“They’re Coming After Us.”

Apparently, someone in Kentucky doesn’t like the National Rifle Association. That someone spray-painted a blank billboard with the words, “Kill the NRA.” So far the painter hasn’t been discovered.

What I find most interesting about this is the reaction of the NRA, which immediately sent out “warning message” on Facebook to all of its members, saying, “This is a wakeup call. They’re coming after us.”

Despite the brutal school shooting in Florida, which took seventeen lives, as well as those in Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, and elsewhere, the vast majority of “opponents” of the NRA don’t want to take away all guns. They want to take away oversized magazines, auto-loaders, and other devices such as bump stocks that turn semi-automatic rifles into functioning automatic rifles. They want to close the loopholes on unrecorded gun sales, and they want effective background checks and ways to keep weapons out of the hands of mentally unstable individuals. The vast majority of Americans don’t want to repeal the second amendment, but they do want sensible regulations on guns.

We regulate other equipment and substances that pose a danger if misused, from pesticides and drugs to trucks and cars, including regulations on who can use such substances or devices, and Supreme Court rulings that have held that Congress and the states may in fact prohibit certain weapons.

It’s more than obvious that the NRA clearly doesn’t want any regulations at all over firearms held by civilians and has consistently misstated both the law and the Constitution in its efforts to block such regulations. In that sense, one could also say that by its endorsement of a fully weaponized citizenry, the NRA has always come after anyone who opposes its policies.

So… maybe it is time to truly come after the NRA, since, despite all its rhetoric, it’s an organization whose efforts only result in more and more preventable deaths

Managing People

The turnover of the President’s White House political staff in his first year in office is the highest ever. I’d submit that it represents a simple fact. The President doesn’t know how to choose or manage people. His management style seems to be to try out people he likes or thinks might have skills and then throw them out when either he doesn’t like what they do or say, or when it turns out that they have skeletons in their closet that no one investigated before they were appointed.

FBI Director Wray just revealed that the White House had the information on Rob Porter much earlier than the White House had claimed, suggesting either incompetence or willful disregard of Porter’s abuse of both former spouses.

Trump also has filled the fewest number of political appointee slots in the executive branch of any President in the first year in at least the last half-century, and that lack of mid-level political leadership has made it even more difficult for him to pursue any sort of coherent and unified program. Add to that the number of people clearly inexperienced in any sort of political bureaucracy or those whose competence is minimal or suspect, and it’s not surprising that the only significant accomplishment of his professed agenda is the tax cut legislation, which is something the majority of Americans agree on, even if many of them oppose the structure of those tax cuts.

An additional problem facing the White House and the Trump administration is the number of appointments or proposed appointments of individuals with either blatant conflicts of interest or extreme conservative views. While one would expect appointees with conservative views from a Republican administration, the problem with extremists, either ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative, is that too many of them let their views blind themselves to what is both structurally and legally possible. Even in blocking Trump’s initial travel bans, the courts were clear to say that the President had authority in that area, but that authority was limited by the law and the Constitution and that such a ban could not be based on religion and other factors prohibited by law. Extremists tend to believe that their view of the Constitution and law is the only view. The courts have almost always taken a more “centrist” view, sometimes unfortunately, as in the case of segregation until court cases in the 1950s and the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s.

The chaos and unpredictability surrounding Trump has also meant that many well-qualified and experienced conservatives have declined being considered for positions in the administration, which has resulted in a lower quality of appointees. Justice Gorsuch is likely one of the comparatively few highly qualified appointees [although I personally believe he’s too much of a legal originalist] put forward by the Trump Administration.

Given the President’s temperament, I don’t see much change forthcoming, but if it’s not, the mid-term election results will be very interesting.

Facts

I have to say that I’m getting more than a little concerned about the idea that there are “different facts” or “alternative facts.” There are accurate facts and inaccurate facts [which I don’t regard as fact, but error], and there can be considerable dispute over what facts signify or how to interpret them and how accurate those interpretations may be.

The only thing “factual” about opinions not supported by verifiable facts is that such opinions exist. When pictures show the comparative size of crowds, such as inauguration crowds, an opinion that the small crowd is larger is factually untrue, unless, of course, such photographs were altered. When there is a multiplicity of photos from different sources, then the chance of alteration is essentially non-existent.

When photographic studies of glaciers show that, over time, virtually all of them have shrunk in size, and many have disappeared, that is factual evidence that those areas are in fact warmer, and when those studies encompass virtually all the glaciers, that’s a fact, or series of facts, that’s not factually contestable. What those facts signify for the future is up for debate, but that those sections of the planet are now warmer is not.

When NOAA says that the last ten years are the warmest on record, compared to existing data, that data represents a series of measurements. Those measurements come from the same sources. Therefore, temperatures at those sources are warmer. One can contest whether temperatures from those sources are an accurate representation of planetary warming, and whether temperatures from earlier sources are as accurate, but not the fact that the NOAA numbers represent higher temperatures at those places.

The fact that there’s been a first-year turnover of more than thirty percent of political appointees serving on the President’s White House staff is not disputable, nor is the fact that it’s by far the highest first year turnover of any President. What this means can be debated, but it cannot accurately be dismissed as false news.

The growth of fake or false news not only represents the growing polarization of American society, but also bodes ill for the future, because, if Americans cannot even agree on the facts surrounding issues, the “public validity” and “truth” of such “facts” will be determined by popular opinion or power, not upon the facts themselves. When policies are made upon the basis of facts that are not accurate, they’re far more likely to be flawed.

