Monthly Archives: June 2015

Tragedy often spurs social change

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Before it was over, 146 shirtwaist (today called blouses) makers, the majority of them young immigrant women, died in the fire that broke out on the eighth floor of the factory, or jumped to their deaths. Many were unable to escape because the doors on their floors had been locked to prevent them from stealing or taking unauthorized breaks.

Two years earlier, in 1909, there had been a walkout of workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, seeking to become a part of he International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) to address the horrible working conditions. Only 20 percent of the workers were involved and the company locked out its employees when it learned what was happening until the attempt to unionize failed.

In addition to the locked doors; there was no workable alarm system in the building, so by the time they realized what was happening the fire was already blazing around them; there were only a few exits available; and only two freight elevators that went to ground level; a group of 24 people who tried to escape on a shoddily built fire escape fell to their deaths when it collapsed. This left only two stairwells, one of which was blocked by fire below the workers and one that was locked from the outside; to avoid the flames 62 workers jumped to their deaths in desperation .

In the Shirt Waist factory where mostly young women labored nine hours a day, Monday through Friday and seven hours on Saturday in a poorly ventilated environment where highly flammable cotton scraps accumulated in large bins, and a supervisor had to unlock a door for the employees to visit the bathroom, few outsiders were aware of the conditions that were well-known to the managers and owners who saw maximum profit as the bottom line.

It was not the first disaster in which workers had died, but it struck a chord, especially when word of the locked doors began to spread. It must have been a surprise for most of the factory owners when more than 100,000 people participated in the funeral march for the victims.

Reform did not happen overnight, but within eight years, 90 percent of the factory workers in New York City had unionized and were creating better working conditions for their members. Even more importantly, many with money and social status, most of whom had never worked in a factory were shocked into radicalization.

Many political experts today see the death of 146 workers at the Shirtwaist factory, caused by pure greed, as the event that launched the progressive movement in this country and turned many Americans into sympathizers with the poor and downtrodden.

It was not the worst disaster involving the death of ordinary working people during that period of history in the United States, but the timing, the publicity and the public uproar changed the history and direction of this country.

On the evening of June 17, 2015, another such event — I believe — took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, when a racist thug named Dylann Roof, allegedly killed nine people with a handgun at a prayer meeting, because, in the words of a surviving witness, they were black, raping white women and trying to take over the country. That is how he evidently saw it in his twisted perspective of life.

While the nation was reeling from the mass killing inside a church, pictures emerged of Roof wearing flag patches on his coat from the now defunct nations of South Africa and Rhodesia where whites ruled blacks with an iron fist and kept them segregated from whites. In some of those pictures, he was waving the Confederate battle flag and burning, trampling and spitting on the American flag.

The Confederate battle flag, which was not the official flag of the Confederate states, has long been a sore spot with black Americans and many progressive whites, but every time it was mentioned as offensive, advocates declared the flag to be nothing more than a symbol of Southern cultural heritage; many of whom no doubt sincerely believe it, while failing to recognize that for black Americans and progressives it stands as a symbol of slavery and a shameful period of our history.

Within a day of the church massacre, thousands of South Carolinians — black and white — gathered at the capitol and demanded that the Confederate battle flag be taken down. Particularly galling, it seems, was that all other flags were at half mast because of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, while the Confederate flag flew full mast.

While I can’t predict the future, I can extrapolate from history, and I believe the Confederate battle flag will soon cease to be part of any official American branch of government. I think it will go to the museums as President Obama suggested and will only be seen in the hands of who reenact Civil War battles, on belt buckles, license plates and the jackets of diehards still waiting for the South to rise again.

For the first time, Southern politicians and wise presidential candidates seem to realize the tide has turned and they must break with those who cling desperately to the past or lose those who are firmly planted in 21st Century United States. How long it will take for two-thirds of the South Carolina legislature to agree on removing the flag, I don’t know, but I think it has now become inevitable. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to spur needed social changes.

