A Bridge to Nowhere

My family has been in America a long time.

My first descendant was a Dutch immigrant to New Amsterdam in the 1630’s named Wyckoff. He was an indentured servant who rose to become a colonial judge after the Dutch lost the territory to the English. His immigration marked the start of an American family line that can be tracked nearly four centuries to my children. The original family house in Flatbush is still standing. It’s the oldest structure in New York City.

My wife’s American family is older. They were at Jamestown. Her earliest American descendant was a woman whose first husband was killed in a Native American raid. She later married a ship captain that brought supplies to the colony from England. His name was Bennett, my wife’s maiden name. My oldest son’s first name.

Those two old American lines married into recently arriving Irish Catholic and Mexican families in late 20th century in unions that, for most of history, would have been unimaginable. Centuries of war and bloodshed had to solve the conflict of Catholic and Protestant and Mexican and American so that one day our parents might have an uneventful ceremony at city hall.

In my house, the Age of Religious Wars was reenacted and anticlimactically decided by the local Catholic school and its choice to have the only all-day kindergarten in the city. That was the tie breaker. I was raised Catholic.

2800 miles away, on the opposite coast, my wife was half Mexican with an English last name. She didn’t speak Spanish. And so she was raised white as far as anyone knew. Including her.

Today, my wife and I are two mostly white 40 somethings with three mostly white children in the Southern California suburbs. Hundreds of years of English and Dutch and German and French and Irish and Native American and Spanish cultures and religions have mostly been paved over. Until we did DNA tests and logged onto Ancestry.com to do some research, my wife had no idea she was a quarter native American. And I had no idea that I was entirely Northwestern European. Neither of us had any idea our American roots went back four centuries.

I was raised with no pride in my genetic heritage. Nor any shame. I identified as American; an identity that I was told in school and by my parents was a mixture of immigrants. I was a melting pot. And I drew pride in my identity from that distinction.

This is a common American pattern. Hundreds of years of cultural differences assimilated into a common, contemporary American one. This is how cultural assimilation works.

If one is allowed to assimilate, that is. 

For most of American history, what has been allowed to assimilate into American mainstream culture are white people. And so that seamless transition that my family and my wife’s family, from one local or religious culture to another, was reserved for white people. And so, until recently, American mainstream culture has had an over-representative white identity.

African American history dates back to 1619. Latin American history is rooted in the 16th century. They are deep and rich cultures. But they were kept undeniably separate from white American culture for centuries, with great care and effort.

Two weeks ago a white supremacist drove ten hours to the border town of El Paso in Texas to murder 20 people in a mass shooting at a Walmart. Prior to the shooting, he published a manifesto railing against the “great replacement” and drawing on references from and language used in recent white supremacist mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Christchurch, New Zealand.

In his speech condemning the shooting, President Trump called for unity. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”

I applaud the President’s condemnation. But I struggle to dive deeply into the cognitive dissonance it takes to be moved by it. The hard reality Americans are struggling to reconcile in the modern identity politics environment is that hate does have a place in America. And our history is riddled with white supremacy.

Our founding documents originally reserved voting rights for “white persons of good character.” It took four scores and seven years and thirteen amendments before the 14th granted citizenship to black Americans. Asian immigrants weren’t granted citizenship until the 1940s. Interracial marriage was illegal when my parents married. Candidates who ran on segregationist platforms served in the Senate until the Obama administration. And from 1920s to the 1960s, immigration quotas were designed to allow mostly English, German and Irish immigrants into the country.

Policies that forwarded white American interest at the expense of other races are undeniably ingrained in our history.

This history is important to remember. Not because white people like me should walk around with heads hung low in shame. Like all histories, America’s has both shame and triumph. And though the sins of the father shouldn’t be visited on the child, we can’t ignore the past. And we have to understand where America came from. And where we are going. And where we are on the arc of that journey.

America will lose its majority white demographic in my lifetime. This is reasonably certain. Most of the people that will be alive then are alive today. And most of the people that are alive today that won’t be then are already known. Demography is easy to predict.

