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Nothing special, one post at a time since 2012

Who’s To Blame for the Rural Crime Wave? (Not Bleeding Heart Liberals)

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post makes an excellent point: the rising crime rate isn’t an urban or Democratic problem — it’s an American one:

When we think about crime, most of us envision pictures of urban scenes…. So when crime becomes an “issue” — not just a thing that happens but a topic of political argument and debate over policy solutions — that context determines what we decide ought to be done about it.

Which is why some new reporting in the Wall Street Journal [behind a paywall] is such an important challenge to the way we’ve been thinking about crime, now that it has again become a political issue. As the Journal reports, the increase in crime, particularly homicides, that came with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has not just been an urban phenomenon. Rural areas have experienced more murders in recent years, leaving many communities reeling.

Here’s the big picture:

Violent crime isn’t just rising in the nation’s cities. Murder rates across the rural U.S. have soared during the pandemic, data show, bringing the kind of extreme violence long associated with major metropolises to America’s smallest communities.

Homicide rates in rural America rose 25% in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the largest rural increase since the agency began tracking such data in 1999.

The individual stories are awful: shootings, stabbings; old victims, young victims; places where a murder happens only once every few years suddenly reporting a half-dozen homicides in a single year.

So how do we explain this? None of the things conservatives blame for crime — progressive prosecutors, lenient Democratic politicians, police feeling disrespected by racial justice protests, a lack of religious piety — are present in these places.

If — as we’ve all been told again and again — voters are fed up with “soft on crime” Democrats and are ready to “send them a message” in November’s midterm elections, to whom should a message be sent about the rural crime wave? And what should that message be?

Violent crime isn’t just rising in the nation’s cities. Murder rates across the rural U.S. have soared during the pandemic, data show, bringing the kind of extreme violence long associated with major metropolises to America’s smallest communities.

Homicide rates in rural America rose 25% in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the largest rural increase since the agency began tracking such data in 1999.

The individual stories are awful: shootings, stabbings; old victims, young victims; places where a murder happens only once every few years suddenly reporting a half-dozen homicides in a single year.

So how do we explain this? None of the things conservatives blame for crime — progressive prosecutors, lenient Democratic politicians, police feeling disrespected by racial justice protests, a lack of religious piety — are present in these places.

If — as we’ve all been told again and again — voters are fed up with “soft on crime” Democrats and are ready to “send them a message” in November’s midterm elections, to whom should a message be sent about the rural crime wave? And what should that message be?

The causes of the rural crime wave are as complex as those of urban crime, but at heart they’re about the pandemic. It isolated people from the friends, family and institutions that traditionally provide support. For many it caused sickness and grief. It elevated everyone’s stress level, brought new mental illness, left people feeling angry and powerless. Many took those experiences and tensions out on each other.

You’ve probably seen the effects in small ways in your own life no matter where you live. People seem angrier and meaner, getting into arguments in public and driving more aggressively. You don’t even have to bring in the polarization of our politics; for instance, pedestrian fatalities increased 21 percent from 2019 to 2020, then rose 11.5 percent in 2021, according to preliminary data, reaching the highest level in four decades.

I’m reasonably certain people didn’t start mowing pedestrians down with their cars because Democrats are “soft” on reckless driving. And I’d sincerely like to hear what Republicans think of the rural crime wave, both why it has happened and what might be done about it.

My guess is that they wouldn’t say it’s a failure of political leadership. After all, in many if not most of the affected rural areas, every public official — from the sheriff to the mayor to the county council all the way up to the House member, the senators and the governor — is a conservative Republican.

But when crime goes up in urban areas, Republicans point the finger at local and national Democrats, saying it must have been their policy choices that produced the crime. Turn on Fox News and you’ll learn that cities run by Democrats are hellholes of lawbreaking and mayhem, where atomized individuals scurry around in constant fear for their lives.

But that’s not true; in fact, by some measures New York City is one of the safest places in America. And the states with the highest homicide rates are Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri and Arkansas. Although the governor of Louisiana is a conservative Democrat, the rest are run by Republicans; every one has a Republican legislature. Have they failed to bring down crime because they aren’t “tough” enough?

Speaking of failure, back in 2016, D____ T____ told rural Americans that if they elected him, he would solve all their problems, bring back all the jobs that had been lost and turn their communities into paradise. Yet they still struggle with lack of economic opportunity, high rates of drug addiction and violence.

