Baltimore City Council President Jack Young opens mouth, inserts foot.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young again stuck his foot in his mouth, and this time it was particularly offensive. Mr. Young, angered that the officers of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) represented by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) refused to ratify the collective bargaining agreement proposed by the city, accused police officers who live outside of the city of “raping the city” by not living in Baltimore. Only about 20 percent of officers live in the city.

Mr. Young later clarified his remarks, stating he was referring to the negative effect on the city’s tax base by having employees living and paying taxes elsewhere. Taking him at his word, his use of the term “raping” nevertheless had an unnecessarily harsh connotation, implying that the officers are doing something wrong by choosing to live outside of the city.

In fact, they are not. They are doing what many current residents of the city would like to do: Living in communities that are safer, and where taxes are lower and public schools and other services are far better.

It would be interesting to know the percentage of officers who live in the city when hired, and then move out of the city later. I’m guessing it is higher than the percentage who live outside of the city when hired, and then move into the city later.

The starting salary for a BPD officer is about $49,000. That’s not bad, but it is not enough to afford to live in Guilford, Roland Park or Homeland. Are there are other wonderful neighborhoods in Baltimore? Yes, there are, but for young officers thinking about raising a family, the number of desirable places in the city is, unfortunately, relatively limited. Millennials attracted to communities like Federal Hill and Fells Point tend to go back to the suburbs when children are on their way.

Do you wonder how many families at the lower end of the economic spectrum, black or white, would jump at the chance to move out of the city to Baltimore, Howard, or Anne Arundel County if they had the means to do so? A lot. Why would police officers, including those who grew up in the city, be any different?

I hope that someday soon Baltimore will become a more attractive place for middle class families to raise children, but the harsh reality is that right now it just isn’t. And the absolute last thing that the BPD needs is for the city to use its officers for some sort of social experiment, by trying to force them to live in the city and then see what happens.

The BPD is struggling to recruit officers in adequate numbers, continues to have serious disciplinary problems, and arguably is failing at its primary job of preserving public safety. With all that going on, I can’t imagine why anyone in a position of authority in the city is preoccupied with the loss of tax revenues attributable to officers living outside of the city. The BPD already has gone from the frying pan into the fire. I don’t know where it goes next if the strains on officers are increased even further.

It is a commonly-held theory that, on balance, police officers who live in the jurisdiction in which they work have a better “feel” for the jurisdiction, and a greater personal investment in the quality of their work. Let’s assume that theory is correct, and let’s assume that Mr. Young has a legitimate concern about municipal employees paying taxes to jurisdictions other than the city. The fact remains that now is not the time to do anything that might it harder for the BPD to hire and retain good, qualified officers.

It just seems that the city generally has a difficult time getting its priorities straight, and this is one of those instances. I have no problem with measures intended to entice officers to live in the city, such as tax credits, but coercive measures are just out of question at this point and may never make any sense.

Finally, Councilman Ryan Dorsey did more harm than good by coming to Mr. Young’s defense.  This is the councilman who in July made the same point as Mr. Young about the loss of revenues, adding that officers who live outside of the city “siphon” city taxpayers’ money and “beat, abuse, and kill the people who actually live here.”

Mr. Dorsey has no concept of the damage that he does to the city (and its taxpayers) by his immature and inflammatory rhetoric. Mr. Young would be well-advised not to follow suit by causing even more backs – including the backs of prospective police officers – to be turned toward Baltimore. Never say things can’t get any worse.

October 19, 2017

The city council could help end BPD’s collective bargaining woes.

The Sun’s editorial was correct that the shift schedules of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) should not be subject to collective bargaining (“Baltimore police patrol schedule puts the public — and officers — at risk,” Oct. 16). The editorial, however, was not correct in asserting that removing shift schedules from the scope of collective bargaining with the FOP is the responsibility of the Maryland General Assembly.

Excluding the negotiation of shift schedules and other aspects of deployment and scheduling from the scope of collective bargaining is the prerogative of the Baltimore City Council. It is a responsibility that the council has ducked for years.

State law does govern binding arbitration if the city and the FOP fail to reach agreement on the terms and conditions of employment, but that state law is limited to matters involving “direct compensation.” Issues relating to “deployment or scheduling, including eligibility and assignment to details and positions” of police officers are expressly excluded by state law from the definition of “direct compensation.”

