Congressional District Chaos in Pennsylvania

The Congressional District map has been re-drawn in Pennsylvania, and the Supreme Court followed through on its threat to do it for the legislature and governor if they failed to do it. As maps go, the new one does appear to be fairly organized, but it’s still going to cause a fair amount of chaos particularly in western Pennsylvania.

The above map offered by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will have a profound effect on the current 18th Congressional District that voters will be more aware of than any other in the Commonwealth. In March, there is a special election to fill the seat vacated by Tim Murphy, but in May, voters in that election may find themselves in a new district with all new candidates for office. The current candidates for the 18th District reside in other districts on the new map, so it’s possible that they both could be running for different seats just a couple months after the special election.

Before anyone gets annoyed with inaction by the Pennsylvania lawmakers and governor, it is important to consider this district. No matter what, the people would have faced shifting district lines in this region, and it will undoubtedly be the topic of many conversations about government waste. Pennsylvania is going through the added expense of a special election for a district that won’t exist in the same way after this year, and it’s fair to assume that whoever caused that will be blamed. The governor and lawmakers all will face re-election, so it’s not surprising that they left the map drawing to the court – better to avoid backlash from voters at the ballot box.

Of course, Republicans have stated that they are going to petition for a hearing with the U.S. Supreme Court on this entire situation, since drawing the Congressional map is supposed to be handled by Pennsylvania’s legislators, not the court. Time will tell how this new map will change the balance of power going to Washington, since both sides are claiming that it will help them at least a little.

It’s too soon to make any assumptions because Pennsylvania already did shift unexpectedly in 2016 for Trump. While it’s possible that is an indication of a real political trend toward the right, it’s important to recognize the fact that Congressional candidates in Pennsylvania often campaign in the middle of the road. The current campaign for the 18th District is offering a pro-gun Democrat, and a pro-safety-net Republican according to recent ads offered by the respective candidates. The more polarizing ads are from out-of-state political groups from both sides of the aisle. While there are some voters on the fringes in Pennsylvania like in any other state, the fringes simply don’t tend to sway the rank-and-file voters toward the middle anywhere near as much as people outside the Commonwealth may think. Honestly, the largest issue this year will be over the new district lines, and there aren’t any obvious targets for anger over that on any ballots. The people and the candidates are all going to be able to claim problems with what the court has done, and the justices will be out of reach of everyone on election day.

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Congressional District Chaos in Pennsylvania

Parkland – It Is Too Soon to Talk Activism

Parents and students from Parkland are constantly appearing on television screens across America, and there are members of the media who are quite happy to place them there. True, they are doing this because the news cycle is ridiculously fast sometimes, but that doesn’t change the fact that these people are human beings who have just dealt with tragic losses. I am only hoping that this doesn’t do irreparable damage to these people, but I won’t say that I hope they don’t end up angry and annoyed with the media personalities who pushed them in front of the cameras, like this one:

While I have no doubt in my mind that the people of Parkland are absolutely fed up with lip-service from the government on mass shootings, this is not the time for them to be pushed into the spotlight to speak on the issue. This is the time for them to grieve, and process what has happened to them. Those are human issues that cannot be rushed to appease the media’s desire to fit them into their production schedules before the rest of America loses interest.

If it wasn’t too soon, then instead of impassioned speeches about gun laws, there would have been at least a little talk about what America has lost in the past few decades. Someone would have been saying “when did we stop watching over our neighbors?” Teens might have looked at each other, and asked, “who saw the social media posts by this kid, and why didn’t we insist on the adults doing something about it?” That didn’t happen in Parkland, Fla., but it did happen in Uniontown, Pa.:

Time.com offered that story to the nation in late January, and if not for the actions of one teen and his parents, Uniontown would have been in the headlines because of a mass shooting. But they weren’t, and I’m guessing that in spite of Time.com carrying that story, very few people outside of western Pennsylvania knew about the shooting that didn’t happen. Based on the information that we’ve seen so far, the only reason why Parkland didn’t end up like Uniontown with a small crime headline about a thwarted attack is because the law enforcement system broke down. The FBI failed to follow up on a tip about the shooter.

