Archive for August, 2012

The Thinker

Putting the ick in Democratic

It’s a subtle thing but for many of us Democrats, a jarring thing. Republicans no longer seem to be able to call my party the Democratic Party. It’s the “Democrat Party”.

From my Washington Post today I learned that Republicans first called us the “Democrat Party” in 1976. I don’t recall it but slowly over the years it has picked up momentum. Now it’s like you can get kicked out of the Republican Party for calling our party its true name. You will never hear the term on Fox News.

Why do Republicans do it? I have two principle theories. The first is that since they abhor Democrats, saying “Democrat Party” it is jarring, and thus preferred. So it’s sort of like swearing. As I noted some time back, the purpose of swearing is to draw undue attention and emphasis. Four letter words are not just four letters for no good reason. It keeps it short, sweet and memorable because it is just one syllable. Democratic is four syllables, and that doesn’t roll off the tongue well for simple minded folk like Republicans. It must offend them that there are still three syllables in Democrat. So far at least they haven’t figured out a way to shorten it some more. Sometimes Democrats are called “Dems”, but I don’t hear Republicans use this much and it doesn’t sound particularly mean. Perhaps it will come over time. If it does it will probably get bastardized. Democratic Party, Democrat Party, Dems, maybe the Damns will be last, as in “that Dem Party, nothin’ but a bunch of god damns.” (Just a warning to Republicans: damn is a verb, not a noun. Oh wait, they don’t care.)

My other theory is that Republicans don’t understand elementary grammar. “Party” of course is a noun (at least in this usage), so “democratic” when it is used with party is an adjective; it must modify a noun. We are a party of Democrats, so we are the Democratic Party. A republic is a form of government with representational government. A party that believes in representational government would obviously be the Republican Party, not the Republic Party. This suggests that Democrats at least stayed awake in English class, while Republicans slept through it. Actually, this would explain a lot.

If Republicans truly believe in representative government, they have a strange way of showing it. Lately voter suppression is all the rage in red states. It’s not general voter suppression they are interested in, just suppressing votes from those who might disagree with their philosophy. So they keep adding burdensome and nitpicky hurdles to keep people of color or young people from voting. Their general intent is so obvious that yesterday a federal appeals court rejected Texas’s redistricting plan. The gerrymandering was so extreme that Texans did not even try to hide it. Texas Governor Rick Perry was proud of his plan.

“Republican” is just a label, of course. Curiously it can be used as both a noun and an adjective. The same is not true of democrat. However, Republicans don’t believe in representative government unless voters vote Republican. With voter suppression laws under the guise of cracking down on nonexistent voter fraud, they at least have a pretext for these laws. Sometimes they are more explicit. Some Republicans want to repeal the 17th Amendment, which requires the people of a state to directly elect their senators. Previously they were appointed by state governments, typically by the legislature. The 17th Amendment did not occur through happenstance. One of the major reasons the 17th Amendment was adopted was because some state legislatures were corrupt. Senators tended to represent the interests of those who funded the campaigns of people who sought state offices, thus ensuring that even state issues were not represented in Congress. Some Republicans today want to go back to that system, as it is what the founding fathers envisioned. In other words, they would rather have special interests control the Senate than the people. This is hardly in the spirit of a republican government.

Democrats, on the other hand, strongly believe in the democratic principle, which is that we are all equal and we each have an equal right to vote. This wasn’t always the case. Democrats today are spiritually the Republicans of 1862, when Abraham Lincoln was elected. In the 19th century, Democrats represented the wealthy industrialists in the northeast and land owning southern whites. It took many decades for the switch to happen. It began with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and likely ended in 1972 when George McGovern was nominated for president. Traditional southern Democrats realized that they were not Democrats and bolted for the Republican Party. Senator Zell Miller, an alleged Georgia Democrat, was probably the last one to leave. Miller gave a speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention sounding very much like the Republican he was. Today’s Democrats care very much about making sure that everyone who can vote can do so easily. It’s not that Democrats are not above a little gerrymandering too. Democrats in Maryland took their opportunity last year to make their state a little bluer, making some in the panhandle unhappy by combining their area with liberal Montgomery County. Unlike Texas, Maryland has no history of voter discrimination through gerrymandering.

Since Republicans seem intent to remain uncivil and call our party the Democrat Party, turnabout is fair play. I have been thinking of shortened versions of the Republican Party. We could simply call it the Republic Party, but that would suggest they actually believe in republican government, which clearly they do not. Since Republicans seem open to using any tactic, legal or illegal, to get their way, they remind me a lot of gangsters.

So I suggest Democrats brand them with a more appropriate moniker. Let’s call them the Rethuglican Party. At least it is accurate.

 
The Thinker

The Republican Party is looking for a few more loonies

Every time I think Republicans cannot get any crazier, I am proven wrong. The latest example is of course Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), who last week said that women who are raped have this heretofore clinically unknown ability to ward off rapist’s sperm, thereby not getting pregnant. But this can only occur in the case of a “legitimate rape”.

Silly me, I had no idea that rapes could be classified between legitimate and illegitimate. I thought by definition rape had to be non-consensual sex, but not in the crazy world of Republican ideology. I’m not sure but I think their wacky thinking runs something like this: some women secretly want to be raped. Maybe they go down dark alleys in miniskirts hoping some rapists leap out from behind trashcans. Why would they do this? Because they are so desperate to conceive that the only way they know how is to get raped. Going into bars and winking at strange men doesn’t occur to them. This sort of rape, in the view of Akin I imagine, is an illegitimate rape. If the woman welcomes the chance for rape and gets pregnant, consciously or unconsciously, she must want the child and thus she should not be allowed to have an abortion.

Thinking about this preposterous logic for a bit, there must be all sorts of illegitimate rapes. If your perverted and abusive father decides to rape you, well, no matter how vile it was that he raped you, you still love your father, right? So of course this is not a legitimate rape. Carry the child to term. Live with not only the shame of being violated by your own father, but having to explain or hide this from your child for life, as well as support him with no help from the government. After all, this child deserves life, even though being the product of incest he or she may well suffer genetic deformities.

Akin’s amazing and wholly unscientific beliefs raised howls of concerns from fellow Republicans. The howls came not for his beliefs but because he had the audacity to express them. (Naturally, he had many supporters, including women in his own district.) After all, his views are now codified in the 2012 Republican Party platform, which, if Tropical Storm Isaac ever leaves the vicinity of Tampa, will be routinely adapted by Republican delegates at their convention this week. That’s right. The Republican Party platform calls for all abortions to be outlawed via a constitutional amendment, with no exceptions for rape, “legitimate” or otherwise. It’s all about respect for life or something.

