It’s not the steamy weather that alarms me, although I’m increasingly inclined to wait until sunset for my daily walks. It’s not even the rapidly melting glaciers, the plight of African elephants or the prospect of a costly sewer line repair outside our house, although all those things are alarming, too.
No, what really alarms me this summer is that our world is starting to resemble one of those dystopian tales on the order of 1984, Fahrenheit 451 or Soylent Green. Nearly every day now, the news drops some fresh horror onto our battered heads — and we’re not even engaged in a major war. We’re simply looking at everyday life during the past month of a bad year in a mostly-disastrous century.
- As a relatively mild preface to this month’s horror show, the United Kingdom voted (narrowly) to exit the European Union. The “Brexit” caused panic and discord in Europe, a temporary stock market swoon, and disgruntled rumblings among the liberal-leaning elite that such vital matters shouldn’t be entrusted to ignorant voters. (In other words, democracy has its limits!)
- On Bastille Day, a radicalized Tunisian-born French Muslim drove a truck more than a mile through a crowd that had gathered to enjoy the fireworks along a waterfront promenade in Nice. The 31-year-old terrorist managed to obliterate 84 innocent humans (including at least ten children) and injure scores more before he was mercifully euthanized by the police.
- A 17-year-old Afghan refugee armed with an axe and a knife terrorized a train near Wurzburg, Germany, slashing at least five passengers before police took him down. The teen had pledged to kill infidels and was heard to exclaim “Allahu Akbar!” before entering that peculiar paradise reserved for dead Islamic terrorists.
- In Turkey, an attempted military coup ended in disaster as President-and-Aspiring-Dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan quashed the revolt with a little help from his police. Nearly 300 died during the upheaval, and angry mobs demanded the death penalty for some six thousand rebels. A vast purge is now underway: Erdogan has fired 45,000 military and public officials along with 15,000 educators (including all university deans). Their professional futures don’t look especially bright at the moment. Meanwhile, Erdogan blamed a 77-year-old Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania’s Poconos for instigating the coup and demanded his extradition. (As Dave Barry used to write, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.)
- The much-anticipated Rio Summer Olympics could sputter out in a miasma of polluted water, Zika infections, rampant crime, decimated attendance, political instability and the possible expulsion of the entire Russian team due to performance-enhancing drugs. What if they threw an Olympics and nobody came?
- Puffy North Korean chieftain Kim Jung Un launched three ballistic missiles into the sea as a test designed to simulate a pre-emptive nuclear attack on South Korean ports and airfields. As South Korea’s primary ally, the U.S. is committed to respond if the North ever attacks the South. Calling Dr. Strangelove.
Of course, the United States hasn’t been immune to the July madness. Two more black men — Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota — were executed by police during what should have been routine stops. It’s almost always the same story: nervous confrontations, misunderstandings, threats, hair-trigger reactions, sudden death, grief and anger. Those two men should still be alive, but there’s no going back.
Because the victims were black men shot by police, their tragedies made national headlines. (We almost never hear about the white men fatally shot by police, even though — surprise! — they outnumber black victims by a ratio of roughly two-to-one. Are white shooting victims less newsworthy? Would they muddy the narrative? Maybe they’d help focus the narrative more on overuse of lethal force and less on race.)
The Black Lives Matter people staged reasonably peaceful protests in response to the two executions, and they were entitled to do so. Even though their fears and resentments are based on a distorted narrative fed to them by the media, those fears and resentments are genuinely felt. They wonder why their people seem to be disproportionately targeted by the authorities, and naturally they worry that any encounter with the local police could quickly turn fatal.
Then the unthinkable happened: five cops assassinated by a militant black sniper in Dallas, and another three methodically gunned down in Baton Rouge, scene of Alton Sterling’s death. The latter assassin, also a black militant, traveled nearly 800 miles from Kansas City to carry out his revenge.
The two black assassins saw their victims as symbols rather than individuals with distinct personalities, families, hobbies and personal histories. The cops became interchangeable representatives of a hated group. The Baton Rouge shooter might have been unaware that one of the assassinated officers, Montrell Jackson, was a black man beloved for his kindness and decency and, ultimately, for a heartbreakingly sympathetic Facebook message that stands as a testament to his character. In the end, all that mattered to his murderer was that he wore blue.
That’s what terrorists do: they reduce three-dimensional humans to flat cartoon figures who conveniently represent The Enemy. Shorn of individual traits, virtues and quirks, they’re easier to view as targets.
Extremist ideologues do the same thing, without going as far as to commit literal murder. Their ideological opponents become caricatures, drawn broadly and grotesquely for the purpose of ridicule and political annihilation. Reduced to easy targets, they never gain consideration as individual human beings. They’re identical ducks in a shooting gallery. Progressives see conservatives as dangerously ignorant xenophobic yahoos with a gun fetish; conservatives view liberals as effete anti-Christian snobs who shield Islamists and advocate all manner of gender-bending depravity. As for whites and blacks, those labels alone imply that they’re opposites predestined to eternal conflict.
The United States is increasingly vulnerable to random acts of terrorism. Just as disturbingly, our republic has become fertile ground for the kind of intellectual terrorism that reduces fellow citizens to two-dimensional targets. On the left, “white male” is now a virtual epithet accompanied by vocabulary garnered from collegiate Grievance Studies seminars: patriarchy, hegemony, structural racism and the like. On the right, all forms of “otherness” are generally suspect.
Am I caricaturing the caricaturists? Perhaps. But I need to point out that such divisive attitudes are dangerous. They might not propel us toward a literal civil war (although I wouldn’t rule it out), but they’ve already launched a rhetorical one.
Extremist rhetoric is magnetic: it tends to pull unaffiliated souls toward the poles and away from the center. The ranks of moderates are dwindling while the extremists are gaining ground at our expense. The result: more anger, less tolerance, and the kind of July madness that we’ve been witnessing.
