Violence and Free Speech: Defining the Sides

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I’m often approached by a guy on my ship, a young electronics technician, who wants to convert me to the alt-right. I don’t know what he sees in me that makes him think his message will resonate, but he does it anyway. He tells me climate change is a hoax, statistics pointing to the benefits of socialist economics are contrived by the government to maintain a bureaucratic stranglehold on the advancement of capitalism, and the left is systemically orchestrating the fall of modern society. When Republican Representative Steve Scalise was shot in the leg at a practice for an annual bipartisan charity baseball game by a man who’d supported Bernie Sanders, he knew it was a broader effort by a leftist organization called Antifa (short for anti fascism). The attacker, James Hodgkinson, turned out to be a kook with a history of violence. He unfortunately had espoused the ideology of the left, but that’s as far as it went. He was part of no leftist conspiracy to take over the United States, like my shipmate contended. He had acted on his own.

The conspiratorial right perceives a vast effort by social structures to subjugate it. It’s an ironic notion, considering that every liberal force in society is a natural outgrowth of resistance toward conservative movements to do that very thing to minorities and women. But many on the right seem immune to that irony.

Planning this sequel, I had discussions with two good friends of mine who lean libertarian. Each sees violence on both sides of the gap that divides white supremacists – embodied by neo-Nazis, American nationalists and militia members – and the counter-movement left – Antifa, Black Lives Matter and other groups who lay claim to democratic socialism and communism. Our conversations were sparked by the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the broadest terms, they are correct. Certain fringe members of the left have embraced violence, lighting limos aflame, breaking windows, burning empty business fronts and, in self-defense, punching Nazis. Conversely, the alt-right’s platform is to subjugate all who don’t look or live like them. This does not exclude killing the Other, a practice which planted its toehold firmly in the American conscious Saturday, which was not the first time. Just months ago, a white nationalist in Portland, Oregon, stabbed to death two good Samaritans and injured a third after they intervened when the white nationalist accosted a Muslim woman for wearing a hijab on a train following a white supremacist rally. There is violence on both sides. One of my libertarian friends was willing to bet that violence perpetrated by people who associate themselves with BLM and those who claim ties to white supremacy is similar in frequency and intensity, and he suggested a systemic approach to the argument. So that’s what I took.

Placed aside each other, the comparison between the two sides takes on ridiculous proportions that would be comical if not for the grave implication of the difference. The difference makes sense. One wishes to relegate the other to a wasteland, committing much the largest amount of social violence of any group; the other wishes to defend itself, barely noted in statistics about social violence against personhood.

Historically and today, the left is responsible for far less violence than the right. The New York Times writes:

White nationalists; militia movements; anti-Muslim attackers; I.R.S. building and abortion clinic bombers; and other right-wing groups were responsible for 12 times as many fatalities and 36 times as many injuries as communists; socialists; animal rights and environmental activists; anti-white- and Black Lives Matter-inspired attackers; and other left-wing groups.

Of the nearly 1,500 individuals in a University of Maryland study of radicalization from 1948 to 2013, 43 percent espoused far-right ideologies, compared to 21 percent for the far left. Far-right individuals were more likely to commit violence against people, while those on the far left were more likely to commit property damage.

Though Black Lives Matter is a more prominent movement and has been blamed (falsely) for espousing violence, observant alt-right members see a more particular threat in Antifa. DemocracyNow! hosted Mark Bray this morning, an academic who specializes in the long, ill-known and rich history of Antifa, provided some clarity. If you don’t know what Antifa is, here’s a quick (oversimplified) refresher. It could be characterized as a vigilante movement against the crimes of the far right. It has nearly a century of roots that intermesh the history of fascist movements, including those that engulfed Italy and Germany in the run-up to World War II. Antifa members are accused of authoritarianism because they are not capable to employ judicial process in their methods. What this criticism misses is similar to what criticism of the Black Panthers missed in the middle-late twentieth century. Like the Black Panthers, the Antifa movement studies and defends normal people against white supremacy and Nazism. As Bray noted to Amy Goodman, DN’s host, once these movements become relatively dormant, they focus on more systemic things like access to public resources for people to whom those resources have been historically denied. Antifa, which has advocated self-defense against Nazis and the denial of speaking platforms to those who promise to advance physical violence against minorities (Milo Yiannopoulos, for example), is a reactionary force. It is a Newtonian reaction to violence that is proactively employed against minorities. So when Antifa members punch Nazis, they see that violence as a necessary action against a threat to the vulnerable.

So considering the scope and nature of action on the left, it’s impossible to characterize the movement as violent. It is not violent. In fact, it is peaceful. The movement on the right if the opposite. It is inherently violent. It inherently asks its members to subjugate or kill people who don’t look or live like them.

In the terrifying context of our moment, I can’t say what matters any better than I did with one of my libertarian friends over email about what Donald Trump means to us. I’ll leave you with it:

Trump, Spencer, Duke, et al., intend to incite violence. Trump encouraged police officers to brutalize those they arrest. He’s well aware that of the nature of his following, that his supporters will take his fusillade against the media as statements in support of violence against reporters. He can’t claim the inciter’s ignorance. He’s born witness to what his statements inspire, on the campaign trail and in the hundreds of hate crimes committed in his name in the week after his election. Spencer and his ilk actively advocate the subjugation of women, blacks, gays, anyone who doesn’t look or live like them. They are advocating violent crimes against people’s bodies, which becomes a public safety problem. An imperfect analogy is yelling “bomb!” in a crowded theater, which is has historically not been considered protected speech under the First Amendment. But the reason that example is imperfect is because it doesn’t have the systemic effect of what the alt-right movement is doing. On a systemic level, this takes away a person’s agency. You are not hurt directly when Trump’s commands his following to beat you up, and you can calmly argue with Trump the illogic of his words, but you will be hurt when his imps lay their hands on you.