Addressing those rural problems would require an examination of “root causes” — a focus that conservatives have always regarded with contempt when we were talking about urban crime. But no one is saying that rural White people just need to be punished more harshly so they finally learn to straighten up.

The truth about crime is one that doesn’t lend itself easily to political arguments: It’s complicated. We’d all do well to remember that.

The Fix Is In at the Supreme Court

The draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade is built on the assumption fetuses deserve special treatment while denying that assumption is being made. Liza Batkin explains with “Deceit in Plain Sight” for the New York Review of Books:  

Justice Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization would have you believe that the forthcoming decision to overrule Roe v. Wade is a display of great judicial restraint and independence. The draft is written in the language of solemn duty: we do not want to take away abortion rights, the conservative justices say, but it does not matter what we want. “We can only do our job,” Alito writes, “which is to interpret the law,” and to do so regardless of personal preferences or public opinion. In the draft decision’s logic, it was Roe that exercised “raw judicial power” and Dobbs that will remedy this error by returning “the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

These claims to neutrality and humility should make you nauseous and irate. For one thing, they come in the middle of a decision that would wield extraordinary power, disposing with a nearly half-century-old fundamental right and reshaping the lives of millions of Americans. It’s also skin-crawling that these justices pretend to be concerned with empowering “the people” through their representatives after eroding the voting rights and electoral rules that would have allowed them to be adequately represented.

This performance of duty comes from justices who have routinely championed religious interests, were nominated by Republican presidents, and have all been affiliated with the Federalist Society, an organization dedicated to promoting conservative legal ideology. While only Justice Barrett has made explicit her personal opinions about abortion, stating in a co-authored law review article in 1998 that it is “always immoral,” the others are clearly not sacrificing their moral or political views for some higher charge.

You don’t need to look very far to see that the decision is a power grab cloaked in false modesty. The flaws in the majority’s central argument, that Roe was wrong to recognize a fundamental right to abortion, have been well-exposed elsewhere. But there is another deceit at play here: while claiming fidelity to the constitutional text, the majority’s draft is steeped in unexplained views about the importance of protecting fetuses at all stages of development—views that do not come from the Constitution but have traditionally been the purview of conservative and religious antiabortion advocates, and that are exactly the kind of personal belief the majority claims not to rely on.

The issue of abortion since Roe has been a battle between competing rights: a pregnant person’s right to control their reproductive choices, and the state’s interest in protecting the potential life of a fetus. To balance these different interests, the Court has historically tried to avoid opining on the legal or moral claims of fetuses, since the issue teems with conflicting beliefs. One way to establish when the state’s interest in protecting potential life becomes compelling, the Court recognized in Roe, was to determine “when life begins.” But after a brief survey of opposing religious, philosophical, and theological views, the Court steered clear of the mire and landed instead on the line of viability, which protects the right to abortion until the fetus can survive outside the womb.

If you take Alito at his word, the Dobbs majority has managed to sidestep this balancing act altogether. The draft decision proclaims that it is “not based on any view about when a State should regard prenatal life as having rights or legally cognizable interests” and says little about the source, strength, or timing of the state’s interest in potential fetal life.

But the majority has not avoided the issue. While claiming high-minded neutrality, they hint over and over at views about the importance of protecting fetal life. Early in the opinion, Alito explains that abortion “is fundamentally different” from all other liberty interests “because it destroys what [Roe and Casey] called ‘fetal life’ and what the law now before us describes as an ‘unborn human being.’” As a result, the right to abortion presents a distinct and “critical moral question.” The draft makes this point four times.

There is, however, no reason to assert that abortion at all stages of a pregnancy presents a unique and “critical moral question” unless one already gives weight and legitimacy to moral claims for the protection of fetuses at all stages of development, starting even as soon as conception. How else can we explain the draft opinion’s circular insistence that the right to abortion is different from other rights simply because it destroys fetuses, which merely defines what an abortion does?

The terms the draft uses, too, are revealing. In veering from the “potential life” invoked by Roe and Casey and repeating without qualification the language used by the Mississippi legislature along with antiabortion amicus briefs that defend the rights of the “unborn human being” and the “unborn child,” the majority divulges its allegiances. The footnotes tell the same story. In addition to citing a large array of prior dissenting opinions by conservative justices which have no legal authority, the draft draws on amicus briefs and articles dedicated to proving that fetuses are people. Alito’s majority does all of this while claiming that it “has neither the authority nor the expertise to adjudicate” disputes about “the status of the fetus” and citing language that courts must not “substitute their social and economic beliefs for the judgment of legislative bodies.”

