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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On the pervasive nature of hatred, guns, and violence

It almost feels like ancient history now, given what's happened since. In August, a troubled man by the name of Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and opened fire. He killed six people and wounded three others before a policeman wounded him. Page then turned his gun on himself before he could be captured and questioned. There was no note or other message and authorities still don't know what moved Page to enter a place of peace with such violence, but focus immediately went to his white supremacist beliefs and the hate-filled music he performed.

Man, did that bring up memories. This is a piece I wrote in the new issue of Orange Coast magazine on the links between Page and Orange County, and the persistent nature of racial hatred. In writing it, I couldn't help but think of the slaughters that have happened both before and since Page's rampage here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Rampages that more often than not involved weapons bought legally.

And it's also worth noting that three days before this article went live on the internet, another gunman opened fire on the innocent after apparently murdering his sister and torching his neighborhood. Yet as a body politic, we do nothing. This is madness.

From my story:
The photos don’t portray Orange County at its finest. In some, you can see Wade Michael Page, his head shorn to stubble and his arms covered with tattoos, churning away on a guitar. Other skinheads stand next to him on stage, their chests and arms a mishmash of inked symbols, including what look to be a swastika and a Confederate flag. One picture is from a gig Page played in 2011, but others date back a decade, to when Page made Orange County—and its fringe hatecore music scene—his home.

It’s chilling to realize that the chunky guitarist in the photo would open fire at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee last August, killing six people and wounding three others before, already wounded by an officer, taking his own life. But it’s more frightening to sense the sweep of time, and the persistent nature of hate and racism captured in those photos.

I first began writing about the hate movement a quarter century ago as a reporter for The Detroit News. Robert E. Miles, a former Klansman and one of the conceptual forces behind the modern white-supremacist movement, lived in Michigan. “Pastor Bob” preached a virulent religion known as Christian Identity in which Jews are seen as Satan’s soldiers, and God supposedly created blacks from mud to serve whites. Miles also once told me he saw himself as something akin to the Johnny Appleseed of white supremacy, sowing the seeds of racism wherever he went. He believed the white race would be preserved through “leaderless resistance”—by lone wolves primed to strike on their own, leaving no conspiratorial trails for prosecutors to follow. And the most fertile grounds, Miles believed, were prisons and the military.
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Virtual research, or how to visit Paris from my desk

So in writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, I've been buried deeply in old maps and descriptions, and not so old photographs of where John Paul Jones lived and died in Paris, and where he was buried. A natural point of curiosity, of course, is what do these places look like now?

To the left is a photo of the buildings that were erected over the cemetery in which Jones was buried in 1792 - the row, including the hotel, across the street, to the right in the frame. The picture was taken in 1905 from the street corner, and accompanied reports from the U.S. Embassy in Paris to the State Department in Washington.

Here, to the left and through the magic of Google maps street view, is what it looks like today. All the buildings over the cemetery have been replaced. But the cafe on the corner, left foreground, is still a cafe, modernized a bit.

Obviously, looking at photos and Google maps street view isn't the same as being there, but it's an easy way to find out whether anything would be gained by visiting in person. In this case, other than a good meal, visiting the scene wouldn't give me any insights or perspectives - which I'm glad to discover without the expense of a trip to Paris.

Though that would be fun - I haven't been there in decades.
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Amid a national darkness, our hopes for a brighter year

May you all have a happy holiday season, whatever your faith or traditions, and may you have a peaceful new year. With the emphasis on peaceful...

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On Newtown, and a national soul of violence

A 20-year-old man shoots his mother dead in her home, straps on a bulletproof vest and drives her car, with her guns, to her school and kills 26 more people before killing himself. Mike Huckabee says it happened because "we've systematically removed God from our schools. … Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?"

No, Mike, that's not why it happened. And I’m sure I speak for many more than myself when I say, shut the hell up.

In the hours after yesterday’s murders in Connecticut, as the nation waited for the confusing details to settle out, calls ricocheted around social media for serious federal efforts at gun control. The White House demurred, with spokesman Jay Carney saying “today is not the day to, I believe, as a father, a day to engage in the usual Washington policy debates. I think that that day will come, but today is not that day.” The right accused the left of politicizing the shootings, though the inane chatterboxes were notably quiet on Huckabee’s little moment of absurd politicking and assertion of extremist religious fundamentalism. Most Americans simply grieved and fumed.

This “politics is inappropriate now” theme is indefensible, and disingenuous. When 20 kids and 7 adults are killed in one fell swoop as a direct result of federal gun laws, what else should we be talking about? In fact, it’s awfully damn late to be having this discussion. But Carney is right in one regard. “The usual Washington policy debates” are not what we need, because we’ve been having them for years. The National Rifle Association controls the agenda for that discussion despite an overwhelming desire by Americans for gun control. Our elected representatives have proven, on every issue of significance to the health and well-being of the country, incapable of shaking themselves free of corporate and lobbying money and effecting policies for the common good. Gun control is no different. (I’m waiting, after the Citizens United decision declaring corporations are people, for the Supreme Court to grant guns the same anthropomorphic powers).