Our overheated July is coming to a head with the two national conventions. As I write this, the Republicans are going at it in Cleveland. No orgies of madness to report so far, other than the ominous cries of “Lock her up!” whenever a speaker utters Hillary Clinton’s name. The gun rhetoric has been less militant than I expected, even from the Duck Dynasty scion who spoke the first night and the NRA spokesman who followed him. Melania Trump’s surprisingly effective speech was immediately undermined by revelations of plagiarism — most likely not her fault, although extracting a confession from the Trump organization was like pulling half a dozen teeth. I’ve smiled quizzically at the D-list show biz celebrities called upon to address the assembled crowd. (Yes, it must be tough to come out as Republican in Hollywood.) I wondered why that crowd was booing the speech by Senator Ted Cruz, until I realized that he had no intention of endorsing Trump for the presidency. Trump’s grown children seem like models of filial loyalty, clean-cut attractiveness and good citizenship — hardly the spawn of Satan. (The man himself speaks tonight.)
On the whole, the Republican convention hasn’t looked much like the apocalypse. I suspect that the upcoming Democratic convention here in Philadelphia will follow suit. But the ground continues to rumble and simmer beneath the surface — here in the U.S. and around the world. The pressure builds, and the summer is only half over.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
So it’s come to this: the founder-editor of The New Moderate is politicizing the ghastliest mass-shooting in American history. Don’t those fifty dead and fifty-three wounded souls deserve better, you ask? Don’t we need to recognize their humanity, their innocence, their senseless victimization by a crazed fanatic, the plunging of their families into unimaginable grief? Yes, of course… all in good time.
I can’t help but notice, though, that the stalwarts of the left and right immediately pounced on the news with their airtight and predictable political narratives.
“It had nothing to do with Islam,” the progressive apologists were quick to tell us. “It’s a combination of virulent anti-LGBT bigotry, lax gun control, mental health issues and toxic masculinity.” No matter that 29-year-old mass-shooter Omar Mateen, an American of Afghan parentage, affirmed his allegiance to ISIS and his solidarity with the Boston Marathon bombers during his call to 911 from a bathroom at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. Maybe he was just affirming his Muslim street cred before the authorities closed in.
“It had nothing to do with guns,” the right-wing NRA crowd was just as quick to inform us. “Ban our assault rifles, and the guy could just as easily have used a bomb. We need to ban Muslims instead.” No matter that a mentally unstable civilian was able to purchase a weapon capable of dispatching a hundred human beings in as many seconds. Or that he was able to buy it almost as easily as he might pick up a six-pack at the local beer joint.
Once again, America’s battling tribes have lined up on opposite sides of the field, ready for a skirmish. And once again, the truth behind the news is a little more complicated than either side is willing to admit. In fact, the Orlando massacre represents a convergence of so many hot-button issues that we probably need to examine the parts before we can understand the whole.
Gun control. We don’t allow individual citizens to own tanks, bazookas or other military-grade weapons. The only purpose of semi-automatic rifles and pistols is to mow down as many victims as possible in as short a time as possible. In other words, these are weapons designed for warfare.
Second Amendment diehards will insist that citizens need such weapons in case the government turns tyrannical. Well, good luck using your Glocks and AR-15’s against state-of-the-art U.S. military hardware, folks. And think about this: the incidence of mass shootings has skyrocketed in America since semi-automatic guns became the weapon of choice for psychopaths. (Even with the federal ban on selected assault weapons in place from 1994 to 2004, most gun nuts simply sidestepped it by using legal weapons with high-capacity magazines.) With tens of millions of semi-automatic guns already in circulation, it makes more sense to ban the high-capacity clips that feed such weapons and inflict mass bloodshed.
Yes, a psychopath intent on killing prodigious numbers of his fellow humans could detonate a homemade bomb. But, as things stand, it’s so much easier to buy an assault weapon at the local gun show.
A ban on high-capacity gun clips would pose no threat to the right of Americans to own simple handguns and hunting rifles. (The Founding Fathers were thinking more in terms of muskets.) They’re free to defend their homes or venture off into the woods to murder Bambi and his friends. If they’re any good, they won’t need to fire a hundred shots in succession.
Radical Islamic terrorism. The phrase that our president dares not utter is a phrase we ignore at our own peril. Islamic jihad is real, it’s an urgent worldwide menace, and it won’t go away by itself. With a few exceptions, the bloodiest terrorist attacks of our time have been perpetrated by Muslims with a radical interpretation of Islam.
Do we blame all Muslims? Of course not. Do we blame Islam itself? That’s a little trickier. The Quran, like the Bible, is a mixed bag of wisdom, history and legend. Like the Bible, it’s full of disturbing contradictions: parts of it espouse peace and brotherhood; other verses call for intolerance and bloody vengeance against the infidels. Millions of Muslims worldwide favor the latter course.
One of those Muslims, apparently, was Omar Mateen. He worshiped at his local mosque several times a week, beat his wife and had no love for the West. He resented (understandably) the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But he also expressed support for ISIS and its bloody agenda. In fact, those may have been among his last words. He was a radical Muslim, and he shot a hundred innocent people in one explosive outburst. Was he a terrorist? Most likely, but there are other factors to complicate the story.
Mental health. Omar Mateen was, from his wife’s description, an unstable man with a violent temper. She suspected he was bipolar, and he was given to frequent rages against her. Yes, most Muslim men expect submission from their wives, but Mateen went above and beyond — especially for an American-born Muslim.
According to Mateen’s father, Omar bristled when he saw two gay men kissing in public — reportedly in front of his young son. But there’s more. Reports have emerged that Mateen actually frequented the gay nightclub he ultimately terrorized. Several witnesses reported that he’d approach men at the bar, and probably not with the intention of denouncing them in the name of Islam. He was also said to have been a presence on a gay hook-up website.
A violent, radicalized Muslim male with imperfectly repressed homosexual tendencies — we’re not looking at a good mix here. This man had to be a walking powder keg. And yet he was able to pick up an assault rifle and a semi-automatic handgun at the local shop, no questions asked.
We should be asking questions. Do we deny gun ownership to anyone who has been treated for mental illness, past or present? Do prospective gun owners need to pass an emotional fitness test? Are we intruding too much? What if they’re sane when they purchase a gun but eventually slip off the deep end? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. We just have to conclude that guns and mental illness don’t mix.
The LGBT movement. It’s probably no accident that the Orlando massacre happened at a gay nightclub during LGBT Pride Month. (Yes, June was given that official designation.) Gay marriage, transgender bathroom rights, fifty different gender designations on Facebook — the pace of change has been breathtaking over just the past decade. I can’t blame LGBT people for wanting to celebrate.