While we rally to protect the right of pregnant people to make decisions about their bodies and futures (and desperately hope that this draft decision does not become law), we should recognize what’s going on here. The [reactionary] justices are preparing to abuse their power, cause grievous harm, and treat us—the “people” they pretend to empower—like fools, assuming we won’t notice the contradictions they’ve left in plain sight.

Guns: the Fantasies, the Fear

Two perceptive observers of modern America comment on the psychology and ideology of  the gun cult, which includes our heavily-armed police. 

First, Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

To imagine something different, we have to understand the ideology that created our current legal regime. It was constructed on a foundation of fantasy and terror, one that elevates imaginary threats and decrees that our response to those threats can only be confronted by each of us alone, never through the institutions we create or the government that represents us.

No, only the isolated, heavily armed, perpetually terrified individual can hope to keep his family safe — so don’t even think about changing the laws, unless it’s to put more guns in more people’s hands.

What kind of fantasies are we talking about? The most important is that the U.S. government — the one designed by those sainted Framers whose genius conservatives praise so often — is always moments away from devolving into totalitarian oppression, and all that keeps it from happening is its fear of an armed populace ready to start killing soldiers and cops.

So after the killings in Uvalde, Tex., a Florida state representative tweeted an explicit threat to kill the president of the United States: “I have news for the . . . President — try to take our guns and you’ll learn why the Second Amendment was written in the first place.”

This idea is not unusual at all; gun advocates are forever claiming that their gun rights are the only thing that keeps America from turning into Nazi Germany. Or as Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters puts it in an ad, “Without gun rights, before long, you have no rights.”

Oddly, they never explain why countries such as England, France, Denmark, and every other liberal democracy haven’t devolved into brutal dictatorship despite their relatively unarmed populations.

The next fantasy, the one that guides so many of those deeply immersed in gun culture, is that of an impending assault that can only be met with sufficient firepower. Why do I need all these semiautomatic rifles, weapons designed to kill human beings in war? Because of the home invaders, the terrorists, the gangbangers coming to kill me and my family.

This idea of a world of chaotic violence saturates conservative media (where antifa and Black Lives Matter are forever burning down cities and coming to destroy your community) and the rhetoric of gun groups and gun enthusiasts. It’s absolutely central to that message that no collective or governmental response will protect you and your family. The cops won’t get there fast enough, laws don’t stop “the bad guys,” and in the end you are atomized and alone, left to either kill or be killed.

The tragic irony is that when this fantasy is the guiding principle of law, it creates its own justification and a version of its own reality. Since it’s so easy for anyone to get an AR-15, you need one too. Since you never know when somebody might cut you off in traffic or be rude to you at the Starbucks, everyone should be allowed to carry a gun, no permit or training required.

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. If that turns out not to be true — as it wasn’t in Buffalo or Uvalde — then the answer must be more and more guns.

The political implication is obvious: It’s not worth even trying to craft any kind of policy solution to gun violence. As Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — allegedly the state’s top law enforcement official — said after the Uvalde massacre, laws are pointless. . . . Though in fact, the Uvalde shooter did follow gun laws: He waited until his 18th birthday to legally purchase the rifle he used to kill those children. . . . 

It’s their fantasy world of horror and fear that gave us the laws we have now. And they’ll do everything they can to keep it that way.

Next, journalist David Roberts:

US police culture and training are perfectly tuned to attract and empower reactionaries. Reactionaries are cowards. They show “strength” and “manhood” by abusing the weak: black kids selling cigarettes on the street. Unarmed protesters. “Suspected drug dealers” asleep in bed.

This is not a matter of “people I think are bad for one reason are also bad for this other reason.” They are connected, part of the same mentality. The reactionary mind is driven by fear and that’s what you see in cops and cop training these days, the deep conviction that they’re always in danger, that every civilian is a threat, that they can’t go anywhere, into any situation, without *overwhelming* force, including a bunch of military gear. For fucks sake, they were scared to confront a lone school shooter.

The flip side is, when they’re in a situation where they DO have overwhelming force, when they do feel safe and in control, all that fear comes out as violence and abuse against the helpless. The violence is an attempt to purge the fear. Thus sitting on George Floyd’s neck for 8:46.

