On the Border

I’m ten days past due on sending out the newsletter. This is a bit embarrassing, but life got insanely busy there for a while. Evan and I left home on January 20. From there, we:

  • delivered our youngest to his first semester of college in Vermont
  • got caught in the north end of the East Coast’s Snowmageddon, but got out ahead of the worst of it
  • went back home for 24 hours, packed up the car and the dog, and handed the key to the house sitter
  • drove to Salt Lake City in two days (850 miles)
  • put me on a plane to a very snowed-in DC for a NARAL meeting while Evan spent three days photographing Arches National Park
  • flew me back to SLC, where we got snowed in again
  • drove to Moab UT and spent a sublime afternoon together in Arches, which we had almost entirely to ourselves
  • drove to Sedona AZ through Monument Valley and the Big Rez — 350 miles at 45 mph in a massive snowstorm
  • (do you see a theme emerging here?)
  • drove from Sedona to Tucson to attend the Tucson Gem Show
  • Sara filled her pockets with pretty rocks
  • Evan photographed the nature at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
  • and drove from Tucson to Tombstone, where we are tonight.

Adding it all up, we’ve been snowed on in ten states from coast to coast and border to border — WA, OR, ID, UT, AZ, VT, NH, MA, CT, and VA, plus the District of Columbia. Which is pretty ironic, when you consider that we headed south in search of sunshine, which mostly didn’t happen until just the last few days. The nights here, 20 miles north of the Mexican border, are just as bitterly cold as they were in Vermont; but the days, at least, are clear and sunny, 60-degrees-plus, and warming up by the day. The local weathermen taunt us with the promise that at some point this week, we might finally see 80.

From here, it’s east to El Paso, Marfa, and San Antonio, where we plan to schmoo around for a while before heading back north through Santa Fe and the Rockies. We’ll see home again sometime the first week in March.

I’ve been ambivalent about blogging this adventure, but have finally decided that hey, what the hell, it’s MY blog –and if I want to write travel stuff, I can totally do that. There’s a lot to talk about: Arcosanti, the gem show, the southern lonesome end of the Wild West we now find ourselves in. And now that we’ve dropped back into an easy road-trip-wandering gear, there will more time to tell you about all of it.

That’s all for now. There may be another post or two between now and Tuesday, when the next newsletter will drop. For now, though, I’ll let Evan tell his part of the story. (The full album is here.)









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What We Know About The Progressive Future, Part I: Here Come The Millennials

In January 2011, I presented a futures research project to the Progressive Caucus in Congress, then the largest of all the caucuses in that body. The report, Progressives 2040 — which was sponsored by ProgressiveCongress.org and published by Demos — analyzed a large set of major trends that would shape the future of the progressive movement for the next three decades, and offered a set of scenarios that illustrated how these trends might work together to create a range of possible futures that the movement will need to be prepared for.

This is the first post in “What We Know About The Progressive Future” — a series that I imagine will be a long (probably 10-12 post) look at that research five years on, updating my conclusions and taking a fresh look at the big drivers and high leverage points that will determine the future of our movement. 



For most pundits, the most striking thing about the Iowa Caucus was the virtual tie between the two Democratic candidates (which portends a longer and perhaps more exciting election season and higher ratings for those in the media to look forward to), and the surprising 1-2-and-3 order of Cruz, Trump, and Rubio. I’m writing this less than 24 hours after the caucuses ended, and more than enough on both these topics has already been written by others (for God’s sake, people, it’s just Iowa), so I’m going to spare you another analysis ex cathedra from my belly button as to What It All Means For November.

I’m far more interested in another trend that emerged last night — a small detail that will almost certainly have a much longer historical tail than anything else that might happen between now and Election Day. This trend was crystallized by the stunning fact that Bernie Sanders got 85% of the votes of caucus-goers under 30.

That’s not a typo. Eighty-five percent.

That’s a number that strategists from every end of the political spectrum need to be paying attention to, because it is heralding the arrival of the Millennial Generation as a political force to be reckoned with.

My report saw this coming. Back in January 2011, I wrote this about them:

The Millennial generation (born 1980-2000) is the largest and most ethnically diverse generation in American history, with 44% identifying as members of a racial minority. They are the most globally connected generation to date: they travel more, speak more languages, and have friends all over the world. They are more progressive in their core values and attitudes that any cohort we’ve seen in at least a century. And they are rising fast: by 2020, they will be outvoting their elders, dominating elections and bringing their own priorities to the table. We can expect the Millennials to launch their first serious presidential candidate in 2020, and elect their first president probably no later than 2024.