For example, while one study by scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Tulane University School of Medicine showed that eighty-percent of health news stories posted on Facebook concerning the Zika virus were largely accurate, the study also showed that the most popular story [ “10 reasons why Zika virus fear is a fraudulent medical hoax”] was totally inaccurate, but was viewed 530,000 times and shared almost 20,000 times, while the most popular totally medically accurate story, posted by the World Health Organization, was viewed 43,000 times and shared by less than a thousand users.

But too many people don’t want to hear that the number and percentage of crimes committed in the U.S. is higher for native born Americans than for either legal or illegal immigrants, and that the lowest crime rates occur among legal immigrants. They don’t want to hear that increasing coal usage will increase the rate of global warming, or that the tax laws just passed will make economic conditions in the future much worse.

We’re already in the dangerous position where popularity is more and more becoming the determinant of the perceived accuracy of facts, rather than measurements, observations, or science.

Or, put another way, with Trump’s “alternative facts,” Orwell’s Newspeak is already here.

Trump: Solution or Problem?

President Trump’s supporters clearly feel that if he isn’t the solution to a myriad of problems facing the United States, then he is at least the only one in American politics capable of addressing the issues of a broken immigration system, a weakened military, a hollowed-out middle class, a law enforcement system that’s too easy on “free-loaders,” corporations that send jobs overseas and keep wages low… as well as host of other concerns.

Trump’s opponents seem to see him more as a sexist, racist, narcissist, with the behavior of a spoiled child and the morals of serial sexual predator, who seems bent on destroying democratic values, the free press, and the environment, while handing the government over to business and his rich cronies and minimizing the rights of the marginalized in society.

And a significant majority of both supporters and opponents are absolutely adamant in their feelings and beliefs about Trump.

As in all political polarizations, both sides have at least shreds of proof behind their beliefs, although some of those shreds are pretty small, and a few, especially about Trump’s personal characteristics or the hollowed-out middle class, are anything but small.

But what seems to be overlooked in this polarization over Trump is that Trump is not so much primarily either solution or problem, but a symptom of what’s gone wrong in American politics and society, a personification of political and social intransigence.

It used to be that Americans disagreed over the meaning of facts; now people invent facts, or deny them, when proven facts don’t suit their beliefs or politics.

This hasn’t happened overnight. It’d been a long time coming. When I first became involved in politics, the two parties could agree enough to actually pass appropriation bills before the next fiscal year began. Then it took longer and longer, and they changed the congressional process to give themselves more tine. That bought them twenty years. Now… we’re at the point that we’re roughly halfway through the fiscal without any actual appropriations, running on continuing resolution after continuing resolution because neither party can apparently work out a compromise.

Now… everyone’s blaming Congress, and public approval of Congress is at all all-time low, and no one’s looking at the reason. That reason? Every member of Congress, with a few exceptions, is voting exactly the way the majority of voters in his or her political party in his or her state or district wants them to… because any time they don’t follow the party line they’re likely to get voted out, or at the least, face a contentious and expensive primary.

So don’t blame Congress. We, the people, are the intransigent ones… and unless we figure that out and decide to be more flexible, and go back to accepting proven facts and working out our disagreements on what to do about them, we just might end up with the equivalent of a second civil war (or a third, for those who believe the Revolution was really a civil war).

Change… or Rate of Change

This past weekend, I was talking to a National Park Service biologist about various environmental and ecological matters, and he was telling me that Zion National Park, until the last snowstorm, was the driest in either in recent recorded history or in more distant history as revealed by tree ring data. Even after six inches of snow, it’s still incredibly dry. In addition, the yearly average temperatures at Zion were something like seven degrees above average for the entire past year, a differential that was unprecedented. While I can’t recall all the species, he also listed a number of them that had literally vanished from Zion seemingly because of higher ambient temperatures over the last decade, again numbers that were unprecedented.

For the last two weeks, high temperatures here in Cedar City have been in the low sixties [Fahrenheit]. Most winters, in February, we’re lucky to get into the high thirties for a day or two. So far this winter, the high temperatures are running 25-35 degrees above normal for a longer period than ever recorded in the 160 years for which there are records.

In northern Utah, they’ve had to cancel ice-fishing, because the ice is too thin to support even single individuals in most places. Utah lakes, once too cold to allow wide-spread algae blooms, are now subject to toxic algae.

Yet parts of the east and especially the southeast, are seeing, intermittently, colder bouts than usual. Yet both patterns are the very predictable results of global warming, because the arctic is considerably warmer every year than previously, which weakens the winds that, in the past, kept colder air farther north.

In Europe, something like thirty percent of ski areas that used to exist thirty years no longer do because they’re too warm for natural snow or even to retain sufficient artificial snow.

Yet, as one skeptical geologist I know has said, “These temperatures aren’t anything new. The planet’s been warmer than this a number of times before.”

And he’s right about that. What he doesn’t want to look at is that only a handful of times has the climate changed as swiftly as it is now – and all of those times resulted in massive extinctions. The January 11th issue of New Scientist offered an article dealing with the extraordinary heat in Australia along with projections about how current trends will make large sections of the earth virtually too hot for unprotected humans to survive there in little more than a generation.

Yet the debate over what is causing global warming goes on. And it’s a meaningless debate, because, regardless of cause, the earth is warming all too fast. The real question isn’t just causal, but what we can and should do to deal with it. Already, we’re losing chunks of seacoasts all over the world to rising sea levels, and with over 40% percent of the world’s population within sixty miles of the ocean [and in the Asian-Pacific region 73% of the people live less than 30 miles from the ocean], just dealing with protecting all that real estate – or moving buildings and people – represents a huge resource commitment.

One way or another… our children and grandchildren will pay for it.