Under Section 16-8A(a) of the Code of Public Local Laws for Baltimore enacted by the General Assembly, the scope of collective bargaining between the city and the FOP over issues not involving direct compensation is subject to the Municipal Employee Relations Law enacted by the City Council. The City Council draws its power to regulate the scope of collective bargaining from Section 55 of the City Charter.

The City Council could remove shift schedules from collective bargaining with a simple amendment to Article 12, Section 3-2 of the City Code. It has not done so because of its chronic fear of antagonizing the FOP. In the meantime, money is wasted, shifts are understaffed, and public safety is compromised.

The City Council likes to lament its limited influence over the BPD when it suits its purpose and to point the finger of blame at the state. The council exploits public confusion about its role vis-à-vis the BPD. Let’s not be confused, however, about the council’s responsibility to fix the costly and dangerous problem created by taking away the control of scheduling and deployment of officers from the Police Commissioner.

David A. Plymyer

[Published as a Letter to the Editor by The Baltimore Sun on October 18, 2017 but not posted to my blog until April 15, 2018.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Baltimore ‘gag orders’ may make police look worse than they are.

United States District Judge J. Frederick Motz ruled last week that the non-disclosure clauses to which alleged victims of police brutality or other police misconduct must agree before receiving financial settlements of civil suits against the City of Baltimore and its police officers are lawful and enforceable.

With the legality of the clauses resolved for the time being, let’s focus on the underlying reason why the city should stop using the clauses to silence plaintiffs in cases involving alleged police misconduct: The non-disclosure clauses are bad public policy and add to the pervasive mistrust of the criminal justice system in Baltimore.

The clauses, technically called non-disparagement clauses and often referred to by a more descriptive name — gag orders — prohibit plaintiffs from discussing the incidents that led to the settlements of their claims against the city. The benefit to the city of the gag orders is speculative. The harm done to the city’s credibility is not.

City Solicitor Andre Davis defends the clauses. “It doesn’t prevent someone from doing anything except, the way we read it, disparaging the defendants in the case.” So the city is worried about someone speaking negatively about its police officers? Mr. Davis, you’re new to the job but you’re not new to Baltimore, and you should know that criticism is the least of the city’s problems.

Any desire by the city to preserve the reputation of its police department went by the boards last year when the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). The DOJ found that officers routinely violated the constitutional rights of citizens, and it attributed the unconstitutional practices to “systemic deficiencies” in the department that had persisted for decades. Nothing any plaintiff says about policing in Baltimore is going to catch anyone by surprise.

Nor have the non-disparagement clauses done anything to stem the tide of lawsuits against the city and its police department. In October 2015, The Sun reported that since 2011 the city had paid nearly $13 million in settlements and court judgments arising from alleged police misconduct. The payments have continued unabated. Last month, the city paid $110,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that two plaintiffs were falsely arrested by city officers. Heaven help the city treasury when the lawsuits from the actions of the Gun Trace Task Force begin to trickle in.

What, then, is the public good served by the gag orders? There is none.

The non-disparagement clauses are all about sparing the city and its police officers from public embarrassment. There is something particularly galling about the city trying to suppress unflattering information when the city and state are on track to spend tens of millions of dollars on a consent decree that was necessary because of a pattern of misconduct by officers that should have been brought to light and fixed many years ago.

Here’s a thought: What if the plaintiffs in the cases that have been settled over the past decade had been allowed to tell their stories to reporters? Maybe someone in authority in the city or state would have been forced to take notice and do something about the problems in the BPD before they became unmanageable. Instead, the city paid off the plaintiffs, and important stories were never told.

Mayor Catherine Pugh: You have the power to stop the use of the non-disparagement clauses, and you should do so. I know some other cities use them, but Baltimore isn’t other cities. As to the relationship between its police department and its citizens, Baltimore is trying to climb out of a very deep hole. Ending a practice that makes it appear that city officials want information hidden from the public would be one step upward.

Would some plaintiffs make false statements about their treatment at the hands of police if the non-disparagement clauses are eliminated? Of course, but city officials must trust citizens to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Stop insulting their intelligence by suggesting that they can’t do so. Right now, members of the public assume that the information being withheld from them is worse than it probably is — and who can blame them?

Lift the gag orders on the plaintiffs, let the media do its job, and allow the public to make its own judgments on the facts as they come out. That would work out a lot better than creating the appearance that the city is afraid of what the plaintiffs might say.

