Mountain Snail

Stuff Ballard Wrote

Fill in the swamp!

Asheville Daily Planet, October 26, 2020

My favorite comic strip in the early 1950s was Pogo Possum, who lived with other magical characters in the Okefenokee Swamp.  I can still recite some of the dialogues.

My mother grew up just north of the Okefenokee.

So I have some background on swamps – the real, literal kind, anyway.  When the word is used as a metaphor, then “swamp” gets murky.

Ronald Reagan had a great one-liner: “Sometimes, when you are up to your elbows in alligators, it is hard to remember your original objective was to drain the swamp.”

It’s a good guess that his swamp was bloated government bureaucracy.  Washington alligators defend their homeland.

Ross Perot came along in 1992, railing against “pointy-headed bureaucrats” in Washington and promising to “throw their briefcases in the Potomac River.”  And I don’t doubt he would have shuffled the D.C. deck.  I did a fair bit of business with his buttoned-down, heel-clicking company in the 1980s. 

Donald Trump led his audiences in chants of “Drain the Swamp” in 2016, but I don’t think he thought much about the meaning.  I read that a campaign person suggested it to him.

And you’ve got to wonder what the crowds themselves thought as they chanted.  I think most outside observers heard “swamp” as equal to “corruption.”  He was promising war on lobbying and greed.  But many people supported Trump in 2016 hoping that a businessman would bring discipline to government.  Maybe they heard an echo of Reagan.

But in office, Trump took on neither graft nor runaway bureaucracy.  Size of government, measured by number of employees and by money spent, grew through 2019, before the pandemic. 

And corruption?  We all smelled the rot of Trump’s Cabinet officials as they left.  But they didn’t take the smell of corruption with them.  The stench still hung over the Oval Office.  Forbes Magazine senior editor Dan Alexander wrote a multi-part series this past August and September on the vast flow of donor cash from Trump’s reelection campaign to The Trump Organization – only one of the Trump family’s many, many hustles.    

The swamp stinks on.

But it’s a Trump Swamp now.  The old corruption and swollen bureaucracies are there, yes.  But now the U.S. government is his personal property, with all its resources and personnel, to be used for his own benefit.  Atlantic Magazine’s George Packer wrote how Trump has taken advantage of “the flaw in the brilliant design of the Framers” – that the government is composed of human beings, and human beings can be corrupted, cowed and crushed.

If he is reelected, centuries of American uniqueness will be melted into Trump’s image.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, if elected, will work to rebuild what has been cast down.  Congress will be restored as coequal branch of government.  Interference in matters of Justice will stop.  There will be leadership from the top on COVID-19.  International friends will be embraced and enemies marked.  America will lead in the world.  And oh yes, the president will act presidential.   

If Biden wins, he will have no trouble recruiting a towering Cabinet.  America’s best will leap to his cause, including many
Republicans.  I think of Henry Knox, FDR’s wartime Navy Secretary, who had been GOP nominee for vice-president in 1936.  He explained joining FDR this way: “I am an American first, and a Republican afterward!”  Biden will have close, wise advisers.  That’s what all of us would do in his place, I think.

My father was a civil engineer on the construction of Tampa’s Davis Island in the 1920s.  The project started with three swampy “keys” that were filled in – filled in, not drained.  I like “Fill in the Swamp” as a slogan, better than “Drain the Swamp.”  It’s a positive metaphor.  It says replace muck with merit.  Yes, we can replace!

Including, especially, this crowd:

(hand-made sign) Senators should have to wear uniforms like Nascar drivers so we can tell who their corporate sponsors are

Lead us to happiness!

Asheville Daily Planet, October 15 2020

“The left wants to…take us into socialism.  [They] will…close the Church down in many places.  We see right now because of COVID, the government trying to tell the Church that they cannot meet.”

This was Franklin Graham earlier this year.  Who is the “left” he’s warning about?  Who?  The Democratic Party in the United States, people who share most of his values. 

James Dobson goes farther: “Socialism, at its core, is a secular framework that installs government as ‘god.’  It has no use for faith, freedom, or the will of the people.”

