Thoughts and Prayers

Your “thoughts” should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your “prayers” should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut)

Just another day in the United States of America, another day of gunfire, panic, and fear.

BBC intro to the San Bernardino shootings

This week’s featured posts are “Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies” and “The 2016 Campaign: a mid-course assessment“.

Last week’s post about fascism, “The Political F-word“, had one of the best first weeks in Weekly Sift history: At 7700 hits so far, it’s already the 15th most popular Sift post ever.

This week everybody was talking about mass shootings and terrorism

It’s been fascinating to watch the radically different responses to two terrorist attacks that happened within a few days of each other: San Bernardino and Planned Parenthood. Liberals had just about the same response to each: It’s way too easy in the United States for somebody to get guns and start shooting people.

For conservatives, on the other hand, the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs was just one of those things. It’s the price of living in a free society and there’s really nothing to be done about it. The San Bernardino shooting, though, was something Muslims did, so it is a national emergency that requires carpet bombing or maybe a ground war.

Personally, I don’t care whether the person who shoots me is a Muslim extremist or a Christian extremist. Heck, if there are Zoroastrian extremists, I don’t want them to shoot me either. (Funny how you never hear about somebody gunning people down for atheism.) Mass shootings are the problem we need to solve, not just a particular kind of mass shootings.

President Obama’s speech Sunday night was basically a stay-the-course speech. It was well-reasoned (because what we’re doing to fight ISIS is mostly well-reasoned already), but I suspect it did little to slow down the national panic.

The problem Obama is facing is that most of the dramatic actions he could take — indiscriminate bombing or a ground invasion of Syria, harassing Muslims in the U.S., etc. — would do more harm than good. He’s quite correct that ISIS is hoping for those kinds of responses. It’s worth noting that hardly any of the public figures who criticize Obama for not doing enough have offered any detailed suggestions. They want to “get tough” and take strong action, but exactly what those actions would be is left vague.

Strangling an insurgency without creating a new insurgency is a long, slow process. As sad as that thought is, we’re lucky to have a president who understands it.

Peter Beinart wrote an insightful article about Obama’s thinking on terrorism.

Obama is a kind of Fukuyamian. Like Francis Fukuyama, the author of the famed 1989 essay “The End of History,” he believes that powerful, structural forces will lead liberal democracies to triumph over their foes—so long as these democracies don’t do stupid things like persecuting Muslims at home or invading Muslim lands abroad. His Republican opponents, by contrast, believe that powerful and sinister enemies are overwhelming America, either overseas (the Rubio version) or domestically (the Trump version).

For them, the only thing more terrifying than “radical Islam” is the equanimity with which President Obama meets it. And, to their dismay, that equanimity was very much on display on Sunday night.

and guns

I tried to keep “Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies” focused, so I had to edit out this second point:

Guns don’t protect freedom, they threaten it. One of the what-if fantasies that justifies a well-armed civilian population is: What if the government becomes tyrannical? Won’t we want to have the ability to launch a Red-Dawn-like insurgency?

A bunch of things are wrong with this fantasy, the biggest being that my handgun or hunting rifle wouldn’t be much use against the U.S. Army, if it ever came to that. The historical references people back this point with are also usually dead wrong. (No, Hitler didn’t confiscate the German people’s guns.) The actual examples of tyrants being overthrown in recent history aren’t stories of civilian militias shooting it out with the army. Instead, they involve mass demonstrations by unarmed people, raising the prospect either of the army or powerful foreign protectors turning against the government. (See: Arab Spring, or the overthrow of the Shah of Iran.)

There is, however, one example from American history that fits the civilian-militia scenario perfectly: the Ku Klux Klan’s resistance to the occupation of the South after the Civil War. (I have written about this before; for a more detailed discussion, read the recent book After Appomattox by Gregory Downs or Eric Foner’s Reconstruction.) At the end of the Civil War, the U.S. government recognized that simply freeing the slaves on paper wasn’t enough, because the white-supremacist power structure of the Southern states would quickly re-assert itself and deny any real rights to black citizens. Tens of thousands of Northern troops occupied the South for several years, attempting to establish a social order in which blacks and whites were equal under the law.

