The Congressional Freethought Caucus

The Congressional Freethought Caucus:
A Historic Achievement for Humanism

Something truly momentous  happened this week. On April 30, California representatives Jared Huffman and Jerry McNerney along with Maryland’s Jamie Raskin and Michigan’s Dan Kildee officially announced the creation of a Congressional Freethought Caucus. Spearheaded by the American Humanist Association and the Center for Freethought Equality, the Congressional Freethought Caucus will “promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, and nonreligious persons; champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.” This couldn’t have come at a better time. With around a quarter of Americans now identifying as religiously unaffiliated and 7% openly identifying as atheist, secular and humanistic perspectives will now get a larger voice in Congress.

Congressman Jared Huffman, who recently came out as a secular humanist, noted his excitement about the caucus and hopes it will “spark an open dialogue about science and reason-based policy solutions, and the importance of defending the secular character of our government.” Congressman Jamie Raskin, another open humanist, highlighted the “historic” nature of this event and its ties to the founders:

Two-and-a-half centuries after the Founders of our country separated church and state and guaranteed the individual freedoms of thought, conscience, speech and worship, it is a high honor to be a co-founder and member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which is organizing to defend these principles and values against continuing attack. We face a constant undertow in Congress of dangerous efforts to stifle science and promote official religious dogma and orthodoxy. Our job is to remind Congress of the kind of Enlightenment Republic that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were fighting for and to seek a democracy that protects both the rights of individual conscience and worship and the central role of reason, science and morality in the making of public policy.

Representative Jerry McNerney, who is also a scientist and mathematician, reiterated the Caucus’s philosophy and goals. “As co-founder of the Freethought Caucus, I believe strongly in the separation of church and state, and as a scientist, I understand clearly the need to bring rational decision-making to Congress for the good of our nation,” said Rep. McNerney. Huffman and Raskin will serve as the co-chairs for the caucus.

This step also pushes non-theist and humanistic perspectives more to the forefront of our politics. As Ron Millar of the Center for Freethought Equality put it, “this caucus will help end discrimination against nontheist candidates and elected officials, allow candidates and elected officials to be authentic about their religious beliefs, and encourage atheist, agnostic, and humanists to run for political office.” With the ever-growing creep of theocracy into our federal government after the election of Donald Trump, the Freethought Caucus is exactly the kind of move we should take as a nation. Huffman reiterated this in his statements on Monday: “There currently is no forum focused on these important issues, and with this Administration and certain members of Congress constantly working to erode the separation of church and state, this new caucus is both important and timely.”

Secular leaders all across the country also celebrated this formation. “We are delighted at the formation of a freethought caucus in Congress,” Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement, “Finally, the significant portion of Americans who are not religious will have representation in Congress.” Harvard cognitive psychologist and FFRF honorary President Steven Pinker also praised the move, calling it a “historic achievement” on Twitter. Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association, agrees. “The very existence of this Congressional caucus for freethinkers and humanists is a marker of how far the movement for secular and nontheist equality has come. This significant step is also a new beginning for our country as both religious and non-religious leaders work to better the nation,” he said in a press release.

As for myself, I’m so excited about this event. The Freethought Caucus can become such an effective advocacy forum for secular and humanistic perspectives. I also appreciate their willingness to represent others who may not be as secular as them. Their dedication to the separation of church and state, as well as freedom of conscience, speaks to how they want to build bridges with other demographic groups while fighting for reason and science-based public policy. I think most people, non-religious and religious, can get behind that. Nearly 130 years since the founding of the nation’s first freethought organizations, the National Liberal League and the American Secular Union, and less than a century removed from the creation of the American Humanist Association, we now have a Caucus who will represent us in Congress. That’s definitely an achievement for the history books.

We Need to Embrace Nuclear Energy

I’m With Michael Shellenberger:
We Need to Embrace Nuclear Energy

Earlier this year, the Trump administration released its budget proposal. Among the myriad of things I found myself in stark disagreement with, there was one thing I was actually happy to see: renewed funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted, “Trump included $120 million to restart licensing on the geologic site north of Las Vegas, as well as to establish an interim storage program to address the growing stockpile of nuclear waste produced by power plants in states across the nation.” This proposal was not without its critics. The vast majority of Nevada’s statewide leaders oppose the project on the grounds that it would turn Nevada into the nation’s “nuclear waste dump.” Additionally, many congressional Democrats are worried that it would harm Nevada’s precious water sources. While these are all genuine concerns, I think they’re a little misguided, seeing as two separate investigatory commissions deemed the site safe for waste storage up to 10,000 years,

After years of work and $15 billion spent, Yucca Mountain was set to become the premiere nuclear waste storage facility in the world when then-majority leader Harry Reid and the Obama administration stalled the project. Sadly it’s main obstacle was less environmental and more political. The public has an allergic reaction to nuclear energy; a 2016 Gallup poll showed that 54% of respondents did not support nuclear energy in the United States. It also concluded that majorities of both major parties don’t really want to touch the subject. This brings up the obvious question: Why do people hate nuclear energy so much, even though it’s one of the cleanest and safest energy technologies in the world? I think answering this question goes a long way toward rehabilitating nuclear energy in the public eye, and with the growing threats of climate change, the time to change that perception is now.

