Posted by: David Offutt | November 22, 2019

Plutocracy v. Republic: the Constitutions of Chile and the USA

Charles Koch and James McGill Buchanan: Koch wants a plutocratic constitution for the USA, and Buchanan wrote one for Chile in 1980. (Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo; Photos by MBisanz/Wikimedia, Dechateau/Wikimedia,Atlas Network/Wikimedia and Thinkstock)

The protests that began in Chile in October have been calmed by a two-page compact called an “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution.” In April 2020 a referendum will be on a ballot to ask the voters if they want the Constitution of 1980 to be replaced. The billionaire president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, consented to this, and he certainly runs the risk of being accused by his fellow plutocrats – the super rich – of being a traitor to his class. He may be not just in political danger but also in physical danger as a result.

Chile, like the United States, is a very prosperous country with a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots.  You may recall that President George W. Bush admitted his supporting base to be “the haves and have-mores.” In the U.S. today, three men – with the last names of Bezos, Gates, and Buffett – have more wealth than half our population combined, the 165 million Americans with the lowest incomes. Income inequality is worse here than any other developed country in the world, but Chile isn’t far behind.

Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett: These three were major beneficiaries of the Trump-Ryan-McConnell GOP tax cut for the rich in 2017. Buffett is at least embarrassed that his tax rate is lower than all Amercan taxpayers who are not in the upper 1%, but he didn’t turn down his tax cut. (Photo by Access 24)

Even though the protests began because of an increase in the subway rates in Santiago, the nation’s capital, reducing the fares won’t solve the problem.  The problem is the constitution that was written after Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship came to power in the early 1970s. It was a masterpiece of the plutocracy establishing a government “of the people, by the rich, and for the rich,” designed mostly by James McGill Buchanan, an American economist.

Buchanan brilliantly set it up so that whenever Chile’s dictatorship ended and the nation returned to a republican form of government, the government would still not be able to do anything to improve the lives of the vast majority of its people. It created a plutocratic paradise: unions were banned; education, social security, and health care were privatized; majority will could be suppressed; free market capitalism could not be regulated for the public good; a balanced budget was required to prevent taxation of the rich; a supermajority was required for any change in the laws, and more.

James McGill Buchanan, Jr.: He’s the American economist most responsible for the rejection of Keynesian economics now endorsed by great wealth and made popular by Ronald Reagan. Did you ever wonder why Obama’s stimulus bill was so meager that it didn’t produce a long-lasting robust economy that benefited the middle class instead of the gradually improving one we have? (Photo from the Nobel Foundation Archive)

Buchanan’s 1980 final document, the ‘Constitution for Liberty,” guaranteed economic liberty for the few with vast wealth and a permanent restraint on the people to prevent majority rule for generations to come. When the Chilean republic was restored in 1990, 40 amendments were added to attempt to make their constitution compatible to the needs of the people – and 40 weren’t enough. Buchanan had embedded Plutocratic rule into the constitution so well that over the past 30 years the equality gap has continued to widen.

It should be no surprise that Buchanan became the economic and ideological hero of the billionaire Koch brothers (Charles and the late David) and their donor network of hundreds of other millionaires and billionaires. Buchanan showed them the type of economic professors they wanted in all our colleges and universities. They began contributing money to higher education with the understanding that they approved the economists that were hired to teach. More importantly, with his Chilean constitution he provided them with a perfect road map on how to change our fragile American republic into an official American plutocracy.

After David Koch lost his race for vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, the Koch brothers decided to essentially acquire ownership of the Republican Party and use it as their vehicle to establish permanent plutocratic rule. From Ronald Reagan’s election to today, that’s basically where we’ve been heading with an ever-expanding income equality gap. The Supreme Court’s malicious 2010 Citizen’s United 5 to 4 ruling declared that money was free speech and opened the flood gates into purchasing the American government.

Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton: If Bill’s hands were wider apart, he might be discussing the income inequality gap that he and Obama contributed to. (Photo from the AP)

The two “Democrats” since 1980, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were hated passionately by the Republicans because neither one’s origins indicated they were worthy of being president, both raised taxes on the rich, both took steps to protect the environment, and both addressed health care needs in some way. Regardless, neither Clinton nor Obama changed the neo-liberal economic policies that exploded the income-inequality gap. Obama’s response to the Great Recession was enough to prevent another Great Depression but wasn’t enough to reverse course and even expanded income inequality. Thus, with all this in mind, I consider Clinton and Obama to be the best of the “Republican” presidents in the past 50 years – at least they did some good things and neither conspired to subvert the constitution.

The Koch donor network has used the Republican Party to get control of the federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial branches) and of the state governments as well. If they can get the governorships and complete control of state legislatures in 37 states, they can constitutionally create a “Convention of the States” to alter the U.S. Constitution.

Charles Koch: He and his late brother David founded multiple think tanks like the Cato Institute to achieve methods to get Americans to vote against their own best interests in favor of what is best for the “job makers” instead of the “moochers.” Their donor network of others of vast wealth meets secretly periodically to plot their strategies. They endorse candidates on the national and state levels to advance the ideas of J.M. Buchanan and Ayn Rand. (Photo by Nikki Khan/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)

I shouldn’t have to tell you that the representatives that they send to that convention will not be of the caliber of those who attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787. I still contend that the delegation that was sent to Philadelphia in ’87 was the greatest assemblage of great minds for a single purpose in history, and even they did not create a perfect document. However, the United States Constitution was designed so that it could evolve with the times and allow the government to respond to extraordinary needs. Changes can be excruciating slow, but they can occur if – and only if – the moral and political will exists. These are factors that will no doubt be eliminated in the plutocracy-friendly amendments or new constitution as proposed by the Koch donor network in their “Convention of the States”.

So far, 15 states support a convention, 7 states have one half of their legislatures approving, and 15 other states have proposals before them.  The primary goals are to prevent majority rule and protect the sovereignty of great wealth.

Posted by: David Offutt | November 4, 2019

Chilean Protests Bring Ecuadorian Memories

Ecuadorian military police use a water cannon to prevent a crowd from gathering during two weeks of protests April 2-14, 1978, in Alameda Park in Quito. (Photo: David Offutt)

About three weeks into October 2019, subway rates in Santiago, Chile, the nation’s capital and largest city, were increased. The results were public protests, rioting, burning buildings, and eleven deaths. Unless you know of the extreme income-inequality that exists in Chile, this may seem like a rather excessive reaction to a raise of subway fares. However, it brought back personal memories of the April 2-14, 1978, bus riots that took place in Quito, Ecuador, when I taught in that city.

The bus rates in the city were scheduled to increase from the equivalent of our 5 cents to 7 cents on Sunday, April 1. I thought this was public knowledge, but it wasn’t. Months earlier, I had been tipped off of the increase by the director general of my school, the Colegio Americano de Quito. The treasurer of our school was on the city’s board of directors and had told the director general of the plan – and it was a secret plan. Two cents for the huge number of people who had trouble finding one cent was a big deal. College students would lead the protests.