I believe the massacre of nine black Americans inside the sanctuary of a church by a seemingly twisted, frustrated little racist thug has created the impetus that will take down the physical symbol of oppression to so many people so and that the nine people murdered in Charleston — like the 146 people who needlessly died in a factory fire –will not have been totally in vain.

Evil or mental illness — does it matter?

President Barack Obama has been confronted with 17 mass shootings since assuming the presidency and has given six increasingly more frustrated statements about dealing with the problem.

The President, however, is not the only voice heard before the bodies of victims are cold. The National Rifle Association and its vocal advocates, without fail, produce meaningless statements such as — more people are killed in automobile accidents than with firearms and we don’t try to ban them by giving them percentage of people killed in mass shootings as almost statistically insignificant compared to the number of gun owners.

The NRA has issued no public statement since the shooting that killed nine at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on Wednesday night,as of this writing. but NRA board member Charles Cotton contributed this comment about the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the slain Pastor, and a state senator, to a discussion thread he moderates. “And he (Pickney) voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

Yes, Mr. Cotton, blame the victim who invited his killer into the church — following a most ancient Christian tradition — for a prayer meeting rather than Dylann Storm Roof, the 21 year old, alleged killer who showed up with enough loaded magazines to kill all but one present, and reportedly said before the shooting began: “I’m here to kill black people,” and before fleeing the scene allegedly said this to the remaining adult member of the prayer meeting: “You’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country … I have to do what I have to do.”

Within the rhetoric on both sides of the gun issue, I ran across several people discussing whether or not mass shooters are mentally ill or evil. Both psychopaths and sociopaths who are responsible for at least a large percentage of mass shootings have been declared by the psychiatric community to be suffering from an anti-social personality disorder, not traditional mental illness, which under the laws of most states is defined as the lack of ability to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the crime.

It‘s true that most people suffering from these anti-social personality disorders are not violent. They may be people who are at the top of the heap as salesmen, police officers, teachers or even members of the clergy — those in a position to manipulate other people. They generally know what they are doing is wrong and either don’t care or have justified it in their own minds, which precludes most successful insanity defenses.

Evil is a word in the moral, religious and spiritual realm. There have been psychiatrists, notably Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and author of People of the Lie who do view such behavior as a form of evil. I have neither the background nor education to make such a call. I do keep up, though, and research increasingly shows that while anyone can kill under certain circumstances, human beings are probably hard-wired to avoid harming fellow human beings if it can be avoided.

Those who become predators such as mass killers and serial killers, seem to be lacking something most of us have — whatever it is that makes us human. Whether evil or mental illness, those with no qualms about killing other human beings, should be locked away for the safety of everyone else until such time as they can be cured.

As for the lame statements of pro-gun fanatics, particularly the NRA, and those who labor under the delusion that weapons can or ever will be banned in this country need to learn the meaning of compromise. The NRA position that any compromise will lead to mass confiscation of all firearms is ridiculous, the result of paranoia. Two hundred years of tradition, the sheer number of firearms available and the 2nd Amendment used rationally, preclude such drastic methods.

A genuine registration of weapons — that can be saved and not deleted in a few hours; banning individual gun sales and trading by unlicensed individuals at gun shows; and a real effort to keep weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill and convicted felons would go a long way in cutting down mass shootings. True, it wouldn’t stop them altogether, but if changes prevented even one Sandy Hook, Columbine or the most recent massacre in Charleston, reasonable laws will have proven themselves valuable.

I don’t have all the answers, but answers are available and changes can be made when legislators. state and federal, decide to look out for the safety of the people rather than pandering to the cult of violence gripping this country.

When ideology overrides reason

Grover Norquist who heads up the anti-tax group , Americans for Tax Reform, is the man who persuaded a large number of American legislators — most of whom were otherwise rational — to sign a pledge that they will never, under any circumstances, vote to raise taxes without a tax cut to balance the amount of the increase.