It’s hardly news that their respect for life ends at the moment of birth. From that moment on, new mother, you are on your own. Do not expect one penny from the government for your child. In fact, don’t expect the government to provide any prenatal care for you to carry your pregnancy to term either. Anyhow, once your child is born, forget about food stamps, forget about WIC supplements, forget about welfare, and forget about any form of government assistance. Your new baby can die of starvation and disease for all the Republican Party cares, because any of that is socialism, which is much worse than having no respect for life before birth. Hope instead for charity from non-governmental organizations. When questioned on the topic during the Republican presidential debates, that was Ron Paul’s solution. Magically, churches and private charities will step up and help all these poor children, even though they proved incapable of doing it before we invented these child welfare programs, as evidenced by all the homeless kids in the streets back then. Presumably in the new Republican order child protective services are out as well, at least at the federal level. If, like in the nineteenth century, life impoverishes these children then it’s okay if your kid ends up on the street. Maybe he can scrape together a living shining shoes or something. He has to learn self-reliance and personal initiative anyhow. Eating dog shit for dinner builds character. Children should embrace devastating poverty: it is an opportunity to prove your mettle.

The whole Republican Party has embraced crazy and unworkable ideology over reality. Try to find just one position in their party platform that is congruent with actual science. Please let me know if you find one, but I can save you the research: you won’t. Tropical Storm Isaac right now looks like it is bearing down on New Orleans, which almost seven years ago to the day devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas. President Bush dealt with the situation eating a birthday cake with John McCain on the tarmac in front of Air Force One. He entrusted FEMA to a former director of an Arabian horse association. He showed his respect for life by allowing senior citizens to drown in New Orleans nursing homes.

So what among other things would the Republican Party do today if their policies were adopted? To read from one plan, newly minted vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s plan, NOAA’s budget would be severely curtailed. The National Weather Service is part of NOAA, as is the National Hurricane Center. Some Republicans, like Ron Paul, would be thrilled to get rid of the Commerce Department altogether. (NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.) Which would leave it to the private sector to make hurricane predictions. Doubtless The Weather Channel would step up, buy their own weather satellites and hurricane spotter airplanes. Of course, hurricane forecasts would only be available to those who could afford to pay for it.

Reason simply plays no part in the Republican Party. It’s all about crazy ideology. It’s all about staying true to principles, principles that repeatedly have been proven false. Mitt Romney’s plan for the federal budget is fundamentally and mathematically flawed, as documented by many nonpartisan organizations that have studied it. But that doesn’t matter, first because they won’t admit they can’t do math and second because they must be true to principle, no matter what. The orthodoxy says taxes must be cut, particularly for the richest and somehow draconian cuts in services (but not the military, naturally, which will get an increase) will balance the budget. As if taking all that money out of the economy will somehow have a positive rather than a negative effect on the economy. Ideology, like religion, does not require reason. It simply requires unyielding, unreasonable and crazy faith, the sort, sadly, rampant in churches principally in Republican strongholds. It’s the sort of faith that lets you blithely ignore the scientific consensus on global warming and evolution.

And so boldly the Republican Party sails off in search of ever righter and crazier ideological waters. It is ideology so weird and reckless that their hero Ronald Reagan would be beating on the doors of the Democratic National Committee asking for readmission to the party.

Can you believe the unbelievable? Can you vote for policies that have proven catastrophically incorrect not once but twice? Can you suspend all the evidence and believe your president was not born in the United States and is a secret Muslim? Can you ignore the fact that our president actually loosened gun control laws and yet believe he is trying to take away your guns? Can you believe that President Obama wants to turn the United States government over to the United Nations? Can you believe that two plus two equals five? Can you believe that women who have suffered a “legitimate” rape have some secret spiritual powers to kill bad rapist sperm but let the good sperm, like your father’s, go through?

You can? Then the Republican Party is for you. And they have a big tent, because there are plenty of crazy people under it already, and they need just a few more to gain control and ensure complete national dysfunction. They are doing it, of course, on principle.

 
The Thinker

Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania

Warren, Pennsylvania

After touring New York’s Southern Tier, the final part of our vacation was in western Pennsylvania, principally Pittsburgh where we spent two nights and a full day. Our first night back in Pennsylvania was actually spent in Warren in the northwest part of the state. I hadn’t heard of Warren before, but Warren turns out to be quite charming with its history going back to its founding in 1795. Perhaps it is largely unknown because it is so hard to get to. No major interstate comes near it. Warren is not that different than Corning, New York but perhaps not quite as well moneyed and snooty as Corning. The city has less than ten thousand people but publishes a daily newspaper (except on Sundays), the Warren Times Observer. The city is clean and like Corning full of well-maintained Victorian homes. The charming Alleghany River flows through it. You know a city is doing well when it is hard to find a parking space downtown. My brother Mike was in the area so we connected at the Plaza Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, which serves tasty and amazingly cheap Greek food (cash only). Our night was spent peacefully at an almost new Hampton Inn north of the city.

Western Pennsylvania

Trying to get from Warren to Pittsburgh forces you to cross and re-cross the serene Alleghany River along U.S. routes 6 and 62 and pass through a couple of cities a lot like Warren, like Oil City and Franklin. The drive is as serene as the river, which was beautiful and except for a few kayakers spotted near Franklin largely undisturbed by humans. I was glad for the change of pace. Interstates are undoubtedly fast and convenient, but it’s also nice to spend hours on unfamiliar but bucolic two lane roads, pass through a national forest and see farmers’ markets along the side of the road. After a couple of hours of this kind of driving we reached serious highway: I-80, then we scooted south on I-79 into Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh

Downtown Pittsburgh

Downtown Pittsburgh

I had driven around Pittsburgh many times on the turnpike, but had never actually seen the city. We could not have picked a hotel closer to the center of Pittsburgh than the Wyndman, because it is right next to Point State Park, where the Ohio River begins at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. This Wyndham hotel is a very tall three-star hotel that could stand some remodeling (underway near the lobby) and attention to detail (peeling wallpaper in our bathroom, for example). However the view outside our 20th floor room was definitely four-star, as it gave us a commanding view of the Monongahela River, and the impressively steep hills nearby. Within an hour after dumping our bags at the hotel we had walked across the Fort Pitt Bridge to the Duquesne Incline. For $5 a person you can take a tramway to the top of the incline and back. At the top you can get a much nicer view of Pittsburgh and, if so inclined, dine at a number of very expensive restaurants up there as well. It was cheaper for us to gawk at Pittsburgh from these heights, and wonder how much the pricey condos nearby sold for. (Doubtless they were too pricey for us.)

"The Strip" in Pittsburgh

“The Strip” in Pittsburgh

As with our trip to Philadelphia, one full day merely gave us a chance to sample Pittsburgh. Overall, I enjoyed Pittsburgh, but not enough to want to live there. Still, it has all the amenities of a big city including two outdoor sports stadiums with long established franchises, theater, arts centers, museums (most of them funded by endowments from the late industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie), great restaurants, not so great restaurants, dive bars and most importantly The Strip District, more often referred to as simply “The Strip”. No strip clubs here, but several long city blocks of eclectic shops, about one third eateries and two thirds various curiosity shops, and sidewalks cluttered with every conceivable kind of street vendor, mostly selling wares for the shops they faced. It’s also strange in that it largely closes down by 5 p.m. Most cities have a “strip” but “The Strip” is the real deal, a great tourist destination in itself, except for night owls. We spent several hours on the strip and could have spent more.