This is all in the context of politics, Trump versus Biden.  Graham said: “I am just asking that God would spare this country, for another four years, to give us a little bit more time to do the work before the storm hits.”

Hold it.  Is there anything in Joe Biden’s past or present that hints he will shut down churches?  Of course not.  He’s a devout Christian.    

So why this fierce attack on him?  Nobody can judge another man’s mind and motives.  But well, it sure looks like a scare tactic to get evangelicals to the polls.  And I also feel a niggle that these men might cherish  being near the president. 

The gloomiest forecast I’ve seen is from Graham: Our country is deteriorating.  We are in a nosedive.  If God doesn’t save us, there is no hope.”

I can understand if he’s thinking politically.  But not spiritually.   American culture is certainly becoming more secular.  It is.  But at the same time, more and more, Americans are incorporating into their lives, from many sources, the powerful ideas that C.S. Lewis called “the sole source of all value judgments.” 

I look around me, at Christians and non-Christians, and I see improvement – my children’s generation over mine.  We’ve learned about good parenting.  It’s not unusual when minorities succeed in every field of endeavor.  We don’t tolerate sexual harassment.  

Columnist David Brooks wrote on this topic: “The decline in family violence is part of a whole web of positive, mutually reinforcing social trends. To put it in old-fashioned terms, America is becoming more virtuous. Americans today hurt each other less….They are more likely to resist selfish and shortsighted impulses….A result is an improvement in social order across a range of behaviors.” 

And socialism?  Socialism is not, as many evangelical leaders teach, the enemy of Christianity.  The Dobsons of America use the word “socialism” as a bin to hold all the frightful things they disapprove of.  It’s their private brand of socialism.    

Honestly or deceptively, they seem to confuse socialism with Twentieth-Century communism, which did persecute Christians.  Socialism is a system of policies – how government taxes (more) and spends (providing support to citizens).

Earlier this year, Forbes Magazine reported a study that ranked 156 countries on their level of “happiness,” based on how their citizens feel.  In top-ranked countries – Finland, Switzerland and Australia, for example – socialism and capitalism coexist and complement each other.  None is communist.    The U.S. is ranked 18th.

Previous studies explained good happiness rankings as “peace of mind that people experience from government support.”  To me, that’s something to be desired.

The study cited in Forbes included pandemic relevance: “A high-trust society quite naturally looks for and finds cooperative ways to work together to repair the damage and rebuild better lives. This has led sometimes to surprising increases in happiness in the wake of what might otherwise seem to be…the face of disasters.  People are pleasantly surprised by the willingness of their neighbors and their institutions to work in harness to help each other.  This delivers a heightened sense of belonging, and pride in what they have been able to achieve.”

A high-trust society.  Let that sink in.  It’s exactly what we don’t have.  And much of our discord comes from our leaders, political and spiritual, who zealously encourage distrust of those with differing views.  It’s clear, I think, that America has performed poorly in the pandemic because we don’t “work in harness” with one another.

The days ahead will test us.  May we perform well.!

Loving our country

News-Record & Sentinel, September 30, 2020

This column won’t be an instant replay of Donald Trump lies.  Those volumes are kept by professionals.  No, this is more of a prophecy – about where Trump’s lies can take us.

I’ve just read a little book, “On Tyranny,” by Tim Snyder, a Yale guy who lived most of his working life in Europe, studying how 20th-Century dictators got power.  It’s a guidebook for people living in free countries whose democracies are at risk.  Like the United States of America in the year 2020. 

One chapter, titled “Believe in truth,” jumps off the page at us.  A tyrant, Snyder says, begins with “open hostility to what can be verified,” presenting his own fabrications as truth.  His charisma draws followers, and his words, mostly untrue, become words with power, like words of an ancient oracle.  His followers are now believers.  The road to tyranny is not a slippery slope; it’s a leap of faith.  Yes, faith.