So as frustrated as we are over this insanity, we cannot look to our political representatives – nor, judging by Carney’s statement, our president – to do anything of substance on this issue, whether we discuss it now or later. We’ll sit glued to the TV and the internet for updates over the next few days, hear the chilling stories of teachers acting heroically, and embrace that cliché of lost innocence among the survivors. We’ll engage in internecine squabbles over incidental aspects such as should the TV reporters have interviewed kids at the scene, whether the media should have published or aired the wrong name of the gunman they ferreted out from police sources. We’ll argue whether God, in a political snit, had indeed forsaken those children.

But we won’t do anything about the core, propelling problem. We are a nation of violence. Our entertainments reflect our soul, from treating vicious street fights as sport to building a video game industry around playing war. From television shows based on murder to football heroes anointed by their brutality. Song lyrics equate masculinity with a predisposition to kill and we flock to movie theaters to watch movies about hit men.

Small wonder that it plays out in our daily lives and governmental policies. A driving error on the freeway can draw gunfire. In most states, our response to murder is to kill the killer. Online comments on news stories about a particularly heinous crime invariably are filled with vindictive - and anonymous - calls for violent retribution, which is equated with justice. Anonymity, it seems, reveals our darkest instincts

Our entertainments don’t cause our violent outbursts; they are a symptom of how we, as a society, engage the world. It has nothing to do with not teaching the Bible in schools, as Huckabee and his fellow religious extremists would have it. Same as Katrina had nothing to do with sin in New Orleans and AIDS has nothing to do with God’s vengeance on gays. Our murders are the willful acts of our fellow Americans, personal expressions of our violence-obsessed culture. They are, indeed, us.

But let’s not talk about that now. It would be inappropriate. Let’s wait for the next time, shall we? Read More 
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Some thoughts on unions, and the battle for relevancy

As you can imagine, I've watched the events unfold in Michigan this week with a deep sense of dismay, and not a little anger. It also gave me pause to think about how organized labor has become the scapegoat for the nation's economic ills.

Labor has, for the most part, lost the PR battle with big business. From my piece today in The Daily Beast:
Somewhere along the way, unions became the scapegoat in these fights. They drive up the cost of doing business, we hear, though unmentioned is that higher wages mean a stronger local economy. Unions are corrupt, we hear, though that’s a hard stone to cast for anyone living in a glass mansion built by the banking and investment industries, or with the ill-gotten gains from corporate insider trading. Even odder is to hear that argument from working-class people, who have bought into the notion that “right to work” actually has something to do with workplace freedom.

This is where the union movement has its biggest problem, not with the wealth of the Koch brothers and their stealth campaign to undermine unions, significant as that is. It’s in persuading working America that organized labor isn’t the stuff of history, that they do indeed need the mutual protection of collective bargaining, and that embracing “right to work” is against their best interests, not a blow for personal choice.
I didn't get into it in the piece for space reasons, but another facet of this is labor's tight relationship with the Democratic Party, which I suspect costs it some support among the growing political independents. Remember, it was the Democrats in the Clinton Administration who brought us NAFTA, and the Obama administration has done little to counter the flow of jobs overseas despite the emphasis Obama placed on that issue in both elections. Yes, the Democrats are better for organized labor than the Republicans, but the GOP sets a low bar for comparison.

Coincidentally, I just finished writing about the William McKinley administration in the manuscript for my Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero book. Just over a century ago, the Republicans paid significant attention to the plight of the working class. That began to erode quickly over the next few Republican presidents, but it has been nice to mire myself in a time when workers weren't the scapegoat - even for the Republicans - for the effects of governmental and corporate policies that have left the economy in shambles. Read More 
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On Walmart, HSBC, and the irrelevancy of laws and morals

So Walmart says it bears no responsibility (transparently false) for the Tazreen garment factory fire in Bangladesh because the work was being done under orders from a subcontractor, and without Walmart’s permission. And HSBC is going to buy its way out of potential criminal charges over allegations of illegally moving money for drug dealers and nations under international sanction, because to send guilty bankers to jail might endanger the massive bank’s existence.

When committing an immoral act, or an illegal act, has no consequence, why have morals or laws at all?

We have in recent decades seen a massive swing by various levels of government to put corporate and financial interests ahead of the interests of people. It’s a major propellant in the move to globalism, removing barriers to the flow of goods and cash that allows corporations more freedom to operate. But their freedom has led to a sharp decline in the health and vitality of American communities, from the standards of living that have crumbled across much of the country, to the education and health of our citizens. And it is in part because the people making decisions at corporations know they most likely will get a pass from the legal system and, of they are not caught, a bionus from their bosses.