St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, Pittsburgh

St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, Pittsburgh

At one end of The Strip, I found St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, one of these old Catholic city churches that are getting hard to find, with long rows of votive candles, an ornate altar that betrays its pre-Vatican II construction and lovely stained glass windows. It feels more like a mini-cathedral than a church, and the church wisely leaves it open for tourists. Since I so rarely go into Catholic churches anymore, I made a point to drop three bucks in the box and light a votive candle for my late mother, whose spirit wherever it may be I am sure appreciated my gesture.

The best view of Pittsburgh turned out to be not at the top of the Duquesne Incline but by boat. We chose the Gateway Clipper Fleet and its three-story boat for the one-hour tour, which was just long enough to feel like you had experienced Pittsburgh without having really experienced it. Lovely temperate weather, a gentle dry breeze and blue skies full of puffy white clouds made the short cruise surprisingly memorable.

Spending so much time on The Strip left little time for the one museum that we visited, the Heinz History Center near one end of The Strip. Pittsburgh does have a fairly extensive history. What we found most interesting was the fifth floor, with its detailed exhibits and artifacts from the French and Indian War, which few people remember. More would remember it if they knew it was started by a 22-year-old upstart British colonel from the colonies named George Washington. It would turn into arguably the first world war, and take seven years to fully extinguish. Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity turned into an eventual big win for the British, and subsequently for the United States, after it declared independence and spread across the formerly French-claimed Ohio Valley. We also found the story of Lewis & Clark’s expedition interesting as well, which started in Pittsburgh. Each level at the museum has a theme. Sports fanatics will find levels celebrating the accomplishments of Pittsburgh’s Pirates and Steelers.

Architecturally, Pittsburgh definitely feels major league, with a skyline that rivals or exceeds Philadelphia’s and with many of the buildings downtown looking very new and modern. It has the T, it’s version of a subway system and an extensive bus system as well. At least downtown it is largely clean and modern, except for warehouses and railroad areas near The Strip District. Its smelters are largely gone but lots of steel remains, and what has replaced steel is a lot of clean industries, mostly IT and service related. Black clouds of coal soot no longer obscure the view of Pittsburgh. Today except for occasional haze and high humidity the view is crystal clear.

FallingWater

Sunday we reluctantly headed home, but made one last detour for a tour of FallingWater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterwork house designed for Edgar Kaufmann Sr., a successful local businessman best known for a department store with his name. The house sits fifty miles of so southeast of Pittsburgh and was sort of on our way home. Most people know the house as the house built over a stream, specifically Bear Run, which even in 1936 when construction began was known for its exceptionally clear and unpolluted waters. The stream is so pure that Wright even constructed a natural swimming pool attached to the guest quarters fed directly from runoff from the stream. It’s great swimming if you don’t mind it very much on the chilly side and a little algae in your water. Stream temperatures rarely get beyond the sixties and are frequently much colder.

FallingWater

The house is definitely amazing, in a 1930s way, for how nature and architecture can be melded together to provide living space. Air conditioning was not available for houses back then, but it is rarely needed. However beautiful the house is, it is impractical and ultimately flawed. The foundation maintaining the house says it costs six million dollars a year simply to maintain the house. Ten years ago it underwent expensive restoration simply to keep the house on its moorings. How many of us could afford six million dollars a year in maintenance costs? The inside of the house also lacks modern conveniences: handrails for staircases, staircases that are artificially narrow, and ceilings that are too low (at least for tall people like me). All these deficiencies aside, it is an amazing work of architecture, just not the least bit practical. Our modern houses may be made mostly of wood and drywall, but they are much less costly, much cheaper to maintain and arguably much more comfortable to live in than FallingWater. Without extensive repairs, FallingWater would now mostly be falling into the water, and that would not speak well of Wright’s masterwork.

 
The Thinker

New York Southern Tier highlights

The next phase of our vacation took us west from Binghamton to a journey along New York State’s Southern Tier. That’s what they call that part of the state just to the north of the Pennsylvania line. Binghamton qualifies as being part of the southern tier, but there are two hundred miles more of the area, stretching westward past Jamestown to the shores of Lake Erie. It is a very pretty area of New York but is an area that is largely bypassed by tourists. It’s their loss because it consists of more than two hundred miles of rolling green hills and occasional surprises. Venture fifty miles northward and you are into New York’s Finger Lakes region, which consists of dazzlingly beautiful blue glacial lakes. The Finger Lakes are also wine country, so if you are into wineries that area makes for a terrific vacation. We spoke to one couple that took in four winery tours in one day.

Anyhow, here are highlights of our two day’s along New York’s Southern Tier. (You can read about my nostalgic return to the Binghamton area here.)

Owego. Owego sits twenty miles or so west of the Triple Cities. It too suffers from rust belt syndrome, which means it is unduly affected by abandoned or rundown buildings. Like Johnson City and Endicott, it hugs the banks of the Susquehanna River. If you can look past the decaying infrastructure, you can see lots of lovely Victorian houses and pretty public parks. If you like village life, less than four thousand people actually live in Owego. But there are better choices if you want to live in the Southern Tier, so keep reading.

Buttermilk Falls. Buttermilk Falls is a New York State park that sits just south of Ithaca. Ithaca is primarily known for Cornell, its Ivy League university, but Ithaca State is also there and is also a fine school. I had hazy memories from my youth of Buttermilk Falls. Getting to the falls in 2012 turned out to be challenging because only the parking lot near the entrance was open. No park rangers were in evidence either. So hardy souls like my wife and I walked down the road a half a mile or so and eventually found the falls, which are pretty but very modest, and are fed by a lake controlled by a dam at the summit. Walking up to the lake is worth the extra climbing, and a path will take you over the dam as well. You can hope to catch some fish but most of the time you are not allowed to swim. The falls themselves are rather uninspiring, at least during the low flow season, which was when we visited. However, a bucolic meadow near the parking lot and the muted sounds of nature walking the road made the visit strangely positive, as I felt closer to nature than I have in the last few years.

Buttermilk Falls

Buttermilk Falls

Watkins Glen. My wife thought Watkins Glen was just the location of a racetrack. So she was blown away when she discovered the actual glen at Watkins Glen. For several miles a modest stream eroding over millennium through shale rock provides a charming and beautiful example of natural forces at their finest. This glen is not for couch potatoes, as there are extensive paths and staircases through the glen, as well as a trail along the rim. Watkins Glen should really be elevated to a national park because it is that special and pretty. In spots, tunnels were blown through the abundant shale rock so that tourists could get inside the glen. There is no swimming in the glen itself, but there is an Olympic size swimming pool in the south parking area, as well as a picnic area and a lily pond. If you are in the Finger Lakes region, Watkins Glen is a must see attraction and available for the bargain price of eight dollars a car for parking. Caution: the path inside the glen is slippery when wet, and it is usually wet. A pair of sturdy hiking shoes and good calf muscles are prerequisites for enjoying the glen. My wife compared its stairs to those at Cirith Ungol (from The Lord of the Rings), only these stairs are much sturdier, and the gorge is spectacularly beautiful, unlike Mordor. No need to worry about orcs here, but it can be hard to dodge all the camera-snapping tourists, because pretty much anywhere you point the camera you are guaranteed to get a great shot.

Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen

Corning. If you had to pick a neat and healthy city to retire to in the Southern Tier, Corning is the city. It is anchored by the Corning Corporation, so the health of the city goes up and down with the company’s prosperity. Corning is known for glass, and has been a consistent pioneer in glass technologies, including fiber optic cable and shatter-resistant Gorilla Glass such as you will find on your iPad and iPhones. The Corning Museum of Glass is a four-star and unique museum that features equal parts glass art and glass technology exhibits, glass blowing and shaping demonstrations by glass artisans as well as a large gift shop where the items for sale are actually reasonably priced. The city of Corning itself is vibrant and healthy, and the higher wages that Corning pays employees promotes a broad prosperity within the city. There are many lovely tree-lined streets, mostly consisting of old Victorian houses that are well maintained and come complete with back alleys. If I had to retire in the Southern Tier, Corning would be a much better choice than Endwell, where I grew up. Brew pubs and great restaurants line Market Street. Corning is modern, but also quaint and charming. It is also surprisingly youthful and ethnically diverse. You can stay at the Radisson if you want, but we were glad to spend a night at the Rosewood Inn, a B&B on Second Street where we were warmly greeted and enjoyed an excellent room with a large, claw foot tub and a canopy bed. I took my first real bath in years, and it was delightful. Corning is the southern tier at its most livable.

Glass artisans at work at the Corning Museum of Glass

Glass artisans at work at the Corning Museum of Glass

Jamestown. We drove through the Jamestown and did not have a chance for a proper introduction. Jamestown is a decently sized city and at least within its city limits is quite attractive. It is also the home to Lucille Ball and annually throws a Lucille Ball comedy festival. Alas, we were too late for it. The city is located at the eastern end of Chautauqua Lake, a picture postcard pretty lake more than ten miles long and ideal for all sorts of fresh water lake recreation.

Chautauqua Institution. The Chautauqua Institution goes back to the 19th century and is anchored to Chautauqua Lake. It’s hard to explain Chautauqua but it has many fans, going back to President Ulysses S. Grant. Essentially it is a community of mostly rich white people and their children who seek refuge (mostly during the summer) in a place that values religion, music, learning and recreation. For me, it is a near ideal vacation spot because I value a mixture of nature, which the lake provides in abundance, along with learning (the institution provides fabulous lectures) along with an appreciation for the arts. Behind this large gated community are thousands of people (at least during the summer) who share similar progressive values, are highly educated, highly cultured and are basically happy people. It’s a surreal and safe place but that is part of its charm. It sort of models how society should be but rarely is. Children are especially welcome and seem charmed by the place, riding bikes down paths and streets, going to day camps and playing down on the beach. We took the official tour and found the happiness and exuberance of its residents was overwhelming. Really well moneyed people own very expensive houses on tiny lots in Chautauqua, usually passed down from generation to generation. There are also houses and apartments for rent and hotel rooms available as well. Just don’t expect a Pizza Hut or a Walmart on this campus. The very idea! Expect to walk or bike everywhere, which won’t take long as everything is very close together. Most people have to leave their cars in a lot at the edge of the property. Do expect to be surrounded by very talented people, youth full of energy and talent, and to revel in boating, fresh water swimming, wonderful lectures, seminars, lots of live theater and first class music. I haven’t priced what a vacation costs at this resort, but it looks pricey. I suspect I will scrape together the money somehow. I will be back probably as regularly as I can afford to.

Chautauqua Institution

Chautauqua Institution

 
The Thinker

You can sort of go home again

Can you really go home again if no one is there? Yes, you can, providing you don’t want to live in the space you used to inhabit (for about forty years it has been occupied by other people) and you don’t mind if there is no one really to call on. There probably are people in the Binghamton area who might know me and I might know them, but I don’t know where to find them, they don’t know that I’m here and if we remember each other at all we’ll probably confuse names, dates and facts. So instead former residents like me arrive and leave anonymously, and the closest you come to confessing that you are a native is to the waitress at Christie’s steakhouse in Johnson City, who receives the information with a blank stare.

View of Johnson City and Vestal from Traditions Resort, Johnson City, NY

View of Johnson City and Vestal from Traditions Resort, Johnson City, NY

“The Triple Cities” we used to call them, but Binghamton, Endicott and Johnson City are hardly the only trio of cities in New York State with the moniker. There is, for example, Albany, Schenectady and Troy. I was born in Schenectady and expect to be in Troy in October. Nor are they all real cities. Endicott promotes itself as a village. Endwell, where I grew up next door to Endicott, is part of the Town of Union (which includes Maine to the north) and may be bigger than Endicott. Across the Susquehanna on its southern side is Vestal, neither a city nor a village, but a town. Arguably Endicott was a city in its glory days of the 1950s. Back then the shoe factories lining the railroads were cranking out shoes by the railcar full. The smell of tanning leather was pervasive as you drove down North Street. Then there was also IBM, busy building the precursors to the information age: electric typewriters but also mainframe computers that read programs from stacks of paper cards and saved data to giant reels of magnetic tape.

The abandoned shoe factory eyesores are now finally gone. This is probably for the best, because they were ugly and safety hazards. If Endicott is to have a renaissance, it could not happen until these eyesores were demolished. Still, they should have kept one, prettified it up and sold tickets to tourists to see it. History sells in upstate New York. IBM is virtually gone, with only a couple of hundred employees in Endicott. The huge IBM administrative building still proudly proclaiming its name on North Street is still there, and it is easy to mistake for a high school. The boxy white concrete IBM buildings along McKinley Avenue remain as well. Not much has replaced these employment centers, which has resulted in the predictable result: lots of boarded up storefronts. When IBM mostly left, a company called Huron took over and is now marketing the former IBM campus to prospective employers. Arguably, Endicott would be a great value to any prospective employer. There is no rush hour to worry about, plenty of cheap real estate and there is never a problem with finding a parking space, except as I discovered at the George F. Johnson Memorial Library. Some things are new on Washington Avenue, Endicott’s old downtown, including an “adult emporium”.

In 2012, the Triple Cities are not exactly looking up but they definitely feel less bleak than they did when I last visited in 2000. It was perhaps exemplified by our choice of lodging, Traditions in the Glen, a four-star hotel, spa and golf resort occupying what used to be the IBM Country Club, before IBM vamoosed. The elite of the area, such as they are, seem to hang out here. It is a lovely resort, beautifully restored and feeling much like a scaled down and less pricey version of The Homestead, a huge resort we visited in 2010 in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. In the lobby you can see pictures of the country club at or before I remembered it, with pictures of IBM founder Thomas Watson, Sr. taking the first shot on the then new country club, or Bing Crosby with Jack Nicholson’s trainer swinging away on the course.

