Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Field Guide to Domestic Terrorists: The Oath Keepers

Oath Keepers charge up the steps of the Capitol on January 6

 The Oath Keepers, a white supremacist terrorist group, had a big role in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. A New York Times report names many of the conspirators and shows how many are military veterans.  

One of the moments in the coverage in which my heart sank on January 6 was seeing men in battle gear.  In the following days I realized how close we were to an overthrow of the government when I saw a video of the scene above when men in battle gear, Oath Keepers, charged up the Capitol steps. If they had found Mike Pence or other leaders, they would have killed them.  

In September of 2008 before I went to Iraq, I went to a Live Fire Shoot House. It was a week-long course with live ammo on how to storm and secure a building.  We went into the buildings we attacked in a line just like that used by the Oath Keepers.  The men in that line had military or police training or both. All of them should be tried for treason. 

This is how the Anti-Defamation League, ADL, describes the Oath Keepers: 

The Oath Keepers are a large but loosely organized collection of anti‐government extremists who are part of the broader anti‐government “Patriot” movement, which includes militia and “three percenter” groups, sovereign citizens, and tax protesters, [Boogaloo Boys] among others. What differentiates the Oath Keepers from other anti‐ government extremist groups is that the Oath Keepers explicitly focus on recruiting current and former military members, police officers and firefighters (although they accept anyone as members). 

The ideology of the Oath Keepers most closely resembles that of the militia movement, whose adherents believe that the United States is collaborating with a one‐world tyrannical conspiracy called the New World Order to strip Americans of their rights—starting with their right to keep and bear arms. Once Americans are rendered defenseless, the theory goes, they too will be enslaved by the New World Order. 

The Oath Keepers aim much of their propaganda at military and police, reminding them that they swore an oath to defend the Constitution “from all enemies, foreign and domestic” and asking them to pledge to disobey unconstitutional orders they might get from superiors—orders that explicitly or implicitly refer to various militia‐related conspiracy theories, such as mass gun confiscation or rounding up Americans to put them in concentration camps. 

Each theory relates to the notion that the United States government is falling under global governance and will at some point use police and military members to enforce the New World Order’s dominance. The Oath Keepers urge military and law enforcement personnel to step up to stop the conspirators.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Being Wrong: A Normal Part of Life We Fight and Cover Up


I just finished the delightful book "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error" by Kathryn Schulz. The book is full of wonderful examples of how we are wrong, why we are wrong and the good side of our errors.  The book begins telling us why we are so delighted to be right and so defensive about being wrong.  We insist we are right about everything from loading the dishwasher to the origins of the universe and twist ourselves in knots to prove just how correct we are.  

My favorite passage in the book connects perception, the history of science and the universe that is the Model behind Dante's Divine Comedy. Schulz shows how thoroughly wrong we can be when all of our senses tell us we are right. 

"Step someplace truly dark: the Himalayas, say, or Patagonia, or the north rim of the Grand Canyon. If you look up in such a place, you will observe the sky above you is vast and vaulted, its darkness pulled taut from horizon to horizon and perforated by innumerable stars.  Stand there long enough and you'll see this whole vault turning overhead, like the slowest of the tumblers in the most mysterious of locks. Stand there even longer and it will dawn on you that your own position in the spectacle is curiously central. The apex of the heavens is directly above you. And the land you are standing on--land that unlike the firmament is quite flat, and unlike the stars is quite stationary--stretches out in all directions from a midpoint that is you. 

"It is, of course, an illusion: almost everything we see and feel out there on our imaginary Patagonia porch is misleading.  The sky is neither vaulted nor revolving around us, the land is neither flat nor stationary, and, sad to say, we ourselves are not the center of the cosmos. Not only are these things wrong, they are canonically wrong. They are to the intellect what the Titanic is to the ego: a permanent puncture wound, a reminder of the sheer scope at which we can err. What is strange, and not a little disconcerting, is that we can commit such fundamental mistakes by simply stepping outside and looking up."

