Dylan Roof helps us polish up ‘Old Glory’

‘Old Glory’ is a big deal here. At least a half dozen of the houses in my street fly the flag of the United States of America, and some homes even fly flags sporting ‘Welcome Fall’, ‘Happy Easter’, and other holiday messages. The closer July 4th approaches, the more the flags multiply. There is a national holiday commemorating the adoption of the Stars and Stripes as the national flag.  In Cumberland, as in many other towns, the local Post of the American Legion holds an annual ‘flag retirement’ ceremony where US flags that are no longer serviceable are destroyed with full honors. Cars have flags – even my car’s government-issued tags (number plates) sport a flag.

Dylan Roof, the young man who slaughtered nine African Americans in a church in South Carolina last week, also had a license plate decorated with a flag – in his case, the Confederate.  He videoed himself burning the Stars and Stripes and also wore the flags of Apartheid South Africa and the flag of old Rhodesia, which was a “cause celebre for white supremacists in the 1960s and 1970s”.

If you fly a US flag on your home, you are clearly identifying as someone proud of America. Roof, on the other hand, had contempt for the Stars and Stripes and instead chose flags to advertise his pride in racism.

Nevertheless, despite his flags and his declaration to his victims that “you rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go”, some have tried to deny that racism drove his actions. For example, Fox’s Steve Doocy said that he was “astonished” that it was being called a “hate crime”.  ‘Fox & Friends’ suggested that Roof might have murdered out of “a hostility toward Christians”!

Some argue that the Confederate Flag is not a symbol of racism, but an important reminder of the bravery of Southern soldiers in the Civil War. This is a moot point (Debate.org outlines the case for and against),  but it clearly symbolized racism for Roof, because he chose it to ‘fly’ side-by-side with other flags strongly associated with racist regimes.

This sickening allegiance is why, two days after the shootings, the Governor of South Carolina said that she would urge her government to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol. She did this, not to deny history, but to affirm that racism is an ugly stain which has led that flag to be used to promote hatred. Soon after her declaration, major retailers including Target, Walmart and Amazon announce d that they would no long offer confederate flag merchandise for sale, and Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee also began removing the flag from government-owned sites.

By using his ugly symbols, Dylan Roof has moved Americans to brighten the image of the Stars and Stripes.


If we fear extremists, let’s at least be clear about the danger

A few weeks ago, I posted about the misconception that Islamist groups pose the biggest terrorist threat in the United States.  I quoted an intelligence assessment, commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security, that showed that law enforcement agencies assess ‘sovereign citizens’ as the most serious threat in their communities.

A commenter, Bob S., doubted the statistics. He said that the officers who said that ‘sovereign citizens are the biggest threat’ had been specially chosen by their superiors  in order to skew the results to support a hidden government agenda.

Today, an article in the New York Times  stated that since 9/11, nearly twice as many US citizens have been killed by ‘white supremacists, ant-government fanatics, and other non-Muslim extremists’ than by radical Muslims.




‘Obama’ – the new word for ‘contemptible’

As I tried to tolerate the wait between the arrival of my plane from Australia and boarding for my connecting flight to Washington, I wandered into a Barns & Noble. Nothing much penetrates the mush of my mind after a flight of 16 hours, but some books were so startling that my brain was jolted into something resembling consciousness.

It was 2011, and I had not been to the US since well before Obama had become president, and knew nothing of the vitriol that his election had brewed. On the best-sellers’ display were titles including ‘Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies’, ‘Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation’, and ‘Where’s the Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is not eligible to be President’.  I was astonished. Best sellers based on contempt for the President of the United States of America!

Australian political commentators can be pretty poisonous, but I had never before seen tabloid trash transformed into titles of best-seller books. The one that most dumbfounded me was ‘Catastrophe: How Obama, Congress, and the Special Interests are Transforming–A Slump Into A Crash, Freedom Into Socialism, and A Disaster Into A Catastrophe–and How to Fight Back’. The title converted what the rest of the world knew as the Global Financial Crisis into a ‘slump’.