As Penn Jillette noted in an episode of “Bullshit,” some people don’t like nuclear power merely because of the word “nuclear.” The word has become associated with Cold War-era fears of global annihilation. Even President Ronald Reagan, the president responsible for one of the biggest nuclear weapons buildups in American history, chafed at the potential of nuclear after watching the apocalyptic TV-movie, “The Day After.” Furthermore, most American environmental groups don’t like nuclear power and have dedicated years to maligning it in the public eye. The Sierra Club declares that “Nuclear is no solution to Climate Change and every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on truly safe, affordable and renewable energy sources.” Greenpeace is even more alarmist: “Greenpeace opposes nuclear power because it is dangerous, polluting, expensive and non-renewable. More nuclear power means more nuclear weapons proliferation, more nuclear-armed states, more potential “dirty bombs” and more targets for terrorists.”

Alarmist attitudes over nuclear power are unwarranted. First, it leaves a smaller carbon footprint than alternatives like solar energy do. As environmentalist and California gubernatorial candidate Michael Shellenberger noted in his TED talk, “according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nuclear produces four times less carbon emissions than solar does. That’s why they recommended in their recent report the more intensive use of renewables, nuclear [,] and carbon capture and storage.” Solar energy’s carbon emissions are mostly created through the process of mining materials as well as the manufacturing process of solar panels and batteries. Second, contrary to Greenpeace’s claim, nuclear energy is incredibly safe. Steven Pinker highlights this in his newest book, Enlightenment Now:

The sixty years with nuclear power have seen thirty-one deaths in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the result of extraordinary Soviet-era bungling, together with a few thousand early deaths from cancer above the 100,000 natural cancer deaths in the exposed population. The other two famous accidents, at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011, killed no one…. Compared with nuclear power, natural gas kills 38 times as many people per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, biomass 63 times as many, petroleum 243 times as many, and coal 387 times as many—perhaps a million deaths a year.

Let’s unpack the worst accident, Chernobyl, a little more. The people who cleaned up Chernobyl, arguably the most exposed to radiation, saw only a 1% increase in mortality. For comparison, living with a smoker increases mortality by 1.7% and air pollution in a major city like New York by 2.8%.  People justifiably worry about nuclear radiation, but the science shows us that fallout from nuclear facilities is not as harsh as assumed.

As anti-nuclear activists harp about its status as a non-renewable energy, they fail to acknowledge that wind, solar, and other supposed “renewables” rely just as much on non-renewable resources as nuclear energy does. Wind and solar energy’s reliance on precious metals and minerals for manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines have a high carbon footprint, not to mention the intense and often dangerous labor required to extract them. Additionally, there’s no consensus on how to recycle solar panels, which contain “heavy toxic metals like chromium, cadmium, and lead.” Shellenberger shares this uncomfortable truth about solar panels: “solar actually produces 200 to 300 times more toxic waste than nuclear.” And this is with a technology that only accounts for roughly 1% of global energy use. While renewables certainly represent a component to our energy future, they cannot fulfill our expanding energy needs entirely, especially in the developing world.

Besides fossils fuels and hydroelectric plants, nuclear power is the only reliable, plentiful, and scalable energy source that can meet our needs. Its concentrated energy is astounding; according to energy researcher Alex Epstein, “the concentration of energy in uranium is more than a million times that of oil and 2 million times that of coal—although given current technology, in practice it ‘only’ delivers thousands of times more energy per unit of input.” Despite technological setbacks, nuclear energy is amazingly dense, not to mention efficient. Additionally, elements like uranium and thorium are plentiful around the globe, and with improvements in technology, a little bit will go a long way. Nuclear energy is also scalable. Take the example of France, which generates 93% of its electricity from clean sources like hydro and nuclear. Not only does France use twice as much clean energy as Germany, one of the world’s biggest renewable countries, but its energy costs are half. As Germany invests more and more in renewables and moves away from nuclear, they have to resort to coal as an auxiliary power. In turn, this made its overall carbon footprint increase over the last few years.