And yet (and you probably knew there would be an “and yet”), this moderate has to wonder if the LGBT movement has gone too public, too in-your-face. Why can’t everyone just live and let live, without parading our preferences or dissing those who differ from us? Why do LGBT people need their own month, or even their own “community”? (We’re all Americans, aren’t we?) Why is it bigotry to assert that biological males shouldn’t be allowed to strip down in women’s locker rooms? Social progressives should realize that it can be difficult — especially for older people and religious people — to do a complete “180” on traditional social beliefs formed decades ago (or prescribed a few millennia ago). You can engineer legal change, but you can’t engineer attitudes. Those take time.
That said, the Orlando massacre was not only a terrorist incident but a deplorable hate crime, perpetrated by a man who likely loathed his own homosexual tendencies. Gay pride rhetoric undoubtedly helps many confused people feel more comfortable with their orientation. In Omar Mateen’s case, it might have had the opposite effect. The result was brutal, premature death for mostly young, mostly Hispanic members of a historically marginalized and still-vulnerable group. I wonder how many cumulative years of potential life were lost that night. Fifty casualties with an average of fifty years left on the clock — you do the math.
The selective tolerance of today’s progressives. They welcome a diverse, multi-hued rainbow of humanity into their communal embrace. But let’s face it: they embrace some representatives of humanity more than others. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, atheists, Muslims, Democrats, LGBT people, feminists, and progressive white men who wear sandals all get a resounding YES. Texans, fundamentalist Christians, rednecks, working-class white ethnics, Republicans and Dead White European Males — not so much.
The progressives’ soft spot for Islam is a baffling one, at least to a slightly dense moderate like me. Here’s a religion/legal system/ideology that, when obeyed to the letter, stands firmly against nearly everything traditional liberals hold sacred: women’s rights, gay rights, religious tolerance, wine, pacifism and personal freedom. (Talk about strange bedfellows.)
I suspect that the progressives who refuse to see the Orlando massacre as an Islamic terror incident — who defend Islam against the likes of Donald Trump and his minions — are operating on the “enemy of my enemy” principle. They haven’t exactly forged an alliance with Islam, but they face a common enemy: the angry white Christian xenophobes who, to them, represent the messy and primitive rear-guard of society. The progressives will tolerate patriarchy and intolerance as long as it has its origins in impoverished countries, preferably those inhabited by non-Europeans. As violent and barbaric as the radical Islamists can be, the Crusaders were even worse — right?
We have to bear in mind, too, that today’s progressives aren’t necessarily liberal. Notice their current penchant for inhibiting free speech, censoring satirical treatment of sacred cows, prosecuting microaggressions against the accepted order. They seem to like rules and unanimity, and they tend to consort only with fellow believers. Maybe (is it possible?) they have more in common with Islamists than we would like to believe.
But enough about politics. In the end, the Orlando massacre has yielded a devastating human toll. Not only for the fifty souls who perished in a bloody and terrifying rampage, or the wounded victims who will carry their scars for life, or their grieving families. Once again, the entire nation has been shocked by the increasingly common spectacle of mass murder in a public place. You’d think we’d have numbed ourselves to the atrocities by now, but if we’re still human, we should never learn to accept them as the “new normal.”
That the shooter was an emotionally unstable, homophobic Muslim equipped with semi-automatic weapons is relevant to our story. But it’s not the whole story. The larger issue is how to restore some semblance of brotherhood to our brilliant but bumbling species.
We can enact legislation to curb gun violence. It won’t eliminate the problem, but it’s a start. We can search for ways to undermine the factionalism and fanaticism so prevalent in so much of the world — including our own country. (That’s what The New Moderate is for, although I can’t brag about the extent of our influence.) We can try to build bridges. But these are only vague notions. I really have no solutions, and it’s plain to see that we need solutions to keep the world’s premium breed of primate from self-destructing.
For me, one ray of hope comes from the transformation of the late Muhammad Ali. As an angry young champ, he bought the black separatist rhetoric and anti-white venom of the radical Nation of Islam. He even repudiated his friend Malcom X for leaving the fold. Then, somehow, he found enlightenment. He parted company with the Nation of Islam and eventually aligned himself with the more tolerant and philosophical Sufi sect of Islam. He became a citizen of the world and a force for unity.
The extremists among us could do worse than to follow his example.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
On the eve of Memorial Day weekend, 2016, my old next-door neighbor from back home, Kevin Buist, e-mailed three photographs to his family and a few selected friends (myself included). The photos were of his late father, Walter S. “Scotty” Buist, at three stages of his life: as a young airman serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II… in middle age, dressed in 18th-century colonial garb (complete with wig and tricorner hat), posed before the vast 48-star American flag that unfurled between a pair of trees in their front yard on national holidays… and finally, as an elderly veteran watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington. (See above.)
The last photo was especially poignant. Shot from behind, with only one shoulder and the back of his head visible, this image had us viewing the ceremony as if through my old neighbor’s eyes. I could only imagine the mixture of pride, humility and regret for comrades lost in long-ago battles over Fortress Europe.
Mr. Buist was a patriot, no doubt about it. He participated in numerous flying missions over Axis-occupied territory during the war, and his commander was none other than Col. James Stewart. (Yep, that James Stewart.) I always thought there was more than a little Jimmy Stewart in his own make-up: his frame tall and lanky, his manner folksy and unassuming but undergirded with the steel of irreproachable character… gentle and good-natured to the core… a devoted father and genial neighbor.
I never knew whether Mr. Buist was a Republican or a Democrat. It hardly mattered. What mattered about Mr. Buist was his decency. He was, just possibly, the most American man I’ve ever known — American in the way foreigners used to perceive us in the days before right-wing tea partiers and left-wing grievance warriors commandeered the national stage. Just one of those modest Yanks who stepped up to help save the civilized world.
When Mr. Buist left us five years ago, at the well-seasoned age of 86, his America had already split into warring factions — each spewing contempt for its mortal enemies on the other side of the cultural divide. I’m guessing that Mr. Buist knew nothing about the vicious tribal squabbles that had erupted during the last few years of his life — and if he did, I’m sure he would have scratched his thatch of white hair and frowned. He would have wondered what happened to the singleness of purpose that united us during the war, propelled us to victory and led to a half-century of mostly-benevolent leadership over the free world.
