking its $16.4 million, and officials there - and in a number of other places - said that normal financial recordkeeping should be enough to demonstrate the money was used for pandemic-related purposes.

They could be right. But the unease is not unreasonable either.

The rules, limitations and restrictions on the spending of the money are there largely to ensure the money isn’t spent irrationally or with an eye to graft or corruption, and that’s fair enough. But if the money is going to accomplish its larger purposes, a certain amount of freedom of action will be needed too.
 

Disruption

schmidt

With no Republican Platform and four more years of “the Disrupter in Chief” looking likely, we better start embracing disruption.

I have argued the health care industry in this country could use it. We have a huge, wasteful medical industrial complex that isn’t serving our “health”. It serves our 401k’s maybe, but we are not getting the health care we pay for.

But we keep buying it.

The Affordable Care Act was not an attempt at disruption, despite what the Freedom Foundation claims. It tightened some insurance industry regulations, it mandated universal coverage through a tax penalty and it tried to make individual coverage affordable. But it was essentially based on the current health insurance system. Democrats howled that the “government option” wasn’t included. Obama tried to buy Republican votes. He didn’t want too much disruption. Maybe that’s really what the Republicans want, major disruption.

Maybe when our President is reelected and his Supreme Court nominees get to hear the Republican lawsuit to overturn the law, they will find it “unconstitutional”. Then we can go back to the good old days when 40 million were uninsured. No doubt it will be many more now, with the higher costs and higher unemployment. Losing health insurance coverage, through loss of a job or unaffordability, or through SCOTUS decision in the middle of a pandemic will be a disrupter. Maybe that’s what America wants, disruption.

This wave of Covid-caused unemployment has given us a few months to see what disruption feels like. A survey back in June when unemployment was at 13% found about a fifth of the people who had lost their jobs were now without health insurance coverage. Even more telling, the majority who had lost their jobs did not have health insurance coverage through that now-gone employment. Like always, disruption hits the poor hardest.

It was amazing that the vast majority (74%), Republicans (65%) and Democrats (80%) thought the government should make health coverage available and affordable for them if they lost employment-based coverage.

You get disruption when you tear down a system. Heck, even minor tweaks can get peoples shorts twisted. Remember the outrage, the Tea Party fervor, the Fox News tirades about the Affordable Care Act? They made it sound like this middle of the road proposal was as threatening to our freedom as fascism. Where was Antifa then?

Even if you have a plan to replace what you tear down, the change can be painful. But the “repeal and replace” bumper sticker is fading on the Trumpwagen; no replacement in the Republican Platform. Actually, there was nothing in the Republican Platform at this year’s crowning, ahem, convention except “we want whatever He wants”.

So, we are experiencing pandemic disruption and it’s affecting people’s attitudes toward healthcare. If Trump and Republicans get what they say they really want, that is the repeal of the Band Aid Affordable Care Act, we might find ourselves in just the state of chaos we need.

Then, since Congress can’t act, can’t govern, can’t deliberate, we might get the miracle “Executive Order”. Halleluiah.

And that will mean the end of our representative democracy. We might just be proving we are incapable of governing ourselves. I hope not. I fear so.

Many times, when talking with patients about their healthcare decisions, I sensed their confusion, their frustration with the uncertainty of a choice their health was placing before them. Often, they would ask me to decide for them. “What should I do, doc?” It’s very tempting. Indeed, I have seen many doctors decide for patients what they thought “was best”.

But experience has taught me, people always do better when they have ownership of the decisions they have to live with. And that’s what our representative government system is supposed to promote, shared ownership of decisions for the common good. Let’s not give up on it.
 

Risch on a Democratic win

malloy

Sen. Jim Risch can talk about politics for about as long as anyone cares to listen, but don’t expect long conversations about his race against his Democratic challenger, former state Rep. Paulette Jordan.

“My race is what it is,” he says. “You have a conservative Republican running in the most conservative state in America versus a liberal Democrat. If people want to change Idaho, it’s simple to cast a vote in this race.”

Memo to Jordan: Don’t expect Risch to answer your challenge to have four debates.

Risch’s mind is more focused on the national scene and, especially, what’s at stake in the Senate if Democrats flip four seats and become the majority party. It would not be a pretty picture for Republicans. For one thing, Risch would lose his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He could still have the president’s ear if Donald Trump wins re-election, but clout vanishes with a Joe Biden victory.