Schulz surveys the history of being wrong quoting many of the great thinkers of history from Augustine to Groucho Marx, so everyone who has ever been wrong should find something to connect with in this delightful book.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I Became a NASCAR Fan in the Stoneham, Massachusetts, Public Library in 1961


Michael McDowell, the eighth driver 
To win his first race at the Daytona 500

On Sunday night I stayed up past midnight to watch the final laps of the 2021 Daytona 500. The race had started ten hours earlier and been stopped for a big wreck involving eighteen of the forty cars that started the race.  Then there was a rain delay. But the Daytona Motor Speedway has lights, so they ran after rain the rain stopped.

They ran in a fifteen car single-file line at 190 mph for most of the final 20 laps.  With a lap to go gaps opened as drivers started trying to move up. On the last lap the first two cars tangled. Michael McDowell who was in fourth place shot between the spinning cars and was in front of the field at the moment the caution lights flashed on, ending the race.  

McDowell started racing in NASCAR's top series in 2008, starting 358 races before finishing first at the biggest race on the 36-race calendar. On Valentines Day 2021 he became the eighth driver to win his first race in the Daytona 500. 

After watching nearly all the races for twenty years between 1985 and 2005 and being a fan since I was eight years old, I stopped watching the stock car series because they had eliminated the two things that initially got me hooked: real cars and real danger.  

By the 1970s NASCAR stock cars were purpose-built race cars, but they were the shape of their street-car counterparts.  Fords, Chevys, Dodges and Oldsmobiles looked different. And sometimes a particular body would outperform others. After Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona in 2001, NASCAR went to the Car of Tomorrow which made every car exactly the same except decals. 

Some of the roulette of risk of racing was lost in 1992 when NASCAR went to radial tires.  I kept watching, but it was clear that radials would bring a different kind of driver to the front.  Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson would be the drivers of a new century.

Real Cars, Real Danger

While a driver scoring his first win after a dozen years of no wins is a compelling story, it's not the story that drew my eight-year-old self to follow a racing series hundreds of miles from my home in a suburb north of Boston, Mass.  The Stoneham Public Library had copies of Motor Trend, Hot Rod and Road and Track magazines. The pictures in these magazines showed real cars racing on paved and dirt ovals.  And unlike stick and ball sports, the drivers risked their lives.  Between 1952 and 2001 twenty-eight drivers lost their lives in practice and racing crashes.  

Later I would follow open-wheel and sports car racing, but the little boy in the library wanted to see Fords, Plymouths, Dodges, Chevys, Buicks, Pontiacs, and Oldsmobiles with roll bars going more than 150mph.  At that time there was about 30 minutes per year of racing on TV on the ABC Wide World of Sports, so reading the racing coverage was my only option. 

Tiny Lund

The first driver I followed was Tiny Lund.  When I read about his win at Daytona in 1963, it was like McDowell's win this year.  Lund had started 163 races over several years without a win, then won the biggest race of year for his first win.  He died in 1975 at the other NASCAR superspeedway in Talledega, Alabama.  

The Other Drivers Who Won Their First Race in the Daytona 500

There have been 39 different winners in the 62 Daytona 500 races since 1959. The dozen multiple winners are led by seven-time winner Richard Petty, four-time winner Cale Yarborough, four three-time winners and five who took two wins.  

Mario Andretti

Four years after Tiny Lund won his first NASCAR race by winning the Daytona 500, Mario Andretti notched his first win in the "Great American Race."  Andretti had just seven NASCAR starts. In the 60s top drivers in Formula 1, Indy Car and Sports Cars would race NASCAR races with big prize money.  Andretti won in all forms of racing and was a champion in Indy Car and Formula 1.

Pete Hamilton

Dedham, Mass. native Pete Hamilton took his first of three NASCAR wins at the 1970 Daytona 500 in a Petty Enterprises Plymouth Road Runner Superbird.  He won two more races that year at Talledega Superspeedway, the only wins of his brief career.  He left racing in 1974 with a neck injury.  

Derrick Cope

For me, the worst of the first-time Daytona winners was Derrick Cope. He won in 1990 in his 72nd start and won only once more in his NASCAR career. I don't begrudge him the win, but at the time I was on the edge of my seat cheering like crazy for Dale Earnhardt to win his first Daytona 500.  Earnhardt began the final lap in the lead with victory all but certain. He ran over a chunk of bell housing a mile from the finish and Cope sailed past the limping Earnhardt for the win.  