[Published as an op ed by The Baltimore Sun on October 9, 2017 but not posted to my blog until January 8, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

 

Grim prognosis on the future of youth and scholastic football.

Count me among those who believe that the end is in sight for organized tackle football as we now know it on the youth and scholastic levels. Participation has been trending downward for years for both youth-level and high school teams, and that trend will accelerate once parental attitudes about the dangers of the sport arising from head trauma reach the tipping point.

In my opinion, it no longer is a matter of if, it is a matter of when. As a football fan for as long as I remember, I hope that I am wrong – but only if it can be established with reasonable certainty that the risks to children can be reduced to insignificant levels.

My belief that organized youth and scholastic football is doomed is based on a confluence of factors, at the center of which is, of course, the evolving research on the dangers of long-term sub-concussive head trauma. As applied to youth and scholastic players, the research on long-term effects remains inconclusive. What we do know with reasonable certainty, however, is that there is only a “window” of safety. It’s dangerous for a child to start playing too early, and it’s dangerous if a child continues playing for too long into his adult years.

Neuroscientists warn that the undeveloped brains of younger children are much more likely to be damaged by repetitive head trauma than adolescents. At the other end of spectrum, there is no doubt that NFL players – and very probably college players who have played football from a young age – are at much higher risk than the general population for developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a devastating and degenerative brain disease.

These therefore are the questions facing parents: When can my child play football without compromising his or her long-term health? How many blows to the head are too many? In no other extra-curricular activity must a parent worry about a child getting too successful and wanting to continue the activity when entering high school or college. In other words, this isn’t like deciding when Johnny should start piano lessons.

There appears to be an emerging consensus that children should not play tackle football before the age of 14, while a majority still believe that tackle football is safe for high school students. A recent Washington Post/UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion poll found that 53 percent of adults surveyed believe that tackle football is not a safe activity for kids before they are in high school. Fifty-seven percent believe that high school football is a safe activity. These numbers are getting close to what I believe will be the tipping point.

I read a compelling article by Luke O’Neil of Esquire, in which described his experiences playing youth football and his concerns about the effects on his own future. He began by recalling one Thanksgiving Day game in particular:

“Everything turned yellow on Thanksgiving. I don’t remember much else from that day, now over 20 years ago, but a shift in the world’s color palette tends to stay with you. . . You can hit people so hard that long after they beat you, they remember you were there. You can hit so hard that you knock yourself out and wake up confused and distraught on the sideline, seeing yellow, and no one thinks to check if it was anything serious. I remember crying on the bench as the hitting continued on without me. For years, I thought they were only tears of frustration.”

In his article, O’Neil cited evidence that attitudes toward football are beginning to change rather quickly. The link between football and chronic brain damage was not on the national consciousness until after Dr. Bennet Omalu of Pittsburgh published his landmark article on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005.

Predictably, the NFL – and its committee of medical experts – fought back vigorously against Dr. Omalu and his findings. In 2009, the NFL finally admitted that its own determined its former players were suffering from memory-related diseases at a higher rate than the normal population, which it attributed to histories of concussions.

By 2013, an HBO/Marist poll found that 33 percent of Americans said the link between brain injuries and football would make them less likely to allow their sons to take part. Three years later, the same poll found that number had increased to 40 percent.

It would not be until 2016 that the NFL formally admitted the link between playing football and CTE, and conceded that permanent impairment may not be limited to the effects of multiple concussions. Since then, concerns about the effects of repetitive sub-concussive trauma have taken center stage.

Fear of football-related brain injuries is having a significant impact on participation at the high school level, even in states with a rich tradition of scholastic football. The Ohio High School Athletic Association reported that the number of high school football players in Ohio last year was 42,490. That’s down more than 23 percent from a peak of 55,392 in 2009, when the NFL first admitted that there was a problem. we

The effects of multiple concussions on young players has been well-established. As noted above, it is the long-term consequences of repetitive sub-concussive trauma that are less clear.

There is significant evidence, however, that even moderate exposure to the head trauma associated with football by players younger than twelve can have devastating long-term effects. Robert Stern, a senior author on a recent study done by Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center told the Boston Globe last month:

“I’m at a point where I feel comfortable saying that, based on logic and common sense and the growing totality of the research, I don’t think kids should be playing tackle football.”

The overwhelming consensus among experts is that more research needs to be done.  That does not mean, however, that there have not been worrisome findings. An important study in North Carolina documented changes to the brains of a high school football team over the course of a season through brain-imaging scans.