The effects of a Democratic takeover go beyond what would happen to Risch. Democrats have talked about ending the filibuster rule in the Senate, which would mean that laws could pass by a simple majority opposed to two-thirds. The biggest nightmare for Republicans: a Biden victory, Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress and the end of filibusters.

“The first thing they would do is add Washington, D.C., as a state, which gives them two more Democrat senators,” Risch says. “They would try to add Puerto Rico as a state, but I think that’s a heavier lift because of the financial conditions. If they did add Puerto Rico, that would give Democrats two more seats and put the Senate out of reach for Republicans for a long time.”

Adding two more states would be stunningly simple, according to Risch. “I had always thought it would take a constitutional amendment to add a state, but it does not. It takes a winning vote in each house.”

And, of course, there’s the additional leverage on the Supreme Court.

Are you scared out of your wits, Republicans? Are you putting champagne bottles on ice, Democrats? But wait – there’s more. For example, Risch says, say goodbye to the tax cuts from three years ago and hello to more regulations. Dems will get rid of secret ballots un union elections, which Risch describes as the “Holy Grail” of their agenda. Also, look for Dems to push for labor disputes to be decided by arbitrators, opposed to mediators.

“That’s a different country from what we have today,” Risch says.

“The second Holy Grail for Democrats is they really want to get an ad valorem tax on property at the national level. That way, they could really distribute wealth. They could tax not just your income, but your land, your stocks, your bonds, your cash in the bank, real estate holdings and every other investment. They can truly do a redistribution and take it out of the hands of the capitalists. That’s what would happen with a Biden win and a flip of the Senate.”

As Democrats view it, of course, four more years of Trump would be – for starters – more chaos and drama in the White House, more controversial tweets and never-ending clashes with the media.

“He’s a unique person, but he also has been successful,” Risch says. “He took an economy that was in awful shape and to a place that nobody alive has seen – the lowest unemployment, close to record high for African Americans and other minorities. He had a record wage and salary growth, not at the top end, but at the bottom end of the scale. He has the unique sense of understanding about the economy that I haven’t seen in a president, and he has been right.”

Risch, as with other Republicans, will argue that Trump gives the nation a better shot at economic recovery. Don’t expect any personality transformation with four more years of Trump. “He is who he is,” Risch says.

Then, with a smile and slap on the table, he said, “You guys in the media complain about politicians never saying what’s on their mind. Well, they’ve got one now and they hate it.”

Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com
 

Deserving of respect

jones

The desperate battle at Belleau Wood, about 50 miles northeast of Paris, was a major American victory in World War One. After 26 days of savage fighting, a brigade of U.S. Marines helped to stop a major German advance toward Paris. American forces suffered 9,777 casualties, including 1,811 who gave their lives and were laid to rest at the nearby Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.

President Trump was slated to attend a ceremony at Belleau Wood to honor those brave souls on November 10, 2018, but cancelled at the last minute due to rain. According to a well-sourced report, Trump said he did not want to get his hair wet. The rain did not keep other officials from attending. Trump reportedly asked senior staff, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” He also referred to the 1,811 Marines who died as “suckers” for getting killed.

The White House has vigorously disputed the report, but it has been confirmed by a number of reputable news organizations, as well as Jennifer Griffin, the national security correspondent of Fox News. Along the same lines, Griffin’s source also told her that when Trump spoke of the Vietnam War he said, ”Anyone who went was a sucker.”

Trump’s claims of being a strong supporter of U.S. service personnel do not withstand critical scrutiny. He admits never confronting Vladimir Putin about Russia’s offer to pay bounties to the Taliban for killing American soldiers. Trump has claimed the intelligence was not credible, a claim supported by Idaho Senator Jim Risch. Secretary of State Pompeo put the lie to their claims when he disclosed on August 12 that he had given a stern warning to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about the bounty payments. Pompeo said he told Lavrov, “We won’t brook that; we won’t tolerate that.” Weak intelligence would not justify that kind of warning.

Trump has browbeaten the Afghan government into releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners as part of a so-called peace deal. Included in the release are four Taliban who carried out insider attacks against American troops. One insider, who killed two American officers, was released on May 29. The three others were among 300 high-value prisoners, the last to be released. France and Australia have strongly opposed the release of insiders who killed their troops, but Trump seems to be alright with releasing those who killed Americans.