Unfortunately, it’s but a short drive of a mile or so from Traditions down Watson Boulevard where you will find suboptimal retail: an ugly old coin Laundromat, a Dollar General store and a Yum Yum ice cream stand that looks like it deferred about twenty years of maintenance. Much of my home town of Endwell is still a sad place. East Main Street in particular is distressed. And yet, there is community along East Main Street. Wander down Davis Drive and onto Stack Avenue, where my friend Tom and his family used to live, and you find a real family community just as nice, if not nicer, than my memories of it from the 1960s and 1970s. Nearby Christ the King Church has been sold to an evangelical faith, perhaps for hard cash to pay off various priest child abuse suits. It is now the Triumphant Life Church, and they must be doing well because the building has been expanded. The old parochial school across the parking lot where I suffered eight years of elementary school under the watchful eyes of frequently tyrannical sisters remains boarded up. Many of the windows are covered in plywood and the blue plastic veneer siding is fading and peels. Catholicism is dying in The Triple Cities, as evidenced by the consolidation of churches and parochial schools, and is being slowly replaced by evangelical faiths like the Triumphant Life Church. A high school in Endicott where I spent a little over a year is still there, but is now a junior high. Seton Catholic High School was relocated to Binghamton.

Yes, of course things have changed back home in forty years, but it looks and feels much the same. Some things are truly for the better. Formerly a community as white as Wonder Bread but with a heavy Greek presence (evidenced by the Eastern Orthodox churches in Johnson City), now real diversity can be found: Asians, blacks and other minorities have moved in, perhaps drawn to the dirt cheap real estate. Endwell is not exactly a city of color but it has become a loaf of spotted Pumpernickel. The local gas station on East Main Street is full serve, and an Asian teenage woman there happily pumped my gas. (Full serve does not mean they check your tire pressure and engine oil, however.)

The houses are newer in Endwell the further north you go. My old neighborhood along Scribner Drive feels reasonably well kept up. What is different is vegetation: lots more of it with forty years to settle in. Our old house at the corner of Scribner and Winston drives has been transformed over forty years. There is a lot of natural landscaping in the backyard and more trees. The garage has been turned into a room, and there is an additional driveway along Winston Drive. Otherwise the neighborhood remains inviting  and a healthy place to raise children, with Homer Brink Elementary (where I went to kindergarten) a few short and safe blocks down the street. Forty years have not eroded the terrain either. The hills of Endwell and Endicott remain steep and challenging, and doubtless it remains difficult to get to houses at the top of the hill after a snowfall. A four wheel drive vehicle is recommended for those homeowners.

For me the heart of Endwell is the intersection at Hooper and Country Club roads. All the retail establishments I recall are gone, but new ones have come to supplant them including  a large community credit union. The firehouse remains. A Dunkin Donuts has moved in as well, and today that chain and Dollar General stores seem to have taken over the Southern Tier. Still, I could retire back to this area because Johnson City has a Wegmans supermarket, and it is just like the Wegmans we have back near our real home. Surely, a community is civilized and shows fortitude if a Wegmans has taken up residence.

There was not time for a proper tour of the area when you arrive late in the afternoon and leave around noon the next day after taking time to do your laundry at an Endicott Laundromat. We merely drove through Binghamton. What we saw of Johnson City looked a bit more hopeful than it did in 2000, although my father’s former General Electric Plant, sold and resold a few times, is now boarded up too. Recent floods caused a lot of damage to an area that was already distressed. The area has been abused and kicked around, but it is hardly dead. It may be on an almost imperceptible rebirth. Its gentle green hills and usually benign Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers give it a peaceful and comforting feeling, interrupted only by the annoyance of swarms of gnats during the summer. It needs some company with bigger pockets than the Huron Corporation to believe in it again. I hope that someday true vitality returns to the community I will probably always consider my home.

 
The Thinker

Two tourists do Philadelphia

Doubtless there are many not so nice places in Philadelphia. Happily, few of them are in downtown Philadelphia, which is good because that’s where tourists like my wife and I go when visiting Philadelphia. The city keeps the tourist district spic and span. There is no litter to speak of, the sidewalks seem power washed, the buildings are mostly modern and even Philadelphia’s dated City Hall, a few blocks from where we stayed, looked bright, shiny and impressive, this in spite of its diminished stature due to the very tall buildings around it.

Sometimes, like Longwood Gardens, the best travel destinations are reasonably close to home. Philadelphia is about a two and a half hour drive from our home, but we had only visited once before in the early 1990s. Back then we had to accommodate our two year old daughter, so we made it a half day trip and visited the Philadelphia Zoo. Now that same daughter is twenty years older and minding the needs of our feline at home, so we felt we could actually see Philadelphia proper. Unfortunately, we allocated just one full day to see Philadelphia, so we saw maybe twenty five percent of what we would see if we had a few days. The good news is that Philly whetted our appetite for more return visits.

In reality, Philly is a great tourist destination. Its bigger cousin New York City is ninety minutes away by car, but Philly has tons of things to see and do and is arguably less expensive. Granted hotel rooms are not exactly cheap, at least not in downtown Philly. But whereas a decent hotel in midtown Manhattan can cost three hundred dollars a night, two hundred a night is more the going rate in Philly. We paid quite a bit less than that, due to some diligent searching online. The Windsor Suites is a hotel in the heart of Philly’s museum district, a virtual but not quite four-star all-suite hotel that only the pickiest would complain about. Our fourteenth floor room was huge, with an enormous walk in closet, weird bathtub with separate faucets for the tub and shower, and a small kitchen, as well as a divinely comfortable king size bed. Our balcony looked down on the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul and Logan Square. We tried to get into it, but the Catholics had it shut tight.

Logan Square and nearby JFK Plaza are genuine places for city people to congregate. Some were obviously homeless, but most appeared to be regular Philadelphians just having a good time although perhaps some were exchanging money for drugs. Both parks sported impressive fountains. For us, JFK Plaza was useful because there was a tourist center that provided us with helpful information, particularly the downtown Phlash trolley which continuously loops around downtown Philly and was also not too expensive. It carried us quickly to historic sites like Independence Hall where our Declaration of Independence was signed and our constitution was created. The best show on Independence Mall is not the Liberty Bell, but actually the tour of Independence Hall, where the above documents were argued and eventually agreed to by delegates of the various states. Tour tickets are free at the information center, but you may have to wait an hour or two for your tour. The hall is kept pretty much the way it was nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, and is treated much like a church: no smoking, no gum, no drinks and hushed voices only please.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

If you want a more in depth understanding of our constitution than you get from the tour guides at Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center is a few blocks north of Independence Hall. There you will get a live presentation on how our government was formed and extensive exhibits on the constitution and its various amendments, plus you can vote on the issues of the day. (Bad news for Romney supporters, NCC visitors are voting for Obama over Romney by about two to one.)

Statue of Benjamin Franklin

Statue of Benjamin Franklin

Seeing the Liberty Bell, like most of the museums on Independence Mall require you to be screened, but the screening is minimal. The Liberty Bell is surprisingly accessible once you make it past security, but is otherwise rather unimpressive. What I found more impressive was the nearby Christ Church Cemetery, particularly the grave of Benjamin Franklin contained inside. You can see his grave from the street without paying admission to the cemetery, although inside the cemetery are graves of four signers of the Declaration of Independence and lots of very faded gravestones. (Hint: make sure you gravestone is in granite, not marble.) Washington D.C. was named after our first president. Really, Philadelphia should have been named after Ben Franklin, its best known and most devoted resident, but very much the first patriot of the United States. I think it should be renamed Franklin City. Franklin was impressive and multidimensional: writer, scientist, inventor, postmaster general, diplomat, genius, author, frequent contrarian, passionate believer in freedom, likely agnostic and shameless womanizer.

