No, Biden isn’t a tyrant, and yes, the mandate is legal

President Joe Biden took a significant step in combatting the COVID-19 virus this week by utilizing the significant amount of executive power his office permits.  However, is it a wise policy?  Does it violate constitutional rights?  Is Biden acting like a king or dictator?  These are a few of the questions worth exploring.

What exactly is the Biden administration doing?

President Biden delivering his message about vaccine mandates

The president’s role as chief executive requires him or her to carry out the laws passed by Congress.  When our legislative body creates a law, they sometimes purposely leave portions of it vague to allow the executive branch flexibility in how to best carry out the law.  For instance, with regard to the Social Security program, the law does not dictate in what way payments are made to recipients.  This allows executive branch officials to determine if they should send checks, use direct deposit, or even consider other digital programs.  The flexibility allows for efficient functioning of government.  This much is clear — when the law does not specify how a law should be enforced, it is the prerogative of the executive branch on how to enforce that law (provided they do not violate the Constitution in the process).  Presidents cannot simply give random orders unless they are based on an already existing law.  They cannot enforce what does not exist.

In this instance, President Biden is utilizing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement policies based on the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.  This law established OSHA and empowered the Secretary of Labor and the Director of OSHA to create policies under the law to ensure the safety of the workplace in the United States.  Since the Secretary of Labor works at the pleasure of the president, this person has a responsibility to develop policies which the president wants.  

In this case, the Secretary and OSHA will be writing new regulations which

  • Require all private employers with 100 or more employees to ensure those employees have received vaccination for COVID-19 or those unvaccinated employees must produce a negative COVID test one each week.  This new rule is expected to affect nearly 100 million workers in the country.  The penalty for non-compliance will be $14,000 per offense.
  • All healthcare facilities which receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement from the federal government must have its employees vaccinated.
  • Employees of federal education programs such as Head Start or Department of Defense schools must receive a vaccine.

Additionally, President Biden ordered the Transit Security Administration (TSA) to increase fines for individuals who failed to wear masks and for those abusive towards flight attendants.  The federal government is also planning on allocating $2 billion for testing (rapid test and PCR).

Outside of the requirements, President Biden also asked for governors of individual states to establish mask and vaccine mandates for their public education systems.

Is there any precedent for a vaccine mandate?

The United States has faced a few similar situations in the past.  In the early 20th century, Massachusetts enacted legislation which required vaccination for smallpox for all adult citizens and fined those who refused.  Henning Jacobson, a Swedish immigrant, refused and appealed the matter to courts, claiming the Massachusetts law violated his 14th Amendment rights under the Due Process Clause.  Jacobson’s argument contended the state’s action in mandating a vaccine deprived him of his ‘liberty.’  In the Due Process Clause, the state must demonstrate some rational basis for why they would take deprive someone of a freedom.  In this instance, Massachusetts claimed that eradicating smallpox and creating a better public health environment constituted a legitimate government interest in mandating a vaccine.

In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the state legitimately held policing powers, which included, “… such reasonable regulations established directly by legislative enactment as will protect the public health and the public safety.”  The Court stated that issues such as a public health crisis, particularly the increasing cases of smallpox at the time, override the liberties of Jacobson.  

Justice John Marshall Harlan also articulated a key principle which many Americans forget about the freedoms granted to us.  Harlan wrote,

… the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members.

Despite what people might want to believe, there is no absolute freedom in our society

In 1922, the Supreme Court also upheld the constitutionality of mandatory vaccines for public and private school students.  While states are under no obligation to create such vaccine mandates, the Court noted that such mandates did not violate the Constitution (see: Zucht v. King).  Society has long accepted vaccinations as a key aspect in public health and the fight against serious disease, and this is one of the reasons we haven’t seen a significant challenge to this concept in nearly a century.

Every state requires vaccinations for school, and West Virginia provides no exemptions for personal or religious belief. Required vaccinations are not new

Federal courts at all levels do not appear in any mood to overturn precedent.  Students at Indiana University filed suit after the school required a COVID-19 vaccine for all students and staff (with a few exceptions carved out).  A federal district court and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Indiana held the authority to require the vaccines.  The Supreme Court turned down an appeal for an emergency injunction (which could have temporarily halted the mandate until the matter was resolved in its entirety).

The Biden administration’s new rules seem solidly grounded in legislation, and the president seems confident that any legal challenges would fail.  When asked about those potential legal challenges, Biden responded to critics, “Have at it.”  

Why is this happening now?

For the Biden administration, this seems to be a move that makes sense for a number of reasons.  First, the vaccination rates of Americans have plateaued over the last few months.  Despite financial incentives and massive public relations campaigns, states have struggled to increase vaccination rates. 

The unvaccinated Americans also have taken the position that they have seen what COVID-19 does and they don’t seem to mind the risk.  While doctors and other health care professionals recommend taking the vaccine, a substantial number of Americans don’t feel comfortable taking it.  The stagnation in vaccination rates has led to the rise of the rise of the ‘delta’ variant of COVID.  The mutation of COVID makes it more difficult to defeat in the long term.  

Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths related to the virus are increasing, and this is a public health problem, obviously.  However, there is undoubtedly political calculus behind the vaccine mandates.  

President Biden and his administration have a razor thin majority in both houses of Congress right now, meaning their ability to pass legislation is limited.  Democrats are delicately trying to pass a bipartisan infrastructure deal while simultaneously threading a budget bill through Congress.  The Biden administration must deal decisively with problems which can be solved with executive action only.  They can solve this problem without Congress, so they must.  There’s no time to waste, particularly considering that the 2022 mid-term elections will be coming soon.

Democrats want to head into the 2022 mid-terms with legislative victories in their pocket and light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to solving the pandemic.  President Biden’s approval numbers have taken a hit with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and COVID problems.  His average approval rating is trending in the high 40s, but that’s down significantly from the beginning of summer.  

The vaccine mandate is a calculated gamble to solve an important problem for the nation.  Is it a ‘make or break’ moment for Biden’s presidency?  No, but the political benefits outweigh the risks of not acting.  Within West Virginia, Governor Jim Justice is lamenting the rise in infections but he refuses to take any action as our state’s chief executive.  He has continually passed the buck to county and local administrations, causing significant confusion with absolutely no positive results. 

If the increase in vaccinations with these federal mandates can stymie the COVID problem, Biden will look incredibly good in the eyes of voters for taking decisive action at a key moment in the pandemic.  The people most likely to claim that Biden is a ‘tyrant’ who has overstepped his authority were never going to vote for him anyway.

Biden is not a tyrant, dictator, king, or any other authoritarian trope 

Americans have a strange way of viewing presidents, particularly ones who take strong executive actions.  The use of executive orders or government agency regulations to shape policy always tend to cause selective outrage.  Presidents from both parties utilize these as means of achieving their goals.  They are far more common than what people realize.  Yet, Americans only complain about them when it’s a political foe in the White House.  

Legislative bodies benefit from debate in lawmaking, and a slowed process.  However, situations exist in government where quick, decisive action is warranted.  Our chief executive needs that flexibility in responding to situations in such a manner.

The American presidency does more in permitting one single person to exercise power than any other democracy.  It fuses the role of head of state and head of government where most nations divide those roles.  In his famous Federalist #70, Alexander Hamilton wrote that our republic needed an ‘energetic’ president for effective administration of the laws.  The energy included several characteristics, including unity (a single person acting as executive) and competent powers

Powers exhibited by the president, whether Biden or Trump or anyone else, must still obey the Constitution and comply with other existing federal laws.  Their actions are subject to review by the courts, and they are ultimately responsible to the people.

Hamilton’s work also contained wisdom which explains why Republicans are currently frustrated with Biden’s unilateral action. He wrote, “Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.”  

Republicans will attempt to seize upon any opportunity to gain seats in Congress and the majority in either house.  And I suppose that’s part of what the minority party does, particularly when the difference in the number of seats in both houses is so small.  A person can question the wisdom of President Biden’s policy.  But to suggest the president is somehow crowning himself king over the nation or a tyrant?  This is an attempt to play on the fears of Americans.  Don’t fall for it.  

I find it equally frustrating that Republicans have taken their hypocrisy to new levels when they have suggested for the entirety of President Biden’s term that he is confused, senile, or incompetent, but now they want Americans to believe that same crazy old codger is somehow launching a secret Marxist takeover of the nation. Could that senile old man have plotted all of this in his fragile mental state? I am convinced that both major political parties in the United States have serious flaws, but Republican leadership continually embarrasses itself in their quest to gain power.

The COVID-19 virus killed 4.6 million people worldwide in the 18 months. The deaths show no signs of relenting unless we take drastic action. In 2020 alone, nearly 378,000 Americans died from this virus, making it the third leading cause of death (behind cancer and heart disease). This nation created a vaccine to tamp down a deadly plague and the refusal to take it is harming society as a whole. We have the ability to end this and return to life as normal.

Critics would argue that government doesn’t dictate what people eat or ingest, which often cause heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death for Americans. This is true, but those diseases do not easily spread to other human beings.

President Biden was correct when he stated, “We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.” It’s time to end this. If you’re eligible for a vaccine, take the vaccine. It’s safe, it’s effective, and it saves lives.

Cabell County leadership … yikes!

Government officials have a difficult job, particularly in the era of COVID-19.  Even matters which are only tangentially related to public health need consideration before decisions are made.  In their best decisions, most public officials will still upset at least a third of their constituents.  That’s the nature of politics in most places, let alone a nation with such a variety of views and opinions.  With that stated, some of the decision making in Cabell County lately has been frustrating.  

The Huntington City Council Drama 

Let’s start with the July 22nd meeting of the Huntington City Council to fill a vacancy on the council.  Some really fantastic local reporting by McKenna Horsley at the Herald-Dispatch details a strange incident where members of the council were actively being lobbied on which person they should select to replace outgoing Jennifer Wheeler.   

House of Delegates member Daniel Linville (R-16) and Marshall University Board of Governors member Chris Miller both texted Huntington City Council Chairman Mike Shockley to inform him that Brad Smith (former Intuit CEO and major Marshall University benefactor) liked Jim Rorrer for that open seat on the council.  Linville and Miller worked the texting lines to other members on the council, actively pushing for Rorrer.  

Perhaps the most concerning text came from political strategist Michael Dillon (who apparently worked for Rorrer) to Shockley, stating, “Dude. Rorrer is the key for you to have your own slate of votes. What are you doing? … And backing of Miller and Brad smith for your future endeavors.”  It doesn’t amount to anything illegal or a quid pro quo of some kind, but an implication is there that Shockley should pick Rorrer if to benefit his own political career.

Also intriguing is that Dale Anderson, another council member, stated he didn’t do much texting, but did communicate with Miller via Signal App, which allows users to send encrypted messages which permanently delete after a set time.  He did not remember specifically what he and Miller discussed.

