Roe v. Wade and the future of abortions

In 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that women held a right to an abortion through the first two trimesters of a pregnancy with virtually no interference from the state.  They added that in the third trimester, a state did have a compelling interest in preventing abortions due to the fact that a fetus became ‘viable.’  The Court held that after the second trimester, a fetus could live outside the mother’s women, and the state could create legislation protecting that child should it choose to do so.  

Since the Roe case, conservatives have fought to establish laws and even Constitutional amendments to mitigate this ruling.  Conservatives now have their best opportunity in decades to limit legalized abortion in the United States.  In 2018, Mississippi passed a law which banned abortions after 15 weeks into a pregnancy.  That law immediately elicited a legal challenge the Supreme Court is debating in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

About Roe v. Wade …

The Roe case is far more complicated than most people want to admit (from the left or right).  In this case, Norma McCorvey (given the pseudonym ‘Jane Roe’) sought to have an abortion in Texas.  McCorvey, who only recently passed away, was recruited by pro-choice advocates as a candidate to challenge Texas’ state law banning abortion.  

McCorvey was pregnant for the third time at the age of 21 and sought an abortion, but lacked the financial means to travel to any nearby states which permitted it.  In the midst of a prolonged legal struggle, McCorvey gave birth to her child and put up her baby for adoption.  (Note:  for over half a century, the identity of the ‘Roe baby’ went unknown.  Check out an interesting article from The Atlantic detailing the life of Shelley Lynn Thornton and her well-known mother.)  McCorvey often waffled back and forth on her position on abortion, and her stories are inconsistent, but the facts of the case and the Supreme Court’s ruling are less so.

In Roe, McCorvey’s attorneys argued that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment gave a woman the right to choose whether or not to have children as a choice of bodily autonomy.  The Due Process Clause reads,

” … nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

– 14th Amendment, The Due Process Clause

The argument presented to the Court contended that the word ‘liberty’ should be construed to allow women the freedom to terminate their pregnancy should they so choose.  They bolstered their argument with the concept that women maintained a right to privacy established in Griswold v. Connecticut.  

In essence, if the state of Texas blocked a woman’s ‘liberty’ to an abortion, then it did so without providing due process of law.  In this instance, ‘due process’ refers to the state’s violation of rights in an arbitrary nature.  States can create laws banning certain behaviors if strong enough reasons exist, and their burden for what qualifies as a good reason increases when they attempt to restrict fundamental rights.

Texas asserted that its interest in protecting human life allowed its restriction on abortions — for the mother and the child.  In this regard, the Court agreed that the state did have an interest in protecting life.  Yet, the Court also maintained restrictions on abortion would impact the life of a woman.  

The Court established more of a balancing act than advocates of either side in the abortion debate  are willing to cede.  The idea that a woman possessed a right to terminate her pregnancy at any time was not part of the ruling in Roe, nor was the notion that a state’s interest proscribed abortion in all instances.  

Norma McCorvey, also known as ‘Jane Roe’

The decision ultimately rests with the notion of a state having a compelling interest to restrict a woman’s choice.  The Court delineated circumstances about which a state may restrict an abortion.  Essentially, during the first trimester of a pregnancy, the decision about abortion lies with a woman and her physician.  The only restrictions a state could implement during this time must be reasonably related to the health of the mother.  The Court also concluded that as a pregnancy progressed, so did the interest of the state.  Once a fetus became viable (meaning the child could live outside the mother’s womb — approximately 24-26 weeks), the state possessed a much stronger interest in protecting human life, which permitted stronger restrictions on an abortion.  With respect to Texas’ law, it was considered far too rigid and inflexible for the criteria established by the Court (as did many other state laws at the time).

States changed their laws on abortion to meet the standards established in Roe.  States which are generally more liberal established legislation which is far more permissive to a woman’s ability to choose, making abortions more accessible, even into the latter stages of a pregnancy.  In the more conservative states, the legislation focused on establishing strict protocols about the physicians who could perform abortions and the standards for medical facilities which perform abortions.  (Many states only have one clinic which performs abortions.)

So, what’s changed between Roe and now?

In 1992, the Court heard another case involving abortion with Planned Parenthood v. Casey.  In that case, Pennsylvania placed restrictions on abortion within their state that some believed too burdensome on a woman’s right to choose.  The Court upheld the notion that a woman held the right to choose to end her pregnancy, but overturned the trimester framework established in Roe.  The Court favored determining fetus viability (at any point) as the demarcation for the point at which the state could have an interest in blocking an abortion.  The Court also maintained that some restrictions implemented by the state did not impose an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose.  For instance, Pennsylvania required a 24 hour waiting period before the abortion was to take place, with a doctor providing information about the procedure and its effect on the health of the woman.  According to the Court, this did not truly prevent a woman from obtaining an abortion.  Since the ruling in Casey, conservative states added more restrictions on abortion, which furthered the divide about abortion policy from one state to the next.