All of this is true in one way or another of all reactionaries, not just cops. T____ was happy to put the kids of asylum seekers in cages, but he was too chickenshit to fire people to their faces.

The ugly cruelty and the cowardice are flip sides of the same coin.

So yeah, we need to reform police funding and equipment and unions, but the deeper (and infinitely more difficult) reform is to change the training and culture to attract grown-ass men, not frightened bullies trapped in adolescence.

The sight of all those hopped-up, body-armored, automatic weapon-wielding cops standing around outside a school building while a teenager slaughtered children inside should be seared in our collective memory forever. . . .

The mentality that seeks to heap misery & suffering on defenseless trans kids and the mentality that waits outside an active school shooting because cops “might get hurt” are the same mentality.

Who We Are

Thoughts on who we are as a country — and who we could be instead — from three of us:

From sociologist Kieren Healy:

A first communion inducts a child into one of the sacraments of the Church, having them take a step towards adulthood in expectation of the regular re-enactment of the event throughout the rest of their lives.

Sociologists like me often highlight these rituals of childhood in our writing and teaching. One of the founders of our field, Émile Durkheim, made them the centerpiece of his work. Institutions, he argued, are rituals that bind people to one another as a group. In a ritual, each person finds their place and does their part, and expects everyone else to do the same. Crucially, those involved all see one another participating in the event. By doing so, they enact their collective life in view of one another, demonstrating its reality, expressing its meaning, and feeling its pulse in their veins. That, Durkheim thought, is at root what a society is.

In any given week in America, you can watch as a different ritual of childhood plays itself out. Perhaps it will be in El Paso, at a shopping mall; or in Gilroy, at a food festival; or in Denver, at a school. Having heard gunshots, and been lucky enough to survive, children emerge to be shepherded to safety by their parents, their teachers, or heavily-armed police officers. They are always frightened. Some will be crying. But almost all of them know what is happening to them, and what to do. Mass shootings are by now a standard part of American life. Preparing for them has become a ritual of childhood. It’s as American as Monday Night Football, and very nearly as frequent.

The United States has institutionalized the mass shooting in a way that Durkheim would immediately recognize. As I discovered to my shock when my own children started school in North Carolina some years ago, preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy.

My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. They practice their movements. They are taught how to hold themselves; who to defer to; what to say to their parents; how to hold their hands. The only real difference is that there is a lottery for participation. Most will only prepare. But each week, a chosen few will fully consummate the process, and be killed.

A fundamental lesson of Sociology is that, in the course of making everyday life seem orderly and sensible, arbitrary things are made to seem natural and inevitable. Rituals, especially the rituals of childhood, are a powerful way to naturalize arbitrary things. As a child in Ireland, I thought it natural to take the very body of Christ in the form of a wafer of bread on my tongue. My own boy and girl, in America, think it natural that a school is a place where you must know what to do when someone comes there to kill the children.

Social science also teaches us something about how rituals end, although not enough. The most important step is to kindle a belief that there are other ways to live, other forms that collective life can take. That can be surprisingly hard to do, because a side-effect of ritual life is that participation in it powerfully reinforces its seeming inescapability . . . .

It’s traditional to say that there are “no easy answers”, but this is not really true. Everywhere groups face the problem of holding themselves together. Every society has its enormous complex of institutions and weight of rituals that, through the sheer force of mutual expectation and daily habit, bring that society to life. But not every society has successfully institutionalized the mass shooting. Only one place has done that, deliberately and effectively. The United States has chosen, and continues to choose, to enact ritual compliance to an ideal of freedom in a way that results in a steady flow of blood sacrifice. This ritual of childhood is not a betrayal of “who we are” as a country. It is what America has made of itself . . .

Next, from Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

. . . This is exactly who we are. We are the place with more guns than people, where tens of thousands are murdered every year, and where arguments over parking spaces end in death. We’re the place where much of the gun legislation that passes ensures that almost anyone can take guns almost anywhere. We’re the place where candidates for office show their cultural bona fides by popping off rounds in campaign ads.

We’re not England or France or Canada or Denmark or Japan or Portugal or any other country. . . . Here in the United States, an entire generation has grown up doing drills in case someone enters their school and tries to kill them. They huddle in closets, barricade doors, hear lectures about what they might throw at an armed killer to slow him down. . . .