If we closed the doors to immigrants tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the fate of the white American majority. If we left immigration open only to white people from developed nations, it wouldn’t change it either as they don’t come here in large enough numbers anymore. At current inter-marriage and birth rates, over time, 25 years or so, there will be fewer white only Americans than non-white only Americans. The shift has already happened. It is inevitable.

The only questions we need answered are who are the right leaders with the right policies and the right new American ideas to lead us through it.

Four years ago, when then candidate Trump launched his campaign for president, railing against Mexican immigration and riding a wave of anti-immigration sentiment towards a wire to wire victory in the Republican Primary and a general election in which he won every contested state, I was concerned. My concern was that we’d unlocked an undercurrent of populous anger that was motivated by an impossible aim; to keep America frozen in the cultural and demographic glory of the past.

We danced around issues like the economy and  manufacturing jobs. We played lip service to trade and an America first policy. But what both research and a cursory view of any Trump rally will tell you is that what binds the most vigorous Trump supporters together the most are two characteristics. 1-Views on immigration. 2- Views on politically correctness.

The new GOP led by President Trump isn’t content with simple indifference towards the plight of minority populations in America. They’ve given voice to the anxieties of a majority population living through demographic shift in real time. President Trump has taken aim at the institutions of the media, academia and the liberal leaning tech sector who have worked to anchored American cultural norms of intolerance towards racism. And he’s made impossible promises to try to hold together a strong political base, at all costs.

Ethnic majorities that live through demographic shift behave predictably. They are susceptible to populous demagoguery. Fringe ideology of racial purity escalates. Violence against minority populations escalates. Negative attitudes towards immigration and immigrants become more salient.

In the past, when America hit 13% foreign born population, as we are today, the nativist Know Nothing party swept state and local elections in the 1850s. In the 1920s when it did again, emergency immigration quotas were passed to ensure an ethnic majority. Today we have both relatively high immigration, a changing ethnic demographic and an information and social media age that breaks down regional separation.

As the pattern shows, President Trump was right on schedule.

His message though, is a loser. And the fear it runs on, is unfounded. There is no replacement of people. Only some mix of assimilation and diversity that makes for a richer, no less American, America.

I live in a minority white region. And it looks mostly like the majority white one I came from with more food choices and more reasons to throw a party. We still drink beer and watch football and baseball. And there’s plenty of conservative non-white folks here. Because when you make conservative views about something other than maintaining a past white culture, you’ll find that conservative views are universal across peoples.

Faith. Family. Tradition. Personal liberties.

We’re living through change. And we need strong civic leadership to bring us through it. The Trump message is a bridge to nowhere trying to stop a shift that can only be stopped through coercion or violence.

What’s the 20-year plan in that direction? Be 20 years angrier? Be 20 years more afraid? That way lies pogroms. There are strong indications that they’re already here.

It’s time to change course.

The Systems Problem of Mass Shootings

Mass shootings are a systems problem; a problem that involves complex environments in which multiple inputs of varying degrees of dependency act together to produce some systemic outcome. And while we may find some intellectual satisfaction in debating the cause of mass shootings—fire arms, mental health, societal rot, toxic ideology—the exercise doesn’t really yield any effective solutions. Because in reality, mass shootings are some combination of all those things, and more. And so, any solution to mass shootings needs to address the systems problem with a systems solution. Anything less is best suited for political signaling.

Solutions and political signaling rarely occupy the same space.

It’s easy to say we ought to take away the guns. Presently that is politically impossible. If we cleared that hurdle, collecting the 100 million guns in America would be nearly impossible to execute. If it weren’t, ensuring that no guns would ever re-enter the country, would be impossible. There are presently no populations of modern humans in which there is no existence of fire-arms. There have been no populations of humans without weapons. And so we must treat the existence of weapons and even fire arms as some constant within the environment that exists within a range. Simply yelling “gun control now” is as unhelpful as yelling back, “it’s not the guns.”