But, the grieving teens and parents from Parkland are taking cues from the media now, so their message is about the evil of guns. It’s really not that simple. The real problem is the fact that as a society we have become isolated. We avoid involving ourselves in situations with our neighbors, presumably because it is none of our business. Someone else can intervene, tell the authorities when a troubled teen starts posting about killing people on social media. He might be just trying to show off, right? Or maybe the family will try to start trouble for me. Rationalize as much as you like, but the problem isn’t the guns – it’s us.

We have failed as a society because we have reached the point where we can give ourselves a pass for neglecting to act when we see people in trouble. It’s easier to blame guns than it is to own up to the fact that we can see women and children abused – physically or verbally – on a daily basis without saying a word to anyone who could help them. Parents find it easy to tell their children not to associate with kids who don’t “fit in” or “get in too much trouble.” That’s not as bothersome as picking up the phone, calling the school, and reporting questionable behavior to guidance counselors or school psychologists.

It’s none of our business, until that failure to act turns into yet another mass shooting. Then it’s definitely our business, but not our own fault. It’s the guns, or the politicians who fail to write laws. If we’re honestly looking for a law to prevent these tragedies, we all might end up in trouble. Such a law would need to require that citizens do not remain silent when they see warning signs of violent behavior in teens. We would need to teach our children how to see those signs in themselves and their classmates. But, the people of Parkland won’t realize that until long after the media has moved on from them. They may never reach that point, because it’s a truth that we simply don’t talk about. Of course, if we did talk about it and admit it was the truth, then we would have to admit that our society has created these monsters – they are simply the logical result of our own indifference toward each other as human beings.

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Parkland – It Is Too Soon to Talk Activism

Presidential Pardons and Political Expediency

Presidential pardons for everyone! At least that is what the GOP seems to be wanting over the Russian probe. But, is that a good idea?

Politico arguably made the case for Trump to give out pardons – even preemptive blanket ones – to everyone who is indicted by the investigation headed by Robert Mueller. It’s fair to guess that the intent of the author was to point out how dastardly the GOP and Trump could really be, though.

Historically speaking, the American public sometimes reacts negatively toward presidential pardons of a political nature – like the backlash over the Nixon pardon. However, those hard feelings are generally short-term in nature, and in the case of Nixon, might even contribute to the slippery slope of political misdeeds. What caused Nixon to resign in the early 1970’s became part of the political toolbox for Karl Rove by the 1990’s, and arguably helped put George W. Bush in office.

So, if Trump would hand out pardons for political crimes and misdemeanors involving a foreign power now, it’s entirely feasible that the U.S. election process could become susceptible to interference from abroad without protest by Americans in the future. True, that may seem an extreme result now, but back in the 1970’s, voters would have been appalled if someone traveled back in time from the late 1990’s and told them that political operatives were regularly doing what Nixon had done.

This is how politicking works, in small increments over time. What may seem like a good idea today, for the sake of political expediency can turn into the status quo of the future. Unfortunately, the impact on our nation’s future is rarely considered in times like these, so it is very likely that presidential pardons will flow freely during this administration. Nixon had been told that he could not pardon himself, but it’s impossible to say whether or not Trump will need to test that principle. The long-term impact of a president exercising the power of pardon on himself should terrify every American, but even that is uncertain.