Perhaps the most important fact about the Millennials is the sheer size of this generation. They’re the first cohort we’ve seen in the past 40 years that’s actually big enough to swamp their Boomer parents, whose interests and worldviews have dominated American politics ever since the youngest of them hit voting age in the late 1970s.  The Boom was the biggest generation in American history, to the point where their sheer size itself was transformative (as they say: quantity has a quality all its own). But the Millennials are even bigger. And between now and 2020, the youngest edge of this generation will finally turn 18 and register to vote. The results stand to be at least as transformative for us as a nation as the moment when the Boomers themselves arrived.

Conservative Millennials? Don’t hold your breath
Any number of GOP pundits have written thumb-sucking articles explaining how this cohort is going to become more conservative as it ages (because every generation does, right?) Feel free to rip those up: it’s not likely to happen, for several reasons — starting with the fact that no, not every generation does. The Boomers did, because from left to right and youth through their approaching old age, they’ve shared a belief in radical individualism — the primacy of the individual over any claims made by society — that fed everything from Evangelicalism and free market fundamentalism on the right to New Age religions and social experimentation on the left.  That individualism is the one shining through-line that defines everything that generation has ever embraced. It made them hippies. And it also made them vote for Reagan.

The Millennials are their historical opposite number — a generation raised  from babyhood to cooperate, share, include, network, and self-organize. They value conformity (Boomers and Xers are horrified by the “calling out” ritual that Millennials run on each other constantly as they vigilantly police each other’s behavior. We’d have choked on our own spit before telling each other what to say, think or do; and would  have rightly expected to be told to fuck off if we tried it),  and as this pervades their politics in the coming decades, it’s going to involve a lot of telling other people how they should live. That’s how their GI grandparents created and enforced the great American Consensus of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and it’s how they’re going to re-create a new consensus about the Next America they’re going to build.

That bred-in-the-bone collectivism is likely to be as durable a lifelong feature as Boomer individualism has been; but it stands in stark opposition to conservatism as it’s currently constituted. It’s possible to imagine another, distinctively Millennial form of conservatism emerging in time — but it would have to be rooted in the idea of a strong social contract, one that obligates individuals to cede some of their desires to the greater good, represented by trusted authorities — and is willing to use social shame as an enforcement mechanism. The GOP is a long way from offering any narratives along these lines now. If they do emerge, it could take another 20 years or more, becoming something today’s Millennials embrace as they age on through their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Other conservatives hold out hope that that all-time-high number of Millennials from immigrant families will benefit them in time, since the usual pattern has been for second-generation immigrants (the first generation born here) to do very well educationally and economically, and to vote more conservatively than either their parents or their third-gen kids. That might be a very plausible scenario — except for the nasty fact that Millennials have already grown up scarred and terrorized by a GOP that has never been able to lay off immigrant-bashing. Again, it’s going to take a radical change within that party — plus another 15 years of over-the-top effort — to win even the grudging trust of a generation that’s already marinated in decades of conservative anti-immigrant hysteria before that’s even remotely likely.

In any event: anybody waiting for the Great Millennial Conservative Revival probably shouldn’t hold their breath. If it comes at all, it’s going to be a very long while indeed. In the meantime, these young adults have a revolution to pull off.  And that moment is coming — much sooner than anybody seems ready to think.

Millennials and Elections
Obama, to his credit, was the first candidate to recognize the raw political power and profound unrest of this rising cohort in 2008. Even though fully half of the Millennial generation was still too young to vote, his overt efforts to capture the energy and attention of the half that could was a conscious strategy. The Millennials ended up supplying him with the margin that put him over the top in the election — support he later rewarded by bringing home the troops (most of whom were Millennials) and restructuring the federal student loan program to make over $30 billion more in Pell Grants available and reduce the loan burden on new graduates (both of which were policies I pointed to in my original 2011 report).

But the Millennials want more. They’re looking into a future that most of them understand is a fatal dead end without a radical, rip-up-the-floorboards restructuring of how the entire planet works — how we do everything from energy and money to community and education to transportation and agriculture. This yearning for a different kind of world even has the potential to upend our current understandings of “right” and “left,” as I wrote in my report:

Some research suggests that this generation’s politics lean toward the “independent” and the “centrist.” However, those words don’t mean the same thing to under-30 Americans that they do to older ones. The self-described “independents” also express core values that are deeply collectivist and inclusive, which gives them a strong affinity for progressive ideas and solutions. (Studies by Pew and Barna have even found these same affinities among self-identified conservatives in this cohort.) Likewise, these “centrists” see their generation’s communal focus on a shared future and shared prosperity as a matter of plain common sense. To them, “we’re in this together” is not a radical idea; indeed, it stands at the center of their politics.

The Millennials spurned Hillary in 2008 because they were craving a true change candidate — and Obama promised to be that. But in the end, the change he could deliver wasn’t enough. And that’s why this generation is going, overwhelmingly, for Bernie Sanders, whom they see as sitting entirely outside the corrupt party system that made it impossible for Obama to give them the goods, unbeholden to Wall Street, uncontaminated by party cronyism, unfiltered in the media — someone who seems to be entirely their own.  This is what their candidates look like — and are going to continue to look like for the next several election cycles.