The roots of this insanity go back far, but today it is maintained by the party that has leveraged its minority rule to make sure virtually no limits are imposed on guns, which it fetishizes and worships and celebrates. . . .

Just two weeks ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a California law that forbade anyone younger than 21 from buying a semiautomatic rifle. In a 2-to-1 decision, two judges appointed by Trump wrote passionately of the importance of allowing 18-year-olds to buy AR-15s:

America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army. Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.

. . . Behold the insane logic of the perpetually armed society: We must let everyone have guns because so many people have guns. . . . 

Republicans who keep us living in this nightmare would certainly prefer it if the lies they knowingly tell about guns were true. They’d be happy if bad guys with guns really were stopped by good guys with guns, if more guns did make for less crime, and if all these guns made us the safest society on earth.

But in the end, the fact that all those things are false does not change their minds. Tens of thousands of suicides and homicides committed with guns every year, punctuated by regular massacres of men, women and children are just the price they believe we have to pay for their version of “freedom.”

Even if most of us don’t agree, those who do can leverage their power to keep the slaughter going. And that’s what it will take to change things: power. Acquiring it and being willing to use it.

Change will not come because we looked into our national heart and found goodness lying therein. The heart of America is not one thing. It is sometimes kind and generous and wise, but it is also dark and hateful and murderous. That is who we really are — all of it.

Finally, from Jennifer Rubin, also of the Washington Post:

The Constitution allocates two senators to the most sparsely populated red states (but none to the District of Columbia), and the Senate filibuster provides gun absolutists with a veto over reforms.

If this were only true on guns, one might be able to make an argument in favor of the present system. But the result is the same for a range on matters, including abortion, immigration, climate change and virtually any other mildly controversial topic. The rigid GOP parlays the anti-democratic Senate and filibuster into an iron grip of minority rule. When legislation on nearly every critical issue can be thwarted by an extreme minority, we have “democracy” in name only. . . .

If the Democratic Party — the only party that still supports democratic values and at least tries to solve problems — can muster the discipline and the will, it can run in 2022 and 2024 on ending the stranglehold of unhinged, minority rule. It must electrify its supporters, pledge to tame if not eliminate the filibuster and make clear that, without Democratic victories, we would face an America few would hope to bequeath their children.

The Republican obsession with controlling women, unlimited gun ownership, white grievance and other deadly ideologies must be identified, denounced and defeated. Democrats should be clear about the choices: white nationalism or tolerance; gun massacres or reasonable gun restrictions; control of women’s bodies or respect for women’s autonomy.

Sexual Morality, Republican Style

If you’ve avoided the fascist sewer that Republican politics has become, you may not have heard they’re now referring to Democrats as the party of pedophiles and groomers. The principal “basis” for this claim is the existence of sex education in public schools. The “idea” is that after learning about sex or hearing that not all healthy people are heterosexuals, it’s only a matter of time before our children become prey to nasty Democrats or turn all gay or something. In similar fashion, Republican senators tried to paint Biden’s new Supreme Court nominee as “soft” on pedophilia. You can read more about this recent shift in right-wing propaganda here, here, here or here.

I wasn’t going to mention this new development in American politics until I read about an online list of Republicans who either are, or have been accused of being, sexual predators. I don’t know who is maintaining the list, how far back the incidents go, or if the list is completely reliable, but, just as our former president loves to project his own illegal or unethical behavior onto other people (“lock her up”), it shouldn’t be a surprise when the “family values”/”moral majority”/”real Americans” crowd accuses their political opponents of sexual bad behavior.

Item 1 on the list is:

Donald Trump is accused of sexual assault by multiple women (and has admitted doing it). He is accused of raping a 13-year-old girl and bragged of walking in on underage girls at pageant. (Wikipedia).

Item 415 (yes, 415) is:

Man linked to Trump transition charged with transporting child pornography (Washington Post).

Item 828 (that’s right, 828) is:

Tesla rich guy Elon Musk, who recently announced he’s a Republican, was accused of exposing himself to a SpaceX  flight attendant (Business Insider).

This proves nothing, of course, but projection is a well-known psychological phenomenon and, as some clever person once said, “where there’s smoke, there’s something else”.

PS:  And wouldn’t you know? The Houston Chronicle reports today:

Bombshell 400-page report finds Southern Baptist leaders routinely silenced sexual abuse survivors.

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