For his part, Brad Smith stated he had not supported anyone for the City Council’s vacancy, nor was he aware there was a vacancy.  He also expressed disappointment that his name was being used to make any such implications.

Miller defended his lobbying of the members of the City Council, claiming he was tired of ‘sitting on the sidelines.’  While I can appreciate the notion of wanting to become engaged in politics and push for your preferred candidate to fill a vacancy, I think lobbying members of City Council during a meeting goes beyond jumping in the game.  Moreover, name-dropping Brad Smith (who seems to want no part of this matter) to add pressure on multiple council members doesn’t seem very like a civic duty.  It’s more along the lines of putting your finger in the scales.  I also don’t understand Miller’s sentiment about ‘sitting on the sidelines,’ as if he has been doing that.  To say he’s politically active is more than fair.  He sits on Marshall University’s Board of Governors, which is a political appointment from the governor.  He donates to numerous political candidates for many different races (including $1,500 to Linville and more than $30,000 in total to different candidates).  His mother is a member of the United States House of Representatives.  His Facebook post explaining his actions reads like a man who’s running for office himself.  

Delegate Linville attempted to explain away his texts, noting, “Anytime that you’re making a … decision that you want to have the best information, you know, possible and available.”  So, what’s the best information in this situation?  Telling council members that Brad Smith wanted a particular person?  Smith doesn’t seem to care.  Linville further leaned into that explanation, stating, “… if Mr. [Brad] Smith, you know, made a recommendation to me of someone for something … I would take that quite seriously and do my own due diligence, but I would take that quite seriously because, you know, he clearly has an eye for talent.”   

Why do these council members care about Brad Smith’s not real recommendation?  Why are Linville, Miller, and Dillon pushing the issue?  It’s pretty clear Dillon, as a political strategist, believed it could help his client.  Linville and Miller?  I don’t know.  Did they think Smith would somehow be pleased with them?  Would he donate to their future political endeavors?  Would he donate to the city?  More money to Marshall University?   Did they simply want to influence who sat on the City Council?  

Cabell County Schools and masks

Let’s fast forward to an August 19th meeting of the Cabell County Board of Education.  The administration for the Board started the year with a policy of masks being recommended, but not required.  Initially, this policy was well received and seen as somewhat of a relief.  However, the increasing number of positive COVID cases in Cabell County and appeals from medical professionals prompted an emergency meeting of the Board to reconsider the matter.  

During the meeting, dozens of local citizens and health care professionals spoke about their feelings regarding a potential change to the mask-optional policy.  The five members of the Board had a difficult decision to make.  Health care professionals implored the Board to mandate masks for students and all employees.  The parents at the meeting mostly advocated for the mask only policy.  I don’t think I would have faulted the Board for their decision either way, but my complaint is more about the process of the decision making.

Interestingly, Delegate John Mandt (R-16) showed up as one of the ‘delegations to be heard.’  Why was he at the meeting?  I suppose he took on the mantra of a politician never letting a crisis go to waste.  He took a few moments to speak his mind how he believed mask mandates were unconstitutional, pandering to a swath of his voting base.  

If you were not aware, Mandt is leaving the House of Delegates and running for Cabell County Commissioner.  (My theory on this move is that Mandt might have some insider information on redistricting in the Cabell County area and realize he might end up in a district against some very popular candidates.  Maybe time for him to try to make a move to a more winnable election.) Most of the people attending the August 19th meeting were part of Mandt’s tribe.  Not a bad way to score some votes.

After an hour of listening to the various delegations, the five Board members had to consider if they would change their decision.  Before they cast a vote, each Board member had an opportunity to make a statement.  This was the moment where the meeting went off the rails.  

When Board member Alyssa Bond spoke, she read a prepared statement, coming down on the side of mask-optional policy.  But, regardless of what side she landed on, a prepared statement says she already made up her mind coming into this meeting and the entire delegation of parents, health care professionals, and other speakers was pro forma, window dressing for the public. 

She was followed up by Skip Parsons, who also voted for the mask-optional policy.  This came to thunderous applause from the audience, particularly as he yelled “Freedom!  I am for freedom!”  Again, I’m not faulting the vote, but I look at this type of action and I see someone influenced by the audience.  

Bond and Parsons were joined by Board President Mary Neely, who constituted the three person majority necessary to continue a mask-optional policy for the school year.  Perhaps I’m wrong about the Board and the decision making process, but as fate would have it, we’re going to have an opportunity to see how that decision making process will play out this week.

Due to the increased COVID-19 infections in Cabell County Schools, along with the number of students who must quarantine as a result of being in proximity to students who tested positive.  As a result, the Cabell County Board of Education’s agenda for this Thursday (September 2nd) includes a piece about reconsideration of the mask policy.  

Rhonda Smalley and the Reverend Chris Shaw were the two votes for a mask mandate and they are unlikely to change that position.  It will be more than interesting to see if any of the three in the majority cracks under the pressure from the health care community.  What might also be interesting to Cabell County citizens is the fact that the school system has a doctor on staff as the chief medical officer, who recommended a mask mandate.  Why are we even paying a six figure salary to a doctor if we don’t have any real intention of listening to this person?  

I truly don’t know if any of the three members in the majority will have it in them to swallow their pride and change their vote on a mask mandate just two weeks into the school year.  A change this quickly would definitely inflame the opinions of a number of citizens, and these folks are likely to turn out again for the meeting Thursday night.  That would be an exercise in leadership, without question.

The Huntington divide continues …

A few months ago, I wrote about the strange shakeup of administrators at Marshall University and the odd timing of it all.  Part of my contention then was that there’s a clash of ideologies between the outgoing Dr. Jerry Gilbert and the Marshall Board of Governors.  But I want to tweak that thought.

I believe that Huntington, and Cabell County as a whole is in the midst of an identity crisis.  Who are we and what do we believe?  Historically, this is a county like many others in West Virginia.  The older generations of this area are white, conservative, and want to preserve the status quo.  But, Huntington is a college town, and it has a younger vibe, a more liberal persona that wants to influence what the city and county are like in the future.  If you live in Huntington, you can feel the influence of the university already.  The real question now is if the liberal vibe will extend to the rest of the county.  It would appear that the conservative camp is equally determined to make its presence felt.  We are seeing this war for Cabell County transpire in some poor leadership decisions from our most important public institutions and it’s not healthy for any of us.  

Regardless of a person’s political leanings, or their feelings on masks, we should all strive for leadership at every level who makes good choices based on what is the right thing to do for the community. We don’t want individuals on Huntington City Council or the Board of Education who are thinking about their political future or not considering the needs and wants of their constituents. Public officials have a difficult task in front of them and the people entrusted them to do a job. Please do that job and not be swayed by big names or the fear of losing a future election because you made an unpopular choice.

Afghanistan really is another Vietnam …

After nearly 20 years, four presidential administrations, and thousands of deaths, the United States armed forces precipitated a departure from Afghanistan, marking one of the most significant foreign policy disasters in American history.  Why was this such a disaster?  Because the Taliban, whom the United States removed from power in 2001, reclaimed authority over Afghanistan with little resistance from the American trained and equipped Afghani military forces.  The United States invested nearly $1 trillion and thousands of lives only to see the pre-war status quo return.  

Why did America send forces to Afghanistan?  

American foreign policy in the Middle East radically changed after the events of September 11th, and the immediate objective of President George W. Bush became the elimination of al-Qaeda and the capture or kill of its leader, Osama bin Laden.  The Bush administration immediately clarified to the world that no distinction would be made between terrorists and those who harbored terrorists.

Bin Laden and al-Qaeda had been hiding out in Afghanistan for years at that point, and of course,  conducting a number of terrorist attacks against the United States.  For a variety of reasons, the ruling members of the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden and his followers to the United States.  The Bush administration and the American people were in no mood to negotiate, thus the American mission included not only eliminating al-Qaeda, but removing the Taliban from power.

In its mission, the United States incorporated the Northern Alliance (an amalgam of Afghani rebel groups), Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Australia, and Canada.  In the first two years of this war, this coalition effectively removed the Taliban and dispersed al-Qaeda.  The time since then included a great deal of counterinsurgency work, slowing stamping out the remnants of these groups.  The coalition has been very effective in killing the enemy, holding cities, and occupying territory.  However, the United States could not stay in these towns forever, nor could they eliminate every member of these groups.  Despite 20 years of fighting, the Taliban always held certain regions of Afghanistan and maintained a sizable base of support from the people.

What mistakes were made in this war?

Sadly, this war was doomed to failure from its inception because the United States did not learn its lessons from the Vietnam War.  

The United States chose the wrong objectives.  After the attacks on September 11th, the United States would settle for nothing less than direct military action to apprehend or eliminate responsible parties.  In seeking justice for those attacks, they made the mistake of attempting regime change in Afghanistan, a nation with a history as the ‘graveyard of empires’ (see: Soviet-Afghan War).  

No, the Taliban would not willingly give up bin Laden or his al-Qaeda followers, but would it not have been possible to send American forces into Afghanistan with the mission of attacking terrorist bases and ignoring Taliban forces unless they attempted to disrupt the American mission?  This type of military action would allow Americans to pursue and eliminate its enemy while refusing to engage in a long term project of overhauling a nation’s political and governmental system.  

The objectives chosen by the Bush administration sent the United States into almost a virtually endless conflict because it not only declared war on terrorism, but did not distinguish between terrorists and those who harbored them.  A war on terrorism is a war on an idea, and there will always be terrorists in the world.  The United States cannot police the entire world.  Simply put, America spread itself too thin.  This problem became more salient after the start of the Second Gulf War in 2002.

In Vietnam, the United States also chose poor objectives.  Rather than focusing on helping a poor nation victimized by imperialism, the United States was concerned about the spread of communism and stopping it at all costs.  The country was too afraid to lose a proxy war to the Soviet Union and this guided their intervention in a nation they had long ignored.

Regime change doesn’t work without wholesale support from the people.  After the Allied victory in World War II, the United States had tremendous success in its occupation and rebuilding of several nations.  In Europe, American forces established a strong military presence in both Germany and Italy.  In Japan, the United States solely took control and took a firm position in South Korea.  American influence undoubtedly affected these nations and the establishment of new governments in the post-World War II era.  American cultural imprints are still visible today in these places.  So, why has the United States failed to repeat these successes?  

In the cases of Germany and Italy, their nations and societies were not radically different from American culture.  A common Western cultural vibe translated to an easy transition away from the ugliness of fascism.  Also, these nations needed the help of the United States to push back against the aggression of the Soviet Union.  They wanted an American presence far more than they wanted a Soviet presence.

