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Immigrants Amid the Opulence Long Ago

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

This is a story of two Irish immigrants who came to America during a different era. Thomas Lynch was from Clonmore, County Meath, and Ellen (Nellie) McGeever was from Doocastle, County Mayo.

Around 1914, during the heart of the Progressive Era, America was rife with turmoil, social activism and political reform from which would soon emerge America’s middle class. Yet even then the embers of the Gilded Age glowed brightly in areas where families of enormous wealth played out their lives of regal excess. During the Gilded Age, the wealthy elite built impressive country estates at which they entertained the rich, famous, and powerful figures of the day.

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The Florham Estate in Madison, New Jersey, was one such home.  Built between 1892 and 1899 by Hamilton Twombly and his wife, Florence Vanderbilt, the Florham mansion was the 8th largest home in America. Today the estate is a beautiful college campus, but around 1914 the Florham Mansion was still a mecca of high society.

By contrast, Ireland around 1914 was a fairly dismal place, especially in the countryside where prospects for a better life were nil and subsistence living was the norm. Ireland was still under British rule and the “Irish Question” hung in the air. That question was about how to transform these brutally subjugated people into a semi-autonomous country after nearly 800 years of British rule. Many of the Irish youth couldn’t wait for the answer. They hitched their fate to the “American Dream” and boarded ships to the United States. My future grandparents were among those young dreamers. Nellie McGeever from Doocastle in County Mayo on the west of Ireland, and Thomas Lynch from Clonmore in County Meath in the east set sail for America not knowing each other and not knowing what to expect when they got here.

It wasn’t until my second semester at Fairleigh Dickenson University in 1972 that my father casually mentioned how ironic it was for me to be walking the same grounds where my grandparent met. He told me my grandmother was a cook and my grandfather a chauffeur for the Twombly’s. My aunts later confirmed this as true. I have pieced together a bit more history since, but never felt a real sense of that family history until my sister and I went to see the mansion this January.

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My grandfather, Thomas Lynch, was born in 1891, one of thirteen children of Peter Lynch (b.1846) and Catherine Cusick (b.1862). His passage to America was preceded by several of his older brothers who rented a house at 4 Albert Avenue in Morris Township. Ironically, many years later my father would use his GI bill from WW II so his parents could buy that home where they lived the rest of their lives. It was the home my family visited often when I was a boy.

Ellen (Nellie) McGeever, was born in 1893, one of nine children born to Patrick McGeever (b.1843 ) and Honora Finn (b.1853). She was perhaps 20 or 21 years old when she arrived in port at Ellis Island, New York. The events surrounding her migration are mostly lost in time, but as a cook, she would have lived in the Twombly’s servants’ quarters. It was there that she met and fell in love with Thomas. They were married at the Church of the Assumption in Morristown. Then, on February 9, 1920, Thomas and Nellie Lynch boarded a White Star-Dominion Line ship named “The Baltic” and returned to Ireland to raise a family.

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In the little village of Kildalkey, County Meath, they had my father, Peter, and four girls, Nora, Kathleen, Rosie, and Elizabeth. [http://www.kildalkeyvillage.com/gallery.html#pic25]

When my sister Patty and I were young, grandpa was a somewhat short old man with thick white hair and piercing blue eyes. He always wore trousers, suspenders, a white shirt and a vest where he kept his silver pocket watch on a long chain. He smoked a pipe and he had such a thick Irish brogue that I sometimes couldn’t understand him. He kept beautiful flower beds in the backyard and carefully tended his rose bushes by the white rail fence out front.

But granny was always the central figure. She was a bit plump with soft round features that belied her underlying strength of personality. She always wore long flowered dresses and shoes with thick, short heals. She never wore shorts or pants. She had dark grey hair kept under a hair net. She was the center of activity, which often involved food. Watching her moving about in her kitchen was my favorite pastime during visits. She would put on a clean linen or a flowered apron and move around so quickly and easily it was like a dance. She was organized and never unsure of what she had to do next. When she made Irish Soda bread she measured everything by eye or by feel and made it look quick and easy. She whipped up custards and soufflés and made different sauces for the meats and vegetables she served during the holidays. Her cakes and desserts were beautiful and tasted amazing. Little did my sister and I know that this wasn’t typical Irish fare.