Many buses still operated during the bus riots, but none of them had any windows. This one is in the “Old City” of Quito. (Photo: David Offutt)

When I got home, I marked the date on my calendar. I figured we would try to hold classes on the Monday following the increase and give it up the rest of the week. I planned to drive to the beach at Atacames for the remainder of the week. That’s exactly what happened.

A bus was a bus, and just because it was a school bus didn’t protect it from the protesters’ rocks. School started in mayhem with the buses of students being harassed with windows broken. Tear gas was thrown over the school’s surrounding walls and into the compound. Teachers fled their classrooms into the faculty lounge, many in tears. I was the only teacher who wasn’t surprised. We shut down before noon.

Tuesday morning, I phoned Nancy Sotomayor, the principal of the high school English language division of the school. “Nancy, it looks like we’re done for the rest of the week, huh?’ “David, things look bad, but I don’t know.” “So, Nancy, there’s no point coming in till next Monday, right?” “Well, okay.” That was pretty brazen of me, but I knew I was right.  I went to the beach.

David Offutt on the beach at Atacames, Ecuador (1978). Outside Quito, the bus riots had no impact. Here I am early one morning in front of several restaurants that face the Pacific Ocean. Atacames was a six-hour drive from Quito, My last class ended at noon on Fridays, so I usually went there one weekend a month. This was a special opportunity. (Photo: David Offutt)

I got back home on Saturday evening, and, on Sunday, Judy Moore and I drove into downtown Quito in my Datsun pickup. Judy was also a teacher at the school, was from England, and had experienced a violent revolt in Greece. We parked near Alameda Park, which separates the Old City from the New City. Military police were everywhere. Water cannons and tear gas were used to disperse protesters. People were scattering. Judy got antsy when we heard gunfire. The police were using blanks and aiming high. Nevertheless, I suggested we return to the car.

It had been relatively easy to get there, but by the time we were leaving, protesters had put up barricades blocking the streets with burning tires, burning boards, dirt – whatever worked. We’d get so far, get stopped, back up, and try another street. I had flashbacks of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara trying to escape the burning Atlanta.

A police plow removes dirt dumped by protesters from a street around Alameda Park, which separated the “Old City” from the “New City” – April 1978. (Photo: David Offutt)

We were back in school by Monday of the second week. The school buses had no windows but were no longer being thrown at. Sporadic protests continued but were more subdued, mainly in the Old City where the government offices were. The military junta that ran the country as a dictatorship liked the status and glamour of being in power, but it really didn’t like using its power against the people. In fact, it was looking forward to turning over power to an elected president soon after the Quito schools’ summer vacation. Somewhat embarrassed by its inability to suppress the riots, the junta decided to announce that the military would shoot to kill if any protests occurred after the end of the second week. That ended the rioting.

A boarded-up bus in the “Old City”: The young man hanging from the right side of the bus was one of my history students. As he rode by me, he hollered, “I got hit by a rock about a block back.” (Photo: David Offutt)

The income-inequality in Ecuador in the latter 1970s was conspicuous, so the bus riots were certainly understandable and predictable. Today, Chile and the United States have among the greatest gaps in income-equality in the developed world. We the people of the USA seem to be pretty docile about it and accept it as the norm. If it means increasing taxes on the uber-rich, we’ve learned not to expect affordable public transit, modernized infrastructure, universal health care, a healthier environment, or affordable college education from our government. As long as we are number 1 as a military power, we appear content to be second or third-rate in most everything else, so there are very few public protests.

Chileans, on the other hand, without their knowing about it, had permanent income-inequality written into their 1980 constitution by plutocrats from the USA during the rise of the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s, and now they’re just about fed up with rule by their upper one percent. But that’s another story for another day.

Posted by: David Offutt | October 22, 2019

7 Book Covers in 7 Days: Books That Had an Early Impact on My Life

David Offutt reading Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” (July 1964) – My mother took this photo of me in my bedroom in El Dorado, Arkansas, during the summer before my senior year in high school. And yes, that’s a poker table on the right.

Rick Ridder, a friend for nearly 40 years and a current “Friend” on Facebook, recently posted on his Timeline a 7-day series of book covers. The idea was to identify by its cover a book that was influential to him, without a review or summary of its contents. I thought that was a good idea and decided to do the same. So, on seven consecutive days I posted the following book covers with minimal commentary. It occurred to me that I should combine them into a single essay – expanded with more anecdotes – and post them on this blog so that my readers will know a little more about me.

This is Day 1:

When I was in the 9th grade my older brother John and I watched a late-night movie on TV called Tortilla Flat (1942) starring Spencer Tracy. I loved it. John said that if I thought the movie was good, I should read the book. He handed it to me from his collection, and I’ve been an avid reader since. Throughout high school, I was known by many as the Steinbeck expert. I particularly enjoyed my 10th grade English teacher telling me that she didn’t like Steinbeck. That inspired me to read at least one of his books during each grading period just to let her know I wasn’t going to be influenced by her opinion. A month or so later, I asked her if she had heard who had been awarded that year’s Nobel Prize for Literature – her answer was “No.” After I told her it was Steinbeck, she asked for what book he won it. I had to explain that the prize was for life achievement and not for a specific work.

This is Day 2:

This is the only novel that I read in one day – and I did it three times. That was quite a feat for me. Both my brothers were speed readers, depriving me of any remaining genes for that talent. I got stuck with a fusion problem, causing my eyes to pull apart when I’m reading – so it’s slow going. I saw the movie, which starred Gregory Peck, first and loved it so much that I feared I would be disappointed with the book. Not so. Horton Foote’s superb screenplay actually improved on the book in a couple of lines, but he also had to leave out so much of the story. If you are not sure you would want to read the book, just read the first paragraph – it’s so well-constructed that it will draw you into the rest of the book. Atticus Finch and Gregory Peck had me convinced that I wanted to be a lawyer, so I went off to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, fall 1965, to major in pre-law in the College of Business Administration. I came to my senses, and in spring 1966 I majored in history with English as a second major in the College of Arts and Sciences – not in the College of Education – to be a teacher.

This is Day 3:

I’ve never understood why this little gem, full of poetic prose, is not better known. This delicious Bradbury novel is my favorite of all his works that I’ve read, which include Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man, and The Martian Chronicles. I’ve always thought it should be filmed as a mini-series on PBS’s Masterpiece, but sadly it’s never been filmed at all. In my 12th grade English class, for our book reports we were supposed to select books from a specified list. This book was not on the list, so I asked if I could break the rule for this unique and special book. My teacher said, “I trust your judgment.” How lucky I was to have a teacher like she. A favorite passage: “You did not hear them coming. You hardly heard them go. The grass bent down, sprang up again. They passed like cloud shadows downhill…the boys of summer, running.”



This is Day 4:

Mary Renault wrote a number of superb historical novels about ancient Greece including this one about the first 20 years in the life of Alexander of Macedonia – before he was “the Great.” I loaned my first copy to a teaching colleague at the Colegio Americano de Quito in Ecuador in the mid-1970s and saw him holding up one page at a time to read it. The binding had worn out, so I knew it was time to buy a new copy. My first love as a teacher was U.S. history, but I came to love ancient history just as much. I even introduced a western civilization class at Xavier Prep in New Orleans in the 1980s.

