Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The problem? We didn't get the "Dear John" letter

The light bulb suddenly went on. Poof. Just like that I got it. It all came clear when a long repressed, teenage memory returned.

I was 15 years old. I had a crush on the pastor’s daughter. The school year ended. She was leaving to spend much of the summer with a grandmother in Seattle. We promised each other we would write every week. And we did for a while.

Actually, I kept writing long after she stopped. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t hear from her. I wrote more often. “Why are you not writing back,” I pleaded. Finally, a letter arrived. “Didn’t you get my letter breaking up with you?”

Turned out Robert, my younger brother, mischievously intercepted that letter and having read it was too embarrassed to pass it along. I couldn’t understand what had changed between us until I learned I had not gotten the “Dear John” letter.

Bingo. That’s why most Americans have such difficulty understanding what happened to our country. We didn’t get the “Dear John” letter, the one where forty percent of our countrymen told us they were breaking up with what we all thought America stood for.

Someone intercepted the letter where many of our fellow Americans tried to inform us that they had grown tired of old American values like truth, decency, patriotism, honesty, and tolerance. They decided we were taking them for granted. Their eyes began to wander. Before long, they were titillated by a reality TV star who wooed them away with his glitzy lifestyle, politically incorrect rhetoric, and alternative facts promising to protect them from a future they feared if they stayed with us.

Here we were, happy as clams, thinking the vast majority of Americans favored civil rights. The letter we didn’t get told us they were flirting with white nationalists and neo-Nazis. They found themselves more in love with the Confederate flag than with Old Glory.

We thought our relationship was cemented in a melting pot only to learn they were more and more offended by anyone entering the relationship who didn’t look like them, talk like them, or think like them.

For much of our time together, we all talked about how important it was that everyone have the right to vote. Most of us worked together to expand that right. Now we know we were being two-timed. Those who jilted us decided the way to get their way, was to pass laws that made it difficult for those who might not vote for the “right” candidates while Gerrymandering congressional district to make them unfairly non-competitive. 

Silly us. We believed our relationship as Americans included a consensus about helping those in need. It seemed obvious to most of us that those without healthcare, housing, or adequate income to feed their children ought to receive a helping hand from those who could afford to help. As it turned out, the greater the need, the more they resented helping.
It was especially hurtful to learn these things about the surprisingly large numbers of fellow Christians who “signed” the Dear John letter. We were foolish enough to believe that when they talked about the value of life, they meant from the womb to the tomb. We’d have never guessed so many of them believed respect for life began at conception but ended at birth.

Perhaps most shocking was to learn that our relationship with one another was not built on a foundation of truth and honesty.

But the Dear John letter we didn’t see made clear that many had decided truth and honesty no longer worked for them, that it made our conversations too stilted, our relationship too confining. Conversations we used to have about science, for example, became confrontational. It apparently took too much energy to limit themselves to that which could be proven. It was much easier to accept things that sounded like what they wanted to hear.

So, one day, the relationship ended. We just didn’t get the Dear John letter.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What if legislators represented people, not $

I was a member of the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1975, serving as Minority Whip when there were 29 Democrats in the House finding meaningful compromises with the 32 Republicans. The Senate was equally divided 15-15. It was the high-water mark for bipartisanship. It’s been downhill ever since.

Things changed dramatically after an early 1990s court battle where Democrats “succeeded” in allowing the state to mostly ignore county lines when selecting legislators. That’s how a commanding GOP majority became institutionalized.

Former State Representative Matilda Hansen wrote a book about the court fight. In “Clear Use of Power,” she recounts a Republican house leader approaching a rural Democrat asking him to switch parties. “Why?” he asked, “You have most of the House seats now.” The Republican answered, “We want them all.”

They almost have them all. Today, there are nine Democrats and 51 Republicans in the House and only three of the 30 Senators are Democrats.

It wasn’t only partisan composition that changed. The so-called “one man, one vote” rule might have made sense had it resulted in people being represented rather than economic and political power.

The changes gave corporate lobbyists and interest groups added influence. With GOP control assured infinitely, Wyoming’s powerful business, mining, and agricultural needs left other, less powerful constituencies, behind. The legislature routinely overlooks the needs of women, children, poor families, low-income workers, cultural and ethnic minorities and others best represented by progressives who can seldom win an election in the current system.

Mandating that state legislative seats be apportioned by population has resulted in most of the population being unrepresented. Big money is represented now, not the people.

The practical problem is that the sum total of the special interests does not equal the public interest. The way in which the legislature is apportioned protects special interests while sidelining the public interest.   

The change is evident in the amount of money contributed to legislative candidates. In 1974, it was uncommon for a candidate to spend more than a thousand dollars on his or her campaign. Corporations were prohibited from contributing to campaigns. Out of state PACs played no role. In 2016, one Republican candidate for the state senate spent more than 45,000 dollars. Many receive significant contributions from corporate-connected PACs.