None of the players studied suffered concussions. Certain changes were associated with linear acceleration – the head moving forward or back within a helmet. Other changes were associated with rotational impact.  The study followed earlier studies identifying measurable changes in brain chemistry associated with brain damage from participation in high school football.

The studies have not yet established whether the changes are permanent and, if so, what effects they have on memory, behavior, cognition, etc. Again, there remain more questions than answers on long-term effects, but one of those questions for parents is whether to allow their children to play football until there is proof positive about the danger to their brain health posed by playing football. How much risk is tolerable if it involves compromising your kid’s future?

Last year the Centers for Disease Control decided to undertake a “rigorous evaluation of the risks of tackling in youth football,” and called on experts to submit research proposals to identify what age groups are at most risk of sustaining head injuries. It is possible that better answers to the outstanding questions will be the result. It also is possible that the research could take many years to complete, as players are studied over time.

My guess is that, no matter how much research is done, scientists are never going to come up with a “bright line” test for determining how much head trauma is safe, and how much isn’t. The susceptibility to and recovery from brain injury varies by individual. I would expect the CDC eventually to come up with recommendations for things like routine neuropsychological testing and scans: First to get a baseline on players, and then to determine if changes are taking place. It won’t be cheap, and it may not be reassuring.

In the meantime, what happens?  Attitudes can take a long time to change, even in the digital age. But one’s attitude about allowing a child to play tackle football is different, because it implicates the good parent/bad parent continuum, and therefore is susceptible to powerful emotional forces, including social pressure.

If the idea takes hold that only “bad” parents allow their children to play football the idea will dominate social media, and parents who do allow their children to play football will be unable to escape it. When the accepted wisdom among parents is that allowing children to play tackle football is tantamount to being indifferent to their health, the tipping point will have been reached and it will only be a matter of time before participation in youth football declines even more dramatically.

Some of the factors mitigating against the long-term survival of youth and scholastic football are based on more practical issues: Even if is deemed “safe” for a child to begin playing tackle football at age 14, what parent wants to be placed in the position of trying to persuade his or her child that it is not safe to continue playing it after age 18? Better to never start down the path than to have to convince an 18-year-old, who believes that he is invincible, to give up football before it’s too late.

There also is a major question about the effect of playing flag football at the youth level on the general popularity of the sport, and on the transition to tackle football at the high school level. The two sports are similar, but not identical, and players that flourish at one may not flourish at or even like the other.

I see the arrangement as increasing the exodus from football to the other football, soccer, which has continued to increase in popularity in this country. Ann Coulter aside, soccer no longer is viewed as a “foreign” sport for youngsters who can’t play football.

Finally, there is the issue that is implicated by poll findings showing that college-educated Americans are more likely than their less-educated peers to believe that football is unsafe.  Could football go the way of boxing, which gradually lost acceptance by the educated middle-class as a safe and responsible sport, particularly for children? I think it could. It also is possible that youth and scholastic football could become a regional phenomenon, more likely to survive in the south and southwest than in the northeast and elsewhere.

The initiatives underway to make the game safer for players of all ages are admirable and important, but I believe that they are no more than rear-guard actions that will do little to slow the decline in participation. There is only so much that can be done to change the nature of the game before it no longer is football as we know it and the bottom drops out of its popularity. Will the decline in participation in youth and scholastic football flatten out? I tend to doubt it.

In his story, Esquire’s O’Neil recounts an interview in 2015 by Bryant Gumbel of HBO with legendary NFL player and coach Mike Ditka. I attended graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, where Ditka played. The son of a welder, he was raised in nearby Aliquippa, a steel town with a population of no more than about 11,000 where two other Pitt and NFL players of some note, Tony Dorsett and Darrelle Revis, also grew up.

Ditka asked Gumbel: “If you had an 8-year-old kid now, would you tell him you want him to play football?” Gumbel said that he wouldn’t, and in turn asked Ditka: “Would you?” “Nope,” Ditka replied. “That’s sad. I wouldn’t. And my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.”

Ditka would never be mistaken for a neuroscientist and is prone to saying things without giving them a lot of thought. On the other hand, he was one of the game’s iconic tough guys and nor would he be confused with a bleeding-heart liberal.

Ditka cut the issue down to its essence: Balancing the risks against the benefits. As more and more players have made similar statements, it has become increasingly clear to those football fans who would prefer to live in a state of denial about a sport they enjoy that the problem is a real one that they may have to confront as parents.