In terms of environmental impact, it is true that nuclear plants do use a lot of water, but it is a lot less than you may think. According to the US Department of Energy, nuclear energy only uses 3.3% of water in the US, which is “much more water than some sources of renewable energy, such as wind and photovoltaic solar, but generally less water than other sources of renewable energy, such as geothermal and concentrating solar.” Thermoelectric energy plants use vastly larger amounts of water than nuclear, and the former’s can be recycled back into the local water supply. Furthermore, Generation III and IV nuclear plants, once online, would use dramatically less water, as a result of new technological efficiencies. In regards to water biomes, nuclear energy plant designs are improving. According to the Canadian Nuclear Association, “While it is true that water intake and cooling systems of shoreline power plants could affect aquatic life, water-intake systems are now normally located deep enough to minimize effects on fish, and shaped to avoid fish entrapment. Designs of water-discharge systems have been modified to help cool the water before it is returned to the lake, and the systems are located to reduce effects on aquatic life.” And, concerning uninhabitable land, wastewater created from fracking and coal plants also leaves uninhabitable areas, and due to the retrieval of energy from the ground, leaves a much larger acreage footprint. Nuclear energy, despite all the negative press it receives, is the most viable alternative energy, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and combating global climate change.

If all of this isn’t enough to give you pause about the potential of nuclear power, then maybe you need to hear it from one of the environmental movement’s most influential leaders: Stewart Brand. Brand, a biologist and the author of the iconic eco-manual Whole Earth Catalog, has become one of nuclear energy’s biggest champions. As he said in an interview with NPR:

. . . the research led me into looking at what are the real threats of radiation – way less than we thought; what really happened at Chernobyl – way less than we thought; what are the efficiencies of nuclear – way better than I thought; what is the tradeoff against solar and wind, and one of things environmentalists are just learning now is that because solar and wind are so dilute, they make an enormous footprint on the land in order to collect them and then another large footprint with the long transmission lines.

He further noted that, “The safety record of the nuclear industry again, that turned up in my research – is impeccable.” Brand proposes that the United States invest heavily in nuclear power over the next few decades, and if our capacity could become 80% of total energy usage, the benefits to the climate could be extraordinary. Environmentalist James Hansen and even billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates have also acknowledged the potential of nuclear energy.

So, what continues to hold nuclear energy back? Money and politics. Nuclear plants in the US have been historically stalled by suffocating regulations, which makes the costs prohibitively expensive. One way to change this is by curtailing or eliminating unnecessary regulatory hoops for both public and private investments in nuclear energy. Doing this will allow the industry to bring the highly innovative III and IV generation plants online as well as update older plants to match these specifications. This will bring costs down tremendously as well as improve safety; III and IV generation plants can handle potential problems much better than older plants. They should become the standard. The United States has already put billions in subsidies for renewable energies; why can’t we invest money in an energy source that isn’t intermittent, non-scalable, and with a lower overall carbon footprint?

This is where the politics come in. The public (and politicians) love renewables because they look clean and nice, despite the fact that they take up an incredible amount of land (at a detriment to local ecosystems) and use heavy metals and elements that have to be arduously mined, are arguably as toxic as nuclear waste. As Environmental Progress’s Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson have noted, “solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.” These tradeoffs are never discussed when we talk about wind and solar; people just think about the breeze or sunshine that produces energy. By contrast, nuclear energy takes up a lot less land, is way more energy dense, and overall better for the environment. Additionally, wind and solar are only now becoming cost-effective because of decades of government cash. Imagine if we had put that money into nuclear energy.

It’s time for politicians and the public to honestly examine the tradeoffs of alternative energies and stop being so alarmist about nuclear energy. We either need to reinstate funding for Yucca Mountain, or if Nevada doesn’t want to play ball, move the nuclear waste facility to another state, where its economic benefits will be appreciated. Or the best option, now the industry standard, is to house the waste on-site in disaster-proof drums that are monitored daily for possible risks. Any of these options would make our country safer: having secured, state-of-the-art facilities for our nuclear waste would alleviate a lot of potential safety issues. We also need larger investments, both public and private, towards the improvement of older plants and the construction of new ones. It’s time that we stop letting cowardly public leaders and eco justice warriors dominate the discussion. Our world is not going to use less energy; in fact, as the developing world comes online, we will use a whole lot more. We have to take a pragmatic, science-based approach to our energy policy. One big step, if we’re serious about stemming the tide of climate change, is to embrace nuclear energy. Its time has come; we just have to make it happen.

