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Once upon a time, the National Rifle Association was a leading voice for gun control legislation. Owners and sellers of guns had to register, all receipts had to be available to the police, and the president of the NRA testified to Congress, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The argument made by gun control supporters like me, that the Second Amendment was never intended to allow citizens unrestricted access to guns, would have put us right in step with the NRA leadership.

When the NRA Supported Gun Control, Time Magazine

That was in the 1920s and 30s. Many states imposed restrictions on the carrying of weapons, but California was one that did not.

But then the Black Panther Party, concerned about police brutality, started patrolling Oakland with these arms they were legally entitled to carry, and several members of the California state legislature proposed a ban on the open carrying of loaded weapons. The Black Panthers protested the bill by showing up at the Capitol Building in Sacramento, where it so happened that Governor Ronald Reagan was on the lawn. The sight of a couple dozen black people protesting and carrying guns made restrictions on guns very compelling to white Republicans and Democrats alike, the bill passed, and he signed it.

Governor Reagan told reporters that afternoon that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” He called guns a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” In a later press conference, Reagan said he didn’t “know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that gun loaded.” The Mulford Act, he said, “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.”

(The Secret History of Guns, Atlantic Magazine)

Between incidents like this, the reaction to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and conservative U. S. Americans’ anxiety about young radicals, the trend toward gun control only strengthened in the 1960s. There was just one problem with gun restrictions as a solution: white people couldn’t carry guns either. And unpleasant things happened, like an NRA member’s waving a gun in response to a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1971; the ATF shot him, and the NRA responded angrily, likening the ATF to the Gestapo. It was a conundrum.

I don’t know if it was unconscious or a carefully thought-out plan, but around then, the NRA began to change its tactics. It would put its resources into weakening gun laws and rest its argument on the “need” for honest individuals to protect themselves, while promoting the idea that “the honest citizen” was white and the feared predator was black.

By the 2000s, the pattern was set. The NRA’s line was that any kind of restriction was a step onto the “slippery slope” that would end in fascism and the destruction not only of the Second Amendment, but freedom. If police did not respect gun ownership, it would be the beginning of the end.

. . . if the owner was white. If the owner was black, he must be intending violence, and his summary execution by police for the mere possession of a gun would meet with no demur from the NRA. As case after case hit the news of black people who were merely suspected of holding weapons’ being killed by police or self-appointed defenders of public safety, the NRA’s true agenda became clear: not to protect gun owners from an overreaching state, but to protect white people from the black bogeyman they feared.

The Philando Castile case made it clear that even a license for a weapon would not protect a black person who wished to exercise the right the NRA called absolutely fundamental to freedom. In 2016, near St. Paul, Minnesota, Castile was pulled over by police and asked for his driver’s license and registration, at which point he sensibly informed them that he had a gun and a license for it, so that they would not think he was reaching for it in attack. This is surely the correct and cautious thing for a gun owner to do when interacting with the police–if, in the NRA’s view, one should have to explain at all. One of the officers immediately fired four bullets into Castile, killing him; his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter were in the back seat. The NRA responded with a silence that, under pressure, it finally broke to say “The reports from Minnesota are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated,” declining to comment further or even use the victim’s name.

Black people might want to arm themselves in self-defense, especially with killers like Gregory Bush and Dylann Roof gunning for them, but they have to consider the very real possibility that if they are so much as glimpsed carrying a weapon, the police will be called and they will be shot.

But to back up a few years. In the meantime, each mass shooting–now in the hundreds per year–had been met by the NRA’s claim that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” And those of us who doubted this wisdom had pointed out that among its many flaws was the question of how police, called to a scene of mayhem, would know that the “good guy with a gun” was a good guy. Wouldn’t they be facing two armed people, with no way of knowing which was the instigator of the crime and which was trying to stop it? Those of us who, furthermore, had been paying attention to the disparity between the NRA’s responses, and police forces’ responses, to black and white gun ownership, thought we knew what the cops would do: if one of the people with a gun were black, they would assume he was the villain, not the hero.

So this week, the killing of security guard Jemel Roberson, taken for a murderer when he tried to stop a crime in the course of his job, was not a surprise. It was the inevitable outcome of the plan that has been unfolding for decades:

(1) arm as many white people as wish to be armed by loosening gun restrictions;

(2) tolerate the summary execution by police (or citizens) of black people who possess a weapon (or a wallet, or a white cellphone, or a hairbrush . . . )

(3) and voila, the Black Panther problem is solved. We now have two categories of US Americans: the “honest citizens” who can–should–go about armed, and the ones for whom bearing arms is certain proof that they are criminals. The armed whites and the disarmed, terrified blacks.

It took a generation for the NRA to solve their conundrum, but they have done it.

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Not the battle to win it, I don’t mean. Just the battle to understand it.

I hope we’re going to try again to repeal the Costa Hawkins Act, and when we do, we’re going to make it clear that that’s what we’re doing and what it means. I did a lot of work for Prop 10 and definitely noticed people’s misconception that it would “pass rent control,” but I didn’t realize how widespread it was until I read my FB newsfeed.

