Thursday, April 22, 2021

Cops and Guns

There has been a lot of public discussion lately of why police are armed, and why armed police are called to situations which could be - and maybe should be - solved with something other than armed force.  This is especially the case when unarmed people of color end up being shot.  On one NPR discussion the other day, I heard a commentator ask why cops need guns anyway; and I didn't hear anyone respond with the reason that came to my mind.

Full disclosure here:  I am a community policing volunteer, and have been for over a decade.  I'm on the steering committee of a local council that is supposed to be a conduit between Neighborhood Watch groups in our area and the police.  I've worked with a number of cops, who were about as varied as most groups of humans.  As for their attitudes toward people of color, I couldn't tell you.  The neighborhood I live in is about as white and upper income as Oakland, California gets.  But I never heard of any of the cops we worked with shooting anyone; and believe me, in this area when a cop shoots someone, it makes the news.

But why do cops need to be armed?  British cops aren't, among quite a list of others.  I say American cops need to be armed because Americans, as a group, are armed.  In a 2017 survey cited in Wikipedia, there were 120.5 firearms for every 100 citizens in the U.S., the vast majority of them not registered.  And Money magazine says that, during 2020, nearly 40 million guns were bought legally (note the caveat!), and another 4.1 million just in January 2021.  There are literally more guns than people in this country.

This has nothing to do with how cops are trained to handle situations, or their general attitude toward people of color, which is a whole different issue.  But an unarmed policeman in America would be an absolute sitting duck.  He assumes the people he's looking at are  armed because, in fact, they may be.

Our problem in the U.S. today is not cops with guns.  Our problem is too many guns, generally.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021


 We will all remember January 6, 2021.  That was the day a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building, pushing past the Capitol Police, breaking windows to get into the building.  If you were living under a rock and missed this, you can find details in any major newspaper or online; I followed it on CNN and in the New York Times.  You might prefer the Washington Post, which provides the coverage free.

Donald Trump sat in the West Wing and watch the television coverage as his supporters mobbed and ransacked the Capitol Building, forcing the evacuation of Congress.  I watched the coverage and was amazed that I saw so few firearms among the mob, although one woman was shot and killed.  I gather from CNN that as the situation got worse, his staff begged him to go on television and try to calm the mob, and he refused.

These people think they are patriots; I think they are a mob.  I know Donald Trump is no patriot; his only interest is his own interest, the state of the country means nothing to him, as we can tell by the way he ignores the pandemic death toll.  Unfortunately, Donald Trump is one of the greatest con men since P. T. Barnum, and he has somehow managed to convince these people that everything he says is gospel, and if he says the election was rigged, it must be so.  So the "patriots" mobbed the Capitol building and accomplished - absolutely nothing.

I suspect today's rally was intended to whip up the crowd to where they would do something, anything, to stop the certification of the electoral college vote, in hopes of delaying Biden's inauguration.  It failed.  Congressional leaders have already said they will continue the process tonight.  

It is not patriotism to refuse to accept the outcome of an honest election, just because a liar says it wasn't.  It is not patriotism, when an election has taken place and been certified by every state, to try to overturn the results because you don't like them.  I've voted in a number of elections where I didn't like the results.  I don't care what their t-shirts say, nobody who took part in that mob was a patriot, and I hope any who did actual damage (like, breaking windows) will be arrested and charged.

I have two worries about this.  First, Trump is in office for 2 more weeks, what in God's name will he try now?  Second, all these people will still be around after Joe Biden is inaugurated.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

The 1918 Flu and Shakespeare

If that sounds odd, it was in fact the subject of On the Media's Thanksgiving podcast, which I listen to today while on my exercise bike.  The name of the podcast was No Ado about Much, but  you can listen to the segments individually at the links below; the whole thing is about 50 minutes long.