For now, Americans should think twice before they just let it slide if Trump starts giving out pardons like candy over this case of the Russians interfering in our elections. While it certainly would be easier for all concerned in the Trump administration, there also is the inevitable backlash. Temporary as it may be, it could fall in time to cause crushing GOP losses – part of the reason why it’s currently assumed that Trump would wait until after November. No matter what, Trump and the GOP would suffer at least a little in the eyes of the voters, because the perception would be that the president is covering for his friends. Regardless of which side of the aisle a president is, this is not a good thing. President George W. Bush knew that, which was why he didn’t pardon I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and just commuted his sentence. A pardon would have given the impression that Libby was getting away scot-free, while commuting the sentence still left the man with a mark on his record, albeit a largely symbolic one. But, appearances do matter, which is why Trump is trying very hard to keep the public and media focused on anything but one simple fact – Mueller’s investigation is starting to indicate that the U.S. election process may not be impervious to international influence. Once the people truly grasp that notion, it will be difficult to sell them on the idea of pardons for anyone.

Image: Flickr

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Presidential Pardons and Political Expediency

Parkland and a Logical Approach to School Shootings

Last week, in Parkland, Fla. there was another mass shooting at a high school, which has caused a firestorm of debates about gun control. Unlike some other cases in the past, this shooting has illustrated a severe breakdown in just about every governmental and law enforcement system that could have (and should have) prevented this from happening.

First, we should address a problem with media coverage that remains in spite of expert advice. It is impossible to view coverage of this shooting without seeing at least a photo of the shooter. Psychological experts have repeatedly stated that at least part of the motivation behind these crimes is the spotlight, so the media is tempting future events simply by giving the perpetrators what they want – media attention. This applies even when the shooter commits suicide, because they die knowing that the media will make them famous in their last act.

While it is tempting to demand that our leaders “do something” in the aftermath of a tragedy like this, it’s also important to evaluate what actually happened. In this particular case, there are no laws that would have prevented this attack, but existing laws and governmental systems could have prevented it if they hadn’t failed. The shooter’s threats to commit this crime were reported to the FBI, the school district was aware of his instability, and the family either should have seen signs of danger or should have been told by members of the community that there was a problem. While the weapon(s) the shooter acquired may have been purchased legally, there was good reason for the family to request that law enforcement remove them from the home.

Our nation does have more school shootings than any other nation in the world, and it is true that part of the reason is because our citizens also have the most weapons. However, comparisons absent other factors do not paint an accurate picture of the situation we are facing as a nation either. Our problem isn’t the fact that we guarantee the right of citizens to bear arms, but that we are comparing ourselves with nations that do not.

On the world stage, there is arguably only one nation we can accurately compare ourselves with when it comes to bearing arms – Israel. Many citizens in Israel not only own weapons, but also carry them on a daily basis. There is compulsory military service, so there is no question about whether or not any adults have attended gun safety courses. Teachers are regularly seen in the streets with automatic weapons, while guiding their students on school outings. While some citizens may not like guns and may choose not to carry one, they fully comprehend the fact that they are tools for public safety. Most importantly, in Israel, there is no such thing as a “gun-free zone.” This means that criminals – regardless of motivation – cannot choose targets where they can assume that they will not face armed individuals. As a result of this, Israel ends up on the list of countries where a mass shooting has occurred, but it is among nations where weapons are essentially banned. That is in spite of the fact that many citizens own and carry weapons every day, and in spite of the fact that Israel is not on a list of nations that miraculously doesn’t have citizens with mental health problems.

Of course, the primary difference between the U.S. and Israel is that they have a much larger problem with terrorism than we do. Mass shootings are not a common problem for them, but mass casualty attacks by other means are. However, that is a direct result of the geo-political factors for their region, nothing more. If they would suddenly broker peace in their region but continued to use weapons as they do today, mass shootings still would not happen any more frequently than they do now.

In the U.S., mass shootings do not occur where shooters know they could be faced with armed resistance. That is why schools, shopping malls and movie theaters are chosen as targets. Even one of the survivors from Parkland – a teacher with two children in the school – suggested on ABC’s This Week that having retired or off-duty law enforcement officers armed in schools might help. Her objection to armed teachers was based on her personal feelings about weapons, so maybe she would have conceded that would be a good idea if school personnel would be given proper training before being permitted to keep weapons on campus.

