Politics

Shot Down in Motor City: How I Smelled the Tear Gas and Saw the Light

In September of 1995, I was just shy of eighteen, and I believed the entire world ought to be radically transformed.  That’s probably because the entirety of my brief life had been a disaster; my small world had been rotten and corrupt, so I believed the world at large was, too.  I wanted to flip our nation on its head — indeed, I wanted to turn the whole planet upside down.  I figured that was the only way to fix things.

I’d gotten married two weeks after my seventeenth birthday — before graduation, even — and growing up under the looming shadows of my mother’s alcoholism, crack addiction, and mental illness had forced me to mature far more rapidly than my peers.  Nonetheless, I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did. 

I had attended Oklahoma public schools for most of my childhood.  And, although Oklahoma is reputed to be the nation’s most conservative state, I remember being taught endless sundry left-wing propaganda.  The “captains of industry” were equally corrupt as the “robber barons”; indeed, the actions of the ultra-wealthy are always suspect.  The founding fathers owned slaves and were therefore filthy hypocrites.  White people are history’s villains, and owe the rest of humanity an apology.  True communism and/or socialism have never been tried, and therefore cannot be deemed failures.  The list goes on.  In other words, right in the crimson red heartland of America, I had been quietly and very effectively indoctrinated in liberal ideology.

It should come as no surprise, then, that during my first year at DePaul University in Chicago, I was intrigued by the signage posted around an International Socialist Organization (ISO) information table.  It declared the organization’s opposition to racism and sexism, and extolled its support for the rights of everyday people.  That appealed to me, so I took a copy of their newspaper, Socialist Worker, and my then-husband and I went to their meeting later that week.

It was held at a member’s home, and although the ISO claimed to have collective leadership, that guy was clearly in charge.  He was short, perhaps 5’5,” with a bulbous Buddha belly and dark, curly hair that peeked out from under his Rastafarian hat.  The rest of the group was quite diverse — there were people in business attire who’d come directly from office jobs, bookish intellectuals, hippies, blue-collar workers, and punky-looking kids like my husband and me.  Refreshments were offered, then Junior Rastafari called the meeting to order. 

He made a big push for volunteers to go to Detroit to support the striking workers of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.  The Chicago ISO was sending people over in a “gesture of solidarity” for Labor Day weekend, according to Junior Rastafari.  He emphasized that the strike would be a wild time, and that it was not something to be missed.

My husband and I had little in common, but we shared a thirst for adventure, so we signed up.  We had no idea what would actually be involved — I think we both assumed there would be sign-holding and marching — but we were game nonetheless. 

We were assigned a carpool with one of the office workers.  She was a most unremarkable woman; there was absolutely nothing outstanding about her.  I wondered if my husband and I would even recognize her again as the three of us made plans to meet that Saturday afternoon.

When she pulled up in front of our building, all the windows of Plain Jane’s tiny brown Toyota were down, and she was blaring the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.  She never changed the CD, letting that one play over and over for the entire four-hour drive.  It had lost all its charm for me by the time we arrived at the picket lines outside one of the printing plants.

It was well into the evening, but there were plenty of strikers about.  “Don’t worry,” Plain Jane assured us, “all of the real action happens in the middle of the night.”  She opened the trunk and removed three black backpacks.  “You two didn’t bring supplies, did you?” she asked. 

“Supplies?”  My husband and I exchanged blank looks.

“I didn’t think so.”  Plain Jane’s thin lips curled up in a manner both slight and sly.  “Don’t worry, I’ve gotcha covered.”  She handed us each a backpack.

I picked mine up — it was quite heavy.  “What’s in here?” I asked.

“Oh, you know,” Plain Jane hedged, “water and stuff.  Things you might need.  Just strap it on.”

I did as I was told. 

Everything started out innocently and mundanely enough; we held signs and mingled with the newspaper workers.  I tried to ask a few why they were striking — after all, I didn’t really know why I was there — but they all blew me off.  I didn’t understand why at the time, but it’s obvious now: they had mouths to feed and bigger fish to fry.  They didn’t have the wherewithal to indulge the ignorance of some kid with a mohawk and lofty ideals.  For them, this wasn’t an ideological battle — they were fighting for their livelihoods.

As the hours wore on, a sense of anticipation became palpable, and the crowd began to meander, like one massive serpentine creature, toward the gate where the trucks went in and out. 

“What’s going on?” I asked a young African-American woman with a shaved head, a handful of something shiny and pointy, and a crowbar peeking out at the waistband of her incredibly baggy jeans.

“We’re gonna blockade those bastards so they can’t get no delivery trucks out.  If they can’t get no trucks out, they can’t get no papers out.” 

“How are we gonna do that?” I asked, feeling totally lost among all the shouting and seemingly random action.

“With our bodies, girl!” she laughed and shot me a sidelong look.  “You ain’t never done this before, am I right?”  

I allowed her to draw her own conclusion.  

She chuckled again.  “Here, you probably ain’t got none of these,” she said, placing three of the spiky metal things in my hand.

“What are they?” I asked, examining the unusual objects.  They had a three-pronged base and a sharp-tipped spike that pointed directly upward.

“Put those out by the gate and on the street outside.  If the trucks do get out, these’ll jack up the tires.”  Baldy flashed me a wicked grin. 

At the gate, we formed a human wall in anticipation of the exiting trucks.  We successfully stymied delivery of the paper well into the next day. 

Meanwhile, every so often, a few ISO people would peel off the main crowd to go on a “raid.”  It wasn’t long before Baldy and Plain Jane grabbed me to go on one with them, and I discovered what it was all about.

My husband and I had been advised in advance to wear all black.  That was easy enough, because I was going through a phase at the time, and, well, I had a lot of black clothing.  At any rate, as we three got away from the crowd and into the shadows surrounding the plant, Plain Jane told me to zip up my jacket and get my hat out of my backpack. 

