Monday, November 30, 2015

Untreated Mental Illness Plus Guns

After Aurora, a Colorado Springs reporter wrote, "James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 at an Aurora movie theater, was seeing a psychiatrist at the time of the July 20 attack. If he’d been in Colorado Springs, chances are he wouldn’t have gotten even that much help."

After an October incident in Colorado Springs where a guy with a rifle and gas cans opened fire on civilians in the street, the local gun-nut mag noted that someone with an open-carry gun plus gas cans might be worrisome and require some level of serious response even as they applauded the mayor of Colorado Springs for not budging on the open-carry law.

Now that same mayor says about the most recent mass killing in Colorado Springs, the second in a month, that "one of the things we don’t do very well is identify these people, sometimes with mental health problems, and prevent their access to weapons."

Well, yes. We don't identify them, we don't treat them, and we don't prevent their access to weapons.

Adam Lankford at the U of Alabama has done the most interesting recent work on mass killings. He used a definition of four or more kills, meaning that the recent Colorado Springs shootings wouldn't even appear on his radar. (The FBI uses three or more.) Nevertheless, he found that the US accounted for 31 percent of mass shootings, and that the only real predictive correlation with any meaning was our firearm ownership rate.

So many people, the mayor of Colorado Springs included, attribute these shootings to mental health issues that I thought I'd look at a comparison. So I chose a few countries at random across the spectrum of mental illness and looked at their gun ownership rates as well. Numbers are pulled from WHO and from Small Arms Survey. Note that Nigeria has plenty of mass shootings involving Boko Haram, and Mexico beats the US in murder by gun thanks to drug wars, but until two weeks ago in Paris, almost no one on this list offered much that would rise to the FBI's definition of an "active shooter situation." In the US, "70 percent of the incidents" occur in either a commercial or educational setting.

We have more people with serious mental illnesses than any other nation on my list—2.8 percent more than the next closest country, which is Lebanon. But we have a boatload more guns. It's a lethal combination.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Find a Better Example

REFUGEE (n.): A person forced to leave his or her country to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

Want to keep refugees out? Find a better example.

1980, Cuban Refugees:

"But some of them might be Communist!"

1840, Irish Refugees:

"But some of them might take my job!"

1615, European Refugees:

"But some of them might have smallpox!"

DING DING DING We have a winner!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

No Struggle, No Progress

In his smart and sympathetic paper on Cornell's 1969 student revolt, Caleb Rossiter writes,
A university is not a democracy with a rule of law, but a corporation that makes and breaks its own rules as its Board of Trustees sees fit. There is no mechanism available for democratic decisions other than perceptive administrators' gauging of the majority will. In such a setting, if a demand for change is denied, it can only be realized through disruption....

I was a kid in 1969, a classmate both of Caleb's younger brother and of the son of the Cornell president. It is hard to imagine the repercussions of the Straight takeover, hard to imagine how it fractured the faculty, with moderates like Caleb's dad urging leniency, and others (conservative, closeted Allan Bloom among them) calling for the harshest of penalties. This was an era when taking over a building might be an illegal act, but carrying guns on campus was not a problem. It's hard to imagine how it fractured the student body, with SDS forming a sympathy barricade around the Straight while white fraternity members barged in and fought with bats and fists to take back the building before the occupiers armed themselves. Other students occupied Barton Hall with friendly faculty and held out until the administration agreed not to pursue major charges against the Straight occupiers.

Unlike the lead-up to today's situation at Ithaca College, Cornell had made an earnest if modest attempt in the years preceding the takeover to increase enrollment of African-American students and was in the process of building what's now the Africana Studies and Research Center (the original would be torched in 1970; the arsonist was never caught). Failing to recognize how slow progress felt was perhaps President Perkins's main error. He had initiated his plan to increase and support African-American enrollment six years earlier. But undergraduates spend just four years on campus. From their vantage point, a multiyear plan can seem...invisible.

Now here we are, nearly 50 years later, and we're still fighting the same systemic battles. Burning crosses, cartoons, costumes, language—any number of things may be the catalysts that force us to hold up a lens to our societal structures and find them fractured and flawed. At Cornell in 1969, the surrounding culture included the unpopular war in Vietnam and the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At Ithaca College (or Yale, or SUNY Plattsburgh) in 2015, the surrounding culture includes the multiple violent incidents that led to Black Lives Matter. And we're startled to see the anger on both sides, because we think we've moved past that into some kind of postracial era. Surprise!

