Thursday, February 22, 2018

"Another School Shooting"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Another School Killing”
February 22, 2018

You can’t talk about f***king in America; people say you’re dirty.
But, if you talk about killing somebody, that’s cool.”
                                                                                                Richard Pryor (1940-2005)

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine, took a cache of weapons to the observation deck of the main building tower at the University of Texas in Austin. Over the next ninety minutes, he shot dead fourteen people and injured thirty-one. He was only stopped when police killed him. The night before he had killed his wife and mother. This was the first mass killing in the U.S. I remember. (Howard Unruh, a World War II veteran, killed thirteen people in Camden, New Jersey in 1949, but I was only eight, so it had little effect.) The Whitman massacre was different. I was twenty-five, the same age as Whitman. In 1966, I was still in the Army Reserve; though I had not served in combat, I knew what harm guns could do. It was a sobering moment, which I have never forgotten.

The number of school shootings has increased beyond the increase in numbers of guns or population. In the last two years, there have been seven high and grade school shootings; in the fifteen years before that there were four – still too many. Those who govern know this is happening and must work to stop it. There are avenues to explore, such as the ease with which people acquire assault rifles, like the AR-15 that was used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Screenings must be tightened. Penalties must be increased, for stealing guns and for “straw” purchases of firearms. But other causes may be more pertinent.

We need to think of the “how” and the “why” of school violence. The “how” deals with access to guns and ease of entry to schools. (While I support the 2nd Amendment, I am not a gun lover. Other than my Army experience and once shooting skeet, I have never fired a weapon). We need to keep guns out of the hands of the underage, of criminals and the psychologically impaired. There are those who suggest arming guards within schools. Perhaps we should, but we don’t want a nation of vigilantes. Ross Douthat, a conservative (and sensible) columnist for The New York Times, suggested that, like drinking, driving and voting, age restrictions be considered – a higher age for a more powerful weapon. Perhaps? Certainly, we need to enforce the laws we have. Technology is ubiquitous and should be used to prevent the sale of weapons to those who should not have them. An estimated 300 million guns in the hands of Americans makes the problem difficult but not impossible.

The “why” is more insidious. Common sense says that anyone who walks into a school – or, for that matter, into any place – with intent of shooting people is mentally deranged. Why can’t we admit that psychological problems play a role? Why are not local law officials and gun sellers informed as to those with mental deficiencies? Why isn’t there response when students, teachers, parents, friends contact local law enforcement (or the FBI) about an individual with mental problems? We live in an information age, and government, should they wish, can track any one of us. This is not the pre-emptive denying of an individual his rights. It is yielding to common sense.

Our cultural environment is part of the “why,” and it bears responsibility. Western culture, which brought the enlightenment and illuminated our founding fathers, was adopted by immigrants through most of our history. It has been replaced with multiculturalism, with the uncertainty it brings, including a more divided population. A decline in civility is manifested in Trump-trash-talking late-night TV by hosts, like Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert. Parenting standards have deteriorated. A Pew Research study showed that 73% of all children in 1960 were being raised by two-parents in a first marriage. By 2014, that number had declined to 46 percent. In 1960, nine percent of all children were being raised in single-parent households. By 2014, that number had increased to 26%. Forty-five percent of children who live with a single mother live in poverty. African-Americans have suffered the most. Fifty-five percent of Black children live with a single parent, compared to 31% of Hispanics, 20% of Whites and 13% of Asians. About 40% of all babies born in America are born to unmarried women. In 2014, approximately 19% of all pregnancies ended in abortions. These factors have weakened the moral fiber of a civil, respectful and responsible people, and enervated the comfort and solidity a family brings.

Violence is rampant in movies, video games, rap music and on TV. There has always been violence in the world of entertainment. Simon Wiesenthal once said, “Violence is like a weed – it does not die, even in the greatest drought.” But it has gone mainstream; it has migrated from screens to real life. We have celebrities displaying the severed head of our President and talking of blowing up the White House. Mainstream media is mute. Re-read the comedian Richard Pryor’s quote at the top of this essay. Consider the response of a 12-year-old boy’s reaction to a screening of the movie “Black Panther,” as reported in The New York Times: “The movie makes me want to come back from the dead and take out people with my claws.” Is that what we would hope from a pre-teen? Or think of the lyrics of Eminem’s “Kim:”

Sit down bitch! If you move again, I’ll beat the shit out of you.”

Or DMX’s “X-Is Coming:”

When I bark, they hear the boom, but you see the spark.
And I see the part of your head which used to be your face.”

Is this entertainment? The American Academy of Pediatrics claims that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has tripled since 1985. In the TV show “Stalker,” a woman is buried alive in the first five minutes. Video games, like “Sniper Elite 4,” “Bulletstorm” and “Conan Exiles” use violence to attract young players.