I admit that I also see this issue in another context, which is my lingering feeling that scholastic and especially major collegiate football have outgrown their proper roles. We are the only country in which the feeder programs for the country’s most popular sport are its academic institutions, a relationship that does not entirely make sense and produces inevitable tensions – to describe the football programs at places like Alabama and Ohio State as anything more than revenue-producing adjuncts to their academic programs is disingenuous. Try persuading anyone that the tail doesn’t wag the dog after the Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.

I touched on the role of intercollegiate sports in a piece that I posted last year on Pearl Harbor Day on the Navy’s decision to allow Naval Academy graduate Keenan Reynolds to forego his military obligation to try out with the Baltimore Ravens. I thought that it sent the entirely wrong message about priorities, and the head trauma issue is also about priorities: Is football so important that academic institutions are willing to expose their students to the possibility of mental impairment? It is not only parents who have something to think about.

I’m not sure exactly why I felt strongly enough about this subject to write about it now. Maybe it is because of my general malaise over the current direction of our country and my belief that a lot of our priorities have become misaligned. Or maybe it is because the Pitt Panthers lost another game yesterday and are on their way, yet again, to a disappointing season.

October 8, 2017

 

Circling the wagons in Baltimore County.

No one circles the wagons more quickly and tightly than Baltimore County government officials. Ann Constantino of the Baltimore Post found that out last week when she tried to review the files in the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability to which I referred in my post “The Culture of Soft Corruption in Baltimore County.”

Long story short, the contents of those files are likely to disclose the legal justification – if any – for the decision by the Kamenetz administration to cut down 30 perimeter trees on the site of the proposed development known as Towson Station (formerly known as Towson Gateway) in contravention of a condition placed on the development by the County Council that the trees be preserved. The information in those files, required by State and County forest conservation laws, is critical to determining whether one or more County officials violated forest conservation laws.

We know that County officials violated the legislated will of the County Council as memorialized in Resolution No. 113-16 by cutting down the trees. If they did so while also violating State and County forest conservation laws the problem gets even more serious, and we could then be talking about possible criminal charges.

I am not going to try to describe the runaround that Ms. Constantino received from various County employees when she made a simple request to review the files, which are open to public inspection as a matter of law. You must read about it in her story – and see it in a video posted with the story – to believe it. It is even humorous, if you can find humor in an obvious attempt by county officials to frustrate access to files that Ms. Constantino had the right to inspect. [“Elusive Towson Gateway Records Key to Legal Dilemma,” The Baltimore Post, October 3, 2017.]

One other thing that also comes through in her story is that there are rank-and-file employees in Baltimore County government who try to do the right thing, perhaps at the risk of offending their superiors. If these employees are thinking about their futures after Messrs. Kamenetz and Homan leave County government, then that probably is a good idea.

The reputation of the current administration for its opaqueness and hostility to anyone who gets in its way has become widespread throughout the County, and employees deemed to be part of that problem may encounter problems hanging onto their jobs when the administration changes in 2018 – depending, of course, on who is elected County Executive. Time for employees to be thinking about their own reputations.

Finding out anything from Baltimore County officials that they are reticent to disclose can be like the Hunt for Red October.  I had my most recent frustrating experience with a County official when I tried to contact the County Auditor her to ask her if her office is auditing the now-defunct Executive Benefit Policy.

The Office of the County Auditor is an independent agency in the Legislative Branch of County government. The County Auditor is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the County Council, not the County Executive. The County Council, however, is equally adept at circling the wagons and stonewalling the public and media. Council Chairman Tom Quirk was singularly unhelpful when I began my inquiry into the remarkably generous Baltimore County Executive Benefit Policy that was rescinded by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz not long after an op ed that I wrote about it appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

The County Auditor is Lauren Smelkinson, although you would not know that from the website of the Office of County Auditor, which for some reason does not list her by name. After trying to reach her by telephone and email without success, I think I may know why – she doesn’t appear to like to answer questions, at least not mine. Maybe she just likes to keep a low profile.

In any case, she has an extremely important job with the County, charged by law with ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent in compliance with the law and only for the purposes for which it was appropriated. As of 2016 she was paid an annual salary of $176,904 to serve as the County’s fiscal watchdog.