The first half of the podcast,  Why the Press Downplayed the 1918 Flu, covered an interview with John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, and explained in detail that leaders on both sides in World War I refused to admit the existence of the flu after it hit the battlefields, for fear of admitting weakness.  (Does this sound familiar??)  Worse, in the U.S., wartime censorship and an attempt to "boost morale" essentially forbid any mention of the ongoing public health emergency in the press.  The Sedition Act of 1918 made it a criminal offense to publish (or say!) anything that offended the government, cast it in a bad light, or interfered with the sale of government bonds!  I was amused that the only U.S. newspaper mentioned as writing about the 1918 'flu was in San Francisco, which published a front page headline "Wear a mask - save a life"!  San Francisco was very far away; a Pennsylvania paper was coerced into not mentioning the flu!

The net result of this - unless you have (or had) a relative who lived through the 1918 pandemic, you may never have heard of it, until you grew up and began to read the history they didn't teach you in school!  That's how I learned about it.  My parents were born in 1907 and 1912, so they were children when it happened; but they never mentioned it.  The  U.S. lost an estimated 675,000 people to the 1918 flu, out of a population of about 103.2 million.

It wasn't just the U.S. that forbade discussion of the 1918 pandemic.  One of my favorite detective authors is the great Dorothy Sayers, whose first novel, Whose Body?, came out in 1923.  Lord Peter Wimsey, her detective hero, was an officer in World War I.  He came home with a case of "shell shock" - we call it PTSD today.  In Whose Body? and a couple of other early novels, Lord Peter had shell shock attacks that essentially incapacitated him for a short time.  But I never heard any mention of the 1918 flu in her novels.  She must have lived through it; she was born in 1893.  But the English didn't mention it, and so she didn't.

So what about Shakespeare?  The second half of the podcast was How Shakespeare Became an American Hero, was an extended interview with James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and FutureAs Mr. Shapiro points out, the plays touch some very sensitive subjects for Americans:  Othello, in particular - a white woman married to a black man!  Listen to hear the story of the world's worst dinner party, where John Quincy Adams sat next to Fanny Kemble, the great British actress, and mansplained to her why Othello was so disgusting!  Romeo and Juliet became an issue because there are places where Romeo expresses emotion.  The 19th century American insistence that a man should never show emotion actually meant that American actors had trouble playing Romeo - in at least one case, Romeo was played by a lesbian!  And The Merchant of Venice - how awful to see a Jew insisting on his pound of flesh from a Christian!  And let's not even get into the issue of who is allowed to play Hamlet!

Seriously, the discussion goes into why we Americans never did, and don't now, talk much about some subjects - I think we're slowly beginning to, but it doesn't hurt us now and then to be reminded of where we've been and why it wasn't a great idea.

Saturday, November 14, 2020


 The pandemic is on everyone's mind these days, as it should be.  So far there are 54,318,841 cases world wide, and 1,318,044 deaths to date.  (Worldometer).  In the U.S. we have 11,226,038 cases and, so far 251,256 deaths.  (Worldometer - U.S.)    This is terrible.  And the restrictions placed on us to try to control it are irksome, and it's spiraling out of control because we're getting tired of them.

But in a historical context, how bad is it really?  A little over a million dead worldwide, out of a population of 7.8 billion.  That's one in 6,000 people, world wide, roughly .017% of world population.  In the U.S., with a population of 331,740,396, it's one in about 1,320 people, or .76% - worse than the worldwide stats, but then we are the number one hotspot these days.  Population statistics from the World Population  Review for the U.S..

A recent Candorville cartoon claimed that the 1918 flu killed 1 person in 75.  This is a little simplistic, because estimates of the total number of deaths range from 17.4 million (.95% of world population) to 50 million (2.7%) to 100 million (5.4%).  World population at the time was estimated at 1.8 billion.  (Numbers from the Our World in Data article on the Spanish flu.)

Compare that to our estimate for the coronavirus of .017% of world population and .76% of U.S. population.

For an even more horrific example, consider the Black Death (bubonic plague) which devastated Europe in the mid-14th century.  Wikipedia says it "is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population." That's between 1 in 3 and 1 in 6 people.  It took until 1500 to reach the population Europe had in 1300.  And at that period, medical knowledge was rudimentary and hospitals were run by religious orders. We now know it was caused by a virus carried by rats and fleas; the actual cause of the bubonic plague wasn't identified until the mid-19th century. So people died from a nameless disease and didn't know where it came from.

