Just the Facts, Ma’am

It’s been far too long since I’ve written. Truth be told, I have not had the heart to write. On one hand, writing seems pointless. On the other, a message that would help young people be more immune to fear mongering is desperately needed. And today, in light of that, I actually started working on book two. It felt great!

One of the many things people have been talking about since the election is the proliferation of fake news and its effect on the vote. I knew for years that networks like Fox skewed the news to their viewpoint, but up until recently I had been unaware that people were actually sitting out there creating false stories just to rake in clicks and advertising dollars. It makes me sick to think someone is using their writing talent this way.

For ages I’ve been one of those annoying people who sometimes comments publicly, and sometimes sends private email message, to people who post false stories. Usually the posts weren’t political, but were something that Snopes had long ago debunked, like “Watch the wing of this plane fall off, and the guy lands anyway!” Any time I saw something questionable on Facebook, I did a quick search on Snopes.com to verify it. It just became habit and it constantly amazed me that people didn’t do it themselves. Sometimes they’d even post, “I don’t know if this is true or not, but look at this!” It took seconds to check, and yet few people did it.

That trend continued during this election. People were passing around stories that with just a few quick searches could have easily been proved false. Yet they never did it, and these stories burrowed into people’s psyches and changed the outcome of the election. For instance, if you think an FBI agent involved with the Clinton email scandal was found dead in a murder/suicide, you have fallen for a fake story. If you think that in 2013, Clinton told Goldman Sachs bigwigs: “I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office. They’re honest, and can’t be bought”, then you have fallen for a fake story.

Checking the validity of a story is so easy. For years the place I always went to research political stories was Politifact.com. It was known as a non-partisan fact checking site and I found it extremely reliable. Imagine my surprise when I heard a Trump supporter claim it was a liberal propaganda site, and that if you wanted the truth, you had to go deep into underground news. That’s where you got reliable facts.

So, rather than assume this was a right-wing nut job, I did a little research. I looked up Politifact.com to see who actually runs the site. It’s owned by the Tampa Bay Times. Aha! It’s that biased liberal media! So that Trump supporter was right!!! Or was he? Who runs the Times and Politifact? A man by the name of Paul Tash, who has an extensive journalistic background covering national politics. A little more digging on Paul Tash’s political affiliation shows that according to voter records he has been a registered Republican since 1984. Hmmm. Unless this man knew in 1984 that someday he would be in charge of a independent fact-checking organization and wanted to go into hiding more than 30 years ago so as to sway the country to his point of view, I think it’s safe to say that Politifact is not a liberal propaganda site.

A few quick searches and I knew the truth. Why was that so hard for the Trump supporter to do?

The truth is, when the facts didn’t support a Trump supporter’s world view, they went in search of sources that did – deep underground. It didn’t matter that those facts were fake. They felt good. They felt truthy. Politifact listed Trump’s statements as only being true 5% of the time, while Clinton was listed as the most truthful of the candidates. That fact didn’t sit well with me when I was supporting Bernie, but I accepted it. But since it didn’t line up with a Trumpy’s world view that The Donald told it like it is, while Hillary was crooked, therefore Politifact must be a liberal propaganda machine.

I found a few fake stories aimed at liberal as well. Several friends posted the meme from a 1998 People interview, where Donald Trump supposedly said: “if I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” I wanted to believe that. Oh, I wanted to believe it so bad. But a quick search on that one proved it to be false, so I didn’t post or share it. Fake news story writers have admitted in interviews that they didn’t get much traction with liberal fake stories, because within a few comments somebody would debunk it.

That’s not to say there will be political peace and harmony if we start believing the same facts. Facts are just facts, and they can be interpreted differently. For instance, it’s a fact that red states generally take more money from the federal government than they pay to it, and blue states generally pay more into the federal government than they take from it. Democrats would say that’s because their states are run better. Republicans might say that’s because they have less natural resources and more poverty in their states.

You can interpret those facts through whatever set of lenses you want so it wouldn’t be smooth sailing, but at least we’d be starting with the same set of facts. Right now it’s pretty much impossible for Democrats and Republicans to have a rational conversation. We live in two completely different worlds made up of two completely different set of facts.

Please, whenever you see a story online, take a moment or two to evaluate it. What site did it come from? Look into who’s behind that site. Search the internet to see if other sources are also reporting the story. Make sure they’re not just repeating the first story. Compare how it’s being reported if you do find two sources. Are there facts listed in the story/meme that can be checked independently. Look up the name of the author. What qualifications do they have to cover the story? Use Snopes. Use Politifact. Use your brain. Admit when you might have something wrong. We only make good decisions when we are informed. Don’t be a part of the problem.