That was the first time I’d looked inside the bag.  The little care package Plain Jane had so thoughtfully prepared for me contained several bottles of water, just as she’d said, but it also contained a black knit beanie, pepper spray, a baton-sized metal pipe, several large rocks, a few tire-shredding spikes like Baldy’s, a makeshift gas mask — essentially a pair of work goggles attached to a thick length of fabric that could be tied around the nose and mouth — and a pair of gloves with tacks sewn point-up into the tops of the fingers.  “What are these for?” I asked, removing the gloves.

“Oh, put those on, too!” gushed Plain Jane, exhilarated.  “If we get in a fight, you’ll tear ‘em up even if you punch like a girl.”  She looked at Baldy and they giggled.  “Put some of those rocks in your pockets, and slide that pipe up your sleeve.  And remember, if you see cops coming at you, ditch all that gear, and if you get arrested, don’t say anything.  That’s what we have lawyers for.”

We pulled our black beanies down to our eyebrows and armed ourselves for … what?

Plain Jane and Baldy hustled around the building single-file and in a crouched-down position.  At the time, they reminded me of special ops on a secret mission.  The mission was still a secret to me, at any rate.  Without thinking twice, I followed in like fashion.

Baldy was the first to introduce crowbar to glass. The clamor of the shattering window startled me, even though part of me must have known what was going to happen.  “Don’t just stand there, wide eyes, move!” Baldy urged, shoving me onward. 

It was all downhill from there.  We busted windows all along the dimly lit back of the building, then hit a few cars in the employee parking lot.  Baldy planted tire spikes behind the wheels of the more expensive cars, which she presumed belonged to management.  Occasionally, patrol cars cruised by, and we saw a few cops on foot, too, but nobody tried to stop us.

By the time we made it back around to the blockade, both my comrades were pink-cheeked and giddy.  I, too, felt caught up in the rush of it all.

But eventually, the sun rose, and nobody was willing to enact such mischief without the cover of darkness.  We rejoined the picketers, shouted the pro-labor chants, gratefully accepted the hot coffee that occasionally passed by, and just generally ran out of steam as the adrenaline wore off.

Eventually, we three needed sleep, so we rented a cheap motel room.  The blockade was still going strong when we left, but when Plain Jane spoke to Junior Rastafari Sunday evening, we discovered that the crowd had eventually been dispersed, and that a few arrests were made.  We also learned about a second blockade, planned for Labor Day.  Without asking my husband or me, Plain Jane gleefully committed our whole group to participate.

We were shocked by the scantness of the crowd when we arrived Monday night.  It was perhaps one tenth the size of Saturday’s crowd — hundreds instead of thousands.  I assumed everyone was home barbecuing with friends and family, but I later discovered that the second blockade was completely unofficial and not explicitly union-sanctioned.  I don’t know who organized it, but I do know that all of our Saturday-night ISO comrades were present.

Monday made Saturday look like Sesame Street. It was such chaos, I frankly can’t recall the precise sequence of events. That night, the police did not ignore our shenanigans — probably because there were so few of us that we could be easily reined in.  We flailingly tried to lock arms and block the gate, while the police donned shields and marched toward us to clear the way, which we foolishly resisted.  Someone in the crowd had broken in to a nearby auto factory and stolen some car parts, and people were hurling them at the cops.  I could hear Plain Jane shouting over the din, “Grab your rocks! Throw the rocks!” and I thought about getting mine out, but there were so many bodies crashing into mine, and so many objects flying over my head, I thought it better to hunker down. 

At one point, the crowd rushed the gate in an unsuccessful attempt to breach it.  No one in particular decided to do it, it just happened.  A hive mentality had taken over, and decisions were no longer being made by us as individuals, but by the crowd writ large.  We’d become a mob — completely out of control.  It’s a cliché, but individual resistance from within that crowd was futile — no matter how hard I might’ve fought the flow rushing headlong toward the gate, the force of the current would’ve swept me up along with the rest of the human tidal wave.  Once you were in the mob, there was no getting out.

Eventually, the cops got fed up.

When I heard the canisters hit the ground, I had no idea what they were. 

But Plain Jane knew.  “Gas masks!”  She shouted it like a battle cry.

It took me a moment to process what was happening, and by the time I began to fumble with my backpack, the crowd was scattering, and a thick greenish cloud was forming around me.  My husband grabbed my forearm.  “Run!” he shouted, yanking me into action.

We darted off in the direction of the car, our arms covering our mouths and noses, our eyes tiny slits.  It wasn’t until we’d gotten out of the thick of the melee that I began to feel the effects of the gas. 

We’d already slowed from a sprint to a jog, but the sudden excruciating tightness in my chest brought me to a dead stop.  It felt like a massive boa constrictor had encircled my lungs and was squeezing them with all its might.  I dropped to the ground, gasping for air through a throat that felt like it’d been scoured with sandpaper.  My eyes clouded with tears that seemed not to cleanse, but rather to corrode.  My body contracted into a tiny ball, as if by shrinking I could somehow reduce the severity of the pain. 

For about ten minutes, I thought I was going to die.  And while I was lying there, contemplating the ignominy of dying in this unfamiliar city which eerily resembled a post-apocalyptic war zone it hit me: 

This whole thing is a sham. 

What did smashing windows and chucking car parts at cops have to do with getting a fair shake for newspaper workers?  And why did my husband and I — people who didn’t work for The Detroit News or any other paper; people who didn’t belong to their union, or any other — blockade their printing plant and allow ourselves to be gassed by cops in a city over four hours away from our own?  It just didn’t compute.  As I lied upon crumbling pavement, among weeds growing unchecked, panting and weeping, it suddenly occurred to me that none of what I’d done that weekend could possibly have advanced any just cause.  And I realized that I hadn’t bothered to find out if this particular cause was, in fact, just.  I’d allowed some joker with a dingy red-green-gold hat and no obvious qualifications — a guy I’d have normally made fun of — to make up my mind that this was something worth doing.  I hadn’t asked a single question. 