There is a similar truth in Japan and Korea.  Though these Asian nations were not akin to the Westerners in culture, they did have the problem of the Soviet Union looming over them.  In fact, many historians now believe Japan surrendered to the United States not because of the atomic bombs, but out of a fear of the Soviet Union moving its forces from Europe to assist the United States in the Pacific.  Surrendering to the United States would garner much more favorable terms after the war than surrendering to the Red Army.  Moreover, surrendering to a ‘miracle weapon’ like the atomic bomb would allow Japan to maintain some sense of honor in defeat. 

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, regime change didn’t work because the people were never unified behind it.  In the case of Vietnam, the United States failed to understand that vast majority of people saw them as the next iteration of colonizers who would pick up where France left off.  The American government propped up weak and corrupt administrations in South Vietnam and Afghanistan which neither controlled the entirety nor had the support of their people.  

It’s also fair to characterize the situations in Vietnam and Afghanistan as internal struggles, rather than external problems of Europe, which sought to protect Western nations.  The divisiveness in Vietnam and Afghanistan meant a unified nation needed for genuine change probably wasn’t going to happen. 

The United States never learned that more troops, more money, and more bombs cannot always win a war.  Groups like the Viet Cong, or the Taliban, are true believers in their cause.  They fight for different reasons than an invading army, and as such, they are willing to lose large numbers of men to achieve their objective.  In Vietnam, the United States killed the enemy at a ratio of nearly 20 to 1.   The ratio is somewhat similar for the 20 years the United States has operated in Afghanistan.  

Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking the United States military isn’t capable of winning a war in the sense of achieving tactical objectives.  The American armed forces clear villages, find and eliminate enemy combatants, and do so with stunning efficiency.  This does not mean the military always wins a war.  An army can achieve its tactical objectives without achieving its strategic objectives.  The enemy in both Vietnam and Afghanistan demonstrated they would continue fighting regardless of the losses.  In the two decades of this war, American troop losses were at 2,442.  Consider the length of time and the losses inflicted on the Taliban, this is a small number.  (Losses in Vietnam were close to 60,000.) Unless the United States killed every last man in the Taliban, they were not going to achieve the victory they sought.  Just like in Vietnam,  citizens were eventually wondering why we were there and if the cost in dollars and human life was worth it.  

No one established a clear exit strategy.  Despite two decades to plan a real exit strategy, four presidents failed to establish one.  Government officials never wanted to create a deadline for leaving, believing it would only encourage the Taliban and other terrorist groups to hold out until American forces left the country.  The policy of multiple presidential administrations was to stay until the military completed its task. 

Unfortunately, the propped up government in Afghanistan (and previously in South Vietnam) relied too heavily on American armed forces as a permanent crutch, one which would never leave until the job was done.  American support in terms of personnel, military hardware, and money seemed like a never-ending spigot which the democratic Afghani government never was too interested in turning off.  President Joe Biden remarked this past week that one more year, or five more years would not make a difference in achieving this objective.  Much like in a game of poker, it’s time to fold the hand when you realize it cannot win.  Yes, you put a lot of money into the pot, but there’s no use in throwing away more resources at a losing proposition.  

Eventually, the American government treated the situation in Afghanistan like Vietnam.  We would leave when the Afghan military could stand on their own and slowly draw down our number.  In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon called it ‘Vietnamization.’  No one created a clever name for it this time, but it’s the same terrible plan — which is no plan at all.

Does the Taliban represent a threat to the United States?  

Yes, and no.  In the traditional military sense, the Taliban has a fighting force of somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 men.  The quick fall of the new Afghani government meant that quite a bit of the military hardware provided by the American armed forces haas now fallen into the hands of the Taliban.  Of course no one wants modern military equipment to fall into the hands of some bad people, but the Taliban, as a ruling entity of Afghanistan, is not going to attack the United States.  

The concern Americans should have about the Taliban is the same concern from 20 years ago.  The Taliban provides safe haven to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, where they can operate training camps and conduct planning for attacks against the United States and its allies.  

Also, we should have a serious concern for the individuals left behind in Afghanistan.  In the absence of the Taliban, women gained significant measures of freedom and equality.  Now, the radically strict Sharia Law implemented by the Taliban threatens those gains.  Afghanis who assisted the American military as interpreters, informants, or soldiers face retribution for their actions.  These individuals are so concerned about Taliban rule that they swarmed American airplanes leaving the country and were clinging to the landing gear of aircraft as they took off.  People literally fell to their death rather than live under Taliban rule again. 

Who bears the blame for this disaster?  

Four presidents bear the blame for the policies which led to a terrible result in Afghanistan.  President George W. Bush initiated these policies, established poor objectives, and left future presidents in a situation where ending the war would be unpopular.  Bush created a broad based conflict when a more precise objective was needed.

President Barack Obama followed a sad pattern of increasing American personnel in the region and failing to follow through on timetables at removing troops after these troop surges.

President Donald Trump initiated peace talks with the Taliban during his tenure, and created a deadline for May 2021 for American withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Now, current President Joe Biden oversaw a withdrawal of American troops which appears haphazard, at best.  Incidentally, the failure of the Afghan military to put up a fight against the Taliban reflects poorly on America as a whole.  However, Biden is the current occupant of the White House, and the buck stops there.  Success or failure rests on him. 

The American people must also take on some of the blame. For years, we supported a broad based war that presidential administrations and Congresses carried on without any real exit strategy. Armed conflicts need definitive, measurable objectives so that we may apply pressure to our government if they do not achieve those goals or if they do achieve them and do not return the military home.

We now must swallow the bitter pill of failure.  Biden did what other presidents probably wanted to do.  He abandoned a foreign policy which wasn’t working.  America’s national interests in Afghanistan could not be sustained without a near permanent military presence.  Neither Biden nor any successive presidents could justify sending more Americans into harm’s way.

Citizens in the United States have rightfully expressed concern about a potential humanitarian crisis we are leaving behind.  Yet, there are humanitarian crises all over the world where we have no military forces.  Do we not also care about those people?  The United States cannot solve every problem of the world.  Attempts to do so continually undermine our credibility when there is a vital interest where American force is warranted.  

Does the internet make us stupid? Probably

Since the development of the internet during the 1990s, information has become more readily accessible to Americans than at any point in human history.  Most people carry around a smart phone in their pocket with the ability to search for answers to many questions which once required either expertise in a field or access to certain books.  In 2021, the access to information is truly breathtaking.  Want to know the exchange rate for the dollar to the riyal in Saudi Arabia? A person can find the answer in real time.  Can’t remember who sings that song which keeps repeating in your head?  Google the lyrics or use one of many apps which can listen to the song and identify it and the artist in a matter of seconds.  That’s where America is in terms of technology.  Approximately 85% of Americans own a smartphone in 2021, which dramatically increased from 35% only 10 years ago.  Amazon claims it has sold more than 100 million ‘Alexa’ devices which you can audibly ask questions and receive answers.

The democratization of information enables Americans to dramatically improve their lives in a number of ways.  This is undeniable.  Yet, American society suffers in its development because of the ease with which we can access information.  The wild flow of information creates pseudo-experts on important topics, negatively impacts our children, and creates a disregard for knowledge.

Widespread availability of information on the internet has created a subsection of pseudo-experts on every manner of topic

These individuals, armed with articles from sometimes less than reputable websites, spread questionable (or downright incorrect) information.  Bad information, even from the well-intentioned, perpetuates political, religious, scientific, and cultural problems, which are not easily corrected.

The lightning fast speed of the internet combined with smartphones establishes an information base which exceeds the ability of humans to grasp in many cases.  None of us want to admit when the complexity of a topic might be beyond the scope of our understanding, but we struggle to identify our limits.  Psychologists have identified a concept known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where humans often overestimate their abilities in various fields or disciplines.  They lack awareness of their shortcomings — and the people in the lowest quartile of intelligence tended to overestimate their abilities the most.  

People generally don’t realize they’re on Mount Stupid

While the average person can thoughtfully read information online about local news, or understand how to put together a stereo, many of these pieces of information are written with the intention of being understood by everyone.  The audience changes when the topics become more complex.  Searching for articles about nuclear technology, education, philosophy, or literature, even a person of above average intelligence will find information they fail to understand. 

Society sees this play out in terms of political ideas proliferated through social media.  Everyone has an opinion, and conveniently finds information to justify their perspective.  Too often, though, the political knowledge of Americans lacks the accuracy folks want to believe.  In the last year, the nation has seen a similar trend in medicine, with respect to COVID-19 and development of vaccines.  

The point of this essay is not to advocate for the vaccine or against it.  However, everyone in the United States appears to now possess a medical degree.  An overwhelming number of doctors, nurses, researchers, and other medical personnel recommend that people take the vaccine as the best way out of the pandemic.  If a person does not wish to take the vaccine, that is certainly their prerogative. But if a person does not take a vaccine, do they have the requisite knowledge to make that decision (outside of a consultation with their primary cary physician)?  Open access to a widespread network of information, even good information, can lead to poor decision making if not well understood.  Would any of us substitute our judgment for that of a trained, licensed, and experienced medical expert?  

A number of Americans find their information on or through Wikipedia, the preeminent encyclopedia of the internet.  It’s free, it’s easy to follow, and it has articles on every topic imaginable.  In the early days of Wikipedia, the online platform permitted open access to creating or altering its content.  This permitted bad actors to edit the site and write false information.  The site stepped up its governance about who could create or edit content, but problems persist.  When information is introduced, authors often cite their sources from books or links.  Yet, the links are often dead, leaving readers no knowledge about source material.  Additionally, Wikipedia is trying to police millions of articles in multiple languages with hundreds of thousands of credentialed editors.  There’s a reason academic institutions do not permit students to cite Wikipedia as a legitimate source.

Prior to the internet, books, newspapers and magazines delivered the information to the public.  The printed word had standards of publication.  The internet has no such gatekeepers of information.  While that can be beneficial, it presents a problem.  Aside from Wikipedia, the ease of creating a website allows for a flood of information and not all of it is good, reliable, or helpful.

The glut of websites also translates to a world where a person can easily find a ‘source’ which matches their pre-conceived ideas about an issue.  Correct information and truth no longer matter, as long as a person feels justified in their beliefs.

Access to widespread information has a negative impact on the children

I would not try to convince someone that access to the internet does not have some wonderful benefits for children.  However, the major concern in protecting children comes from the lack of a true set of guardrails protecting young people from bad information.  Any parent understand that they cannot monitor their child all the time, and even the best child will make foolish decisions.  What do you expect would happen when you arm naive, impressionable young people with access to the world?

First, we should note that given the choice, children will most often select the path of least resistance.  Yes, adults are not too far off in their desire to choose the easier, quicker path, but for children, the impulse is greater.  In fact, they don’t have much in the way of impulse control at all.  To put this into the correct context, when a person ‘googles’ a topic online, how often do they look beyond the first page of results?  Only about 30%, at best.  The optimized search results of an algorithm determine what we see as trusted sources.  

