Blow, Cohen and Krugman

In “On Guns, Fear Is Winning” Mr. Blow says the latest mass shooting should prod Americans into action, and not further into a kind of numbness.  Mr. Cohen considers “Rhodes and the Balanced Life” and says the fury of attempts to draw neat ethno-national-religious lines is matched only by its futility.  Prof. Krugman, in “Enemies of the Sun,” says the defenders of Old Energy try their best to ignore technologies which are increasingly viable.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

An exasperated — and frustrated — President Obama said of the gun massacre last week in Oregon:

“Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We have become numb to this.”

Obama continued:

“What’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere, will comment and say ‘Obama politicized this issue.’ Well this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.”

And as if on cue, leading Republican candidates came out against more gun restrictions.

Speaking Friday in South Carolina, Jeb Bush resisted calls for greater gun restrictions, saying: “We’re in a difficult time in our country and I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this. I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else. It’s just very sad to see.”

Bush continued: “But I resist the notion — and I had this challenge as governor — because we had — look, stuff happens, there’s always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”

Stuff happens? Really? That stuff is the continued gun slaughter of Americans by other Americans. This “stuff” is a scourge.

But Obama is right: We have grown numb to this scourge, and even when politicians politicize gun violence, Washington can’t seem to muster the political will to make even the most modest changes to our federal gun laws.

This has to change. We have to start the process of curtailing our gun culture, and I don’t say that as an anti-gun absolutist, but as a person who grew up around guns, and even owned a gun.

When I was growing up in the rural South, boys had rifles. There was nothing odd about it. Every boy in wood shop made a gun rack.

A rifle wasn’t a weapon as much as a tool. People hunted. They raised and slaughtered food animals. Rifles were used to keep the snakes out of the grass and the vermin out of the garden (though surely there must have been more humane ways to do this). They were poor folks’s fireworks on special occasions like New Year’s.

And they were a guard against intruders — though those intruders were more an idea than a reality in those parts — who might threaten life or property. Law enforcement officials were scarce, and 911 was nonexistent.

But that seems to me another time and place. There didn’t exist the fear and paranoia that grips so many now when it comes to gun ownership. And there wasn’t the fetish for military-style weapons and armor-piercing bullets.

And as I have mentioned before, my oldest brother is a gun collector. He is a regular at the gun shows, buying and selling, but even he talks about a sense of unease at those shows as people engage in what can only be described as panic buying and ammunition hoarding.

These people are afraid. They are afraid of a time conservative media and the gun industry has convinced them is coming when sales of weapons, particularly some types of weapons, will be restricted or forbidden. They are afraid of growing populations of people they don’t trust. Some are even afraid that a time will come when they will have to defend themselves against the government itself.

Unfortunately this fear is winning, as many Americans think crime is up,even though it’s down. This fear is winning as massacres, and the gun violence discussions that follow, don’t lead to fewer gun sales, but more. This fear is winning, following continued violence by antigovernment militias and hate groups.

Fear is winning as there are now close to as many guns in this country as people — with the gun industry producing millions more each year.

We have reached our supersaturation point as a culture. And with that many guns in circulation, too many will invariably make their way into the hands of people with ill intent.

But for how long we are willing to let fear overpower reason? We have to decide if the positives of having a gun culture outweigh the negatives.

Do we want a society in which some 33,000 people in America lose their lives to gun violence each year and more than twice as many are injured by guns? Do we want a society in which mass shootings are routine?

If we do, well, we have it. But if we don’t, and I believe that most of us don’t, then we have to start thinking about ways to not only keep guns out of the wrong hands, but also about how we slow or reverse the proliferation of guns.

If there is one thing that my brother’s collection has taught me, it is that guns outlive their owners. These hundreds of millions of guns will most likely be part of our society for decades, and some even for centuries, regardless of what laws we pass now. That is something of which we should truly be afraid.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen, writing from Rhodes, Greece:

Gazing at Rhodes under a clear blue sky it occurred to me that the fury of attempts to draw neat ethno-national-religious lines through realities of mingling is matched only by its futility.