The world sees Donald Trump simply as a compulsive liar.  And well, it’s hard to argue with them when we see him in Michigan saying, “We built you a lot of car plants, Michigan,” when in fact not one plant has been built during his administration.  That’s compulsive.  Auto workers know what’s built and not built.

From the beginning of his political ambition, if not all his life, Trump has given no value to truth over untruth.  In 2016, nonpartisan PolitiFact found that 60 percent of Trump’s claims in the campaign  were either “False” or “Pants on Fire.”  If they included “Mostly False” claims in the data, it hit 78 percent.  Last month he squeezed four lies into one sentence on Twitter.   

But his words, remember, are held by some as the words of an oracle.  Snyder calls it “abandonment of reason.”  When that happens, he says, “evidence is irrelevant.”   

There’s magical thinking at play here.  In the 2016 campaign, Trump promised a magnificent border wall that Mexico would pay for.  It didn’t happen, of course.  Oops, misstatement.  But he didn’t learn.  This past August in New Hampshire, he said: “We’ve already built 300 miles of border wall, and we’re heading for 10 new miles every single week, and the wall will soon be completed.”

It’s a lie of course, a silly, unprotected lie.  Last December, the acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection stated (Wikipedia) that “by May 2020, only 16 miles out of 194 miles of wall constructed under the Trump administration was new fencing; the remainder was replacement for outdated or dilapidated sections.”

That’s worse than the Michigan auto plants. 

Last October, Trump claimed that China would be buying billions in American farm products.  He said, “I suggest farmers…immediately buy more land” to meet demand.  I hope nobody did. 

And you’d think time would expire on the “terrific” healthcare plan he would roll out “very soon.”

When his followers believe these obvious lies – or don’t care if his claims are truth or nonsense – then they have already submitted to his tyranny.  They’re there.  Political power to make it real is just a formality. 

Will it happen?  Yes…if.  

Here’s my prophecy:  If Donald Trump is reelected, America will be a democracy in name only. 

I’m not saying it might happen.  I’m not saying Trump will try to become a dictator.  I’m saying he will in fact have total power.

He’s filled the government with amateurs who do his will.  The mechanism of the GOP is his.  He has shown no reluctance to use federal troops.  Have no doubt:  he’s poised to really do it.

The courts?  Paper tiger.

Protests?  Yeah, I’ll protest.  They protested in Turkey, too.

The military?  Will they or won’t they…do what?

Us?  What can we do?  Non-reelect him.  After that, at least, his shenanigans will be illegal.  And how we respond will be just.

Buy a lie, get ugly change

Asheville Daily Planet, October 1, 2020

This column won’t be an instant replay of Donald Trump lies.  Those volumes are kept by professionals.  No, this is more of a prophecy – about where Trump’s lies can take us.

I’ve just read a little book, “On Tyranny,” by Tim Snyder, a Yale guy who lived most of his working life in Europe, studying how 20th-Century dictators got power.  It’s a guidebook for people living in free countries whose democracies are at risk.  Like the United States of America in the year 2020. 

One chapter, titled “Believe in truth,” jumps off the page at us.  A tyrant, Snyder says, begins with “open hostility to what can be verified,” presenting his own fabrications as truth.  His charisma draws followers, and his words, mostly untrue, become words with power, like words of an ancient oracle.  His followers are now believers.  The road to tyranny is not a slippery slope; it’s a leap of faith.  Yes, faith.

The world sees Donald Trump simply as a compulsive liar.  And well, it’s hard to argue with them when we see him in Michigan saying, “We built you a lot of car plants, Michigan,” when in fact not one plant has been built during his administration.  That’s compulsive.  Auto workers know what’s built and not built.

From the beginning of his political ambition, if not all his life, Trump has given no value to truth over untruth.  In 2016, nonpartisan PolitiFact found that 60 percent of Trump’s claims in the campaign  were either “False” or “Pants on Fire.”  If they included “Mostly False” claims in the data, it hit 78 percent.  Last month he squeezed four lies into one sentence on Twitter.   

But his words, remember, are held by some as the words of an oracle.  Snyder calls it “abandonment of reason.”  When that happens, he says, “evidence is irrelevant.”   