I had been a sheep, and I’d almost been led to the slaughter.

When my vision cleared, I glanced around for my husband.  I found him sitting on a nearby curb trying to catch his breath.  His tear-stained face and labored gasps made it clear he’d been feeling the gas, too. 

I looked at him.  He looked at me.

“Let’s get out of here,” was all he had to say.

*             *             *

After our return to Chicago, the phone calls began. 

“Hey guys,” purred Junior Rastafari over our answering machine, “didn’t see you at this week’s meeting. Just wanna make sure everything’s okay.  Give us a call.”

The next day, another message awaited us.  Plain Jane’s chipper voice chirped: “How’s it going, guys?  Missed you at the meeting.  Haven’t heard from you, either.  Starting to worry a little.  Just let us know you’re okay.”

The following day, two more messages.  And the day after that, several more.  They just kept coming.

Finally, two weekends after the strike, Junior Rastafari dropped by our apartment.  We regretted opening the door almost immediately.

We could not get rid of the guy.  What started as an “I-just-wanted-to-check-on-you” conversation quickly evolved into a thinly veiled interrogation designed to gauge our commitment to international socialism.  When it became clear that our commitment was nonexistent, the dialogue transformed yet again into a sermon designed to convert us to the one true philosophy of Karl Marx. 

And that was when I had my second epiphany. 

When I was 9 years old, I’d gotten mixed up with some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and when I made my break with them at age 13, they had responded in almost exactly the same manner as were these ISO fanatics.  First came the string of phone calls and “concerned” messages.  Then came the home visits and high-pressure come-to-Jesus lectures.  Both groups stressed the dire consequences of leaving the fold, which were remarkably analogous. Whereas the Jehovah’s Witnesses cautioned that I’d be swept up in the destruction at Armageddon and would miss my only opportunity for salvation if I broke with them, the socialists warned of the drastic repercussions that would follow if I found myself on “the wrong side of history.”  Both threatened me with apocalyptic decimation and claimed possession of the sole ark that could spare me from the coming flood.

I sat there, half listening to Junior Rastafari’s forebodings about what would happen to those who refused to unite with the workers when the inevitable day of reckoning came, and I realized: This is just another religious cult.  They’d substituted The Communist Manifesto for the Bible, and Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost — but the playbook was identical. 

So I interrupted Junior’s spiel, extended my hand, and thanked him for his time.  Bewildered, he stopped mid-sentence, accepted my handshake, and allowed me to walk him to the door. 

“So, we’ll see you at Friday’s meeting?” he asked as he walked out.

“Nope,” I answered, “no, you won’t.  And I don’t want to see your face around my building or hear your voice on my answering machine anymore either, got it?”

He initially appeared surprised, then his expression metamorphosed into a clueful smile, as if he knew something I didn’t.  Everyone who’s been successfully indoctrinated believes they possess all the secret answers.  “If that’s your choice,” he sing-songed in a don’t-say-I-didn’t-warn-you voice.

“It is,” I replied firmly.  

Then I closed the door on his smug smirk and on that brief chapter of my life.

*             *            *

Surveys show that socialism’s popularity among Millennials is soaring, even as we have just marked the anniversary of the Holodomor, Stalin’s engineered famine that killed millions of Ukrainians; as millions of Venezuelans face starvation and crippling shortages of medicine and other necessities; as Hong Kong’s protests against the communist mainland government are turning violent–in short, it’s happening even as we drown in evidence of socialism’s failures. 

How can this be?  If my story provides any insight, the answers are pretty plain.  When one puts children, most of whom have divorced/single/absent parents, into public schools designed to indoctrinate them with far-left ideology, and deprives them of any kind of counter-balancing influence — like religion — the final products are brainwashed, alienated, angry young adults bursting with radical ideas and poised to pounce upon whomever they deem responsible for the bleakness of their lives.  The hope once offered by the Church has been denied them, as they have been raised in a secular world.  They’ve also been robbed of the security once provided by the nuclear family, because the sexual revolution and the subsequent feminist and LGBTQ movements have radically redefined the family.  All that remains for these volatile young people is the State, so they turn to it to solve all of life’s problems.

And socialism offers them a seemingly magic panel of solutions.  Not only does it promise to cure all the world’s ills, it offers a scapegoat upon whom they can blame their troubles — the wealthy.  Nevermind the overwhelming evidence proving socialism doesn’t work — their 10th grade history teachers told them true socialism has never been tried, so none of that counts, and besides, the socialist slant on the story sounds so much more appealing.

Socialism also crudely fills the gaps in a world where religion has been shoved off the stage of daily life.  It offers a group identity, a code of behavior, a set of sacred texts, even gods of a sort.  Everything religion once did in a beautiful and sublime way, socialism now does in a vapid and strictly material manner. 

The key difference is, socialism offers no truth, only prettified lies.  And that is why it can only thrive in a world bereft of traditional sources of truth, like religion and family.  It’s no coincidence that Stalin did his best to destroy both religious and family loyalties, and it’s no coincidence that we’re seeing socialism’s popularity surge in this country only now, after the forces for God and family have lost the culture wars.

But all hope is not lost.  Millennials are swallowing socialist swill because they’re starved for meaning, and that’s what’s being presented to them.  But very few people will pick McDonald’s over filet mignon — at least, not after they’ve had a taste of a choice filet. 

And if we wish to convince young people that socialism is the wrong path — if we want to prevent this country from devolving into another Venezuela when Millennials become the dominant voting block — we must not only expose its vacuity, but offer something solid in its stead.  We must invite these famished wanderers to the banquet of truth. 