This is different from the defense against gas chambers. It is is different than the fleeing of demands for papers. In fact, it is the cause of all those things, the thing  that forced it. I’m wrong in that first paragraph. There is not violence on both sides. There is violence on one, self-defense on the other.

Violence and Free Speech: What’s Unacceptable

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As American white supremacy boils over the cistern of convention that (mostly) formerly contained it, one of the sentiments most palpable in the effluent is that white nationalism is  being denied a platform. This is laughable, considering its most prominent spokesperson is now the President of the United States. Sure, colleges have cancelled speeches by people like Ann Coulter and Richard Spencer, and city councils have deliberated long over their strategies of facilitating white nationalist events. Texas A&M canceled a scheduled white supremacist rally for its campus, citing the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The federal government has little to do with these actions, but white supremacists see them as a systemic affront to their movement, nothing less than a thread in the fabric of the burgeoning brown parade against the white race. Never mind that these white supremacist rallies are accompanied, as a necessary function, by violence. Of course, the retort to this would be that the other side does it, too. Black Lives Matter marches have been flanked by arson. Election protesters broke windows. Two palpable distinctions are ignored in the false equivalency of “both sides” (which to our mathematically challenged POTUS equals “many sides). That became a related but separate subject that I’ll address that in the next post.

As a person who two years ago would have disagreed with what’s below, I’ve learned some painful lessons since November 9. One is that some messages should receive different levels of tolerance in the public arena.

Before I continue, it would be dangerous for me not to qualify this, so here I go. Alex O’Connor, a young British academic who hosts a brilliant and wildly popular YouTube vlog called CosmicSceptic, has argued that failure to give hate a platform allows it to stew in the shadows and become more dangerous than it otherwise would have been. O’Connor’s format for his vlog posts is to take an argument and dissect it logically, primarily taking on popular misconceptions about science and atheism. But he also enthusiastically and respectfully engages the arguments of his disagreers in in-person debates. His show is a prime example of healthy dialogue between warring sides. Science celebrity Bill Nye the Science Guy famously held a prominent debate with Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, an organization that advocates biblical literalism, which resulted in some productivity for the conversation. It’s important not only to provide platforms for regressive ideas but also to engage them. It is the only way to show them for what they are. If we pretend they don’t exist and shun them from the public sphere, it isn’t only anti secular, it isolates regressive ideas to a petri dish in which they are allowed to metastasize.

Some thinkers, right and left, have attempted to construe this effect as part of what happened with the last election. A certain demographic was not heard out by power structures, the logic goes, so it formed its own narrative, largely plagiarized from the dark annals of eugenics, Nazism and slavery, all of which America has in the past embraced. (If you haven’t read James Q. Whitman’s new book, “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law,” you’re missing tons of vital context). This notion is embraced in the flood of feature stories in newspapers about disaffected Trump voters and in Michael Moore’s public musings that Trump voters wanted to toss a wrench in a machine that didn’t work for them. (The average American face that didn’t vote for Trump is lost in this cacophony.) There’s something to this – I have friends and family who, feeling the pinch of capitalism, saw hope in Trump’s empty promises.

But the truth is that the eugenicists, the Nazis and the white supremacists have had their day. They were heard from the beginning of science when power brokers enlisted quack geneticists to prove that blacks are inferior to whites, gays to straights, women to men. With notable exceptions, bigotry ruled the world for most of man’s history. That rule met its end, more or less, last century. It was over with the steps forward of the civil rights, environmental and feminist movements and the Sexual Revolution. Even the capitalism that used regressive structures as tools to maintain its stranglehold on global society has begun to abandon them because their optics have become bad for business. A small example: Google recently fired a prominent engineer, James Damore, for justifying the company’s gender-based employment gap in internal memos on the scientifically wrong assumption that women are genetically disinclined to coding. It’s clear that we know, institutionally, that efforts to suppress women and minorities were – and are – wrong on both scientific and moral levels. Bigotry has seen its last chance in Donald Trump, who, though he read a script denouncing it, represents the dying gasp of white supremacy.

This movement’s only hope now, indeed it’s strategy since its inception, is violence. This is the only mode it knows because violence is its essence. White supremacy necessarily implies violence against anything that doesn’t look, or live, white. Unfortunately for it, society is, at least outwardly, wise to violence. So it has found sheep’s clothing in the First Amendment. It has claimed white victimhood in the aforementioned cancellations, in the aggressive journalism that has been wielded against it, in the loud protest that meets it in every public square. It claims to be beset. It claims to be silenced. Sadly, these complaints are heard, their callers obliged. Governments have gone so far as ultimately ignoring their mandate to maintain public safety to facilitate the violent expression of white supremacy.

There is tremendous power in speech – the power to set things right. And the power to set things wrong. And the power to get people killed. And the power to incite genocide. We’re not to that last one just yet, but if we’re not careful it’s where we’ll be headed. The government is rightly barred constitutionally from leaving any person of her ability to express her opinion. White supremacists are people. The government cannot silence white supremacy. This impossible syllogism breaks my heart. But it does not mean there is nothing to be done. There is a vast array of solutions too complicated to detail in a blog post and too long-term to be considered viable in the urgency of our moment. Systemic socialism that would bring many Trump supporters into the fold of sanity is too far-reaching a goal. The generations that still must learn the racist history of the United States are too far from graduation, the necessary curriculum too far from publication. Trump’s promise of health care for all is too lost in his incoherence and that of Congress. The gerrymandering that ushered in too many racists to the federal Congress will take too long to undo. Impeachment is a years-long process.