Trump has pardoned several individuals for war crimes they committed in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is a great propaganda coup for our adversaries. Enemy combatants use it as a powerful tool to recruit others to kill American troops. It undermines our mission to gain the confidence and support of civilian populations in the war zones, and tarnishes our moral standing across the wider world. It was a devastating blow to soldiers who faithfully obeyed the laws of war and came forward to testify against the criminals, who include Edward Gallagher and Clint Lorance.

Trump was apparently unaware of the popularity of Stars and Stripes newspaper, which is an independent source of news for our troops. He eliminated funding for the paper in his FY21 budget and had the Pentagon issue orders to close it down in September, despite the fact that Congress was on track to restore the funding. I suspect he was angry that the paper did not toe the party line, as he saw it. The immediate and angry outcry from every part of the political spectrum caused Trump to do a swift about face.

The active duty military has sensed Trump’s disdain for the concept of service over self. Consequently, his support in the ranks has been rapidly diminishing. A recent Military Times poll showed Trump running behind Biden 37.4% to 41.3%. Four years ago, Trump led Clinton 54% to 25%. If Trump does not interfere with the right of service personnel to vote by mail, he’ll likely get an unhappy message from the troops on November 3.

Jim Jones volunteered for combat service in Vietnam (July 1968--August 1969).
 

Setting a bad example

rainey

So, now we know. Our incompetent President lied to us about COVID-19. Well, Boy Howdy! D-U-H.

The difference between those lies, and non-stop torrent of others in the last four years, is nearly 200-thousand people have died and millions of others are likely scarred for life or will have continuing health problems. Because he lied.

At the end of my life - four score plus - it grieves me to write the words “our incompetent President.” There have been 13 Presidents in my years. And not one - not one - could have been called “our incompetent President.” Some were better than others; some worse. But none could be called “incompetent.”

Or a liar. Oh, there have been lies in all those administrations. To be sure. But, nowhere near the avalanche of pure verbal B.S. we’ve experienced since 2016. Not even close. DJT is the hands-down winner!

His lying and law-breaking ways have, in my opinion, unleashed a violent strain of anger, rage, in-your-face behavior that’s been just under the surface of our society for a long time. We’ve seen occasional outbursts. But, nothing like recent events of protests, vandalism, thievery, deliberate violence and outright murder - much of it by self-proclaimed followers of Donald.

“Proud Boys,” Prayer Boys,” KKK,” “Sons of the Confederacy,” “Antifa Killers” and individuals like 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, the shooter in Kenosha, WI. All have burst into our consciousness because of their violent behavior, public militance and their attempts - often successful - to turn legitimate protests into near-riots.

Then, as if the senseless murder of two innocent Wisconsin protestors wasn’t heinous enough, the aforementioned President gave his personal support for Rittenhouse that may become the cornerstone of his trial defense.

Trump’s lies, law-breaking and occasionally putting himself above the law, can be tied to lots of things. Take that September 10th game between the Kansas City Chiefs and The Texans. At the end of opening ceremonies - and after playing the National Anthem - the field announcer called for a silent moment to honor those fighting racism in this country. The players joined arms and stood quietly. But, after about 10 seconds, the boo’s started. The boo’s. During a silent moment honoring those “fighting racism?” Yep. Did you check the MAGA hats?

In Portland. Hundreds of peaceful protestors in the streets. Suddenly, some 600 Trumpers - many armed - drove pickups and other vehicles into their midst. They sprayed chemicals on surprised marchers. They clubbed a few. And beat a few. All the while waving guns and dozens of large “Trump-Pence - 2020” flags that looked official. But, in large, red letters across the bottom of all those flags was printed “Stop the Bullshit.” Real “Trump-Pence” signs expressly printed for a law-breaking attack on innocents.

That charge had to be planned weeks before. Professional printing of those banners had to be ordered way in advance. The “Prayer Boys” were from out-of-state. Their demonstration permit was for another Oregon county about 20 miles south of Portland. Still, there they were: breaking laws, attacking innocents and doing so in the name of our President. Our President. A guy who has not discouraged such violence and who has, in fact, openly “excused” such acts. In Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, Oregon and elsewhere.

Here in Arizona, we’ve got a GOP guy running for sheriff who has 38 years of service in the Maricopa department. On the surface, he looks proper and imposing in his official uniform, a large badge and military-style crewcut. But, his campaign signs are the tipoff.

Across the top, they read “Enforce our laws.” Across the middle, “Turn back the mobs.” Now, Maricopa County, which has four-million citizens - has had a few street protests. Yes, we have. A few arrests - very few - but no deliberate “mob” scenes. Fact is, the largest “mob” gathering around here was when the last Costco store opened. And the average age of that “mob” was well into the 60's.