This is Day 5:

Having driven the interstates, state highways and back roads of our 48 contiguous states, this travelogue is special to me. (I took a plane to Hawaii and a ferry and bicycle to Alaska’s first city – Ketchikan.) The writer even had some similar personal experiences as I’ve had, so it took me forever to read this book. Every passage reminded me of something, and I would reminisce in my mind forever and a day before I could get back to the book to turn a page – isn’t that attention deficit disorder? Runners up for this selection were Douglas Brinkley’s The Magic Bus and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

This is Day 6:

This book was first published in 1963 by the provocative Grove Press. For some reason my older brother John was home from the University of Arkansas at that time and had the local bookstore (Carter’s Book Store) order it for him because the store refused to stock it – such is life in a small town in southern Arkansas. My brother had eclectic tastes and sought things outside the mainstream. He was a very peculiar guy, but I learned a lot from him. I bought a paperback copy in the ’70s. Once, in the early ‘80s, I loaned it to a friend in New Orleans, but he promptly returned it after reading only a few chapters, complaining “Rechy uses too many LY adverbs.” He uses them correctly, so I didn’t have a problem with them. Most writers avoid them today. I don’t know why. The cities of night include El Paso, NYC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans

This is Day 7:


There are two titles for this book. In the mid-‘70s, I was told by Peace Corps volunteers that Thomsen’s Living Poor had been required-reading for them when they were in training. They all said that they could not live the way Moritz did. I met Moritz in Quito, Ecuador, when I was the history teacher at the American School there, and we became good friends. He was still living poor and had a small apartment that was appropriately behind Libri Mundi, the best bookstore in the city. Later, I, with my Datsun pickup, helped him move to a slightly larger and more private apartment a few blocks away. Moritz was the Gertrude Stein of Quito – he was a magnet who attracted creative people. Paul Theroux stopped in to visit Moritz when he was passing through and working on his next book The Old Patagonian Express. For the re-issue of Living Poor, which was originally published in 1969, Moritz begged Souvenir Press not to change the title of his memoir, but they did anyway. The photo of Moritz below was taken by me in my backyard in Tumbaco, Ecuador, which was located about a 30-minute drive into the valley to the east and below Quito. It’s the dust jacket photo for Moritz’s sequel to Living PoorThe Farm on the River of Emeralds. Houghton Mifflin Company neglected to accredit me with the photo so Moritz did so when he autographed my copy. Moritz mentioned that I took the photo – and several others – under difficult circumstances. He complained the whole time I was shooting. I thought he was just being his old curmudgeon self, but he went into the hospital the next day. An old lung fungus that he contracted on Ecuador’s coastal jungles and rain forest had come back on him. (Eland Books in the UK has reprinted it again in its original title.)


Posted by: David Offutt | October 4, 2019

Responses to Trump’s Call to Zelensky

On July 25, 2019, President Donald J. Trump had a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he requested political dirt on Joe Biden in return for arms to help Ukraine’s defense against Russia.

In an editorial Sunday, September 29, 2019, in the El Dorado News-Times, The News-Times Editorial Board placed quotes from my Arkansas district’s Republican representatives in Washington and in the governor’s mansion – Senators Cotton and Boozman, Representative Westerman, and Governor Hutchinson – on their takes concerning “Trump’s Ukraine call” and asked for local readers to respond to their responses. Here’s mine, but it’s severely limited because of a 500-word limit.

Senator Tom Cotton (R. Ark.)

Cotton: “Despite an unprecedented act of transparency by the president in releasing the transcript of his call with a foreign leader, the Democrats nevertheless plunged headlong into their non-stop obsession with impeachment. I only wish they’d get the facts before jumping to a conclusion, while dedicating a fraction of the energy to improving the lives of Arkansans.”

Senator Tom Cotton praised the president for releasing a partial transcript of the phone call, but apparently the senator didn’t read it himself. I did, and I also read the whistleblower’s complaint. I’m sure that Mr. Trump found nothing wrong with the call because it was full of flattery from the Ukrainian president. Even new rulers like Zelensky have learned that it is necessary to inflate Trump’s ego to get along with him. Trump probably thought there was nothing wrong in his asking for dirt on a political opponent in return for arms defending Ukraine from Russian attacks. “I am the state,” said Louis XIV, and Trump thinks the same. Trump’s staff definitely knew what he had done and began covering his tracks for him the best they could. It was, however, nice of Mr. Trump to provide the evidence that showed what he had done and why he must be impeached.

Senator John Boozman (R. Ark.)

Boozman: “The Senate voted unanimously to request that the whistle-blower complaint be turned over to the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is the responsible in which to investigate accusations. The Speaker is ignoring this process with her blatantly partisan tactics. Democrats have long sought to weaken the President, appease their base and further divide the country through impeachment. This latest action demonstrates their willingness to blindly follow this obsession regardless of the facts.”

Senator John Boozman praised the Senate for voting to send the whistleblower’s complaint to the Senate Intelligence Committee but nothing else he said made any sense at all. He attacked Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not following the investigative processes, but, of course, that’s precisely what she’s been doing. Because of the multiple impeachable offenses committed by Trump since he entered office, Ms. Pelosi has been under pressure since January to do what should have been during Trump’s first two years when the Republican majority prevented any investigations from being held. She delayed until the whistleblower’s “smoking gun” shot her in face before she opened official impeachment hearings. Other investigations have been going on since the Democrats regained the House in January.

Representative Bruce Westerman (R. Ark. 4th District)

Westerman: “There’s no House vote, no select committees, no apparent change from the status quo – we’ve already been embroiled in impeachment inquiries for two years. House Democrats are a solution in search of a problem, and they’re keeping Congress from the business of legislating. If Democrats truly believed the president is in violation of the law, they could start the impeachment process. Instead, all we’ve seen so far are press conferences, political posturing and hasty, uninformed conclusions.”

Nothing that Representative Bruce Westerman said made sense. He said that impeachment hearings had been going on for two years, completely forgetting that Republicans had neglected Congress’s duties of providing checks and balances during Trump’s first two years. The House has only been doing its jobs – both investigating and legislating – since January of this year. He said that spending time on Trump’s activities was “keeping Congress from the business of legislating.” Actually, the House has been very busy since January. In every Sunday issue, I read the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s “How Arkansas’s congressional delegation voted.” Sadly, I must admit that my delegates (those mentioned above) usually disappoint me and make me feel embarrassed and ashamed. Mitch McConnell’s Senate usually ignores House legislation altogether but will frequently cast votes to confirm Trump’s extreme right-wing appointments.

Governor Asa Hutchinson (R. Ark.)

Hutchinson: “The president should have wide latitude in conversations with global leaders, but we need to probe into that. It was an unwise conversation the president has had. All we’ve seen is a loose transcript of the conversation. There is not enough in it to say there was a quid pro quo… The facts have to be developed. Hopefully this can be resolved quickly. No one wants another Mueller-like investigation.”