We Must Continue the Dream

We Must Continue the Dream

Heinrich “Henry” Becker arrived in the United States in 1849, stepping off the passenger ship Hermann and claiming a new life for himself in Baltimore, Maryland. His family had lived in Prussia all their lives, but they embarked on a new path for themselves in America. His father, Friedrich Becker, brought his wife, Elizabeth, and their five children (including Heinrich) to United States. He worked as a tailor most of his life in Baltimore but frequently made trips back to Germany. Heinrich, by contrast, likely had odd jobs before settling in Ohio as an employee of an oil mill. He became a  naturalized citizen in 1854 and lived the next six decades in Dayton, Ohio. He died in 1912.

His daughter, Catharine Baker, was born in 1864. She married Harvey Geyer in 1891 and lived in Dayton until around 1899, where she and her family moved to Peru, Indiana. It was here that Paul Richard Geyer was born. He later married Nira Amos and fathered approximately 4 children, of which my Grandfather, Henry William “Butch” Guyer, was born in 1938. Heinrich Baker, the Prussian immigrant and oil mill worker, is my Great-Great-Great Grandfather. His father, Friedrich, is my Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather. I’m a proud descendent of German immigrants.

This is something I’ve reflected on a lot over the last few days. This week saw one of the most egregious decisions ever made by an American president: the rescinding of DACA, or “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.” This policy, started in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama, ensured that children of undocumented immigrants could stay in the country under a temporary permit. If they came to the US before they were 16, were in high school or completed high school, and had no criminal record, they could stay here under the DACA program. Over 800,000 people utilized DACA to stay in the US. The policy loosely came from a Congressional proposal called the DREAM Act, which would have been a permanent version of DACA that couldn’t be manipulated by executive overreach. Despite broad public support (69% in the latest PRRI poll), the program’s rescindment under the Trump Administration throws everything into uncertainty.

The Obama administration created DACA as a stop-gap measure, after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act in 2010. Some on the right, including the official line from the White House and the Justice Department, argued that DACA couldn’t withstand constitutional scrutiny. This is not as easy as they make it. The Supreme Court recently issued a split ruling (before Scalia’s replacement) on a similar program, but their differences were mostly based on procedural matters. As Drexel University law professor Anil Kalhan noted in an interview with Quartz, “The issue of constitutionality has never been resolved.” The article further debunks much of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ comments on rescinding DACA, specifically who qualifies and how the program actually works.

Now, we can set aside the legal issues here, which are complicated and unsettled, but we certainly need to discuss the moral nature of the Trump administration’s decision. This leaves the lives of 800,000 people in an worsened state of limbo than they were already in, causing unnecessary uncertainty to employment, schooling, and eventual paths to citizenship. These young people, who came here as children and know no other home, could be deported to a land they have a tangential connection to. It could split up families, dissolve communities, and hurt our economy. As former Microsoft head and philanthropist Bill Gates wrote on Facebook:

DREAMers represent the best instincts of this country and the tradition that the great experiment of the United States is made better by people from other places coming here to dedicate their talents and commitment to continuing to move our country forward.

Corporate leaders, especially from silicon valley, strongly criticized the president’s decision this week. In fact, CEOs from across the corporate spectrum sent a letter to President Trump and Congressional leaders urging the passage of the DREAM Act and the continuation of DACA.

The strongest criticism of Trump’s actions came from his predecessor, Barack Obama. On Tuesday, the former President published an essay on his Facebook that unpacked the real reason for this decision:

Let’s be clear: the action taken today isn’t required legally. It’s a political decision, and a moral question. Whatever concerns or complaints Americans may have about immigration in general, we shouldn’t threaten the future of this group of young people who are here through no fault of their own, who pose no threat, who are not taking away anything from the rest of us.

He’s right. President Trump made this decision to appeal to the xenophobic, and frankly anti-immigrant, wing of his dwindling political base. This was never about the DREAMers; it was about reversing a policy that made our country more diverse simply to placate a minority of extreme conservatives whose views clashed with the majority of Americans.

As a counter to this horrendous view of America, Obama outlined a better path in the closing of his remarks:

What makes us American is not a question of what we look like, or where our names come from, or the way we pray. What makes us American is our fidelity to a set of ideals – that all of us are created equal; that all of us deserve the chance to make of our lives what we will; that all of us share an obligation to stand up, speak out, and secure our most cherished values for the next generation. That’s how America has traveled this far. That’s how, if we keep at it, we will ultimately reach that more perfect union.