Prior to the November 2012 election, 238 of 242 the U.S. House Republicans and 41 out of 47 U.S. Senate Republicans had signed on with Norquist’s pledge. Numerous Republicans in state legislatures also signed the pledge. Yes — including a former friend of whom I once thought highly — swore an oath to not do something in the future, regardless of changing circumstances.

The best analogy I have been able to come up with is this: Suppose I make a pledge to never pay more for groceries than I do right now. The need for nourishment will never go down, but I would be required to cut things from my grocery list that are not essential in order to keep my pledge. The price of food will continue to rise but I can only keep my word by purchasing fewer groceries. Eventually I will have to break my pledge or starve my family.

Yes, the analogy is good — taxes are what we use to fund all government actions. When I refuse to pay more money, I get fewer groceries, and the pantry goes bare. Eventually, the government will no longer be able to feed the economy without taxes and poor people suffer. In fact, Norquist, who was never elected to run any government, has already caused unbelievable suffering.

Wannabe U.S. President, Gov, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, has been and remains a staunch disciple of Norquist, even as the economy of his state crumbles. Members of the Louisiana legislature, having failed to shake Jindal’s faith in a losing system, sent a letter directly to the Pope of Taxless Government, asking that they be given a little wiggle room because of Jindal’s fervent belief in Norquist’s system — but were told to stay the course, whatever the consequences.

Jarvis DeBerry a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who has deemed Nordquist “Louisiana’s unelected governor,” also had this to say: “In Jindal’s administration, the buck stops with Norquist. I’d be embarrassed, me, if I called myself the governor, and I had to check with somebody else regarding my state’s fiscal policy. It’s an abdication of power It’s an abdication of power and of respect. “

Ideology will get you every time when it is allowed to override logical thinking.

The shots seen round the world

I’m talking, of course, about the glamor shots taken by expert portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair.

Bruce Jenner who once adorned Wheaties boxes as one of the USA’s greatest athletes for winning the Decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, has become Caitlyn Jenner at the age of 65. I don’t understand her motivations, but I’m not required to understand, anymore than she is required to explain them.

Transgender individuals are nothing new on the horizon of humanity. In certain societies it was recognized that one could be physically born one gender but know that it was (or is) the wrong gender. In some societies this condition was recognized as a third sex.

Simply put, transgender is the state of one’s gender identity or gender expression not matching one’s assigned sex. In fact, being transgender has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Some undergo transition and remain attracted to the same sex that attracted them before.

In the past, changing gender was a matter of dressing for the gender that one felt was right. In recent history, it has become possible to surgically alter the genitalia and appearance through surgery and hormone therapy… Even today, however, not all transgender individuals seek out the surgery.

Of all the things in the world that happened yesterday I have to wonder if Bruce’s change to Caitlyn is really more important other things that happened yesterday that we neither read about nor saw? But we can depend on the human interest in matters prurient to carry the day everytime.

If you were expecting a morality lecture on the subject of transgender, this is the wrong place to look. I’ve already seen on the Internet a couple of phrases along the line of, “What Jenner has done is immoral because God doesn’t make mistakes.”

Armed with the knowledge that there was outrage among the American clergy when anesthesia was first used to ease the pain of women during labor because women were meant to suffer during childbirth because the Bible says so, I tend to stay away from trying to get into God’s head. Too often scripture is a lot easier to read than to translate and I’m not qualified to delve into God’s personal code of ethics.

That a thing is hard to understand is reason enough for most people of a fundamentalist mind set to condemn it. As a child, I remember a squabble among Southern Baptists over whether pianos ought to be allowed in churches. A few years later things were reversed — pianos were traditional and organs were a a showy extravagance.

As far as I’m concerned, I wish Caitlyn the best of luck. I was fortunate enough that I was never troubled by believing myself born into the wrong physical body. I have my own problems and they keep me busy.