But, this veteran cop has taken a page from Trump and Joe Arpaio (for whom he worked many years), made up his own “facts” and prominently displays his lies on our street right-of-ways. He’ll likely lose. We already have a good sheriff.

We’ve got two GOP representatives - both Trumpers. One denies the existence of Coronavirus, saying it’s a lie created by Democrats and tells his followers to throw away their masks. The other decries immigration of any type, wants borders sealed “from sea to shining sea” and is also a virus denier. They’ll likely be re-elected.

Look at the Trump “rallies.” Listen to the crowds. Hear their chants which are often racist. Watch their demeanor. Trump’s lies at such events often have racist undertones. The crowds of Fox-watchers have refused reality and have no factual basis for refuting what he says.

And, what he says, supports their distorted view of reality. They often leave the events roused and armed with his lying speech confirming their own warped thinking. Too often, they’re angry and feel threatened by societal changes they don’t understand and are unwilling to accept. They openly distrust the very government that, in many cases, makes a monthly deposit in their bank accounts.

Been to a theater, a concert, a ball game or other large venue lately? Is crowd behavior what it was five or six years ago? Have you seen more instances of road rage? Do your kids respond properly to your family rules or are they more defiant? Do you get angry more often? Does it seem there’s more violence in the news? That’s because there really is more violence. In the news. In our streets.

We’re living in a new environment, very different from what we knew just a few years ago. COVID-19 has affected normal behavior in nearly all phases of our lives. It’s isolated us. Made us more fearful. More tentative. It’s changed the way we shop. The way we do business. The way we educate our kids. We’re wary of crowds. Relationships have been changed by the virus and, often, by more aggressive behaviors by those we come in contact with. Life is very different.

While Trump can’t be blamed for our involvement in a worldwide pandemic, he certainly can be blamed for his lies to all of us, his denial of fact, his deliberate and willful rejection of international intelligence when faced with reality. As Nero is said to have “fiddled while Rome burned,” Trump has rejected the responsibilities of his high office as he spends 10-12 hours daily watching Faux “news”

His behavior, his domination of the airwaves, his distorted view of reality, his personal support of violence and violent people, his all-consuming lies about everything - all this has permeated our lives. Even WE are different. Truth is often hard for us to find. We’ve been under constant “attack” from the top of our own government.

It’s up to each of us to “counterattack.” November third.
 

Is America obsolete?

johnson

What if the American experiment has reached its sell buy date?

What are the chances the 244-year run of “the last best hope on earth,” as Lincoln said, is not just in twilight, but already too far gone to save?

Lincoln’s hope for the world depended on, he said, “plain, peaceful, generous, just” actions by Americans who profoundly disagreed about big issues but were still bound together by a common purpose – to be part of a country bigger and better than its differences.

What if the United States of the 21st Century is not the place Lincoln thought it to be, but just too big, too diverse, too divided, its population too invested in tribal loyalties and hatred, too eager to condemn, too sure of its own righteousness and too certain of its disdain to survive? What if our 244 years of failing to really confront the original American sin of permitting, indeed encouraging, human bondage has finally visited a reckoning on us?

What if the parallel crisis of race, pandemic, economic and climate upheaval is just too much for our inadequate leadership, our fractured social compact and our wildly differing views of reality to handle?

What if surviving world wars, economic collapse, including a decade-long depression, a deadly pandemic a hundred years ago and the catastrophe of civil war in the 1860s was just part of a trial run for ultimate failure in the 21st Century? What if “the last best hope” isn’t?

I confess that I have never before, even in the abstract, really considered that the end might come. The United States is, after all, as we used to tell ourselves, “the indispensable nation.” The “greatest country” on the planet. We had the biggest economy, the best health care, the most freedom. We are, or we told ourselves we were, “exceptional.”

But now we see it was all a lie. We told ourselves stories about how great things are and we believed our own press releases. We said the American system – checks and balances, fair and free elections, holding people accountable, the “rule of law” – could be shaken from time-to-time, but would endure. The idea, we told ourselves, was that our very special Constitution would protect us from crooks and charlatans and despots. Congress would exercise its independence and hold a chief executive who got too big for the Constitution accountable. After all, Republicans told Republican Richard Nixon that the jig was up, and he had to go. The system worked. Back then.

Not to worry, we convinced ourselves, American ideals, perhaps never fully realized, like the “all men are created equal” language not really applying to all persons, would still, by hook or crook, prevail.