Most young would-be revolutionaries know nothing about the founding fathers.  They have never read the Bill of Rights, much less the Constitution. They think Plato is something akin to modeling clay. And they haven’t even picked up a Bible.  In an age where all information is at their fingertips, they nonetheless remain uninformed on matters of true importance, because they have not been given the tools to sort the melody from the noise. We must shine a light on the texts and ideas which have stood the test of time and weathered the trials of implementation.  We must point the way to truth.

And in the same way we’d introduce broccoli to a toddler, if our initial tidbits of truth are rejected, we should simply move on, and re-introduce them at the next opportunity.  We don’t have to force-feed, we have merely to offer — again and again until our subjects agree to at least try a taste.  We won’t convince everyone — some people will stubbornly cling to their Twinkies, even as they die of malnutrition.  But I sincerely believe most folks aren’t as thick-headed as me — most people don’t have to be tear-gassed to see the light.  Just one bite of truth will entice a sufficient percentage to flip our cultural scales back to some semblance of sanity. 

Our sustenance is sweet indeed, and we must actively and tirelessly present it in fresh and enticing ways on our collective cultural plate.  Eventually, those who are gorging at the slop-trough of socialism will begin to feel pangs of hunger for true nourishment, and they’ll seek other intellectual food.  Let’s just pray our citizens don’t have to literally starve, as have so many subjects of socialist regimes, before that happens.

The Needles and the Damage Done

If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…

For those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair
 

–from the song “San Francisco,” written by John Phillips

This romanticized depiction of the streets of San Francisco, which I have called home for the last two decades, may have contained a kernel of truth in 1967, when hippies from all over the country flocked here for the so-called Summer of Love. But it doesn’t reflect our local reality on the precipice of 2019. Not even close.

For starters, it would be more prudent for San Francisco tourists to protect their hands and feet with gloves and work boots than to worry about their hairdos, because instead of finding “gentle people with flowers in their hair,” visitors are more apt to find homeless junkies with needles in their arms, needles they will likely leave lying wherever they happen to fall—in parks, on playgrounds, even on bus and train seats. And no longer do our streets smell of incense and patchouli—those aromas have been supplanted by the inescapable reek of human waste.

The problem spiraled dangerously out-of-control so gradually that I didn’t fully realize just how bad it had become until a few weeks ago, when I took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit—our light rail system) to the Civic Center station for the first time in several months. 

This station is in a notoriously sketchy area. It borders the Tenderloin, which is perhaps the poorest, roughest neighborhood in the city. At the same time, as the name implies, all of the city’s governmental buildings are located nearby, in addition to many of San Francisco’s finest museums and cultural attractions. So, every day in United Nations Plaza, where the Civic Center BART station is located, an almost absurd juxtaposition of contrasting characters convenes—civil servants neatly attired in conservative suits, opera patrons decked-out in posh finery, and souvenir-toting tourists share the sidewalks with grimy street urchins, peacockishly painted prostitutes, and everyone else who has fallen off society’s radar—often because they fell in love with the needle.

There is nothing new about the random socio-cultural cross-sectioning that occurs at this curious crossroads. But the last time I was there, I did see something new in United Nations Plaza.

© 2018 Aaron Levy-Wolins

Black syringe depositories have been installed near the regular trash cans—indeed, one might mistake them for garbage bins if not for their funereal color and stark, striking BIOHAZARD warning signage. 

Underscoring the need for such bins are the legions of strung-out zombies strewn about the vicinity—sitting, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, on curbs; crawling around the plaza on all fours, shaking and shouting and searching intently for heaven only knows what; stumbling aimlessly up and down the alleyways, caked in filth; and lying across the sidewalks, arms wide open and mouths agape, the living indistinguishable from the dead. 

© 2013 Kevin Montgomery

And punctuating this bleak de profundis dirge are the by-products of this wretched existence—feces, garbage, syringes, and urine—scattered and splattered everywhere. Virtually every San Francisco area resident, myself included, has been confronted with the grim spectacle of someone shooting up, urinating, defecating, or some combination of the three, in a public place and in plain sight.

Sleek new needle disposal bins won’t even make a dent in this problem. 

Indeed, nothing the city has done has helped. On November 30th, 2015, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story regarding the skyrocketing number of complaints about discarded syringes in public areas, noting that the number had risen from 440 in 2012, to over 2500 in 2015. They also reported that the city was expanding access to disposal boxes and establishing “rapid response teams,” though exactly what those teams might do was left unexplained. 

Fast forward to April, 2016. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s blog, BETA, published an article entitled “Syringes and Needles on the Street in San Francisco: What’s Being Done?” This piece detailed the measures being taken at that time to combat the problem, which included: community cleanup events, wherein residents of “hotspot” neighborhoods “cheerfully [went] about the neighborhood to pick up syringes”; “increasing education” among the drug-using population about where and how to properly dispose of needles; and training museum and library staff in the Civic Center area on safe disposal methods. Library staff was also trained to provide disposal equipment to homeless people inside the library and was given said equipment, apparently free of charge. 

© 2018 Bigad Shaban

Fast forward to July 17th, 2018. Business Insider published a piece about San Francisco’s new mayor, London Breed, and her plans to combat what is still being described as “copious amounts” of syringes, not to mention human feces, on San Francisco’s streets. Apparently those rapid response teams, education programs, and community cleanup events just didn’t cut the mustard. What does Ms. Breed propose? She wants to set up “safe, supervised injection sites” where homeless addicts can go—in lieu of public spaces—to intravenously ingest their drugs of choice … because your average addict is oh-so-likely to forestall shooting up after scoring until he can get to a location supervised by a city official.

Right. 