At least Governor Asa Hutchinson acknowledged the president’s conversation with Zelensky to have been “unwise.” [Ironically, Mr. Hutchinson was one of the House prosecutors in the Senate impeachment trial of Bill Clinton.]

To place our constitutional system above party loyalty and fear of the president’s wrath will require the courage of political will and moral will to do the right thing. I wish I could be more optimistic about my congressional delegation’s ability to rise to the occasion.

*A version of this essay appeared in the El Dorado News-Times, Oct. 4, 2019)

Posted by: David Offutt | August 27, 2019

David Koch is Dead but Not His Dangerous Legacy

David Koch was a patron of the arts, a contributor to PBS, and other positive things. But he also had a dark side. (Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

David Koch (May 3, 1940 – August 23, 2019) is survived by his brother Charles (b. 1935), and they were collectively and notoriously known as the “Koch brothers.” There are two other brothers, Frederick and Bill, but they are not associated with the other two’s right-wing political activities or the Koch donor network.

I have written about the Koch brothers many times and have often referred to them to be among a group I call “The Wizards of Was.” (Read one of those columns here.) They have spent a lifetime attempting to return the United States to the glory days of the Gilded Age, which was in the late 19th century from the Civil War and Reconstruction Era to the Progressive Era. And we should give credit, or blame, to their unmitigated success because we are now in the 2nd Gilded Age. (Read one of my earlier columns on the Gilded Age here.)

Charles Koch – with his brother David – created Americans for Prosperity as their primary political arm to promote an anti-government agenda and advance the interests of the super-rich. Their Tea Party helped prevent a strong recovery from the Great Recession. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/for the Washington Post)

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner gave the former age its name in a book of that name in 1873. Think of it this way: if you gild, or coat, one end of a concrete block with gold paint, that coat might represent the 1 % with most of the money; the rest of the block, including the hollowed out parts of it, are the rest of us – the 99 %.

After David’s failed campaign for vice president on the 1980 Libertarian Party ticket, the brothers decided to gain a controlling interest in the Republican Party on the national, state, and local levels. Their donor network of like-thinking millionaires and billionaires has grown from around a dozen to over a thousand. Arkansas’s favorite senator Tom Cotton infamously blew off a traditional tomato festival campaign stop so as to audition for support at one of the Kochs’ semi-annual conventions.

The unifying factors among the eclectic super-rich Koch donor network are essentially these: low or no taxes on the rich; little or no regulation on corporations regarding pollution, wages, working conditions, gun safety, and endangered species; no national health care; no public projects to promote the public welfare or job creation, which means no spending on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure; and absolute opposition to majority rule, which is not in their best interests. Their patron saint, Ayn Rand, explained most of this in her book of essays “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

Rupert Murdoch created Fox “News” to promote the Republican Party and now influences the G.O.P.’s agenda, President Trump appears to get most of his “information” from Fox. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Kochs’ huge fortune was founded on fossil fuels, which is the reason they oppose any government regulations to limit the causes of climate change. The Kochs’ control of the Republican Party has made that party the most dangerous political organization in the world because of its refusal to address the issue of planetary suicide.

Combine the vast Koch donor network and the Republican Party with Wayne LaPierre’s National Rifle Association and Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine, Fox “News”, and you have a well-funded alliance that threatens public safety in the United States and the future of all life on earth.

Charles Koch, with his and his late brother’s donor network, will continue to be one of the most dangerous men in the world – not just in America.

Posted by: David Offutt | August 22, 2019

More Reflections on the Recent Mass Murders (Part 2)

Historian Barbara Tuchman documented how the nations of Europe in August 1914 stumbled into the mass slaughter of World War I and that no one knew how to prevent it.

The guns of August 2019 and the nearly instantaneous collapse of the moral will to do anything to prevent future tragedies of this kind caused me to reflect on a ride I took with an enthusiast of Donald J. Trump. Nearly two years ago, my Nissan mini-van broke down on me on I-530 near exit 3 south of Little Rock, Arkansas.  It was after 5 PM, so I needed to be towed to my home in El Dorado at the bottom of the state – around a two-hour drive. Thus began what seemed like the longest ride of my life.

I should have known I was in trouble the moment I began my transport home. My driver, who seemed to be in his mid to late twenties, started to light up a cigarette, but first he reluctantly asked if I minded. I told him that I preferred he not. I actually presumed that a reputable auto club would not allow its affiliated-drivers to smoke in its vehicles. Second-hand smoke is not just bad for allergies, sinuses, and lungs, but if you are in an enclosed vehicle, you and your clothes end up stinking something fierce. I also feared that we were going to have to make several cigarette stops along the way to feed his nicotine habit. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but he was hyper all the way to El Dorado.

President Donald J. Trump wearing one of his red Make America Great Again (MAGA) caps.

Right off the bat, he wanted to know whether I thought the country was heading in the right direction. I’ve spent a lifetime studying and/or teaching U.S. history, but he didn’t know that, so I wondered why he asked – me in particular – that question. At that time, I was aware that the Electoral College had recently inflicted upon us another minority president within sixteen years of the last one. This one knows nothing about government; is a racist and white nationalist, misogynist, xenophobe, megalomaniac, climate-change denier, anti-environmentalist, demagogue, con-artist, and pathological liar; is an authoritarian with a distaste for the rule of law and with a fondness for other authoritarians; is a plutocrat who favors the other super-rich and corporations over the working class and public servants; has appointed life-time appellate and supreme court justices who will limit equality and voting rights and expand plutocratic rule; came within one vote of sabotaging health care for millions of Americans without having a backup alternative; has placed people in agencies and advisory positions who are his sycophants and who don’t believe that their departments should work for the good of the people and the land; uses his office to promote his personal brand and wealth; and his boorish behavior is certainly not anything we  want our children to see, hear or emulate. Most of this was obvious throughout his campaign and well into his first year in office. So my immediate short answer to his question was: “No, we are definitely not moving in the right direction.”

David Offutt at the Monument of the Immigrant in New Orleans, Louisiana on a windy day in March 2016 – I proudly lived in the French Quarter during the 1980s. (Photo: David Offutt)

He took that ball and ran with it. He thought he agreed with me. “Neither do I, but Trump’s going turn things around.” Before I could clarify my position, he pointed off the highway and said, “I live over that way in a small community. My neighbors don’t like me. They’re always calling the police on me. The cops come and want to know ‘What’s all the shooting about?’ I’m just taking target practice.  Sometimes I’ll have friends over for a few beers, and we’ll all take target practice in my yard. I don’t know what the neighbors keep complaining about. The cops around here have gotten to know me pretty well.  I have over 40 assault rifles. I don’t have them to kill people with.  I just like ‘em. I built them myself.”