What’s needed now is exactly what’s happening at too low a frequency on the grassroots of the left. Loud voices. Strong protest. Angry letters to congresspeople. All of these should say in solid terms that, First Amendment be damned, white supremacists have no part in the American social contract. If there’s a note in Terry McAuliffe’s statement denouncing the white supremacist violence that killed and injured Saturday that should resonate, it’s that white supremacy is not welcome in America. Its members are not welcome. Its expression is not welcome. Its speech, which necessarily leads to violence, is not protected in the Bill of Rights.

Texas A&M has a right – nay, a responsibility – to protect its students from the violence that accompanies the alt-right message. The ivy leagues that have rejected speakers who promised to advocate segregation and incite physical violence on their campuses owe it to their students to draw back their venues. City councils are bound by the social contract to control the atmosphere and stage of the events they do allow. And precisely because the federal government cannot tell a person what to say in the street, a CEO of a American company is free to withdraw his support from a president who is hesitant to declare racism a problem. We are failing to do or to support all or any of this. Donald Trump rails about clear and present dangers in the form of ISIS or North Korea, but he embodies the clearest and most present danger that faces the American people: that of white nationalism. He represents the clear and present danger, and nothing, especially not Nazism thinly disguised as free speech, should stop us as a society from calling it what it is and rejecting it wholly.

Last Ride

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An aircraft carrier’s hangar deck, sans planes.

The shape of the Puget Sound is often likened by Navy personnel who spend time thinking about such things to the outline of a flaccid penis superimposed over the northwestern-most part of the continental United States. The farther directly up from the water body ones perspective, the more it resembles a phallus. But the closer in one gets, the less apt this comic observation seems. Zooming in, it gains texture, complexity, life. Boating on the Sound, it’s not rare to see orcas and seals and all kinds of avian life. It teems (less and less) with salmon, despite humanity’s best efforts to rid the world of these remarkable fish. It’s crustaceans serve as a bellwether for the ocean acidification crisis. Most of the world’s people will never see it laid out before them with such intimacy as sailors who deploy from the Navy stations in Bremerton and Bangor, about halfway between Seattle, which sits just north of the Sound’s crook, and Tacoma, perched on the Sound’s terminus.

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Sunrise and Canadian wildfires.

I’ve been out of the Sound on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis more times than I can remember. Since the world wars, Bremerton, where the carrier is stationed, has been a staging point for much of the United States’s epic projection of power. (Strike groups sent from here have historically shown Southeast Asia and the Middle East the reach of American military hegemony, which is shockingly massive at larger than the 10 next-largest military powers in the world combined.) The Stennis’s 2016 deployment was part of this effort. Circling the contested Spratly Islands for nearly seven months, she thumbed America’s nose at China. But this last underway, my final in the Navy, only lasted a little less than three days.

To begin, my coworkers, jubilant at the warm weather, danced to rap music on a forward weapons platform, which juts from the side of the ship, as she navigated the Sound.

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Dancing on a launcher.

Sailors who helm the ship as officer of the deck say the transit is fraught. There’s one point where the carrier, whose flight deck is longer than three football fields, obscures all water, the bow seemingly pointing only at land before she must make an impossible sharp turn. The Stennis has never run aground, but I had never been on a Sound transit (or never having computed the physics), I’d deem it an impossible act.

The mountains were obscured by a haze from the wildfires that burned in nearby British Columbia. Radio stations and newspapers had spent the previous several days warning news consumers of the health risks posed by breathing in the toxins that flooded the air from the fires, whose intensity has been linked to climate change. But the air took on a magical quality, which to me signified the anesthetizing nature of such disasters – the frog in the pot of boiling water complex. In any case, such a broad topic didn’t matter; we had to make sure the ship could sail.

I belong to a division of fire controlmen (maybe I’ll address the inherent sexism in Navy nomenclature in a future post, but suffice the term for now). This job has nothing to do with fighting fires, a common misconception. We are essentially electronics technicians who specialize in “fire control,” a field that deals in any weapon that is more complex than a rifle, from a five-inch gun to the famous Tomahawk missiles, dozens of which the Trump administration fired at a Syrian air base early this year. My system, an aging self-defense apparatus developed by NATO nations, spans the entire ship from radars at the top of the superstructure to the launcher platforms sitting only 30 feet above the ocean surface. Our mission for this underway was determine the system could track and fire a missile at a target.

The Navy hired an aircraft (whose flight cost hundreds of thousands of dollars) to fly back and forth over the ship, testing the radars and computer systems that comprise the ship’s combat systems. I was at a computer monitor that displayed radar data and controlled its accuracy. When my radar hooked the target, I relayed the information to watch standers in the combat direction center (the blue room you see in movies that depict tactical sea warfare). During the hours-long war game, I read nearly 50 pages in Stephen King’s “It,” looking up occasionally to notify the central watch station of things like: “Track No. 801788 hooked at 30K yards, bearing 287, engageable.” And the watch stander would shoot. (The missile circuits were simulated – it’s too expensive even to test live NATO missiles anyway, which are no longer manufactured and run the Pentagon about $1.5 million apiece.)

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A NATO Sea Sparrow launcher.

It’s a boring job on an aircraft carrier; fire control is not a carrier’s mission. Her only reason for existence is to launch fighter planes. That’s for later when the carrier is called to the world’s destabilized places, where her aircraft will drop bombs on targets called out by ground forces, sometimes accurately.