School librarians are important to the education of our children

Top results from a search engine don’t necessarily mean a person would always find inaccurate information, but many internet users, including children, lack the requisite skills to discern between good and bad information.  A 2016 Stanford University study examined middle school, high school, and college students’ ability to spot accurate sources from advertisements and the results demonstrate what a person might suspect.  The ‘digital natives’ are being exploited.  It hasn’t improved in the last five years, as Stanford continued their study and the results weren’t any better.  I also should add that this doesn’t mean children are stupid, but it does mean they are vulnerable.  

Why do our students not receive this type of training in schools?  One of the reasons is undoubtedly due to a significant decrease in the number of public school librarians.  Since 2008, the United States public school system has lost nearly 20% of its school librarians.  Why?  When funding cuts happen, administrators often see the librarian as more expendable than a classroom teacher.

Children without discernment become adults without discernment.  They overestimate their knowledge, comprehension, and abilities.  These individuals are bad employees, they pass on their habits to their children, and they tend to possess a sense of entitlement.

The internet devalues knowledge 

How can we not value knowledge if we created a network of computers to access it?  The ability to access the information has become more important than the information itself.  Why bother memorizing facts and information if a small handheld device can direct you to that information?  In some aspects of life, this makes sense.  A doctor doesn’t need to memorize every potential drug interaction before prescribing it.  He or she can refer to a database which cross-references drug interactions and have an answer in seconds.

However, another medical scenario shows the importance of knowledge.  If a surgeon performed an operation on a patient’s heart, we expect that surgeon to have intricate knowledge about the heart, the procedure, problems which could occur in operation, and how to correct those problems.  In many instances in the world, knowledge and understanding of a topic or subject is simply irreplaceable. 

Knowledge matters, for a variety of reasons.  Maybe a person has no desire to pursue medicine, or a field which requires a broad knowledge base (though I can’t personally imagine a job that doesn’t require a broad knowledge base).  The acquisition of knowledge about the world, particularly in early years of education, leads to better understanding in terms of reading comprehension.  Knowledge leads to understanding, application, synthesis, etc. (see: Bloom’s Taxonomy) and in 21st America, we the foundation before we can build higher order thinking.  

American students’ achievement in science, math, and language arts pale in comparison to other industrialized nations.   The test scores for student achievement U.S. History, geography, and civics show consistently low achievement.  Don’t worry, adults, this lack of knowledge includes you too.  A recent study revealed that only about 1 in 3 Americans could pass the citizenship test given to naturalized citizens.  Not surprisingly Americans over the age of 65 scored highest.   Certainly, there are a number of other factors which contribute to undesirable test scores.  But my point here is that we know that we ought to be embarrassed by our lack of knowledge.  We just don’t do anything about it.

Knowledge is essential to Americans who value our system of democracy.  Good decision making about who we choose as policy makers is more than just knowledge, but never less.  A well informed citizenry is essential to this nation’s future.  Moreover, the knowledge of who are, who we were, and our shared experiences help establish who we will become as a nation.   

Unfortunately, the internet created an ocean of information and most people do not have the skills to navigate it.  Society also does not want to navigate this ocean.

This is what we do with the power of the internet — but, admittedly, it is funny

One can also see the irreverence to knowledge in the types of information consumed through the internet.  Again, it’s not my contention that the internet does not have many wonderful uses which have positively impact humanity.  But there’s a price to pay.  At best estimate, the internet contains:

  • 1.13 million pornography sites 
  • 2 million cat videos on YouTube alone 
  • Approximately 400 million food pictures on Instagram
  • Hundreds of millions of memes
  • 1 billion + GIFs 
  • Billions of Facebook and Twitter users

The content of the medium reflects what we value — and it’s clearly not knowledge.  The above is only a snippet of what we consume online.  

In 1985, Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, an astonishing book which dissected the negative impact of television on society.  Part of the Postman’s premise included the notion that George Orwell’s 1984 was not the real concern of the future.  Postman posited that the vision of the future, regarding television, was found in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World.  In Huxley’s wild vision of the future, humans were distracted by technological innovations and numbed through the use of a common drug.  

Postman asserted that television acted as the drug of choice for Americans.  The government, if they had any intentions of deceiving the public, didn’t need “Big Brother.”  Citizens were doing it to themselves.  Postman wrote, 

… the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.  Which is why Aldous Huxley would not in the least be surprised by the story.  Indeed, he prophesied its coming.  He believed that is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled.  Huxley grasped, as a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions. … Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody.

Postman’s concern about television were well founded.  Nearly three decades later, though, and television isn’t the only popular method to dull one’s mind.  Is there any denying that taking pictures of one’s food might be the single greatest display of a decadent society?  

The massive database which is the internet has so many positive uses, but the world uses it as another distraction.  We willingly hand over our time, money, and personal information to a number of these websites.  Postman warned, 

There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth.  When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

The most popular websites and contents aren’t devoted to knowledge, or the betterment of humanity.  

It would be unwise and most likely impossible to restrict the free flow of information on the internet.  However, society stands at the precipice of great danger because it won’t address the problems arising from this cultural shift. 

Five Contradictions of West Virginia

“Pleasing, tho’ dreadful.” 

— An early explorer of West Virginia, noting in his journal about the geography of the region

If you live, work, or have roots in West Virginia, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to presume that you possess an understanding of the culture. There are so many aspects of the state to love and appreciate.  However, I want to point out five contradictions about West Virginia which hold the state back.

West Virginians are largely pro-life, but don’t seem to support children

A sizable portion of West Virginians believe abortion should not be legally permissible, and I would contend that this, by itself, is a defensible position.  But the contradiction here lies in the refusal to support a number of policies which benefit children.  One of West Virginia’s most significant problems is its inability, or unwillingness, to care for its children.  

In a previous post, I referenced the critical issues of student homelessness, grandparents raising grandchildren, and an inadequate foster care system.  These amount to a crisis situation and I cannot reconcile how its citizens take a hard pro-life position when they see such a dire need for the care of children.

This is a terrifying graph to think about for West Virginians

The most recent data demonstrates that more than 10,000 students in West Virginia are classified as homeless (about 4% of the entire student population).  As of this month’s figures, foster parents house approximately 6,500 children, including almost 2,000 labeled as in ‘therapeutic foster care.’ 

Social scientists have created a metric to better assess the well-being of children, a test to gauge adverse childhood experiences, or ‘ACE.’  It consists of 10 yes or no questions which help researchers understand the impact of traumas on a child as they become adults.  Anyone with a score of ‘4’ or more on the ACE test is:

  • 12 times more likely to attempt suicide 
  • 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs which are injected
  • 7 times more likely to become an alcoholic 
  • 2 times more likely to become a smoker 

The effects of childhood trauma increase the risk for a myriad of other poor behavioral choices, backed by peer reviewed studies.

In West Virginia, 13.8% of adults reported they had a childhood with four or more ACEs. Additionally, West Virginia ranks 7th in the nation for percentage of people with an ACE score of 2 or greater (a staggering 25%).  Though speculation, I don’t find it too difficult to believe that the children of today are any better off than previous generations.

West Virginians seem to despise the government in Washington, D.C., but benefit from the federal government as much as anyone in the nation

West Virginians believe that policies from the nation’s capital should always be met with the most stringent skepticism.  Citizens always imagine a far away government official as the cause of their problems.  

A portion of the disdain towards Washington is rooted in the never ending political drama between Democrats and Republicans.  The GOP has consistently presented a message that Democrats, particularly at the federal level, have waged a ‘war on coal,’ will deprive people of religious freedoms, and want to rob citizens of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.  The truthfulness of the message doesn’t matter because perception is reality here.

Somewhat related is the fascination people in this state have for the Confederacy and its rebellion during the Civil War.  Any small town has its share of Confederate battle flags.  

When the West Side community of Charleston moved to change the name of Stonewall Jackson Middle School, it met a bizarre level of resistance.  Even if I wanted to overlook the fact that black children make up the overwhelming majority of students attending the school, a school in West Virginia named for a Confederate general is ridiculous.  The birth of West Virginia occurred during the Civil War — on the side of the Union.  (Start a conversation about removing the statue of Stonewall Jackson from the Capitol grounds and watch citizens lose their minds.)  

Strangely, this hatred of the federal government is made in conjunction with the fact that our state benefits more from federal tax dollars than almost every other state in the union.  If you see the late Senator Robert Byrd’s name on a bridge, school, institution, or any other building, there’s a good chance he secured the federal funds for it.  No one objected, and for good reason.  

West Virginia ranks 9th in federal grant beneficiaries among the states, and this doesn’t include the entire gamut individualized programs.  In regard to those programs:

Per capita, West Virginia ranks 2nd in the nation in recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as ‘food stamps’), receiving almost $400,000,000 annually for recipients.

Currently, 28% of West Virginia’s citizens receive Medicaid or Children’s Heath Insurance (CHIPs).

For West Virginians receiving Medicare, the annual expenditure per beneficiary is an average of slightly above $10,000.  If someone would point out that Medicare is a program which we all pay into, consider that most recipients will draw out more in benefits than they ever pay into the program. 

It’s ironic that so many West Virginians are more than happy to reap the benefits of federal tax dollars while constantly degrading the government officials who enacted these policies and the bureaucratic employees who make sure those checks find their way to the mailboxes of West Virginians (and millions of Americans also).

West Virginians love coal, though it has plagued the people

The state has been one of the leading producers of coal, yet the individuals who benefitted the most from this important natural resource are not West Virginians.  Coal mining in the mid-20th century until now offered West Virginians a high paying salary they could earn as straight out of high school.  But the state as a whole forgot the bloody road that coal miners walked to secure those high paying jobs in the first place.  How many West Virginians toiled in mines for little pay or were the victims of violence from the mine owners?  Moreover, even after the coal miners secured better wages and working conditions, the balance of power still leaned heavily towards the mine owners.  Those mine owners reaped disproportionate financial benefits while the men who labored in coal mines literally worked themselves into an early grave.

How many men died from mining disasters which could have been prevented?  If that wasn’t enough of an issue, how many men suffered from physical injuries which dramatically reduced the quality of their lives?  This doesn’t account for the incidences of black lung, a particularly dreadful disease miners develop from years of working in close contact with coal dust.  Black lung dramatically reduces quality of life, has no cure, and is fatal.  

I respect the people who work in coal mines.  That job requires significant physical strength and mental fortitude, to go into the mines day after day for years.  But what I see as the great contradiction is the love affair the state has with coal when these miners have never received what they deserve.

You don’t need nearly as many employees to get that coal out of the ground

The mine owners do not reinvest in the communities, they fight any attempted increases on the coal severance tax, and most importantly, the bulk of them are absentee landlords.  For over a century, we have allowed corporate interests outside of the state to treat West Virginia like a third world country, using our natural resources and labor in exchange for scraps.