Supporters and opponents, I am sorry we didn’t get this across to you before, so I’m trying now: Proposition 10 would NOT have instituted rent control. Not for a single property anywhere in the state.

What it would have done was REMOVE the strict limits on rent control that are currently in place and keep towns and cities from making the decisions that work for them.

The response to its defeat (whether happy or sad) tells me that not only do people not know what Prop 10 was about; they didn’t know how limited their town or city’s choices are made by Costa Hawkins. Single family homes cannot be subject to rent control, which is weird because renters of single family homes have the same needs as renters of apartments. Nothing built since 1995 (the year Costa Hawkins was passed) can be subject to rent control. That’s 23 years ago, in case you’re like me and still think of everything in the 90s as approximately ten years back. (The rule in LA, under Costa Hawkins? 1978. In any building that is less than *40 years old,* there’s no limit on rent increases.)

Rent control is like fire, a powerful tool that can turn destructive if not carefully employed, and Prop 10 was smart about rent control. It would have kept the ban on rent control on new builds, because without that rent control tends to suppress development, but it would have redefined “new” as, well, new. It would have guaranteed landlords a reasonable rate of return, so that people who wanted to be decent landlords wouldn’t just quit the rental business altogether.

I don’t know if these misunderstandings are why it didn’t pass, but I have a guess. Only a minority of the state wanted statewide rent control. But I am pretty sure a much higher number would have been willing to have city-by-city rent control, instead of the statewide restrictions on local decisionmaking that we currently have.

File under: Reasons why ballot propositions are a bad way to make laws.

This very moving piece about Pittsburgh is by the son of my childhood rabbi. The son, Jonathan Berkun, was a very small boy when they left Hamden (CT, my hometown) for Pittsburgh. I did not know until the dreadful news came in from Tree of Life synagogue that that was the shul where Rabbi Alvin Berkun had served, nor that he was now their Rabbi Emeritus. Jonathan is now a rabbi as well, in Florida.

Of all the heartbreaking, soul-inspiring things he writes, the sentence about the waitress is the one that brought tears to my eyes. Shiva is the week of intense mourning that many Jews observe after a death in the family, during which the mourners do not prepare food. Serving a shiva meal in a pizza place: that’s what we will have to do for each other, white for black, non-Jews for Jews, non-Muslims for Muslims, native citizens for immigrants, hetero for LGB, cis for trans, native English speakers for English as a Second Language learners: everyone who has not been the latest salvo’s target for those who have been, because as long as we are united we cannot be defeated.

It makes me double down on my resolve to actively ally with those whose “category” I don’t share, especially African-Americans. I confess my slowness to take up their cause as passionately as my own, to respond as energetically to threats to their children as I do to threats to my own. I ask for their forgiveness, and forbearance as I work to change.

And I have an appeal to other religious leaders. Many of Pittsburgh’s Jewish leaders have told the president that he is not welcome to come to them as long as he is fomenting hate and violence. The murderer’s words were straight out of Trump’s speeches; the vicious, false fantasy of the dangerous refugee is the one Trump stoked and rode to the White House. His presence can do nothing to heal our wounds unless he accepts responsibility for his demagoguery and turns it around 180 degrees. And they are our wounds, not just Jews’ (as they were Saturday in Pittsburgh) or African-Americans’ (as they were on Wednesday in Jeffersontown, Kentucky) or Muslims’ (as they are prevented from traveling) or Mexicans’ and Central Americans’ (as they are in children’s prisons all along the border) or trans* folks’ (as their lives are redefined by the pseudoscience of bigots).

So we should all deliver the same message as those Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh: no politician who is inciting terrorism and enacting fascist policies is welcome in our communities. Trump doesn’t come to the Bay Area anyway, because he only likes to visit cheering crowds, but I’m still drafting a letter from clergy to the White House from my region because it’s what decent people do when others are threatened.

Will you do the same, dear colleagues of all faiths? Will you sign on, dear people of all faiths?

The following is the letter for our region. People of faith of the Bay Area, please “sign” in the comments, and I will compile all the names into a letter, which may be posted online as well as to the press. The names of faith communities and organizations are given for identification purposes only.

To President Trump:

We are faith community leaders and members in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like the leaders in Pittsburgh and tens of thousands of signers who asked you to stay away, we request that you not come to our region until you denounce white nationalism with both your words and your actions.

We have seen the rise of fascism before, and we recognize it in what you are doing and what you are inspiring. Demagogues whip their followers into acts of violence. These leaders need never strike a blow in order to rain down terror upon the people; indeed, many have been less explicit than you. You have urged your followers to beat members of the crowd, “Second Amendment people” to “do something” about Secretary Clinton, and police to slam suspects’ heads into cars. You have hailed as “[your] kind of guy” a thug who assaulted a journalist. Your power is built on scapegoating of the vulnerable.