To the former rebels, this was tyranny imposed by a distant government in Washington DC. They wanted to restore the pre-war whites-only power structure, in which blacks were subject to separate, harsher laws that they had no voice in either making or enforcing. To that end, the KKK unleashed a campaign of political terror, attacking not Army units, but political gatherings of blacks and pro-government loyalists, and assassinating numerous public officials who attempted to enforce the federally-mandated laws.

Ultimately, the KKK succeeded in throwing off the “tyranny” of Washington, resulting in the Jim Crow era.

In other words, in the historical example that best fits the pro-gun rhetoric, it was the federal government that was fighting for real democracy and freedom, while the armed civilian militias were fighting to take rights away from the new citizens (who we think of as minorities, but who actually constituted a majority in Mississippi and South Carolina).

Something similar is happening today in the recent abortion-clinic violence: The federal government protects the right of women to make their own decisions about their pregnancies, while an armed minority wants to make those decisions as dangerous as possible, and ultimately to intimidate citizens into not using their rights. The point isn’t to fight the Army, it’s to assassinate doctors and terrorize pregnant women.

I hate to admit it, but I understand why Congress doesn’t want to ban people on the no-fly list from buying guns. The no-fly list is already a little constitutionally suspect, because it works a real hardship on people without due process of law. You don’t know whether you’re on the list or why, and you have no recourse for getting your name off. The list is a product of the executive branch without any judicial involvement, so theoretically you could wind up on it just because somebody in the White House doesn’t like you. (I used to bitch about this kind of thing all the time during the Bush administration, so I sort of need to stay consistent.)

We tolerate the no-fly list because we all believe we’ll never be on it. We ought to be figuring out some more acceptable way to replace it, not increasing its influence.

and prayer

The New York Daily News called attention to the cynical use of prayer as a response to a massacre, and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy offered the tweet at the top of this post.

I’ve updated the Conservative-to-English Lexicon to include a definition of prayer:

A way to appear to take action on issues you don’t actually care about. Example: the prayers routinely offered for the families of victims of mass shootings.

Naturally, conservatives took offense at the aptness of remarks like Senator Murphy’s, or the Daily News cover to the right, charging that they denigrated religion and the power of prayer. Ted Cruz called it “prayer shaming“.

Nothing of the kind is happening. The point is that we can all pray for ourselves, we don’t need to elect representatives to do it for us. We elect representatives to exercise the powers of government, which Republicans refuse to do whenever action would offend the NRA.

I have a suggestion: Whenever Republican candidates are asked about how they plan to combat ISIS or limit government spending, they should offer their prayers and move on to the next question. I think any candidate who tries this will soon discover exactly how much stock the conservative base puts in the power of prayer unsupported by any direct human action.

and the Paris climate talks

The shootings have driven the Paris climate summit off the front pages, but it’s still happening. In the long run, it might be the most important thing that’s happening right now.

and you might also be interested in

The House has been repealing ObamaCare every month or two for years now. Well, they finally got a repeal through the Senate, using the “reconciliation” procedure that is immune to filibusters. So this is the first ObamaCare repeal that has made it to President Obama’s desk, and he will veto it.

MaddowBlog’s Steve Benen notes that this was a vote to increase the number of uninsured Americans by 22 million, and that it’s a trial run of a repeal procedure that presumably will work in 2017 if Republicans win the White House. However, it’s not clear that Senate Republicans could stick together if they were really taking health insurance away from millions of Americans. (Two Senate Republicans defected on this bill; more might if they couldn’t count on a presidential veto.)

Meanwhile, Paul Ryan promised:

we think this problem is so urgent that, next year, we are going to unveil a plan to replace every word of Obamacare.

Benen observes that it’s only been six years since ObamaCare became law, and that Republicans have been promising to unveil a replacement any minute now for most of that time. Somehow, the “urgent” replacement never comes together.

This point is routinely lost on much of the chattering class, but Republicans don’t actually like health care reform, which is why we’ve waited so many years to see a plan that still doesn’t exist. GOP lawmakers didn’t see the old system – the bankruptcies, the uninsured rates, the deaths, Americans paying more for less – as a problem requiring a solution, which is precisely why they haven’t invested time and energy in writing a detailed reform blueprint.