We got this covered, we assured ourselves. A momentary blip in the body politic and before you know it, we’ll be back on the path to perfecting “a more perfect union.” But we aren’t on that path. Our current path is down a long, dark alley were division and discord seem to be the only truly exceptional things about the country.

As Thomas Geoghegan recently put it perfectly: “we are at a moment like the one the country faced in 1932 – there is not just fear and uncertainty and a sense of being unmoored but also the doubt that our form of government is capable of coping. In a way it is even worse: unlike in 1932, the plot against America is already in full swing, and we as a people are even more uncertain of who we are.”

A thing to remember about the United States is that it’s just an idea, and an idea built on a very flimsy foundation. It’s not the laws and the Constitution that ultimately matter, but rather that people – citizens and their leaders – will decide, even when it means acting against immediate self-interest, that they will still act in good faith. The idea is that respect for the norms of a democratic society will be observed and that decency will ultimately prevail, even if observing the norms and behaving decently mean that my side is going to lose some of the time. How obsolete that seems today.

If America is not to pass away into something Lincoln would not recognize, that Franklin Roosevelt would find repugnant, that General and President Eisenhower would reject, we need to recapture a shared sense of national purpose.

We can begin with a fundamental question. What do we really stand for? It’s not that we stand for any one president or any one political position, but what is really in the American DNA?

The Catholic scholar Thomas Levergood takes me back to my own belief in my church’s social message, which is to search for and find “the common good.” Levergood recently defined the idea in an essay in the Jesuit journal America: “In a specific sense a common good refers to something that can only be shared in common and cannot be divided in pieces and be possessed by individuals or smaller groups. It is a common end achieved through common actions.”

Levergood continues: “It is in plain view that many of our fellow citizens are so frustrated with our political system that they have fallen for populist rhetoric to condemn all ‘politicians’ or government itself as evil. (Others are taking out their frustrations by tearing down statues.) This situation derives not from bad ideas or faults in the American people but rather from lacking the common good of a functioning political system.”

We fix what ails America and avoid obsolescence by rededicating ourselves as citizens to creating a functioning political system that aims squarely at the common good, not what’s good for a Republican or a Democrat, a socialist or a libertarian, a conservative or a liberal, but an American.

Deirdre Schifeling, who heads an organization dedicated to expanding voting rights, recently told The Guardian she believes this election marks a tipping point in America, a moment in which the country, having been jolted out of its complacency, will rebound. “Faith in our democracy is at an all-time low and that is very dangerous. Now the work begins on fixing it.”

Let’s hope she’s right. And let’s find our common purpose before it’s too late.
 

Another widespread risk

stapiluslogo1

Last month’s special special session of the Idaho Legislature had one core topic - the pandemic - on its call, but another subject emerged after the legislators convened:

Guns.

There’s no way any legislation relating to guns would have been added to the call in any event, but an extra layer of thought about the subject might have developed if lawmakers and others around the Statehouse had seen a new, just-out national report from a group called Everytown Research and Policy.

Released on Thursday, its paper on “The Rise of Firearm Suicide among Young Americans” was national in focus, but it did include state breakouts. The highest rate (per 100,000 population) of suicide by firearm in any state was Alaska (19.78) , which was no surprise since that state long has led the nation in suicide numbers. The second-highest was Wyoming (13.74), then Montana (11.84).

Then, in fourth place out of the 50 states, with a rate of just over 10, came Idaho.

The report noted, “Research has shown that access to firearms is strongly associated with higher youth (ages 10 to 19) suicide rates: For each 10 percent increase in household gun ownership in a state, the youth suicide rate increased by more than 25 percent. States with the highest rates of firearm suicide among young people are Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and New Mexico. States with the fastest-growing firearm suicide rates among young people over the past decade include Oregon (124% increase), Virginia (109%), Michigan (106%), Idaho (105%), and Missouri (105%).”

The report suggested generally that the numbers have been rising. Idaho is one of the areas where the phenomenon of “deaths of despair” - deaths connected to psychological roots with such direct causes of alcohol, drugs and suicide - have been on the rise, and a report earlier this year on that subject by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center, prompted in part by the Covid-19 developments, seems to dovetail with the new one.

The despair deaths are usually meant to refer to deaths among older white people, mainly in lower income levels. But the Everytown report zeroed in on some of the suicide causes for younger people that could tie in with those: “such as increased anxiety and depression, social media, cyberbullying, and stigma. We need more research to understand what is driving these increases.”