Historically, mine owners have little regard for the well being of their employees.  The mechanization of coal mines have taken more jobs from the hands of our people than any politician could dare to dream. They also have cannibalized bankrupted other coal corporations of their assets, while taking on none of their liabilities, notably the pensions of retired coal miners.

The nation’s trend towards natural gas and renewable energy will diminish the demand for coal.  The world will still need coal in short term and long term for the United States, but not nearly as much as it once did. 

Why does the state love coal when it has taken so much from the people and given so little in return?

West Virginians want economic development, but they do not wish to change

Politicians have long touted diversification of West Virginia’s economy as a priority in light of the decline of coal.  Yes, the state has done tremendous work in developing an amazing tourism industry.  However, there are other ways in which West Virginia can develop a more progressive attitude towards economic development.

West Virginia’s agricultural production has long been a strong component of the economy.  Adding marijuana to the agricultural output is projected to add nearly $190 million in revenue, increasing agricultural revenue by 25%.  Of course, the state’s tax coffers will benefit also, which can be used in a variety of ways to benefit the state.  The dangers of alcohol outweigh those of marijuana and the state has no problem allowing its sale. 

In addition to changes in agricultural, West Virginians do not value higher education, though studies demonstrate that a college education translates to increased lifetime earnings.  Only 20.3% of West Virginians hold a bachelor’s degree, the lowest percentage of any state in the nation. Bringing economic development includes valuing the education, which West Virginia does not.

Many West Virginians shun colleges as ‘elitist’ and they don’t respect the value of higher education.  State government continues to decrease funding of  institutions of higher education, including the Promise Scholarship. This demonstrates the priorities of West Virginia.  (Despite a skepticism of higher education, West Virginians have little problem turning out in large numbers for football and basketball games in Morgantown and Huntington.)

We care about moral values, but continually elect poor examples of those values

Often, our moral values are connected to our religious beliefs, and few states are as religious as West Virginia.  Christianity, specifically an evangelical brand of the faith, advocates that definitive right and wrong standards exist in the world.  A majority of West Virginians also believe this to be true.  Yet, the citizens here continue to elect individuals who flagrantly violate these standards.  West Virginia’s government currently contains some odd characters with significant failings —  including John Mandt, Mike Maroney, and Joe Jeffries — but they are only recent iterations of the political problems here. 

For those old enough to remember, former Governor Arch Moore’s third term in office led to guilty pleas for five felonies in federal court, including tax fraud, extortion, and obstruction of justice. Moore’s first two terms were no easier, with an indictment for extortion and constant rumors about misuse of campaign funds.  The allegations and guilty pleas never seemed to put a dent in Moore’s popularity with West Virginians.

In 2004, the FBI rooted out several corrupt long-time officials in Logan County through a sting operation which yielded nine convictions in vote buying schemes.  The practice of vote buying or knowledge of corruption was not regarded as a secret in this area.

Former Governor Bob Wise was involved in a sex scandal in 2003.  In 2016, the mayor of Clay liked a Facebook post referring to then First Lady Michelle Obama as an ‘ape in heels.’  Oh, and the public official in Clay County who made the Facebook post?  A year later she pleaded guilty to embezzling $18,000 from FEMA devoted to flood relief in the area. 

I know every state has its dullards and buffoons who somehow win elections, but if we care about the integrity of our state and moral values, shouldn’t we make morality the ‘floor’ for government officials?  The people in West Virginia have fallen into the trap of placing their preferred political party before values.

If West Virginia is going to talk about these things, it’s time to be about them.  We should take care of our children, and teach them that valuing certain moral traits means living them out to the best of our ability.  We don’t have to love coal or see it as the economic basis for the future.  The federal government isn’t the enemy,  and there are times when change isn’t such a bad thing.

Olympian Simone Biles just did something, by not doing something

Yesterday, Simone Biles shocked the entire nation, and a significant segment of the world, by voluntarily removing herself from the gymnastics team competition in the 2020 (or is it the 2021?) Tokyo Olympic Games.  Biles’ reason for withdrawing from the competition was not a physical injury.  She revealed that her rationale for removing herself was due to a struggle with mental health.

As a four time gold medalist, Biles arrived in Tokyo with top billing as the star of American gymnastics (if not the entire Olympic delegation) and a clear expectation for more victories.  Americans expect their stars to deliver,  and there will no doubt be critics who lament her absence from the team competition as ‘weak’ or letting down her teammates and the nation.  However, I’m not in that crowd.  Simone Biles doesn’t deserve the criticism and there are several reasons I’m okay with her decision.

Mental health problems or mental stress inhibit the ability to perform, just like physical injuries

No one would expect Biles or any athlete to compete with a physical injury.  Why should this be any different?  Critics might argue that physical injuries and mental stress are not the same type of problem.  Even if I accepted that line of reasoning, I would argue that mental health problems are worse.  When physically injured or hurt, there are a select few athletes who find ways to mentally block out the pain of persevere through those injuries.  But it is the mind which allows them to push beyond their limits.  A person with an unhealthy mind cannot push through.

Would anyone criticize Biles for ‘letting her team down’ if she had a broken ankle?  Of course not.  We wouldn’t expect her to attempt vaults.  Our nation would understand that an athlete could not perform at her best level, and an attempt to compete when not healthy would be detrimental to the team.  The women’s team event ended with a silver medal for America, and there’s no shame in that.  What would have happened if Biles attempted to perform without a healthy mind?  The team might not have medaled.  This is one of the reasons Olympic squads carry alternates, for situations such as this.

Biles experiences a stress level high, even for Olympic standards

Simone Biles is 24 years old, and while we see her as a grown woman, this is still a relatively young age.  Since her amazing performance in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Biles has been one of the most well known American athletes.  She has endorsement deals with Kellogg’s, Nike, Hershey, United Airlines, and Beats by Dre, to name a few.  Biles competes at the highest level in the difficult and demanding world of gymnastics.  She has often stated that in middle school and high school, other students would ridicule and mock her about her body, which caused body image issues she struggled to overcome.  (Biles is only 4’ 8” and female gymnasts often have a body shape atypical when compared to other women.)  Additionally, Biles experienced trauma as a young girl when she was sexually abused by the now disgraced Larry Nasser.

Perhaps we should applaud Simone Biles for making it this far in life without experiencing a major breakdown of some kind.  As an athlete performing at the elite level in the most revered worldwide sporting competition, one would face enough stress.  But Americans add additional expectation.  We are a nation fo winners and expect nothing but the absolute best in every field of endeavor.  Biles is the face of American Olympics this year, and so many of the people will be disappointed, but they shouldn’t be.  How would any of us perform any task on the world stage?  Probably not as well as we might like to think.

Simone Biles’ actions might end up being the most important thing she could do in the sports world

When a top tier athlete admits that they, too, feel the stress and the weightiness of mental health problems, it gives others permission to admit they have a problem.  Society still has a stigma which sees mental health illnesses as only affecting the weak, establishing a self-loathing attitude that people internalize.  Those affected by mental illness also wrong believe they are somehow to blame, or incompetent or otherwise ‘less than.’ 

Biles’ actions in admitting her mental health was the reason for withdrawing from competition will impact others struggling with some form of mental illness.  She also displayed profound wisdom, commenting, “There’s more to life than just gymnastics.”  This statement might annoy some of her critics, but I believe it’s one of the most significant things she could have said.

By prioritizing her mental health, Biles is letting people know that her identity is not, and cannot be dictated by athletics.  The ‘win at all costs’ mentality that Americans have come to love takes a toll on people, and Biles appears to either have wise counsel or has learned that her time as an athlete are limited.  She’s also not alone.

In the spring of 2021, tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the prestigious French Open, also citing mental health as an issue.  She later provided more context, noting she suffered from anxiety and periodic bouts of depression.  

Mental illness nearly broke Michael Phelps, the record setting American swimmer who won 23 gold medals.  Bouts of depression, substance abuse, extreme instances of self-isolation, and thoughts of suicide plagued Phelps while he was winning gold medals in five different Olympic Games.  When the world was celebrating Phelps, he was experiencing the lowest points of his life.  Winning isn’t always enough, and it turns out there’s more to life than swimming.

Maybe someone will read this, and bring up the more vicious mental toughness of athletes.  Last year, we all waxed nostalgic about The Last Dance, the documentary about the Chicago Bulls in their sixth and final title run in the Michael Jordan years.  Critics of Biles might look at Jordan and say, “Now that’s how you deal with the stress.”  It’s pretty clear that basketball was (and may still be) the most important thing in Michael Jordan’s life.  And he received his reward.

Personally, watching Michael Jordan in that documentary series made me feel sorry for him.  He’s perpetually living in the 1990s.  For Jordan, nothing was more important than winning basketball games.  But look at the cost.  A huge swath of people who played with and against Jordan can’t stand him.  Jordan was cruel to a number of teammates and competitors in the NBA.  Sure, it might have helped him achieve the results he wanted.  Yet, there are more important things than sports.  How a person achieves those ends matters in this life.  

Simone Biles’ actions give the world a rare glimpse into the vulnerability of an athlete.  Typically, this is seen as a weakness.  Technically, it is a weakness.  It’s precisely what the world needs to see because the rest of us are weak, too.  We don’t want to admit it, and we definitely don’t want our heroes to admit it. But Biles did the right thing, for herself, her team, the nation, and the world.

Nobody likes a quitter — even in politics

“Voters quickly forget what a man says.”

— Richard Nixon

Politicians are always keenly aware that their tenure in office often hinges on the mood of the electorate.  But politicians have always understood that a scandal would end their career, or at the very least, put it on life support.  Government officials knew this was how the game was played.  A scandal means they fall on their sword and resign.  They embarrass the party, their state, the nation?  Time for them to move on.  Depending on the nature of the mistake, maybe he or she can score a second act after a few years of penance.

There are plenty of examples in the modern era of American politics.  Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich (R-GA) resigned after an unethical book deal (which also cost him $300,000 in penalties).  I mean, Fox News still lets him make an appearance on their shows, but he’s unelectable.

Anyone old enough to remember Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR)?  The Washington Post ran an article detailing accusations from 10 different women claiming the senator sexually harassed or sexually abused them.  The Senate Ethics Committee recommended an expulsion, and Packwood bowed out on his own.  

Karl Rove, a senior advisor to President George W. Bush, resigned after allegations of exerting improper influence over multiple situations.  

Check out the precipitous drop in Anthony Weiner’s favorability numbers among Democratic voters in New York

Do I need to mention Anthony Weiner (D-NY)?  The former Congressman was a rising star in the Democratic Party, until media outlets reported that he texted nude pictures of himself to various women.  He quit his position in the House, and almost had a shot in a mayoral election in New York City … until he did the same thing again (please google “Carlos Danger.”)

Mark Foley (R-FL), a former House member, resigned in 2006 after allegations surfaced that he was sending sexuality explicit messages to pages.

Larry Craig (R-ID), a senator charged with soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a public restroom.  Though he maintained his innocence, he resigned in 2007.