While the city is scrambling to come up with strategies to combat the syringe litter problem, the San Francisco Health Department is busy handing out free needles. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that in fiscal year 2015-16, the city distributed 4.45 million needles at a cost of $523,363. The article goes on to state: “Of the 400,000 needles distributed monthly … about 246,000 come back though [the health department’s] 13 syringe access and disposal sites. That leaves more than 154,000 needles a month still circulating … thousands wind up on streets and sidewalks, in tent camps, and in parks and playgrounds.” The number of needles distributed by the city hit six million for the 2017 fiscal year.

It’s almost as if San Francisco’s right hand doesn’t know—or care—what’s being done by the left. 

Similarly, although most everyone acknowledges that addiction, including alcoholism, is one of the key factors leading to and perpetuating homelessness, one of the “solutions” San Francisco has proposed as part of a package designed to combat its homeless epidemic is a so-called “wet house”—a shelter in which alcoholic vagrants are allowed to drink openly and without fear of eviction. 

I read about all of these proposed “solutions”—the crews of law-abiding citizens sent out to “cheerfully” clean up the filth left behind by their junkie scofflaw neighbors; the “supervised injection sites” and “wet houses” and millions spent on free needle distribution—all of which enable and validate the behavior which caused many homeless people to wind up on the streets in the first place; and I can’t help but think, what planet are these people living on? Do they know anything about the people they’re trying to help? The fact is, although I have no doubt that there are countless hearts in the proper places, nobody here seems to be in touch with reality when it comes to actually solving this problem. 

There are a few things everyone agrees on: the addiction epidemic in our city is directly related to and intertwined with our homeless crisis, and the biggest contributing factor to that is the lack of affordable housing. This is a very real problem that I have experienced firsthand. I currently pay $1800/month for a studio apartment, and it’s not even in San Francisco itself, but, rather, in the Oakland/East Bay area. When I experienced a major injury that kept me out-of-work for the better part of a year in 2017, I was very nearly evicted, and, if not for my amazing faith community and family assistance—support structures that tragically few people in contemporary society have—I would have wound up among the Bay Area’s 35,000 homeless, up to 15,000 of which live in San Francisco proper.

Everyone knows affordable housing is a serious problem. But not everyone has a clear grasp on the causes for this predicament, or realistic prospective solutions. A basic understanding of the laws of supply and demand, for example, seems to be almost completely lacking among my fellow residents. Consider the following example:

There has been an empty lot next to my building for about 20 years. It’s in a prime location, right next to a BART station and in close proximity to the UC Berkeley campus. Several months ago, signs appeared in my neighborhood to notify residents of a proposed development in that lot. The project would be a multi-story residential building with commercial space on the first floor—so it would provide a considerable number of new housing units as well as space for a few new shops.

I was delighted by the proposal. It would take wasted space and put it to good use. It would stimulate the micro-local economy by bringing new shops—and, in turn, new jobs and more tax revenue—to the area. And it would make a significant contribution to the supply side of the housing market, which is, ultimately, the only way rents will come down; after all, housing prices here are high because demand is high and supply is low. It’s basic Economics 101 type stuff.

But my neighbors disagreed. Almost immediately after the signs announcing the proposed development went up, another set of signs appeared. They announced citizen meetings to discuss and organize opposition to the building project.

Neighbors within my building assumed I would attend. “The building would obstruct our view of the Bay,” they whined, “and it would make it a lot harder to find parking around here. Plus, it would destroy the laid-back vibe of our neighborhood and replace it with a really ugly commercialized energy. Besides, it’s totally unjust! There’s no provision for affordable housing!” 

It’s the same narrative I have heard a million and one times since I moved here—the developers are evil and greedy and only care about making money. They don’t care about the poor and downtrodden. What’s more, the things they build are ugly. Therefore, we must stop them at any cost.

Nobody seems to understand that they are shooting themselves in the foot by halting development—that they are thereby keeping housing scarce, keeping prices high, keeping people poor, and, ultimately, keeping people on the streets. They also don’t seem to understand that nobody is going to eliminate the supply gap by building a plethora of low-rise, low-rent housing units—assuming there were enough open space in which to do so, which there isn’t—because there’s no profit to be made in such an endeavor with the outrageous current price of land. No magic billionaire humanitarian fairy is going to float down from the clouds—where most of my neighbors’ heads seem to be—to rescue us with truckloads of free money. But, judging by the way they shape public policy, that’s precisely what Californians, and Bay Area residents in particular, seem to expect: a miracle.

And, at this point, that may be what it takes to put this place back on track. This is a city with areas regarded by some infectious disease experts as “more unsanitary than many of the dwellings in impoverished, developing countries”; a city with “contamination [that] rivals that found in slums of Brazil, Kenya, and India’s developing communities”; and a city that spends $30 million per year cleaning up discarded needles and feces from its public spaces. This is a city with the highest per capita homeless population in America; a city that refuses to prosecute that population for public defecation/urination and littering, and turns a blind eye to the epidemic of property crimes for which it is responsible. And it is a city with no realistic solutions on the horizon, and not a single pragmatic leader in office—how else might things be turned around? A bona fide act of God may indeed be required.

But this is also a city wherein God, and those who believe in Him, are openly ridiculed and excluded from civic discourse.

This is a city where, in 2009, a Catholic parish—and a notoriously liberal and pro-homosexual parish at that—was vandalized and spray-painted with swastikas after California passed Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman only.

This is a city that unanimously passed a resolution on April 4th, 2006 denouncing the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s directive to Catholic Charities not to place children for adoption with same-sex couples, calling it “hateful and discriminatory … insulting and callous, and show[ing] a level of insensitivity and ignorance which has seldom been encountered by this Board of Supervisors.” 