Given that the youngest 15% or so of the Millennial cohort is still too young to vote, it’s not clear that the Millennials will get their revolution this year. My prediction above that they’d dominate our elections by 2020 was based on the fact that that’s when the very tail end of the cohort — the ones born in 2000 — will all have reached adulthood, putting them finally at their full political strength. Whether or not they show up for 2016 is also complicated by a few other factors, including:

  • How disillusioned the older ones are following their experience with Obama, whom many of them feel very disappointed by — a real problem that surfaced in 2012, when many of them didn’t return to the polls.
  • The general tendency of young adults in their 20s to not vote. Voting is a behavior that becomes more reliable with age. By 2020, the oldest Millennials will be 40, and half will be over 30 — which means they should start showing up far more regularly.
  • Persistent efforts on the part of the GOP to disenfranchise students, which have large effects in some parts of the country.
  • How well Sanders survives the onslaught of conservative attacks that we all know are coming.


It’s safe to say that the Millennials will be a vastly bigger factor in 2016 than they were in either 2008 or 2012 — and that Sanders’ success to date can and should be interpreted as this generation’s announcement of its growing political presence with far louder and more insistent authority than we’ve ever heard from them before.

However, in this election cycle, it’s not at all clear that it will be enough to get them what they want. We are tantalizingly close to a generational tipping point, but have not completely arrived at it just quite yet. But by the next cycle, that point will almost certainly be well behind us — and from then on, for the next 40 years, our politics will be pretty much entirely dominated, owned, and determined by the Millennials’ collectivist worldviews, interests, desires, and priorities. They will, this time or next, succeed in voting themselves the transformation they seek. It’s not a question of if, but when.

What we’re seeing when we look at the Bernie Sanders phenomenon is a direct window into our own political future. When will it emerge? Maybe not today, and maybe not this November — but it’s coming soon, and it or something like it will be the dominant political reality for the rest of our lives.

Photo: Ian Buck via Flickr


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Contraception and the Class Divide


NYC transit ad — Image New York Daily News

Among the many stunning things I’ve learned since joining the NARAL board last fall is that roughly half of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended. This isn’t a surprising number if we’re talking about women in developing countries where access to contraception is poor, or big families remain a cultural priority. It’s more sobering, though, when you realize that this same number also applies in the richest nation on earth — even here in Washington State, which is one of the most progressive and innovative states within that nation.

Who gets to choose the timing, spacing, and limits of their families and who is forced to deal with whatever comes has become one of the starkest class divides within American culture. Years of research have made it clear that the vast majority of those unintended pregnancies are happening to women who, by dint of poverty, lack of information, or distance lack access to reliable contraception. Closing that gap begins with understanding who is having those babies, and why; and creating policies that empower them to take control over their reproductive lives.

And that last part is the hard part, because just handing them a pack of pills doesn’t begin to address the real problem.

Being middle class in America is, more than anything else, about having a strong belief that you’re mostly in control of your own fate. Middle-class values reward planning, diligence, and foresight. We are encouraged to pursue credentials that can take years to get, plan out our careers, save up to buy homes, save up some more for our kids’ educations, and plot the growth of our assets toward our own retirements. Middle-class jobs lean toward management and knowledge work that gives us some balance of authority, responsibility, and control: in most situations, we’re used to having some say in the outcome. Exercising consistent and prudent control over your life is how you join the middle class, rise through it, and ultimately (so we’re told, anyway) transcend it.

It’s not a coincidence that the rise of the modern, industrial American middle class a century ago coincided very closely with new contraception technology (the diaphragm) that gave married couples their first real shot at planning the arrival of their children, as well.  This was a key moment in the rise of the entire nation, because a kid who’s born into a settled family with adults who’ve already created a home, built stable careers, and have enough emotional and financial capital to take on the burden of their care will probably do very well. All her needs — for food, medical care, education, stimulation, and love — are highly likely to be met, and her chances for a successful life are high. Our 20th-century empire was built on several successive generations of such people. Conversely, a badly-timed pregnancy can disrupt the most careful plans — derail an education, destroy a young couple’s small savings, truncate career opportunities, and even take the family off the middle-class track entirely — creating adverse stress on the kid, with repercussions that can reverberate for the rest of her life.

Middle class people understand this intuitively. An unplanned pregnancy is a massive loss of control; and having a baby you’re not ready to welcome is a potentially life-altering shock. In a middle-class family, having your teenage daughter turn up pregnant is understood as a catastrophe that threatens her entire future. Contraception and abortion are eagerly accepted because we know that controlling our fertility is the keystone that holds all of our other elaborate life plans in place. It’s a load-bearing part of the structure that holds us up in the middle class.

