Smoking Gun

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A handful of people have died from vaping, and President Trump immediately instituted a ban on certain flavored e-cigarettes. Three times that many people were killed in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and hand-wringing was the only action anyone took.

I’m not a fan of e-cigarettes, and I have no issue with regulating them more strictly in light of the mysterious recent deaths and the fact that vaping has caught on with a young, vulnerable population. Indeed, the government’s role is to provide regulations to help keep Americans safe. But when it comes to guns, there is a glaring inconsistency.

In the latest mass shooting, the gunman had obtained his weapon from a private sale, thus skirting a background check that would have marked him as ineligible to have a gun. There are numerous loopholes to our system of background checks that, if closed, could prevent violence.

There are also ways of getting around strict gun laws in one state; get a gun from a neighboring state. Once again, a nationally consistent set of laws governing the sale of guns would help keep them out of the hands of criminals and people with a violent history or history of mental illness.

Alas, I’m beating a dead horse here. The difference between the vaping crisis and the gun one is simple: money. E-cigarette manufacturers and vape shops simply don’t have the lobbying clout of the NRA.

What makes it even more frustrating to me is that in the case of vaping, I am in charge of whether or not I use a product that is increasingly being shown to have serious health risks. I can simply refuse to partake. But in the case of guns, lax laws could mean that in the course of going around minding my own business, I could still be shot and killed. Guns are a lethal weapon against which I expect the government to protect me.

There is not a single right enshrined in the Constitution that does not have some curbs attached to it. You can’t perpetrate violence in the name of your religion, for instance. Hate speech and inciting people to violence are not allowed. The right to bear arms must also be controlled in some fashion.

Ironically, President Trump cited his own 13-year-old son in his remarks about banning e-cigarettes. It’s laudable that he would want to protect his young son from danger. But don’t guns pose an even bigger risk to the son of the president? Secret Service protection notwithstanding, doesn’t Pres. Trump see that his child would be safer in a world with fewer guns in the wrong hands?

We’re not seeing the forest for the trees when it comes to guns. Unfortunately, there’s a raging forest fire, and no one is moving to extinguish it.

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I Know You Are, But What Am I?

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Donald Trump’s entire strategy for defending himself against any charges is to go on the offensive. Essentially, he lobs at his critics the playground retort, “I know you are, but what am I?”

In the past few weeks, the president has actually told U.S. citizens of color to go back where they came from. More recently, he decided to attack his critic Rep. Elijah Cummings by denouncing Cummings’ district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” The comment was akin to his description of certain African nations as “shithole countries.” The more blatantly racial Trump’s attacks become, the quicker he is to label his critics as racist or un-American.

And instead of calling on the president to refrain from such remarks, his apologists get into a dissection of the victims. First they analyzed and called into question every statement made by the four Congresswomen who were the subject of Trump’s vitriol: women of color, all of them U.S. citizens and only one of them born outside the U.S. And as pundits pointed out, even that naturalized citizen had been a U.S. citizen longer than Trump’s own wife, Melania.

In the case of Trump’s attack on Baltimore, Rep. Cummings’ home turf, pundits started in on the Democratic failures to solve endemic poverty in big cities. Again, all this serves as a dodge to avoid confronting the fact that they support a small-minded racist.

The Trump strategy of counterattack is a brazen and shameless one. Despite the fact that there is ample evidence he obstructed justice in his attempt to derail the Mueller investigation, Trump has managed to turn the investigation against itself, demanding that U.S. justice and intelligence agencies be investigated for pro-Hillary/anti-Trump bias.

Aside from the fact that the “I know you are, but what am I?” tactic is the mark of a man with stunted emotional maturity, the repeated attempts on the right to distract the American people from legitimate concern and criticism of this president are disturbing and dangerous. It seems clear that the Republicans in power, their media mouthpieces, and Trump’s diehard base will ignore any level of impropriety, dishonesty, and meanness from this president.

It’s up to the rest of us to keep focused on what we see right in front of us: a divisive, mean-spirited, and narcissistic bully who must be called to account – in 2020, if not sooner.

Normalizing Hate

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Twitter has done at least one beneficial thing since its inception: given us a glimpse into the mind and heart of our current president. And it’s not a pretty picture. The president’s latest tweet attacked four women of color, all U.S. citizens, with the admonition to go back where they came from. The House of Representatives rightly voted to condemn this racist and xenophobic rant on the part of our country’s supposed leader.

The president has done everything in his power to attack and marginalize immigrants of color. Muslim travel bans, cruel treatment of Latin American migrants, labeling them criminals and rapists: This is classic scapegoating. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it must not be normalized.

I know I’m not supposed to haul out Nazi Germany as a comparison, but the same tactics were used to victimize and ultimately exterminate millions of Jews during World War II. First they were attacked for being dishonest and mercenary. Cartoon depictions of Jews made them seem less than human. These tactics made it easier for ordinary citizens to stand by while Jewish people’s possessions were taken away and ultimately they themselves were rounded up.

I used to be opposed to going through the trauma of impeachment proceedings against our current president. It’s not that I don’t think there is ample cause for impeachment. I just felt that Democrats needed to focus their efforts on defeating the man in 2020. However, allowing this president to spew vitriol and hate for another year and half is unacceptable and runs the risk of normalizing such attitudes. The Congresswomen cited in the latest hateful tweets have been dealing with death threats. Let’s not wait for someone to make good on such a threat before we take action.

The American people must not allow hatred against certain religious or ethnic groups to take hold in our national psyche. It goes against everything our great nation stands for. Let’s not normalize hate but condemn it whenever and wherever we find it, even at the highest echelons of our government.