I slept most of the rest of these three days, stood a brief maintenance watch, did some paperwork. Coming back, I discovered that a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the city’s decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee had ended when a 20-year-old white man rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, martyring a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others. If you live under a rock, the new President saw evil on both sides of the line.

Underway, we have internet feeds. We even have several daily news digests compiled by ship officers from several different publication, and these have a decent readership that includes me. Still, I have to catch up in the archives. I scanned a headline, early Sunday morning. But I heard nothing from anyone aboard about the violence, even when we had pulled in. They’ll probably talk about it at work tomorrow.

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Pulling into port.

That’s what I missed on my last ride, and when I reopened my Twitter feed when we pulled in, one day early, on Sunday morning, a wave of nausea hit me. The world is still out there. As much as we think it’s healthy or romantic to escape, it’s still there, and escaping it does nothing but put you behind the story. Maybe my last ride in the military should have meant more to me than missing the weight of a current event. Several FCs who left the ship during the 2016 deployment saw it as a turning point in their lives; they demanded shipmates celebrate with them in final port calls. I still have to work on the Stennis till early September, but this was my last ride.

Maybe it’ll mean more later. Maybe I’ll write more then.

Not Hunting with Dad

I haven’t been hunting in years even though the practice holds great import in my family. It’s depressing in a way because my Dad is a hunter and he’s always wanted me to be one. He wanted me to be a hunter in the same way he wanted me to be a football gourmet, a man, as defined in hunting America. Instead, I became a socialist and a vegan – not a lifestyle that resonates in much of hunting America. Dad humbly, willingly, sadly let me go to these things, all of which he hates as a function of his somewhat backwards political views.

I once asked him the difference between the major political parties and he said, “The Republicans like small government and the Democrats want government to be more involved in your life.” This came with no small implication, though my teeter-tottering over time wouldn’t favor his side of things.

But the political stuff was only part-time; mostly, he wanted me to hunt. There was a practical element to this. Between lectures on his truck radio from Rush Limbaugh, there was work to be done. We had to feed the family. But it was also wistful and romantic. It was a man thing. He gave me his Dad’s favorite deer rifle after grandpa died. Nostalgically, he asks me every summer if I’m coming hunting in the fall. I never am. “I can’t hunt, Dad; I’m vegan, now.” It even goes against my convictions to help him dress out the meat.

Dad once had me and several other hunters wade across a creek, about knee-deep, in a snowstorm. We had to get to the herd up the other bank, who knew the miles – who cared? I was about 15. He led the charge and coaxed us across from the opposite bank. We didn’t have waders, only permeable hiking boots, bought at an army surplus. A cousin paced back and forth across the original bank to muster the courage for the plunge. We made it and killed elk.

Throughout my life, our hunting grounds included a ridge top a three-hour hike from the oversight of land managers and one year Dad and I ran across a flock of grouse milling stupidly in the underbrush. We had no bird tags but one is dinner and on this desolate ridge top what land manager would know? Under Dad’s deft instruction, I took aim through the scope on my 30.06 and delivered a slug through a bird’s neck, whose head flew into the underbrush. (Any hunter knows small game should be targeted with buckshot but here we were with no shotgun.) The survivors panicked into frosted ferns while their late colleague flapped violently on the ground for four or five minutes. In keeping with tradition, I thanked the Lord for the life of His creation and Dad later expressed such pride in my invocation that I still feel guilty and cynical that I since abandoned my faith.

Dad is not a tall man but he was big in a different way. Hunting, he wore an orange vest and a trucker cap, a .7 mm magnum rifle slung at his shoulder, gutting knife in a sheath at his waist. He looked bigger than mountains. One day, I watched him descend the ridge top to our campsite in his burly gait that would have seemed rushed or panicked were it not so deliberate. He had found the elk in the dark and, having been up hours before the sun, he was going to show us to the herd. He rallied the troops and we lit out. He was stoic about pain, apparently impervious to cold, heat, bumps, scrapes and the occasional mauling of his own flesh. He’d sometimes come home from work bleeding from a gash but confused where it came from. He once broke up a fight between a pit bull and a golden retriever and when the pit bull grabbed his fingers it didn’t let go until the digits were mangled. Hospital averse, he drank a little and had my kid sister mend his fingers with a sewing needle and green thread. He made his living finishing concrete, which ruins knees and backs and skin. For more than a year, he took chemotherapy and peripheral drugs for prostate cancer. The treatments left him covered in oozing boils and addled his psyche – he had trouble remembering which pills he had taken and how many. Asked how he was during this time, he’d consistently say, “Pretty good,” even if he was on the verge of tears, which he often was, driven nearly mad by the incessant itching of his skin condition.

I stopped hunting with Dad before I stopped marveling at his ability and motivation to keep things together. Growing up, I was becoming aware of mammon’s monument in American society and Dad moved a lot of it – he once estimated $1 million a year – through his concrete finishing enterprise. But he didn’t see much of it considering the substantial overhead of the construction trade. On top of this, he was not much of an accountant, often unaware of a payment’s origin or destination. Yet he seemed to always have enough money to make it work and then some. Several times, he let me use his credit card to order something expensive over the nascent world wide web and he would say, I’ll just pay it off this month. I’d have procrastinated.