Our January visit to the Twombly mansion in 2019 was my sister’s first. Her enthusiasm was infectious. We walked around the elegant hallway, stared at the portraits and marveled at the Grand Ballroom. Patty wanted to see the kitchen but I had no idea where it was. She walked into one of the offices and met Mark, who works there. She introduced us as the grandchildren of two former servants which prompted him to tell us about the building and the times when they had worked there.

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Mark told us how to find where the kitchen had been and about all the other rooms we would visit as we walked about. We learned that the barn-like building where our grandparents lived was still standing behind the Science Center. Across from it still stands a row of garages where twelve maroon Rolls Royces and other automobiles were kept. My grandfather would have worn a matching maroon livery uniform when he drove those cars. He told us there was once a tunnel between the servant’s quarters and the basement of the mansion where my grandmother and other servants would walk back and forth so they wouldn’t be seen on the grounds of the Estate. Perhaps most surprising of all, we learned that Nellie Lynch worked under the wealthiest and most famous private chef in the world.

Joseph Donon was a world renown chef who once fought for France during World War I. He was hired by Mrs. Twombly in 1917 to fulfill her request to give her “the best of the best.” He replaced most of the kitchen staff and hired his own workers who were loyal to him. Nellie may have stayed on because we have never heard of her working anywhere else before she married Thom.

Our recent visit to the Florham Estate made our family history come alive. We have a better idea of who these two immigrants and the social influences that help mold them.

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screen shot 2019-01-29 at 5.15.53 pm The red building to the left is where the servants lived on the Twombly Estate. Directly across the driveway is a long row of garages where The Twombly’s many cars were stored and maintained.

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 5.16.23 pmA picture of the mansion and grounds taken from about a third of the distance to the servant’s quarters. A tunnel under this area allowed the servants to enter the home without being seen.

Florham Campus: A History of the Estate

https://view2.fdu.edu/campuses-and-centers/florham-campus/about-the-florham-campus/florham-campus-a-history-of-the-estate/

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New Research – Health Benefits of Fiber Expand

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Two insightful science articles recently came out that are worth sharing, one on diet and the other on exercise. I will share the diet article first.

The link here and below is to an article about dietary fiber. There is an expanded understanding as to how fiber contributes to human health. We many of us know, fiber helps regulate our bowels which may play a role in lowering colon cancer rates. Fiber may reduce cholesterol, perhaps by absorbing it in the gut so it passes out of our body. And it might lower inflammation in our body which helps prevent heart disease, etc. We know there is both soluble fiber and insoluble fiber that isn’t digested in the body. Insoluble fiber absorbs waters in the intestines thus increasing in its bulk which helps move (things) along. This is all still true.

This BBC article linked here summarizes the latest research on how fiber actually works in the body to benefit our health. The biggest takeaway for me was learning that indigestible dietary fiber is the primary food source for our gut bacteria.

Relatively new science has found that a diverse and balanced intestinal flora is essential to good health and that disrupting that balance can lead to diseases as well as infections like Merca, Sepsis, and death. We know that gut bacteria act like miniature chemical factories producing all sorts of exotic substances that our body relies on but cannot make on its own.

So the trend has been to toss back a copious amount of pro-biotic capsules, which contain a handful of different bacteria that are supposed to be present in the gut. continually ingesting these little blighters never made much sense to me. It makes sense to re-seed your bowels during and after a course of antibiotics that kills off these good bugs, but if the environment down there is healthy, and probiotic capsules have live bacteria, seeding the gut should be all that is needed.

Now I realize that feeding the bacteria that live in our intestines is the most important part of maintaining a healthy digestive ecosystem and that dietary fiber is their food of choice. The article talks about how much fiber we need and how to get it.