Chris Lee, (R-NY), resigned after soliciting a woman on Craigslist and e-mailing shirtless photos of himself.

There are dozens of examples of politicians behaving badly.  But they understood that when confronted with evidence, they needed to do everyone a favor and walk away.   Despite the seemingly endless nature of scandals and foolish decisions of politicians, there are rules even among the sharks.  

The landscape of politics changed in 2016, for a number of reasons.  However, it seems clear that the new playbook for politics suggests a different path forward.  Caught in a scandal?  Admit it, deny it, gaslight accusers, but do not resign.  Ride out the storm of disapproval.  Take the beating the press will hand out.  Hide in the office.  But a refusal to resign means a longer stay in power and the hope that voters will forget.

How are we seeing this play out? 

Former President Donald Trump set this tone (though we will see he isn’t the only factor in causing this shift).  Practically any number of gaffes during his 2016 Election campaign would have crushed candidates before him.  Democrats unleashed a video of Trump and television host Billy Bush prior to a taping Access Hollywood, where Trump described how he repeatedly attempted to seduce married woman, and mused about his celebrity status, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ‘em by the p***y. You can do anything.”  Under the old rules, that would have been damning enough.  However, Trump dismissed it as ‘locker room talk,’ not to be taken seriously. 

In 2018, news outlets reported that Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, paid $130,000 to an adult film star for a non-disclosure agreement about her sexual affair with Trump in 2006.  While Trump distanced himself from the payment, he did not deny the affair.

Trump, left, was accused of mocking Kovaleski, right.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump also mocked the physical handicap of New York Times reporter, Serge Kovaleski.

Trump, as president, attempted to leverage Ukrainian officials to conduct an investigation into the Biden family to discredit current President Joe Biden.  This earned Trump his first impeachment.  His second impeachment stemmed from actions on the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, where he urged on his supporters, who wrongfully claimed that Trump truly won the election.

Any historian or political scientist could write volumes about the insane antics of Trump, but that’s not the point.  Trump’s actions set a terrible precedent because despite evidence of his terrible nature, he refused to step away from politics.  Regardless of what journalists uncovered, or the slew of allegations of sexual assault from dozens of women, Trump defied the unwritten rules of politics.

Trump crossed the Rubicon with his refusal to relent in the face of evidence of his transgressions.  Other politicians (from both parties) now understand they have no obligation to play by the old rules, either.  These politicians hope that once the initial news cycle with their scandal fades away, so will the memories of the voters.  

Remember Governor Andrew Cuomo from New York?  I wrote about his underreporting of COVID-19 deaths in senior centers and the concerning allegations of sexual harassment.  He’s riding the rough waves and refusing to yield to the calls for his resignation, even from his own party.  The New York General Assembly passed laws weakening the power of the governor, but Cuomo remains undeterred.  If the people want him out, they’ll have to vote him out.  Cuomo has already announced plans to run again in 2022.

Congressman Gaetz in the running for world’s most punchable face

Travel westward and catch up with current Governor Greg Gianforte of Montana.  You might remember him for body slamming Ben Jacobs, a reporter from The Guardian.  Gianforte didn’t stop his campaign for House of Representatives, but did receive a misdemeanor conviction for assault and had to pay $4,400 in restitution to Jacobs.  Gianforte served two terms in the House before transitioning to his current role as governor.

Speaking of governors behaving badly, Governor Ralph Northam (D-VA), faced a controversy in 2019 when a medical school yearbook photo surfaced with Northam wearing blackface standing next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood.  Northam apologized for the photo, but then later claimed he was neither man in the photograph and had no recollection of it.  Regardless, he resisted the intense pressure for him to resign.

Perhaps the most disgusting politician using this new tactic is Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL).  The bombastic congressman faces allegations that he had sex with a 17 year old girl.  Gaetz is also connected to corrupt and disgraced Florida politician Joel Greenberg, who used his position in government to defraud taxpayers and run a sex trafficking ring.  Greenberg recently cut a deal with prosecutors, likely to avoid a long prison sentence in exchange for testimony against his long time ‘friend’ Gaetz.  The congressman admits to nothing and claims “the deep state” is plotting against him.

Big time politics comes to West Virginia 

Political operators at the state level see these tactics and they quickly adopt them.  In 2019, Glen Dale Police arrested and charged State Senator Mike Maroney (R-02) with conspiracy, house of ill fame and assignation and prostitution.  The charges were later dropped, despite police finding Maroney’s phone number in a prostitute’s phone and thousands of messages exchanged.  The prevailing thought is that Maroney’s lawyers were going to draw out his trial as long as possible, making the cost of his trial a drain on the finances of the town of Glen Dale and Marshall County.  He currently retains his seat in the West Virginia State Senate.

Delegate Mandt tries to play on fears that ‘they’ are out to get you but he can’t tell you who this mysterious ‘they’ are, and yes, this came from his Facebook page

In the Huntington area, Delegate John Mandt (R-16) is no stranger to controversial statements and actions that would ruin the careers of most politicians. In response to the local mosque in Huntington having a candlelight vigil, Mandt, unprompted, posted on Facebook, “Anything Muslim is going to be associated with Democrats. It’s better to stay away than be associated with them.”  

After a number of other disparaging remarks appeared about the gay and lesbian citizens in the state, Mandt caused another stir.  Just prior to the 2020 Election, Mandt’s number appeared to be up when screenshots of a group chat showed him using inflammatory language directed at gay and lesbian citizens, and Muslims.  In the wake of this revelation, Mandt resigned, but quickly reversed course and said his name was still on the ballot for the upcoming election and asked his supporters to re-elect him to the House of Delegates.  And without hesitation, his supporters did just that.

Last week, Delegate Joe Jeffries (R-22) posted a vulgar and sexually explicit video on TikTok, which garnered a great deal of criticism.  Jeffries made no apology for the video, commenting only, “I’m an elected official, but I’m still a real person.”  Despite being removed from all committee assignments, Jeffries says he has no plans to resign.

Whether or not you approve or disapprove of these men and their actions on a private level is up to you, but the lesson they’ve drawn is clear.  Regardless of their conduct as public officials, none of it means resigning from office.

Why is this happening?

Of course, it’s easy to lay all of this at the feet of former President Donald Trump.  And he deserves a significant share of the blame, but Trump is only the catalyst for this.  A few underlying causes have been simmering … 

1. Decline in trust in the media.  One of the key institutions in holding government accountable holds less sway than it once did.  Sometimes, news outlets make mistakes, or the public becomes dissatisfied with the stories receiving coverage or how they’re covered.  Also, the media reports information which upsets the natural order of our thinking.  People don’t trust the media at times because it makes them aware of events they don’t want to believe.

Gallup’s poll reveals a slow degradation of faith in the media

The decline in the faith in media to report accurately leads destruction of a once trusted voice.  Not even the most objective news outlets have enough credibility for may Americans.  Too often, we do not want to see the overwhelming evidence right in front of us.

2. Tribalism and failure to condemn ‘our guy.’  It’s always pretty easy to pile on the people we don’t like or who don’t represent our views, but what happens when one of our political heroes is mired in scandal?  The refusal of politicians at the highest levels of leadership in their parties and in our nation to condemn the exploits of their bad actors translates to others believing the behavior is tolerable.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) are the worst offenders in this regard.  (And before you say in your head, “But what about Pelosi and Biden?,” you should read their comments on Cuomo and Northam.)

3. Post-modernist thinking.  If you aren’t familiar with the post-modernist movement from the 1990s and early 2000s, the key concept from their academic thinking was to call everything into question.  There is no absolute truth and everything is relative.  While post-modernist thinking has fallen out of favor (for a number of good reasons), its residue in American society is that everything in politics can be called into question, vis-á-vis, “fake news.”  Someone makes the claim that Politician A committed certain crimes.  Politicians will explain it away as simply untrue.  A free-floating standard of truth allows politicians to conjure up any explanation for their actions which they can offer as plausible.  

4. Politics of fear.  When any politician finds themselves embroiled in a scandal, they appeal to the fear of the general population to save them.  One tactic is to claim that even if the scandal is true, you can defuse the situation by advocating that a flawed member of your party is still better than even the best member of the opposing party.  Another tactic utilizing fear involves establishing or endorsing conspiracy theories and positing that the evil forces behind the conspiracy.  

Why do campaigns spend so much of their advertising budget on negative campaigns?  They’re effective. They provoke fear through false or misleading statements which make voters worry that if they pick the wrong candidate, society will fall apart.  President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign ran the infamous “Daisy ad,” which implied a nation led by Republican Barry Goldwater would end up in a disastrous nuclear war.  Not to be outdone, the 1988 campaign for President George H.W. Bush included the “Willie Horton ad,” which painted Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime through a campaign ad aimed at suburban white citizens.

Part of this fear-mongering includes deflecting criticism about a scandal to other problems.  Give the people a greater problem than your scandal to think about, and they will.  “Yes, I make this awful statement, but I’m the only one protecting you from them.  They’re really after you and I’m just in their way.”  

Great Cinema: Four Films Worth Watching

Films are one of my favorite parts of modern culture.  They tell us so much about our society, people, and ourselves.  Good films, like any piece of art, should make the audience feel something.  And if a two hour film can somehow draw out emotion, that’s an accomplishment.  

In this post, I want to provide you with five films I have very much appreciated for making me consider my own humanity and feelings.  In no particular order … 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) 

This is a unique film for the list for a number of reasons, but notably that it’s in Chinese (subtitles did not bother American moviegoers in the least).  Adapted from a novel, Crouching Tiger stars Chow Yun-fat as master swordsman Li Mu Bai.  Co-star Michelle Yeoh plays Yu Shu Lien, the partner of Li and long time friend.  

The story opens with Li explaining his decision to retire from his life as a swordsman, giving his famed sword (known as ‘the Green Destiny’) to a nobleman and benefactor.  Shortly after the nobleman takes possession of the sword, we quickly learn the culprit is Jen (a very adept Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the nobleman and secret student of Jade Fox, a known assassin.  

Li, the famed warrior, wrestles with significant conflict in terms of his complex feelings towards his long time partner Yu (who was once engaged to his best friend before his untimely death), tracking down the assassin Jade Fox, and his desire to take on Jen as a student.

The film also dives into the backstory of Jen, and how the daughter of a wealthy noble becomes a warrior.  We are treated to a number of flashback scenes where Jen had once been held hostage by bandit named Lo, whom she comes to better understand and eventually fall in love with.  

Despite the martial arts, this film explores two love stories and juxtaposes two would-be couples.  Li and Yu are older, more reserved, and hesitant to act based on custom and tradition.  Jen and Lo find themselves swept away by passion and have little use for the opinions of the world.  Moreover, the romantic scenes between the couples don’t feel at all forced or gratuitous.  