I acknowledge the possibility that Ms. Smelkinson’s reluctance to return my telephone calls could have something to do with personal dislike for me, although I don’t know that because we’ve never spoken. After the County Executive rescinded the Executive Benefit Policy, the County Council also rescinded the Legislative Branch Benefits Policy. The Legislative Branch Benefits Policy conferred benefits on appointed officials in the Legislative Branch, including Ms. Smelkinson, that were similar to benefits under the Executive Benefit Policy.

The benefits under both policies included “severance pay” for officials who left County employment. For Ms. Smelkinson, that would have amounted to a lump-sum payment of about $39,000, in addition to any pension benefit that she may have earned by her service with the County. If Ms. Smelkinson is upset with me about the loss of that benefit, then all that I can do is assure her that it was nothing personal.

I have no doubt that Ms. Smelkinson is an honest and competent professional. I’d sure like to see her change her attitude, however, about answering simple questions from members of the public. To be blunt, I believe she is compensated well enough to be a little more responsive to County citizens such as myself.

The County Auditor needs to do an audit to determine whether an admitted irregularity in the administration of vacation leave under the Executive Benefit Policy resulted in the misappropriation of County money. It is a point that I made in a prior post and explained in a recent memorandum, Memo, grounds for audit 9 21 17 .  I’ve pressed members of the County Council (including Mr. Quirk) without success to use the Council’s power under the County Charter to direct an audit.

Two weeks ago, I left two telephone messages with Ms. Smelkinson and, when she didn’t return the calls, I followed them up with an email. I had a simple question. I know that the County Council has not ordered an audit, but I wanted to know if she had initiated an audit of the Executive Benefit Policy on her own volition. All I needed was a “yes” or a “no.”

In my opinion, there is no legitimate reason for her not to answer the question. Compliance audits of the type we are talking about need not be done in secret, and involve the review of existing personnel, payroll and financial records kept by the County in the ordinary course of its business. So why not answer a simple question? When folks circle the wagons, they generally are trying to protect someone or something, and I am starting to get suspicious.

Last week I got a little more forceful, sending Ms. Smelkinson an email stating that if she continued refusing to answer my question I would be forced to write about her refusal to answer my question, rather than about the information that I was seeking from her. She responded with an email on September 27th stating: “There was no refusal on my part to respond to you. I will be responding to your request.”

Well, I give her credit for parsing language – failing to answer my question is not necessarily refusing to answer it. On the other hand, here we are a week later and she still hasn’t answered it, so at this point I am considering her failure to answer my question to be a refusal to do so. Ms. Smelkinson and I may just have to agree to disagree on what constitutes a “refusal” to respond.

I am hoping the next County Executive ushers in a new era of openness and transparency in the Executive Branch of Baltimore County government, and appoints department heads who don’t hide from the media and consider ordinary members of the public to be the enemy. And maybe the members of the County Council who take office next year will find a County Auditor who is a little more forthcoming with concerned citizens.

PS. Ms. Smelkinson, I’d still like an answer to my question: Are you doing an audit of the Executive Benefit Policy, or aren’t you?  I thank you in advance for your assistance.

October 4, 2017

 

 

Moratorium on bumper-sticker patriotism.

If there is one thing that we Americans have proved, it is that right now we can’t handle symbolism responsibly. If we can’t do any better than we have been doing during the past couple of weeks maybe we need a one-year moratorium on playing the national anthem before sporting events, and even on such things as flying the United States flag at Fourth of Judy parades.

During the moratorium we can commit ourselves to relearning what our flag, and this country, represent. Perhaps with a little study and reflection we can restore the status of the flag to the symbol of unity and common purpose that it is intended to be, and get past being so upset when someone decides to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem.

The nastiness surrounding the decision by many NFL players to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem before NFL games two weeks ago to protest racially-motivated policing and other racial inequities in this country was troubling. Of course, one of the primary reasons that it was troubling was because it was provoked by the President of the United States, who turned a minor protest by a handful of black players into a major racial controversy by calling the protesters sons of bitches who should be fired by team owners.

Another reason that it was troubling was because of the tendency of those who object to the form of the protest to see it as an attack on the flag that is celebrated by the National Anthem, and therefore an attack on the country itself. Was the protest intended to be a criticism of this country? Of course, but since when is criticism tantamount to disloyalty?

Why have some Americans taken personal offense at other Americans who allegedly “disrespect” the United States flag by refusing to stand up when the National Anthem is played?  The answer is that those who find offense are too focused on the flag as symbol and, in my opinion, have lost sight of what that symbol represents.