Furthermore, this is a city that flaunts its abandonment of traditional morality. Once a year, fully sanctioned by the local government, gay men openly engage in public sex acts as part of the “Pride Parade,” an event which is promoted as being family-friendly. A few months later, the city’s BDSM community gathers to publicly flog and flagellate each other at the Folsom Street Fair. Public sex is de rigueur in the City by the Bay.

Should we really be surprised to see so much of the city’s population living in such debased and demoralized conditions, when the city itself has so thoroughly shunned morality and common sense? 

Given San Francisco’s downward trajectory and crumbling social ethos, don’t expect to see thoughtful, reasonable solutions to these problems being generated locally any time soon. We are too busy parading our perversions, persecuting our Christians, and enacting important legislation like plastic straw bans and sugary drink taxes. The only thing you can really do for San Francisco is pray. Pray for us like we’re blithely headed for hell in a hand-basket—because, as far as I can tell, we absolutely are.

Respecting Russia: Only Fools Rush In

“Whoever will come to us with a sword, by a sword will perish.”

 – Aleksandr Nevsky, 13th-century Russian prince and saint of the Russian Orthodox Church

According to multiple news outlets (including The Daily Mail, RT, and The Huffington Post), NATO is amassing troops along the Russian border. The tension between the United States and Russia has not been this intense since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

By this point, we’ve all heard the sour grapes issuing from the Obama camp concerning Russia’s alleged electronic interference with our recent election. According to them, Russia is at least partially responsible for Mr. Trump’s forthcoming presidency.

But if Russia tried to hack the election for Mr. Trump’s benefit, its efforts fail to impress—Mrs. Clinton’s vote count outpaced Trump’s by a margin of three million. And if we’re expelling Russia’s diplomats because they hacked into some other facet of our national security apparatus, why haven’t we done the same to China’s diplomats?

Simply put, all of this hacking-accusation hoopla is a red-herring sideshow put on to distract, incite, and inflame the American public. Why is Obama actually stirring up a war with Russia? Who can explain the whys and wherefores of that man’s inexplicable choices? Precious little of what he has done over the course of his two terms has been logical or far-sighted.

Of true concern is not so much why this is happening, but what the consequences will likely be. And we have plenty of been-there, done-that testimony to reference if we wish to learn what happens to armies foolish enough to rush in to Russia.

*         *         *

The sagas of ill-fated invasions inscribed upon the pages of recent Russian history are impressively intimidating, and ought to give pause to anyone contemplating a military mash-up with the Muscovites.

 

 

First let’s consider Charles XII of Sweden’s 1708 endeavor. Charles XII’s military strategy relied upon the swift movement of armies over unexpected terrain. This initially served him well; he scored many early victories and rapidly moved deep into Russian territory. However, Charles was foiled, in large part, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Peter the Great; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, Peter merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of Russia, destroying anything the pursuing Swedish army might use to sustain itself, thereby decimating it. The Russian winter took care of the rest.

 

 

The next epic fail began on June 24, 1812 when little Napoleon crossed into enormous Russia. His goal was quick victory via massive onslaught. His strategy initially served him well; he scored many early victories, and rapidly moved deep into Russian territory. However, Napoleon was foiled, in large part, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Russian soldiers and civilians; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, Tsar Alexander I’s armies merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of Russia, destroying anything the pursuing French army might use to sustain itself, thereby effectively chipping away at it, as the French could not maintain their ridiculously long supply lines. An early winter more or less took care of the rest.

And, finally, we come to the most recent example—Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. It began on June 22, 1941; note the similarity to the date of Napoleon’s invasion. The parallels pile on from there.

 

 

Hitler’s goal was quick victory via massive onslaught. His strategy relied upon the swift movement of armies over unexpected terrain. This initially served him well; he scored many early victories, and rapidly moved deep into Soviet territory. However, Hitler was foiled, to a great degree, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Stalin’s armies; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, the Soviets merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of the USSR, destroying anything the pursuing German army might use to sustain itself, thereby effectively chipping away at it, as the Germans could not maintain their ridiculously long supply lines. An early winter helped take care of the rest.

 

 

If you’ve failed to see the pattern here, you’re clearly not the first. Although these are obviously oversimplifications of complex operations, they are accurate broad-strokes synopses, and even a child should be able to extract the moral of the overall story, which is something akin to: fool me once, shame on you, fool me repeatedly in the exact same way, shame, shame, shame on me.

It’s worth noting the exception to the rule—there has been one significant successful invasion of Russia, carried out by the Mongols nearly 800 years ago. However, if Obama is taking his cue from this isolated bit of history, he ought to step in front of a mirror and reassess his reflection; he resembles Genghis Khan about as much as Hillary Clinton resembles Mother Teresa.

Furthermore, one might argue that this example doesn’t really count, since a united Russia as such did not exist at the time. In fact, it could be argued that the consolidation and expansion of a defined Russian state was the key factor that eventually allowed for the reclamation of their sovereignty over not only their own territories, but several Mongol successor states to boot. It may have taken them 200 years to pull it off, but this only serves to illustrate my next point: Russian tenacity should not be underrated.

*         *         *

In one of my many former occupational lives, I was once an online English as a Second Language instructor. I had students scattered all over the globe, including several in Russia. Hands down, they worked harder, and progressed more quickly, than anyone anywhere else in the world.

The nature of the lessons readily engendered the formation of a personal relationship, and I got to know my pupils well. As a whole, my Russian students impressed me as an incredibly tough and determined bunch. Most of them had endured remarkable hardships; they were experts at stretching meager provisions into multiple meals, working long hours on little or no sleep, and cracking jokes in lieu of cracking up.

Alexey is a perfect example. When I first began working with him about five years ago, he was a penniless early twenty-something living on his parents’ couch. He had few legitimate prospects, but dreams the size of Siberia—he wanted to be a chef on a cruise ship so he could see the world. Over the course of the years I’ve known him, I’ve watched with wonder while he’s clawed and scratched his way out of poverty and into this precise occupation. He’s overcome impossible odds and repeated setbacks—obstacles and disappointments that would’ve caused every American I know to give up and walk away.