This film also provokes other elements of our human nature.  Li seeks to kill Jade Fox because she killed his former teacher.  The assassin herself struggles when she realizes her disciple’s skills exceed her own.  Jen feels smothered by her life as a noble and the expectations that come with it (which do not include running off with a bandit or fighting).  There’s a great deal of internal conflict brewing throughout the film and by the end of it, Li has wondered if he has wasted some important opportunities.  

Of course the human emotion matters profoundly, but the other key elements of the film all click.  The actors, many with significant prior Hollywood experience, play the roles well.  Few of the main actors knew Mandarin coming into the film, which makes it more impressive .

The action scenes are phenomenal and the film didn’t shy away from the ‘wuxia’ genre of the novel (a Chinese form of fantasy literature).  We see characters make superhuman moves, but not so much that it takes away from the movie.  In fact, it feels believable.  The music paces well with a number of the action scenes, and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed solos.  The visuals from the movie are buoyed by great sets. The Gobi Desert and other provinces in China, showing a variety of climates and regions.

Since its release in 2000, other films in the genre have tried to recreate the magic of Crouching Tiger, but it just hasn’t happened.  Story, action, romance, music, and dynamic characters.  Makes for a fantastic movie.  

Jojo Rabbit (2019) 

When a friend initially recommended this film, my knee-jerk reaction was “I dunno.”  But Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell provided all the credibility I needed go give this a chance.  It did not disappoint and Jojo Rabbit easily makes my list of films people should see. 

The story revolves a 10 year old boy named Jojo (portrayed by Roman Griffin Davis), who must face harsh truths about growing up in Nazi Germany.  Living in a Germany heavily laden with propaganda, Jojo believes in Nazi cause, the greatness of Hitler, and stereotypes about Jews.    Though Jojo has the patriotic fervor you might expect in a young boy, his mother Rosie (played by Johansson) recognizes her son is still a sweet child who only parrots what he’s been told.  (Older boys in the Hitler Youth give Jojo the nickname Jojo Rabbit because of his inability to kill a rabbit to show his worth.)

Jojo doesn’t have many friends and a short, ill-fated stint in the Hitler Youth proves maybe he isn’t cut out for serving the Reich like most other German boys.  To compensate for a lack of friends, Jojo creates an imaginary goofball version of Adolf Hitler (director Taika Waititi becomes a very believable Hitler).  Throughout the film, we see the imaginary Hitler as an incarnation of the propaganda which has bombarded Jojo for his life.

The film slowly alludes to Rosie’s involvement in an anti-Nazi resistance group and low-key efforts to correct the misperceptions of her son.  Jojo must confront his own perceptions about Jews when he finds out that his mother has secretly harbored a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).  The banter between Jojo and Elsa provides interesting exchanges that vacillate between the serious and comedic.

In fact, one of the unique aspects of Jojo Rabbit is the fact that find yourself laughing one minute, cheering for the small victories of each character, and feeling the weightiness of Nazi persecution.

Like any good film, the strength lies in the story-driven approach to the film and the perfectly attuned cast that brings the story to life. Even the minor characters produce a memorable effect, and Jojo’s best friend Yorki (the scene-stealing Archie Yates) is a hidden gem.  Also, Rockwell’s character, Captain Klenzendorf, has a small story arc with a path to redemption, thanks to our young hero Jojo.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Ralph Fiennes leads a literal all-star cast in the story of a run-down hotel in the fictional nation of Zubrowka, under communist control but filled with wild stories from a bygone era.  

The film opens with the nation’s most wealthy man, Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) providing a tale about how he came into possession of the The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Zero’s story focuses on the long-serving and renowned concierge Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes), who often seduced many of the older women who frequented the hotel.  While not above womanizing, Gustave is incredibly dedicated to his craft and gentlemanly conduct.

When we learn that one of the hotel’s well known patrons, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dies, Gustave takes his new protégé, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) to the reading of the will.  Gustave’s long time lover Madame D. has left him a priceless painting that prompts outrage from her jealous son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and other family members.  

What follows is a bizarre yet fun sequence of events where the family tries to frame Gustave, who escapes custody with the help of Zero, his baker-apprentice girlfriend, and a secret cadre of concierges (think skull and bones society, only for concierges).

So, what makes this film so great?  What’s the buy-in?  The deeper rooted issue that drives the story is the evolution of society and the loss of a more civilized world.  How do we cope with changes which destroy a sense of decorum which had long governed our conduct?  

In the beginning of the story, one has to wonder why the older version of Zero holds on to a drab hotel which no one visits any longer.  He struggles to let go of the last remnant of a world which does not exist.  Humans love to hang on to symbols which bring about nostalgic feelings, and we often find objects which remind of us a time in our lives when everything was right with the world.  

There’s also a sense of appreciation for Gustave.  He’s something of a Renaissance man who has a wealth of knowledge and connections.  He says all the right things and knows all the right customs.  While on the run from authorities, he manages to stay one step ahead at all times. Gustave also takes in Zero, a refugee, as a lobby boy and shows him the ropes, providing him not only with a job but a place to stay.  He also makes Zero earn his keep.  Gustave is the mentor we all either had or wanted when we were young.

A number of cameos and bit roles ramp up the star power:  Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Willem DaFoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Matheiu Amalric, and Bill Murray (yes, Bill Murray) do their part in the film and no one tries to be bigger than the story itself.  

The choices for the sets, filmed mostly in Germany prove for some fantastic scenery and the costumes for Gustave, Zero, and their accomplices have an interesting vibe that meshes with the scenery and provides a nice color scheme.  The hotel’s scenery and Gustave have us wishing for a more refined time.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

This is probably not the Quentin Tarantino film you expected to see on this list (if you were expecting one at all).  Everyone lauds Pulp Fiction and it deserves the praise.  Casual moviegoers might not even be aware of this film, and if they are, may not realize it predates Pulp Fiction.  But this film merits a lot of consideration for a number of reasons beyond the great story.

The story revolves around a Los Angeles heist, organized by arch-criminal Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie (Chris Penn).  Cabot recruits six individuals for the heist (we later learn they’re stealing diamonds) and compartmentalizes the group by not allowing any of them to use their real names.  Each man is assigned a color:  Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Pink.  The heist is complicated by the fact that Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is an undercover police officer who is intent on bringing down the group and Cabot.  Of course, complications arise in the heist, and a sizable portion of the film transpires in a warehouse the group uses as a rallying point.  

While the plot creates a film worth watching, Tarantino’s style of story telling elevates this film to a different level.  One of the trademarks of Tarantino’s film-making is his non-linear sequencing of events.  Scenes are out of order, and yet the film makes perfect sense.  The opening scene reveals the criminals having breakfast, already acquainted with one another, preparing for the heist that day.  We quickly move to a car chase and a gun-shot victim, post-robbery.  Tarantino neatly unpacks the before, after, and in-between events as if this was the way filmmaking should have always been done.

Tarantino’s dialogue in this and his subsequent films also make this movie memorable.  He doesn’t waste words.  Almost every sentence counts and every scene reveals something about the characters.  Tarantino movies are incredibly quotable.  For instance, the opening breakfast scene has the gang of criminals, about to commit a robbery, giving Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) grief over the fact that he did not tip the waitress.  White tells the others he doesn’t “believe in” tipping.  It leads to a discussion about minimum wage and how hard the waitress works and if she should find another job.  Of course, this transpires after a drawn out discussion about the deeper meaning of Madonna’s music.

Later, we’re treated to a hilarious scene where Cabot gives each man his color alias and Mr. Pink objects.  Cabot goes into an explanation about how he tried to let guys pick their own names in the past and it just doesn’t work because everyone would argue over who gets to be Mr. Black.

Tarantino films also tend to have a solid soundtrack, and while this is not a phenomenon unique to his work, he does have a tendency to ruin a song.  And in this regard, no one who has seen this film will ever be able to listen to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel in the same way without thinking about Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) brutally beating and torturing a captured police officer. 

Sometimes, it’s also what you don’t see that can make a movie.  Tarantino bombards us with a lot of gritty violence, interesting dialogue, and great music.  But we never actually see the heist go down.  And this fuels a lot of speculation amongst the audience (he would further use this device in Pulp Fiction because we still want to know what’s in that briefcase).  He leaves us without a piece of the story we would love to have.

This film also hits home with a number of people for demonstrating an interesting dichotomy in violent criminals.  There are traits of the criminal element which appear almost universal.  Each member of the squad wouldn’t hesitate to use lethal violence, and when the heist goes horribly wrong, they hate the idea of a ‘rat’ in their midst.  They’re all paranoid about figuring out what went wrong, and deeply suspicious of anything that doesn’t make sense.  We also see the criminals all wearing the same stand black suit, white shirts, black tie, and sunglasses for their mission.  

Yet, there is a gradation of these criminals despite having a code.  Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is clearly the most complex of the gang.  He developed a friendship with Mr. Orange prior to the heist and is deeply concerned when Orange may die from a gunshot wound.  Mr. White is also more irritated at the lack of control from Mr. Blonde (no doubt a psychopath), who killed a number of individuals during the heist that didn’t need to die.   

The fact that some of these hardened men have a sense of friendship and loyalty with members of the group provides dimensions to criminals we wouldn’t expect to see.  The other members of the gang fall somewhere between the controlled and thought Mr. White and the stone cold killer Mr. Blonde, but it’s clear that not all criminals value the same things.  The themes of loyalty, trust, betrayal, paranoia —  they apply no less to individuals merely because they break the law. 

The Honeymoon is Over: The future of Biden agenda

ike most marriages, a presidential administration begins with a warm, fuzzy feeling of hope.  When President Joe Biden took the oath of office on January 20th, he brought a breath of fresh air after four years of poor policy decisions.  Once a president takes office, he still must govern effectively. 

The road ain’t as long as President Biden would like

The administration’s first 100 days were filled with successes and hope for the the coming year.  President Biden scored a policy victory by passing The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which authorized $1.9 trillion of spending on COVID relief and assisted in the distribution of vaccine delivery.  The administration reached its goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans within the first 100 days of the president’s term.  American citizens received a stimulus check.  The economy added jobs in recovering from the COVID shutdown.  President Biden’s approval ratings hovered in the 60-something range.  Supporters of the administration mentioned the president’s name in the same breath as Franklin Roosevelt.

The Biden administration hoped to parlay early victories into support for a broad sweeping infrastructure bill known as The American Jobs Plan.  Democrats also proposed a bold attempt at reforming the nation’s elections laws in the For The People Act, which would have likely ended partisan gerrymandering, changed campaign finance laws, and established nationalized standards for ballots and voting procedures.  Maybe he is or isn’t FDR, but you can’t say President Biden isn’t swinging for the fences.

In politics, however, even early victories in an administration sometimes can’t produce enough political capital to govern in the way he or she would like.  And unfortunately for this administration (and probably the nation as a whole), the honeymoon is over for President Biden and America. 