Of course, not everyone approved of FDR, our wartime president — and yet the America of Mr. Buist’s youth united behind him, respected his decisions, took pride in his firmness and eloquence. Today our presidents and other politicians rank somewhere between advertising executives and penny stockbrokers on the scale of public esteem.
It’s an angry and vicious place, this latter-day America. The extreme left and extreme right, like powerful electromagnets, have sucked the life out of the center with their damnable distortions, lies and foolhardy certainties. They’re diabolically skilled at winning converts and reinforcing their biases with hand-picked news (or invented news) designed to keep their precious narratives alive.
Those polarized narratives have finally crossed the hazy boundary between political grievance and paranoid hallucination:
Obama gave a conciliatory speech at Hiroshima? A week before Memorial Day? Sacrilege! What else can you expect from a socialist black Muslim Antichrist who wants to steal our guns and destroy America!
A columnist for the campus newspaper questioned whether the Black Lives Matter movement has gone too far? Defund the paper! Report the columnist to the Bias Response Team and give him a one-way ticket to the “re-education” camp!
Meanwhile, is there anyone left who can see both sides of an issue? Anyone who can chuck the obligatory script, find the nuances, and understand why some of our fellow Americans might put a different spin on our pet narratives?
The abortion controversy has at least two legitimate sides… so do taxation, immigration, automation, the wealth gap, race relations, the size of government, military intervention, healthcare, welfare, transgender bathroom (and locker room) rights, God, guns and free trade.
Do we have the patience to tease out the threads of truth on each side? Can we discuss these matters without resorting to mutual ridicule, flame wars, threats, and silly one-sided memes on Facebook? Preaching to the choir only entrenches our biases and makes us more likely to hate those who think differently. It’s time to step out of the choir and back into the real world.
Polarization has made at least two separate nations of us: sniffish white progressives and their minority allies on one team… obstinate lower-middle class and rural whites on the other. Eventually, as progressives mingle only with progressives and conservatives with conservatives, we might evolve into two separate and reproductively incompatible species. Wouldn’t that be an achievement!
This isn’t Mr. Buist’s America. Some will celebrate the passing of the old values and virtues. I don’t. I wish my old neighbor (and millions more like him) were still here, breathing their decency, friendliness and common sense into the communal atmosphere.
Do we believe in the primacy of the individual or the community? It should hardly matter. To men and women of good will, decent individuals will make a decent community. And decent individuals who think and work together toward noble purposes can reunite this fractured republic of ours.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
While our aging republic is setting itself up for the most regrettable choice of presidential candidates in its history, how are the American people occupying themselves? Watching TV, of course — especially the antics of Lena Dunham and other habitually naked and/or potty-mouthed pay-cable darlings. Rewarding Beyoncé for taking a baseball bat to multiple car windows in her latest video. Mourning the premature death of pop idol Prince, posthumously acclaimed by some experts as the greatest musician of all time. Roll over, Paganini.
They’re also in a tizzy over toilets — specifically the right of transgender folk to use facilities originally intended for the opposite biological sex. First the government of North Carolina stirred up a tempest by enacting legislation that curtailed those rights. Progressives were outraged; boycotts and acrimony ensued. Now Target has scandalized conservatives by launching a transgender-friendly bathroom policy in all its stores. A million traditionalists, led by the American Family Association, have promised to boycott the retail giant.
Restrooms, like just about everything else in our fractured red-blue nation, have suddenly become politicized. Colorful memes mocking one side or the other are popping up daily on my Facebook feed. Conservatives command us to stand guard while our wives and daughters attend to their necessities, while progressives caution us that the ones we need to guard against are the creepy Republicans peeking under the stalls.
The whole transgender category is a relatively recent addition to the cultural landscape; it used to be that someone who felt marooned in the wrong body had a sex-change operation to clarify his or her gender status. Witness travel writer James/Jan Morris, musician Walter/Wendy Carlos, celebrity scion Chastity/Chaz Bono. Surgery eliminated the ambiguity, and all was right with the world. Where gender was concerned, we were still operating on the binary system.
That’s history now, if we’re to accept the progressive perspective on the subject. (Since progressives almost always shape our future attitudes on social issues, we have little choice but to yield to their wisdom or be trodden under with fundamentalist Christians and other troglodytes.) Gender is no longer a superficial matter of genitals, chromosomes or outward appearance, they tell us; it’s certainly not in the eye of the beholder. A man who looks, sounds and acts like a man can still call himself a woman if he feels like one, and that person is entitled (except in Paleolithic states like North Carolina) to use the ladies’ room.
I really don’t mean to sound flippant. As a living relic of the binary gender era, I’m taking a while to adjust. (We Baby Boomers have had a deluge of social changes to deal with since the Eisenhower administration.) I can understand the existence of a gender spectrum: manly men and womanly women at one end, shading toward gender-fluid individuals and finally, at the opposite end, those who feel convinced that the gods stranded them in the wrong body.
I sympathize with anyone who feels maladjusted, including the unfortunate gender misfits. It has to be a vexing and difficult life. Yet I’m still not sure I understand the idea that gender is a subjective social construct… that a biologically intact man can be a woman — and be treated as a woman by society — as long as he believes he’s a woman. All in good time, I suppose.
The restroom controversy didn’t disturb me as much as it seemed to disturb our cultural conservatives. A male-to-female transgender person who uses a ladies’ room will be hidden inside a stall, since ladies’ rooms offer no other options. No cause for alarm there.
Similarly, a female-to-male transgender person will also occupy a stall — although that person might catch a fleeting glimpse of actual biological men relieving themselves at the communal pissoir. Again, hardly a cause for ruffled feathers. Men who’d rather not be glimpsed can also use a stall.
I’m a little more tentative when it comes to transgender people who still look like members of their biologically assigned sex. A lone woman washing up in a restroom has every right to be alarmed by a bearded individual bursting into her sanctuary. Most men would be startled, too, if a pixieish five-foot-tall human surprised them in mid-stream. Most likely these are exceptions, but they’re part of the strange future we’ll all be confronting.