Cornell 1969 led to Perkins's resignation, Bloom's disgusted departure, and the elder Rossiter's suicide. One key figure from the takeover and a Daily Sun reporter who covered many of the events that April later became Cornell trustees. The Africana Studies program offers a major, a minor, and recently, a PhD program. The Class of 2017 features 231 African-Americans (7%) compared to 94 in 1968 (and 4, or 0.2%, in 1963, when Perkins began his tenure).

Have we made progress? Not enough, clearly. Why are we still fighting these battles? You name it: Inequity, fear, insensitivity, history, divisiveness, prejudice, injustice, ignorance. If history's any indication, the current upheavals at Ithaca College, Yale, Plattsburgh, and elsewhere will result in incremental, positive change. But not easily, and not without pain, and not enough.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Local Politics

Well, we swept in Dryden, elected another Dem in Newfield, got two on the board but lost the supervisorship in Lansing. It's been a long slog, but the results were largely good, despite strong opposition here and a messy special election in Ithaca. Some random thoughts:

All Honeymoons Come to an End, Part 1. For those of us who thought Svante was a lock for coronation, this election season proved otherwise. Mostly due to clashes over the size and placement of development, people came out of the woodwork to smack the mayor over perceived machinations involving the special election for county. Although no one could tell me what Svante would get out of having friends on the County Legislature (breaking news: he already has friends on the County Legislature), some determined that his support of ex-roommate Nate Shinagawa and one-time City Hall intern Elie Kershner was a power grab that only the People could stop. It's worth remembering, perhaps, that four years ago, when Svante ran for the first time in a three-way primary, he seemed like an outside shot to most party members. Because the party doesn't support anyone in a primary, we mostly sat back and watched. That fall he won 54 percent of the vote against two independents and a Republican. I guess it doesn't take very long at all to become the Establishment candidate and head of the machine.

All Honeymoons Come to an End, Part 2. Some of the very people who fought hard to elect Nate to Congress turned against him when he tried to get reseated in District 2. Their reasons ranged from disdain for carpetbagging to perception of a mad power grab (see above), and surely some of it was colored by his vote on the Old Library, which he changed at the last moment in a possibly misguided effort to move things forward. Of course, he faced a strong and well-liked competitor in Anna Kelles. The two campaigns kept it clean, but the word about the Fall Creek listserve is that the commentary back and forth was vile.

Organization = Machine? People tossed around the terms "machine politics" and "cronyism" all month. One professor who surely knew better compared Ithaca to Chicago, and his remarks were picked up by the media. I've lived in Chicago, and let me tell you: This is no Chicago. I laughed out loud when the Dryden Independence Party referred to the Dryden Dems as a "machine" and a "steamroller." If being organized and effective makes us a machine, I'll take it. But machine politics involves a system of patronage and favors, and honestly, I have yet to get bupkes for the 23 years of work I've done as a committee member. Maybe I'm bad at this machine stuff. Or maybe you're using the wrong term. Want to see Crony Politics in action? Visit Groton, or maybe the Etna Fire Station.

Special Elections Suck as a Concept. Either they cost the taxpayers extra, or they result in next-to-no turnout, or they don't leave enough time for anyone to mount a real campaign. (Anna Kelles wouldn't have had to stay up till 2 every night if she'd started in August like the rest of us.) At lower levels of government, you can appoint someone to fill a vacancy until the next election cycle. That's not necessarily any better—it gives that appointee a leg up in the next election—but at least it's more visible to the public, should they be paying attention. The Dems are asking for a change to the county charter, but it's not quite clear what that change will look like. To some extent, the county's hands are tied by definitions and calendars in state election law.

People Ask the Wrong Questions. Here are a few questions I wish had been asked: Did anyone tell Nate not to run? Should home ownership be a prerequisite for a government position? Should fiscal incompetence that results in dismissal be a red flag in a run for town supervisor? Is "Independence" another word for "Republican"? Can a vacancy ever result in a primary? If either committee vote had tied, would both candidates have had to run as independents? If committee votes had been publicized better, would other citizens have turned up, even knowing that they would not be legally allowed to vote on a candidate? Who chooses candidates in the case of regular elections? How did Democrats win in Newfield? Why did Rich John leave the Democratic Party in the first place, and why was he willing to return? Why hasn't a strong third party ever emerged in Ithaca, of all places? (We've had independent mayors, but their parties have been only as strong as their candidacies and have had little or no influence beyond that.) How long does it take to build a machine? (Ithaca had an independent mayor as recently as 2003, and our most recent pre-Svante mayor, in an anti-machine sort of move, supported Anna.)