He continued, “One time, there were half a dozen deer in my front yard. I stepped outside and shot one of them and went back inside to take a nap. When I woke up, I went outside to deal with the deer.” This guy did not sound like a hunter to me – more of a killer. I was getting very uncomfortable and realized I shouldn’t antagonize him.   “I never leave the state without one of my guns. You know, when I drop you off in El Dorado, I may get a call to go pick up somebody in Louisiana to bring back to Arkansas. I don’t take it because I want kill someone – I just want to protect myself.”  I presumed he was letting me know that he had one of his assault rifles somewhere in the cab with us.

The dedication on the Monument to the Immigrant – New Orleans, unsurprisingly, is a “sanctuary city” (Photo: David Offutt, March 2016)

He added, “I was towing this black woman one time, and I told her I had a gun behind the seat. That scared her to death.  Ha. I was just making it up. You know, she made me stop the truck. She got out and wouldn’t get back in until I got rid of the gun. Ha.”

When we got to the Sheridan bypass, he was reminded of some of his youthful transgressions. (Sheridan is halfway between Little Rock and Fordyce and was a notorious traffic bottleneck on Highway 167 before the 12-mile bypass was completed.) “When they were laying the foundation for this road, I used to come out here late at night in my pickup and race up and down the road bed. I really tore it up. Once, three patrol cars finally corralled me.  Of course, I don’t do things like that anymore.

Detail of the Monument to the Immigrant, New Orleans, Louisiana (Photo: David Offutt, March 2016)

“I used to live in Sheridan,” he continued. “The cops here got to know me pretty well, too.  I got a lot of speeding tickets back then. Of course, I don’t do that anymore.” However, as soon as he said that he added one of his current transgressions: “I love these four-lanes. Late at night, some other trucker and I will race each other until one of us has to veer off. Haven’t been caught yet doing that.”

Then, he changed the subject. “What do you think about sanctuary cities?” Any city that thinks it makes its city safer if immigrants don’t fear incarceration for reporting a crime is fine with me. I also don’t want my local law enforcement officers wasting their time doing someone else’s job – they’re underpaid and overworked already. I’d rather they spend their time protecting me from people like my driver. At this moment, I just wanted to get home safely.  “If the truth be told, I don’t think about them very much. Why do you ask?” I replied.

Map of sanctuary states, counties, and cities – the term “sanctuary” has no legal meaning; however, places designated as such normally do not allow their police or municipal employees to ask anyone about their immigration status.

“They ought to be made to round up all those illegals. We can’t let those immigrants get away with breaking the laws, raping, pushing drugs, committing all sorts of violence. We need to lock those criminals up and get those lawbreakers out of this country.” He was rather emphatic about his perception of immigrants.  I hoped that my neighbors across my street remained in their house when we pulled up to drop off my car in front of my house. They are a large family from Mexico and the husband is a hard worker who owns a construction company, has a large crew, and is always busy, busy, busy.  We arrived well after dark, so fortunately my driver didn’t see them. And I did arrive safely, though.

The recent mass murders in Texas and Ohio, including the anti-Hispanic massacre in El Paso, briefly led to the hope that President Trump and the Republican-led Senate would finally join the national will to support universal background checks and maybe more regulations to improve gun safety in America. Those hopes evaporated after Wayne LaPierre, the emperor of the NRA, reminded the president whom he really works for. But I would feel safer if people like the guy who towed me home on that long, troubling ride didn’t have 40 assault weapons.

Posted by: David Offutt | August 13, 2019

Reflections on the Recent Mass Murders (Part 1 of 2)

The massacre in El Paso, Texas, on August 4, 2019, was fueled by a hatred of Hispanics and immigrants. (Photo: Mark Raltston/AFP/ Getty Images)

Several years ago, my black and white shorthair cat Cody had an infected wound above his left eye, so I took him to my vet, Jim Ralston. Jim, a former classmate of mine, cleaned and probed the wound, amazed that Cody tolerated his probing so deeply into the cat’s head. Cody was always a good patient, very appreciative of whatever you were doing to help him. My late father had said of him: “He’s a remarkable cat.” Jim said, “It looks like someone shot him with a BB gun.”

Cody: He was full-grown when he showed up in my back yard during an ice storm in January 2000; he was at least 17 when he passed away in 2015. I still miss him. (Photo: David Offutt)

A few days later, from my back yard I heard someone firing a gun several times from across the back alley. Needless to say, I went to investigate. A black woman was in her back yard firing some kind of pistol at a target. I asked as politely as possible, “You aren’t the one who shot my cat with a BB gun are you?” She insisted that she would never do anything like that. She also never took target practice back there ever again. That was the end of that.

Fortunately, during my forty years of teaching, I got guns away from only two of my students. One was what I would call a regular rifle. This was in the early seventies in eastern Arkansas before assault rifles were so proliferate. It was also after school and late evening. The young man told his two female friends, also my students, that he was going to kill himself and locked himself in his bedroom. One of the girls called me because she was aware that I knew him pretty well – he assisted me during my prep period at school. He let me into his room and handed me the rifle without hesitation. I don’t think he would have gone through with his threat, but you never know.

The other gun was a pistol, in a Texas high school classroom and in the early nineties. I saw a black student holding a pistol and simply asked him to “hand me that thing.” He and the gun were taken to the principal’s office. Other than the young man denying that I got the gun from him, it was all resolved without incident. It turned out that a white student brought the gun to school and was showing it to the guy who got caught with it. The white guy received in-school suspension for a week.

All of this took place before the mass shootings at the schools at Columbine, Newtown, Parkland, and – you know – the list goes on. Now we have back-to-back mass murders in El Paso and Dayton to add to another long list of horrors (Orlando, et al.). With the current proliferation of assault weapons for the last fifteen years, we are doomed to this sort of thing for the next generation or two – optimistically, of course. If assault weapons continue to be made available, the mass devastation will continue into infinity with increasing frequency.

President Bill Clinton signed the last meaningful check on assault weapons in 1994. However, he also signed a bill that included the Dickey Amendment in 1996 that prohibited government research into the cause of gun deaths. (Photo: AP file)

In 1994 Bill Clinton signed a bill that banned the selling of assault weapons and high capacity magazines for ten years, but apparently it was filled with so many loopholes that it was difficult to enforce as it was intended. Compared to the mass murders with assault weapons in the last 15 years, it was a good start, but, as you would expect, it led to a lot of Democratic congressmen who voted for the bill to be defeated in NRA-dominated states and districts in 1994. George W. Bush and his Republican Congress, bowing obediently to the NRA, refused to even think about improving the bill to make it more effective and denied the Democrats’ attempt to renew it in 2005.

Jay Dickey, the Republican House representative from my own district in Arkansas, saluted the NRA and inflicted the Dickey Amendment onto the American people in 1996 – Democrats lost control of Congress in the Elections of ‘94. We all know why automobiles and highways have improved as far as safety is concerned. Whenever an accident occurs, investigations as to the cause are made and records are kept and used by the federal government to set standards. The Dickey Amendment prohibited the federal government from doing such research in gun-related deaths. Bill Clinton, shamefully, signed this stinkeroo of an amendment because it was part of a must-pass omnibus spending bill in 1996.