Sterling Marlin

In 1994 Sterling Marlin won after 279 starts in the Daytona 500. He won nine more races in a long career. Both Neil Bonnet and Rodney Orr died in crashes during that ill-fated speed week.   

As an aside, in 1998, Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500. He had won more than 30 races on the speedway but not the 500.  I was both yelling and crying to finally see him win the 500. Which made the next first time win the saddest of all. 

Michael Waltrip

In 2001 Michael Waltrip, brother of three-time champion Darrell Waltrip, broke NASCAR's longest streak without a win when he won the Daytona 500.  It was his 463rd NASCAR start. I had followed him for years hoping to see him win. Waltrip drove for Dale Earnhardt's team as did Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was Rookie of the Year in NASCAR's top series in 2000. 

At the beginning of the final lap, Waltrip was in front followed by Dale Jr. and then Earnhardt Sr.  A mile into the lap Waltrip and Junior pulled away. Earnhardt Sr. and Kenny Schaeder collided in Turn 3. Michael Waltrip celebrated in victory lane while his brother Darrell, one of the race announcers, teared up in the booth seeing his little brother finally win.

Then someone whispered to Michael Waltrip the Earnhardt Sr. was in grave condition and getting flown to a hospital. The celebration ended and soon we all learned Dale Earnhardt Sr. had died. Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500 again in 2003. Dale Jr. would win the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014 before retiring in 2017. 

Trevor Bayne

In 2011 rookie Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 in his second NASCAR start. He is the youngest winner of 500, just 20 years old.  By 2018 he was out of racing. He never won another race after the 2011 Daytona 500.

Which brings us back to 2021 Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell. I am also back as a NASCAR fan.  This year, the top series will have seven road course races and a dirt event at Bristol.  Seven road courses and a dirt race along with four superspeedway events will put enough variety in the schedule that the dull mile and a half ovals will not determine the who gets into the playoffs.  

Even when I stopped watching the series, this hangs in library/extra bedroom in my house.


Monday, February 15, 2021

One Professor, Two Books, Two Americas

Space and Time in Special Relativity  by N.David Mermin

Two very good books on Special Relativity were written by the same professor at the beginning of his career and at the end of his career.  Together they show how much America has changed between 1968 when the first book was written and 2004 when the second was published.  

In the late 1960s during the zenith of science in American culture, N. David Mermin, a young professor of physics at Cornell University wrote SpaceTime and Special Relativity. I love this book. 

Mermin wrote the book after hosting a summer seminar for high school physics teachers. He taught the group special relativity with the goal of giving them the information they needed to teach special relativity in their high schools. Mermin’s book was published the year before the moon landing. 

He believed that special relativity could be taught and understood at the high school level because the only math required is algebra and trigonometry. In 2005, as he neared retirement, Mermin published a new edition of the book titled It’s About Time

It's About Time

The new edition reflected almost 40 years of teaching a course in science for non-science majors. In the preface, he also wistfully admitted his dream of high school kids learning special relativity had evaporated. The new edition is a better book with better examples, but I prefer the first one. 

Mermin has an interlude between chapters 10 and 12, a "Relativisitic Tragicomedy" in which he makes fun of Absolutists. He attacks his anti-science enemies with the same confidence and brio he brings to the subject of the book. For me the book helped me to see the real flaw in the Young Earth Creationist arguments and at the same time gave me a picture of God in the universe that Einstein gets beautifully right and the Creationists get horribly wrong. 

Before the new book was published, I wrote Mermin a letter telling him what I saw in his book. He wrote a long letter back telling me he was happy to hear what I found in the book and saying if he writes a new edition, it would not have a Chorus. It doesn’t.

Thinking about these books together reminded me how different Life, the Universe, and Everything looked when America was the world center of science and innovation.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Paragon Becomes Moral Relativist

The moral absolutes of peace and prosperity can melt like snow in the Sahara when faced with a threat--real or perceived. A man devoted to love and the Kingdom of Heaven fifty years ago now believes the election of Democrats will be the end of Christian America.  

When I got to my first active-duty base in October of 1972, I got a roommate.  Since my first service was the Air Force, I only had one roommate, not eight or a dozen.  My roommate was another 19-year-old named Don.  