Thinking of it as a range to be managed is perhaps more helpful. Less guns would probably mean less gun violence. But not always. And for different reasons. Because gun violence and more specifically, mass shootings are systems problems.

Sometimes you’ll hear someone refer to a systems problem as a “perfect storm” of events that yielded a rare and unpredictable outcome. This misses the idea of a systems problem. Systems problems are not often “perfect storms.” Things do not have to be “just so” in order for the event to be triggered. On the contrary, the very nature of the nearly countless inputs means that things can be many different ways and the outcome can still be the same. If that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t be a systems problem. It would be some sort of linear causal one in which the chain of events is easily identified, easily broken and the outcome predictably avoided. This isn’t the case in systems problems. And so it isn’t the case with mass shootings.

Certainly, we could try to ratchet up security at group gatherings to reach airport levels. But we wouldn’t be able to support as many group gatherings. So the group gatherings would stop. Except that they wouldn’t because there are no populations of humans that don’t have group gatherings. As there are no populations of humans without weapons. They are emergent activities. And so we see another aspect of the systems problems.

Mass shootings are not a perfect storm. Instead they are a compilation of many different things that can fall within a range of probabilities. Some combination of ranges drives some range of outputs. And some inputs weigh more than others.

If I had only one motivation, to stop mass shootings, I would address it the way I address any systems problem.

Look at the ranges of inputs that yield the best outputs.

Stopping mass shootings likely requires some investment in the following.

-Reduction in the availability of high capacity fire arms.

-Innovations in security of gatherings of mass people.

-Increased access to mental health.

-Increased accountability for fire arms owners/dealers and how the weapons they own/sell are used.

-Legally supported limits of the identity distribution of those that commit them (If we can keep child porn off the mainstream internet…we can limit the distribution of names, manifestos etc of mass shooters.)

Mass shootings appear to be some sort of network emergence; something that happens more because they happen more within a network where information is shared effectively. And so the goal of reducing them yields a compounding effect by removing one of the inputs.

Life in a society in which this is a thing that happens regularly.

Losing

During three weeks in October of 2002, Army veteran John Allen Muhammad and seventeen-year old Jamaican immigrant Lee Boyd Malvo shot 13 random people in random parking lots in the Washington D.C. area from the trunk of their car.  Ten of them died.  For 23 days, the nation’s capital and the nation at large was in the grips of fear.  It would have lasted longer had Malvo not dropped a rifle magazine with his finger prints on it at the scene of one of the shootings.  He did though.  And they were caught, tried and convicted. In 2009, Muhammad was executed. Malvo is presently serving six consecutive life sentences in Red Onion State Prison in Virginia.

At the time, my parents lived in the D.C. area. Those events impacted their lives daily.  They talked about parking their cars differently in parking lots. They thought about using gas stations that had limited access. And in talking to them about it, something occurred to me. We were a year past 9/11.  And we were still recovering from those spectacularly horrific attacks. We were unified though, all focused on preventing the next big sucker punch. As a result we had sweeping authorities for surveillance and travel security in place already.  All were aimed at combating international terrorist organizations. I quietly wondered though, what if the real threat were different than the one we knew?  What if it wasn’t a massive plot that involved years of planning, flight school and an international network of support? What if it just took a gun? And some people willing to do it. Maybe even American citizens.  If that happened, we might be in trouble.

That’s a really hard problem to fix.

But it didn’t happen. And I forgot about it.  Until a handful of gunmen walked into a few places in Paris and killed over a hundred people with guns 13 years later. They tried to kill some with bombs.  But that’s hard to do. There’s a lot that can go wrong with a bomb and even when you don’t get caught, or blow yourself up, bombs are sloppy, inefficient weapons. It was the guns that did the trick. And then I remembered that sinking feeling from the past. Perhaps, they’d finally figured it out.  And then San Bernardino three months later.  And then Orlando.  Without question, we’ve entered a new phase of the threat.

The hard problem is here.