Locker rooms and changing rooms are another story — I don’t think we can treat them as an automatic extension of the transgender restroom issue. (A true moderate is rarely all in favor or all against; we generally find ourselves drawing wobbly lines of demarcation between the acceptable and the unacceptable.) If I had a six-year-old daughter, I’d be livid if a biological male stripped down and paraded his man-parts in front of her. No exceptions, even if the biological male thinks he’s more feminine than Loretta Young.
If public changing areas are to be open to transgender people, they need to be made less public. In other words, build them with private stalls and private showers. This isn’t bigotry. Until we as a society endorse public nudity, it’s simple common sense.
But that raises a larger and more perplexing question: since when is common sense a guiding factor in contemporary life? Maybe I need to sit in front of a screen and learn to applaud as Beyoncé smashes those car windows. It’s art, isn’t it? It must be art if the critics say it is, just as that bearded person must be a woman if she insists she is. As Pope Francis famously said, Who am I to judge?
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
What is it about the month of March that brings out the whackadoodle in otherwise competent creatures? “Mad as a March hare” refers to the frenzied mating antics of lusty lagomorphs as spring rolls around. But apparently the madness isn’t confined to the rabbit tribe.
Maybe our collective emergence from the doldrums of winter overheats our brain circuitry. In the U.S. at least, the stress of gathering a year’s worth of tax records while following the college basketball playoffs (affectionately known as “March Madness”) can strain susceptible nervous systems to the limit. But whatever the cause, March 2016 has been a banner month for showcasing our species at its maddest and worst.
In Brussels, that usually sedate European capital, Muslim terrorists linked to ISIS detonated two explosions that killed over 30 innocent people and injured at least 200 more. Coming in the wake of last year’s Paris massacres, and coupled with the news that a few hundred more ISIS operatives have infiltrated Europe to wreak future mayhem, it’s clear that the Continent is under siege by murderous medieval lunatics.
Europe’s ghettoized, often hostile Muslim neighborhoods have become spawning grounds for militants, and it only makes sense that several nations have finally halted the influx of Muslim refugees from Middle Eastern war zones. It’s easy for liberals to condemn nativism while rhapsodizing about diversity and humanitarian values, but — at least in Europe — non-assimilating, sharia-abiding Muslims are a bad fit at best and potentially treacherous at worst. Unfortunately, it’s too late to stuff this genie back inside the bottle. Europe will be reaping the consequences of its well-intentioned but ill-advised open-immigration policies for generations to come.
I’ve been waiting for moderate Muslims to lash out at the fanatics and de-legitimize them, but it’s no more likely to happen than American Christians rising up to shut down the KKK. So much the worse for Western civilization.
In Washington, stiff-necked Republican representatives are proving once again that they refuse to accept the mandate of the American people who twice elected Barack Obama as president. It’s one thing to reject a president’s Supreme Court nominee after a fair hearing, but that senescent snapping turtle Mitch McConnell and his outlaw gang of GOP obstructionists insist on ignoring the existence of that nominee (a respected moderate, as it turns out) until Obama shuffles off into retirement.
The Republicans’ obsessive hyperpartisanship, a thorny issue from Day One of Obama’s presidency, has morphed into blatant dereliction of duty. Call it Obama Derangement Syndrome, covert racism or just plain spitefulness, the obstructionists are asking us to believe the nonsensical argument that “the people” must guide the process by electing a new president (preferably a Republican) who will nominate the next justice.
Hello! “The people” already chose that president — in 2008 and again in 2012. Last I heard, he was still occupying the White House.
Meanwhile, establishment Democrats have been pulling out all the stops to block the Bernie Sanders insurgency. Former First Lady / Senator / Secretary of State / Wall Street darling Hillary Clinton has picked up endorsements, massive media coverage and tons of cash from the elite corporate potentates and plutocrats who would love to rule the known universe for at least another four years. The mainstream media coverage of the Sanders campaign amounts almost to a blackout.
A Bernie Sanders presidency would hit the ruling class like the bucket of water that snuffed the Wicked Witch of the West and destroyed her “beautiful wickedness.” Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats even tilted the results of several state primaries by using reliable party insiders (a.k.a., “superdelegates”) to override the popular vote. They may be Democrats, but clearly they don’t trust the people enough to believe in genuine democracy.
Of course, the ongoing Donald Trump juggernaut has caused many of us self-styled rational folk to question the virtues of democracy. I don’t believe that Trump is Hitler or even Mussolini, and I have to confess that I’ve enjoyed the spectacle of establishment Republicans scurrying madly to thwart his nomination. But I have to wonder how such a hefty plurality of garden-variety Republicans could fall under the spell of such a consummate flim-flam man.
Trump’s supporters are, of course, mad — angry mad as well as deranged mad, but mostly the former. The bulk of them are members of that most despised and neglected American tribe: older, less affluent, white Christian males. To be old, white, Christian and male in America is a sorry enough fate: you belong to one of the few remaining demographics that your fellow countrymen (and women) can mock with impunity. But to be all those things and struggle financially — while irate people of color call you out for your presumed “privilege” — well, let’s just say the inner furies mount ominously and cry for revenge.
Trump is the instrument of their revenge. He’s a populist demagogue unlike any other in recent American political history. Pugnacious Alabama governor George Wallace paled by comparison; you’d have to go back to someone like Huey “Kingfish” Long to find an apt parallel.
Like Long, Trump is smarter than he sounds; and he knows he has to sound brash, crude and defiantly ignorant to win the hearts of his constituency. His blunt, unscripted, shoot-from-the-hip style lends this particular demagogue the panache of a maverick.
Unlike Long, Trump can claim no actual political experience. He made his reputation as a high-rolling dealmaker, although (as establishment GOP veteran Mitt Romney gleefully pointed out), many if not most of his business enterprises have come to grief. Trump just seems to have a genius for winging it, saying whatever pops into his mind and talking trash about his rivals. His followers can’t get enough of it.
Believe me, I’d love to see a genuine maverick assume the presidency — a principled maverick who would overturn the tables of the money-changers, chastise the special interests and restore some semblance of sanity and balance to our beleaguered, bewildered nation. Trump is not that maverick. For me, he’s simply exploiting H. L. Mencken’s conviction that democracy is a self-limiting disease.