None of these factors, alone, explain why violence has become common in our schools. My son Edward, whose firm Silsbee Partners consults with video game companies around the world, points out that video games, as well as movies and rap music, are global in their reach. Yet, other countries don’t have the problem of mentally unbalanced young men walking into schools and killing innocent children. Strict gun laws in places like Chicago have not prevented that city from becoming the Mecca of gun killings. There are questions without answers. Why have most of these school shootings happened in small and mid-size towns and cities? Why are most shooters students or former students? What is it that parents, teachers, neighbors, politicians and communities miss? Everything, from gun laws to mental health to our culture must be on the table, or re-thought. As horrific as mass killings are, gun violence goes beyond school and mass shootings. The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that, since 2014, there have been 58,584 gun-related deaths (excluding suicides). Mass shootings account for only 1,584 of those deaths, or 2.7%. What can be done? Perhaps compulsory military service would teach young people how to handle weapons and inform them as to the harm they can do? Perhaps a return to the Aristotelean virtues of prudence, temperance, courage and justice? What is obvious – the path we are on leads to Perdition.

The cynic in me says politicians don’t want answers. Keeping the issue alive is more important to future elections than solutions. Whether my cynicism is justified or not, recalcitrance on both sides has been aggravated by a partisan media. Something must change. Perhaps term limits are a start?

Monday, February 19, 2018

"Accused, Without Due Process"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Accused, Without Due Process”
February 19, 2018

“…nor shall any State deprive any person of life,
liberty or property, without due process of law…”
                                                                                                14th Amendment
U.S. Constitution
Ratified July 9, 1868

“People’s lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?” So Tweeted President Trump, following the resignation of White House staff secretary Rob Porter. That the Tweet may have been self-serving and that there is a discrepancy as to when the White House was notified by the FBI of Mr. Porter’s alleged mistreatment of his two wives does not negate the importance of Mr. Trump’s observation. While the Left immediately jumped on the Tweet as confirmation that the President had declared war on #MeToo and women in general, someone had stood up for the accused. Due process – the concept of innocence until proven guilty – is embedded in our Constitution and is at the heart of our judicial system.

Dozens of alleged victims of harassment and worse have emerged, since revelations about Harvey Weinstein first appeared in The New York Times last October. The media has tried and convicted the accused in their pages and on air. I do not doubt that many, if not most, of those accused are, in fact, guilty. Many men take advantage of vulnerable women. And some women submit to unwanted passes when they are scared or feel it is to their advantage. The world is competitive, and people do what they must to succeed, whether in school, sports, on the stage or in the office. Predators lurk. Such behavior reflects today’s culture – that nothing is more important than winning.

The purpose of this essay is not to suggest that most accusations are without merit. Nor is it to claim that women have not been molested and treated badly by men who use power, money and prestige to further their sexual desires. I am sure they have, just as I suspect a few women have used sex to further careers. What I find offensive is the lemming-like behavior of the media and political opportunists who take advantage of someone else’s misfortune. We should not allow our reactions to morph into unfounded allegations and recriminations. The accused are owed a chance to be heard. What has been happening is reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and the Salem witch trials of 1692, when twenty people – mostly women – were executed, largely because of acrimonious relations between families of plaintiffs and defendants.

In a recent New York Times article, Mark Landler struck a truism (perhaps unknowingly) when he wrote: “At a time when charges of sexual harassment and abuse are bringing down famous and powerful men from Hollywood to Washington…” (Emphasis mine.) I used “unknowingly” because, nowhere in his article did Mr. Lander note the irony that it was “charges” that brought down these men, not proof of wrong doing. When judgements are rendered by the press, rather than in the courtroom, the rights of the accused are violated. No matter how offensive we find Harvey Weinstein or Ray Moore, they have rights. Kangaroo courts have no place in a democracy.

Questions that need asking: Has offensive behavior become more common? Have women thrown off the yoke of silence? Are accusations being aired more liberally? I don’t pretend to have answers, but I do know technology has made it more difficult to hide and our values have deteriorated. We have seen a decline in traditional families, a rise in out-of-wedlock births, a fall-off in church attendance, an abandonment of children by fathers, an increase in abortions, and a rise in narcissism and moral turpitude that is reflected on social media, with examples set by the glittering classes from entertainment, politics, finance, sports and media. Politicians claim a desire to seek answers, but they see it in their self-interest to keep such issues alive for the next campaign.

Skepticism is suspended, and expressions of schadenfreude are displayed, when the accused is a member of the opposing political persuasion. Given the ubiquity of the claims, though, both sides have reasons for feelings of joy and remorse. Sexual harassment, however, is a cultural, not a political, issue. Harvey Weinstein and Ray Moore represent opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they stand together when it comes to alleged misbehavior. Nevertheless, despite our gut reactions, and suppositions as to their mutual guilt, we should bite our tongues (or take our fingers off the keyboard) until courts of law render decisions.