The Best Intentions May Have Bad Results. Others have mentioned that the departure of Kathy Luz Herrera and the failure of Nate and Elie to win seats on the County Legislature means a decrease in diversity there. As I've said before, even had Elie won, the average age of legislators would still have topped 50, in a county with a median age of 30. And the white, upper middle-classdom of that body has just increased. The only way to fix that is through the electoral process. There's always next year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

All Else Being Equal

If two candidates presented with the exact same platform, but one were male and the other were female, for whom would you vote, and why? How about if one were LGBT? How about if one were white? How about if one were Jewish? How about if one were a teenager?

Let's be clear: All of us have our prejudices. And ageism is a prejudice, just as any bias is against a person for attributes he or she presents that are not personality-driven.

An article in the Ithaca Voice about the recent candidates forum makes it pretty clear that Rich John and Elie Kershner share very similar plans and opinions about the county. The main difference, as far as I can tell, is in their comparative ages. Rich has children older than Elie.

Ithaca has a history of very young people doing pretty amazing things. Many of them leave town to do so, but we're lucky enough to have several who've stayed. One ran for Congress in his 20s. The mayor won't turn 30 for a while. The founder and editor of the Ithaca Voice is 20-something. It does start to look as though "they" are taking over.

I have seen people I know who would never cop to racism or sexism deplore Elie's candidacy and deny outright that it has anything to do with anything other than "lack of experience," which we all know is coded language. If Elie were 85, we'd be talking about "lack of energy."

It's worth considering that if Elie is elected, the average age on the County Legislature will still not dip below 50. Yet in the county as a whole, the median age is 30.

I was around for the 26th Amendment. "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote" had been a chant since World War II, but it took until 1971 for an amendment to be written and ratified. Age rules for Congressional and Presidential candidates go back to the Founding Fathers (several of whom were 20-somethings), but for most elected positions in the U.S., if you're old enough to vote, you're old enough to run.

The Founding Fathers, of course, also gave us rules tying voting to the ownership of property. That restriction went away over time, and a good thing, too. Yet it has reared its head in this year's election, with one candidate suggesting that owning a house was an important credential for office. People who ought to have shaken their heads in disbelief instead nodded and said, "Right, right."

These are good people I'm talking about, from the candidate to the people I know who are doing the nodding. It's a lesson for me in how prejudice, deep-seated and denied, can render thoughtless even the best among us.

Monday, October 26, 2015

What's Dirty?

On the Dryden Independence Party's Facebook page, an apparent Dem supporter says, "Smear campaigns don't go far. This is the first smear campaign I've seen for Dryden. Shame on Craig Schutt." Whereupon a Schutt supporter writes, "When did the facts become a smear campaign?"

Good question. The first poster must not remember the real smear campaigns of the mid-2000s, when Democrat Mary Ann Sumner's lack of religious fervor and failure to pledge to the flag became a drumbeat issue for the unpleasant bunch of Tea Party Republicans running against her. That smear campaign, which was totally personal and unrelated to town governance, failed.

This year, the Independence Party, in a series of increasingly rabid Shopper ads, has accused our team of "dirty politics" and "coordinated politically motivated attacks." They refer, I think, to an article that came out in the Ithaca Times on Schutt's mismanagement of Soil & Water when he was there—something I can pretty confidently say nobody on our committee save the county legislators knew anything about before the article aired. What we know, we continue to read in the paper, and if the Independence Party thinks somehow that multiyear fiscal mismanagement of a critical agency is irrelevant to a campaign for town supervisor, they really don't understand the job of town supervisor.

My guess is that it was news to the rest of the Independence Party candidates, too—I don't think Tom Hatfield is stupid—and that most of their hysteria derives from trying to manage a message that has gotten away from them entirely. But is it "dirty politics" when an independent newspaper prints the truth about a candidate for office?

The Independence Party sent the letter below to all nonaffiliated Dryden voters. We annotated it and posted the corrected version. Is it dirty politics to print things that are completely untrue? Is it dirty politics to correct the misstatements?

I just got a call from WHCU about a press release I sent out about the 30 political signs stolen from yards in Newfield. Is it dirty politics when someone steals only Democratic signs and leaves the Republican ones standing?

This is small-town, penny-ante stuff, and it's nothing new. Sometimes competition brings out the worst in people, as when sports teams get arrested for trashing other teams' locker rooms. But I think every campaign the Democrats have run in the county this year has been clean as a whistle. We've talked about issues, and we've told the truth. If being organized and effective makes us a "machine," I can happily live with that.