With that in mind, I strongly encourage you to reach out to your Senators and Congresspeople. Tell them to pass the DREAM Act once and for all, so that these people can stay here, work hard, get ahead, and become the Americans they deserve to be. I’ll even give you an easy way to do it. Text “RESIST” to 50409. Give them your name, zip code, and a short message letting them know you support DACA and the DREAMers.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a story. Last year, my former home town of Kokomo, Indiana was hit by a tornado. It touched down near a local Starbucks, leveling it to the ground. Fortunately for everyone, no one was hurt, and that was in no small measure to the manager on duty, Angel Ramos. He rushed everyone to the bathroom and saved them from the building’s collapse. His valiant efforts made him a local hero; they call him the “Starbucks Angel.” He was even commended for his actions by Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz. He’s recently married and has a new job in construction, “helping rebuild Kokomo.”

Angel is also a DREAMer. He came here from Mexico with his family when he was nine years old. He became a DACA recipient four years ago, and in that time, he has been able to build a great life for himself here in the US. However, with the rescinding of DACA, he faces uncertainty again. This is something I’m not sure the Trump administration understands. Every time they make a policy move like this, they seem to disregard the very human toll it has. And all of it comes from playing petty partisan politics with people who can’t easily fight back.

It’s characteristic of a bully, someone who thinks they’re strong when they’re actually backed in a corner. In a presidency mired in scandal, comfort with white supremacy, and organizational disarray, this “policy move” is another distraction from the very problems this President has. His lashing out turns into real a hardship for people like Angel, his younger sister, and the 800,000 people helped by the DACA program. As Ramos said in a recent interview, “We’re just trying to come here for a better life. So it’s frustrating… just to see everything kind of start going backwards in a very intolerant and prejudice[d] way.”

He’s right. This isn’t good policy or good politics; it’s just prejudice. The hope is that the DREAM Act will get passed and DACA will be extended, but for now, it’s up to all of us to defend the DREAMers. People come to America for opportunity, freedom, and the chance to build a better life. It’s what brought Angel and his family here and what brought my Great-Great-Great Grandfather Heinrich and his family here. Citizenship is not based simply on where you’re from; it’s about who you are and what you do when you’re here. We’re all Americans united under the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Extending the blessings of liberty to all people strengthens our country, not weakens it. To ensure the promise of our nation, we must stand by the DREAMers and their pursuit of their dream.

We Need to End the War on Pot

It’s Time to End the War on Pot

In 1936, a church-funded film called Tell Your Children was released in theaters. Originally produced by George Hirliman as a propaganda film, Tell Your Children displayed youths gone wild under the influence of marijuana. However, it is best known to the world under its later title, Reefer Madness. A more salacious version, released just years later, cemented its place as one of most ill-conceived, yet undeniably fascinating pieces of film. In both versions, young people have their lives ruined by the “dangerous” effects of marijuana, with violence, promiscuity, and death as a result of their inhalations. This type of presentation is known as “voodoo pharmacology,” the idea that any drug, no matter how benign, could cause “uncontrollable urge[s] of craving and compulsion.”

Popular culture has maintained this illogical and misguided view of marijuana use, so much so that public leaders continue to rail against it. Our current Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has attempted to undo much of the Obama-era drug reforms as soon as he came into office. In May of 2017, he sent a letter to congressional leadership urging them not to impede Justice Department prosecutions of marijuana offenses, even in states where medicinal or recreational marijuana is currently legal. In it, Sessions asserted that marijuana is “linked to an increased risk of psychiatric disorders such as psychosis,” which the Guardian’s Jamie Peck noted as “sound[ing] a lot like “reefer madness” to me.” I agree. While the research on medicinal marijuana is still not fully conclusive, most research suggests that it isn’t any worse for a person than tobacco and certainly alcohol.

With that in mind, why have we continued a national policy of marijuana prohibition that lead to 8.2 million arrests between 2001 and 2010, with African-Americans 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested? As the ACLU noted, marijuana accounted for 52% of all drug-related arrests during this period, and 88% of them were for mere possession. These aren’t the Pablo Escobar-style drug lords we’re talking about; these are millions of people who were arrested for simply possessing a little pot. Furthermore, the racial bias is ridiculous. During the same decade, African-Americans aged 18-25 used marijuana less than whites but still faced disproportionately higher arrest rates. This is on top of a historically racist and inhumane drug war that has destroyed millions of lives and countless communities.

As with many things, you can tie this nonsense back to Richard Nixon. In 1970, Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law, reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. To give you a sense of how fucked up that is, Schedule 1 puts marijuana on par with heroin — a drug that caused nearly 13,000 overdose deaths in 2015. It also classifies marijuana with having “no currently accepted medical uses” and a “lack of accepted safety for medical use.” This is definitely not the case. According to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, an analysis of 10,000 studies concluded that marijuana strongly “helps chronic pain in adults,” “lessens chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting,” and “relieves some symptoms of multiple sclerosis.” It also moderately helps with “sleep problems caused by obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis” and “doesn’t increase risk of cancers.” Now, I’m not claiming it’s a wonder-drug like many cannabis supporters do, but I am following the best credible evidence we have. Based on this alone, marijuana shouldn’t be classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act.