Furthermore, you spread lies that feed fear and hatred. Your false, frequently-repeated claim that asylum-seekers, refugees and undocumented immigrants commit a disproportionate number of crimes was the reason the killer in Pittsburgh gave for his assault upon a synagogue that helps settle refugees.

You have consistently, repeatedly set yourself up as a threat to innocent people, due process, and democracy itself, and you have sought to enlist your followers to put your threatening words into action. When we look at our nation’s history, we see the times fascism has risen and been put down, and we vow to be this generation’s upholders of justice, democracy, and human rights. Until you uphold them as well, please do not come to the Bay Area.

In faith,


Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
and (undersigned)

I’m going to give a long answer to a short question: Is Donald J. Trump competent to serve as president? No way. He has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and it renders him incompetent to be president and a danger to us all. That’s not the long answer. Keep reading.

I’m not talking about strategy here, whether it would be wiser to impeach him or invoke the 25th Amendment now, or after the Special Counsel releases his report, or after the midterms, or when. This is long enough without that.

Talking about mental illness is often fraught with misapprehensions and flat-out prejudice, so a few important points are in order before I continue.

  1. When I say Trump has a mental illness, I don’t mean he is unintelligent, immoral, cognitively impaired, erratic, or an asshole. If I want to say those things about him, I’ll say them in those words. What I am saying is that he has a mental illness.
  2. I am not stigmatizing those with mental illnesses. I suffer from one myself, as do many, many people I love and admire. We so often shame people for mental illness, and there is nothing shameful about it. People with mental illness–chronic or occasional, mild or severe–deserve profound respect, and can function very well in all manner of jobs.
  3. Like non-mental illnesses, the difference between being incapacitated by a mental illness or not often rests on treatment. Trump does not appear to be getting effective treatment for NPD, if any. He probably hasn’t sought help, because it’s the cruel nature of the disorder to make its sufferers certain that everyone else is the problem, not themselves. Or, as Psychology Today politely puts it, “Treatment for narcissistic personality disorder can be challenging because people with this condition present with a great deal of grandiosity and defensiveness, which makes it difficult for them to acknowledge problems and vulnerabilities.”
  4. Having a mental illness should not disqualify one from public office. I don’t doubt that almost all of the previous 43* presidents had mental illnesses at some point during their terms, and many served with excellence just the same. Lincoln almost certainly had depression, and he was probably our greatest president. Having a mental illness whose symptoms interfere with the basic functions of the job, and not getting effective treatment: that’s where the problem enters in.
  5. Saying that someone is mentally ill does not absolve him of all responsibility, nor does compassion require us to allow him to continue in his position.
  6. NPD is not simply “having a big ego” or “thinking a lot of oneself” or speaking highly of one’s own abilities. It’s arguable that one couldn’t survive 24 hours as president without a lot of self-confidence, and even if having higher-than-average self-confidence were a problem, it’s not what I’m saying about Trump.

I am no psychologist, but I can read and reason, and here are the criteria for NPD:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or autonomic compliance with his or her expectations).
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

(source)

Do I need to quote cases of Trump “requir[ing] excessive admiration”? Or give examples of his being “interpersonally exploitative” and “lack[ing] empathy”? I’m not asking rhetorically. Maybe you have practiced better internet habits than I and haven’t read umpteen statements indicating that Trump “is often envious of others or [I’d say: and] believes that others are envious of him,” in which case, just ask in the comments and I’ll supply the quotes. Likewise, there is abundant evidence that Trump “exaggerates achievements and talents” and “expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements,” and “believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people.”

Two friends of mine who do have the professional credentials I lack–one is a therapist and the other a PhD in psychology whose dissertation was on NPD–both, after the caveat that they can’t diagnose someone at a distance, say that hell yes, this guy has a screaming case of NPD.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that expertise, and so early in the Trump fiasco, progressive folks were giving entirely too much credence to a letter to the New York Times by an expert on Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Dr. Allen Frances. In fact, he is not only an expert, he was described in reprint after reprint as “the man who defined NPD.” And he argued that Trump doesn’t have it. However, there are two enormous holes in his argument.

One, it is based on the DSM-IV criteria, because those are the ones he authored (he chaired the group that wrote that section), and he doesn’t accept the DSM-V version. That’s a defensible position, but it can’t just be assumed correct, and he doesn’t make the case in this letter, but instead, disingenuously asserts that he “wrote the criteria that define this disorder.”

Two, Frances claims that Trump is not impaired by the above characteristics. This is important because even the DSM-V says one must experience impairment or distress, noting:

Many highly successful individuals display personality traits that might be considered narcissistic. Only when these traits are inflexible, maladaptive, and persisting and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress do they constitute narcissistic personality disorder.

Fair enough. But how would Frances support the contention that Trump “does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder” (sic; one needs either distress or impairment, not both); that he “causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy”? Yes, he has reaped many rewards, including the position of president. But one can’t read more than a few tweets without perceiving a deeply distressed person, and as for impairment, I would like to know the name of one person who is a genuine friend of Donald Trump. Descriptions of people such as Tom Barrack, “one of Trump’s closest friends,” “a friend . . . for more than 30 years,” include such chilling asides as this: “Barrack noted that he has been able to maintain a candid and honest relationship with Trump over the years because he ‘was always subservient to him.'”