By midafternoon we had hit all the highlights on Independence Mall, so we headed back to the museum district. We had time for only one more attraction, and it was irresistible. At the Franklin Institute there was an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was pricy, but it was well worth the cost to view artifacts from the Holy Land that went back in some cases more than five thousand years. Then there were fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves that you could view with your own eyes, priceless documents recording the history of Judaism, in script so small you were wondering how it could be read at all. There are no fragments of the original gospels, but there are these fragments of the Old Testament written on leather that you can see.

Except for eating some Chinese takeout, this was all that we could stuff into one day of site seeing in Philadelphia. The weather turned out to be spectacular on Monday: blue skies with puffy cumulus clouds, dry westerly breezes and warm but not hot temperatures that climbed into the eighties. By Tuesday morning rain had descended on Philly, so we beat it of town toward New York’s southern tier and for me, a visit home. More on that in my next post.

 
The Thinker

Paradise for just eighteen dollars

After a day at Gettysburg, we ended up spending a night at a Park Inn in Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania. You would think a huge motor inn outside Pennsylvania’s state capital would be pretty vacant on a Saturday night, but it was virtually full. Still, I couldn’t complain about the price: $67 with taxes by prepaying in advance through hotwire.com. The room was a little musty but was otherwise three stars. Most importantly, the WiFi worked consistently.

This morning found us driving past Hershey, Pennsylvania to meet two of my wife’s friends for breakfast at a tiny little place called Cornwall. Cornwall, like much of this area of Pennsylvania, is as white as a loaf of Wonder Bread, mostly due to the large number of Germans who settled here. It was strange to sit in a restaurant and see no one of color. The only real diversity was my wife’s friends, a same sex couple that live nearby. It was also surreal just how inexpensive the food was. A couple of bucks could buy you some eggs, bacon and toast hanging off the side of your plate. I smiled at the menu, which highlighted the fact that they proudly served Maxwell House coffee. No Starbucks in or near Cornwall, I guess, and likely none wanted either.

Breakfast started late and ended about the time the menus were changing for lunch. We were pushing noon before we were heading east toward Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Sitting forty five minutes by car south and west of Philadelphia, the borough is known for a couple of things, including the Revolutionary War Battle of Brandywine that was fought nearby but particularly for the amazing Longwood Gardens. There for eighteen dollars you can purchase a day in a garden paradise.

Lily pads at Longwood Gardens

Lily pads at Longwood Gardens

It’s hard to compare Longwood Gardens with any other garden I have seen in my fifty plus years. The closest equivalent might be Versailles, the French king’s “summer home” outside of Paris, and its miles of gardens, all for the king’s enjoyment. While I gazed out on the gardens at Versailles, I did not walk through them. I feel confident though that the gardens at Versailles cannot come close to the diversity of species of plants found at Longwood Gardens. In fact, I would be astonished if Longwood Gardens were not the largest and most diverse garden in the United States.

Flower walk at Longwood Gardens

Flower walk at Longwood Gardens

The garden was the brainchild of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, who simply expanded and expanded on an arboretum on the property put there by the previous owners. du Pont saw many gardens during his visits to Europe, and stole liberally from all of them. However, he never felt possessive about his garden and opened them up regularly to the public. On his death, the foundation maintaining the garden kept up the tradition. Today, the garden span 1,077 acres. For all practical purposes, Longwood Gardens is the mythical Garden of Eden, an incredible respite for a weary soul available at the bargain price of just $18 a day. Frequent visitors can join their society, come more often and pay only an annual fee.

Longwood Gardens is a visual and odorous ode to the natural world, but it is also very much a creation of man. In the natural world, nature turns out to be inconsistent and messy. A garden should be meticulously laid out, full of diverse species, attractively arranged for the eye, pungent to the nose and wholly inviting to the spirit. You will find this and much more at Longwood Gardens. This is a garden designed to suit man, in his original and sinless state. In brief, the experience is overwhelming, vast in size, and vast in variety. Surely heaven would look and feel a lot like Longwood Gardens. You could see it modeled in the eyes and behavior of visiting children who could be seen playing hide and seek behind topiaries or rolling down soft, inviting lawns. There is a vast arboretum but there is also so much more including an intoxicating flower walk, a large “managed meadow”, walks through a dense forest of old growth trees and even three story tree houses where both children and adults can hear the wind rustle through the trees and see the sun peak through the overhead canopy.

It was just the tonic my wife needed. Three months ago she lost her mother, and much of her life since then has been consumed by grief. A day in Longwood Gardens restored her, at least temporarily, to health and happiness. She could imagine her late grandmother, a constant gardener, touring Longwood Gardens with her. She was infamous for never smiling, and she was sure she would have done her best not to smile visiting this garden. But I believe that her grandmother would find it impossible not to smile at so special a natural space. It is like all of God’s flowering creations were concentrated in one amazing and special location.

Behind these gardens must be hundreds of gardeners keeping the gardens in its surreal state of optimal enjoyment. On a Sunday they were nowhere in evidence, except for one man I noticed in the arboretum watering plants.

In addition to the gardens, there are other delights to the human spirit: large water fountains that regularly provide dazzling water shows, ample chairs to view the shows under shady trees, benches near bucolic spots for contemplating the garden, a couple of Steinway pianos in the conservatory that mostly play piano rolls, frequent weekend concert events, and dazzling evening light shows, usually turned on during Saturday nights.

Longwood Gardens simply should not be missed. Muslims must go to Mecca and gardeners should pay a pilgrimage to Longwood Gardens. It is likely that one trip simply will not be enough. Anyone who feels morose or bereft of spirit should come as well. As I can document with my wife, its healing effects can be quite extraordinary. Please come!

 
The Thinker

The Civil War is not over

I haven’t been posting book reviews lately because I’ve been focusing on The Civil War. I’m slogging through the last volume of Shelby Foote’s history of The Civil War and with luck I’ll finish it in a month or two. I read it a few pages at a time in the evenings shortly before turning off the light next to my bed.

The whole Civil War is fascinating, appalling, complicated, and messy and much of it was poorly executed. Everyone agrees though that The Civil War reached its ghoulish zenith in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in early July 1863. The town of course is infamous for the bloodiest battle of The Civil War fought in there from July 1-3, 1863. There were over 46,000 casualties and nearly 8,000 soldiers killed in the battle. It was a rare union victory at a time when one was needed, and one of the few battles ever lost by Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

My wife and I toured the battlefield today, about a ninety minute drive from our home. It was not my first visit, having toured it briefly some thirty years earlier. Today we paid Gettysburg a proper visit. The battle may have been horrendous, but at least the National Park Service can say with pride that tourists visiting the battlefield will have a first class experience. Unlike some battlefields, this one has been meticulously preserved. It is not hard at all to imagine what the battle was like. While certain places like the peach orchard are gone, the terrain is still intact and largely undeveloped. Visitors like us can take a driving tour of the battlefield where there are ample opportunities to park the car and look out over the battlefield from various Confederate and Union positions. The only problem getting good views of the battlefield were due to the thousands of monuments on the grounds to various battalions, regiments and soldiers who participated in the battle. The visitor center offers a first class experience for tourists, with a twenty minute film about the battle, followed by a presentation of the huge cyclorama made in the late 19th century by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, and an extensive museum about the battle, its origins and its aftermath. Touring Gettysburg turns out to be a full day experience. It should be hard for anyone but whiny children not to be moved and a bit awed by the experience. There were ample park rangers and people in period costumes to help cement the experience as well. The theater, cyclorama and museum do not come free and cost about $18 a ticket, but it is money very well spent. The tour of the battlefield is free unless you take a chartered bus tour. Most people do it with their cars, but there were some bicyclists and even some people touring the battlefield in Segways. Blue skies and hot but dry air made visiting the park tolerable and even pleasant when there was a breeze.