Here’s what Mencken meant. Given enough freedom and opportunity, smart people typically abandon the small towns that nurtured them and seek their fortunes in the big cities. They acquire the tastes and values of the urban elite, and they mate with other members of that elite. They produce elite offspring; they become a natural aristocracy.
Meanwhile, the small towns and rural hamlets across the republic languish in sad neglect, reduced to impoverished gene pools of frustrated left-behinds who enjoy little respect and fewer prospects. Where once their communities could boast scholars and men of vision along with the sturdy, sensible yeomanry, all that remains is a forlorn, resentful white underclass. They’re mad, they love guns, and they’ll be voting for Trump.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
What do we moderates have to worry about? More than ever, naturally. 2015 was a banner year for extremists and, by extension, not such a good one for us.
I’ve been updating this list each year to reflect our current jitters. Last year’s list ran to 19 items and more than 4,000 words, and I was about to add several new entries for 2016. Because I don’t want my fellow moderates to wring their hands and gnash their teeth any more than necessary, I’ve consolidated many of the items and cut the verbiage so you can read the list without breaking for therapy. I’ve also dispensed with the references to the previous year’s rank for each item — partly because of all the consolidations, and partly because there’s no need for moderates to be fanatical about record-keeping. We’re not fanatics, after all. Here goes…
1. Rising factionalism. We’ve become a nation of us-against-them, “my team is better than your team,” ”anyone who disagrees with me is stupid.” And that’s not only a stupid attitude but a dangerous one. What will it take to remind all those petty partisans, special-interest warriors, sowers of discord, promulgators of identity politics, subscribers to sacred narratives, and denizens of online amen corners that we’re all Americans here… that the land is spacious and generous enough to accommodate a full spectrum of beliefs, and that we won’t survive much longer as a nation unless we act like one? It’s the United States… remember? Remedy: Try to see every issue from the other guy’s perspective. (We moderates are good at this.) Don’t borrow all your opinions from glib Internet memes and other sources that simply confirm your biases. We all need to start identifying as Americans instead of pledging our loyalty to whatever little ideological boutique promotes our own interests.
2. Islamic jihad and other forms of terrorism. Yes, terrorists come in all colors and persuasions, and homegrown nutjob terrorism is on the rise. But let’s face it: the militant Islamists take top honors in this department. ISIS continues to murder innocents and destroy priceless historic monuments, and the would-be Caliphate has demonstrated an evil genius for enlisting young recruits around the world. We can’t coexist peacefully with people who believe that God has called upon them to destroy us. Moderate Muslims aren’t succeeding in stifling the terrorists, and the West can’t constantly police the world. Remedy: A massive reformation within Islam to bring it into the 21st century, or at least the 17th or 18th. The bloodcurdling excesses of the terrorists could (and should) trigger such a movement among the majority of decent Muslims. Without it, we could be looking at a century of jihad.
3. The rule of moneyed interests. Call it plutocracy or oligarchy or capitalism on steroids — the bottom line is that a tiny, self-entitled, deep-pocketed elite is now firmly in charge of our government, our finances and ultimately our lives. The plutocracy continues to squeeze the middle class by manipulating markets, outsourcing jobs and adopting disruptive technologies without regard for the fate of workers. The yawning gap between meager interest rates on savings (paid to us) and exorbitant interest rates on credit (paid to the banks) is unconscionable. And of course, the plutocrats effectively own most of our politicians. This state of affairs is totally unacceptable within a representative democracy. Unless we correct it, we’re headed toward a neo-feudal society of latter-day lords and serfs. Jousting, anyone? Remedy: Ban thinly veiled bribes by lobbyists (via Constitutional amendment if necessary), regulate the financial industry, get rid of corporate subsidies and tax loopholes, impose penalties on companies that move jobs away from the U.S. And yes, raise taxes on the rich — especially on income from passive capital gains.
4. The scariest presidential candidate field in living memory. Take your pick: a vulgar billionaire demagogue with narcissistic personality disorder, a couple of self-professed evangelical Christians who promote conservative theocracy while conveniently shunning the teachings of Jesus, a shrewd big-money beneficiary with a 25-year paper trail of questionable dealings and decisions, or a 74-year-old avowed “democratic socialist.” When the socialist looks like the most appealing candidate, you know we’re in trouble. Remedy: Draft a reform-minded, non-establishment moderate or hang in there for another four years, mates!
5. Militant political correctness. It’s no longer about being considerate toward historically oppressed groups. That would be too easy. Now whites are routinely ordered to “check their privilege,” even though you’d be hard-pressed to find privileged trailer-dwellers in Appalachia and elsewhere. An award-winning actress took heat because her feminist speech denied “intersectionality” — i.e., she failed to mention transgender women of color. Worst of all, we saw American college campuses, already bastions of anti-DWEM (dead white European male) bias, suddenly flare up as political correctness went all Bolshevik on us. College officials were forced to resign for not crusading against “microaggressions” like culturally inappropriate Halloween costumes. (Hide those sombreros, kiddies!) The oppressed have become the oppressors, and they’re indoctrinating a new generation. Remedy: Encourage your kids to think for themselves and avoid professors with a reputation for militant PC. Just as important, let’s use the PC warriors’ own weapons and start calling them out for their hate speech.
6. The hollowing of the center. It used to be that more Americans thought of themselves as moderates than as liberals or conservatives. No more. Thanks to chronically biased news sources and online amen corners, as well as rising levels of anger, the percentage of self-styled moderates is dropping as more Americans migrate to the left and right (especially the right). It’s bad enough that we moderates have precious few news sources and opinion-makers on our side… now those few bastions of sanity will be struggling to find an audience in a deeply polarized society. Remedy: Don’t let anger distort your thinking. Keep the faith; never feel pressured by others to abandon your sensible beliefs. Support clear-thinking news outlets and columnists wherever you can find them. (And read The New Moderate, of course.)
7. Racial animosity. The race riots of 2014 and early 2015 eventually gave way to more peaceful demonstrations. But as the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam, so did unreasonable demands and provocations. Online message boards often teem with vile racial vitriol from both sides. Double standards abound: blacks get roughed up by police and incarcerated more often than whites for the same offenses; on the other hand, blacks are allowed (even encouraged) to criticize whites, while there’s still a strict social taboo against whites criticizing blacks. Sometimes I wonder if blacks and whites will ever be able to coexist amicably in this society. Remedy: Make an effort to see members of other races as individuals instead of symbols. Even better, make friends with members of other races. Maybe the time has come for us to stop referring to each other as blacks and whites, as if we’re destined by nature to be opposites.
