Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Skin Deep Politics

American politics can often appear shallow, but who would have thought it was only skin deep.

Last week the New York Times, in conjunction with CBS News, published their latest poll on the US presidential race. And Oh, what a shock:

After years of growing political polarization, much of the divide in American politics is partisan. But Americans’ perceptions of the fall presidential election between Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, also underlined the racial discord that the poll found. More than 80 percent of black voters said they had a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama; about 30 percent of white voters said they had a favorable opinion of him.

On the other side, about 35% of whites have a positive opinion of McCain, compared to only 5% of blacks. Layer on this more research showing that about 30% of Americans admit to feelings of racial bias.

Then this week John McCain, who has a history of melanoma, announced that he's had a spot removed from his face, which is undergoing further testing. In a speech yesterday, McCain urged all Americans to use sunscreen and stay out of the sun if possible.

Both presumptive candidates have skin in the election game, literally. For one, it is about race, and for the other, age.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

National Insanity

In 1790 the population of what is now the USA was about 3.9 million, or 41/2 people per square mile of settled territories. About 2.3 million were immigrants, and about 20% of that population was African (but rising to 43% in slave states like South Carolina). Indigenous native Americans still represented a substantial part of the population, mostly in the west. The life expectancy at birth was less than 40 years. Possessions of colonists were few, but in a study of estate records from the time, as high as 70% of households had a firearm, compared to only 25% who owned a Bible. Most guns had a flintlock mechanism for firing, and required hand-loading with shot and powder.

In 2008 the population of the USA is about 301 million, or about 85 people per square mile. Almost all the population are descendants of immigrants, and about 16% are African American. The native American population has all but vanished. Life expectancy at birth is well over 70 years. Possessions are many, with about 35% of households reporting owning a gun and as high as 90% owning a Bible. There are something close to 200 million licensed firearms in the US (households with firearms typically own more than one), of which about 65 million are handguns capable of carrying up to 10 rounds that can each be fired in quick succession.

At the end of 1791 the Second Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified providing a right to bear arms. This last week the Supreme Court decided that the amendment provided individuals with these rights, and made it very difficult for states to pass legislation limiting the ability to own and carry guns.

I'm not expert on American political democracy, and as a Brit I'm more familiar with the parliamentary process and common law (we have no constitution providing fundamental rights and obligations). And the idea of enshrining 'unalienable rights' for the individual seems very American to me. All that said, has nobody noticed that things have changed around here??? At what point do you acknowledge that laws passed hundreds of years ago are irrelevant and need to be reexamined?

There are a lot of complex arguments about this issue, and there's a mountain of research that provides supporting evidence for all sides. But take this, from an NRA-sponsored report:

The United States has the highest male teen homicide rate in the industrialized world (23.0 per 100,00 among males aged 15 to 19 in 1996). A 1997 study that compared firearm death rates in 26 industrialized countries among children less than 15 years old found that the firearms homicide rate among U.S. children was nearly 16 times higher than the rate among children in the other 25 industrialized countries combined.32 In 1996 the rate of firearms homicide was highest among males aged 20 to 24 (30.3 per 100,0000)—more than five times the firearms homicide rate for all Americans (6.0 per 100,000).

What typically follows in any debate about the facts above is largely abstract, and centers on ideas of individual liberty. This is a national insanity. The focus of the debate on guns should not be on any sense of individual right, and we should instead be pouring all our resources into creating and enforcing strong federal laws that seriously limit access to all firearms. Because I'm sick of reading things like this. And this. And this.