There’s a sobering truth to countering domestic terrorist activities in America.  And yes, someone born and raised in Queens shooting people in the name of their religion is the definition of domestic terrorism.  Even if the religion isn’t Christianity.  Because the important characteristic that separates domestic terrorism from other types are the liberties that the offenders are born with. Which results in the following troubling circumstance:  Currently, there is no legal preventative measures that would stop an American citizen, with no criminal record, who has not been observed to be committing a crime, from practicing his religion, purchasing a fire arm and walking into a nightclub and shooting people. And though we might like to think that there is, there isn’t.

It’s a hard problem. One that currently has no solution. And though the issue of the moment is Orlando and the fiery debates that it has brought about, it’s simply one of many hard issues that we Americans face in the 21st century world that currently have no solution.  Like a lack of funding for entitlements, a changing economy that has eroded the middle class quality of life and crippling urban societal decay.  These issues need a solution.  But right now we can’t get one. Because solutions require us to go a few steps past blame. And we just can’t right now.

That’s a really bad problem.  Not a hard one.  But a bad one.

Blame is the standard you are satisfied with when the outcome doesn’t matter to you. Blame is really not where you want to put your energy in circumstances where the current situation has no existing solution when one is needed.  Blame doesn’t stop the bleeding. Action can. Blame won’t. Even intentional appropriate inaction can. But we can’t do either right now.  Because as a nation, we’re walking hand and hand down the path that was the intent of our enemies 15 years ago when this war started.  It’s been a slow boil.  But it’s hit a fever pitch and the result isn’t good.

Let’s try this thought experiment.  What was the first thing that popped into your mind when you heard about the shooting in Orlando?  If you told me it wasn’t, “Was the shooter a Muslim?” then you are in the minority. There’s actually nothing wrong with that question, in as much as there can be something wrong with any group of words. But the reason for asking it is really the problem. Were you hoping for an outcome?  Were you hoping it was? So that you could be “right”.  Were you hoping it wasn’t?  So they could be wrong.  Honest answers to that question highlight a deep problem that we have.  It was a question we cared less about the answer to 14 years ago.  And it tells us something about where we are now relative to then.

Fourteen years ago, the prospective presidential nominee for our strong conservative conscience would not have gloated about its answer by the way.

Why not? Because we are a weaker nation today then we were in the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when John Muhammad and Lee Malvo did basically the same thing that Omar Mateen did.  It’s not because of our military or the economy or even the government.  Though they’re weaker too, but only because they are a reflection of us. We’re weaker because we are a house horribly divided.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, in a speech given in the Illinois State capital upon his acceptance of the Republican nomination for his state’s upcoming Senate race, delivered the famous phrase, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

Lincoln spoke of the scourge of slavery.  And he was right, though he lost the election. In doing so, he developed the national voice that would win him the presidency two years later. The nation would split over our perspectives on slavery and suffer through a gauntlet of death and economic catastrophe not since duplicated. But we saved the union.  And as painful as it was, it was possible because we were split over a tangible issue.  One that had a clear point and counterpoint, a solution and an outcome. Very little time was spent on who was to blame for the bondage.  Today, though, division is actually the point.  It’s independent of issue.  So the debate stops with blame.

Over the last twenty years, the boom in information and human connectivity has allowed people to exist, like they never have before, in the consciousness of other people.  We have a constant stream of perspectives that gets beamed, literally, into our hands, every day.  And what that’s resulted in is unprecedented exposure to information and opinion.  And one thing that we humans don’t like to do is sit through an opinion that is counter to ours without the opportunity to weigh in.  So we’ve chosen to put our consciousness in the spaces where we’re less likely to encounter those opinions. And we have limitless ways to pick and choose them.  From the sites we like on Facebook, to the cable news channels we watch to the Twitter feed we construct through our choices, we are shaping the info we receive and the opinions we are forced to tolerate.  Which means we’re dividing first, then exploring our issues second.  We are foundationally divided. And like Lincoln said, it’s not good.