There’s magical thinking at play here.  In the 2016 campaign, Trump promised a magnificent border wall that Mexico would pay for.  It didn’t happen, of course.  Oops, misstatement.  But he didn’t learn.  This past August in New Hampshire, he said: “We’ve already built 300 miles of border wall, and we’re heading for 10 new miles every single week, and the wall will soon be completed.”

It’s a lie of course, a silly, unprotected lie.  Last December, the acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection stated (Wikipedia) that “by May 2020, only 16 miles out of 194 miles of wall constructed under the Trump administration was new fencing; the remainder was replacement for outdated or dilapidated sections.”

That’s worse than the Michigan auto plants. 

Last October, Trump claimed that China would be buying billions in American farm products.  He said, “I suggest farmers…immediately buy more land” to meet demand.  I hope nobody did. 

And you’d think time would expire on the “terrific” healthcare plan he would roll out “very soon.”

When his followers believe these obvious lies – or don’t care if his claims are truth or nonsense – then they have already submitted to his tyranny.  They’re there.  Political power to make it real is just a formality. 

Will it happen?  Yes…if.  

Here’s my prophecy:  If Donald Trump is reelected, America will be a democracy in name only. 

I’m not saying it might happen.  I’m not saying Trump will try to become a dictator.  I’m saying he will in fact have total power.

He’s filled the government with amateurs who do his will.  The mechanism of the GOP is his.  He has shown no reluctance to use federal troops.  Have no doubt:  he’s poised to really do it.

The courts?  Paper tiger.

Protests?  Yeah, I’ll protest.  They protested in Turkey, too.

The military?  Will they or won’t they…do what?

Us?  What can we do?  Non-reelect him.  After that, at least, his shenanigans will be illegal.  And how we respond will be just.

No four-corners, Joe

Citizen-Times letter, September 2020

To the editor:

I was a big Georgetown basketball fan through the ‘80s and ‘90s.  John Thompson was a great coach, but he drove me crazy when he’d take the team to four-corners when they had a lead toward the end.  They’d turn the ball over, and all too often, lose.

What makes me think of that?  The 2020 Democratic presidential campaign.  Biden thinks to go to Kenosha “if he can do it safely.”  What?  Safely?  Thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, and hundreds protest.  Run and gun, Joe.  Daily VP briefings with, “A-B-C, this is what we stand for!”  Over and over.  Calling his lies, lies and his ignorance, ignorance.  Do Swiftboat-style commercials with generals and former insiders, using the awful truth with power. 

Now is the time.  Don’t let them get momentum.  Exploit every mistake.  Press, press, press.   

If they win, everybody loses.  Everybody.  Even Trump supporters.

Amen, Alan Jones

News-Record & Sentinel, September 2020

Ray Rapp was almost nonpartisan in the way he represented us in Raleigh.  He served.  Then in 2012, he was ambushed with slick, misleading mailbox flyers just before the election, and we got ideological Michelle Presnell for eight years.

Now her time’s up.  She’s stepping down, and Madison County has a chance to reset.

Alan Jones is the name to remember – now as we talk to friends and when we vote.  His working life has been spent supporting working people and their families.  While Presnell operated without regard for boards of county commissioners, school boards and chambers of commerce, Alan Jones will pitch in locally on everything to do with employment and education.  While Presnell spoke and wrote how she’s “packin’” a sidearm, Alan Jones quietly supports Second Amendment rights.  It’s doubtful Presnell ever held a town hall in Madison County; Alan Jones will be fully accessible. 

Presnell joined a really bad crowd in Raleigh, and yes, she really joined.  She’s been a cog in the grimy wheel of the Republican General Assembly that made N.C. “ground zero for voter suppression.”  And favoring the rich over schools.  And much more.

The GOP took power in 2011, and their first act was to make sure they would stay in power for a decade.  They drew political district boundaries such that election outcomes are foregone conclusions.  One court that slapped them down wrote: “The effect of these carefully crafted partisan maps is that…the Republican Party will control a majority of both chambers of the General Assembly.” 