I climbed a clock tower. Below me, washed by the wind, lay the city of Rhodes: the castle of the Roman Catholic Order of the Knights of St. John, who for more than two centuries made Rhodes the headquarters of their fight for the Holy Land; the minarets of the mosques built by the Ottomans who vanquished the Knights of Rhodes in 1522; the Square of the Jewish Martyrs, where a memorial recalls the Nazi extermination in 1944 of the Jews of Rhodes and Kos.

Christian, Muslim and Jew trod these smooth and luminous stones. They fought, yes. They also cohabited and allowed their respective places of worship to stand in close proximity. The Turkish consul saved dozens of Jews from the Germans.

Beyond the city walls lay the sea. I gazed across it, imagining Aleppo and the graveyard of Syria, not so far away. There, the struggle to draw new sectarian lines rages. Sunni and Shiites, Kurds and Alawites, outside powers and regime apparatchiks, do battle in the land of a murderous dictator and a barbarous jihadi cult.

The Jews of Syria are long gone and, now, many of the Christians, too. President Vladimir Putin thinks he can sort out whatever’s left of the country with muscle flexing from Mother Russia. Good luck to him in that charnel house.

The exhaustion of war will come to Syria, too. That much history teaches us. But, as with the 17th century European wars of religion, decades may be needed.

Syria has become the epicenter of every fanaticism spawned by religious schism, state repression and popular uprising in the name of representation. These forces, in a dysfunctional Middle East, will not soon abate. We do not contemplate contemporary events from some clock tower, but from within them, in the shallow cacophony of now.

Across Rhodes and other Greek islands you see the jigsaw of archeological fragments. It is arduous work piecing them together to recreate, say, a 2,000-year-old mosaic of an elated Eros riding a dolphin. The labor conjures away millennia as we recognize the urges of then — for beauty and order — as familiar. In the same way, archeologists of our own lives, we try to piece events together, discern a pattern in fragments, and draw coherence from confusion.

Then there are the days of magic, when everything is clear and bright, each moment an answer rather than a question.

I wandered down — past stray cats and dry leaves skittering across shiny stones and children playing flimsy accordions — to the Synagogue Kahal Kadosh Shalom. It was closed. This puzzled me. I’d been on a cruise ship and lost track of time.

Reading the sign outside, I thought the synagogue should be open. Before Mel Rosenberg and Benny Duanis, visiting from Israel, reminded me that it was Saturday — the one day the sign said the synagogue was closed.

“Shabbat Shalom,” I said.

“Shabbat Shalom,” they said.

We got talking.

Strange to have a synagogue closed on Shabbat, but then there are only a few dozen Jews left on Rhodes. The synagogue serves partly as a museum. Tough to get a minyan, Rosenberg observed. When I told him I write about international affairs, he said, “Oy vey.”

Turned out Rosenberg had spent much of his life treating halitosis. He’d even invented a mouthwash still sold widely. “But after treating 10,000 people with bad breath, I decided it was enough,” he told me. Now he’s into children’s books. Talk about a salutary career switch.

We were happy to be chatting, out of the nearby Middle East, in a place where history has settled down.

From the synagogue it’s a short walk to the Square of the Jewish Martyrs. A monument commemorates the “1,604 Jewish martyrs of Rhodes and Kos who were murdered in the Nazi death camps.” They were rounded up in the summer of 1944, sent to Auschwitz in the last consignment of Greek Jews. How conscientious the Germans were, rounding up Jews in far-flung islands while the Third Reich disintegrated.

Fanaticism is most foul. Yeats captured its galvanizing illusions: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”

I got myself lost, inebriated by the beauty of the place. The air, the light and the temperature were perfect. Serendipitous paths of pleasure led to a shaded square. I sat down to a lunch of calamari. Afterward I got talking to a restaurant owner about Greek toasts — “To our health,” favored today, and “To the balanced life,” favored, he suggested, in ancient Greece.