I wasn’t at the time aware that my Dad was slowly establishing a foundation for bankruptcy, having taken out loans to pay for this or that. He bailed his employees out of jail so they could work the following morning or made foolish real-estate investments. He ran up credit card debt. He once bought a 25-foot recreational motor boat and spent months sinking money into refurbishing it. It always broke down on boating trips to Western lakes and he eventually sold it to a colleague. His finances were vague to me, as well as to my mom even though she would, as a wife does, come to hold great stake in those finances. Later, I helped him accomplish bankruptcy, asking him to cosign a private $10,000 college loan that likely contributed to downgrades in his credit score. I was 23 and suffering an alcohol problem. He couldn’t say no to me, even though he seemed to know what I would end up doing with the cash. I drank it all away.

Today, he has undergone the cancer treatments and knee and back surgeries and his burly, deliberate clip has become a weak, lumbering struggle for purpose that nonetheless seems without urgency or a goal. He has declared Chapter 7 and bemoaned the government taking some of his guns as repayment. He is trying, without success, to refinance his mortgage.

These developments were inscrutable in the fog of the future and perhaps that’s why I remember him as remiss in fatherly lectures on future responsibility. Fate wouldn’t be obvious for more than a decade. Having so far paid faithful homage to creditors, my Dad had for the time good credit and a business and a family. He ran the business. My mom home-schooled my kid sister and me for a dozen years. Both parents spent exhaustive afternoons paying bills and negotiating on the phone with people who controlled their purse strings, while my kid sister and I played with friends. We occasionally ate out but mostly, mom cooked. I dreaded the day when I would have to organize my life for myself in that way. It seemed so complicated, such a monumental task that I thought I would never be its equal.

We focused on immediate things.

On the hunting trip when I killed the grouse were my cousins Ryan and James, both professed agnostics from Dad’s side of the family; Ben, a budding evangelist; and Jesse, who professed biblical mores and occasionally sexually assaulted family members. Ben and Jesse were my mom’s blood nephews. Dad and I carried the bird back to camp and Ryan, who now runs a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado Springs, helped me field dress it. It was peppered with sickly blue tumors and we discarded it.

Anyway, Dad’s not fully able to hunt anymore because of a recent back surgery and replaced knees, but don’t tell him that; he goes anyway, bagged his cow elk last year. He is a formerly intrepid man who’s now afraid of dying sedentary. So he makes sure to hunt every year against doctors’ better judgment.

I’m headed home next month, getting out of the Navy to live with my parents for a short time. Dad’ll ask me to hunt. I’ll say I can’t. And he’ll go alone.

Horses and Miracles

I don’t remember the horse’s name, but I’ll call him Tripp for the sake of this story. It seems a fitting name, considering what he put me through. 

The first time I saw him was in a dusty graveled parking lot at the edge of a sage field at the foot of a ridge that descended from a bigger ridge in Northwest Colorado. Tripp stood tethered lamely between two seasoned geldings, glancing sideways at each as if they’d eat him if he made the wrong move. The geldings simply looked annoyed that he’d come along. He was a good 500 pounds lighter than each of his compatriots, green broke, meaning he was just fresh from learning to have a human on his back. Hired from a nearby horse-renting outfit, this would be his first outing.

I was 15 or 16 and the second-lightest of our hunting party, which consisted of my kid sister, me, several men in their early 50s, including my dad, and several of my cousins in their mid-20s, who were tough enough to walk the trails. The horses were not meant primarily for riding; their job was to pack in gear and pack out the hundreds of pounds of elk flesh we planned to return from the hills. But before we killed any elk, their backs were less the heavy ungulate meat and could each bear a rider. The heavy elders of the group would take the larger, more experienced horses, and my sister and I would take turns riding Tripp.

The lower parts of the ridge were marked by heavy buck brush. As it gained thousands of feet in elevation, that brush was replaced by looming black timber interspersed with deciduous aspen stands, known as “quakies” for the way they dance in the wind. (Quakies are part of the largest living organism on the planet. Every tree in a stand is connected in one root system. The largest quaky stand, known as Pando, is visible from outer space.) This vegetation was cut by treacherously exposed switchbacks. The earth fell away from these deer trails to an expanse of air that hung silently over a vast and desolate network of lower-lying hills and arroyos stretching past the sage fields that surrounded the parking lot where we started. From here, the lot was a speck in the distance.

The horses, including Tripp, kept sure footing on the ascent.

We found a campsite in a brake of evergreens, bordered by a quaky stand, on one of the shelves that cut flat into the mountainside as we neared the crest. The site was occupied by the corpse of a black bear that we dragged into the brush. The flats of the top were a tangled of deadfalls and suck holes.

Scouting on maybe the second day, two of the men guided the two older horses through a deadfall, and I followed on Tripp. I remember wearing my .30-30 deer rifle across my back. The trail split. To the right, the horses would have to hop a downed evergreen, maybe a foot thick. To the left, the trail passed beneath another fallen tree that was suspended just high enough for a horse to walk under with no rider. The men took their horses to the right, and Tripp, eyeing the tree he’d have to clear, cut to the left preferring to go under. The evergreen on the left scraped me off onto my back into a pile of leaves. Tripp panicked into the underbrush.

The fall knocked my breath out, and I felt my back to find no rifle. A cousin ran over to see if I was okay, and he was holding my gun. I’d probably handed it to him before I mounted the horse and forgot to put it back on, but I took it in the aftermath of the incident as a Christian miracle that I wasn’t wearing it. Could it have broken my back? My cousin, a budding evangelist, did not hesitate to agree.

I was told to get back on the horse, and I did.

The rest of the expedition remains something of a blur. I don’t even remember if I killed an elk. I don’t really care.

Hunting, by tradition, is supposed to be enjoyable act. But it is a fraught exercise in my family, polluted by a decades-long string of bad experiences, each different, each worse from certain perspectives.