Jay Dickey, the representative for the 4th district in Arkansas, introduced the Dickey Amendment to a larger bill in 1996 and later realized the harm it did.

That amendment is still on the books, so any comprehensive gun safety bill on the federal level today is highly unlikely because of the ignorance and apathy that has been institutionalized and by the ownership of one political party en masse by the NRA. Common sense remediation is important – universal background checks and much more – but detailed statistics and data are conspicuously missing and much needed for truly effective legislation.

To his credit, former representative Mr. Dickey finally realized what a stupid and irresponsible amendment he had created and suggested that it be repealed. He did that shortly before his death in 2017. He was briefly my brother-in-law and a fellow dog lover (I have cats now), but, other than that, we had nothing in common – until his plea to repeal the only memorable contribution he made as a member of the House. So far, that turkey is still the law of the land.

Posted by: David Offutt | August 5, 2019

To Impeach or Not to Impeach Should Not Be the Question

President Donald J. Trump: He said before he received the vote of the Electoral College that he could shoot someone in the middle of Times Square and still get elected. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The 448-page Mueller Report was essentially an abundance of itemized obstructions of justice by Donald J. Trump and incidents of Russian interference in our 2016 election that involved many of his associates and apparently himself. It was a blueprint for what Congress should be, or should have been, investigating for the sake of preserving our constitutional system and our national security.

John Dean: Testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee, he said that he warned Nixon that a cancer was growing on his presidency. At that time, Dean didn’t know that Nixon had become involved in the cover-up months before.

Mueller’s muddled responses were quite a contrast to John Dean’s monotone, yet riveting, five-day testimony in the Nixon Watergate hearings. Dean had been involved in preventing anyone associated with the White House from being connected to the Watergate burglary.  However, Dean couldn’t believe that only he, among all of Richard Nixon’s men, was ever concerned about their all being involved in the obstruction of justice, the cover-up, of the Watergate burglary investigations. Of course, that’s what brought down the Nixon presidency. Actually it was a tape recording that verified Dean’s testimony that brought on the resignation. The American public is already fully aware of Mr. Trump’s efforts to obstruct the Comey and Mueller investigations. Some care and some don’t.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that our Congress is so far behind in its impeachment investigations. With a man like Trump as its titular leader,  the Republican Party after the Elections of 2016 was so surprised to retain control of both houses of Congress that it was willing to ignore any and all of his transgressions before or after his election.

David (Left) and Charles Koch: David ran for VP on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980 . Since that time the brothers have rejected the use of a third party to achieve their goal of a plutocratic government. To accomplish that goal, they decided to essentially acquire ownership of the Republican Party. (Photo: Getty Images)

You may recall that the Koch brothers and their huge donor network did not favor Trump as their Republican Party’s candidate. He was the least qualified contender for the nomination and was such a reprehensible person that that they saw no hope of his being elected. The Kochs well remembered the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, a right-wing extremist whose candidacy was doomed because he ran too soon. At that time, the right wing had not organized sufficiently to re-educate enough voters to hate our federal government. Even by 2016, they were as surprised as everyone else that Trump won the electoral vote.

Since Trump’s conquest of the White House, the billionaire Koch brother’s donor network should have been deliriously happy. The only consequential law that the congressional Trumpistas passed in Trump’s first two years was the huge tax cut for the plutocracy and corporations. In addition to that, Trump has been appointing extreme right-wing judges to lifetime appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts. These are justices, groomed by the Federalist Society, that are devoted to returning the United States to the Gilded Age when the plutocracy ruled all. Trump could violate any part of the Constitution that he wanted to. The Trumpista majority in Congress wouldn’t dare upset the Koch donor network’s gravy train. The irony is that the Kochs and Trump still don’t like each other, and Trump’s tariffs really have the Kochs upset.

Mitch McConnell: Understandably, the Senate Majority Leader doesn’t like being seen as a foreign agent who appears to be subverting our nation from within. (Photo: Twitter)

Now that the Democrats control the House of Representatives, obviously, if they abide by their oath to defend the Constitution, they must impeach the president. However, they are divided on what to do. None of them wants the mild-mannered but sincere right-wing extremist Mike Pence to become president, but Mitch McConnell is not going to let Trump be convicted in the Senate no matter how overwhelming the evidence. Will the voters think that the Democrats want to avenge the irresponsible impeachment of Bill Clinton? No. The Republican Congress spent years and millions of tax dollars trying to find a reason to impeach Clinton and abused the use of a special prosecutor (Kenneth Starr) to do so. Why did they want to impeach Clinton? Republican Speaker of the House explained: “Because we can.” Trump has been giving reasons for his impeachment since entering office, and he and everybody else knows it.

It’s important that public, and often televised, hearings be held so that voters can be reminded of the precarious state our democracy is in. Because of the irresponsible negligence of the Republican majority during Mr. Trump’s first two years and now the nearness of the Elections of 2020, it’s likely that the time has passed for the essential impeachment procedures. The future of the experiment of our American democratic-republic may rely on the outcome of the elections next year.

What’s most important is for American voters to know who supports the Constitution and who wants to trash it. The votes cast or positions taken by House members of each party should be noted: if those who vote or speak against investigations or impeachment are reelected that will let us know that support for the Constitution is weak. Likewise in the Senate if there is a trial. Moreover if Mr. Trump is reelected, we can pretty much kiss the Constitution goodbye. His precedents will stand.  He knows he can count on his base no matter what he does. It’s the other voters in whose hands rest the fate of our nation.

The Question should be: Do the majority of registered voters care? If they don’t, it’s over.

Posted by: David Offutt | May 6, 2019

National Teacher Day: In Praise of Influential Teachers

David Offutt (1980s) at Xavier Prep High School, New Orleans – As I had in Helena-West Helena, Ark, and Wynne, Ark., I taught the honors U.S. history classes. At Xavier Prep, I also introduced a western civilization class, which allowed me to teach ancient Greek and Roman histories, the foundations for our American republic.

Tuesday, May 7, is National Teacher Day. Having devoted some twenty years to teaching history and prepping, making out tests, and grading them on my own time so as to always return them the very next day, while earning a subsistence or sub-subsistence, salary, a one-day celebration hardly seems sufficient. Alex Trebek and Jeopardy do much better with a two-week Teacher Tournament. By the way, I spent an additional twenty years teaching just about everything in adult education.

Now, I’m enjoying a well-earned retirement and would like to pay tribute to three teachers who greatly influenced my teaching methods, which consequently evolved over the years. I had a great many fine teachers throughout my twelve years attending the public schools of El Dorado, Ark. However, I don’t recall any of them influencing my own methods. The following were teachers/professors whom I studied under at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and whose methods I modified as my own and adapted them for high school students.

Professor Hudson taught The Civil War and Recent America. Whether it was the War of the Rebellion or the two World Wars, he didn’t just mention that some side won this battle or lost that one, he used maps to explain the strategies, the tactics, the personalities involved, and the consequences of each conflict. He made them come alive. He used the classroom chalkboard, but I converted my maps to projector overlays and gave my students general maps of the battles that they could write on. It was one of the most successful and appreciated things I did to create an interest in history to my students.

