Thursday, June 30, 2016

Bartering Beliefs

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you took a bit of a short-cut to get it? Perhaps it was jumping ahead in line to get a better seat at an event. Ever bob and weave through tough traffic? Perhaps it was fibbing to a maitre’d to get a better table or a reservation moved around to your convenience. It’s not always selfish - family and friends who are parents often make little deals with their offspring – finish 2 more carrots and then you can have dessert – or clean up your room and you can have 15 more minutes on the iPad. Most of these things are relatively harmless – some might even categorize them as incentives. David Cameron showed the world last week what happens when you barter your beliefs away.

The United Kingdom’s decision to remove itself from the European Union  in a referendum in June 2016 has the world aflutter. Stock markets dropped, the value of the pound crashed and political analysists who didn’t foresee it happened are agog with hyperbole.
How did this happen? Sure there are issues of xenophobia, isolationism and other elements at play. Before making that judgment, however, let’s go back in time to see how this could happen.

David Cameron took over the leadership of the Conservative Party in April of 2010 after Gordon Brown resigned as Prime Minister. Per Wikipedia: “The election resulted in a hung parliament, no single party having an overall majority in the House of Commons, the Conservatives having the most seats but 20 short of a majority. In the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition agreement of 11 May 2010, the two parties formed a coalition government.”

The British Parliamentary system operates differently than the U.S. system, but the essential comparison for Americans is that no party won an outright majority so they had to bring together another party to get enough support to govern. The nearest comparison would be the GOP didn’t quite win enough votes to rule so they had to make a deal with the Green Party to be able to run the government. That’s how different and far apart the parties are in policy, but it was the first opportunity that the Liberal Democrats had to have a seat at the table and they took it.

The Coalition Agreement between the parties outlined the policy areas where they agreed to cooperate and the actions that they’d take. There was plenty of give and take from the parties that are so divergent in philosophy. So long as the Agreement was followed then the rest of the issues and policies could be supported. “Settling” on a few items in order to rule seemed worthwhile. The European Union was part of the Agreement and that began the process of placing a referendum on the ballot.

Not much happened in those first few years around the EU and the Conservatives were frustrated with the difficulty of ruling by coalition, Cameron made another deal in 2012 in a bid to bolster Conservative votes in the next election. Wikipedia: “While attending the May 2012 NATO summit meeting, British Prime Minister David Cameron, William Hague and Ed Llewellyn discussed the idea of using a European Union referendum as a concession to energise the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. In January 2013, Cameron promised that, should his Conservative Party win a parliamentary majority at the 2015 general election, the UK Government would negotiate more favourable arrangements for continuing British membership of the EU, before holding a referendum on whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU.”

The tactic worked and Cameron and the Conservatives had a strong showing in 2015 – enough so that his second cabinet came together without the need of a coalition agreement. He then did negotiate more agreeableterms for staying in the Union as he had promised. But there was still a matter of the vote.

The June 23rd Referendum went forward and by 1.3 million votes the U.K. decided to leave the Union. Cameron immediately resigned in what many consider a statement of leadership and integrity. What they forget is that Cameron wouldn’t have had to resign if he hadn’t made the deals he did to gain power in the first place.

Many analysts in the U.S. have tried to draw a parallel between a vote to isolate and the Trump movement. They see it as foreshadowing for the November 2016 election. I don’t. I see it as another example of when people compromise their principals then there are consequences. Cameron bartered his beliefs and the Brits now leave the European Union.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Super Soaked

I got my nephew the Nerf Super Soaker Zombie Strike Splatterblast Blaster for his birthday. The description: “One-handed Splatter blast water blaster;  Lets you soak your target from up to 30 feet away with 4 streams of water; Water tank lights up; Holds up to 35 fluid ounces.” It’s perfect for an energetic kid. To break in the blaster, my nephew invited his father to play and gave him a squirt gun to defend himself. Smart young man – he gets the Super Soaker and only has to fend off a squirt gun. (There must be something to genetics!) Being outgunned is an apt metaphor for what’s happening in Washington these days.

Ten days after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history the U.S. Senate defeated four bills aimed at limiting assault rifles. They were largely on major party line basis. CNN reported: “Tough election year politics, paired with disputes over the effectiveness of each party's ideas, proved too powerful to break the longstanding partisan gridlock that's surrounded gun issues for years.”

Democrats in the House staged a sit in demanding a vote on two of the four bills that were already defeated in the Senate. It was a masterful public relations move – if pointless legislatively since even if the House miraculously passed them the senate already had defeated them.

The Boston Globe wrapped its paper on June 16, 2016 with a 4-page Opinion piece entitled “Make It Stop.” Included is a rich variety of statistics supporting their thesis: “Greed, legislative cowardice, advanced technology — that is how we got here. The United States has been pummeled by gun violence since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004. One class of gun, semiautomatic rifles, is largely responsible. But this nation cannot be a hostage of fear. We can make it stop.”