The next time I went to the same place with horses I was 24. My dad had convinced his sister’s new husband and the husband’s brother that they needed to kill an elk on this land. We camped in two RVs – one theirs, the other ours – in the parking lot and planned to hike to the top of the ridge every day.

The trail to the top of the ridge was bordered by private ranchland, and it was imperative to be aware of the borders as trespassing can yield heavy fines and jail time. But worse, public enforcement of private property rights can be overshadowed by a more immediate threat. People in the West idolize private ownership of things and to shoot someone for trespassing is not to eschew convention. It’s an accepted and inherent danger of being in mountains, and if one is not careful of boundaries she risks death.

The first day of the hunt, Dad convinced his enlistees that an elk they had spotted perhaps three-quarters of the way to the top was on public land, a legal kill. We were all badly hungover from a debauch the night before. They shot the elk, and it died on ranchland. To get to it, we’d have to trespass. Expressing discomfort, Dad’s brothers-in-law suggested we leave the elk to avoid being ticketed or shot. Feeling insulted, Dad took the horse and stormed off into the brush to harvest the elk alone. I tried to follow, and he told me to stay with the others. So we made our way back to the dusty lot over a period of several hours. It was almost dusk. Dad, having arrived long before us with the animal, had been drinking. He raved about loyalty and brotherhood, casting deep moral aspersions on their character for not having participated in the crime of harvesting the elk.

“Brothers don’t do that to each other!” he declared. He was so upset that he tripped and stumbled through a campfire he’d built. They gave no ground. 

“You’re a belligerent asshole!” one of the brothers-in-law concluded to Dad.

We split to our respective RVs, them with a bottle of Scotch. Dad guzzled a quart of tequila and insisted I go on a drive with him. I did, and, behind the wheel, he fumed the entire time about his convictions regarding trust between “brothers,” to Dad a hotly Christian concept.

I told Dad it was the drinking, and he’d probably not remember why he was upset in the morning. Morning rolled around and he did remember. Everyone woke early with drawn faces and agreed to part ways. Dad would stay by himself and keep hunting. His brothers-in-law would return home to the Front Range, near Denver. They wouldn’t talk for years until my aunt’s husband offered to help Dad install some wood flooring and they swallowed their differences. They didn’t solve them. They swallowed them. 

The previous mission comes back into focus in my brain when we were packing up camp, loading provisions and whatever meat we’d harvested onto the horses. Dad had me climb onto Tripp carrying a five-gallon water container that had a block of ice knocking hollowly around inside it. I was halfway on when Tripp, spooked by the rattling of the ice, bolted into the bordering quaky stand at perhaps 20 miles an hour. I latched on, sticking out sideways from the horse, and wouldn’t let go. Dad chased after us as the trees whizzed within inches of my skull, screaming for me to jump. After maybe 10 seconds that spanned at least 10 minutes, I did, rolling, sliding to a stop on the ground. I dusted myself off, mostly uninjured aside from some scrapes and bruises. We took it as a Christian miracle that I wasn’t knocked unconscious or killed by a passing aspen. 

Dad had me back on the horse in a few moments, and we made our way back to the lot.

Clarification on Philippine Economic Growth

Donald J. Trump said something truly bat-shit stupid about the economy during his prominent Oval Office interview with editors at the Wall Street Journal that took place last month.

To establish context: it is widely accepted as fact, or at least as historic trend, among economists that when a country reaches a certain stage of social development, it doesn’t have as much room as it once did to grow economically. Once a country reaches its ceiling, its “developed” stage, a high economic growth rate doesn’t necessarily help people. As noted last year by the Atlantic’s Alana Samuels: “[D]espite a growth rate that has averaged three percent over the last 60 years (which is quite robust), there are still 43 million Americans living in poverty …” She goes on: “the median income of households in 2014 was 4 percent lower than it was in 2000, despite positive economic growth in all but two of the years during that time period.” In fact, a low growth rate can be considered preferable to a higher one; when a developed economy experiences a drastic spike in economic growth, as has happened from time to time in the United States, it is a pretty good sign of a bubble that is about to burst and leave a lot of unfortunate souls in the lurch. (It probably also heralds golden parachutes for those who designed the bubble.) Simply put, the country has grown into its adult britches, and those britches just need to be washed or patched or tailored every now and again.

Conversely, a country that lives mostly in poverty, i.e. is in the “developing” stage, has lots of room to grow. These countries experience – along with with often staggering levels of social instability, unrest, even violence – fast economic growth, sometimes exceeding 6 percent.

To give a sense of the mind-boggling nature of exponents, French economist Thomas Piketty included in his 2013 book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” a graph plotting what he called the “the law of economic growth.” His exponent shows that a 1 percent growth rate, sustained over a millennium, increases a figure by a factor of 20,959 percent. That for 2.5 percent is 52,949,930,179. He couldn’t include the number for 5 percent on his graph because it wouldn’t fit. (76)

With that in mind, here is what Trump said, as noted by Slate’s Jordan Weissmann, during Trump’s WSJ interview.

So I’ll call, like, major – major countries, and I’ll be dealing with the prime minister or the president. And I’ll say, how are you doing? Oh, don’t know, don’t know, not well, Mr. President, not well. I said, well, what’s the problem? Oh, GDP 9 percent, not well. And I’m saying to myself, here we are at like 1 percent, dying, and they’re at 9 percent and they’re unhappy. So, you know, and these are like countries, you know, fairly large, like 300 million people. You know, a lot of people say—they say, well, but the United States is large. And then you call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s pretty amazing how many people they have. So China’s going to be at 7 or 8 percent, and they have a billion-five, right? So we should do really well.