So coal baron Don Blankenship was convicted of conspiring to violate coal mine safety standards. Those violations played an important role in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners in 2010. But assuming Blankenship can’t get his conviction overturned on appeal, at worst he faces one year in prison, and he might get off with a fine.

“The jury’s verdict sends a clear and powerful message,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said. “It doesn’t matter how rich you are, or how powerful you are — if you gamble with the safety of the people who work for you, you will be held accountable.”

To me the “clear and powerful message” seems a little different: If your gamble results in a deadly disaster that makes the national news, then, years later, you might face some fairly minimal consequences. If my spouse or parent were one of those 29 dead miners, I wouldn’t feel vindicated.

Trump’s bogus claim that Muslims in Jersey City cheered on 9-11 reminded me to recommend a comic book: the current Ms. Marvel is a Muslim high-school girl from Jersey City. The comic is well-written, and the main characters are very believable teen-agers.

It’s the season for politicians to send their supporters cards with heart-warming holiday themes, like the Confederate flag, or the whole family standing in front of the tree with guns.

I believe I’ve previously posted my opinion that Ben Carson is a crackpot. Here, he tells a group of Jewish Republicans a tall tale about how the Star of David (that Carson sees) on the one-dollar bill came to (not) be there.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump made sure Jewish Republicans understand that he sees them in terms of stereotypes.

In Tuesday’s NYT, Thomas Edsall’s column “Donald Trump’s Appeal” didn’t use the word fascism, but otherwise echoed a lot of the themes in last week’s Sift article “The Political F-word“: the need for a social-psychology explanation, a focus on the white working class, and supporting Trump as a response to humiliation.

When I first saw the picture, I assumed Dick Cheney had been put into stasis, like when Han Solo was frozen in carbonite. But no: A bust of the former VP is being displayed at the Capitol.

and let’s close with something you won’t hear at the office

You know the kind of motivational consultants who do presentations at big companies, teaching everybody how to relax and focus? I don’t think they’re going to use this guided meditation.

Runner-up: the Dalek Relaxation Tape.

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  • Joseph LaMarche  On December 7, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    Simple solution from a gun owner and *former member of the NRA:* License individuals the same way automobiles are licensed. The process can include weeding out the “undesirables,” namely the mentally ill, spouse abusers, etc.

  • Abby Hafer  On December 7, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    I’m OK with denigrating the power of prayer. I don’t think it has any power, except maybe the power to make the praying person feel better. But I don’t think that intercessory prayer works at all, and I think that it is disrespectful at best and dangerous at worst to pretend that it does.

    • weeklysift  On December 8, 2015 at 7:10 am

      Whether it works or not, for people who pray every day and take it seriously “I’m praying for you” at least means “I think about you every day and wish you well”. So I think it should be received politely and respectfully. What I don’t like is when “I’m praying for you” means “Don’t expect me to do anything for you in the mundane world.”

      • Josh  On December 8, 2015 at 9:21 am

        For instance, Republican lawmakers don’t see prayer as sufficient where the Affordable Care Act or Planned Parenthood are concerned.

  • Paige Osborn  On December 8, 2015 at 11:16 am

    Technically, you do have some recourse if your name is incorrectly added to the No Fly List. In reality, though, it is still a gross infringement of Due Process.

  • Lance A. Brown  On December 9, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    I’d pay money to see Dick Cheney’s bust taken out back of the capital and shot with bird shot in the face…..

  • Sara McCutcheon  On December 11, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Sir, I’d like to draw your attention to your use of the word “bitch” as a verb. It doesn’t matter if they are using it as a verb, it’s still a slur. It is used this way to describe whining, with the insinuation that it is negative and degrading because this kind of action is stereotypically feminine.

    • Tesla  On December 11, 2015 at 3:43 pm

      Er, I meant the general “you,” not “they.”

    • weeklysift  On December 12, 2015 at 8:27 am

      You’re right. I had not thought about that before, and I’ll make an effort to stop using it.


  • […] reference behind a lot of the current conservative usage of tyranny, particularly as it relates to tyranny being overthrown by armed civilians. The tyranny in question was the military occupation of the South, which was absolutely necessary […]

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