While Lincoln preserved the Union and freed the slaves, I left Gettysburg realizing that we are still waging The Civil War. We fight about largely the same issues. Back then it was North vs. South, slavery vs. freedom and state rights vs. federal rights. Today it is Red State vs. Blue State. The issues today are not that much different than they were in 1863. Some people, mostly in red states, believe they should have more power than other people by virtue of their place in society, money in the bank, and yes, sadly, based on being white and male and will do their damnedest to make it happen. One of them, Paul Ryan, was picked today as Mitt Romney’s running mate. They have used the last 150 years to erode the gains that were cemented in the 13th and 14th amendment. It came early in the guise of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. Today it comes in the erosion of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision and through blatantly discriminatory voter disenfranchisement laws, such as those in Ohio which gives red counties extended voting hours but prohibits them in many blue counties. See it also at work through gerrymandering of legislative and state districts.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought, in part, to provide a new birth of freedom for Americans, at least according to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But freedom remains unequal and new freedoms are often acquired only by tooth and nail. Sometimes we get them through fiat, such as when the Supreme Court invalidated state sodomy laws. Most of the time they are granted begrudgingly and haltingly, as with gay marriage. So many people who talk the line on freedom want to grant it only to people a lot like them.

When does this game end? Many of us hoped it ended at Gettysburg, or at least at the conclusion of The Civil War. In reality, it never ends because so many people simply don’t want others unlike us to have the freedoms they enjoy. The privileged vs. the non-privileged must seem to them a natural order, and freedom seems unnatural.  At least for the moment, the battle is fought through largely democratic means instead of through horrendous acts of violence that we tuned into today at Gettysburg.

It is a long struggle, but the bloody battle in Gettysburg nearly 150 years ago was sadly just one small step towards true freedom for all.

Next up on our vacation: Philadelphia, where our nation’s new birth of freedom began.

 
The Thinker

Most mass murders are preventable. For God’s sake, let’s prevent them.

Yesterday, another pointless mass slaughtering of innocents occurred. Six people were murdered this time, plus the gunman who was shot by police, at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The assassin (no point calling him alleged, as he is dead) is Michael Page, a forty-year-old Army veteran, a member of an Army psychological unit that was never deployed. Some news sources are suggesting that Page was a white supremacist. Most likely he wasn’t a very bright white supremacist for choosing Sikhs as victims. Most white supremacists are far more concerned about allegedly radical Muslims than Sikhs, who are a largely peaceful religion primarily from India that believes in one immortal being and the ten gurus. But they wear towels on their head, so that probably looked Muslim enough for Page. We’ll probably never know for sure why he targeted Sikhs, but their main crime seems to be they were not Caucasians like him.

About three weeks earlier, the white Caucasian pulling the trigger was allegedly James Eagan Holmes, 26, a recent dropout from the University of Colorado’s PhD neuroscience program. He killed twelve people and injured 58 others at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado with semiautomatic weapons and bullets purchased in part over the Internet. Shortly before he dropped out he was apparently receiving counseling from a psychiatrist at the university, who was so alarmed she brought his case to the attention of campus authorities. However, the campus lost interest as he had dropped out. Holmes acquired a huge lethal arsenal and over three thousand rounds of ammunition, all without a background investigation. He would have killed many more had not police discovered that he had booby-trapped his apartment.

And so it goes. On January 8, 2011 it was Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) who took a bullet to the brain at the hands of alleged assassin Jared Lee Loughner, 23, also a Caucasian white guy. Giffords was fortunate to survive, but her injury eventually meant resigning her seat in Congress and years of rehabilitation therapy that is still underway. Loughner shot 18 people, six of whom died at a Tucson Safeway. While he did not kill Giffords, he did manage to kill a federal judge. Like Holmes, Loughner had a traumatic incident in his personal life. He underwent a personality change after he was fired from a job at a local Quiznos. He was known to abuse alcohol and took hallucinogens. His firearm was purchased legally at a local Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson. Loughner is expected to plead guilty tomorrow to these shootings. He is considered mentally ill and is required to take an anti-psychotic medication.

Of course who could possibly forget the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, a shooting that killed 32 and injured 17 others? It stands as the worst mass murder by an individual in the United States. While the incident occurred in Blacksburg, Seung-Hui Cho grew up close to where I live in Northern Virginia. He attended Poplar Tree Elementary School down the street in Chantilly, and Westfield High School, also in Chantilly, where my daughter graduated the year of the incident. Cho had seen many mental health experts, had been on antidepressants and creeped out more than a few of his professors.

The United States is lucky to go a year without a mass murder episode. Some of them get little press. Four days before the Aurora shooting, twelve to 18 people were injured by gunman Nathan Van Wilkins, 44, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. If the incident made the paper, it was buried deep in the back somewhere. Maybe that no one actually died made it un-newsworthy. To pick a few recent mass shootings: 4 dead and 7 injured by Eduardo Sencion in Carson City, Nevada on September 6, 2011 and 13 killed and 4 injured in Binghamton, New York, my home town, by Jiverly Antares Wong on April 3, 2009. Wikipedia keeps a current list if you are curious. By my count the grisly total is: thirty murdered since 2010 and 82 from 2000-2009, and these are just the rampage killers. School massacres like Virginia Tech, workplace killings and hate crimes are not included.

Certain themes show up in these murderers. For the ones that tend to be most newsworthy, the perpetrators tends to be white, male, in their prime testosterone years and mentally ill. Mass murder though seems to be almost exclusively a guy thing, principally a white guy thing. Maybe women lack the crazy gene. Most of these mass murders probably were preventable. I will grant you that our loose, albeit almost nonexistent gun laws, make it difficult to impossible to keep these crazies from acquiring weapons. In the Aurora, Colorado shooting, had semi-automatic weapons been controlled, the death rate would have been markedly lower. Even I belatedly agreed that strict gun control is impossible in this country, but I would like to think that even the NRA would agree that people with severe mental illnesses should not be allowed to acquire weapons. Yes, perhaps they could get them from illicit sources, but we should not make it easy for them to get. These people should be in known databases. To alleviate the concern that regular citizens would be put in the database, perhaps getting added to the database would require the signatures of three psychiatrists.