The Vietnam War changed forever my feelings about patriotic symbols, including the flag. In 1968, there was a highly-publicized flag burning in New York’s Central Park in protest of the Vietnam War. I, like most others, was appalled. Years later, I learned that at about the same time as the flag-burning protest in Central Park, American military leaders and politicians were concluding that the Vietnam War could not be won. Nevertheless, another 27,000 service members were sent to their deaths in Vietnam.

You tell me where the greater sin lay. I’ve never viewed flag burning in the same way, and have a hard time worrying about whether symbols of anything are being treated with the proper respect. It just seems to me that there are more important things to worry about than symbolism – like the lives of American soldiers, sailors and airmen.

As any psychologist or anthropologist will attest, symbols can evoke powerful emotions, and can be very powerful tools. The power of a symbol like a flag comes from the fact that it does not convey an explicit message – the flag is a blank slate and it stands for whatever the individual believes that it stands for.  It is a empty vessel generally filled more with emotion than with ideas – or ideals.

Consequently, both white people who hate black people and black people who hate white people can “love” the flag. People of disparate points of view can rally around the flag, each believing that the flag represents his or her own point of view. Try rallying people around the concept of the First Amendment, however, and you get what you have now with the anthem kneeling: An ugly, racially-tinged division of opinion. A person’s emotional response to the flag is not diluted by critical thinking, which is why it can be so powerful.

Ask people what the flag means to them, and they usually will come up with what appear to be reasonable answers. “Freedom” is the most common response.

It is when you dig a little deeper that things get ambiguous. Freedom for whom and from what? The freedom of same sex couples to marry? The freedom of African-Americans from racial discrimination? The freedom of transgender females to use the women’s bathroom? It is the emotional charge attached to the word, just like the emotional charge attached to the flag, that matters – you can’t get yourself all fired up when you’re engaged in thought about what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness really means.

I have developed an especial disgust for bumper-sticker patriotism: All sizzle and no steak, a mile wide and an inch deep – worthless. You can cheat on your taxes, dodge the draft, and never do one damn thing for the common good of the people of this country, but if you stand when the National Anthem is played, you’re a patriot? I don’t think so. That’s not an adequate standard.

Not everyone who objects to football players kneeling during the National Anthem is a bumper-stick patriot, but more than a few are, including President Donald Trump. This man doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything the flag stands for, and he is going to lead the charge by “true Americans” against anthem-kneelers? Terrific.

And where did the nonsense come from that kneeling during the National Anthem dishonors members of the military and law enforcement officers? I am a veteran, and the grandson, son, son-in-law, nephew, brother, cousin, father and father-in-law of veterans. I don’t take offense, and I say this to veterans and active-duty military: Don’t let yourself be used. Those NFL players who knelt during the National Anthem, many of whom have beloved relatives who have served or are serving in the military, respect you. None of us have any special claim on the flag, and this isn’t about you or me.

As for law enforcement officers, if you treat citizens the same regardless of color, then this isn’t about you, either. If, on the other hand, you are a bigot and mistreat citizens because of their skin color – and there are still far too many police officers in this country who do so – then the protest is about you. If it stings a bit, good.  Maybe that will help motivate you to change.

I love the reaction by NFL fans who object to the protests because “they go to games to be entertained, not to be subjected to players’ political opinions.”  So they prefer that protests take place where they can readily be ignored?  At least they’re being honest.

There is nothing new about protests in this country, nor is there anything new about people being offended by those protests, sometimes vehemently. What is worrisome about the current situation is that it is being exploited by a president to promote racial animus and to deepen racial divisions in this country as a way of reinforcing the loyalty to him of his alt-right base. I believe that we need to immunize ourselves from the virus of hatred that he is trying to spread with the recognition that the flag was never intended to be an object of worship and that, when divorced in our minds from the principles and values that it represents, it is nothing more than a piece of cloth.

The flag, above all else, is a symbol of national unity. Black football players kneeling during the anthem are trying to tell the rest of us that we are not as united as we need to be, and that we are being driven apart by racially-biased policing.

We don’t have to believe that either their message or their manner of delivering it is correct, but we at least should pay enough attention to determine for ourselves whether these players are identifying a problem in this country that needs fixing. Getting all worked up because of the manner of their protest, and allowing ourselves to be duped into a racial war-of-words (or worse) by our draft-dodging, blowhard president, isn’t the answer and solves absolutely nothing.

October 2, 2017