This is only the science and the law. Let’s talk about the politics of all this. As with marriage equality, the public has rapidly changed its view of marijuana legalization over the decades. In 1979, only 27% of Americans supported legalization. Today, that number is 61%, according to a recent CBS News poll. As for its supposed relationship to crime, only 23% of Americans think it’s related to violent crime. As for its supposed danger to consumers, 53% of Americans think that alcohol is worse than marijuana, with only 7% believing the inverse. What do these statistics say about the changing culture of pot? For starters, many more Americans have tried marijuana than in previous generations. According to this same poll, 50% of Americans have tried marijuana, as opposed to only 34% in 1997. The country is just getting more and more comfortable with pot; they’re learning that it isn’t the boogeyman drug that politicians like Jeff Sessions paint it as.

States are also getting wise to this conclusion. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use and 30 permit medicinal uses. However, Sessions’ Justice Department isn’t dedicated to federalism on this matter. Despite these legalized means, the DEA will continue to prosecute people under the federal Controlled Substances Act. So much for limited government. Until Sessions resigns, or a new administration is elected, it appears that marijuana policy at the Justice Department will not follow the science or public opinion.

That doesn’t mean that Congress should sit on its hands. On August 1, 2017, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, a bill that “would amend the Controlled Substance Act to eliminate marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug — a move that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.” Booker’s bill also “incentivize[s] states to legalize marijuana if their current laws have a ‘disproportionate arrest rate’ on minority or low-income individuals.” Building on President Obama’s previous reforms, the Marijuana Justice Act would retroactively apply to individuals charged for marijuana-related offenses, allowing for the commutation of sentences and expunging the records for those already released. Booker spoke of his bill in a public statement:

Descheduling marijuana and applying that change retroactively to people currently serving time for marijuana offenses is a necessary step in correcting this unjust system. States have so far led the way in reforming our criminal justice system and it’s about time the federal government catches up and begins to assert leadership.

Booker’s bill is definitely a step in the right direction, but he needs cosponsors as well as broad, bipartisan support. Despite our era of political gridlock and intense partisanship, this is an issue that Democrats and Republicans can get behind. Democrats like it because it will help those disproportionately harmed by terrible drug policy, particularly the poor and people of color. Republicans, especially libertarian-style ones, can get behind expanding personal freedom and cutting wasteful government spending on enforcement. As the recent CBS News poll indicates, “majorities of Republicans (63 percent), Democrats (76 percent), and independents (72 percent) oppose the federal government trying to stop marijuana use in these states.” This would be a prime piece of legislation for bipartisan cooperation as well as reasonable public policy.

Besides the political, legal, and scientific reasons for decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, there’s also the moral component. I strongly believe in the philosophy of “self-proprietorship,” the Enlightenment principle that you own your life and your body. Jacob Sullum, writer for Reason magazine, brilliantly elucidated this concept and its relation to drugs:

People have a right to control their bodies, to control what goes into their bodies, to control their minds, ultimately, because that’s what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about psychoactive drugs, you’re talking about controlling the contents of your mind, what goes on inside your brain. That’s a pretty basic right, you would think.

Your life should belong to you and you should be able to do as you wish, so long as you’re not violating the rights of others. If we’re a country that prizes liberty above all else, this should be a foundation component of that liberty. Alas, pious politicians, overzealous cops, and moralizing nanny-staters have marched, en masse, to stop people from living their lives as they see fit. Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana on the federal level would do a great deal to stop them in their tracks, while increasing the liberty, safety, and happiness of our citizens and their communities. Contact your Senators and Representatives and tell them you want a bipartisan push for decriminalization, if not outright legalization, of marijuana at the federal level. Prohibition taught us that when you unrightly criminalize something, you nevertheless make real criminals. Let’s not go down that road again. Let’s end the war on pot.

In Defense of Journalism

In Defense of Journalism

The front page of the June 18, 1972 issue of the Washington Post centered around the Nixon administration’s efforts in North Vietnam, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s chances in the New York primary, and an impending US appeals court ruling involving an airline pilot strike and its demands for stronger protections against hijacking. However, among the other articles on the front page, one became the most important, not only for that day, but for the ensuing two years. “5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here,” was the headline for an article by veteran Post reporter Alfred Lewis. “Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here,” Lewis reported.