He was unlike anyone I had known growing up in a northern suburb of Boston.  I never knew a teenager who was seriously religious.  I grew up nominally Jewish, but did not have a Jewish mother, so most Jews didn't think I was Jewish.  

Don was in Church Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday evening and maybe more than that if he could.  He took the Bible literally and seriously and wanted to tell everyone about Jesus.  He was also a great roommate. He was clean, neat, did not play loud music and was gone a lot--at Church.  

If Don had been a soldier, he could have been "Bible" in "Fury." Don was that sincere about his faith.  I lost touch with Don when I left the Air Force in 1974.  In 2019 he saw a post I made on and Air Force veteran Facebook page and called me.  We talked a couple of times, but we did not continue speaking.  He was a clearly a Trump supporter so we stopped talking before we had a dispute over politics.

This week, with Trump out of office and the impeachment trial underway, I thought I would ask Don what he was thinking about the state of the country.  

I called and left a message.  His phone flipped to voice mail and the greeting was "For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten ... " ending by identifying the words read as John 3:16 and asking me to leave a message.  

The next day he called.  I first told him the impression he made on me 49 years ago.  All the rest of us in the barracks lived to get high and get laid, but he had a higher purpose.  In 1972 he was against sex outside marriage, smoking, drinking, gambling, drugs, greed, lying, and all the other Thou Shalt Nots of the Bible.  

So I asked him how he and other Christians could support a perpetual fountain of sin like Trump.  His first reason was abortion, we would return to that every few minutes.  The other was Israel.  He acknowledged Trump lies, but said all politicians lie and believes Trump is no different.  

After we exhausted all of the various reasons why it was the right thing for Christians to attack Bill Clinton based on character while excusing Trump, he got to the central issue of his support for an unrepentant and bragging sinner.  Don believes the country went wrong in the 50s when prayer started to be removed from school.  He said America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles and that America stopped honoring God and chaos followed: sex, drugs, rock and roll, abortion, and defeat in the Vietnam War.

I asked how he felt about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  America was an apartheid state until Jim Crow laws were dismantled. He thought a white man was always at a disadvantage now because of quotas.  And he was very angry about political correctness--that if he says the wrong thing even in jest and someone is offended he could lose his job or worse. 

When we talked about January 6 and Trump's attempt to steal the election and take power as a dictator, Don said he would not support that. If the coup had succeeded support would not be an issue, I said. Free and fair elections would have ended in 2018. He said the election of Democrats this year would mean there would never be another free election, that Democrats would rig the elections going forward. 

For me, January 6 very nearly ended American democracy. For him, democracy did end on that day.  At one point, I asked him if he could tell someone about Jesus with a MAGA hat on.  Forty-nine years ago, Don could and did tell people about Jesus in chow hall, in the latrine, at bus stops, and anywhere else he could.  

Nixon was President when we were roommates. Watergate unfolded during that time. I can't remember caring about it. I don't remember ever talking about politics with Don. At that time Pentacostals like him were more likely to be apolitical than concerned with politics.  

But nearly fifty years later, a country with legal abortion, legal gay marriage, and what he perceives as cancel culture is not his country. Trump, as I have heard in many focus group reports, is the choice of people who believe fake history conjured by the likes of Michael Barton  whose books have been debunked by historians. He and others like him have created the myths that fill the minds of Believers when they hear MAGA.  America was great in the 50s. America was great in the Antebellum south. America was great when Andrew Jackson broke treaties with Native Americans.  

So Don voted for Trump in 2016 to save America from Hillary Clinton. He voted for Trump in 2020 to save America from Radical Agenda of Joe Biden.  And after listening to the blizzard of lies from Trump, he believes it is the Democrats who will be stealing all the elections from this day forward.  

Somehow Don's moral certainty of 1972 has slid full-throated support of a man was willing to overthrow the government and cheering when it almost happened. 

Trading the Kingdom of Heaven for the Tyranny of Trump seems to me a very bad deal, and sadly, one made by millions.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Field Guide to Flying Death: Dumb Bombs, Russia and Syria

US Army Air Corps B-17 Flying Fortress dropping "dumb" bombs 
on Germany in World War II

 During World War II and for decades after, "dumb" or unguided bombs were the only way to put explosives on target from the air.  Beginning in the Gulf War, America and other nations started using "smart" or guided bombs.  