I went back to Australia and didn’t think much more about it – these sorts of stories don’t travel.

Many Americans are still of the opinion that anyone can make it here, and that government support for those who haven’t ‘made it’ merely encourages them not to try. Such services are therefore contemptible. ‘Obama’ has become a short-hand way to show this contempt.

Whether President Obama or his administration has had anything at all to do with the service in question does not matter. Take, for example, the ‘Obamaphone’.  If anything, it should be called the ‘Reaganphone’ or at least the ‘Clintonphone’. It is a government- funded emergency phone service which began in 1984, and in 1996, the service was extended to include cell phones. Nevertheless, is has been dubbed Obamaphone, implying that Obama was its author, and that recipients receive an actual phone.

And, of course, there is ‘Obamacare’, regularly said with disgust. It has been a success, so much so that the states that refused to fully sign up to the Affordable Care Act (yes, that’s its actual name) are now endorsing it, but it still has a long way to go before it is no longer said with a sneer.


How to get climate change deniers to change their minds

In January 2015, 50% of US senators voted that global warming wasn’t caused by humans. In contrast, 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, and 87% of Americans agree with the scientists. What were the senators thinking?

Perhaps the senate vote is not so surprising – after all, financial support for their electoral aspirations is a powerful influence on politicians’ voting decisions. Senate votes aside, however, political ideology does influence what people think about climate science.  A 2013 survey found that  66% of Democratic voters believe that global warming is caused by humans,  while less than a  quarter (24%) of Republican voters agree.

How does political ideology defeat factual evidence? Individuals subconsciously resist information that doesn’t fit in with their beliefs and values.And that resistance is not necessarily because of the evidence itself, but to solutions associated with it. In a 2014 study, researchers asked participants to read an article that presented the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment that human-induced climate change would raise Earth’s temperature by 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. 189 men and women who approximated an even split of Republicans and Democrats took part.

Half of the group were given the article which ended with a description of how the US could profit from leading the world in green technology which would also benefit the environment. The other half read a version which proposed that the US could lead the world in restrictive emissions policies.

After they read, participants indicated whether they agreed with the IPCC that earth’s temperature would rise by at least 3 degrees. They were not questioned about the solution proposed. 55% of the Republicans who read the free market version agreed that earth’s temperatures would rise because of human activity,  but just 22% of Republicans who read the version that suggested regulations agreed with the projected temperature increase.

This was a clear demonstration of the phenomenon of subconscious resistance to factual information that is created by a solution that jars with individual values.

I have given the example of Republican voters here because the difference in their opinions was so marked. (Democrats were only slightly (1%) less likely to accept climate change after reading about the free-market solution). I don’t think this means that Republicans are more influenced by subconscious motivations than are Democrat voters – I think that would depend on the issue. What is important is that when we communicate important factual information, we must be careful to separate our opinions about solutions.

The lesson is that if we want people to engage with facts, that’s all we should talk about, and wait to negotiate solutions. Climate change is important enough for us to hold our horses.

(For more information about the topics raised in this post, enroll in the MOOC  Denial 101x Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, at https://courses.edx.org/courses)


Refugees: floods in Texas and drought in California?

These are desperate people, willing to risk death. They are homeless, frantic, and unwanted. Thousands try to cross the Rio Grande, to be met with fiercely-guarded border walls and fences.

This is a scene in the movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, when multitudes of refugees from the USA try to enter Mexico, which is safe from the devastating results of massive climate change. As a refugee support worker, watching people from the rich world pleading for asylum from a country whose citizens they had tried to exclude was delicious irony. Recently, however, the possibility of Americans becoming refugees has seemed less of a joke.