As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own set of facts. Until that gets fixed, this country is in trouble.

I am hopeful that future posts will focus more on the process of getting published.

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Let it Begin With Me

The holidays are stressful. No doubt about it. Money flowing out. Time running short. Obligatory gatherings to attend. Food to be made. Charities asking for donations. Dealing with others who explode with stress. Crowds. Rushing. Traffic. On top of that is the pressure to appear full of holiday spirit or be labelled a Scrooge. It’s enough to make anyone want to utter a few choice swear words, crawl in a hole, and perhaps emerge about the time Punxsutawney Phil comes out. Bah humbug.

Whille I’m generally less stressed than I have been other years, I can also feel the gathering holiday storm. The general atmosphere in the country isn’t helping my mood. The ignorance, fear, hatred, and racism that is bubbling to the surface of this nation is alarming. Has it been there all along? I know I’m exacerbating my horror by reading comments of online articles, but is it better to not be aware of what my fellow citizens are thinking?

Last week, Brian D. McLaren posted an open letter addressing guns and Christianity. He spoke with the voice of Christianity that I remembered as a child. You know, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) And just 30 verses later, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Or another 5 verses after that, “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ 44“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven;”

This is the Christianity I was raised with and the article gave me hope… until I made the mistake of reading the comments. With few exceptions, there was nothing but anger returned to the author. Luke 22:36 was the most quoted verse, “He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” All I can say is, “Oy vey.”

Years ago a niece asked me for help with a debate on the death penalty. One piece of advice I gave was not to use the Bible to argue her position, because people can warp and twist the Bible to find just about any meaning they want within its pages. That is exactly what has been done with this one verse – the only one in the entire book they can find to defend their position, I might add. There is not one serious scholar who has read the original text and put it within context of the story who would say that Jesus is advocating for violent defense of oneself.

One of the most disheartening and revealing comments came from someone who said something like, “This author isn’t living in the real world. When the terrorists come for his family, he’ll wish he had a gun.” I see. I didn’t realize that Christ’s message wasn’t for the real world. I actually was foolish enough to think that’s exactly what his message was for – A radical message of peace and love for a chaotic and violent world.

The message I’m getting from the conservative wing of modern American Christianity is – follow Christ and his teachings until it conflicts with the “real” world, then follow your fear. What kind of faith is that? To them, nothing is more important than physical self-preservation even though this also goes against Matthew 10:28 – “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul.” It seems to me, people who feel assured of the rewards of heaven, would be willing to lay down their lives to live their beliefs, rather than put that reward at risk by betraying them.

When I was a kid, our pastor told us a modern parable: In the middle of church, two masked men came in with rifles and held the congregation hostage. They demanded that all those who were born-again Christians line up at the front of the church, and everybody else should leave. About 3/4 of the people left, and once they were gone, the gunmen took off their masks, put down their guns, and said, “Okay, brothers and sisters, now let’s worship for real.” They were weeding out the true believers from the pew-sitters by finding those who were willing to lay down their lives for their beliefs. Those people had found a peace that passes all understanding. They had faith in something greater than their physical lives. They were living the radical message of Jesus.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Let There be Peace on Earth.” It follows that wish with personal responsibility, “and let it begin with me.” It’s not, “let it begin with my enemies surrendering,” or “let it begin with the death of terrorists,” or “let it begin after I kill those who threaten me.”

No, it’s “let it begin with me.”

In this season celebrating peace, the only wish I have is that people begin to take to heart the lyrics they’re singing. Since I can’t change them, I’ll take my own advice – I choose peace.

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In Guns We Trust

In 1956, the United States adopted “In God We Trust” as our motto. It’s time for an update, because clearly the overriding sentiment now is, “In Guns We Trust.”

I grew up in the 70s on a farm. We had guns, though we were not really hunters. They came in handy protecting chickens from rats and skunks and the like. Thankfully, I once watched my brother shoot a charging rabid skunk. Guns do have their uses in rural areas. During that time, the NRA was a somewhat benevolent force in the community, offering free gun safety classes to 6th graders. We did live in a world of guns, and it was good to provide basic gun safety education for kids who might not get it from their parents. Things like – always assume a gun is loaded, don’t point guns at people, etc.

According to my research, the NRA changed in 1977 when hardliners took over the organization and began to push an absolutist reading of the 2nd amendment. They overlooked that little part about a “well regulated militia” which made sense in a country yet without a standing army. We needed the citizens to be armed in order to call them to action quickly without the time needed to build an arsenal. Common sense. Instead, the interpretation became that God and the founders wanted every citizen to be armed for self-protection and for protection of an over-reaching government – yeah, like a few rifles and handguns are going to stop drones, missiles, and tanks.