In 1999 when American B-2s bombed Belgrade, Pentagon spokespersons said they could not only hit a specific building, but put a bomb in a specific doorway of a building. 

Beginning in September 2015, Russian strategic bombers flew from Ossetia near the Republic of Georgia in Southern Russia and bombed targets in Syria.  They claimed to be fighting ISIS, but hit civilian targets, causing thousands of casualties. The Russian bombers dropped "dumb" bombs.  Various news outlets at the time speculated that the Russians used dumb bombs because these bombs are much cheaper than guided weapons. Up to 100 times cheaper.  The Miami Herald wrote this.

From top: Tu-95, Tu-160 and Tu-22 Strategic Bombers

In his book The Road to Unfreedom Timothy Snyder said Russia began bombing Syria three weeks after Germany announced it would take in a half million refugees. 

"Russian aircraft dropped non-precision ("dumb") bombs from high altitudes. ... Russia was not targeting ISIS bases. Human rights organizations reported the Russian bombing of mosques, clinics, hospitals, refugee camps, water treatment plants and cities in general." (pages 198-199)

Dumb bombs made the refugee crisis worse. Putin's goal, according to Snyder, was to destabilize Europe. By making the refugee crisis worse in Europe, the Russian bombing campaign played to the xenophobia of the fastest-rising candidate in the American Presidential election. That candidate would eventually take the side of Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies.

The dumb bombs were dropped by a man with a smart plan.  

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Field Guide to Domestic Terrorists: Boogaloo Boys

The Boogaloo Boys--terrorists in floral prints.

For my second terrorist group, I picked the Boogaloo Boys.  They are the newest terrorist group with a large following in America.  They are gun-loving fools who think they can tear down America and still have 5G phone service, toilet paper and dinners with mom.  

Their newness shows just how successful the last four years have been in promoting anarchy.  Every right-wing terrorist group has flourished under trump. they are his people.  

From the Anti-Defmation League:  The boogaloo movement is a developing anti-government extremist movement that arose in 2019 and features a loose anti-government and anti-police ideology. The participation of boogaloo adherents in 2020’s anti-lockdown and Black Lives Matter protests has focused significant attention on the movement, as have the criminal and violent acts committed by some of its adherents.

Before there was a boogaloo movement, there was the concept of “the boogaloo” itself: a slang phrase used as a shorthand reference for a future civil war that became popular in various fringe circles in late 2018. By 2019, people ranging from gun rights activists to libertarians and anarchocapitalists freely used the term “boogaloo,” urging people to be “boogaloo ready” or even to “bring on the boogaloo.”  The term itself didn’t specify a type of civil conflict, allowing different types of extremists to insert their own particular fantasies as the concept spread on numerous discussion forums and social media sites.

The term itself derives from a longstanding joke referencing the 1984 film Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, in which the first part of the film’s title is replaced by something else to suggest some sort of sequel.  When George W. Bush followed in his father’s footsteps to the U.S. presidency, for example, some people jokingly referred to it as “Bush 2: Electric Boogaloo.”

More ADL info here.

Key Points:

  • The boogaloo movement is an anti-government extremist movement that formed in 2019. In 2020, boogalooers increasingly engaged in real world activities as well as online activities, showing up at protests and rallies around gun rights, pandemic restrictions and police-related killings.
  • The term “boogaloo” is a slang reference to a future civil war, a concept boogalooers anticipate and even embrace.
  • The ideology of the boogaloo movement is still developing but is primarily anti-government, anti-authority and anti-police in nature.
  • Most boogalooers are not white supremacists, though one can find white supremacists within the movement.
  • The boogalooers’ anti-police beliefs prompted them to participate widely in the Black Lives Matters protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
  • Boogalooers rely on memes and in-jokes, as well as gear and apparel, to create a sense of community and share their ideology.
  • Boogalooers have been arrested for crimes up to and including murder and terrorist plots.

The Atlantic magazine recently wrote about the Civil War dreams of the Boogaloo Boys.

Field Guide to Domestic Terrorists: The Oath Keepers

Oath Keepers charge up the steps of the Capitol on January 6  The Oath Keepers, a white supremacist terrorist group, had a big role in the i...