This is a census year, so next year the General Assembly redraws district boundaries.  Republicans must not be in power to rig elections for another decade.

The Democratic Party is committed to redistricting by a nonpartisan commission.  If N.C. is to have fair elections, Democrats must control at least one chamber of the General Assembly.

For that to happen, we must unseat six Republicans in the state House, an uphill climb.  If we can beat the Republican’s weak candidate in our District 118, that will be huge, huge, huge.   

Alan Jones will be spectacular in Raleigh, beginning with redistricting.

“We should be drawing our political district lines in a fair, impartial, and nonpartisan manner,” he wrote.  “That is how our democracy is supposed to work. Gerrymandering districts keeps voters from holding their representatives accountable….That’s why I support a nonpartisan redistricting committee.”

Amen, Alan Jones.

‘You just got a lot richer’

Asheville daily planet, September 2020

When the history of the Donald Trump era is written – beginning this Thanksgiving, we hope – I think his tweets will be yawn material.  They will be seen as each day’s noise. 

The Trump saying that will best summarize his presidency happened on Christmas Eve, 2017, at his Mar-a-Lago complex.  With rich friends around him, he touted the newly passed tax overhaul.

“You all just got a lot richer,” he said

He wasn’t lying.  Indeed, the bill played favorites toward wealthy individuals and corporations.  It could only have been designed by lobbyists and tax lawyers.

Six days after the 2016 election, Republican speechwriter David Frum made two predictions.  He wrote: “Unlike his analogues in Poland/Hungary/Turkey, I don’t imagine that Donald Trump will immediately set out to build an authoritarian state.  I expect his first priority will be to use the presidency massively to enrich himself.”

Bingo.  The president said that tax cuts for corporations would result in jobs.  Press secretary Sarah Sanders said at the time, “More than 70 percent of this [tax cut] will be returned to workers.”  The Republican Congress named the bill, “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”

They were all lying.  Workers were a cynical smokescreen.     

A year after the tax bill took effect, NBC News looked back: ”Companies have instead used the extra cash to spend billions of dollars buying back their own stock, boosting the value of shares held by investors….Over the past year, S&P 500 companies have given their shareholders a record $1 trillion in the form of buybacks and dividends.”

“Some companies did use part of the tax cut to give their employees a one-time cash bonus,” NBC continued, “allowing [the companies] to benefit workers without raising the company’s fixed costs. However, employees pay a higher tax on bonuses as supplemental income.”

“Jobs Act?”  In name only.

But what about us?  Snopes.com fact-checked Trump’s middle-class claim: “Eighty-seven million households with incomes under $200,000 a year will see their tax burdens increase by 2027.”

And last month, Newsweek Magazine reported:  “The Trump administration’s deficit-bloating package of tax cuts passed by Congress in 2017 led the following year to the 400 wealthiest families in America—all of them with a net worth in the billions of dollars—paying a lower tax rate than the bottom 50 percent of households.”

Ya gotta love these guys.  Right out in the open.  But then, self-interest is part of Trump’s persona that we take for granted. 

But hear me, folks.  If Trump is reelected, we ain’t seen nutin’ yet.

I was living in the Philippines during the Ferdinand Marcos era.  His two elected terms were OK.  But just before his second term expired, he declared martial law.  And In his 14 years as dictator, he stashed untold billions all over the world.

Here’s an anecdote from The Guardian newspaper: “This [activity after martial law] was no longer just about kickbacks. Marcos started to steal whole companies, using the crude tactics of a gangster.  He wanted the nation’s electricity company, Meralco, owned b Eugenio Lopez, patriarch of one of the families who had run the country for centuries. He had Lopez’s son charged with plotting to assassinate him, which carried the death penalty. The old oligarch handed over his company for $220 (it was worth $400M).”

The United States has an election scheduled for November.  All things being equal, Trump is likely to lose.  But all things are not equal. 

Trump said last March, “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.” 

Whether he has these powers or not, he thinks he does, or wants them.  And that can be enough.  If he prevails, he could make Marcos look like a rookie.