I'm not saying we have it easy right now.  I'm just suggesting it could be worse.  We're also flooded with news about our pandemic, every day, all day, on general media sources and social media.  We've also come to believe that modern medicine can cure everything, because up till now it's done a pretty good job overall.  So we have trouble believing it can't cure this.  It may yet, there are promising vaccines on the way.  Until they get here, mask up and remember - it could be worse.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Election Results

I admit I was very relieved when the press called the 2020 election for Joe Biden on Saturday.  I felt relieved and happy all day, although unlike some people I didn't go out and dance in the street.  This was a major change from the 2016 election, in which I was happy all election day until the votes started piling up for Trump in the evening.  After it was clear he had won, I spent about three days in a sort of stunned coma, before I recovered enough to resume normal life. I had a really bad feeling about that presidency, and it gives me no satisfaction at all to realize I was right.

Now, 2 days after the election was called, my elation has subsided.  They're still counting votes, but it's clear that Biden is winning both the electoral college and the popular vote, by solid margins.  But Trump is still there, and he's refusing to concede, claiming election officials are concealing massive voter fraud and Democrats are conspiring to "steal" the election from him.  Unless someone can eliminate his Twitter feed, we'll never be rid of him.

I'm also disappointed in the Democrats.  I can't quite identify what they did wrong, but they were convinced they were going to sweep both houses, and I think it went to their heads.  As it is, the Republicans are on the edge of retaining a Senate majority and the  Democrats have lost seats in the house, and we're facing another 4 years of Mitch McConnell refusing to do anything the President or the Democrats - or the people of the United States - want him to do.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Did my ancestors own slaves?

I've been interested in genealogy for some time, and with the help of I've traced my father's family back to the early 19th century. In fact, I recently turned up an ancestor who was born in 1777.

I find several things interesting.  I have yet to find an ancestor in my father's line who wasn't born on this continent.  My mother's family came to the U.S. in 1921 (from Canada), but the Ivy line, and the associated Moody line (my paternal grandmother's people) all seem to have been here from quite early.  Even the guy born in 1777 came from North Carolina; he moved his family to Tennessee between 1805 and 1810.  They all seem to have lived, before the Civil War, in the "border states" - Tennessee and Kentucky. Based on census and other records, they all seem to have relocated to Missouri sometime after the Civil war.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Literary Racism

As a reaction to the closure of libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic, I've been re-reading some of my extensive collection of classic detective stories, collected over most of my adult life.  Specifically, I've been re-reading Ellery Queen novels, which I've read off and on for most of my adult life.  In recent years I've been exploring new mystery writers at the local library, but that stopped with the shutdown, so I returned to what I had.

The Ellery Queen novels debuted in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and continued into the early 1960s, after which the authors, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, also allowed other writers to create Ellery Queen novels which didn't feature their detective, Ellery Queen, as a character.  Most of the novels and stories I've been reading were written in the 1930s.

Given the Black Lives Matter protests over the last few weeks, I'm unusually sensitive to racism.  I didn't think of Ellery Queen novels as racist, but I notice that while the Ellery Queen character almost never uses racial slurs, the New York City cops who feature in many stories do.  This includes the character Inspector Richard Queen, Ellery's father.  I especially noticed the use of the phrase "the shine" to refer to what a more educated person would probably have called "the Negro."  This was well before the use of phrases like black, African American, or people of color.  I also noticed that even when not using racist slang, descriptions of Negro characters, such as hotel maids, were condescending at best.

You can't go back and change history, or classic novels.  In fact I've seen much worse racism in "tough guy" detective novels by Raymond Chandler and  Mickey Spillane.  I think the explanation has to be that some people in the 1930s talked that way, and the authors put it in for realistic effects.  I still think the Ellery Queen novels are worth reading for the amazing logical puzzles they present.  I've always preferred puzzle mysteries to the shoot-em-up types.