No matter what it is counter-productive to discuss enacting new laws when the current ones still aren’t being applied and enforced. At most, we do need to look at improving the technology we use for background checks, and we need to consolidate data from Federal to local levels. We also need to remember the simple fact that criminals and the criminally insane do not by definition abide by laws. Gun laws only restrict people who would use weapons as they are intended in society – as tools for public and personal safety. Also, we need to seriously rethink “gun-free zones” in the same way Israel would. They do not specify areas as vulnerable to criminal attack because citizens are forbidden from protecting themselves and others with weapons, and neither should we.

Image: By Marcus Quigmire from Florida, USA (Drug Free and Gun Free) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Parkland and a Logical Approach to School Shootings

Why College Campuses Don’t Need Title IX

University administrators are revolting against Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, because she dared to suggest that our institutions of higher learning should’t be getting into the business of law. Title IX has lead to what many have called “kangaroo courts” punishing students who are accused of rape on campus, without the benefit of due process or anything remotely similar to competent legal representation. In the worst cases, the accusers have essentially been turned into judge, jury and executioner.

While this system – definitely weighted in favor of accusers – has removed some true predators from campuses nationwide, it has also unfairly punished individuals who were not guilty. Also, the entire Title IX system has failed to give more than a minor increase in something that American students have been hopelessly behind on for years – sexual education.

Title IX is essentially like closing he barn door after the horses have run out, since its focus is primarily on punishing “predators” on far too flimsy evidence. The fact that this is happening in institutions of learning is doubly disturbing. It is true that teaching young people about respect, self-esteem, personal boundaries, sexuality, healthy interpersonal relationships, and overcoming poor parental guidance should start long before students reach college. That doesn’t mean that university administrators should think that offering “sex week” and “safe spaces” fulfills their obligation to at least attempt to use their educational requirements to actually prevent sexual assaults on campus.

But, there won’t be a meaningful conversation about the fact that most students in the U.S. do not learn what they need to know to engage in healthy intimate relationships at any age. Before college, the primary protest is that parents should teach this – they generally don’t. In college, the focus leaps between remedial learning of the basics, and an exploration of advanced sexuality – rarely is there enough content and conversation about respect and boundaries. None of the above tend to include the most basic concepts that land young people into false allegations of rape because they haven’t learned them. Our kids simply don’t learn how to read each others’ sexual responses, social cues, or emotional consequences of sexual activity.

Our college campuses don’t need Title IX. They need to start demanding mandatory comprehensive sexual education starting as early as possible. But, we won’t see that, because it would actually address the real problem – kids on college campuses are not prepared to deal with their own sexuality, and have been taught to expect the adults to protect them. Unfortunately, they should have been taught how to be the adults in the room.

Image: Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

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Why College Campuses Don’t Need Title IX

When Deregulation Can Be Bad

As a general rule deregulation is a good thing for business, and the public. Director of the Office of Business and Management Mick Mulvaney has found the exception to that rule, while working as the interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. NPR reports:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created after the financial crisis to protect Americans from being ripped off by financial firms.

Now, President Trump’s interim appointee to run the bureau, Mick Mulvaney, is making radical changes to deter the agency from aggressively pursuing its mission.

An internal memo obtained by NPR says the CFPB on Monday will unveil a new strategic plan to that end. A “revised mission and vision of the bureau” for the years 2018 through 2022 will call upon the agency to “fulfill its statutory responsibilities but go no further.” It also says the bureau should be “acting with humility and moderation.”

To Mulvaney, that means dropping lawsuits against predatory payday lenders that happened to contribute to his campaign war chest when he was in Congress. In a perfect world, it would be fine to say “buyer beware” or the like, but these lenders that have been targeted for lawsuits by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau engage in deceptive practices. They also target people who can’t afford a lengthy legal battle to recoup losses.
In truth, Mulvaney is essentially legalizing loan shark operations, and apparently believes it is fine for these companies to threaten consumers as a part of their daily business. Also, he has no problem with interest rates far exceeding 100%.