In the mid-70s there were few lobbyists and fewer with PAC money to wave around. Today the halls where the legislature does business are lined with money handlers. Likewise, the number of partisan and single-issue political action committees has skyrocketed. Their influence has a direct relationship to the amount of money they can distribute to candidates.

The Liberty Group, for example, used its influence to get many legislative candidates to sign a pledge. Regardless of what their constituents wanted, these candidates pledged to back the Liberty Group’s agenda for no new taxes, resulting in harmful cuts to education.

What if instead of population, the legislature was apportioned by the demographics of real Wyoming people? To begin with, such a reapportionment guarantees 50 percent of the legislature would be female. Sixteen percent would be composed of racial minorities, with one in five of them being Native American.

Nine percent would have a physical disability, 13% would have no health insurance. Twelve percent would live below the poverty line, at least half of them being single mothers. Members of the legislature would have a per capita income of just over $30,000 annually.

The occupation of legislators could be apportioned according to how many Wyomingites actually make their living in any segment of the economy, replacing a system that allows the economically powerful to hoard legislative seats. Suddenly, low-income workers would have a voice. The people would be represented.

Alas, it is but a dream. Only astute voters can make it happen. Jesus said that where you find someone’s treasure, there you will find their heart. As candidates start to campaign for the legislature, be aware of where they receive their money. That will tell you who it is they plan to represent.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Response to gun extremists

Brad Harrington and I are given valuable space to tell readers what we think. The first paragraph of his May 6 column discounts the value of differing views in a free society. He says my views “simply aren’t worth the powder to blow them apart.”

Perhaps Brad would be happier in a society that allowed only one view. The willingness of the newspaper to make certain differing views are shared is of incalculable value. Metaphorically, this is the paper on which the 1st Amendment was written. It is a sacred opportunity the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle gives columnists of differing viewpoints, conservative and liberal, one not to be denigrated simply because you don’t agree with someone.

His column open with centuries-old quotes. This one was from Eldridge Gerry as though what Mr. Gerry said back then are dispositive of the complex debates of the 21st century. Mr. Gerry spoke on the heels of the Revolutionary War. In the context of the times, he had cause to be concerned that if a government sought to take away the right of the people, it would first “destroy the militia.”

Interesting history, though an irrelevant diversion. The 2nd Amendment protects the rights of a “well-regulated militia” to own guns. Well-regulated militias are not shooting up schools.

Not sure what to call people with extreme views on guns. I realize “gun nuts” is offensive. However, “gun enthusiasts” defines millions of Americans who don’t share the belief that the 2nd Amendment is a roadblock to reasonable regulation. I will use the term “gun extremists.”

Gun extremists, like Mr. Harrington, realize arguments against all regulation are bankrupt. Instead of meeting ideas with ideas, they resort to personal attacks, name calling and threats. Their other strategy, displayed by Mr. Harrington is to turn the debate into something it is not.

The column I wrote that angered my opinion-page colleague, suggested the University acted reasonably in enacting a policy against fire arms on the campus. Brad Harrington and other gun extremists would have made a different choice. However, neither has the responsibility for the safety of students which sets on the shoulder of UW board members.

Mr. Harrington’s vitriolic column mentions the UW regulation once. He called it inane, meaning silly or stupid. But Mr. Harrington wasn’t interested in talking about the regulation. He was interested in attacking someone with views that differ from his.

That is what gun extremists do. That’s okay. The purpose I write each week is to let the righties know they do not have a monopoly on thinking even in conservative Wyoming. Mr. Harrington’s attacks were milquetoast compared to the slander and threats gun extremists put those Parkland school kids through. That is how far they will go to avoid a genuine dialogue.

The Harrington column careened into a never-neverland. He asserted that banjos, microwaves, socks, frying pans, fireplace pokers, pickle jars and dumbbells, even loaves of pumpernickel bread might be used to kill people. The point? “Why worry about gun safety when there are so many ways to kill a fellow human being.”

People like him and the others can’t hold serve forever. The people, including NRA members have seen enough. More than half of all NRA owners believe there should be background checks even at gun shows. Among the NRA’s Republican members, by far their most sizeable block, large majorities are disturbed by the NRA insistence that seriously mentally ill people be able to buy guns. How can anyone believe someone placed on a no-fly list because they pose a terrorism risk, should own a gun?

For decades, they prohibited the Centers for Disease Control to collect data on gun deaths because they knew the results would expose their inane arguments.

Gun extremists won’t expose themselves to a legitimate debate over these and other ideas that could make gun ownership safer and less threatening to our children, spouses, people at risk to take their own lives and others.

It will only get worse as Oliver North becomes NRA president.