Thecomposition of the Supreme Court’s membership may represent the most significant change from 1973 and now.  Former President Donald Trump greatly influenced the current makeup of the Court, nominating three justices in one term.  The current ideological makeup of the Court has six conservatives and three liberal judges.  While this is no guarantee of any particular outcome, it definitely looms in the minds of both liberals and conservatives.  The lineup of justices in 1973 was more difficult to read, particularly when some of the conservative justices voted with Roe in that 7-2 decision (including a trio of Nixon appointees).  

A wave of conservative justices on the Court prompted states to force a legal battle by passing a number of bills which purposely violated criteria established in Roe and Casey.  Conservative states wanted these bills challenged in the judicial system to force a Supreme Court showdown on the issue of abortion.  Their belief is that the current mood on the Court will favor them in overturning prior decisions.

Will Justice Barrett surprise everyone with her vote?

In 2018, Mississippi passed a law which banned abortions after 15 weeks, with no allowances for cases of rape or incest.  The Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only clinic in the state to perform abortions, immediately brought a challenge in federal district court.  The state’s law was struck down by the district court, and again on appeal in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Mississippi then appealed to the Supreme Court. 

On December 1, 2021, the Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and it was interesting, to say the least.  The attorneys arguing for Mississippi argued primarily that because the Constitution does not specifically address the issue of abortion, each state should be free to establish its own policies pertaining to the subject.  Additionally, a right to an abortion does not exist because it is not specifically listed as a right in the Constitution, but as an abstraction erroneously created by the Supreme Court in Roe.

Counsel for the state of Mississippi also argued that people want to make decisions about abortion policies locally, to best suit their region.  They asked the Court to eliminate the ‘viability’ line used to determine if a state has an interest in preventing an abortion.

The attorneys for Jackson Women’s Health summed up their argument in three succinct points.  First, the legal principle of stare decisis is too great of a burden to overcome.  Second, the Court in Roe and Casey ruled correctly in both instances.  Finally, they contended that a change to a abortion policy would “propel women backwards.”  

Who’s going to win this case?

In this case, Mississippi is fighting from a position of weakness.  It possesses a significant burden in persuading the Court to overturn an established precedent.   The Court has long held to the principle of stare decisis (“let the decision stand”), which means current decisions are largely considered in the light of previous cases on the same issue.  They utilize this to maintain a consistency in the interpretation of rights and do not deviate lightly.

In the oral arguments before the Court, the justices addressed the issue of how overturning Roe without compelling reason would damage its integrity as an institution.  Part of the Court’s history includes the fact that it is not political.  Justice Sotomayor noted, 

“Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?”  

– Justice Sonia Sotomayor

The public must understand that the Court will make the correct decision based on law, rather than what political leanings its current members have.  To rule without a heavy reliance on precedent would leave the nation in a precarious situation where the Court’s rulings would constantly flip-flop in what is or is not Constitutional.  

While conservatives might see the current ideological makeup of the Court as an advantage, the Court sees it differently.  Institutional integrity means more to the members than ideology.  This isn’t the first time anti-abortion advocates believed they had the votes to overturn Roe.  In Casey, conservatives believed the decision would fall their way.  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, voted to reaffirm the decision in Roe.  She was the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision.

The latest appointees to the Court, Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, have voted against former President Trump’s conservative wishes in a number of instances so far.  One of the significant aspects about the justices is that once they receive membership on the Court, they may act with judicial independence.  They owe the president no allegiance.  

While the Court adheres to the principle of stare decisis, it has overturned some of its previous decisions.  For instance, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Court overturned the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ in terms of racial segregation.  

So, how does the Court know when to overturn cases?  Criteria for overturning precedent generally is fluid, but most legal experts agree on a few things:  workability, quality of reasoning, and a changed understanding of the relevant facts.

Workability refers to if the standing case set a precedent which practically wasn’t applicable for lower courts to apply.  The Court also considers the quality of reasoning from the prior case.  Did the Supreme Court err in its logic?  Finally, our understanding of facts sometimes changes.  Apply this concept in particular to the Brown case.  American society’s thoughts on racial segregation were not the same in 1954 as the precedent, which was established in 1897.  