It was the beginning of the “long, national nightmare” of Watergate, a scandal so deep and so intricate that it took two years, multiple news reports, congressional testimonies, and a near impeachment to end. The linchpin that kept democracy safe against further abuses of the 37th President was a free press, the news. Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein’s subsequent reporting in the Washington Post blew the story wide open, took down a president, and made them legends in the process. A free press and unadulterated journalism pushed Richard M. Nixon to resign and for Washington to clean up what had gone wrong for so very long.

It is easy to make parallels from Watergate to our own times. Perhaps our White House’s current occupant is as corrupt, if not more corrupt, than “Tricky Dick.” However the chips may fall with regards to Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russians, it was because of good, unfaltering journalism that we know about it. And a lot of it has come from the very same institution that went after Nixon: the Washington Post.

As it is easy to mention Watergate, it is equally easy to trash the press. Many times, they make it easy for us. When three CNN reports recently went too early and played too loose with sources on a Trump-Russia story, they were asked to resign. Weeks later, CNN went after a reddit user who had a created a WWE-style, smackdown gif of Trump, body slamming a person with their logo over his face, that the president later tweeted. The redditor has since apologized and removed his original gif, but the news network wrote:

CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

The last sentence, which sent shockwaves through the American zeitgeist, amounted to what some called “blackmail.” In fact, there was even a hashtag started, “CNNblackmail,” addressing their step of potential editorial overreach.

I agree with the critics of CNN in concluding that its actions were extremely unethical, not to mention downright silly. Our country faces immense challenges and you’re wasting time and news copy on a person who goes by the name, “HanAssholeSolo”? It gives Trump and all those who seek to undermine the press the very fuel they need to continue their crusades. CNN shouldn’t have let it get to it and focused on good reporting and solid analysis. But it is cable news, so it doesn’t always act idealistically.

Despite its problems, a free and independent press is essential for the flourishing of our American democracy. Journalism is a bulwark against those who oppress, undermine, and disparage a free society. The post-inaugural success of outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post speaks to just how important the press is as an institution. They do get things wrong, but the difference between them and Trump, for the most part, is they own their mistakes. When the CNN reporters ran their Trump-Russia story too early, they apologized, retracted the piece, and left CNN respectfully. Imagine Trump apologizing for a falsehood or a complete fabrication. It’s pretty difficult to, right? The press will get things wrong; it doesn’t mean they should be disregarded outright.

It’s pretty fashionable to disparage the media these days. It seems like everyone is getting in on it, despite the fact that it is an indispensable part of our lives and social contract. The goal shouldn’t be to abandon the press altogether. Rather, one should use critical thinking when reading a story. Read something a couple of times. Check the sources in the piece. If an article has hyperlinks, click on them and check out what they’re citing. Read an opposing viewpoint; read many of them. And most importantly, don’t get too comfortable in your own bubble. We all have them; puncture yours every once and awhile and see if you learn something in the process. More often than not, you will.

This issue (no pun intended) matters to me because I see the big picture in ways that others have not. I work with historic newspapers from the state of Indiana every single working day. I’ve seen nearly 200 years of papers, from before we were a state to just a few years ago. It gives me a broader and less cynical perspective. Papers back then were wildly partisan and got things wrong all the time! Some even told you their leanings in the masthead. Papers like the Greencastle Democrat and the Marshall County Republican let you know right off the bat just what kind of paper they were. It compels me, as an historian, to look at multiple papers about the same topic, to get a flavor of how people thought about it back then. People these days think that there was a time when news wasn’t partisan, it was just about the “facts.” That’s a load of bullshit. In reality, papers were incredibly biased and gave you just as much commentary as they did pure news content. That doesn’t mean they weren’t important or weren’t valuable; it just underscored how a free and open press will give you so many ways of seeing events. Your job as a citizen was, and still is, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good reporting from nonsense.

The reason we must be mindful of journalism’s place in our society is that it is the very thing that can keep our country free. Watergate, the failures of Vietnam, Iran Contra, the failed War in Iraq, and the alleged corruption of the Trump administration were all brought to light by journalism. They work tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to get the story right. They fail, like all people do, but it shouldn’t completely destroy our confidence in them. If we do, our civic life will fall apart. Thus, the founders believed that a free press lived at the heart of our American experiment. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “. . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer that latter.” I feel exactly the same way.

The Special Comment: What are we to make of Georgia 6th?

What are we to make of Georgia 6th?

So, what to make of last week’s Georgia 6th special congressional election? The most expensive congressional race in American history, the Democrats were hoping to pull off an upset that would upend President Trump’s chances at a post-election mandate by the voters. Sadly, this didn’t happen. Instead, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by 3.8 percent of the vote. Ossoff did worse in this election than Hillary Clinton did last November, when Trump won the district by only 1.5 percent. Are the Democrats right to be worried about their prospects in the era of Trump? Should Republicans celebrate this victory and then prepare for the future battle of the 2018 midterms?