But guns don’t kill people (unless they smash their heads in with a rifle’s butt), but bullets sure do. James Holmes acquired 300 rounds of ammunition and no one blinked an eye. More importantly, no one was tracking the fact that one dude in a short period of time acquired this much ammunition, or that there was something unusual about the semi-automatic weapons he acquired so quickly too. If all gun sales were in a database, it would be easy enough to search it for unusual cases, and if it were cross-indexed with a list of people with mental psychoses then the Holmes case should have stood out like a red flag. Exactly how are gun rights diminished if we were to enact laws like this? Are we really agreeing that every psychotic should have unlimited access to firearms and rounds of ammunition?

While guns and bullets allow these murders to occur easily, in most cases the catalyst is mental illness. Mental illness is at least required to be treated by health insurance plans but we still have fifty million people uninsured. There are fewer stigmas to treating mental illness these days, but we should press for even less of them. Even if you can be treated, as was true in Seung-Hui Cho’s case, mentally ill adults can refuse treatment. Cho’s case was truly extreme: red flags were everywhere. Particularly with cases this severe, it is reasonable for society to require these individuals stay in treatment, both for their own safety and for society’s safety as well, unless a board of psychiatrists clears the person.

Our world is growing more crowded and complex. Our highly industrialized, information-centric world does affect us in ways that are hard for us to understand. Denser communities raise the number of human interactions, making trouble more likely. The Internet, while it has lots of advantages, also allows mentally ill people license to feed their psychoses. Sociologists need to study the effects of Future Shock, well underway, and it needs to be come part of a public policy discussion. Ignoring these realities simply means that more of us will die needlessly from future and preventable acts of mass violence. It also means those with these mental illnesses are less likely to keep their conditions under control.

George Santayana said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s one thing to forget lessons from events that happened generations ago. It is another thing to forget events that happened last week or last month and not learn from them. It is the height of public policy stupidity.

 
The Thinker

Warily opening my checkbook for candidates

Millions are being raised and spent right now to elect candidates this November. Yesterday was the end of a quarter, which put the usually shrill political fundraisers into hyperdrive. My inbox is stuffed with dozens of emails a day from candidates, many of who I never heard of but all of who earnestly need my money, but yesterday was an incredible deluge of pleas. They don’t need it next week; they want it now. Apparently they survive by eating hand to mouth from dumpsters.

Many are craftier about it. First, get you hooked by signing an email petition on a favorite topical cause, say the Chick-Fil-A boycott (I’m in), which is easy to do. Then quickly get directed to a prominent donation page. Next, expect you will be put on their short list, which means you will get more requests for donations. Lastly, expect that your email will be sold or given to potentially friendly political candidates. Minnesota is over eight hundred miles away, but I recently got a solicitation for money for some Minnesota state senate candidate. What the hell?

I reluctantly opened up my checkbook (well, actually my credit card) last night to give. It was the end of the quarter and it was getting time to give. I gave Barack Obama a hundred bucks, even though he has frozen my federal salary for three years, and there are likely more years like this in site. I gave Tim Kaine fifty dollars given that “Macaca” candidate and former senator George Allen is likely to outraise him. There are so many other worthy candidates out there that it was hard to know where to start. Elizabeth Warren? Darcy Burner? I ended up giving fifty dollars to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. I figure they know better than I do whom to give it to.

All the candidates claim to be desperate for money. Call me skeptical but I suspect I threw about $190 of the $200 I gave yesterday right down the sewer. This is because there are very, very few minds out there that are likely to change between now and Election Day. Surveys suggest at least ninety percent of Americans have already made up their minds about whom they will vote for. The vast majority will vote the party ticket, and the rest simply aren’t paying much attention and may simply be too apathetic to vote.

In fact, the smart money has already been spent. Republican interests in Republican controlled swing states have already gotten their legislatures to pass voter ID laws that effectively make it more difficult for “those people” (poor, elderly, students and in general Democrats) to vote. Virginia is a swing state and our Republican legislature has done its part. It used to be that I would go vote, they would ask me my name and address and that was good enough. It used to be not unreasonable to assume if you had all that information on you, that you were in fact that voter, particularly because if you weren’t, you were a criminal. Now I need to show an “acceptable” ID. A concealed handgun permit will work, if I had one, as well as a current utility bill or bank statement in a pinch. First time Virginia voters in a federal election must show a federal ID, which is carefully limited and qualified. It was certainly not lost on our Republican legislators that first time federal voters are probably students, and they are likely to be voting absentee if they vote at all. Oh darn, so this makes it less likely that they will vote. In any event, voter suppression is heaps cheaper and much more effective than the endless squawking of political ads on TV or radio. It is much easier to put onerous hurdles in front of undesired voters, many of which, such as getting a photo ID, are time consuming and costly. It is effectively a poll tax. All this to solve a nonexistent voter fraud problem. Naturally this problem is supremely important, but limiting rounds of ammunition to the mentally ill is not on our legislature’s agenda. In fact, they are so owned by the NRA they are probably working on legislation to allow morons to purchase automatic weapons by the truck-full.

So disenfranchising voters: check. It is estimated that at least two percent of voters will be ensnared by these new laws, and most would be inclined to vote Democratic, so that’s an easy way to tip the balance in a close election. This is perfectly legal, unless the Department of Justice protests, but there are also patently illegal ways as well that are well practiced. These include robocalls that purport false voting facts, general intimidation, misleading flyers and signs, and the classic tactic of putting insufficient numbers of voting machines in poor districts.

The other primary factor in winning elections is turnout. This is how the Tea Party won in 2010: Democrats yawned and stayed home. Republicans are super-enthusiastic this time around, as they see Obama as an illegal Muslim socialist president. Also, given that Republicans are arguably a minority party, turnout is crucial. Democrats need to have a compelling reason to vote in the same numbers. Here’s another reason why I think my donations to campaigns won’t matter that much. What bring out voters are compelling issues. Since ninety percent of voters have already made up their mind, to bring out Democrats in droves you have to speak to stuff we care about. I think Obama understand this, given his recent campaign speeches. He sells himself as a champion of the middle class. This is smart because there is no way Republicans can claim this, particularly on a day like today when House Republicans rejected tax cuts for the middle class because it wouldn’t include millionaires.

Most of the money spent on TV and radio ads that will do much good has already been spent. Advantage here to the Obama campaign for spending heavily these last months by planting the idea that Romney simply doesn’t understand the middle class and is out of touch with reality. For an undecided voter, the first candidate to make a convincing case generally gets the vote, and it seems to be working marginally for Obama. Romney’s general cluelessness is actually helpful to Obama.

Money on ads from this point on is generally going to be ineffective, at least on the presidential campaign. Money spent on getting out the vote, however, is money well spent. It certainly was well spent in 2008. It’s my hope that most of the money I gave yesterday goes for get out the vote efforts. Organizing turnout is what truly matters at this point.

All this makes me wonder if candidates really need all the funds they claim they need to wage their campaigns. Some money is certainly needed. For the most part money spent on one side will cancel out money spent on the other side. The most likely reaction by an independent voter to the endless barrage of political ads will be disgust. However, if you look at independent voters, many of them are not so independent and lean toward a political party. The truly independent voter is likely apathetic, not paying attention and probably won’t be voting.

Candidates: I work hard for my money. Use it wisely.

 

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