The standards set in Roe and Casey do not appear to create an unworkable standard, regardless of one’s position on abortion.  Over 50 years have passed since the decision in Roe and courts have no problems in adjudicating the guidelines about what does or does not constitute violations of the decision.  The understanding of the facts has not changed in any way that would cause the Court to move too far from their position.  The only change in this regard might be what is a viable fetus.  In this regard, the understanding of ‘viability’ may change, but not the ruling in Casey

Can we look at the decisions in Roe and Casey and claim that the logic was flawed?  Counsel for the state of Mississippi believed so, but they focused primarily on the argument that because abortion isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, states should be free to create their own policies pertaining to the matter (via the 10th Amendment).  

The state largely ignored, however, the concept that ‘liberty’ in the 14th Amendment established the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.  If that right is recognized by the Court, then states are obligated to permit that action.    

The final verdict 

There isn’t enough presented by the oral argument to convince justices that the logic was flawed.  Mississippi’s lead attorney objected to the logic of Roe as abstract and not grounded in history or tradition.  This ignores a number of legal traditions which are abstract, not written down but are accepted nonetheless.  The very concept of judicial review isn’t written down, but widely accepted.  This is true of a number of other legal rights which are implied, though not listed.

I believe the standard of overturning precedent is so difficult to overcome, that the pro-choice side of this argument would struggle if Roe had been decided differently.  I don’t believe the Court will overturn precedent.  It isn’t that the anti-abortion crowd doesn’t have some compelling points about the matter, but the burden, in this instance, is almost insurmountable.   

Even with the Court opting not to give Mississippi carte blanche to dictate its own abortion policy, I do believe the Court will augment its standard for the state’s interest in some capacity.  The understanding of viability in the medical community has changed since 1973, where it now believes the time frame to be 22 weeks (as opposed to 24-26 weeks originally).   

Regardless of political leanings, I believe the Court might surprise people with a ruling that uphold precedent, not because they believe abortion is the correct policy, but because they care about the institution of the Court.  Deviating on abortion now creates an even more dangerous precedent — turning the Supreme Court into a partisan political institution. 

If the Court travels down the path of political expediency rather than adherence to judicial standards, it sets the stage for constant changes in policy with the political beliefs of the justices deciding serious issues.  Trained monkeys could do that.  Much like so many of our governmental institutions, the Court’s reputation and legacy is on the line, and they aren’t about to trade it away.

Would I like to see the abortion policies of the nation change?  Without question.  Yet, I think what we will see in the near future is a need to change abortion policy through political means rather than judicial.  I believe this will include creating policies in state legislatures which will permit widespread use of contraception and better policies on sex education.  This will also include establishing valuable policies about who can perform abortions and the conditions under which they can be performed.  It should also include programs which will assist mothers who lack the financial means to raise a child.

People might ask me why I don’t believe a judicial solution is the way to go if I do not approve of abortions.  My answer is simple.  Even if the anti-abortion crowd wins this case (and there’s still a good chance of that), it won’t end legal abortions in the country.  It will only mean states are free to shape their own policies on abortion.  More liberal states like New York and California will still allow legal abortions.  Conservative states won’t allow it, and for places like Mississippi, it’s not much of a change at all.

Using political means, the power of non-profits, and religious organizations might also be useful in reducing the number of abortions.  Provide assistance and encouragement to women who are thinking about having an abortion.  There are plenty of terrible arguments for and against abortions, but the notion that pregnant women must bear personal responsibility for their actions will no longer pass the standard.  

Chief Justice Roberts is known for his dedication to the institution

The justices, in this case, will have individuals on both sides.  Justices Thomas and Alito are assuredly in the anti-abortion camp.  Newer members, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh lean that well as well.  Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan will land on the pro-choice side.

The two judges I believe to be wildcards are Chief Justice John Roberts and the newest appointee, Amy Coney Barrett.  Roberts is no fan of abortion, but he has demonstrated on many occasions, that his tenure as Chief Justice will be one which carefully protects the institution of the Supreme Court.  His principles come before his politics.  Upholding precedent matters to him.

Barrett represents another interesting position because she’s had a mixed history as a lower court federal judge in dealing with abortion cases.  During her Senate confirmation hearings, she also dodged questions about the matter, and her answer was fairly true — she often commented that she couldn’t explain positions on hypothetical situations.  She could only deal with actual controversies with a set of facts in front of her.  While it can be seen as carefully avoiding the issue, it’s also something that we would want a judge to actually do.  

The outcome of the cases is unlikely to please liberals or conservatives, regardless of the Court’s decision.  Legal abortions are going to continue, but likely not under the same standards.

Post Rittenhouse Observations

If you’ve been living under a rock, a jury of 12 men and women returned a non guilty verdict for Kyle Rittenhouse on multiple felony charges, including reckless homicide.  Rittenhouse shot three men, killing two in the process.  Rittenhouse, an 18 year old from Antioch, Illinois, traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin with an AR-15 rifle because he believed it was his ‘job’ to guard buildings and offer medical assistance to protestors there.  (Protests, riots, and general civil unrest occurred in Kenosha when a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a black resident who suffered paralysis from the waist down.)  