But in order to do that – you know, it’s tax reform, but it’s a big tax cut. But it’s simplification, it’s reform, and it’s a big tax cut …

The United States, stepping into the dominant global economic role, grew quickly after World War II (but also partially as a result of FDR’s deficit spending). It’s filled up the niche. There’s no room to grow. Trump’s economic gibberish doesn’t comport with reality. And the third-world countries he cited are growing at a breakneck pace to catch up with the developed world. Growth rate has much less to do with a country’s population than it does with a country’s level of social advancement.

Anyway, that’s what got me thinking about my last post, in which I compared the economic growth of the Philippines and that of the United States:

The growth rate for gross domestic product [in the Philippines] was 6.1 percent in 2015 and 6.9 in 2016, a staggering number. Compare it to 2.6 and 1.6 in the United States respectively.

I didn’t note this subject’s nuance in the way it deserves. But I wanted, in light of the president’s statements (and my tweet of the Weissmann piece), to clarify why I used this comparison. There are three important distinctions between the president’s statement and mine. The first is that I did not use the comparison to justify a massive tax giveaway to the wealthy, which his economic policies call for. The second is that I used the United States’s growth rate as an example of relatively fast growth in the longview of history; global economic growth sat at less than 0.1 percent for most of economic history. (Piketty, 73) Though politicians generally remain antsy until economic growth approaches 3 percent, the 1- to 2-percent level is quite enough for a vibrant – even unsustainable and perhaps dangerous – long-term economic prosperity. In that light, the comparison is apt, though I should have further explained it in the post. The third pass I give myself is that I used the growth rate to illustrate the Philippines as a state lost in the throes of various economic, social and environmental crises. It was not a cherry-picked figure to insinuate, as the president did, that the United States is losing out in the global economy. Though it’s lost a bit of steam, the United States is not lagging the third world.

Still, I could have been clearer.

P.S. Read “Capital.”

Plastics in the Philippines

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The USS John C. Stennis anchored in Manila Bay.

​At the beginning of last year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published a report that provided a sobering perspective on global plastics use. One particularly disturbing item it detailed, as noted in the Washington Post, was that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans if current trends hold strong. “Islands” of trash float in the seas’ gyres, vast whirlpools that swirl in the crooks of ocean currents. National Geographic describes the waste patches as comprised of a “cloudy soup” of microplastics that have broken down and accumulated in the eddys, which are sometimes bigger than large countries. Seventy percent of the material, which includes not only plastic but all kinds of human garbage, sinks to the ocean floor, so it is virtually impossible to measure the volume of the debris. The largest plastic island spans the entire breadth of the Pacific Ocean.

​That’s the open ocean. More concentrated garbage depositories fester in some of the world’s ill-regulated ports. Some nautical miles offshore in Manila Bay in summer 2016, my Navy aircraft carrier dropped anchor, and particulate plumes rose and spread on the polluted water’s surface like cream in coffee after a spoon drops into the cup. Sailors boarded a rickety port transit vessel for a choppy 45-minute ride to a bangin’ party on the concrete pier and all over the city. The whole journey in, no fish were visible in the water, only incredible tangles of plastic like noodle soup stretching across the Bay. The water to the horizon was littered with illegal fish traps.

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Manila Bay’s trash soup.

Solid pollution is hardly the only kind off the shores of Manila and its suburbs. In the Bay, fuel spills are commonplace, prominent ones happening at least every decade. In August 2013, the Philippines’ largest refining operation, Petron Corporation, leaked half a million liters of diesel into a 300-square-kilometer area just offshore, creating a rusty slick. Activists demanded the responsible facility in Rosario be shut down. The government banned fishing in the Bay and deployed patrols that enforced the ban, affecting the livelihoods of tens of thousands of fishermen.

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Manila Bay’s shipping lanes.

The Bay is famously congested with shipping traffic. In 2014, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada had to suspend the city’s daytime truck ban for eight days to clear the port of cargo loads that had stacked up ahead of a WEF meet. Though the country is party to an impressive array of international environmental accords, Philippine efforts to embrace environmental rules historically lag the needs of its ecosystems. For example, it was only 2015 when the Philippines agreed to the ambitious international regulatory framework known as MARPOL 73/78 (formulated by the UN’s International Maritime Organization in 1973, updated in 1978 and fully implemented in 1983), which limits the ways and amount ships can pollute the world’s oceans and ports. Academic study of Manila Bay consistently finds high levels of pollutants in the water body. The pollution is so bad that it alters the chemistry of the water. This can spur drastic increases in phytoplankton populations known as “red tides” for the crimson blankets they create on the ocean surface. These phenomena choke out other forms of life, including sea grass, which is a vital habitat for ocean fauna.

On the trek into port from the aircraft carrier, I didn’t know whether the swirling plastic was denser on this particular path than in other parts of the delicate ecosystem here. The only visible structures were the ship we had left, the largest Philippine cityscape ahead and the smattering of fish traps.

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A fish trap.

These sights made the Bay seem constricted to our own little experience, but the Bay is in fact one-third again bigger than Houston. It is a complex and misunderstood place, despite the effort that goes into understanding it. It has mudflats and sandy beaches and mangroves and coral reefs and hundreds of species of birds. If there’s something scientists and activists who care about the Bay have tried to tell people it’s that the critical and fragile ecosystem can and should be revitalized. Three years before my ship’s port call there, officials from Greenpeace and the University of the Philippines publicly encouraged the Philippine government to aggressively attack the Bay’s environmental woes.