America is a nation comprised of people from all over the world. We are of different backgrounds, cultures, races and creeds. Some are great athletes; others, great musicians. Some are intellectuals; others, great mechanics. We are tall and short, fat and slim. We are men and women, gay and straight. We are militarists and pacifists. A free society allows us to enjoy and celebrate our differences. We perform every job there is. As Carl Sandberg wrote, we are hog butchers, tool makers and stackers of wheat. It is our differences that allow the economy to work and our nation to be strong. But, as Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “We live together, and we need to solve our problems together.” We have all found a home in this country. We are here by choice, not coercion. We have hopes and aspirations, for ourselves and for our children. Our country has imperfections (What country does not?), but we have a government and laws that treat us – black and white, rich and poor – as equals. E Pluribus Unum is our national motto, out of many, one, something we should not forget. as politicians seeking votes herd us into segregated paddocks.

David Brooks recently wrote in The New York Times that a sense of scarcity has replaced a sense of abundance. From a people who felt that anything was possible, we have become a nation focused on limits. While Mr. Brooks lays blame on Mr. Trump, that sense goes back further. Following the financial crisis, it was the argument for “the new normal” of two percent GDP growth. Limits on what people could achieve individually were behind the documentary, “Life of Julia” and the mantra, “You didn’t build that!” Scarcity turns optimists into pessimists. It makes us meaner when it comes to immigration and free trade, and angrier when it comes to wealth and income disparities. It discourages dissent and shoves people into corners. It divides us. It makes outcomes more important than opportunities. But we can rise above that. Individuals must be made to believe again in the bourgeoisie virtues of aspiration, initiative, creativity, diligence, hard work and risk. They remain keys to success…And we all have a right of due process.

In youth, I was taught the old idiom: “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
It became part of my fabric. But, as I became older, I grew to recognize that words can hurt. Socrates reputedly once said: “False words are not only evil in themselves, but they inflict the soul with evil.” By that, I believe he meant the soul of the one who spoke or wrote, not the one at whom the words were directed. Convicted criminals should be punished, but the accused have a right to be heard and to confront their accusers. Fairness and justice demand nothing less.
“Divida et Impera(Divide and Conquer), proclaimed Julius Caesar, as he increased his power and extended the reach of the Roman Empire. It is a tactic used by politicians (especially those on the Left) to win elections. They appeal to specific constituents’ needs, rather than to the nation as a whole. It pits one group against another, segregating, rather than unifying, our people. When accusations are made, and due process is ignored, no matter the alleged crime, it is democracy that is at risk.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

"President McKinley: Architect of the American Century"

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings

                                                                                                                                  February 15, 2018

“President McKinley: Architect of the American Century”
Robert W. Merry

Once again the president didn’t feel constrained by precedent or
what he considered outmoded political etiquette. He was in politics to win.”
                                                                                                            Robert Merry
                                                                                                            President McKinley

Of all our presidents, few need rehabilitating more than William McKinley. For most Americans, he serves as a footnote, best remembered for his assassination, which gave rise to the well-remembered, energetic, mercurial and narcissistic Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley was a man of tradition, a supporter of tariffs and of glacial change, but he quit the status quo ante. He confronted the Trusts, which were hobbling competition, and he turned the U.S. into a global military and economic power house. The United States proved victorious during the four-month-long Spanish-American War. With victory came Pax Americana, replacing Pax Britannica. In defeat, Spain ceded the Philippines, Guam, Cuba and Puerto Rico. McKinley annexed Hawaii and granted it self-rule. He created the “Open Door” policy with China and cemented our special relationship with England. He saw the value in, and pushed for, the Panama Canal, assuring U.S. dominance in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But, unlike Britain, Germany Spain and France, he was not an imperialist. He did not seek territory in Cuba or the Philippines; his desire was to nourish independent and democratic nations that would befriend the United States and abet its security and global trade.

Mr. Merry does a masterful job in clearing the rubble of history, so that we might see this man for who he was. William McKinley was the last of six presidents to have served in the Civil War. He was eighteen when the War began, which he joined as a private. Four years later, he was mustered out as a brevet major. His war memories tempered his attitudes toward foreign engagements: “…the memories of war are sweeter than service in the war.” Yet, he oversaw U.S. military action in Cuba and the Philippines. Mr. Merry tells of his family tragedy, and he takes us through his years in Ohio – as a Congressman and two-term governor – and his relationship with Mark Hanna. He quotes John Hay on McKinley’s character. Hay had been private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and served as McKinley’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James and Secretary of State: “It is a genuine Italian ecclesiastical face of the fifteenth century. And there are idiots who think Mark Hanna will run him!” Elihu Root, New York lawyer and McKinley’s Secretary of War, expressed similar sentiments: “He cared nothing about the credit, but McKinley always had his way.”

The late 19th Century was a time of industrial creativity and economic expansion, but it was also a time of political and labor unrest. McKinley was the first president to win re-election (in 1900) since Grant had been re-elected twenty-eight years earlier. He helped guide the country toward its global pre-eminence.

Mr. Merry not only provides a character study of Mr. McKinley, but also offers a window on the little-studied political aspects of the last few decades of the 19th Century. In the twenty-five years, between 1877 and 1901, six men served as President, two of whom were assassinated. Writing in The New York Times book review, Evan Thomas noted that the story of McKinley suggests “show-boating moralizers can be balanced by grounded and wiser souls” – grounded and wise, fitting epithets for our 25th President.