As soon as you step down a notch on the economic ladder, though, all of this changes. Surviving as a member of the working class or the classes under it means, more than anything, accepting with grace the knowledge that you will never be in control of very much that happens in your life.  It’s all in the hands of fate: whether you have a job, what your working conditions are, how much you’re paid, how long you can keep it; whether you can find safe, decent housing, and how long you’ll be able to stay there; how far you can get ahead with your savings before the car breaks down and wipes you out.  If you’re trading your physical labor for money, every day brings the prospect of an injury or illness that puts an end to your productive life. Practically, if you don’t feel like you’re in control of much, you may not feel much urgency about using contraception reliably; or, even if you do feel it, your life may be too disorganized for you to manage it. A pregnant teenager in this class doesn’t have much of a future to look forward to anyway, so how can a baby do anything but bring a little happiness into it?

The fatalism engendered by this settles into families, becoming the most intractable part of the cycle of poverty — a learned helplessness that doesn’t expect much, and gets passed down through the generations. Researchers exploring attitudes toward contraception call this attitude “what happens, happens.” At best, babies just come when they come, and we’ll all just scoot over to make room for them. At this economic level, the social capital provided by your network of family and friends is the surest form of wealth you have, so why not expand the circle by one more?  At worst  — often, with a boost from authoritarian religion that overtly encourages this kind of passivity in the name of “God’s will” — any attempt to take positive control over your fertility (and thus, your future) comes to be seen as an outright sin.

This is why, even though Obamacare has now made even the most expensive and reliable forms of contraception available to underclass women throughout the country, the rate of unintended pregnancy might not fall in the years ahead nearly as far as we’d like to hope. Future posts will explore the issues of access (which remain very real), changing technology, political opposition, and other factors that conspire to keep this number high.  But if we want to get to a world where every baby is planned and welcomed and loved as it deserves to be, we need to begin by realizing that the problem exists across a wide class divide — one in which both sides are understanding the issue very differently.

To the middle-class policy makers promoting policies that increase access to a full range of reproductive care, it seems obvious to assume that if you build the infrastructure to ensure universal access, they will come.  Who wouldn’t want to take this foundational step in getting control over their future, especially if they were living in precarious straits? But to the people they’re creating these policies to help, another baby doesn’t significantly change their prospects one way or the other — it was dismal before, and now it’s just as dismal with one more of us to shoulder the burden.

Here, as happens so often in politics, to understand what’s possible, you have to begin by understanding how people reckon their own futures. Assuming that they will respond to a policy or value a resource the way you would is how do-gooders get their bad name.  There’s very little question that society does better when more babies are planned for and wanted. But there are a lot of reasons — some spurious, some actually quite reasonable — why the people having those babies may not agree with our assessment of their situation.





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A Well-Regulated Militia

NRA Instructor JB Herren works on a student’s technique.
Photo Friday Harbor Gun Runners

Count me among those who were beyond dismayed to see gun control move back to a central place on the progressive agenda. It’s not that I don’t agree that we’ve got a problem with mass shootings; negligent owners; yahoos with fantasies of fighting tyranny everywhere it rises, including bird sanctuaries; and the general bad effects of a century of Hollywood’s fetishizing of guns as a way to solve conflicts. We have all those problems, and more. The President cries on TV, and I feel his frustration acutely.

Where I diverge from my fellow progressives, though, is in my understanding of gun culture’s nuances — and the ways in which the left misreads (and sometimes, almost willfully and deliberately misunderstands and misrepresents) so much of what goes on in that culture.  I grew up in the rural west, where guns signified meat, vermin control, and safety in a house that was 20 miles from the nearest official help. And I own and shoot guns now, an activity that brings me into frequent contact with conservatives in their native habitat. As a result of this lifetime of experience, I know things — about guns, gun laws, and gun owners — that most progressives don’t know.

Some of those things, if better understood, might be leading us toward better policy — if, indeed, better policy is the goal. (I’m not entirely sure it is. Guns, like abortion on the right, have become a useful enough way of whipping up the Democratic base that there are undoubtedly quite a few people on our side who would rather milk the outrage than solve the problem.) There will probably be many blog posts here plowing some of that ground, but I’d like to start off with a little blue-sky proposal — an alternative way of getting us to some seriously effective gun control that the most responsible factions within conservative gun culture would quite possibly actually sign on for voluntarily.

Yes, it’s possible. But it’s going to require that we think about guns, gun ownership, and gun owners’ social responsibilities in a rather different way.

Good Guys With Guns
Invoking “good guys with guns” is a reliable way to raise sniggers on your Facebook feed.  But there are deep and important differences between the responsible gun owners — who are involved in vanishingly little gun violence, either intentional or accidental — and the negligent ones, whose errors populate the headlines with all manner of stupidity and malfeasance. There really are two different groups, and gun owners know the difference.