The government should attack those of the rest of the nation, too. Some the most pressing social concerns that face the country are environmental. The CIA World Factbook notes the following: “uncontrolled deforestation especially in watershed areas; soil erosion; air and water pollution in major urban centers; coral reef degradation; increasing pollution of coastal mangrove swamps that are important fish breeding grounds.”

On land, there are other problems.

On the pier outside the Mall of Asia, the world’s 11th largest shopping mall, some coworkers and I hailed a cab and negotiated fare to our hotel, some miles inland. The name on the driver’s card was Jeremy, but he said “Call me J.” He had to put his beater sedan in third gear to make it up the hills on the highway. 

​If Bay congestion is considered an economic nuisance, Manila’s packed byways are a catastrophe. The thoroughfare we drove on, known as the C4, six jumbled lanes across, was choked with more cars than I’ve ever seen. The infrastructure was crumbling and much of the road was lined with hastily constructed building facades advertising massage parlors, lawyers and tire services. Billboards insinuated local political candidates. (President Rodrigo Détente, who has since waged a barbaric drug war that has killed thousands of people, had just been elected and it was all anyone could talk about.) These signs were blackened by a thick highway dust and there was little or no sidewalk. I couldn’t tell how a person would patronize any of the businesses, but the buildings crawled with people. There was no apparent parking. The only pleasantness was the vivid flora that encroached on these structures, peeking through cracks and climbing the sides, a constant and oddly calming reminder that if the population stopped growing for one second the forest would take over.

​ The highway ducked over hills and into valleys and the going was slow, and the whole time J tried to solicit more services. He’d overcharged us for the cab ride and seemed convinced he could continue taking advantage.

​ “I be your escort all night, I get ladies, very sexy, very beautiful. I take you to best bars, no lady-boys. Stay away from clubs near Dusit Thani [our hotel], they are full of lady-boys.”

​ Our hotel came into view over the next hill, a Philippine lodestar of modernity and exclusion. It was the tallest building in its part of the city and was surrounded on all sides by flat, upscale shopping malls. There was a Buffalo Wild Wings and a Marks & Spencer. J let us off at the hotel. ​We politely took his phone number and furtively cast it away. 

Mustachioed, important-seeming men in short khaki shorts and thin white button-ups, sleeves rolled, escorted equally relaxed families through the lobby. The wives wore expensive sundresses, the children vacation garb to match their parents.

A coworker and I had booked an “Executive Club” room and the concierge took us to the sixteenth floor on the elevator and got off and told us we had to board a “transfer elevator” to the check-in floor. Our room had two toilets and two plasma televisions that played cerebral English-speaking Asian new stations. There were 800 square feet and a free massage. Inside, there were marble floors, outside, granite tables. During happy hours, the bars charged 590 pesos (about $12) for bottomless drinks and the room included a breakfast buffet at the lobby restaurant, The Pantry, which served exotic food, some of which I couldn’t identify, to guests in padded armchairs. There was fresh-squeezed fruit juice and suckling pigs roasting on spits. There were mimosas and bloody marys and screwdrivers and beer and the locals wanted us to drink. We did. It was the top of the world, which we’d never get to in the United States on an enlisted military salary.

​ The previous time a carrier pulled into Manila several years prior, a drunken marine enlisted the service of a transgender prostitute and when he discovered the nature of the goods, he murdered her and left her bloodied corpse in a hotel bathroom. Courts recently upheld the marine’s conviction on the charge of homicide, which, in the Philippines, does does not entail malicious intent. 

Though Duterte is cooling to the Philippine relationship with the United State favoring better relations with China, the Philippines is no stranger to foreign militaries. It has been occupied by Western nations for most of its history. Spain controlled it from the 16th century until 1898, when the United States wrested the archipelago in the Spanish-American War. (Many Filipino families carry on Hispanicized surnames.) The country’s more than 7,000 islands are poised at the locus of global commerce, conveniently sandwiched between Japan and the South China, Sulu and Sulawesi seas. For a country the media has aggressively and thoroughly labeled “third-world,” the Philippine economy, though tight, is quite stable, according to the Factbook. The Philippines has enjoyed a budget surplus for 14 consecutive years. The growth rate for gross domestic product was 6.1 percent in 2015 and 6.9 in 2016, a staggering number. Compare it to 2.6 and 1.6 in the United States respectively. This breakneck pace and relative economic stability does little to mask the vast wealth gap. While money flows into the pockets of the wealthy, the poor languish. More than 20 percent of the country lives in poverty, and we could smell the strata wafting from the kitchens of The Pantry.

One morning, we got to know our poolside bartender, a dogged man, probably 45, who worked extra so he could send his daughters to special schools in Japan. He worked this bar and a number of other locations around town. Short, barrel-chested, mustachioed and well-dressed, he tended to American Navy women in the pool who demanded their whiskey and Coke, though the full bar was not open yet. He personally brought the drinks from up from the downstairs bar. He did everything we wanted. I tried to help by taking my beers at the bar instead of having him bring them. He had not seen his daughters in years. One of our younger sailors tried to give him business advice.

I drank single malts with a friend on the hotel’s top-level floor, the Executive Club. My friend longed for his pregnant wife, and we focused on personal, simple things. I was at the top of the system. I can’t understand tiers above me in America, at which some don’t sweat their next leer-jet purchase.

Sixteen floors downstairs on the street, a snaggletooth man peddled prostitutes outside a convenience store where we purchased our liquor. 

“I can get you girls, good-looking girls, send them to your room. What is your room number?” he asked us.

Weathered by time and hardship, he marveled how I could afford not to sweat a few nights in the Dusit Thani Executive Club. The layers in the economic spectrum don’t end. It’s a punch in the gut to realize that you live at the surface, on top of almost everyone.