The NRA pushed fear, more people bought guns, and more people joined the NRA. This meant a windfall of money for the NRA. In fact, this happens every time there is a mass shooting. They sell nothing but fear, and Americans gobble it up.

They developed slogans like, “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” despite the fact that nobody was suggesting guns be outlawed, only regulated. Then there was “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” True, but people with guns kill a whole lot more people than people without guns. If you were in that conference room in San Bernardino, would you rather have seen 2 people walk in with assault rifles, or knives? I’d vote for knives. Guaranteed they wouldn’t have killed 12 people. The latest slogan is, “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun. Absolutely not true. When a man had a kalishnikov on a French train, the thing that stopped him was two corageous, unarmed men who acted and tackled the man with the gun. Yet, in 2014, after a couple killed two police officers and retreated to a Walmart store, a good guy with a concealed weapon thought he could be a hero and take out the bad guys. He paid for the overassessment of his skills with his life. Handling a firearm, and dealing with bad guys takes actual training and skill. That’s why people go through intense fire arms training as a police officer or soldier. And because most gun owners aren’t really trained, they have a higher risk of homicide, suicide, or accidental death than people who don’t own guns.

In fact, it’s surprising that people aren’t talking about the role of gun proliferation in police violence. After the North Hollywood shootout, when officers were so outmatched by assault rifles and body armor, an arms race began. Police departments realized that with everything on the street, they needed to be better armed. Their fear of us grew. Then our fear of them grew. It has become an arms and fear race. It’s not really surprising they are quick to protect themselves in a world where more and more people are armed. Welcome to the wild west folks. Thanks to the NRA and the gun culture, we’ve reverted back to might makes right instead of the rule of law.

Another element that adds to the fear that has driven gun sales and NRA membership – Pro-gun advocates have pushed the narrative that Obama is trying to take away our guns. Hopefuly we can all get out of the FEMA camps and escape the death panels in order to get our guns back from Obama when his term ends. Oh wait… in fact, Obama has only signed two gun laws during his presidency and BOTH expanded gun rights. Does he call for new restrictions, yes, but does anything get done by the politicians in the pocket of the NRA? Nope.

In a world saturated with laws, it seems a shame to add more, but there are huge holes in our gun laws. If you go to a retail store, yes, there is a background check and waiting period. But why bother with that? Just go to a gun show and buy them without any questions asked. Or, perhaps find someone who has a gun to sell, and just get it from them. It’s all perfectly legal, and it doesn’t matter if you’re mentally unstable, angry, homicidal, a child, a criminal, drunk, high, or a terrorist. So, closing that loophole would go a long way in preventing guns from getting into the wrong hands.

My idea, though I’m sure the gun nuts would hate it, is to require all guns to be registered, just like a car. You would also need to prove your ability to operate the machinery, just like a car. Once registered, the owner would bear all responsibility for what happened with it. You leave it unsecured and a criminal steals it and commits a crime with it… you are just as resonsible as the criminal because you did not secure a deadly weapon. A child finds it and accidentally shoots someone, you are legally responsible for the results and not securing your gun. Only when ownership is transferred to another registered owner, is your liabity for owning that weapon at an end. Simple.

However, I also believe that even that would not stop this problem until we change our culture. Right now, a great many Americans do believe that it is in guns we trust. Mad? Solve it with a gun. Hurt? Solve it with a gun. Lonely? Solve it with a gun. Afraid? Solve it with a gun. Disenfranchised? Solve it with a gun. Whatever problem you have, the gun is the answer. In Guns We Trust.

Many people have tied guns and God together, yet the Bible teaches that God is in control of all things, provides for the birds of the air and flowers of the field, and instructs in Luke 12:7 “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” For me the crux of that passage is DON’T BE AFRAID! The King James version of the Bible advises against fear 365 times. Some scholars say it is the over-riding message of the Bible. But guns, unless you are solely a hunter or target shooter, are about protection, which is nothing but fear.

I have no solutions to offer. I don’t know how to change our culture. It has come to my awareness that all actions can be divided into one of two categories – Love or Fear. Love’s actions lead to goodness, but nothing good comes from fear. Right now, our country is running on fear.

So, my final thought is that until you are willing to rely on your prayers to God to lead you, protect you and act in love, then you are not allowed to ask others to rely on your prayers for comfort after a mass shooting. Your prayers mean nothing, because your true faith and your motto is In Guns We Trust and you’re part of this nation’s fear problem.

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