July 27, 2013
Obama’s Biggest Challenge: Guns, Drugs, or Racism?As a reelected US President, Barack Obama faces a question that should have become of major concern to him last November: what will his legacy be? Two-term presidents have a unique opportunity to make history, and as the first nominally black president in a nation with our painful history of racism, he has not only a golden opportunity to address it from the “bully pulpit,” but also- it will be argued by many-the obligation to do so.
There has been a (timid) indication he may respond to the case as a "teaching opportunity" by his statement that Trayvon "could have been me 35 years ago," a fact anyone who has bothered to read the news for the past 20 years should be able to understand and agree with; at least according to Time Magazine, hardly our most liberal media outlet.
Typically, the hate mongers on the Right, have already thrown down the gauntlet by voicing unequivocal approval of the verdict and denying that the case had anything to do with "race." In fact, the flatulent Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity went a step further by tying Martin, Obama, and marijuana together with an allegation that is best described as "clueless."
My own response is based on reading the comments responding to the Time opinion piece, many of which were discouraging: racist and hateful. On the other hand, there were also many that were reasonable and I didn't find any that were stridently anti-pot, which- as a pro-pot physician- I found encouraging.
What I'd also point out about the marijuana use is that both Trayvon's and Barack's parents had been divorced, a situation I find very interesting and plan to comment on in some detail.
July 24, 2013
Understanding Adam’s Curse, Part 1Our species’ struggle to understand its place in the Universe has, until recently, been led by men. In other words, our species has been predominantly patrilineal throughout its history, which, as science also makes clear, is relatively recent. It's now estimated that our emergence as the dominant cognitive species on Earth came after a brief period of coexistence with Neanderthals (and possibly Denisovans. We are thought to have became the planet’s dominant cognitive species somewhere between two and three hundred thousand years ago.
Despite the opposition of traditional Religions, empirical science has been validated by its results. A continued preference for traditional myths is very understandable; they are far more comforting than a universe progressively revealed as both incomprehensibly vast and infinitely tiny by the measuring techniques of Science itself: galaxies too numerous to count and atomic nuclei so complex as to defy understanding are not at all reassuring.
That may explain why the concept of Daddy is now so important. Until recently, human males have been as dominant in human affairs as in other mammalian hierarchies. Ironically, that notion of male dominance is now being reinforced daily by the engrossing footage shown on wildlife TV shows.
Lessons Learned from "Nature"
Competition is contingent on nutrition: herbivores eat plants, carnivores eat plant eaters. The Omnivore advantage is an ability to eat both. We also know that before we could have spread across the whole planet save Antarctica, our prehistoric ancestors must have been omnivores just to have survived in cold latitudes. Also that unknown ancestors in several different parts of the world must have discovered how to grow crops, a skill that characterized their transition from “prehistoric" (aboriginal) societies to Civilizations.
To be continued.
July 22, 2013
American Racism's Deep RootsI doubt many Americans were very surprised by the Zimmerman verdict. However, it's still much too early to tell if the weeks of courtroom drama and polarized discussions generated by the trial will have a negative or positive effect on its 2 main issues: our national preoccupation with guns and our troubling legacy of racism.
To consider the most recent anomaly first: consistent with our per-capita leadership in gunshot deaths among developed nations, our irresponsible gun lobby has succeeded in quietly getting "stand your ground" laws passed in over 30 states since 2005. Talk about a malevolent fait accomplit! Nor is it very surprising that Florida was the first state to do so.
As for our racist past; while our modern treatment of blacks isn't nearly as brutal as in the bad old days of Judge Lynch and Jim Crow, we are not nearly as "color blind" as most Right Wingers claim. Far from it. In a color blind society, a wannabe cop like George Zimmerman would not go free after stalking and executing an unarmed black juvenile he didn't know just minutes after calling him an "asshole" and a "punk" in a 911 call.
The bottom line is that slavery based on skin color had been institutionalized throughout the Americas long before our founding. Unfortunately, we protected it within our original Constitution and still deny basic fairness to blacks; a situation underscored by the Zimmerman trial, its verdict, and much of the tone-deaf commentary that has followed.
Any realistic assessment of American history must recognize that chattel slavery had been an important part of our colonial economy well before 1776. However, our founders weren't forced to address it as an issue until 1787 when it became part of a dispute over enumeration for purposes of representation: should slaves count as people? As we know, the "3/5 compromise" settled the problem temporarily, but by delaying any consideration of the larger moral and ethical questions, it made things significantly worse. Didn't our revolutionary manifesto proclaim that "all men are created equal?" The delegates ended up by scrapping the Articles of Confederation and writing a new Constitution from scratch; but by avoiding the issue of slavery, they allowed it to fester offstage as it was growing in economic and cultural importance until 1860 when the nation found itself hopelessly divided.
It's difficult to imagine any President but Lincoln who could have held the Union together after Fort Sumpter. Tragically, we never learned how he might have guided us through the difficult days of "Reconstruction," but we know it became a grotesque failure in the hands of his successors. The ultimate result was de jure segregation, a racist policy blessed by the Supreme Court in 1896. More disgrace.
Although we finally passed a voting rights Act a century after Appomattox, the first attempts at implementation sparked riots all over the South and in many Northern cities. Curiously, the "Party of Lincoln" now controls all the state houses of the ex-Confederate states, a political shift comparable to that of Earth's magnetic field.