When your “closest friends” can only maintain the “friendship” by being subservient to you, I have to tell you, friend: you have not experienced friendship. You don’t know what friendship is. And to live without true friends is a deep and tragic functional impairment, made no less so by the sufferer’s illusion that he does have them.

So Dr. Frances’s argument fails to convince. Trump has NPD by the standards of the DSM-V, including being significantly impaired by the disorder.

Which leads to the reasonable question: can’t someone be a good president even with untreated NPD?

Nope. At least, someone who checks off every last criterion, like Trump, certainly can’t. Several examples of how his NPD renders him incompetent and/or dangerous:

  • Because he is so desperate for praise, he is incapable of intelligent diplomacy. Every foreign leader is judged by how much he likes Trump. The foreign leaders, their vision unclouded by narcissism, immediately realize that this requires no more commitment than paying him an insincere compliment. This would be laughable if it were just a matter of foolish, fawning statements about Emmanuel Macron and Shinzo Abe. But his insatiable need for admiration causes him to be unwary when wariness is needed. All an adversary has to do is flatter him and he’s putty in their hands. So when Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador stroked his ego, he divulged classified information, including exposing a confidential source.
  • His envy drives him to foolish, destructive policy decisions. When he isn’t trying to unravel Obama’s policies (regardless of whether they are helping the country), he is trying to win the competition that dominates his own mind. He must win. And so, goaded by Obama’s (undeserved, in my opinion) Nobel Peace Prize and by the idea dangled by right-wing commenters (ludicrously, in my opinion) that Trump could win one as well if he made a deal with North Korea, he rushed into a meeting with Kim Jong Un, made absurd claims of success there, and denied the evidence before, during and since that the summit had had a negligible effect on Kim’s policies.
  • Another factor in the North Korea debacle was his inability to tolerate failure or even a normal level of success. Someone with NPD “exaggerates achievements and talents”; the slow pace of diplomacy is incompatible with his self-image. He has to be able to fix what no one else could fix, faster and more brilliantly than anyone in the past. When that proves impossible, he simply will not perceive it; he puts his fingers in his ears and runs from the room, shouting what a tremendous success he has been.
  • Also notable in the Kim meeting was his lack of preparation. Someone who perceives himself as having “unlimited success, power, brilliance” doesn’t need no stinkin’ prep sessions. For the same reason, Trump has not had serious security briefings in his entire term so far. He won’t read the Presidential Daily Briefing–the short version of intelligence documents–even dumbed down and sprinkled with many mentions of his own name.
  • He can’t grasp a concept as simple as “trade is not a zero-sum game” because to the narcissistic mind, everything is a zero-sum game. Economists from Adam Smith to Milton Erickson know that a trade deficit is not an unfavorable balance of trade. But Trump (aside from intellectual and cognitive difficulties, which may be significant factors as well) cannot even entertain that idea.
  • For that matter, his narcissism won’t permit him to think of trade as a good thing at all (see forthcoming book Fear by Bob Woodward, which reprints a report with a margin note in Trump’s own handwriting, “TRADE IS BAD”). It follows a certain solipsistic logic: nothing outside his country should be taken seriously, unless it can be made to reflect well on him. He has long seen foreign relations the same way he sees personal ones: they are a contest of egos. Nothing about the past 20 months suggests that he has changed since the 1990 Playboy interview in which he said, “I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; i.e., Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc. They have literally outegotized this country, because they rule the greatest money machine ever assembled and it’s sitting on our backs. . . . We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing $150 billion year after year.” He’s talking about the trade deficit again; he thinks that if you sell $50 billion in products and buy $200 billion, you are losing $150 billion.
  • Likewise, he not only exhibits no loyalty (he only demands it), but he can’t restrain his competitiveness enough to maintain a coalition even with his closest allies. He derides and undermines Congressional leaders in his own party when they are in the act of promoting legislation he wants to see passed. His own arrogance and sense that he is, and must be, special, leave no room for teamwork.
  • He can’t absorb criticism or change course for fear of being seen as weak. Narcissist Personality Disorder does not permit apologies. Hence we have a president who, when he makes a mistake, “doubles down” rather than mitigating it. After getting flak for suggesting that people on “both sides” were to blame for the violence by Nazis in Charlottesville, he reluctantly gave a speech condemning Nazis and white supremacists. Immediately afterwards, rightly recognizing that people saw the speech as a reversal, he railed about it–the criticism of Nazism, not the coddling of it–calling it the “biggest f—ing mistake I’ve made.”