Rittenhouse and his legal team never contested he shot these men, but they successfully argued he acted in self defense.  The acquittal provoked the ire of a large number of Americans, who see Rittenhouse as an exemplar of white privilege, conservative rage, and a flawed justice system.  There’s quite a bit worth exploring in this acquittal, but the legal aspect isn’t really what I want to explore in this post.

I never believed the odds of a conviction were high for Rittenhouse.  Proving all the elements of any crime is difficult, and in such a politically charged case, I didn’t believe the prosecution had much of a chance considering Rittenhouse received more than $2 million for his legal defense through crowd sourcing.  Yet, there are several aspects of this case worth mentioning.

Armed civilians shouldn’t be in the streets

Even if the letter of the law is on the side, Kyle Rittenhouse should not have been in Kenosha, with an AR-15, ‘defending’ the streets from protestors and rioters.  At the time of the shooting, Rittenhouse was 17 years old.  Who would believe that it was a good idea to arm a teenage boy with no formal training and place him in the middle of a riot?  

Police officers and armed service personnel receive hundreds of hours of training and know how to appropriately respond in situations of protesters and riots.  Even then, those trained officers of the law sometimes make mistakes.  Untrained teenage boys make foolish decisions in high pressure situations, and he probably responded how most children would.  This is precisely why a child should not be in the midst of potentially dangerous situations.  Arming this boy only heightened the possibility of danger.

Situations where armed civilians shoot at one another only make it more difficult for police officers to do their job.  In the darkness of night, a situation like Kenosha means police have a more difficult time distinguishing between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’  

Bits and pieces of information about Rittenhouse which have surfaced also show a teenager searching for a sense of belonging and purpose.  He dropped out of high school, didn’t make it through a local police cadet program, and made several posts on social media expressing an admiration for police and guns.  He bounced around a few jobs, but somehow believed he had a duty to act as though he was law enforcement.  Rittenhouse told interviewers (prior to the shooting), “Part of my job also is to protect people. If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.”  While we might want to admire the gusto of this teenager, his words represent a false bravado that an adult should have stopped.  Rittenhouse is fortunate that he couldn’t be convicted of irresponsibility or stupidity, because there’s no doubt he’s guilty of those.

Politicians are using Rittenhouse

Since Rittenhouse’s acquittal last week, three members of Congress have offered the teenage boy an internship opportunity.  Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-GA 1), Madison Cawthorn (R-NC 11), and Paul Gosar (R-AZ 4) made such offers in the wake of the trial and when we look at the three people making the offers, it becomes easier to see that these three clowns are offering gestures not for the benefit of any person other than themselves.  

Not so incidentally, each of these three members of Congress is dealing with a number of controversies which consistently embarrass their constituents and the nation.  Gaetz is facing a federal investigation into allegations of sex trafficking and inappropriate sexual contact with a minor.  Cawthorn is a freshman Congressman from North Carolina who faces allegations of sexual harassment from numerous women at his alma mater, Patrick Henry College.  A group of 10 students co-wrote the statement which was signed by more than 150 additional alums.  Gosar might be the biggest mess of the three, with numerous ties to alt-right entities such as the Proud Boys and the now infamous Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.  Gosar’s recent shenanigans include having someone on his team create an animated video of a character made to look like him killing a character who looked like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14).  This earned him an official censure from the House of Representatives.

Why do these issues of these three Congressman matter?  Because offering Kyle Rittenhouse an internship distracts their constituents from important matters while throwing the ‘red meat’ to the die-hard conservatives in their districts.  They hope these outlandish offers receive more media coverage than their problems.  Voters have short memories and the further these problems are from the limelight, the better odds of incumbents maintaining political office. 

The offers of internships or interviews on national news media will dry up as the news cycle turns over.  These members of government will move on to the next symbol of gun rights they can use.  What will Rittenhouse be left with?

This will follow Rittenhouse forever

Though not criminally guilty, Kyle Rittenhouse must now live with the fact that he killed two people.  I know that many people will point out that the two men Rittenhouse shot were convicted criminals.  We should never construe that fact as somehow justification for shooting and killing people.  One the underlying concepts of Western civilization is the idea that all human life has meaning.  Of course, we love to say that until we have to include people who have committed crimes in the past.  