The unanswered question for me is this; Are there high-quality fibers more inducive to good health and low-quality fibers that aren’t as good for our intestinal flora? For example, is the psyllium fiber Metamucil less edible than say, the fiber in an apple?

The link: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-46827426

This Lies Behind Our Economic Boom and Political Bust

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Last year the wealthiest nation in the history of the world generated $8.7 trillion in new wealth, more than the next 10 countries combined. That works out to over $65,000 per household. How much of that worker generated new wealth did you receive in your pay raise last year? If your family income was $60,000 last year, and if you were rewarded with just 5% of the new wealth that you helped create, plus a cost of living adjustment to keep up with inflation, your family income today should be over $63,500? Is that true for most of you? Probably not, because that second bar graph on right suggests personal household income is not growing much.

Some people looking at this will say:
“Yea, rich people will get richer, but low unemployment and new manufacturing jobs will add a lot of wealth where there was none before. Right”?
That hasn’t been the case overall for the past 40 years. The great wealth creation last year isn’t a one-off event. It happens nearly every year. And every year since the mid-1970s workers do not receive any (or very little) share in the rising hourly GDP (New Wealth).

Prior to 1974, we all receive productivity raises nearly every year on top of any cost of living adjustments (a COLA, as it was called). Since then we stopped receiving productivity raises and lost public sector health coverage, pension plans, and other benefits. We have received cost of living raises since then, but productivity raises have been minimal. Therefore, while our wages keep up with inflation, they aren’t keeping up with new personal wealth. Put another way, our collective wages are a smaller and smaller percentage of our National GDP.

If wages continued keeping up with hourly GDP since 1974, the median household income today (fam of 4) would be over $115,000/year instead of nearly half that. The national GDP is nearly three times greater today than it was in 1974, yet inflation-adjusted have barely risen. These are uncontested facts. Chronic wage suppression (and I do believe this is deliberate) accounts for most of our economic ills today.

Imagine how much easier it would be to raise money for our schools and local services if everyone in town had twice the income they make now. How much money would we save on government aid to the working poor (daycare, housing, medical care, etc.) if everyone had twice the income and didn’t need financial subsidies? Imagine how the economy would be buzzing if everyone had lots more discretionary income to buy things, thus boosting the demand for production. The only downside is that the wealth of the richest 1% wouldn’t be growing quite as fast. The decline of the middle-class, the lack of good paying jobs, the increase in public assistance, the rise in taxes and decline of other government services are all symptoms of income inequality. The cycle of wealth accumulation followed by catastrophic wars and social collapse is a very old story with a many-centuries-old history.

Are you still with me, because this next part is important.

There has not been a big partisan difference on the issues of a fair distribution of wages or wealth. Both political parties remained silent on the subject for decades, until the 2014 election. Both parties talked about job growth, but not wage growth. Both talked about growing the economy but not about our shrinking pensions and benefits packages and stagnant wages. They talked about bolstering the middle-class but didn’t mention our growing poverty class for almost three decades.

Republican legislators (not most rank and file members) have been far more pro-corporate in pursuing the interests of the wealthy elite over time. Republican party elites also shamelessly pandered to value voters and the far-right fringe to win elections but never delivered on their promises. Main Street Republicans were used and abuse to the elite of their party could pursue the corporate donor interests.

On the other side of the aisle, Democratic Party leadership (not every legislator) also pandered to big corporations, to the rich and to their more liberal base while being complicit in their silence on income inequality and many other matters important to their voters. No one in government was addressing the shrinking middle-class or their shrinking wages relative to the size of the ever-growing US economy. No one was listening to any of us!

Hence, we had a political revolt in both parties during the 2014 elections. Rank and file members of both parties weren’t listening to each other either as powerful special interest, foreign and domestic, made sure we didn’t get together to compare notes. Donald Trump rose up among conservatives to shake things up in the GOP. Bernie Sanders rose up among liberals to shake up the Democratic establishment.