This kid lived in an uninsulated basement and worked sixteen-hour days at a job he despised for two years to pay his way through a degree program in Norway—a country in which he knew no one, and was profoundly lonely. Over the course of his studies, he was forced to drop out of his program not once, not twice, but three times due to circumstances outside his control, including illness and ultimately death in his family. Each time, he devised a way to resume his education. When he’d finally obtained his degree, he waited another two years for an opening in his field, toiling away in the meantime as a barista—a job well below his qualifications—in order to pay the bills.

But now he’s sailing around the world doing what he loves, and considers his long period of struggle to have been entirely worth it.

And this type of tenacity is the characteristic Russian trait everyone who invades that land forgets to take into account. When Russians really care about something—something like defending their homeland, for example—they will gladly suffer every form of deprivation and degradation in order to achieve their aim. Because suffering is nothing new to them—indeed, they’re old pros at it. You can bomb them, starve them, poison them, and beat them black and blue, and all of it will be in vain, because they’ll keep fighting until they come out on top.

 

Russian soldiers wave their flag, made from tablecloths, over the ruins of the Reichstag.

 

But don’t take my word for it. Hitler’s eastern-front officers—a group perhaps better qualified to speak on this subject than anyone else in modern history—made some far more relevant observations.

For example, in volume III of his Kriegstagebuch, General Halder said: “It is becoming ever clearer that we have underestimated the Russian colossus … [Their] divisions are certainly not armed and equipped in our sense of the words, and tactically they are often poorly led. But there they are. And when a dozen of them have been destroyed, then the Russians put up another dozen” (170).

In his The Third Reich at War, Evans writes that General Gotthard Heinrici “returned again and again in his letters [to his wife] to express his amazement at the Russians’ ‘astonishing strength to resist … Their units are all half-destroyed, but they just fill them again with new people and they attack again. How the Russians manage it is beyond me’” (199). Evans also quotes a letter from a German officer to his brother: “The Russians are defending themselves with a courage and tenacity that Dr. Goebbels characterizes as ‘animal’” (403).

But Field Marshal Fedor von Bock probably put it best, and most simply, when he stated in Zwischen Pflicht und Verweigerung: “The Russians are unbelievably tough!” (229)

 

 

*         *         *

So these are the people waiting on the other side of the border from our gathering NATO troops—troops that we say are being placed there in response to the buildup of Russian forces, which Russia describes as a response to the buildup of NATO forces.

Which side is “right?” Does it really matter when nuclear war looms as a legitimate possibility? In such a case, it would seem that what is truly right is the prevailing of cooler heads. Really, oughtn’t we to know better than to toy with worldwide annihilation?

Of course, Napoleon really ought to have known better, and certainly Hitler, too. Alas, they both seemed convinced of their own personal exceptionalism. One might argue that Mr. Obama suffers from similar delusions. Will Mr. Trump fall into the same trap? Only time will tell.

In the end, the overused, but never-disproven adage will almost certainly hold true yet again: Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.

 

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On Those Who Yearn to Bern What You’ve Earned

Bernie2

Yesterday I saw the poster pictured above in the rear window of a parked car. I live in San Francisco, so it is by no means the first pro-Bernie Sanders poster I have seen. It was, however, the first time I had seen this specific version. It made me feel as though my head were about to explode.

I’m a pretty analytical person, and when I encounter things that don’t compute, it more or less drives me bonkers. This poster is a magnificent magilla of nonsensical sloganeering. It’s a simple enough message; it asks us to believe that voting for Sanders will “end inequality.” How is that absurd, you ask? Let me count the ways!

Let’s begin with the obvious, face-value logical fallacy. Strictly speaking, the poster should say: “Elect Bernie to End Inequality.” Simply handing in a ballot cannot “end inequality” in and of itself.

You’re probably thinking, “Pish posh, she’s just getting hung up on semantics.” Perhaps, but this is not the only problem with the poster. It makes several assumptions, some of which are quite far-fetched: 1). inequality exists, 2). it is problematic, 3). it can be solved, and 4). a politician/the government should solve it.

The poster does not specify which flavor of inequality Bernie Sanders will supposedly abolish, but his main campaign message seems to revolve around “income inequality,” so let’s assume this is the arena in which The Bern proposes to demonstrate his messianic powers.

Dictionary.com gives two particularly relevant definitions of “inequality”: “1). the condition of being unequal; lack of equality; disparity,” and: “4). injustice; partiality.” Obviously, not everyone in this country makes the same amount of money; in that sense, most people would agree that the first definition is fitting vis-a-vis “income inequality.”

However, the people who do the most complaining about income inequality act as though definition number 4 is most appropriate–as though the fact that we are all paid differing wages is due to some unjust aspect of our culture or political system.

But is that really the case? To answer that question, let us compare two vastly different jobs: that of a fast-food drive-thru cashier and a vice president at a major oil company. I’m choosing these jobs because I have an immediate family member working in each position, and I’m familiar with what they do.

The oil company VP went to university (a state school) on a scholarship. He kept his grades up the whole way through, and started working for the oil company as an entry-level accountant after graduation. He worked his way up from the bottom of the ladder–he put in 25 years of loyal service to the same company before he was promoted to vice president. During his tenure as VP, he has managed multi-billion dollar international projects and teams of employees numbering in the thousands.

The fast-food cashier never finished high school, although she did get her GED. She is over 50, and the only job she has had outside of fast food was truck driving. She has no special training or post high school education–her primary assets are her remarkable warmth and kindness, lovable personality, and sincere faith.