 

Good Samaritan

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700446167Yesterday’s gospel reading at Mass was about the Good Samaritan. Most people know the story of the man lying by the side of the road, beaten and robbed, while the religious leaders of the day passed by without helping him. The Samaritan, a kind of outcast, was the only one who took pity on the victim and hastened to his aid.

There are many lessons to take away from this parable, but the one the priest focused on in his sermon was this: There is a difference between knowing the right answer and doing what is right – a difference between following the letter of the law and practicing compassion. The pastor’s sermon had special poignancy at a time when President Trump is stepping up deportations of illegal immigrants, detaining large numbers of migrants at the southern border, and failing to unite separated children from their families.

It’s true that there are millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Many Americans believe that accommodating these millions has become far too heavy a burden and that border enforcement needs to be increased. Donald Trump’s call for a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico became a rallying cry for these frustrations.

Border enforcement is one thing. Separating children from their parents and keeping unaccompanied children in inhumane detention centers is just wrong. Many border officers have voiced disquiet at the conditions these migrant children are living under and their role in enforcing President Trump’s policies. Like the Good Samaritan, they see that the fact something is legal does not necessarily make it right.

The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable are following the law as well. Ancient Jewish law prohibited them from exposing themselves to human blood. So in the strictest sense, they were following the rules. The Samaritan, whose mixed ancestry and religious practices made him anathema to the Jewish people, depended less on rules and regulations and more on his heart. There are times when compassion and love trump the law.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbor?” Like many lawyers, this man was trying to get Jesus to misspeak, to contradict the law of Moses and thus bring condemnation on himself. How often have human beings insisted upon following the letter of the law to the detriment of others?

I believe that if someone were to ask Jesus that question today, he would respond with a similar story that might involve our treatment of minorities, would-be immigrants, and other marginalized people.

Who is my neighbor? The one who needs my help, my compassion, and my love.

More Than One Thing

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lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.

Leaning Toward the Center

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Hell has officially frozen over. I agree with Tucker Carlson on something! On a recent show, Carlson read a quote detailing the idea that government action can and should make capitalism work for the American people. The source of the quote was not a fellow conservative, but presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Carlson went on to suggest that the current polarization in politics has made a sensible platform such as Warren’s untenable to either side.

I’ve written before about the virtues of moderation, and I truly believe the way out of our existing political stalemate is to elect officials from the center of the spectrum. A look at some contentious issues currently roiling the American electorate reveals just how centrism could help us find balance and promote real progress in American society.

The first of these is gun reform. Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans support background checks and closing loopholes to make sure guns are not in the hands of criminals and unstable individuals. Yet when running for office, politicians look to their rating with the NRA rather than consider what the people in their own districts actually want.

Another extremely divisive issue is abortion. While many object to legalizing any abortions on religious grounds, the majority of Americans support women’s right to choose while also insisting on some limits to that right, such as parental notification and curbs on late term abortions. Recent legislation in both red and blue states, however, has taken the issue to its ultimate extremes.

Immigration has become another hot button issue, mostly thanks to our current president and his ability to tap into people’s worst fears. That doesn’t mean our legislators can’t find common ground on humane and sensible ways to reform our immigration system, protecting our border while also helping our neighbors to the south who are grappling with poverty and extreme violence.

Compromise is not sexy. And it’s not always possible. There are issues of fundamental human rights that cannot really be compromised. But for most political issues, we can come together by leaning in toward the center and finding common ground. Let’s elect more centrist Democrats and Republicans to our local and nationwide offices and see how much can be accomplished in America.

Christian Wrong

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billboardThe other day driving in Michigan, I saw a billboard I’d seen many times before. Its message normally was, “Real Christians Obey Jesus’ Teachings.” But someone had covered up part of the sign with a white cloth and penned their own new message: “Real Christians Obey President Trump.”

First of all, let’s agree that our role as Americans is not to “obey” the President of the United States. In fact, he’s our employee. We’ve chosen him (God help us) to do the will of the people. But some Christians on the far right are trying to convince the rest of us that Donald Trump was chosen by God to do His will. That’s more than a little frightening.

There was a recent controversy about another billboard that appeared outside St. Louis. It showed Trump gesturing with his arms outstretched and featured the Biblical reference, “The Word Made Flesh,” along with the tagline “Make the Gospel Great Again.” The implication of the message was nothing short of blasphemy if you are a Christian. It implied that Trump was akin to Jesus, the Son of God.  After something of an uproar, the sign was removed. Good to know that in some instances cooler, more sane heads do prevail.

All of this is but part of a disturbing trend among Christian believers who are willing to suspend all rational thought, not to mention their own deeply cherished beliefs, to follow a man who has no history of devout Christianity and whose many actions could be viewed as the reverse of Christian values. I could just as easily cite Scripture to suggest Trump is the Anti-Christ, who, according to the Bible, is a false leader who will sway many to his side at the end times.

Christians everywhere, whether they support President Trump or not, should decry these attempts to portray the man as a God-ordained leader of the people. Interestingly, I have been studying the figure of King David in my local Bible study group. When the Israelites tell the high priest Samuel that they want to be like all the other nations and have a king, Samuel warns them what that will mean:

He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses … He will make them do his plowing and harvesting and produce his weapons of war … He will use your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers …He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves … you will become his slaves. ((1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Samuel’s message is, be careful what you wish for.

America is a great democracy. We do not need a king to rule over us, and we should absolutely feel free to question anything and everything our political leaders do. Real Christians don’t sell their souls to further an agenda.