Whatever a president’s policy positions, be they leftist, liberal, conservative, libertarian, the person needs to be able to see through flattery, risk being seen as a failure, absorb new information, work with a team, and change course. Trump’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder is complicated by impulsiveness and cognitive deficits, but even if it were not, it would be as disqualifying an ailment as coma or severe brain damage. A person with untreated, severe NPD cannot be a competent president of the United States, period.

 

 

*Numbers 23 and 25 were the same person–good old Grover Cleveland–so we’ve had 43 presidents prior to Trump.

The kvelling over Senator John McCain shows how low the bar has fallen recently. We know why, but if we’re going to grade politicians on a curve, let’s not just look at the past two years. “Greatest American hero of the past 50 years,” a man of “honor and integrity,” “a maverick” . . . Are we talking about the same person? I believe in speaking respectfully of the dead when one possibly can, and remaining silent when one can’t, with rare exceptions (for example, when someone finally puts a stake through Kissinger’s heart, I’ll spit on his grave). So I am fine with respectful words for a complex, flawed person. These showers of praise go beyond that. They make bold claims about the meaning of honor, integrity, and independence that drag those fine qualities through the mud, and insult far greater heroes of our time.

Surely there are public servants of more integrity and honor than the Keating Five; I know, that’s barely a scandal by today’s measure, or maybe we just can’t recall any history more than five years back, but his “poor judgment” ruined many lives. Surely decency requires choosing better than Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat from the presidency. While people of integrity can differ about public policy, my heroes don’t get a 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee or a 17% from the NAACP. The people who inspire me care more about leaving a livable environment for the next generation than guaranteeing profits for today’s businesses. I admire mavericks, but it takes more than one or two issues and one prominent vote to earn the title. (Okay, three issues. The best thing I know about McCain gets little attention: he shifted from being an implacable foe of gun control to a moderate supporter.) Yes, his vote last year rescued the Affordable Care Act; but if we resist the availability heuristic in which the most recent event gets undue prominence, we see a long career of making health care less accessible to most of us.

Even the most exalted politician leaves a trail of bad decisions, and even the best people do a lot of harmful things. I hope I will be remembered as a decent person, even though I am often unkind, selfish, apathetic . . . But for a public servant to receive such glowing praise as I’ve seen since yesterday, the preponderance of his deeds should glow, and McCain’s just don’t. Not for African-Americans, LGBTQ people, immigrants, poor people, or those who care about any of the above.

I like the way Obama put it, that at his best McCain showed us what it means to put the greater good above one’s own. That is true, and the best I can say.

P.S. If you aren’t familiar with the strictly non-partisan resource Vote Smart, check it out. For a citizen of the United States who wants to make informed choices, it’s an indispensable tools.

My wife and I are visiting Amsterdam, and today we went to the Dutch Resistance Museum. It’s really excellent, with very creative displays and lots of information delivered in easily-digested-yet-substantial bites. For us, it also provided a lot of lessons that are all too relevant to our situation in the United States today.

The first is that resistance is messy: morally messy. The actions people took to hurt the occupiers, such as a railroad strike, also hurt the people (hunger increased) and the resistance itself (since members depended on the trains for transport). Few moral choices were perfectly clear or afforded an option that resulted in entirely clean hands. Forcibly called up to work in Germany, men could either go, thus unwillingly helping the German war effort; refuse, and be shot or sent to concentration camps; or hide, endangering their families. Those who weighed the options and went to Germany were castigated by many compatriots afterwards–“Why didn’t you hide?”–but they had not necessarily chosen the worst of three bad options. And then there were the many civil servants and officials who faced the unenviable decision: do I stay in my position and try to intercede for my people, soften the effect of the Nazi takeover, or do I resist and, at best, be replaced by a member of the Dutch Nazi Party? Some were outright collaborators, but many others were simply trying to walk an impossibly thin wire.

It’s the nature of violent regimes to set up such impossible choices. Divide and conquer was a common and effective strategy of the Third Reich. In the Netherlands as elsewhere, they instituted Jewish councils that were charged with carrying out Nazi requirements. Even those leaders who did their best to mitigate the decrees were set up to be perceived as collaborators by their own people; that was one of the occupiers’ intentions.

Another effective strategy was the frog-in-the-pot approach. The Nazis didn’t lower the hammer right away. People were devastated by the invasion, but it soon appeared that life remained pretty normal, even for Jews. Bit by bit, more repressions were added: a registry system, labels on passports, requirements that schoolchildren learn a Nazi-approved curriculum . . . Different people drew the line in different places, and some just kept their heads down and put up with all of it; some, no doubt, were even sympathetic to the German aims. But again, those who genuinely opposed fascism and anti-Semitism were still that frog in the pot, noticing a growing discomfort and wondering when to say “too hot.”

Is this sounding familiar?