The VP invested many years in building up his education and on-the-job experience to get where he is today. The cashier has never really demonstrated any ambition to get further “ahead” than where she already is. The oil company exec works 60+ hour weeks, and often has to travel internationally, which takes him away from his family. The fast food employee works the same shift every day, and a set 35 hours per week, every week. The VP has a lot more responsibility on his shoulders than the cashier–if he makes a mistake, thousands of employees could be negatively affected, and millions of dollars lost; if the cashier makes a mistake, it is unlikely to make more than a few dollars’ difference to a handful of people, tops. Furthermore, oil is a commodity that, like it or not, is essential to our current way of life; fast food, on the other hand, is in no way necessary to our existence–indeed, one could easily argue that we’d all be better off without it.

Now, can you honestly argue that these two people deserve the same salary? How exactly would this work? Do we pay the VP fast food wages? Or the cashier executive wages? Do we split the difference?

If executives made the same salary as fast food workers, there would be no incentive for them to get the training required to become executives in the first place. And why on earth would they take on the increased risk of heart disease and other stress-related ailments if there weren’t an equivalent reward? No, if they’re going to earn fast-food money, they will only be willing to take on fast-food responsibilities. That’s how these things work. You generally get what you pay for–and, conversely, you give in proportion to your compensation. Even Uncle Joe Stalin understood this–he made sure skilled workers were paid more than their unskilled counterparts.

So why not raise the wages of fast food workers? Ah, this is one of my favorites. It’s a “solution” so universally beloved, and about which complete ignorance almost universally prevails, even though there is a mountain of evidence demonstrating the ill effects of hiking the minimum wage, and every Economics 101 course explains in simple English why this strategy will always fail. Let’s walk through the steps.

The supply and demand lines represent the labor market–the supply of workers and employers’ demand for them. They intersect at the equilibrium wage (W0), which is determined by market forces. At the higher minimum wage (W1), supply and demand no longer intersect; the demand for workers shrinks, and the number of job-seekers rises. The higher the minimum wage is, the greater the gap between labor supply (L1) and labor demand (L2). The gap between the two represents the unemployed.

Firstly, when the cost of workers, especially unskilled workers, goes up, demand decreases, and supply increases. In other words, when our fast-food cashier suddenly costs $15/hr, rather than $7.25/hr, her employer is going to look for ways to either replace her with a machine, reduce overall staff levels and have fewer employees do more work, or some combination thereof. The boss’s labor budget doesn’t double just because the minimum wage doubled. He or she will have to do more with less. People will lose their jobs, and/or full-time workers will be reduced to part-time status. Period. And the businesses that will be hardest hit are the small, local, family-owned businesses, not the major chains.

If a business can’t get by with half the number of staff or labor hours (and most can’t), they must raise their prices to accommodate the increase in the cost of production. Because all sorts of businesses rely on minimum wage employees at some point in the chain of production and distribution, prices of just about everything wind up going up right along with the minimum wage. This means that, for the minimum-wage workers who were lucky enough to keep their jobs, the wage increase doesn’t end up being an increase in real income, because the cost of living rises in lock-step with the increase in the minimum wage. So they may have more money after the wage hike, but it doesn’t go as far as it did before.

And if you don’t believe me, just look at what’s happened in Seattle since they passed their minimum wage hike. They’ve seen price increases, 15% surcharges at restaurants to cover increased labor costs, increased unemployment, and business closures. Furthermore, since everything costs more, the wage increase hasn’t been sufficient to allow welfare recipients to get by without government assistance, but it has made their incomes too high for them to qualify for help–so they are asking to work fewer hours in order to maintain their aid.

Clearly, it makes no sense to artificially raise the cashier’s wages. In fact, it would be shooting her in the foot. So maybe we should just take some of the money that the VP has earned through hard work and perseverance, and hand it over to the cashier, who has made no effort to acquire more skills to get a better job. Is that just? Sounds an awful lot like criminal theft to me.

And that’s the problem with the direct re-distribution of wealth. It commits a wrong (theft of property from its rightful owners–a violation of the 7th Commandment) in an attempt to achieve a virtuous end (alleviating poverty). As The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just … An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (1753, 9).

So yes, income inequality does exist, but I’m not so sure it’s a problem that needs solving–by the government or anybody else. Should we feed the hungry? Yes, indubitably. Clothe the naked? Care for the sick? Shelter the homeless? Obviously we should do all of these. But with stolen funds? Should we punish the rich for being successful and give away their stuff to people who have less stuff, just so they can acquire more stuff? Why?

Jesus taught us that we should detach ourselves from worldly possessions–the desire to redistribute wealth seems to me to be the diametrical opposite of this teaching. It betrays a worldview that places ownership of material things and the acquisition of possessions ahead of what is actually important–our spiritual growth. What the cashier needs, and wants most, is not a flat-screen TV or a nicer car–she wants to be closer to God. So, in that sense, she has everything she needs already. Giving her more “wealth” is irrelevant.

Why can’t we simply be content to be different, and accept that, in reality, we are not equal anywhere but in the eyes of God–which, after all, is the only place that really matters? Some of us are better singers, some more beautiful, others faster runners, a few are mind-bogglingly intelligent, and, yes, some have skills or circumstances that have allowed them to accumulate more wealth than others. Why is that no longer okay? What is the intrinsic evil in our simply being different from one another? And why are the very people who claim to celebrate diversity in the loudest and most insistent fashion trying the hardest to erase the colorful palette of human variation in favor of a drab gray conformity, all in the name of “equality?”

As for me, I’ll prefer the bright, beautiful, divinely created, infinite variety of human “inequality” to the artificially imposed monochromatic dictatorship of “equality” any time, anywhere. And that’s why I will never vote for the likes of I’ll-Bern-What-You’ve-Earned Sanders, or any of his ilk.

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