With the exception of the anarchist fringe and perhaps the most radical conservatives, it’s fair to say that most Americans would say that they are morally opposed to companies that had been targeted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, because the public honestly does need protection from that level of deception. Unfortunately, Mulvaney probably will continue to tear down this agency, and the Trump administration obviously is fine with that idea. The public just needs to hope that these deceptive business practices don’t seep into more mainstream financial services, since we definitely cannot expect this administration to prevent the public from being deceived. Not all deregulation is a good thing.

Image: Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

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When Deregulation Can Be Bad

Is Mike Pence Helping or Hurting Relations During the Olympics?

Vice President Mike Pence is in South Korea for the Olympics, but he has been using the games as an opportunity to repeat the foreign policy positions that the U.S. holds on North Korea. That includes words and actions, since Pence has been stating that the U.S. intends to push more sanctions, and he has said nothing to the North Korean contingent in spite of being seated near Kim Yo-Jong – Kim Jong-Un’s sister – at the opening ceremonies.

First, it is important to remember that all of this is happening during the Olympic Games, which have historically been a point in time for nations to set aside their differences to celebrate the athletes who were chosen to compete. It is true that North Korea may be hoping to use these games as a way to restart a conversation with South Korea, but it’s also true that once the Olympic flame is extinguished in PyeongChang any good will generated during the games will likely disappear as well.

Pence appears to be operating under the misconception that South Korea is utterly unfamiliar with the actions and tactics of its northern neighbor, since he’s apparently at least a little concerned about the North Koreans winning points in a propaganda campaign now. If that isn’t foolish enough, he’s also engaged in a little comparison between Kim Jong-Un’s military parades and the one that Trump has requested in the U.S. That means that it will be more difficult for the U.S. to keep saying that the military parades in North Korea are nothing more than childish saber-rattling by a tyrant. In the end, the impression is that Pence is playing the petulant bully – a role description that typically fits Kim Jong-Un – while Kim Yo-Jong is just quietly attending the games.

Perhaps Pence needs to remind himself about a couple adages – “Politics is perception” and “There is a time and place for everything.” Tough talk against a silent foe during the Olympics makes the one doing the talking seem like the real bully, regardless of what reality is. Also, the last place where politicians should be talking politics is the Olympic Games, period, full stop.

Image: YouTube Capture/Al Jazeera

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Is Mike Pence Helping or Hurting Relations During the Olympics?

Writers – Read Your Old Stuff

“But, I’m a fiction writer. I can’t write essays!”

Just about any writer who has spent time mentoring has heard something like that, regardless of the writing style involved. I’ve personally protested against the concept of ever writing (good) poetry, because I sincerely question my ability to write anything beyond some rhymed verse for a toast.

But, deep in my own archives there are a few items that contain some lines that certainly are fairly lyrical, and probably could be turned into passable poetry if extracted and toyed with a bit. The same applies to some old essays of mine that could easily be turned into short fiction, if I chose to switch out real names for fictional ones, and remove some factual information that would interrupt the flow of the narrative.

It’s not new advice to suggest that writers read their own writing months or years after it was originally composed, but too often, the point of that suggestion is just about seeing concrete proof of growth as a writer. While that remains solid advice, it’s also important to suggest a fresh reading of old work when a writer is saying that she is incapable of creating work in a particular style or genre.

The fact is that while each type of writing has its own characteristics, cross-overs between them are numerous. Growing as a writer isn’t just about honing one’s skills in one particular area. It is also about exploring the boundaries, and crossing them.