Idaho’s despair death rate seems to be growing; that study projected that Idaho’s death rate would rank 10th highest for the 50 states in the coming decade, based on existing trends.

The Gem State obviously is not the only place where these issues are important, but they’re a little worse than in most states. And the atmosphere surrounding the pandemic is making all of these things worse, not better.

The culture of gun ubiquity in Idaho (and most of the other high-suicide states) is a contributor to that. (In case you’re wondering why the report focused on firearm suicides: Did you know that just four percent of suicide attempts not involving a gun result in death, while about nine out of 10 attempts using a firearm do end in death?)

The Everytown paper recommended some measures that might help. They weren’t suggesting anything heavy-handed, rather such ideas as improved (and maybe required) gun safety and storage, red flags and so forth.

Quite a few lives are at stake here. The subject certainly would be useful for the Idaho Legislature to take up at its next regular session (not that it necessarily will) and it might almost seem to justify a special session.

Except, of course, that we now know what the attitude toward guns would be at the Statehouse: Locked and loaded. Unfortunately, that’s not an especially helpful mindset when it comes to averting suicide.
 

Labor, law and order

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Labor Day has become a holiday for recreation, not a celebration of organized labor. Such a transformation is appropriate, since the workers now shoot up entertainment, diversion and consumption: it’s the new “opiate of the masses”. After all, who got rich on Oxycontin, and who got dead?

It’s no secret that todays Idaho doesn’t love unions. But if you’re one of the multitudes of working poor in this country, this state, who’s gonna stand up for your side, a political party? Don’t count on it. Historically, you’ve been betrayed by elephants and jackasses. No wonder our President is screaming “Law and Order”. It’s been the anti-union cry for over a hundred years.

Over 110 years ago, at murdered former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg’s funeral Idaho Senator William Borah decried “When in 1899 organized lawlessness challenged the power of Idaho, he upheld the dignity of the state, enforced its authority and restored LAW AND ORDER within its boundaries, for which he was assassinated in 1905.”

Just what had the young former governor done? He got elected at the age of 35 to the governorship with the support of labor unions. He was the first Democratic governor in this young state. Maybe the starving miners in North Idaho thought he was on their side and they got over confident. Indeed, some mine owners feared the governor would not support their oppression and raised wages. But the Bunker Hill silver bosses wouldn’t budge so the miners attacked the property of the owners, blowing up and burning down a mill at Wardner in the Silver Valley.

Steunenberg, as Borah extolled, declared martial law, restoring “law and order”. Federal troops occupied the valley. The miners lost, the mine owners won with the help of a duly elected governor.

It was no accident that the federal troops who rounded up the mainly Eastern European immigrant laborers were “buffalo soldiers”, blacks, negroes, a generation up from slavery. Oppression has so many cards to play.

Some argue the resentment this fostered embedded such a deep racism in the soul of North Idaho that Richard Butler, the Neo-Nazi White supremacist found the soil fertile for his 1970’s move to Hayden Lake in North Idaho. Race and class struggles are not taught as a big part of Idaho history, but it’s here.

Steunenberg’s betrayal of the miners ate away at the union bosses. In retribution they hired an experienced hit man. Harry Orchard planted a bomb at Steunenbergs garden gate and the former populist, Democratic young governor was killed. Orchard was caught, confessed, convicted and ratted out the union leaders. They were all acquitted. Read about “The Trial of the Century” in Big Trouble.

This Idaho story of the struggle between the wealthy mine owners and the corrupt union bosses in the late 19th and early 20th century may sound like distant, boring history to you as you ride your ATV or jet ski this Labor Day weekend. Grill the burgers, pop a beer, but please, for a moment consider.

We live at a time where wealth is about as concentrated as the Gilded Age of the 1890’s. We have elected a personality president who claims great wealth (we’ll never know) but appeals to the poor crackers. The elemental conflict of wealth, power, work and justice, is what our representative democracy is supposed to balance, “…to form a more perfect Union…”.

Indeed, the Preamble’s list of Constitutional aspirations includes “insure domestic Tranquility”, but if that sounds like Borah’s call for LAW AND ORDER, you need to think again. Law and order can become a knee on the neck for some. Justice is the first aspiration our Constitutional preamble calls on.

This “more perfect union” needs some work. It is only fitting that Labor Day is the lead-in to November elections. Be wary of betrayal. Politicians change stripes faster than chain gang escapees.