Unfortunately, American popular culture glorifies violence to the point where virtually no one discusses the psychological damage done to men and women when they take the life of another human being.  A recent study of the impact of police officers who use lethal force in the line of duty showed symptoms of PTSD and increased severity of depression.  What type of impact will this have on a teenager?  According to Kyle Rittenhouse’s mother, her son already has nightmares pertaining to the shooting.  Life is difficult for any of us, but now Rittenhouse must deal with added pressure at an age that is not properly equipped to handle this stress.

The prospects of a normal future in terms of employment or merely functioning in day to day life have become impossible.  Rittenhouse will always vacillate between the people who want to view him as some pro-gun heroic icon and individuals who hate him for what he did.  Who will want to hire him that is not simultaneously using him?  Where can he go in this country where he won’t be recognized or immediately doxxed?  The trajectory of his entire life changed for the worse and regardless of who you are, I would think there’s just a touch of pity for him.

Political ‘Infrastructure’ and the future of West Virginia Politics

With all the discussion of physical infrastructure in the last six months, the possibility exist that we have forgotten about a more important type of infrastructure in society.  The political institutions which comprise key aspects of a democracy arguably constitute a more important ‘political’ infrastructure in our society.  In the last decade, the West Virginia Republican Party has significantly altered these institutions, which tilt elections in their favor for the immediate future.

Democrats once held great sway in West Virginia, but since 2000, the state dramatically turned red.  Some of the reasons relate to the focus on political issues.  The Bush administration started a trend of focusing on political issues leaning more towards the social policies rather than economic policies.  Most residents in West Virginia hold anti-abortion views and the GOP capitalizes on this in every single election.  And that’s part of the game, so to speak.  Candidates and their parties have the responsibility of framing the issues in a way which appeals to voters and then help turn out those voters.  However, the systems and means by which we elect our representatives are changing in ways which unfairly help Republicans.

So what are examples of these changes in political infrastructure?

1. Most people overlook the elected position in West Virginia of Secretary of State.  This individual bears the primary responsibility of ensuring free and fair elections for the entire state.  The Secretary of State possesses wide latitude in determining how counties conduct elections and tabulate votes.

While we often overlook the this position, the entire nation should understand the importance of the position after the mess with Georgia’s Secretary of State in the 2020 Election, where he refused to overturn the results of the state’s presidential returns.  In West Virginia, current Secretary of State Mac Warner raised eyebrows after his election in 2016 by firing 16 employees in the Office of Secretary of State almost immediately.  As it happened, most of the 16 employees were Democrats.  Warner hired 23 individuals, and almost all were Republicans.  Regardless of the level of employees’ competency, the optics were bad.  

Firing a group of people and then replacing them with members of one political party provides the Republican Party with their people on the inside of key government positions on how to handle election policy.  Moreover, those 16 people who lost their jobs?  They filed lawsuits for wrongful termination and settled with the state.  The payouts totaled over $3.2 million of your tax dollars.  Small price to pay for controlling the gears of elections.

2. The state legislature also contributes to the development of Republican political infrastructure.  One of their more recent changes involves the creation of an intermediate court system.  Prior to this change, any civil or criminal complaint would originate in the appropriate circuit court and any potential appeal moved directly to the West Virginia State Supreme Court.  The intermediate court of three judges adds another layer to the legal system, which benefits those who fall into the Republican camp.  Adding another court to West Virginia makes it more difficult for individuals with less financial resources to pursue a claim or an appeal in courts.  This, in sheer percentages, would likely benefit Republicans more than Democrats.  The new law, which maintains that these judges on the court will be elected in the future, allows for the governor to appoint the first round of judges on staggered terms.  Governor Jim Justice, of course, is a Republican.  

3. Last year, the State Senate passed SB 565, which would have altered elections in some concerning ways.  Current election law in West Virginia allows for early voting in person to occur from the 13th day prior to the election to the 3rd day prior to the election.  This law would have changed that early voting period to the 17th day prior to the election to the 7th.  What’s the rationale for this type of change? 

More concerning about SB 565 was the provision which would have allowed for purging voter registration rolls if a voter did not vote in the previous election.  This would allow the Secretary of State more control over elections and the right to vote.  If a voter sat out a single election, the Secretary of State could remove their name from the voting pool.  The Republican Party would control a significant piece of the infrastructure in elections.  

Ultimately, SB 565 did not pass through the House of Delegates before the 2021 session ended.  Yet, as with most legislation, it stands to reason that the bill’s sponsors will pick this up again in the 2022 session.  

4. Republicans currently hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature, and this means they can pass virtually any piece of legislation they deem necessary.  Democrats can do little to push back.  One of the perks of having a majority at this particular moment is that the GOP controlled the redistricting process for the senate and the House of Delegates.  Republicans instituted some rather significant changes in this area which create more favorable circumstances for their candidates.