Instead, in the case of HSBC, there will be a fine, maybe a lost job or two for show, and then business as usual. With the fine not coming from the pockets of the miscreants, but from the shareholders.

From the New York Times this morning, on HSBC:
Given the extent of the evidence against HSBC, some prosecutors saw the charge as a healthy compromise between a settlement and a harsher money-laundering indictment. While the charge would most likely tarnish the bank’s reputation, some officials argued that it would not set off a series of devastating consequences.

A money-laundering indictment, or a guilty plea over such charges, would essentially be a death sentence for the bank. Such actions could cut off the bank from certain investors like pension funds and ultimately cost it its charter to operate in the United States, officials said.
And from a separate item on Wal-Mart’s Nixonian evasions of responsibility:
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said the new documents raised additional questions about Walmart’s role at the factory.

“If Walmart’s claim that they were the victim of one rogue supplier had any shred of credibility, it’s gone now,” he said. “Walmart is limited to one of two options — to say, yes, we know these suppliers were using the factory or, two, we have no control over the supply chain that we’ve been building in Bangladesh for more than 20 years.”
Nope, wasn't us, Walmart says, it was those uncontrollable subcontractors who do our bidding to drive down costs to keep our goods low-priced for the American consumer. And the consumer is always right.

You know, we vote with every dollar we spend. So spend more wisely. And morally. And, dare I say, righteously. Read More 
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On 38 Nooses and the invisible past

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Scott W. Berg's fine new work, 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End, about the U.S. Army's legally sanctioned mass execution of men from the Dakota tribe in what is now Minnesota, and in the midst of the Civil War.

Readers of my books will recognize a certain sympathy for such overlooked moments of history. When I was telling my wife about Berg's book, she said it sounded like something I'd write. And it is -- this is a subject I would have loved to tackle. In fact, it overlaps slightly one of the chapters in my current project, Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, which touches on the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans in Alabama, Georgia and Florida some 40 years earlier (trust me, it all connects up).

The hanged men were participants in a flash war, an uprising, really, by the Dakota against racism and the white settlers encroaching on their land, and against the U.S. government failure to observe the treaties it had insisted on, including skipping a contractual payment. The uprising was quickly suppressed, and to the victors go the definition of what is a crime. From my review:
A hastily convened military tribunal lasting only six weeks found 303 warriors guilty of murder and sentenced them all to hang, based on sketchy evidence and a broad definition of culpability (warriors firing weapons in a military encounter were condemned as murderers with no evidence they hit a target, military or civilian), plus a firm belief by the whites that the region should be cleansed of its native inhabitants.

Because the sentences were from a military tribunal and not a civilian court, the president had to sign off on them. Lincoln appointed two men to review the verdicts and whittled the execution list to 39 warriors whom he believed had massacred whites. One was later reprieved, bringing the final list to 38.

And on the morning after Christmas 1862, in a public display of revenge, all 38 men were hanged in one single drop from a massive four-sided gallows erected in Mankato, about 85 miles southwest of St. Paul.

It was, Berg reports, the largest legally sanctioned execution in American history, a staggering event whose significance has been overshadowed by the Civil War even as it stands as a telling moment in America's westward expansion. Read More 
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The fine line between tax incentives and extortion

The New York Times is publishing some strong work diving deeply into a practice that I've long found bizarre, and corrosive to stable communities - the granting of tax incentives to companies to attract development, or to keep them from leaving.

I wrote about this, but not with much depth, in my Detroit: A Biography. Former Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young, even as he took part in the bidding, used to argue that communities competing against each other for corporate investments does nothing but reward corporations. He was right then, and the problem continues. Corporations play local governments against each other to gain the best tax-reduction deal they can, often just shifting the jobs from one site in a metro area to another. And when the commitment expires (or sometimes before, as the Times reports), the companies pull out anyway. Ultimately stockholders benefit, but the community the business abandons suffers; the community that wins the business suffers in increased infrastructure costs and reduced tax support; and that second community suffers again when the corporation's next move is overseas.

The practice ought to be banned, but good luck getting any such measure through Congress (and it would likely face a Constitutional problem over states' rights anyway). The practice is yet another example of governmental support for corporations and businesses ahead of communities. And yes, I know these deals create jobs, but as the Times analysis shows, the cost does not equal the benefit. From the story:
A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.

Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.

While some jobs have certainly migrated overseas, many companies receiving incentives were not considering leaving the country, according to interviews and incentive data.
The Times also put together a searchable database of the concessions. It's a sobering overview of a misguided practice, and one that adds yet another layer of financial stress to communities reeling under the recent recession; balky hiring by companies hoarding cash instead of investing; unfunded state and federal mandates; and this bizarre expectation of voters that they shouldn't have to pay for basic services.

It's a mess, and one without easy solutions - and no discernible political will. Read More 
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