8. American gun culture. I felt impelled to add this item after reading that more Americans have been killed by guns since 1968 — approximately 1.5 million — than in all our wars combined. (Granted, many of those fatalities were suicides, but still… ) Radical white militias are on the rise, mass shootings have become commonplace, and our inner cities are essentially war zones. America’s highest per-capita gun fatalities actually occur in the “red” states, where gun culture is strongest. Despite the bloodshed, the powerful NRA lobby and Second Amendment diehards still scream whenever anyone mentions tightening access to guns through background checks. Remedy: Guns don’t kill people, but bullets do. With over 300 million guns already in circulation, it makes more sense to restrict access to ammunition — especially semi-automatic cartridges whose only purpose is to dispatch dozens of victims as quickly and efficiently as possible. Let’s make it happen.
9. The “Great Demographic Shift.” People of color now account for more than 50 percent of U.S. births. School dropout rates and other endemic social problems will doom a hefty percentage of these new babies to poverty. At the other end of the age spectrum, Americans are living longer and will require decades of subsidies to get by. How will a shrinking middle class support all these needy Americans and still provide enough funds to maintain our infrastructure? Remedy: I’d encourage middle-class and wealthy Americans to procreate more freely (Hey, it’s fun!) to build up the taxpayer base. But I’d also recommend higher taxes (they’re practically at historic lows) and drastic cuts in foreign aid and military spending to open up resources for urgent domestic needs.
10. Environmental destruction. Climate change denialists, take note: 15 of the hottest 16 years on record have occurred since 2000. The only question is how much of the change is caused by human activity. Whatever the cause, we need to take prompt action unless we’d like to see massive crop failures, extensive lowland flooding and seaports that look like Venice. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Venice.) On top of that, the world has lost half of its nonhuman animal population since 1970. Developing nations like Indonesia and Brazil account for much of the destruction as they convert forest to farmland. Several East Asian nations must be held accountable for the wanton poaching of critically endangered wildlife for ivory and folk medicine. Finally, as more Third World nations aspire to middle-class status, they’ll be fighting us for use of the Earth’s limited resources. Eventually we’ll realize that we’ve ransacked a wondrous planet, but by then it will be too late. (And we’re not equipped to start colonizing distant planets just yet.) Remedy: Work with other governments toward establishing and enforcing sensible environmental regulations, because the Earth belongs to all of us. Poachers deserve to be shot on sight, and it’s time for East Asian scientists to perform experiments demonstrating the worthlessness of folk medicines derived from endangered creatures.
11. The immigration/refugee crisis. Yes, it’s honorable and humane to admit desperate people into our country; after all, the Statue of Liberty has been welcoming the huddled masses for well over a century. But mass immigration from a single group has permanent consequences. In the U.S., it means absorbing countless millions of impoverished Spanish-speaking peasants from Mexico and Central America. Will they assimilate, learn English and join the middle class? They might if we didn’t make it so easy for them to get by in Spanish. We’re now a de facto bilingual nation. In Europe, mass Muslim immigration is changing the nature of thousand-year-old cities and cultures. Like the Latinos, Muslim immigrants have resisted assimilation. In some cities they form a surly internal proletariat, and their numbers keep increasing. What if half the population of the Third World decided to migrate to the U.S. and Europe? There has to be a sane limit. Last year saw the mass exodus of refugees from Muslim war zones, and our rich petro-pals on the Persian Gulf didn’t lift a finger to help. Remedy: A thorny issue with no satisfactory solutions. For now: offer temporary shelter visas for the most desperate, impose limits on permanent immigration, use leverage to force the Arab states to accept refugees, and (in the U.S.) make English our official language once and for all.
12. Perpetual low-grade recession. Wealth isn’t trickling down, good jobs aren’t opening up, and I’ve simply come to accept our current doldrums as the “new normal.” Meanwhile, corporations are still exporting jobs with impunity and too many Americans are sinking deeper into debt and dejection. Companies today focus more on beating the next quarterly forecast than on the needs of their own people. At this point we might just be witnessing the American future: prosperity for the few, unending financial woes for everyone else. Remedy: More hiring of Americans by corporations currently sitting atop piles of cash… NOW, not later. Fear not, capitalists: give enough Americans decent jobs, and the money will trickle back up in the form of healthy consumer spending.
13. Police brutality. Here’s a sobering wake-up call: American cops killed more citizens in one month last year than British police have done in all the years since the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Sure, American cops have to deal with society’s low-lifes on a daily basis. Any cop with an inner-city beat is instinctively primed for life-or-death confrontations, and the prevailing “no snitching” culture makes their job even more difficult. But (and it’s a big “but”) they also need to be seen as a positive force in their communities. There are too many trigger-happy cops who use lethal force to stop suspects (especially black suspects) who simply resist arrest. When there’s a disturbance, they swoop in like an army of occupation. This isn’t the sort of behavior that builds trust. Remedy: Deeper engagement between cops and their communities. Police need to be vigilant but not aggressive… find alternatives to lethal force… define themselves as protectors rather than hired thugs. If all goes well, the residents of these neighborhoods might open up to their local cops instead of putting up resistance.
14. Cultural degeneracy. When did Western culture become an exercise in pushing the proverbial envelope — and how much farther can they push it? Movies, TV, pop music, video games, high art and everyday behavior have combined to forge a cheap and often loathsome culture. Nobody reads the classics. On top of that, we’ve become selfish and narcissistic… the “what’s in it for me?” mentality has spread from Wall Street to the boondocks. Bullying and cheating abound. It’s not enough to succeed; others must be crushed. Do I believe in having fun? Absolutely. (This isn’t The New Puritan, after all.) But we also need to restore respect for the nobler virtues, or we’ll crumble, as the Romans did, from internal and external assaults that we’re too weak to withstand. Do I sound like an alarmist? You bet. Remedy: Beats me. Sometimes I think Western civilization at its apex was simply too demanding and rarefied for our species to maintain for any length of time. We’re slowly reverting to our simian roots, which may be lamentable but probably suits our natures. Still, if you have standards, don’t surrender them!