Those who resisted did not always agree on how to do it, when to do it, or how much was too much or not enough. In fact, the impression one gets from the museum’s displays is that internal conflict was at least as common as unity. For example, people criticized even the bravest actions for coming too late. One heroic act of resistance was planned in intricate detail and attempted three times before modest success and devastating punishment (execution, imprisonment, exile). The German occupation required everyone to have papers; for many, forgeries were the only option since genuine ones would be marked with a “J” and thus be a sentence of internment or death; the forgeries, naturally, did not match what the Registry Office held. So, going to the source, the conspirators plotted to blow up the Registry Office. In the end, they succeeded in starting a fire that destroyed 15% of the records. (Today, someone wanting to carry out equivalent sabotage would have to be a hacker.) There was much rejoicing, but since most Jews had already been deported, many people also pointed out that if the bombing had been carried out earlier, many more lives would have been saved.

If this kind of sniping doesn’t sound familiar, you can’t have read any liberal or leftist responses to the news over the past year and a half.

I wonder how people responded when it was not the liberals, nor the socialists–both pillars of Dutch life, according to the museum–who rushed to the defense of Dutch Jews, but the fringe, mistrusted Communists. I wonder if, when this defense of the Jews was seized by the Germans as a pretext for vicious crackdowns that shed some of the first blood of the occupation, there was a wave of recrimination: “If we’d just stayed quiet, those people would still be alive.” I don’t know, but there are hints in the displays that some at the time were uneasy with the Communist-Jewish alliance, and that the protests gave the regime the excuse it was waiting for. If so, we’ve heard those arguments more recently and closer to home.

Also familiar was the way that some people were treated as heroes while their partners in resistance were virtually ignored. For example, Gerrit van der Veen, one of the conspirators in the Registry Office bombing, has numerous streets named after him across the country, while another, who was gay, gets little recognition. See?: I have already forgotten his name, while van der Veen’s sticks because it’s a major street and a tram stop. We enact unfairness like this constantly, giving white women credit for #MeToo without acknowledging the black woman who initiated it, or allowing our prejudices to influence which resisters of Trumpism get more attention and praise. Then these injustices prevent our unifying to fight our common enemy: sexual harassment or the administration’s policies.

Even resisters were prejudiced and entitled. When Jews who survived the camps returned to Holland, many of their neighbors downplayed the Jews’ suffering, didn’t want to hear about it, or drew facile, false equivalents. A young girl who survived Bergen-Belsen heard all about the rationing of food and confiscation of bicycles that her neighbors endured, though they didn’t want to hear about the camp.

Do that failure to hear each others’ experience, and a defensiveness about others’ greater suffering, sound familiar?

Most Dutch, inheritors and upholders of a global empire, were slow to acknowledge their hypocrisy, and the people they colonized made deals that also sit uneasily on the conscience. Many Indonesians took up arms against Dutch and Dutch-East-Indian residents of Indonesia, some of whom had lived there for generations. The Indonesians wanted to be a free republic, and saw the Japanese fight against the Dutch as an opportunity to free themselves from colonial rule. So, despite Japan’s own imperialism and the repressiveness of the Japanese army, they joined forces with Japan to drive out the Dutch. Many Dutch East Indians and Dutch were bitter about this and didn’t understand for years, if ever, that the struggle for Indonesian independence was much like their own struggle against German occupation. Resistance to oppression created uncomfortable parallels and unsavory coalitions, then as now.

And there was the passionate support of the Dutch royal family, which had fled to England, which might seem an odd rallying cry for a pro-democratic movement but also inspired and unified the people; and the almost comically bourgeois forms of resistance, such as the woman who, when compelled by the Nazi officers to darn their socks, claimed ignorance and sewed them shut. Gasp!–but, laughably minor though it seems, it got her into trouble.

It seems as if we have been here before. Here’s the thing to remember, then: the Dutch resisters were victorious. They needed the Allies to liberate the country, ultimately, but they hung in there through starvation and repression and outright murder, until they won and the Nazis lost. This, even though their resistance movement was filled with infighting and compromise and sniping.

Maybe that’s just what successful resistance looks like. Maybe even when your efforts are messy and you get a hundred things wrong, it can be enough. Maybe we should stop worrying about being such a flawed, frustrating resistance movement, and just keep on keeping on. They also serve who only sabotage the officers’ socks. And if enough serve in enough ways, we will win.

When we talk about gun deaths in this country, we don’t talk much about suicide. This may seem strange, since about two-thirds of our annual more-than-36,000 deaths by firearms are suicides. Most of the rest are homicides, with a small number of accidents (Centers for Disease Control figures for 2015; the 2016 total was over 38,000). In other words, you are twice as likely to die by a gun in your own hand as someone else’s.

You would think that suicide by firearms would garner attention, since it kills 60 U.S. Americans a day, but I think that neither gun control advocates nor those who want to permit free access to guns want to bring up suicide. The gun-rights folks may believe that people wanting to kill themselves should have the right to choose a gun, but it’s not really the kind of argument that wins you a lot of fans. And the gun-control advocates, of which (in case you haven’t read my blog before) I am most definitely one, tend not to bring it up because of a widespread belief that someone bent on suicide will carry it out, and the means are not significant. In this, we could not be more mistaken.