I think it is a little of both. The Democrats put too much stock in this election, overspending and overhyping a candidate that wasn’t much to write home about. While the enthusiasm was there, Ossoff himself was a generic person with a generic campaign message in an age that demands clear ideas. He refused to go after Trump, to talk more about the impending health care repeal, and to make clear distinctions between him and his opponent. He seems like a nice guy, but he couldn’t get over the “carpetbagger” narrative. While Georgia election laws allow a candidate to live anywhere in the state while running for a specific congressional district, that fact that he didn’t live in the district was politically disastrous. His reasoning was that he lived with his fiancee, a training medical student whose residence is close to where she works. Laudable personal choice; terrible political choice.

Also, Handel was well known in her district. She had served in state government and had run multiple times for higher elected office. In many respects, she had a running start. The 6th Congressional District had to be filled when Tom Price left congress to become Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary. When he won reelection in 2016, he won by more than 20% against a largely nonexistent democrat the apparently only spent around $350. It was also former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s district. The fact that Democrats did as well as they did is pretty remarkable.

Here’s my message to the Democrats. I applaud your efforts in trying to win this race. It shows that you understand the importance of local elections again. However, the special election in South Carolina, which occurred on the same day and you seemed not to care as much about, was even closer than Georgia. There’s a trend happening here that favors the Democrats. Nevertheless, you’re 0-4 in these special election races. Think about what you could’ve done better, regroup, and come back ten times as hard. There’s no time to waste.

Now is the time to focus on the 2018 midterms. Educate people on the policies you support and play to their identities as well. If you’re in a working class district, focus on jobs, economic growth, wage fairness, and health care. If you’re in a white collar district, talk about tax reform, economic growth, and paid family leave. If you’re in a minority district, focus on the issues of police overreach, mass incarceration, wage fairness, and improving education.

Democrats should rebuild their part as a big tent, with working class labor, white collar business, and minority activism. However, these groups need to put their smaller, ideological differences aside and focus on the big, electoral picture. Identity politics can only take you so far; you also need to focus on economic issues as well. If they do, Democrats have a good shot at taking back the house in 2018. For now, fight the craziness of Trump & give voters a distinct choice, because if the choices are republican and republican light, people will go republican. Rediscover what it means to be a Democrat; be the party that embraces and celebratespoliticall, as well as cultural and ethnic, diversity. Then you will win and the Republicans will never know what hit them.

Point of Crisis

The Point of Crisis

The United States hinges on trust. Trust in our institutions; trust in our people; trust in our laws; trust in our traditions. Our “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” endure explicitly from the ability of our citizenry to have faith in the leaders of our nation. Sadly, the past few months have shown that this trust has frayed to a cataclysmic degree.

As Thomas Paine once wrote in “The American Crisis,” “these are the times that try men’s souls.” I would most certainly agree. We are living in our own American crisis, with a president unwilling to listen, unphased by embarrassment, undisciplined to the call of duty. James Comey’s testimony last week underscored a central problem our country has had since Donald Trump took office nearly six months ago: we have a completely incapable man-child at the helm of the greatest country on Earth. A thug, no better than the plutocrats that he adores, and with one in particular, helped him win office. It pains me to say this, but every day Trump occupies the oval office our country creeps towards becoming a Banana Republic.

And yet, the Republicans largely don’t acknowledge this mess. Paul Ryan told us to be patient with Trump, that “he’s new to this. . . .” Well I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. What if the Democratic leadership had said that about Obama when he took office? The GOP certainly wouldn’t think this was good enough. The utter spinelessness of these people highlights that the resistance has much more to do. We have to fight smarter, harder, and with more determination.

The defeat of Trump and all he stands for represents a bulwark against the internal machinations that are destroying the United States, and broadly, Western Civilization. We have to put our petty divisions aside and do what is best for the country. For the Republicans, it means starting to acknowledge that your experiment with populism failed, that Trump has decimated your moral standing as a political institution, and that you must truly stand for limited government by checking his executive grabs and abuses of power. For the Democrats, that means being a steadfast resistance, interrupting town halls, emailing and calling your elected officials, and come out strong at the ballot boxes in 2018.

If we want a world that is more reasonable, more tolerant, and more secular, than Trump’s defeat is a necessary fight. The world is watching how we respond to this. We can’t let his immovable “38%” control how the rest of us want to live. We are the point of crisis; let’s rise to the challenge.