It’s up to us, folks.  Trump has to be beaten in November so bad there will be no doubt that the American people want honesty and love in the White House, not greed.

Vote him out.  And again I say, vote!

America is America! (Ofswich)

News-Record & Sentinel, August 2020

Professor Ofswich is a campus curiosity.  Students call him “Doctor Offsides” for his (very funny) letters to the college newspaper mocking collegiate sports.  He lives alone with his mutt dog, Gruesome.  He has no friends, wants none and recognizes no professional colleagues.

Ofswich is a world-renowned authority on John Locke, particularly how his ideas of government by the people often lose out to dictators.  But for all his expertise in government theory, he hates politics, which he calls “freedom’s fatal flaw.”  He does steal Ronald Reagan jokes, though, especially the one about the three-legged chicken.

In 2016, Ofswiche happened upon Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the GOP convention.  Trump was saying, “When I take the oath of office, next year, I will restore law and order to our country. Believe me!”  Ofswich snorted, “Law enforcement in America is local, you idiot!”  But then a thought made him smile: What if Trump really is ignorant?  What if he actually thinks he can do unconstitutional stuff as president?”      

The prospect delighted him.  Ofswich, you see, has always been more academic than patriotic.  When Trump won, he sent two 8×10 photographs to Trump Tower.  On one he wrote: “Benito Mussolini speaking to adoring crowds.”  The other was the iconic shot of Mussolini hanging upside down from a gas station, a hostile mob nearby.  Ofswich wrote on this one: “Mussolini with a different crowd.”  The return address was his.  He set his table for coffee with the FBI.

Since then, he’s watched Trump with interest – first, for entertainment but then, to his surprise, as an American.  After Trump’s acquittal in the Senate, Ofswich mused to his dog: “We both know the man’s a child and a coward – not the stuff of successful dictators.  But there he is, running a Washington puppet show.”     

Last month, he saw federal troops in city streets and the U.S. Postal Service crippled to muddle the election and set up a ‘national emergency.’  Ofswich stroked his beard.

“Gruesome,” he said, “Trump wants to be Putin, but he doesn’t have Putin’s discipline and intellect.  He’s the executive who can’t execute.  It’s all coming down to this:  Trump is Trump.  But America is America.”

Gruesome seemed surprised at his patriotism.  He wagged his tail. 

“It’s Thomas Paine time, old boy,” he said, “and I’m in.  After Trump, we’ll fix the Founding Fathers’ excessive trust in human nature.”  He was visibly excited.

Beware the red invasion!

Asheville Daily Planet, August 15 2020

I was half-listening to local TV news when Rex Hodge came on:  “Fire ants are making their mark in the Great Smokies, in national forests…anywhere the soil is disturbed and there’s sun.”

My hands trembled.  My breathing changed.  I was in a PTSD flashback.

The scene was my side yard in Dallas many years ago.  I was looking down benignly on a brand-new ant mound.  I’d always appreciated ants.  They’re solid citizens.  And I enjoyed watching the bumbling stragglers walk the length of pencils on my desk. 

Hodge was gone, but my fists still clenched as I remembered.  My indulgence let that beady-eyed horde gain a foothold – no, a beachhead – outside my house.  Soon I counted 13 mounds.  And then they came inside.  Their elites, it seems, live on protein – which includes, for example, the protein found in dirty clothes.  Peace with ants outside, ok; getting stung in my bathroom closet, no sir..

I went to a garden supply store, where I was assured that poison bait was best.  Worker ants, they said, would take the poison to the queen.  He was flippant, like the queen’s personal taster was on the payroll.

He left out a few details.  The granules must fall so softly that the workers just happen upon them: “Hark!  What’s this marvelous new food so near?  We must take it to the queen!” 

The truth is this: While the ordinary ant is said to have an unmeasurable IQ, the fire ant – which practices absolute post-invasion genocide on other ants – is more cunning still.  For one thing, they link their nests with tunnels, so when they become irritated by such as poison bait littering about, the workers pick up the queen and her brood and move them.  Then next morning, the guerillas have opened a new base.  I must have poisoned 30 hills, and I don’t think the body count even reached one queen.  And oh yes, most nests have multiple queens.