Millions of the world’s people suffer tragedy every day.  The loss of one’s home is a major trauma. The loss of members of one’s family is much worse, particularly if they are murdered. The torture and murder of one’s children is probably the worst of the imaginable.  In all of these cases, however, you can appeal for protection and recompense from your government. If your government cannot or will not protect you, you may seek refuge in another nation. If you are rich enough, however, you won’t need refugee status. Money can buy you entry into any country in the world – I suspect even into North Korea, although I don’t think anyone has tested that as yet. If you are perceived to be a political trophy, that could also help you, as it did the almost 1 million Cuban refugees the US accepted between 1959 and 1980, while simultaneously turning back Haitians fleeing the Duvalier regime.

If you are not among these privileged few, your only alternative is to flee. You may have already suffered more than most people could imagine, but you will suffer long and hard on dangerous roads and waters, and you will be at the mercy of anyone who cares to exploit or murder you. Borders are closed to you. No-one cares. Nobody wants you. You are beyond the pale of compassion.

Rohingya refugees, who face genocide in their homeland of Burma, are among the world’s least wanted. This week brought news of hundreds of bodies in mass graves in deserted people-smuggler camps in Malaysia, while nearly 8,000 Rohingya refugees are currently stranded at sea.   Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was asked whether his country will take in any of them. “Nope, nope, nope,” was his answer. Lose your country, and you have worse than nothing.

If you are of the same color, social class, and religion of the majority in the place you seek refuge, you will be much more likely to be accepted and protected than if you are not. White South Africans have found new homes in Australia, while darker-skinned Buddhists and Muslims have been turned away.

While the citizens of rich countries have previously been spared from seeking refugee status except in times of war, the UN Refugee Agency is now preparing for refugees created by the negative effects of climate change. Kiribati, for example, is expected to be the first country to lose all its land territory to global climate change. No rich country is keen to resettle them.

Even refugees who are just like us can overwhelm our sympathy. This week brought news of heavy rains pounding North Texas, killing 20 people. What would happen if all of Texas went under water, and more than 25 million were on the move? If California becomes uninhabitable because of drought, where do 33 million go?

This week Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia and Baptist minister, reminded Australians that, as Christians, we know a Savior whose response is one of inclusion and acceptance. Who says ‘Yes, yes, yes’ to the ‘whosoever’ that would come.

But we are merely human. Heaven help us.


NSA spyware- who should we be afraid of?

We now know, thanks to Edward Snowden, that America’s National Security Agency planned to use App stores to infect our smartphones with spyware. While we may be outraged by these invasions of our privacy, that has to be balanced with the fact that terror attacks in the US have increased in recent years.

Who is carrying out these attacks? Be honest – you were thinking Islamist cells, right?

Wrong. The latest intelligence assessment, commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security, shows that law enforcement agencies assess ‘sovereign citizens’ as the most serious threat in their communities.

‘Sovereign citizens’ are “carrying out sporadic terror attacks on police, (and) have threatened attacks on government buildings”. Among other things, they formed a 1,000-strong coalition of armed militia-men to face Federal agents in Nevada in 2014.

They are the biggest terror threat in America right now, but have you ever even heard of them?

Also, did you hear about the terrorist who plotted to take out an entire town in New York State last year? No, not Al Qaeda, but Mr. Robert Doggart who planned a violent military-style attack against a Muslim-American community, in concert with nine others. Making the story even more noteworthy, Doggart also ran for Congress last year.

Another case of ho-hum media bias? No. In Doggart’s case, law enforcement officers didn’t send out a press release or hold a press conference. It is a pretty sure bet that if it had been a Muslim planning to take out an entire US town, the story would have been on all the front pages. Doggart did not fit the picture, and so was almost invisible.

Muslims are the folk devils in the 21st Century American narrative, the villains in our frame of ‘threats to our security’. The word ‘terrorism’ is automatically painted Islamic, and ‘Muslim’ is colored with terror. We all see much the same image.

Another example of this automatic attribution of villainy appeared in a Right Side News report about citizen surveillance which said that, although the actions of intelligence agencies may infringe Constitutional rights, “it must not overshadow the fact that these people are our front line at home to protect us from Islamic terrorists”.