Although the Constitutional Convention has been admired by historians for helping to end monarchy as the world's default system of government, they have tended to overlook its greatest flaw: sheltering a cruel economic system that betrayed our founding manifesto while it grew in both size and importance through the antebellum period until Secession made the Civil War inevitable.
The implications of that history are complex; they suggest that following defeat, Southern resentment and its regression into a subsistence economy combined to produce sharecropping within the context of Jim Crow laws, a system that became even worse than slavery and lasted for almost another century. Blacks in the South had no choice but to migrate to other parts of the country where their lot was marginally improved, but they were often herded into Ghettos and continued to face discrimination based almost entirely on skin color. That Republican "Neocons" are almost unanimous in denying the existence of a racial issue in the Zimmerman case is both grotesque and an indicator of their lack of intellectual honesty and political intelligence. At this writing, Geraldo, Limbaugh, Coulter, Krauthammer and a gaggle of lesser lights have further exposed themselves as political and historical morons. It's no accident that most of them also deny climate change and support our lunatic war on drugs.
At some point we will have to face some grim realities of our national history: five of our first 7 presidents were Virginia planters who owned slaves and served two terms in office; the 2 one-termers were New Englanders: John Adams and his son, whose opposition to slavery was well known. The 7th was the autocratic Andrew Jackson who owned over two hundred slaves and subjected the Cherokees and other tribes to forced relocation from ancestral lands.
What the Zimmerman-Martin case tells us is that a lot more national soul-searching is long overdue. President Obama's legacy could give him the political power required to lead the nation in the direction of change, but he would have to exhibit a lot more courage than he has so far in another controversial area. Certainly he has the assets: he's a smart, Harvard-educated African American lawyer who is also a Constitutional scholar.
I wish him the best and hope he's up to a job that's even more difficult than Lincoln's. He will need all the understanding and good will the nation can muster.
Note: this entry was first published Saturday, but has since been extensively edited to reflect additional comments in the press. From now on, I'll try to keep up with new comments as they appear; instead of rewriting recent entries. The Zimmerman case has so many manifestations of human weakness, it should furnish grist for my mill for a long time to come.
July 12, 2013
Another Victory for Nixonian "Justice"As the Zimmerman trial was approaching its disappointing resolution, I will confess to a bias of my own: I had believed him guilty of (at least) manslaughter since first reading that a black teenager had been killed in Florida in a stand your ground case. Although, I'd never even heard of legislation by that name, I immediately recognized its NRA fingerprints and have long been ashamed of American world leadership in gunshot deaths, whether from accident, murder, or suicide.
That wasn't always the case; in 1960, when I was a General Surgery resident at a large Army hospital in El Paso, two of my fellow residents were avid gun collectors. At that time, West Texas abounded in collectible old Colts and Winchesters. Both of my friends were collectors who subscribed to the Shotgun News, a print publication they read avidly. Under their influence, I briefly became a bit of a gun nut myself; acquiring- among other firearms- 2 revolvers: a .357 magnum and a convincing .22 cal. replica of an old long barrel Colt 45. I even bought reloading equipment and some black powder so I could reload my own .38 cal "wadcutter" ammunition.
Sometime in the Summer of 1962, late in the third year of Surgery residency, I experienced an event that led me to rethink guns: we were entertaining guests on a balmy desert evening at the new government quarters we'd just occupied. There was an unlighted open area about 100 yards wide between our rear patio and our nearest back-door neighbors that our 3 kids (all under 5) referred to as the "big desert."
Suddenly, strident male voices were heard. My first response was to go to the spare bedroom where the guns were kept and grab the .357 magnum. Then common sense prevailed. I'd been drinking a bit and the voices were most likely no threat: young GIs who had been carousing on Saturday night and were taking a shortcut back to their barracks.
I put the .357 back on its shelf and sold both hand guns the next week. I still think of that reaction as both a moment of sanity and a lucky escape from potential tragedy.
Less than a year later, I was assigned to Japan following completion of my General Surgery residency. I left the two long guns- a 16 gauge Ithaca pump shotgun and a Remington "varmint" rifle in storage rather than take them overseas; largely because of Japan's onerous restrictions on gun ownership.
After returning to San Francisco in '67 I retrieved both guns from storage, but didn't have time to use them because I was so busy as a Thoracic Surgery resident at Letterman and shortly after I left the service to enter private practice in '71, both were stolen in a daring daylight burglary that caught us completely by surprise. I have since learned that guns are among the first things opportunistic burglars are seeking- along with jewelry, drugs, and money.
Another lesson learned while still in the Army was that the wounds produced by the modern high velocity ammunition that has been favored by the world's armies since the end of the Second World war are far more destructive to tissue than those produced by the weapons used in WW2 and Korea.
Over the years I have also come to believe that America's fascination with guns is a behavioral anomaly not shared by other "civilized" nations. What I also learned while in El Paso was that Mexico's revolutionary history had led it to oppose the importation of military style weapons, a policy it clearly still adheres to because arms smuggled from North of the Rio Grande where they are cheap and easily available, have become such a lucrative sideline for the Mexican drug cartels that didn't even exist when I was in El Paso between 1958 and 1963, yet have become so deadly, only since passage of Nixon's Controlled Substances Act in 1970 made the importation of marijuana such a lethal bonanza for criminals on both sides of the "law."
The next entry will deal with America's disgraceful racial legacy: the elephant in America's living room so many of its lawyers have been blind to and are curiously unable to smell.