The Battle of 1st Bull Run: Inspired by Professor Hudson, I used overlays to project how significant events transpired.

Dr. Hudson also routinely mentioned motion pictures that were based on the historical events that he was teaching. I did the same and expanded on it. If there was anything on television that I thought was important for them to know about, whether we were currently studying it or not, I would assign it for extra credit. I would give a 10-question verbal quiz in which I would ask the students to write a phrase or word that would prove they saw the show. Any question they got correct was a bonus point that would be added to their test scores. At one school, I couldn’t do that because of the department head, but I could have the students write a summary of the program for extra points.

In the age of home videos, beginning in the 1980s, at Xavier Prep in New Orleans, I continued offering extra credit for TV shows, but I also began showing significant movies or TV shows for extra credit after school. Even though it was on my own time, I loved doing this. A great film like “The Devil’s Disciple,” which takes place during the American Revolution could be shown in two afternoons at 41 minutes each for a total of 8 bonus points without having to take a quiz. The students really appreciated this, and many admitted they loved the films I showed them but would never watch them on their own.

Dr. Hudson also paid homage to the music of the eras we were studying, but I don’t recall his ever playing the music he talked about. I used my own tape recorder and/or my school’s phonograph to let my students actually hear the music, which came from my own collection. What they heard was so different from what they were accustomed to that they almost always got a real “kick” out of it. Often, I used projector overlays so that the students, for example, could sing along with Pete Seeger’s rendition of “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.”

The words of “Marching Through Georgia,” a popular song of Union troops during the last days of the Civil War. Using the songs and tunes of each historical era seemed to always be enjoyed by the students.

Professor McNeill taught The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era, and he always included maps on each of his tests. He reasonably expected his students to know where the places were that they were learning about. At some schools, I had to get the administration to order sets of US and world history maps. At others, I found sets of maps in classrooms that were never used. At Wynne High School, I found them in storage and restored them to usability. On my tests, I included a map section of five to ten sites that my students had locate on a map that I provided.

Professor McNeill was responsible for my inclusion of maps on most of my tests.

Professor Reeser taught Ancient Egypt and Greece, Ancient Roman Republic and Empire, and Historiography.  One of his most impressive traits was that he did not come in to class, walk up to the lectern, open his folder of notes and begin reading. He never used notes. He just talked to us and occasionally wrote key names on the chalkboard. I adopted that method when I moved to Ecuador (1976-78) to teach at the American School of Quito. I wrote an outline on the board for them as I spoke because Spanish was the native language of most of them, but I never used notes. Their biology teacher told me that they showed him their history notes and said, “It all comes right out of his head.”

Dr. Reeser also introduced me to Arnold Toynbee’s study of the rise and fall of civilizations, which I used thereafter to give my students a perspective on where we came from, where we are, and where we may be going. In his spring historiography class, one of my fellow students asked him if he ever taught “Toynbee” in his freshman western civilization classes. When he replied, “Certainly not – that would be a disaster,” that student pointed to me and said, “Didn’t you say that you taught “Toynbee” in your 10th-grade world history class last fall semester?”  I said, “Yes. In fact, I recently ran into one of my former students out at the mall, and I asked him what he was currently studying in world history. He said, ‘the Renaissance.’ I then asked him, ‘According to Toynbee, what period of history is the Renaissance?’ Without hesitating, he said, ‘The creative period of western civilization.’” Reeser looked stunned – and, I don’t know, but he may have reconsidered his expectations of freshman.

Arnold Toynbee’s analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations as explained by Professor Reeser.

As I recall, all three of these teachers opened each class with “Questions or comments?” I did the same. It allows students to get clarification on anything covered in class the previous day, but, of equal importance, it allows a discussion of current events, which the teacher can initiate if the students do not.

Another thing that all three did that was extremely important was to compare or contrast what we were learning with similar historical events or current events. I, too, made certain to emulate that technique so as to make history relevant to the present and to emphasis historical lessons learned or not learned. History does, in fact, repeat itself.

I learned a lot from these fine teachers. If you want to kill a history class, rely solely on the textbook – that will do it every time. Teaching can be fun.

David Offutt at the Grave of Daniel Boone, Dutzow, Missouri (July 1976): As I recall, I’m pointing toward the Missouri River in the valley below. Seeking “elbow room,” Boone epitomized the American thirst for expansion. This is one of two gravesites for the American hero. Kentucky wanted both Daniel and his wife Rebecca reburied near Fort Boonesboro, but Daniel’s slave knew Daniel believed that Kentucky cheated him out of his land and did not want to return there. He identified a stranger buried on one side of Rebecca as being Daniel, which left Daniel on the other side of Rebecca to remain in Missouri. Kentucky contests this claim.

In his influential letter, or manifesto, to the National Chamber of Commerce in 1971, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell professed his fear that capitalism was in danger. He observed that in recent years Americans had been voting for candidates who supported conservation of resources, preservation of public lands, clean water, clean air, safer workplaces, safer consumer products, et al. – and, after all, the first Earth Day was in 1970. Big Business was relenting and making concessions.

Mr. Powell suggested numerous methods that could be led by the Chamber of Commerce to re-educate the voters so that they would reject these policies in favor of candidates who supported the deregulation of Big Business and of instilling fear into voters that a concern for the environment and other regulations would result in the elimination of jobs.

Consequently, billionaires – like the Koch brothers – began funneling millions of dollars into think tanks – like the Heritage Foundation – to figure out how to market anti-environmental policies to the public and into the campaigns of candidates who agreed to do their bidding. The Federalist Society was formed to groom lawyers and judges – like Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh – to work for plutocratic rule.

David Offutt at Fort Mandan State Historic Site in North Dakota (summer 1980): this is a replica of the fort built by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The explorers spent their first winter here near a Mandan village. Thomas Jefferson wanted to know what resources were in the Louisiana Territory and who was living there.

Within ten years their efforts brought forth major Republican Party victories in 1980 that reintroduced a new Gilded Age: Ronald Reagan, the long-time spokesman for General Electric, won the presidency by saying that government was the problem and not the solution; also, Republicans regained the Senate for the first time since the early Eisenhower years – this sent shockwaves through the Democratic-controlled House, resulting in the transformation of the Democratic Party into a much more conservative party that began to ignore the workaday folks that it once represented. The Elections of 2018 indicate that the Democrats may be trying to re-find their roots, but they haven’t gotten there yet.

This all came about just as we had learned about global warming from studies by Exxon’s scientists (1978) and needed to be increasing our concerns about the environment instead of neglecting it and making it worse. The convincing propaganda and the vast spending of plutocratic millions that sprang from the Powell Manifesto certainly were instrumental in turning the public around and getting it to favor plutocratic rule. But why were the people so easily convinced to vote against their own best interests? And why is it so hard to get people to understand why today’s climate change is taking place because of long-time, on-going human activities.