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Writers – Read Your Old Stuff

Why Rob Porter Is a Symbol of the Trump Administration

The left-leaning media is having a field day thanks to former White House aide, Rob Porter. Partisan politicking aside, Porter honestly is a typical example of the kind of people who are currently in power in this country, and voters have placed them there. This is not to say that every person in government has something to hide in their personal lives, but it is pointing out the fact that voters have been increasingly more willing to overlook many unsavory details when they cast their ballots.

While the media and the political class are busy focusing on the details of Porter’s situation and making public statements of disapproval, a deeper issue will be left largely unexamined. How did we get to this point as a nation?

It is simple to toss around adages like “power corrupts,” but there are a few clues being offered in the comments from people in Washington who are trying to distance themselves from the Porter situation. While people in politics definitely do exist primarily in the public eye, the fact remains that they still have private lives. People like Sen. Orrin Hatch and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly initially came out making statements defending Porter, which were later back-stepped to commentaries about their knowledge of the man in the workplace.

Tempting as it may be to suggest that these people intentionally overlooked Porter’s alleged history of violence at home, the fact is that they probably were not privy to as many details as some might think, especially in Hatch’s case. Kelly is being called to task for failing to demand Porter’s dismissal as soon as he found out about the allegations, but it’s possible that the public will never know when that was. No matter what, the fact remains that both Hatch and Kelly measured the character of Porter solely on their personal and professional experiences with him – not his private life.

One statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is particularly telling: “The American people knew this and voted for the president, and we feel like we’re ready to move forward in that process.” Sanders stated this in December when the press was focused on allegations of inappropriate behavior toward multiple women were surfacing against President Trump. Indeed, the public did decide that crass (misogynistic?) behavior could be overlooked when Trump won the presidency. Since then, the administration has been moving from one scandal to the next, and Porter just happens to be the latest chapter.

The bottom line is that U.S. voters have lowered the bar on acceptable behavior for their leaders since our nation began. Neither side of the aisle has managed to hold the high ground, and the only reason why Republicans are currently making most of the headlines for their misdeeds is because they are currently holding the majority in office. While the Trump administration may go down in history as an important point on the timeline tracking the degree of morally questionable behavior the voters have tolerated in their leaders, that is all it will be. It’s highly unlikely that the public will suddenly turn around, and start demanding higher standards from anyone. Perhaps the real question should be whether or not there ever will be a break point – will the public ever reach the point where they will not vote for someone because of defects in their character?

Image: By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Why Rob Porter Is a Symbol of the Trump Administration

Did the Media Misunderstand Chief of Staff John Kelly?

While White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is under scrutiny for several issues, one public statement might not have deserved the firestorm it received from the media. CNN reported Tuesday:

“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the President sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number, to 1.8 million,” he said on Capitol Hill after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to audio posted by The Washington Post.

“The difference between 690 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up,” Kelly added.

The media response to this statement was quick and ugly, but it failed to take into account both the actual words said, and Kelly himself. While suggesting that people who could be eligible for DACA protection were “too lazy” to do it certainly can (and should) be considered objectionable, Kelly did not state that he believed they were. In point of fact, Kelly was stating the public opinions of many – from the left and from the right – which is clear if one bothers to pay attention to the actual words he said. But, that didn’t stop the media from accusing Kelly of being everything from insensitive to (possibly) racist:

It is important to keep in mind that previous to becoming Chief of Staff, Kelly spent his time in the Pentagon and in the Department of Homeland Security. In both of these environments, precision in speech is a necessity because imprecision can have a body count. That past experience also undoubtedly colors his attitude toward lawmakers who are willing to hold the military hostage while they argue over the status of people who aren’t U.S. citizens.

Because of his background, Kelly is as close as anyone can get to “apolitical” in the West Wing, regardless how much the media might wish it otherwise. In this case, it seems that reporting with bias against White House won the day, and the media missed the fact that Kelly was probably intending his statement to be taken as a condescending hit against the Hill, not a commentary on people who are eligible for DACA protections.

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Did the Media Misunderstand Chief of Staff John Kelly?