“Responsible owner” isn’t just a slogan. It’s a set of behaviors. Being responsible means that you are properly permitted to own your firearm. On the range, you are scrupulous in following every safety rule. At home, you have a locking safe to store it in that will protect it not just from kids, but also from thieves. You store your ammo in a separate location. When you transport your firearm, you do so in a lawful way. When you carry it, you make damn sure it’s concealed (for your own safety, as well as the peace of mind of others), and that you’re following the laws dictating where you can and can’t have it. (This is a major headache for concealed carriers: there are common situations in which you can  literally carry legally on one side of the room, but not the other. Knowing the rules for where you are right now — and how that changes if you go ten feet over there — is a matter of constant awareness and aggravation.) You keep your firearm under your direct personal control at all times, without exception; and knowing the stakes, you take extra pains to keep yourself out of situations where you might have to use it.

Most importantly: you train. And train. And train. And take classes on gun safety, and situational awareness, and tactical skills, and the life-altering legal issues you’ll be faced with should you ever decide to draw the thing. Carrying a gun is, like marriage, not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God. It’s a rather awesome and grave responsibility, and you take it seriously. If all of this is too much hassle for you right now, then as a responsible owner, you put the thing away in the vault, or sell it. There’s no halfway point.

Those of us who drive cars and fly planes and raise kids and take on other kinds of serious risk in our lives will find this whole drill very familiar. We deal with danger by acquiring the knowledge and skills that will enable us to reduce the risks to acceptable levels. And, by and large, gun owners who take these steps do reduce their risks significantly. Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner has pointed out that, given that one-third of US homes have guns in them, the surprise is that our rate of death is as low as it is. Apparently, on the whole, American gun owners are pretty darn safe with the things.

The problem is that there’s that other group — the negligent gun owners who want the firearm but won’t (for whatever reason) do any of the risk mitigation that goes along with it.  These are the parents who leave their guns loose in the car, or in their purses, where their toddlers can get at them. They’re the young guys who are enchanted by the power, but aren’t old enough to take on the full responsibility; and the bullies and abusers who see a gun as the ultimate tool in their arsenal of intimidation. They’re the criminals whose entire gun ownership experience happens outside of every gun law we have ever passed, or ever will pass (universal background checks will help with this); and the mentally ill whose families see them careening out of control, but can’t do a damn thing about it. Very often, negligent owners live lives that are disorganized in other ways as well: these are the people who simply can’t get it together enough to go to the range, buy a safe, or keep control of their guns. It’s these owners who create the vast bulk of the tragedy we see, and whose behavior we need to be most intently focused on controlling.

Unfortunately, the way the politics of this issue work right now, the responsible gun owners feel forced to defend the rights of the negligent ones because we propose policies that make them feel like we’re lumping them all together. If the good owners don’t defend the bad ones, everybody’s rights are at stake. The result is that knee-jerk Second Amendment absolutism that even a lot of the good owners don’t believe in when they really think about it.  The truth is: every gun owner I’ve ever met can name a brother-in-law, godson, or neighbor they think should never be in the same county as a firearm. They know there’s a bright line between Us and Them, and they get really pissed off when liberal policy makers can’t tell the difference.  This argument isn’t (always) self-serving on their part, though we often assume that it is.

Rank Has Its Privileges
Alongside this quiet snobbery on the part of the responsible owners, there’s also the fact that gun culture borrows heavily from military culture; and that the conservatives who are drawn to it are big on hierarchy, status, and authority — which also often translates into a love of credentialing and ranking systems. These two traits — an acute awareness of the line between the good guys and bad guys, and a craving for official validation — are the hooks on which a new policy might hang.

In the name of a “well-ordered militia,” we might tell people who want to carry: OK. Here’s the deal. You meet a stiff set of criteria — range qualification at a certain very high standard; regular mandated training to maintain skill; demonstration of safe handling and storage; and a background check that’s clear of felonies and drug or domestic violence misdemeanors — and you will get a permit that allows you to carry nationwide, in most times and places, no questions asked. (For most owners, simply being subject to one federal standard instead of rules that change at every city line would be well worth a large amount of pain.) But this permit comes with a responsibility: you are now part of a semi-official posse (modeled, perhaps, on the Civil Air Patrol) that also requires that you take regular mandated training and be prepared to perform certain community services in exchange for this privilege. (What services? At this point, I’m leaving that open, but there’s certainly plenty to be done.)