The most noteworthy change to the system stemmed from the decision to move from multi-member districts to single member districts in the House of Delegates.  Previously, the multi-member districts played an important role in helping to maintain representation of an area proportional to the community at large.  For instance, in the old system, I lived in House District 16, which had three seats.  A voter could choose up to three people to represent the district, allowing for a range of representation.  In the Election of 2020, House 16 had two Republicans and one Democrat.  Two of the three are white and the third is black.   

Multi-member districts also have a natural immunity to gerrymandering (redrawing district lines to help or hurt a candidate or group).  It becomes more difficult to fudge with the districts if less of them exist.  The old system had 67 districts, and the new one will have 100.  That’s 50% more districts to draw in a way that would benefit particular people, groups, or parties.

Questions quickly popped up over a change to a district affecting incumbent Caleb Hanna (R-44), whose new district would have included part of Pocahontas County.  Delegates requested the change because of a white supremacist group which lives isolated in Pocahontas County (Delegate Hanna is African-American).  The white supremacist group in said county is largely defunct and would likely have no impact on any election.  Critics also pointed out that the Republicans only wished to protect racial minorities if they were of the same party.

Republicans also redrew the districts into a fashion whereby many Democratic incumbents would face one another in an election, whereas few Republicans would face such primary contests.  

If you look at the new districts, some of the shapes appear bizarre enough to suggest gerrymandering.  The accompanying demographic data also presents some curious numbers on race.  Not one of the 100 districts contains less than a 74% white grouping.  Ironically, one of the districts which has the largest non-white percentage is home to Delegate Sean Hornbuckle (D-16), a candidate so widely popular in the Huntington area, he would probably win regardless of the racial makeup. 

There are only a few of the major areas in the state where I have a deep level of familiarity, and two of those are Huntington and Charleston.  If Republicans had a commitment to protecting racial minorities, I can assure you that the committee on redistricting could have drawn a better map for the Huntington and Charleston areas.

Why does this stuff matter?  

The most significant right any citizen has in a democracy is the right to vote.  Without that unobstructed right, the people are at the mercy of those in power.  The political infrastructure which is being altered in West Virginia is worth examining:

  • The Secretary of State’s mismanagement of a system which includes his stacking his office with political allies.
  • Creating an additional layer of courts which can only benefit those with financial resources, imbued with Republican appointed judges for the foreseeable future 
  • Attempting to alter voting rights legislation 
  • Abandoning multi-member districts 
  • Gerrymandering districts to benefit one party and certain people 

This leads to a state dominated by a single party and no true representation of the people.  The move from blue to red in the last two decades finally saw Republicans surpass Democrats in number of registered voters, with 36.8% and 36.5% respectively.  Surprisingly, 22.6% of voters in West Virginia hold no party affiliation.  These percentages definitely aren’t indicative of the government the state has.

The state has also witnessed a few politicians make a flip in party affiliation.  We are all aware of Jim Justice’s transition from Democrat to Republican, but others have seen the light, as it were.  

In 2014, Daniel Hall flipped to the Republican Party when the State Senate held a 17-17 balance, giving the GOP a majority.  At the time, he noted, “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming and Mcdowell [sic] counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate. I have always picked our people over party…and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”  

This past summer, Delegate Mick Bates switched to the majority party, giving the Republicans a 78-22 advantage in the House.  Bates wrote in a statement explaining his move, “At a national level, the controlling interests and leadership of the Democratic party continue to pursue positions that alienate and anger voters in rural parts of the country and don’t reflect the priorities, values or beliefs of the people in West Virginia.”  That’s a coded message explaining that his district voted heavily for Donald Trump, and he sees the proverbial writing on the wall. 

Last week, another relevant switch occurred when former Delegate Doug Reynolds announced he was leaving the Democratic Party for the GOP.  The news seems relevant because it has to precede some type of announcement for another run at office.  Reynolds is not at all someone who could be described as conservative, but after losing the 2016 Election for Attorney General to Patrick Morrissey, he, too, must have seen which way the winds are blowing.

Reynolds’ party switch is more concerning than others because he founded and runs HD Media, which owns a number of newspapers in Southern West Virginia, including the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, and the state’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.  These important institutional mechanisms for conveying key information, endorsements, and other political news have largely been fairly liberal in the past.  Does that change in the future?

One thing is for certain.  The Republican Party has effectively laid the groundwork for political domination of state politics for some time to come.  A one-party state benefits no one.

Dave Chappelle, the LGBT community, and comedy

Dave Chappelle is considered by many to be the funniest man alive.  But a significant segment of society isn’t laughing these days.  Chappelle is no stranger to controversy but he saved his strongest words for the final of a in a Netflix series, aptly named The Closer.  The controversy stems from his jokes about transgender men and women, a portion of the population Americans seem hyper-focused on lately.  