It seemed apt to end this lovely interlude of church spires and minarets and Jewish memorials with the Socratic notion that humankind must choose the mean, avoid extremes, shun excess, and seek for balance.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Does anyone remember the Cheney energy task force? Early in the George W. Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney released a report that was widely derided as a document written by and for Big Energy — because it was. The administration fought tooth and nail to keep the process by which the report was produced secret, but the list of people the task force met was eventually leaked, and it was exactly what you’d expect: a who’s who of energy industry executives, with environmental groups getting a chance to make their case only after the work was essentially done.

But here’s the thing: by the standards of today’s Republican Party, the Cheney report was enlightened, even left-leaning. One whole chapter was devoted to conservation, another to renewable energy. By contrast, recent speeches by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — still the most likely Republican presidential nominees — barely address either topic. When it comes to energy policy, the G.O.P. has become fossilized. That is, it’s fossil fuels, and only fossil fuels, all the way.

And that’s a remarkable development, because while it’s true that fracking has led to a boom in U.S. gas and oil production, we’re also living in an era of spectacular progress in wind and solar energy. Why has the right become so hostile to technologies that look more and more like the wave of the future?

Before I try to answer that question, a few facts about renewable energy.

Wind and solar used to have a reputation as hippie-dippy stuff, not part of any serious approach to our energy future, and many people still have that perception. But it’s way out of date. The cost of wind power has dropped sharply – 30 percent in just the past five years, according to the International Energy Agency.

And solar panels are becoming cheaper and more efficient at a startling rate, reminiscent of the progress in microchips that underlies the information technology revolution. As a result, renewables account for essentially all recent growth in electricity generation capacity in advanced countries.

Furthermore, renewables have become major industries in their own right, employing several hundred thousand people in the United States. Employment in the solar industry alone now exceeds the number of coal miners, and solar is adding jobs even as coal declines.

So you might expect people like Mr. Rubio, who says he wants to “unleash our energy potential,” and Mr. Bush, who says he wants to “unleash the Energy Revolution,” to embrace wind and solar as engines of jobs and growth. But they don’t. Indeed, they’re less open-minded than Dick Cheney, which is quite an accomplishment. Why?

Part of the answer is surely that promotion of renewable energy is linked in many people’s minds with attempts to limit climate change — and climate denial has become a key part of conservative identity. The truth is that climate impact isn’t the only cost of burning fossil fuels, that fossil-fuel-associated pollutants like particulates and ozone inflict huge, measurable damage and are major reasons to support alternative energy. Furthermore, renewables are getting close to being cost-competitive even in the absence of special incentives (and don’t forget that oil and gas have long been subsidized by the tax code.) But the association with climate science evokes visceral hostility on the right.

Beyond that, you need to follow the money. We used to say that the G.O.P. was the party of Big Energy, but these days it would be more accurate to say that it’s the party of Old Energy. In the 2014 election cycle the oil and gas industry gave 87 percent of its political contributions to Republicans; for coal mining the figure was 96, that’s right, 96 percent. Meanwhile,alternative energy went 56 percent for Democrats.

And Old Energy is engaged in a systematic effort to blacken the image of renewable energy, one that closely resembles the way it has supported “experts” willing to help create a cloud of doubt about climate science. An example: Earlier this year Newsweek published an op-ed article purporting to show that the true cost of wind power was much higher than it seems. But it turned out that the article contained major factual errors, and its author had failed to disclose that he was the Charles W. Koch professor at Utah State, and a fellow of a Koch- and ExxonMobil-backed think tank.

It’s unlikely, I guess, that energy policy will play as big a role as other issues, such as tax policy, in the 2016 election. But to the extent it does, you need to know what’s really at stake.

While politicians on the right may talk about encouraging innovation and promoting an energy revolution, they’re actually defenders of the energy status quo, part of a movement trying to block anything that might disrupt the reign of fossil fuels.

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