There once was an assault weapons ban. From Wikipedia: “The ten-year ban was passed by the U.S. Congress on September 13, 1994, and signed into law by then President Bill Clinton the same day. The ban only applied to weapons manufactured after the date of the ban's enactment, and it expired on September 13, 2004.”

Several reports showed that there was no measurable impact on the restriction of firearms and gun violence. The Brady Center found differently: “in the five-year period before enactment of the Federal Assault Weapons Act (1990-1994), assault weapons named in the Act constituted 4.82% of the crime gun traces ATF conducted nationwide. Since the law’s enactment, however, these assault weapons have made up only 1.61% of the guns ATF has traced to crime.”

The Independent Review actually shows that whenever there is an effort to restrict guns there is a huge upshot in gun sales:

The Washington Post agreed and  2015 did a state by state comparison and came to a similar conclusion that gun laws don't necessarily curb gun violence. “This doesn’t prove that gun laws have no effect on total homicide rates. Correlation doesn’t show causation.”

So what’s to be done? I am a pacifist. I abhor gun violence. I am a constitutionalist and I believe that America should be guided by that document. While I personally don’t want weapons, I also don’t want law abiding people who feel they need them to not have them. The Second Amendment provides for that – and it also provides context by using the description “…well regulated…”

The Assault Weapon in question is one that has been designed for killing human beings, especially in war. I’m hard pressed to see how the restriction of this one style of gun becomes a slippery slope to ending gun ownership in the U.S. Erring on the side of eliminating this particular weapon won’t destroy the Constitution just as it didn’t during the ten years it was previously in place. It might just make mass shootings a less likely and less bloody. That would be a good thing. I guess the lesson is that I should have gotten my nephew a squirt gun instead.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sobering Time

May 7, 1987 was my first day of sobriety. It’s now quite a milestone that I’ve lived more years without the benefit of alcohol than with. I even take it for granted. There was a time when I was stunned to find out that not everybody’s breakfast included a Screwdriver. The root cause of my alcoholism may be biological as it runs in the family, it may be environmental, it is likely some combination. Doesn’t matter why: the bottom line is I can’t handle it. I am grateful for a life of clean living. I am also grateful for the bars that were around when I did drink. They provided a respite and were a helpful transition for me to live as an out person. Given Orlando 2016 – I’ve been reflecting on my drinking days, my life in gay bars.

It was the fall of 1986. Syracuse, New York. I went to the address and circled the block several times. I parked in the far part of the lot. I watched people go in and out of this square, warehouse type building. They looked normal enough. What if I was seen? Recognized? Fear, confusion, excitement coarsed through my body.  I left. This pattern of going to the club and not going in repeated itself for days on end, for at least two to three weeks.

Finally my courage overcame my fears. I actually got out of the Chevette and crossed the street. I walked in. It was this gargantuan space – huge dance floor, flashing lights, loud music. Four people were there. It was a Monday night after all. I went up to the bar – the only college student in sight. One of the guys checked me out, smiled and went back to his drink. I nearly chugged my beer. The bartender said “it’ll be ok kid.” I raced out of there. Mission accomplished! And it took less than 10 minutes.

I returned that weekend where there was much more activity. I even ran into people I knew. I was hugged. I was welcomed.  I even danced. I began my life as a gay person.
My story isn’t all that unique. Gay bars and dance clubs have been gathering places for the LGBT community for generations. Today in places like Boston there are still dedicated bars. Assimilation and acceptance have minimized their footprint but we continue to come together in these places.

The massacre in Orlando at Pulse – a gay bar – is terrible by any measurement. It’s the worst mass shooting in America. It’s the most egregious hate crime against the LGBT community. It targeted young Hispanics. And it has torn apart the safe space that a gay bar provides.

In 2016 people are coming out in middle school and not waiting until college like I did. Bars and clubs no longer hold the same exclusive role as they did for me, for the Stonewall generation before me or the Speakeasy time of the Mattachine Society. There’s a lot of good news in that --- and we still need our places. In Orlando Pulse was a safe space. The bullets killed 49 people, injured 53 more and punctured the bubble of security that is vital to the LGBT community and those who are questioning and exploring their identity.

There’s so much to be said about what’s happened – politically, socially, morally – in the media, in the community, in the world. Hypocrisies and ironies abound. For today, though, less than a week after the attack I’m still sober and am sobered by the events, grateful for the bars that make it safe to be who we are.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Love-Hate Speech

A good friend of mine loves to argue. He may not even believe the issue at hand – instead he loves to have a spirited discussion. Those who are unfamiliar with his process often get wound up. It’s an interesting (and often amusing) tactic to see how well people can articulate what they believe in. More often than not the debate turns to the petty and names are called, assumptions made and broad swaths of insults are strewn about. It’s not the prettiest thing to see, but it’s part and parcel of a society committed to free speech. But are we?