Why all the sensitivity?

One of the most significant reasons that critics of Chappelle are upset is due to the vulnerability of transgender citizens.  Men and women who identify as transgender are four times more likely to be victims of violence when compared to other Americans.  The suicide attempt rates for transgendered people worldwide range from 32%-50%, often before they reach the age of 21.  This doesn’t even account for the rates of depression among the transgender community, which is four to five times higher than rates typical people experience.  

Regardless of how a person views the issue of gender, there is undoubtedly a problem which needs help.  In some capacity, every person has ridiculed or mocked a group that seemed so contrary to the rest of society.  It seems strange that a man would genuinely believe he is a woman and would take on those attributes (or for a woman to take on that of a man).  On the surface, it’s an easy joke to make because humans always make fun of that which we do not understand or isn’t the norm.  Chappelle’s jokes have often pointed towards the odd nature of transgender men and women.  However, the best moment in The Closer demonstrated a valuable lesson for everyone.

Chappelle was recounting his friendship with a transgender comedian, Daphne Dorman, and during Chappelle’s routine, there was banter from on stage with Dorman who was in the audience.  Chappelle was laughing and spoke about how he appreciated Dorman, but he didn’t understand.  Dorman somewhat drunkenly replied that Chappelle didn’t need to understand, but only recognize Dorman was having some type of human experience.  

We don’t need to understand what transgendered people are going through to acknowledge their humanity and the difficulty of what it must be like to genuinely believe you are the wrong sex.  I think that would cause quite a bit of emotional trauma for any person.  One need not use the preferred pronouns of a person, donate to the LGBT movement, or wave any type of flag to recognize people are struggling.  Every person deserves a measure of dignity because they are a human being. 

I’ve never been a fan of identity politics, but I must also confess that society built the identity politics of marginalized groups such as the LGBT community.  Mainstream Americans spent decades telling the LGBT community that they were less than human.  Consider how many pejoratives exist for homosexuals or transgender men and women.   This provides a sense of how we have demeaned them as individuals.  If we, as a society, spent years calling people names and making fun of them, can we become upset when they lean into the identity and make sexuality the core of their political belief or who they are as a person?  

Dave Chappelle is a comedy genius 

Most followers of Dave Chapelle first learned about him from Chappelle’s Show, a sketch comedy series which aired on Comedy Central in 2003-2004.   Some of the sketches from this show are among the funniest I’ve ever seen and many of them still resonate with viewers nearly 20 years later.  In two brief seasons, Chappelle not only created some memorable sketches and characters, but he incorporated a gaudy list of celebrity guest stars, including Snoop Dogg, the Wu Tang Clan, John Mayer, Wayne Brady, and Rick James (no one can forget him).  

After those two phenomenal seasons, Chappelle walked away from Comedy Central and a $50 million contract.  It wasn’t until circa 2013 when Chappelle went back to working stand-up comedy full time.  Chappelle’s most recent endeavor includes filming a number of his stand-up comedy routines as Netflix specials.   

One of the most enduring aspects about Dave Chappelle’s work is that he has developed his craft.  Chappelle’s Show wasn’t exactly lowbrow humor, but it wasn’t the highest form of the art, either.  The recent Netflix specials from Chappelle have demonstrated a change to a humor I tend to appreciate more — observational comedy.  He looks at the situations in the world and notices ironies or quirks we either overlook or aren’t bold enough to mention.

After releasing Sticks & Stones, Netflix and Chappelle received a large amount of negative feedback because he made fun of the transgender community.  This didn’t deter Chappelle because everyone knows that the one thing you never tell a comedian is not to joke about that topic.  It only fuels them to do it more.  

Everyone loves a good joke as long as it doesn’t make fun of their ‘tribe.’  And this is where the identity issue of the LGBT community will make Chappelle’s humor problematic.  He’s making fun of their identity and it doesn’t matter if his observations are right or wrong.  Once your group becomes the latest punchline for Chappelle, well, all of a sudden, it’s not funny anymore.  It’s no different for racial groups or religious groups or political groups.  And the gag is that Chappelle makes fun of everyone.  No one is off limits for him and the moment your group believes they should be, Chappelle will put them in the crosshairs.  I don’t believe Chappelle is singling out the transgender community because he wants to shame them for being transgender.  He wants to shame them for thinking they’re above being the subject of a joke.