Most of the gun guys I know would positively leap at this deal. They like the metaphor, popularized by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, of themselves as loyal sheepdogs — defenders of the public order, set to preserve the safety of the larger whole against the predators in our midst. (Yes. In this scenario, the rest of us are the sheep. Charming, isn’t it?) The enhanced permit requires them to enlarge their sense of what that duty entails, and fixes their firearms into that larger context of service to society. It would give them a meaningful credential, tangibly recognize their commitment to responsible ownership, and put a community of accountability around them for their behavior with guns. With expanded freedom would come expanded responsibility — an exchange that most of them would understand, and possibly even welcome.

More broadly, over time, this scheme would put the whole cultural meaning of gun ownership into a wider social context. No longer a weird fetish for loners, carrying a firearm is a right that should only be exercised by people who are willing to work with others and commit themselves to the greater good.  Membership in this group would be suspended immediately if you were involved in a negligent discharge; if you were convicted of a felony, or a misdemeanor involving drugs or violence; or if you could no longer participate in required trainings or pass the qualifications. (Those familiar with the history of the National Guard may recognize this proposal, because the Guard was originally formed out of state militias that once occupied a similar role.)

Politically, this plan would also create much greater distance between the interests of committed and negligent owners. Once the committed owners felt safe and protected, they’d have a lot less interest in defending the indefensible behavior of their less-conscientious peers. “Of course that crazy guy deserves to be prosecuted: he didn’t meet the high standards I had to, so he never should have had the damn thing in the first place.” They sort of secretly think this now, but there’s too much political downside to say it out loud.

Over time, this could also swing the balance of the internal culture of the NRA. Right now, the nation’s leading exponents of safe gun ownership are the NRA-certified instructors found at practically every gun range — a large and influential faction that still carries forward the organization’s historic tradition as a firearms safety group. Requiring all owners to have more extensive training would be a full-employment act for those instructors (most of whom already believe that the average American is woefully under-skilled and dangerous), so they’d wholeheartedly support this idea. To be sure: the NRA’s gun-manufacturing sugar daddies, who fund the lobbying operation, would still have a different agenda; but this proposal would restore considerable clout to the association’s education and training arm, which over the long haul could bring them back around to their historically saner and more positive view of firearms regulation.

Idaho: More than potatoes and patriots
This isn’t really as blue-sky as it sounds. There’s already an experiment being run along these lines. The Holy Grail of gun permits right now is the Idaho Enhanced concealed carry permit — a special license granted by the state of Idaho that demands the highest standard of training and range qualification of any permit granted in the US.  Because the standards are high, the Idaho permit is honored by 37 other states, making it the closest thing to a universal permit in the US. Among gun folks, it’s the most prestigious credential you can get, and therefore carries tremendous status. And because the permit can be issued to non-Idaho residents, Idaho is making a bundle off the permit fees from out-of-staters stampeding to get theirs.

The Idaho experiment is still in its early stages. But the early data seems to prove out my suggestion that responsible gun owners respond well to appeals to their love of recognition and status, and are motivated to meet high standards in order to get a credential that signifies their skill. This is an understanding that far more policy could be built on.

And the downsides…
No policy proposal is without its downsides, and to be sure, this one has its flaws. There’s no doubt that some bad actors will manage to qualify for a high-status posse permit, if only for a while. George Zimmerman, as a neighborhood watch leader, might well have been the kind of guy who went out of his way to qualify for this; and it would be a magnet for the kind of cop-wannabe who can’t quite make the cut for the academy. Mechanisms would have to be put in place to cull such people out, or use social pressure to direct their issues toward the common good.

It’s also extremely likely that this system would be gamed in ways that re-create the racism and classism that have been embedded in every gun law America has ever passed. It’s true that the kind of disorganized lifestyle that leads to negligent ownership correlates strongly with socioeconomic status: if you’re too poor to buy a safe, or too stressed to keep track of your gun, or too busy surviving to keep your paperwork in order and keep up with your qualification requirements, you’re going to find yourself every bit on the wrong side of this system as you are in our current one. (And, frankly: if your life is that far out of control, do we really want you owning a gun?) Police and court harassment of African-Americans and Latinos mean that they’re far more likely to have criminal records that would be disqualifying, reducing eligibility throughout those communities.  We would have to take aggressive steps to ensure that most Americans could readily access these permits, and that getting one would be more a matter of time and effort than money.

But empowering the better angels of the gun community, and affirming their own instincts toward more safety, better training, and careful credentialing, might be a way of de-escalating the growing polarization over this issue.

Update: Commenter Raven On The Hill links to this excellent article by Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station (which belongs on my blogroll, actually — Wright’s a favorite in this house) offering another perspective on effective gun policy that the NRA probably wouldn’t bother to fight.

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Inattention to Detail


Photo: Bend Bulletin

A dozen “Patriots” are holed up in a federal wildlife refuge outside of Burns, OR this morning. I hope no one is genuinely surprised by this — at least, not anyone who remembers what happened at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada last year. Because make no mistake: it was federal inattention in the aftermath of that one that led, very directly, to the scenes coming out of Oregon today.