In December 2015 I wrote about the Word Wars going on at the college level. In July 2014 I wrote about how Europe allows people and companies to petition Google and other search engines to have negative information about themselves removed from results.

Europeans are now taking the next step at restricting speech. Techcrunch reports: “Facebook, Twitter, Google’s YouTube, Microsoft as well as the European Commission unveiled a new code of conduct to remove hate speech according to community guidelines in less than 24 hours across these social media platforms.”

“’The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online hate speech,’ Vĕra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, wrote in the European Commission press release. ‘Social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people and racist use to spread violence and hatred.’”

The slippery slope that I wrote about and fretted about in 2014 and 2015 is coming true in 2016. One person’s hate speech is another person’s advocacy.

George Washington was a colonel in the British Army from 1752-58 before changing allegiance to the colonies and leading the revolution against the British. His efforts earned him the role as the number one foe of the United Kingdom awarded in 2012 by the National Army Museum. His efforts towards independence likely had quite a bit of talk that was treasonous and hateful and designed to convert people to the colonists perspective. [I'm not equating ISIS with Washington - rather pointing out that some could.]

We cannot all agree. We can’t pave over fundamental disagreements over issues of policy, religion and beliefs to just get along. Eliminating speech from the discourse is incredibly perilous. Hate can only be distinguished as hate when it’s public. Donald Trump may be rallying some with his talk, but I am glad that his bloviating, spewing and ignorance is front and center for all to see. What are the Europeans going to do? Delete The Donald’s tweets? That is what their new code of conduct requires.

The danger is in restricting speech – especially nasty, horrible and uninformed speech. Count me as one who doesn’t like the content of what’s said but loves hate speech as it’s a sign of freedom.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Fenced In

On a recent return visit to Los Angeles I went by some properties that I had owned at one point – another time and another life. Each were classically Southern California – built in the Spanish style and easily fit right in with the dozens of others like them on their streets. One of the first improvements I made at each property was planting hedges around the perimeter of the property. While they’d grow to be over the six-foot high maximum allowed under zoning codes – I found they provided a rich vegetation against the desert look of the buildings and also were a wonderful privacy barrier. Likely in drought season I wouldn’t have the same appreciation for them, I’d always want to have some solution to keep prying eyes from…prying. The White House is following suit.

“Secret Service Dreams of a New (14-foot) White House Picket Fence” reads the New York Times headline. The article outlines the reasons that the security detail wants to exchange the existing fence for one that’s 1.3 of a story of most houses. It highlights that Thomas Jefferson had a barrier up during the Civil War and for most of the last century a 6-foot version of the fence has been up.


President John Adams was the first President to live in the White House. Thomas Jefferson described it as “the People’s House.” The Washington Post in 2014 wrote a retrospective about the history of the House and how people were able to walk in at their leisure. “Jefferson and subsequent presidents, along with their wives, would greet visitors in the East Room around lunchtime. People were not allowed in during the morning, when the president was sleeping, or while he was out of town. People were, however, allowed to have essentially unfettered access to the White House grounds.”

President Pierce was the first President to demand a full-time bodyguard in response to having an egg thrown at him. The Secret Service began its protective duties of the President in 1901 after the attempted assassination of President McKinley. President Cleveland had a force of 27 guarding the property. The article states: “It grew from a White House police force of 80 officers in 1942 to 1,200 members by 1995.” According to Wikipedia in 2016 the Service has 6,500 employees.

We live in a violent and dangerous world full of terrorist’s hell bent on doing destruction to America and her institutions. However deeply that statement is believed it does not make sense to have the White House be open so that anybody can simply wander in at their leisure as they once did. The President should have protection. Where’s the balance? In listening to an analysis on POTUS about the proposed fence the consensus was that it would be approved by the Executive branch: “Every modern President has deferred to the Secret Service on these matters.”

Providing protection in the President’s residence and office is one thing. The movement of the President is quite another. One analysis showed that it takes a minimum of fourteen vehicles and 30 people to move the President. The Oregonian in 2015 went through the entire process of a Presidential visit and reported that it takes thousands of people who come in on at least six airplanes – including his own culinary crew – and disrupts businesses and traffic for days before and after even a 15-minute drop by.

It’s all a bit much. We must protect the elected leader of the country. The current method of coverage insulates the President from connecting with the real world. There is literally a buffer of people and equipment in the way. Is it any wonder that administration after administration is further distanced from the people they serve? Is it any wonder that the people have risen up in frustration and anger that their leaders “don’t get it”?

The fence is slated to be built in 2018. If President H. Clinton is living there I’m sure the fence will be opaque. If President Trump is living there I wonder who he’s going to expect to pay for it? The taxpayer, naturally…the very people he’d be protected from.