If Chappelle and other comedians stopped making jokes about various groups because of their vulnerability in the world, or because their feelings were hurt, they would have to find other jobs.  Didn’t like those jokes about the transgender community?  Well, folks are going to have quite a bit to be upset about.  Chappelle makes fun of white people, black people, Asians, Jews, heroin addicts, domestic abuse victims — and don’t forget the Michael Jackson and R. Kelly jokes.  

People who are angry with Chappelle are upset because he’s right about many of his observations about our society.  For instance, Chappelle brought up rapper DaBaby, whose career took a substantial hit after he made homophobic comments at one of his concerts.  DaBaby was quickly dropped from several concert lineups and widely condemned on social media.  Chappelle brought up the fact that DaBaby shot and killed a 19 year old in a Walmart a few years ago and that wasn’t enough to derail his career but some hurtful comments towards the LGBT community at a concert stopped everything for this man’s career?   Chappelle is trying to point out the irony involved about what makes up stop supporting an artist’s career.  

Chappelle also joked about how the LGBT crowd turned on J.K. Rowling, author of the widely popular Harry Potter series.  Last year, Rowling made several tweets regarding her thoughts on gender, including the notion that hormones given to children who identify as transgender is dangerous and similar to the overprescription of mental health medication. She might not have expressed any views about the matter but people on the left lost their collective minds when Rowling ‘liked’ a tweet that transgender activists questioned.  

The backlash against Rowling was swift and fierce.  The beloved author was a little less beloved, and the LGBT folks ascribed a name to people like her.  Rowling is a ‘TERF,’ they said.  This stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, a word which characterizes feminist women who do not want to include trans women (men who identify as women) in the definition of who constitutes a woman.  Simply put, Rowling is an anatomical woman who doesn’t think trans-women are women.  And it isn’t meant to be a compliment. 

While I’m sure the extreme left applauds the labeling of Rowling, Chappelle finds it laughable and most Americans probably do, also.  Maybe you don’t believe me, and that’s okay.  But one snippet of evidence might be the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, where critical reviewers only scored it 43% ‘fresh,’ whereas the users gave it a 96% rating.  The masses love Chappelle because they believe he’s right about his observations 

Chappelle joked about the heroin epidemic which has decimated West Virginia.  I’ve had friends and former students who struggled with addiction and ultimately died from heroin overdose.  Chappelle made comparisons between the current heroin problem, which largely affects poor white people, and the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, which affected poor black people.  And there I was, laughing.  

Cancel culture is not the answer 

Netflix is standing by Chappelle despite a wave of criticism.  They’re making money on Chappelle and they don’t believe he crossed any lines in terms of their values.  And there are several reasons why an attempt to ‘cancel’ Dave Chappelle is an exercise in futility and dangerous to the country.

1.  There is nothing LGBT supporters can hold over Chappelle.  The man has a net worth of $50 million and he has walked away from money once already.  He does’t care about social media.  Chappelle is happy to make people laugh and if people don’t like him, that’s okay too.  Critics can’t take away his marketability.  There’s nothing the critics can do to him.

2.  Chappelle is receiving support from trans comedians.  As mentioned previously, Chappelle developed a friendship with trans comedian Daphne Dorman and opened doors professionally for what he believed was a fellow artist. (Side note:  Dorman committed suicide in 2019.)  Dorman’s family also supports Chappelle.  Daphne’s sister, Becky, told The Daily Beast, “Daphne was in awe of Dave’s graciousness … She did not find his jokes rude, crude, off-coloring, off-putting, anything. She thought his jokes were funny. Daphne understood humor and comedy—she was not offended.”  

Flame Monroe, another trans comedian, surmised that in comedy, nothing is off limits.  Monroe noted, “As a comedian, I believe that I don’t want to be censored.  The world has become too censored.  All of this, what you can say and cannot say is ridiculous. Comedians are put on earth, and the safest place for us on the planet is us on the stage with a willing audience that’s willing to listen. We say things that other people are afraid to say, and we say them hopefully in a funny way, so you use your own mind to do your own critical thinking and think for yourself.”

Other trans and gay comedians had mixed reviews, and that’s okay.  But the support from some of the members of this community make it difficult to make Chappelle disappear.

3. Shouting down, labeling, and ‘cancelling’ only leads to more Donald Trumps.  In 2016, a number of moderate and conservative voters grew tired of being labeled bigots, homophobic, or transphobic.  They gave up trying to discuss issues and went to the polls, voted for Donald Trump, and felt like they made a statement (a terrible statement).  This is what happens when we attempt to shut down discussion or debate by labeling opponents or just engaging in a clap back.  

The LGBT community is working under the presumption that their policy positions are always correct and beyond contestation.  They may succeed in shutting up the opposition in the short term, but those same ‘bigots’ quietly go to the polls and vote Republican.  

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.