So when an issue like an American born, Muslim man, legally purchasing a weapon and shooting 100 or so people in a gay night club after pledging allegiance to a nonsensically misaligned bunch of Islamic extremist groups comes up, we can’t handle it. Instead of a unifying debate about how to solve that type of issue, you have people shouting back and forth at each other the importance of their favorite liberty-specifically, which Constitutional Amendment is more important and which one is only conditionally so.

We actually have a group of people who are responsible for doing that on our behalf though.  It’s called our government.  If you’re looking for a startlingly clear example of the fruits of our poisoned tree of division, start there-our three floundering branches of government.

We have a congress that votes only with their own party at a historically unprecedented level.  Which means that nothing ever gets done because nothing ever gets agreed on. The result is a lack of ability to facilitate basic responsibilities like selecting Supreme Court justices.  Or passing a budget without threat of shut down. Then engine is bogged down. And it spreads to the other branches.

We have eight Supreme Court justices ruling on important issues right now. There’s supposed to be nine.  Because you can’t really have a vote with eight.  It’s like having a best of six games World Series.  It doesn’t work.  Just today, as I wrote this, they came to a four-four tie in ruling on the President’s executive orders on immigration.  And they had to defer their decision to a lesser court.  That’s not the intent of our founders or our people.

And lastly, but by no means least, we have one of the most disheartening presidential elections in the history of our country, where for the first time, we couldn’t muster two suitable candidates to run.  It’s bad.

Our government has actually stopped working.  And not the way that we used to just joke about because sometimes they did things that we disagreed with.  In a literal sense, it no longer facilitates even basic effective outcomes. And that’s where we are in trouble.  Because when we get a real live hard problem, like what to do about the rise of domestic, religiously motivated, firearms perpetrated terrorism, we have no hope. The energy pulls all the thinking into the extreme fringes of the debate leaving the majority of us voiceless and defenseless.  Again, this problem wasn’t there fourteen years ago, at least not the way it is now.

Which takes us to the truly sad outcome of our division. We’re losing this war.  Our enemy is a faceless amorphous body with no resources and no state. We can kill them off. We have, just about all of them.  And they come back in different forms. Because they have the one thing that we don’t-unity of purpose.  It’s horrible.  But simple.  And they all agree. They want to hurt the western way of life.  We, on the other hand, care more about our specific brands of outrage then anything else. Which is why fifteen years into this war, we are worse.  They are the same.  That’s the definition of losing.

The conflict that Lincoln led us through was resolved just as much through legal and legislative action as it was through blood on the battlefield.  We simply can’t do those types of things any more.  And it’s entirely our fault.  The people of America-all of us.

So what do we do?  Perhaps we should put our outrage in one spot.  Outrage that we, as Americans, do not have the ability to do the things we used to, as a civic entity.  Which should be in service to upholding and sustaining the American way of life.  Which means relative safety, prosperity and preservation of liberties-all of them, in as much as they can be preserved and still maintain the other two mandates-life and the pursuit of happiness.  Don’t be outraged at people. Don’t be outraged at opinions. Be outraged at a lack of solutions, not the solution.

If you think that eliminating guns are the answer to reducing domestic terrorism, and your congressmen wasn’t sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, then pick up the phone and complain, and vote differently in November.  If you think that healthcare reform has gone horribly wrong and you’re not happy with the outcomes and your congressmen hasn’t been proactive at forwarding an acceptable alternative, then pick up the phone and complain.  And vote differently in November.  That’s what outcomes based civic responsibility looks like. It’s not pissing and moaning about how awful the humans involved in the process are.   That doesn’t do anything.  And doing is the point.

Democracy is a winning strategy when its participants are unified in their desired outcomes. It’s not, when they can’t be.  We don’t have to agree on politics, but we do have to agree that good, sustainable outcomes for Americans, even the ones not like us, are the goal.  It’s time to stop rooting for or against politicians and start rooting for outcomes. This problem is ours to solve. Because what we have right now, is what losing looks like.  But being behind isn’t the same as losing.  Staying that way is. Five months, until election day.  And we’re all on the clock.  You can it get wrong.  And we will lose.