Another truth:  You can’t win.  The fire ant, you see, has an amazing sex life.  They mate 10 months out of the year, whereas ordinary ants mate only 1-2 months a year.  And they mate in the air, so the female can pick her next home anywhere, even in areas previously declared as safe. 

Fire ants can move up to 30 miles a year on their own and farther when aided by loads of nursery stock.  They’ve hopped to California that way.

A University of Florida insect pathologist said: “The thing people in this country have to learn is that they’re going to have to learn to live with the fire ant….We couldn’t eradicate this thing with an atomic bomb.”

My flashback replayed the day I abandoned civilized warfare.  I was kneeling in a flower bed when dozens of ants struck at once.  My dark side suggested gasoline, and millions of them went up in flames (no exaggeration since as many as 250,00 live in each hill).  But I knew I wasn’t fighting to win.  I knew by now it was an eye for an eye.

The fire ant is no ordinary adversary.  There are just too many of them, and they are organized and tireless and smart.

And fearless.  Their unchanging assignment is aggression.  Every day is D-Day.  And they aren’t sneaky about it, either.  Insects are supposed to hide out by day and do their mischief by night.  They’re suppose to cower on the underside of leaves, eat floors from below and scurry about in dark kitchens.  Insects aren’t supposed to attack a barefoot boy on his lawn in broad daylight.

They grip the skin in their jaws, and unlike other ants, they thrust their stingers deep and inject their painful venom for up to 25 seconds.  This unusual poison prevents white blood cells from reaching the sting, leading to local infection and burning pustules. 

Ultimately, I adopted a simple tactic:  keep them moving.  Don’t let them settle in and start new colonies.  I drove sticks into the openings, the ants were annoyed and moved on. 

Moved on where?  Well, to my neighbor’s yard, I suppose.

‘Socialism’ is just a word

News-Record & Sentinel, 8/2020

Back in April, one of the signs at an anti-lockdown protest read:  “Social Distancing Is Communism.” 

To get what the sign means, it helps to understand how words are used as weapons.

This Opinion page carried a letter recently that used the word “Socialist” eight times; for example: “Where is the voice crying in the wilderness to lead us from evil-doing Socialists?”  All eight warn of bad things happening today, and Socialism gets some blame.

Here I want to introduce a man who died in 1862, a Presbyterian preacher named James Henry Thornwell – a powerful advocate for slavery and the Confederacy.  He wrote:

“The parties in the [Civil War] are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders.  They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.…The world is the battleground – Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity at stake.”

Both our letter-writer and Thornwell used “Socialists” to denounce their enemies.  In Thornwell’s time, Socialism was a social change movement, in favor of working men.  They were radical (similar to Red Republicans and Jacobins in France).  And Socialism did have an atheistic twist.  But Thornwell’s enemy, the United States, was neither radical nor atheist.   Socialism was for him just a handy weapon.    

Today, many people still think of Socialism as the Marxist atheism of the Cold War.  But in fact, Socialism has evolved so that almost all western countries have Socialist governments or active Socialist political parties.  Socialism now is more like “government involved in capitalism.” 

It seems remarkable that Thornwell and our letter-writer, 160 years apart, both used the same attack word – until, that is, you examine what the two men have in common.

I’m going to take a leap here and say that both men wrote in reaction to unwanted change.  In other words, they’re conservatives.  The Confederacy’s whole purpose was to keep the status quo.  And our letter-writer warns us about specific changes happening among us today. 

Southerners, Thornwell argues, are “friends of order.”  The North was chaotic with its immigrants, railroad-building and factories.  Conservatives like what’s always been.

To me, the one place where weaponizing Socialism actually does harm is “Socialized medicine.”  It keeps people from supporting universal healthcare.  Just like Social Security changed our lives for the better, Healthcare Security would do the same.  Stigmatizing it as Socialist is cruel.

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