15. Deficit spending. Our government is spending more than it’s taking in (Greece, anybody?), and the Republican majority would rather cut benefits for the 99% than reduce the military budget or (God forbid) raise taxes. This past year it became evident that the credit crisis is a global issue, and that, if unresolved, the whole system could come crashing down on top of us. Remedy: All governments, including ours, need to stop living beyond their means. Here’s a start, at least in the U.S.: slash military spending and foreign aid. Trim those plush federal pensions, beginning with members of the House and Senate. Trim redundant welfare programs, too (if we offer food stamps, do we also need free lunches?). Stop state-sponsored corporate welfare in the form of bailouts and subsidies. Collect a fair share of taxes from huge corporations and the super-rich. No loopholes. No compromises.
That’s my list for 2016, and it should be more than enough to rouse our fellow moderates from their slumber. Share this list so your friends of all political persuasions can see it. And feel free to propose your own additions to the list. I’d like to hear from you.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
Just when you thought America couldn’t slip any farther down the slope from which no civilization ever returns, it seems we’ve just slipped a little deeper. If you hoped, as I did, that the new year would see us rebound from the atrocities of 2015 (mass shootings, police brutality, two-way racial animosities, totalitarian PC warriors on campus, Donald Trump), forget it. The ugliness abides and increases.
In the cold, arid wilds of southeastern Oregon, the belligerent Bundy Gang has occupied a federal compound in the appropriately named Malheur (French for “trouble”) National Wildlife Refuge. Their ostensible reason: to protest the imprisonment of a father-and-son ranching duo who set fire to federal land bordering their property, and to assert their belief that federal land rightfully belongs to “the people.” (Yes, it does — all the people, as opposed to a select group of cowboys and landowners.)
What struck me about the occupying militia was that it seemed like a picture-perfect caricature of today’s far-right wingnut fringe. White? Check. Male? Check. Angry? Check. Rural? Check. Gun-crazy? Emphatic check. Obamaphobic? No doubt. “Patriotic”? So they tell us. Defiantly anti-government? But of course! The more polarized we become, the more extreme the extremists look — a cartoonist’s parody of what used to be reasonably sensible conservative or liberal viewpoints.
Right-wing extremists like the Bundy militiamen are easy targets for the mockery that emanates from our sniffish left-of-center elite, and of course their pundits wasted no time painting the occupiers as “Y’all Qaeda”: inbred redneck jihadists who reeked of fried squirrel and white privilege. (Never mind that poor rural whites are among the least privileged members of society: they don’t benefit from affirmative action, and everyone is free to insult them without consequence.)
If the occupiers had been people of color, the progressive pundits tell us, they would have been tagged as thugs and terrorists… and they would have been set upon by the National Guard faster than you can say “Ferguson.” I can understand the outcry over double standards, but in fact the Bundy militiamen have yet to harm people or property. They’re not disrupting traffic or otherwise creating a public nuisance in a densely populated setting. What they’ve done is to hunker down in a potentially lethal game of chicken with the federal government.
The Bundy Bunch is dangerous, and their occupation of a federal building — no matter how remote or unimportant — is not only illegal but an outrage against the very patriotism they claim to embrace. I’d stop short of calling them terrorists at this point, because they haven’t terrorized anyone. But it’s not a stretch to label them as insurrectionists, comparable to the rural Pennsylvanians who launched the Whiskey Rebellion during George Washington’s presidency. If they take up arms against the government, they need to be put down — simple as that. (Federal agents could start by cutting off their access to food and supplies… the bold militiamen reportedly whined that they forgot to bring snacks.)
The feds don’t want another Waco on their hands, so they’re exercising caution in Oregon. An armed confrontation would be more deadly than Waco, because it would ripple across the republic. We’re not talking about evicting a flaky religious cult with minimal ties to the real world. The polarized climate of the country has raised the stakes, and any bloodshed could easily trigger a wider rebellion among the anti-government faction of the far right — the same people who flip out whenever Obama talks about expanding background checks for potential gun owners.
Back in 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated that the United States was home to over 1,300 right-wing militias and radical anti-government groups, an eightfold increase in just the three years since Obama took office. Call it Obama Derangement Syndrome, or Second Amendment fetishism, or cultural solidarity among embattled rural whites — it amounts to collective paranoia, and it poses a very real threat to a nation already under siege by all manner of irate extremists.
Extremists to the right of us, extremists to the left of us — and their numbers just keep growing. It used to be that the bulk of Americans occupied the center of the political spectrum — a bulging bell curve that tapered off to the right and left. Today the curve looks more like a slanted line: conservatives constitute the biggest group, followed by moderates and liberals in that order. But — and it’s an ominous “but” — the ranks of both liberals and conservatives have been growing while the moderate population is shrinking. Eventually the center could look like a valley between two contentious hills.
How did it happen? Why are the extremes exerting such a powerful magnetic pull while the center languishes? I’ll venture a few educated guesses. Because Americans are angrier than they used to be, and angry people lack the patience for dealing with nuanced ideas. They need to express their anger or rely on like-minded souls to articulate that anger. They need to form factions in the time-honored tradition of our species — to bond with kindred spirits who feel angry about the same issues. They want to live in their own sequestered corner of the Internet, shouting “Amen!” every time a fellow extremist ratchets up the rhetoric.
Ideological purity is paramount in such a world. The extremists keep raising the bar for what constitutes purity — whether it takes shape as militant right-wing militias or leftist PC police who exile renegade thinkers for “microaggressions” against selected minorities. And of course, moderate politicians no longer stand a chance of winning their party’s primaries.
How does the sensible center survive in such an inflammatory environment? How does it become a mountain instead of a valley? I wish I knew. But I do know that the center is more indispensable than ever. We’re the last link between the warring factions, the best hope for civility and fairness in American politics.
Our mission, if we choose to accept it (and I think we must), is to convince the extremists that there are at least two legitimate sides to almost every issue: abortion, race relations, the size of government, the distribution of wealth, and — yes — the meaning of the Second Amendment. Once the extremists can see the world through their enemies’ eyes, their enemies won’t seem like enemies. They’d simply be honorable opponents, and neither side would feel the need to man the barricades in defense of their ideologies. If they decide to become moderates themselves, so much the better.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.