Let me be clear. The Feds did a smart thing in standing down at Bundy Ranch. With 150 armed men pointing guns at their officers, tensions rising, rhetoric becoming ever more belligerent, and the media making a national spectacle out of it all, the whole thing was a hot, fast-rising updraft spiraling toward a violent Waco-style storm of violence and terror. The site commanders, having learned some hard lessons from past standoffs, recognized the path they were on and wisely took the right steps to get off of it.  In a situation pushing everyone toward hardline behavior, they retained some capacity for nuance, kept their eyes on the long-term goals, and saved a lot of people from getting unnecessarily hurt. All in all: well done.

The failure was in the follow-up, as it became clear that what looked at first like a temporary tactical retreat was, in actuality, a complete and utter surrender. As anyone who’s gotten on the wrong side of the IRS knows, our government has an endless array of innovative ways to put pressure on people that don’t involve agents with guns. De-escalating the situation was a way, I thought, of increasing the range of options, and giving them room and time for more subtle maneuvers. For months after, I expected to hear any day that they’d finally arrested Bundy and his co-conspirators, coercing him to surrender out of the public eye through some kind of creative deployment of the law.

But that arrest never happened. Instead, the feds seem to have lost interest about as quickly as the cameras disappeared. Most of the gun-toting seditionists were allowed to go home and resume their lives (though not all of them got away with it). But it’s the lessons their movement as a whole took away with them that led us directly to this moment, and we need to understand where that mistake happened.

With the rise of the militias and other hate groups in the early 90s, a certain canon developed among law enforcement and community groups about how you deal with right-wing insurrection. Devin Burghart at the Center for Community Change  developed a set of principles, ultimately used by scores if not hundreds of communities, that rested on some central understandings of how right-wing hate groups begin, grow, and metastasize.

Among these understandings was that you cannot let even small things slide. Within a community, right-wing violence often starts small, typically with someone tagging a mosque or synagogue, or perhaps putting racist graffiti in a very public place. Also typically, the police will tend to ignore these first events: it’s just kids, or it will make the town look bad if we make a big deal out of it, or we have more important things to do.

What they don’t factor into this is that the perpetrators are watching for just this reaction. Almost always, they’re motivated by the idea that they’re simply acting on widely-shared community values. “Other people have been silenced by the political correctness police; I and I alone have the courage to say out loud what everyone else is really thinking. And in daring to do this, I’ll be hailed as a hero — as the one who finally stands up for the truth.” Wherever you see right-wing violence in action, it’s a pretty safe assumption that some version of this dramatic, heroic vision is playing in the actor’s head. You can bet this is what they’re telling each other right now  in that little building in Malheur.

Letting them get away with their first actions provides strong confirmation for this story. In their minds, they got away with it because the cops and city leaders must agree with them, and are on their side. They really are speaking for the community! So they keep at it, escalating both the magnitude of their crimes and their ability to evade capture as they gain skill and experience. More people join them. They get brazen, and may start acquiring arms. What was once mere tagging is now arson, robbery, beatings, or bombings. And before too long, the cops who once looked the other way find that they’re facing down a skilled, tough gang of self-styled Aryan warriors or Patriots or militiamen who are now fully convinced that their crusade has been blessed by the community as a righteous one. After all: nobody’s done anything yet to stop us.

The Center for Community Change’s recommended strategy for nipping emergent racial and right-wing violence in the bud had several prongs, but there are two that matter here. First, the community needs to respond to the very first broken window or tagged wall by expressing the community’s actual values in one unanimous, full-throated voice. The perpetrators need to know, beyond a doubt, that they are not speaking for everyone. (This often comes as a genuine shock to the perps, who have completely convinced themselves otherwise.) Government, service groups, congregations, and the local media all have roles to play. Events and vigils, window signs, school assemblies, op-eds in the media — the message needs to be ubiquitous and inescapable. Hate will not be tolerated. Violence will be prosecuted. You don’t speak for us.

Second, law enforcement also needs to know it can’t blow off the little stuff without risking much bigger problems down the road.  Their choice is to quietly bust a few people now, or risk a much bigger stand-off with a far larger and more sophisticated crew somewhere in the future. In the end, their failure to make early arrests — and make them stick — is the one factor that will ensure the worst possible future outcomes.

That’s the mistake the Feds made in Nevada. They let the crowd at the Bundy Ranch go home thinking that they’d scored one on Obama. They already had a raw, bone-deep contempt for the federal government, which for years has been too weak to keep them from using and abusing public lands however they saw fit. Authoritarians despise weakness, and have no compunction about taking full advantage of it. So to them, it was pretty laughable when the Feds finally decided to come after Bundy. (Now you think you’re gonna do something about it? Let’s just see about that.)