The problems add up

President Biden’s agenda has always hinged on the elimination of the filibuster in the Senate.  The practice of stalling a bill to death means 60 votes are required to push legislation forward.  However, changing Senate rules to end the filibuster only requires 50 votes (Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote in an evenly divided Senate).  Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has refused to vote in favor ending the filibuster, dealing a significant blow to the Biden administration. 


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) advanced the For The People Act though Democrats had always understood it would not pass.  A vote only served to put senators on the record about where they stood on the matter.  The measured failed on a 50-50 vote where no one crossed party lines.

With the voting rights legislation out of the picture for the foreseeable future, President Biden and his team turned their attention to the infrastructure bill.  The Senate could pass the measure using the reconciliation process (a procedure which only requires a majority of votes if the bill relates to spending / budget issues).  It’s how Democrats passed the The American Rescue Plan.  Yet, Senator Manchin threw a wrench in the works again.  West Virginia’s senior senator did not want to use the reconciliation process to pass a bill unless at least one Republican senator would vote for the bill.  Manchin has always maintained that the nation needs to work on reestablishing bipartisanship. 

In that spirit of bipartisanship, Manchin has attempted and succeeded in brokering a deal which will involve support from at least 11 Republicans, including Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mitt Romney (R-UT).  This bill would spend $579 billion immediately and add additional money over the next decade to address a number of infrastructure projects which the nation desperately needs.  

President Biden’s agenda seems to have stalled

So, isn’t this a good thing?  Not exactly for the Biden administration the context of this article.  The politics of who receives credit for this infrastructure bill matters.  The 21 Democrats and Republicans in Congress have a chance to raise their profiles and let everyone know they made it happen, and the president was along for the ride.  Moreover, the bill has crossover appeal amongst the moderates of both parties, but the more liberal wing of the Democrats has expressed frustration over it.  

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spoke of her frustration with bipartisan deals, noting, “… when these bipartisan deals come together, they tend to underserve the communities that are already underserved …”  

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), perhaps the most liberal in Congress, also didn’t seem too keen about this bill.  Sanders and other members of the more progressive wing of the party believe the term ‘infrastructure’ should include pieces such as climate change, paid family leave, foster care, and funds dedicated to health care.

Members of Congress in the more liberal wing felt a sense of relief when the White House stated they would pursue a two-bill tandem process, which would include a reconciliation budget bill to take up the issues not included in the infrastructure compromise.   The president almost inadvertently torpedoed the entire thing by implying he would veto the infrastructure bill without support for the budget bill.  He later clarified that he would not veto the compromise bill.

The bill isn’t a done deal, and a revolt from his own party isn’t out of the question, and this might be more damaging to his administration than if Republicans kept stonewalling in the Senate.


President Biden also must contend with a growing number of mass shootings across the country.  At the halfway point of this year, more than 270 mass shootings have occurred.  The president’s ability to respond to gun violence is limited to executive orders and these cannot supersede law.  Making any meaningful change to gun policy would require new legislation and Republicans will not yield on this issue.

The president’s accomplishments with regard to vaccine distribution and economic relief seem like a distant memory for most Americans.  Most of the Americans who wanted a COVID vaccine have probably already received one, and stimulus money is long gone.  Throw in a heat wave that is crushing the Northwest and other ‘normal’ problems and no one cares about the fact that unemployment numbers were down in May.

Earlier this year, President Biden tasked Vice President Harris with focusing on the crisis on the southern border and that situation has not improved.  The number of illegal crossings hit a record high in March, and initially, analysts believed those numbers might decrease.  However, the numbers for April and May have eclipsed the record set in March.  Each of the last three months has seen more than 170,000 illegal crossings.  

Vice President Harris complicated matters when dropped the ball in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.  When confronted with a question about why she had not been to the border to personally visit, Vice President Harris responded in a flummoxed manner, “And I haven’t been to Europe … And, I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”  It didn’t go over well with anyone.  

What’s holding back the Biden agenda?

1.  A divided Senate — When President Biden took office this year, he did so with a slight majority in the House of Representatives and an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.  This limits his ability to persuade Congress to act.  When Franklin Roosevelt took office, Democrats held 58 of the 96 Senate seats and 311 of the 435 House seats.  In the advent of Lyndon Johnson’s administration, his party controlled 65 Senate seats and 268 House seats.  Barack Obama’s initial numbers were 60 and 256, respectively.  Modern presidents who were known for substantially advancing legislation had an easier path to establishing meaningful policies because they had Congress’ backing.  Without a unified government, any president will struggle. 

2.  Heightened partisanship — The degree to which members of both major parties stick to their tribe affects the Biden agenda, or any president’s agenda.  Members of Congress are too scared to deviate from the official party line.  Democratic and Republican leaders have made it clear they are willing to punish members who go too far off the reservation.  You can believe that Republican leadership made this principle quite clear when they removed Liz Cheney (R-WY) from leadership after her criticism of former President Donald Trump.  Party officials also hold sway over committee assignments, campaign finances, and potential primary challenges.  Only a few members, such as Joe Manchin, have any immunity to this.  If Democrats, for instance, wanted to fund a primary challenger against Manchin, he would only benefit from this.  West Virginia’s generally conservative nature would view a primary challenge against Manchin as a sign that he’s doing the right things.  Also, Manchin’s age must be factored in.  He isn’t facing re-election until 2024 and at that point, he might retire.  He’s one of the rare members of Congress who is as close to bulletproof as you can be.  However, Manchin is the exception and not the rule.

With the 2022 mid-term elections right around the corner, both parties understand what’s at stake.  Democrats need more legislative victories to cement their hold on both houses of Congress (and free them from the tyranny of Joe Manchin).  Republicans hope to stall out the rest of this front half of Biden’s term, with the premise of telling voters that the president did not deliver.  The 2022 mid-terms mean both parties have incentives not to stray from the party line.

3.  Joe Manchin — On one hand, I really like Manchin because, in many ways, he represents a number of political ideas I like.  He’s an old-school Democrat and that’s where I fit in, but he’s also (unintentionally) obstructing policies which an administration has a right to implement when they occupy the White House.  The tactics of the minority party’s ‘run out the clock’ mantra have to change, and Joe Manchin isn’t helping that.  The divided Senate wouldn’t be an issue if Manchin would vote to eliminate the filibuster.  It would be less of an issue if he would be willing to vote for the reconciliation process.  

4. The short memory of voters — American voters only see what’s right in front of them, and the present situation shows us problems and inefficiency. Republicans have more than a decent chance to reclaim both houses of Congress in 2022 and a plausible reason is that the American public won’t remember the positive changes that arrived with the Biden administration. You can see this in a slow decline of President Biden’s approval ratings. The president’s political capital is drying up and there is little room for significant legislation to move forward until after the Election of 2022.

Marshall, Interrupted: A brief follow-up

So, my last post pertaining to the exit of Marshall University’s key administrators received more attention than I thought it might.  However, I was pleasantly surprised when Patrick Farrell, Chair of Marshall’s Board of Governors, reached out to ask if I would like to have coffee and discuss the changes coming to Huntington.  Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Farrell for a few hours. I came away with a few conclusions, about him, and the situation at Marshall.

Patrick Farrell is a genuinely nice guy who cares about Marshall University and Huntington

I say this with the caveat that I realize he isn’t perfect (nor are any of us), but in talking to him for a few hours, several things were apparent that led me to this conclusion.  First, at a time when people react, rather than respond, this man took time to discuss complex issues rather than just ignoring a critique.  He stated that my questions about what happened at Marshall held validity and were worth asking.  Farrell freely addressed my concerns, and the only questions he did not answer related to privacy of personnel involved. 

Mr. Farrell currently serves as the Chair of the Marshall Board of Governors

Additionally, Farrell has invested his time, energy, and finances into the Huntington region.  His educational background and resumé demonstrate that he could leave the area and succeed wherever he would go.  Farrell also brought up various issues pertaining to the integrity of the Marshall Creed (I had honestly forgotten the school had one) and appears to have a sincere desire to uphold these values.

Our discussion also revealed that he had not tried to assess who I was based on one article.  It was clear he had taken time to learn as much as he could about who I was coming into this conversation.  (I would swear he’s read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People — and that’s not a critique.)  I know that skeptical individuals might take this as Farrell possibly being complimentary to assuage criticism, but that was not my read on the man.  Farrell cares about doing what’s right. 

If the Board of Governors held an ideological grudge against Gilbert, I am convinced it did not come from Farrell.  He did emphasize that the Board of Governors gave Dr. Gilbert a very positive evaluation in the months leading up to his announcement that he would not seek a contract renewal.  The entirety of the conversation greatly diminished concerns I had about the Board of Governors.

The ideological divide in the Huntington area is more of a generational gap

The exit of Dr. Jerome Gilbert, former Athletic Director Mike Hamrick, and former Provost Dr. Jaime Taylor represents an unfortunate loss for the Marshall community. Though I am convinced that Farrell cares about doing what’s right for Marshall, I would still contend that an ideological divide does exist in the Huntington area, and that may bleed over into the next decision (which will become more apparent in a moment).  To be more specific, I believe the area faces issues connected largely towards a generational gap. 

The Silent Generation and Baby Boomers view the world differently than younger generations, in both social and economic issues.  The Stewart’s Hot Dogs fiasco, the Black Lives Matter march in May of 2020, and the development of an annual Pride Festival in the city would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.  Walk around the city and ask younger adults what they think about universal health care.  Yes, these are generalizations.  I am aware that some people do not neatly fall into these categories.  But the generalizations do demonstrate a pattern and it matters, for the university and the city of Huntington.

The Search Committee Presents an Opportunity

The search for the next President of Marshall University will incorporate a more diverse search committee and transparent process than ever.  The search committee for the next president includes five women in the seven members, racial minorities, a student representative, a retired U.S. Army general, and a range of life experiences. 

The search committee also wants input from students, parents, alumni, staff, faculty, and other community members.  This is an opportunity for the people in this region or individuals with connections to the Marshall community to influence who will be the next president of Marshall University.  The committee’s timeline also scheduled listening sessions during the summer for constituents to voice their ideas and concerns.  No, I don’t expect the committee will make their decisions based only on what the people want, nor should they.  However, when can any of us say that we had a chance to provide input on the president of the school?  I also am curious about what the community will say about their priorities for a new administrator for the area’s central institution.

Unanswered Questions

I mentioned earlier that the only questions Farrell did not answer pertained to privacy matters regarding personnel.  Unfortunately, we will not know the specifics about the departure of Gilbert or Hamrick unless they want to us know.  I suspect they do not, or they would have done so already. 

As human beings, unanswered questions bother us.  Information and answers are more accessible than at any point in history.  Perhaps our society has come to a point where we believe we are entitled to information, and this is problematic.  We must live with the fact that sometimes we are not going to be privy to all the information.