David Offutt at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park near Placerville, Calif. (July 1983): James Marshall discovered gold in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill on the American River and set off the Gold Rush of ’49. The U.S. government offers leases on public lands for mining, oil, and gas, often jeopardizing the pristine nature of the parks.

Ronald Reagan always looked at American history through a rose-colored lens. His “It’s morning in America again” had great popular appeal. He repeated Warren G. Harding’s slogan that we needed to “return to normalcy.” Most Americans may have limited knowledge of our history, but they know our legends and traditions and are steeped in concepts of “patriotism” and “American exceptionalism.”

The term Manifest Destiny may not have been specifically addressed until the Age of Jackson, but the desire for land and its resources helped lead to the American Revolution. The British had prohibited colonial expansion west of the Appalachians with its Proclamation Line of 1763. Great Britain was honoring its agreements with the Native Americans that it had made during the French and Indian War.

After the revolution, the newly created United States of America had no such intention. The Northwest Ordinance provided a methodical manner of settling the areas between the Appalachians and Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, regardless of its occupation by its indigenous peoples. A coerced treaty with Spain gave us Florida and a westward extension of Florida to the Mississippi River, which also was already occupied by Native Americans.

David Offutt and a Conestoga Wagon at Scott’s Bluff National Monument in Nebraska (1980): The Oregon Trail began at Independence or St. Joseph, Missouri. Beyond Scott’s Bluff the trail forks with one route continuing to Oregon and the other to Sacramento, Calif. The one-time three-month trek now may take less than three days. I had a lot of fun on my summertime cross-country trips, but I also contributed to the carbon imprint along the way.

Our early colonists had used farmland abandoned by or taken from the original inhabitants but continued expanding inland. The great forests that consumed carbon dioxide were continuously chopped down to be used for building purposes, to make way for roads, or were burned to clear farmland. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the following Lewis and Clark Expedition led to the inevitable conclusion that it was our “manifest destiny” to expand all the way to the Pacific.

There’s always something in the land that needed to be exploited, and it’s still true. Mining was another thing to be developed. From the first colonists, it seems that there was always “gold in them thar hills.” Gold or silver, it mattered not. And if there were Native Americans already there, well, that didn’t matter either. The “forty-niners” went to California. “Pike’s Peak or Bust” was the mantra that led get-rich-quickers to Colorado. Gold in the sacred “Indian” grounds of the Dakota’s Black Hills resulted in the demise of Custer and his 7th Cavalry.

David Offutt at a reconstructed sod house at Ash Hollow State Park in Nebraska (1980): Lewis and Clark’s description of the Great Plains as the “Great American Desert” wasn’t quite right. The trick was irrigation and nature. Too much rain brings flooding and too little rain brings drought. Both of these extremes will be even more prevalent as we continue to change the climate. Memories of the Great Depression are always there. The recent flooding of the Missouri River inundated much of Omaha’s Offutt Air Force Base, the Strategic Command Center, reminding us of the Defense Department’s warning that anthropomorphic climate change threatens our national security.

Mining frequently led to the pollution of the drinking waters of man and beast. The Trumpistas today are eagerly trying to open more of our public lands to mining and drilling, and if they have to reduce the size of our national monuments (like the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments), so be it. A ban on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon is about to expire and probably won’t be renewed by the current administration. This will jeopardize the water supply of the Havasupai tribe at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Improvements in transportation and communication eventually had a negative impact on air quality. Big surprise, huh? Steam engines and railroads were vital to the development of the nation in the early 19th century.  California and Oregon were originally reached by wagon train and the overland walk across the mid-continent. The South’s absence from the U.S. Congress allowed the passage of bills to build a transcontinental railroad and the Homestead Act. Both were signed by “that abolitionist” Abraham Lincoln.

David Offutt at the Great Western Cattle Co. in Abilene’s Old Town in Kansas (1980): James G. McCoy owned this company, and it was said that if you bought your beef from him, you were sure to get “the real McCoy.” Abilene was the end of the Chisholm Trail which led north from the ranches in Texas. Herds were led to the rail head to be shipped to the Chicago stockyards and meatpacking plants. We now realize that cow poop adds methane into the atmosphere and methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Fueled by logs or coal, trains eventually crisscrossed the nation chugging their carbon dioxide-laden smoke into the atmosphere. Today, railroad transportation is one of the most efficient and environmentally responsible solutions to our crisis, but the U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed world and is resistant to improving it. Amtrak provides a great service, but it’s only second or third rate compared with transit systems in many other countries.

Our great wealth was created by the development of electricity, iron, steel, oil, and the financial industry. Many industries that provided jobs were/are powered by coal-fired plants that cough an abundance of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Colonel Edwin Drake’s first oil well in Titusville, Penn., in 1859, made oil accessible and changed the world. The 20th century introduced the automobile to replace the horse, trucks to replace wagons, and airplanes to unite the planet – and all have added to the greenhouse gas impact in our atmosphere.

David Offutt in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana (1980): This marker is not a grave stone. It marks where one of George Armstrong Custer’s cavalrymen was found dead on June 25, 1876. Crazy Horse achieved a tactical victory here and wiped out the 7th Cavalry. However, it was a strategic blunder because it united most U.S. citizens against the Native Americans and accelerated the loss of lands they had lived on for generations. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the U.S. violated its treaty with the “Indians” and allowed prospectors to invade sacred lands, thus setting off the rebellion. It was a clash of two distinctly different cultures.

The stench may have been unpleasant and the air and water unhealthy to consume, but only a few, until 1978, realized that we were also burning up the planet. Exxon’s scientists figured out what we were doing, but Exxon’s management began a systematic campaign to sow doubts in what their own people had discovered. Now, one of our two major parties has become devoted to denying that what we are doing to the atmosphere has anything to do with why the temperature continues to rise.

Since oil, coal, electricity, and transportation have been so important in human progress for so many years, how do we get enough people to recognize that we can’t continue to burn fossil fuels and maintain the quality of life on earth as we know it? How do we get those industries that make money from the destruction of our environment to do anything about it?

David Offutt at Mooney Falls on the Havasupai Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (July 1997): It’s been our tradition to support development over preservation, and it’s also been our tradition to ignore the needs and wishes of our indigenous peoples. I’ve been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon five times, and two of those times were not land maintained by the National Park Service. The Havasupai have a public campground near two beautiful waterfalls, which makes it my favorite destination in the canyon. Here, I am at Mooney Falls, which is the most difficult of the two falls to reach – the descent to where I am would never be certified safe by national park standards. The ban against uranium mining near here will soon expire and the current administration plans to not renew the ban. The potable drinking water of the Havasupai will then be in jeopardy. Do we care?

We have been intentionally perpetuating the crisis for the past 40 years. Since it’s still going on, you can see why it’s so hard to change. It’s who we are: expansion, exploitation of our “unlimited” resources, dreams of becoming millionaires – Manifest Destiny and the Gilded Age all rolled into one. Greed is a powerful preventative for change. It’s easier to listen to those who say we can keep doing what we’re doing than it is to ask, “What do we need to do to save our planet?” And then, it’s really difficult to get anyone to take action – especially our own government.

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