I’ve said it myself, this “they’ll find another way” mistake, but I was corrected, after a sermon on suicide, by a local activist, to whom I am very grateful. It does indeed matter what means people choose for suicide. Those who choose highly fatal means–jumping off bridges or tall buildings, shooting themselves, or, all too often in the community where I serve, stepping in front of a speeding train–are much less likely to survive a suicide attempt. That much is obvious, in fact tautological. But what is also true is that, denied these means, they are much less likely to kill themselves, then or ever.

This is why, thanks to the California state legislature, we now have barriers making it harder to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, along with hotline phones and posted phone numbers. There is nothing stopping someone who is turned back by the barrier from seeking another way to end their life, but the psychology of suicide is such that many do not: not that night, not the next day, not ever.  Of course, to cut the suicide rate, we can and must do more than just making the final stage harder; we need to reduce poverty and injustice, reduce drug abuse, restore meaning, and provide ample mental health care. But that final stage also matters.

Restricting access to guns–by far the most common way U.S. Americans kill themselves–is thus a very effective way to save many of those lives. When Australia responded to its 1996 Port Arthur massacre by putting tough gun laws in place, the rate of firearms homicide dropped, and so did the rate of homicide overall. The rate of firearms suicide dropped, and so did the rate of suicide overall. With homicide, the reason is obvious to those of us not being paid by the NRA: it’s much harder to kill a lot of people fast with a knife or a truck. With suicide, though? Why don’t people denied a gun find another method? I don’t know. But as often as not, maybe more often than that, they don’t.

So let’s stop shying away from the topic of guns and suicide. When people want to know what good it will do suicidal people to restrict their access to guns, the answer is: it can save the larger part of sixty lives a day.

Sixty lives is a Las Vegas massacre, every day, week in, week out. If you worry about your child’s safety, reflect: they are probably twice as likely to die by suicide as by homicide. To keep them safe, tackle suicide. To tackle suicide, tackle the gun lobby.

I’d be hard pressed to name a favorite of the eight or so books by Philip Roth that I’ve read, but I wouldn’t hesitate at all to name the one that comes to mind most often: The Plot Against America. It affected me strongly when I first read it, and now it seems terrifyingly, but usefully, prescient.

Roth takes a few facts as his foundation and spins an all-too-possible alternative history from them. Those facts: Charles Lindbergh, son of a Minnesota Congressman, and a national hero for his solo transatlantic flight, ardently opposed a United States entry into the Second World War. He was a member of the anti-interventionist America First organization; unlike the organization, he was also anti-Semitic and a lifelong advocate of “racial purity.” His sense that Russia was a greater threat than Germany was not so much about fearing Communism more than fascism, but about his preferring the Nordic to the “semi-Asiatic”; he hoped that the U.S. and Germany would unite to oppose the “semi-Asiatic” Russia. He did support U.S. entry into the war after Pearl Harbor, as did many America-Firsters (the organization disbanded immediately after the attack), and fought bravely in the Pacific. But by then, he had set himself up as an opponent of the three forces he saw as agitating for war: the British, the Roosevelt Administration, and the Jews. He and Henry Ford were longtime friends, drawn together in part by their anti-Jewish paranoia. Lindbergh was also a candidate for the Republican nomination in the 1936 presidential election. The only scrap of this paragraph that I learned in school was that he was the first person to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic.

The Plot Against America proposes that Lindbergh wins the 1940 Republican nomination and goes on to defeat FDR. With the anti-interventionist in office, the U.S. stays out of the war; those who do want to fight the Nazis must flee to Canada and join the despised (by President Lindbergh) British forces. With a vocal anti-Semite as President, Henry Ford’s racial theories are given free rein and U.S. Jews have an increasingly uncertain and frightened existence, like immigrants and Muslims in 2018. Roth fills the novel with specific detail by focusing on the experiences of one family–“his” family–in Newark, New Jersey.

It’s a portrait of a nation gradually sinking beneath an internal sea of fascism. Last week, the president suggested that people who peacefully protest racial injustice should maybe just not be in our country; his administration pursued a policy of asking teachers to report students without documents and another of removing children from any undocumented adults; it was revealed that 20% of the children thus removed are either unaccounted for, or so terrified of the government that is supposed to be their guardian that they have gone into hiding; and the administration has repeatedly accused the investigators of foreign interference in a presidential election of employing “spies.”

In the middle of it, Philip Roth died, and for all his fear of death, was probably glad to shake the dust of Trump’s United States off his feet. But before he went, he weighed in on the nation’s tumble toward the dystopia he had so vividly envisioned. The parallels between Lindbergh and Trump were considerable, he said, but with this difference:

Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also . . . an authentic American hero . . . [a] courageous young pilot . . . . Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac. (New York Times, January 16, 2018)

Lindbergh’s fictional rise to power is more probable than that of a multiply-bankrupt self-promoter who only regained wealth and a household name by parodying himself on a game show about business, and you’d think that it would be easier to both see through Trump and get him out of office. But so far, that sea is still threatening to take the whole country under. If you’re looking for insight into how it happens and what we can do about it, in the marvelous prose of the writer who came up with that phrase “the evil sum of his deficiencies,” or you’re just looking for an excellent novel for your summer reading, check out The Plot Against America.