When that motley militia of Minutemen, Oathkeepers, and self-styled Patriots succeeded in driving federal agents off the land, it absolutely confirmed and amplified everything they and their fellow Middle American Radicals thought they knew. The Federal government is weak, and deserves their even more scathing contempt than they might have imagined. The public — represented by all that national media — is indeed with them. They are heroes, at least to a large number of FOX-watchers. And, most importantly of all: they totally got away with it. All of it. They made Obama blink.

After a victory like that, there was zero chance that they wouldn’t come back again — bigger, badder, with more overheated “I’m gonna die a patriot” rhetoric, higher ambitions, greater contempt for American norms, and general bad attitude. High on their own supply, they’ve been eagerly scouting the rural West for other places to stage their traveling seditionist circus. And given the parlous state of rural white America today (something I’ll write about another time), they won’t find any shortage of those.

Malheur is the next episode  — but if the federal response this time is anywhere as feckless as it was last time, it almost certainly won’t be the last. The FBI needs to learn what countless city law enforcement and local policy folks already know: while it’s wise not to let these things turn into high-noon confrontations that end in bombs and bullets, ending the siege is only half the work. The job’s not done until you’ve also made sure that law and order have been restored to their full authority, and that would-be seditionists achieve full understanding of the steep price to be paid for rebellion, and that their disgrace is every bit as fully public as their crimes were.

To fail here is to open the door to full-on armed insurrection. They cannot be allowed to succeed again.

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Cockpit of N278CA, the Cessna 172 I fly most often. The Wordpress dashboard is only slightly less complicated.
Photo Rainier Flight Service


And we have liftoff.

It’s been a long three years since I set down my keyboard and wandered off the blogrolls. The lost time was, on balance, the wander that I’ve needed, taking me on new adventures that led to new interests and perspectives — and new things to say to the world. My husband Evan retired. We did a lot of traveling. I learned to fly small planes, and became a thing with wings. And I became involved in climate issues and then, through them, reproductive rights, and then last year joined the NARAL Pro-Choice America national board.

Writers write about their passions, and I have finally reached the point where these new passions have driven me back to writing.

This blog also marks the first time in ten years of blogging I’ve ever written under my own banner. Always before, I was in other people’s spaces, with a responsibility to other people’s agendas. Some of them were massively generous about letting me write whatever I pleased, but there was always the need to be respectful of their purposes and audiences. It’s like living in your parents’ house as an adult: it’s home, but not your home.  Looking at this shiny new space, painted and furnished to suit me, feels very much like moving into my first apartment, and this post is your invitation to my housewarming.

Why Future Imperfect? It’s a tense that doesn’t even really exist in English — a grammarian’s Zen koan, if you will. The name conveys one of my great frustrations with pop futurism, which its facile reliance on utopias and dystopias — things going perfectly right, or perfectly wrong. Realistically, the future’s not like that. Our foreknowledge about the future is notoriously imperfect; and no matter what we do, time eventually brings us to futures that are imperfect, too. And our choices about how we frame and respond to those imperfections drive us to narratives of either despair or hope — the optimism and pessimism that drive much of our political debate.

Longtime readers will find me chewing on some new and possibly surprising topics.  I expect the menu to be long and varied:

— The rise in terrorism in recent months was one big shove that got me back here — it turns out that I still have some useful things to say about those topics, and this blog happened because I needed a place to say them.

— I’ve also stepped back from progressivism-writ-large in a big way, and am wrestling with some deep uneasiness about the direction the movement is taking. You may see some of that demon-wrestling here.

— I’m beginning research on a book on the future of reproductive rights, much of which will also get worked out on these pages.

— Aviation has always been a common companion to the writing life, so the aviation writing will be frequent, but I’ll endeavor to keep the prose from becoming too horrid a shade of violet. (I do not always promise to succeed, only to try.) I began life as a travel writer, too, so there will be some of that as well.

— Those among my progressive friends who are deeply invested in gun control politics may find that I’m writing here about my more nuanced views on that, too, and (fair warning!) will probably find the results dismaying.

But mostly, I want this blog to focus on what’s real, what’s happy, and what’s working in the world. We live in a time of uncertainty and fear, and there’s no shortage of people who are eager to provoke our doubts for their own ends. I think it’s time to change that conversation by taking stock of the things that still work, the strength we still have, and the deep resources we can still tap into and build on.

Unitarian Rev. Forrest Church, son of Idaho Senator Frank Church, gives us our benediction: “We must first let go of the things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.” If this blog has a mission, it’s to become a place where we embrace the task of figuring out what we need to let go of, and what what might bring us to slightly less imperfect future.

If you’re up for the journey, please sign up for the weekly newsletter.

And here we go.

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