Did the Right Side News mean to say that we don’t need protection from anyone else besides Muslims? Of course not, but like many of us, the idea that terrorists can be other than Muslim did not occur to the writer or the editor, and hence there was no fact-checking.

The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center has said that the “development of a US-specific narrative that motivates individuals to violence” is key to the increasing Islamic extremism in the United States.  This narrative includes the automatic, incorrect, and dangerous assumption that the main terrorist threat is from Muslims.


Why were there riots in Baltimore?

The death in custody of Freddie Gray triggered riots in Baltimore recently. Gray’s death was the catalyst, but why was violence the response? We suspect that families in deprived areas like West Baltimore have dysfunctional families and, as a consequence, breed violence. Unfortunately, our beliefs are often driven by out-group stereotypes.

Many of you will have seen the video of the Baltimore mother who, on finding her son participating in the fracas, pulled his ski mask off, slapped him, and forced him to leave.Some commentators this as an example of how black parents need better parenting skills. After all, doesn’t violence towards children teach violence? On the other side of the parenting fence, people saw it as an example of good parenting which, if more black parents did it, would mean less social problems, including street violence.

These are examples of stereotyping that develop from seeing this mother as ‘not like me’, but as someone in need of correction, or as a type all too rare in her subgroup. In general, the more liberal-leaning saw the slaps as bad parenting, while conservatives applauded the mother’s actions and used it as an example of its rarity in black culture. The ‘mother incident’ was a focus for stereotyping that enveloped commentary on the Baltimore riot.

Without those frames, what we see is a mother who was angry. She was angry, no more, no less, not representing anyone else but herself and indeed not representing what may be her behavior at any other time. Indeed, I can imagine myself doing the same, although I have never previously used corporal punishment.

How about if it had been a white mother? What if the rioter had been white?

White males have led and participated in many recent riots in the US. After the 2014 Super Bowl, law enforcement agencies had to respond to over 400 emergency calls and arrested over 100 people for offences such as fighting, arson, theft, vandalism, looting, breaking windows and overturning of cars. City officials estimated damages of at least $150,000 to city properties. An earlier Super Bowl riot in 1999 resulted in $160,000 in damages, 20 arrests and 40 hospitalizations when approximately 1,000 drunks overturned several cars, set fires… no need to finish that list, I reckon.

In  the aftermath the 2014 World Series, fans set fires, vandalized buses and police cars, shattered windows of businesses, scrawled graffiti, and threw bottles at police. Two people were shot, one person was stabbed, and a police officer was badly hurt from fireworks exploding. 40 arrests were made.

In 2002, riot police used foam-tipped bullets and arrested 20 people after the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The riot was triggered by a scarcity of beer.

A Michigan State vs. Duke University game in 1999 led to damages of near $500,000 and involved about 5,000 people. Firefighters were pelted with rocks as they tried to put out fires and 71 students and 61 outsiders were arrested.

Then there was the 1992 NBA Final game which resulted in $10 Million in damages, two people killed, 1000+ people arrested, and 107 officers injured.

As far as I could find, there has only been one sports-related riot in Australia in the entire twentieth century – in 1971 during the South African Rugby Tour, triggered by protests against apartheid. On this evidence, perhaps Australians could say that white Americans need to be taught parenting skills!

Just a few months before ‘Baltimore’, in October 2014, a mostly white crowd rioted at a Pumpkin Festival in New Hampshire, resulting in multiple arrests and injuries.  A young white man, Steven French, described the chaotic scene to the local paper as “wicked.” “It’s just like a rush. You’re revolting from the cops,” he told the paper Saturday night. “It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

Some people made the point about the difference in responses to this riot and that in Baltimore in ironic tweets:

“Don’t these people have jobs? Where are the white fathers? What will end this corrosive culture of           violence?”

“Where are the leaders who will speak out against this culture of violence?”

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