As long as lawmakers and courts insist that what James Madison had in mind with the Second Amendment was unlimited weaponry for the likes of Nikolas Cruz and Adam Lanza, we’re going to have to hit the gun lobby and its pals in the pocketbook. Some of the scummiest of those pals are the people who use the airwaves and internet to claim that these killings are hoaxes.

I’m happy to note that some of the worst sites generating and promoting fake stories–Gateway Pundit and InfoWars, for example–have no actual advertisers. Gateway Pundit advertises one religious pamphlet by the site owner’s twin brother, and InfoWars sells a brain supplement (hold the jokes, please) and a toothpaste, fluoride free, of course, that seem to be manufactured by InfoWars. Breitbart appears to have no remaining advertisers. But some other sites do get advertising money from actual companies. So I took a few minutes today to breathe deeply, overcome my nausea, and tell these companies what I think about that.

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(NOTE: Earlier, I had the wrong e-mail address here; it was the support address for a company that distributes Berkey Water systems, and is not in charge of advertising decisions. The below address is the manufacturer’s.)

To: Customerservice@berkeywater.com

To the chief executive of Berkey Water Filter Systems:

I was appalled to read articles on NaturalNews.com promoting the idea that the survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, FL, are actors and that the entire event is a fake staged by gun reform advocates. Accusing traumatized, injured and murdered children of fakery is about as low as public so-called debate gets.

I notice that you advertise there, and I hope you will immediately withdraw your ads and stop supporting this revolting site with your money. I am posting this letter on my blog and will post your reply there when I receive it.

Sincerely,
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To the directors of Food Rising:

I was appalled to read articles on NaturalNews.com promoting the idea that the survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, FL, last week, are actors and that the entire event is a fake staged by gun reform advocates. Accusing traumatized, injured and murdered children of fakery is about as low as public so-called debate gets.

I notice that you advertise there, and I guess your partnership with the author, Mike Adams (the “Health Ranger”), is very close since he engineered your grow boxes. Maybe you are a one-person operation and he is it, for all I know. If that is not the case, and you are in fact dedicated to food innovation, I hope you will immediately withdraw your ads from NaturalNews.com and stop supporting this revolting site with your money.

I am posting this letter on my blog, sermonsinstones.com, and will post your reply there when I receive it.

Sincerely,
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To the owners of Zeta Clear,
The website therightwingextremist.wordpress.com specializes in “articles” such as the claim that the slaughter of schoolchildren in Newtown, CT, was a fake. Apparently it is not horrible enough to make such a claim, and add to the unimaginable suffering of the parents and other loved ones of these children, so the author prints one child’s name over and over with the ridiculous assertion that his death was a hoax, simply because a Pakistani mourner of the children killed in Peshawar, Pakistan, expressed solidarity by posting his photo alongside those of some of the Peshawar victims. Simple explanations have no effect on the cruelty and willful obtuseness of “The Right Wing Extremist.”

I notice that you are his sole advertiser. I hope you will immediately withdraw your ads and stop supporting this revolting site with your money. Accusing traumatized, injured and murdered children of fakery is about as low as public so-called debate gets.

You claim you will respond to phone calls and e-mails, but you don’t actually post an e-mail address. So I am calling you and also posting this letter on my blog, sermonsinstones.com, and will post your reply there when I receive it.

Sincerely,

Each year for the season of Lent, since 2011, I have undertaken three spiritual practices: one subtractive, one additive, and one giving.

This year, as I have done a few times before, I will subtract social media: no Facebook or Twitter. (I’m not cool enough for Instagram, so nothing to give up there.) It’s good for my soul.

For the additive practice, I’m participating in #UULent’s photo-a-day practice. This is in direct contradiction of my subtractive practice, since I’ve proposed to my congregation that we post our photos on the congregation’s Facebook site–sharing a spiritual practice really helps it stick. However, I think it’s in the spirit of my social-media fast if I do nothing on Facebook other than post my photos and look at others’. I’m also encouraging folks to post selected photos (only their own) on the bulletin board between rooms 9 & 10 at UUCPA. When I did this (spottily) a couple of years ago, Barb Greve was someone I knew mostly by reputation and occasionally running into him at installations or ordinations, but currently, we are working together at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, so using a resource he created is extra special.

Last year I did art every day, and I would love to do it again, but along with the daily photo it seems too much. I’ll see.

And I always choose a cause to which to give money, and this year it was easy to choose: Black Lives of UU. The UUA has committed to raising $5.3 million for BLUU, and individual contributions are part of that work, so this is my mite. You can contribute yours at the BLUU website. I am excited, occasionally even hopeful, about the UUA’s renewed commitment to shift us away from the dominance of white culture and help us shake off the effects of white supremacy, and it will take thousands of us to realize this commitment.

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