So here we are today, like opposing armies glaring at each other across the battlefield in a war we never wanted. Both sides have been ignored by our leaders. Both sides have been told the other side is the cause of our decline. Both sides have been given false reasons for our growing dissatisfaction. And yet the real reasons for this sluggish Main Street economy, which is slowly squeezing us into poverty, are reasons that we all share in common.

It is the failure of our politics to address the unfair distribution of wages and wealth. It is hundreds of policies that favor the profitability of big businesses over the best interests of our people. It is the corruption of special interests representing the ultra-wealthy and buying elections. We would all do far better if we could just lower our guard, put our less consequential differences aside for now and join in common cause to take charge of our economic well-being.

Fair Share Campaign Financing

By Brian T. Lynch, MSW

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On April 21, 2018, the Chicago Tribune reported that Mayor Rahm Emanuel added $1.7 million to his campaign in a single day. The explanation that followed encapsulates what’s wrong with our campaign finance laws. As in other states, the Illinois campaign donation system is set up like a board game, specifically a corporate board game.

If you are an actual carbon based person in Illinois you cannot donate more than $5,600 to a political campaign, unless you own a business. If you own a business you can contribute twice that amount on behalf of your business. And if you register as a political action group you can donate nearly 10 times the individual contribution limit, up to $55,400. These campaign limits are entirely lifted if one candidate in a race decides to give their campaign $100,000 of their own money.

That’s what happened in Chicago. Emanuel’s Republican opponent, Willie Wilson, boosted his campaign with $100,000 of his own money. Twenty-four hours later the Mayor added a million dollars to his campaign from just three wealthy donors plus another $700,000 from other donors.

In the Citizen’s United decision the US Supreme Court said, in effect, that money is a form of free speech. This may be true in some intellectual perspective of the court, but if true in the real world, how can there be a $5,600 free speech limit on voters? How can there be any limits at all?

In our Republic we have this bedrock principle that says, “One person, One vote.” Everyone has an equal say in who represents their interests. Corporate governance operates on a different principle that says, “One share, One vote.” You get one vote with every share of the company you buy. The bigger your financial stake is, the greater your say is within the company. Wealthy shareholders like this system because their voting power is proportional to their financial power.

The concept of one person, one vote is an anathema to them in our democracy. They feel their greater financial stake in the economy should also entitle them to a greater political say in our government. This is why they have rigged the campaign finance system.

As a thought experiment, try imposing the “One person, One vote” principle to campaign financing. One person’s donation limit in Illinois is $5,600. That means one vote is equal to that amount or less, mostly less. Most voters don’t contribute to political campaigns. Even if they do, the individual donation limit may be well beyond their means. The median income for a family of four is close to $56,000 a year, so a maximum political donation would cost them 10% of their annual income. Even a 1% donation would be well beyond their means. One tenth of one percent of their income, or $56 dollars, might be feasible for most voters, and this amount is 100 times the current limit.

If you go with the “$5,600 limit equals one vote” rule, then being a business owner gives you three votes, one personal vote and two votes for your business. Join another business owner to form a political action committee you get eight votes, five votes for your half of the PAC, three for your business and one personal vote.

Then Willie Wilson upsets the apple cart in Chicago by donating $100k to his campaign. Now just three wealthy donors get a total of 180 votes or more for Mayor Emanuel’s campaign. The actual impact on how a candidate might responds to donors is enhanced by the fact that tens of thousands of voters contribute nothing. Additionally, because individual donor limits are 100 times what the average voter can afford, the impact of those three big donors in the mayor’s race is more like 180,000 votes. So, if you are Rahn Emanuel, who are you going to listen to?

Money is not free speech. Money is power.

If we agreed to pair the power of money to the power of the vote, then one voting share should have the same price tag for every eligible voter. It should not favor businesses or the wealthy as it does now in our corporate governance style of campaign finance. This also means only eligible voters should be able to donate; No PACs or businesses. If a businessman or organization wants to lobby for a special interest, they should lobby directly with the people to gain influence rather than lobbying our politicians. It would mean that fair share campaign finance limits would either be equal and affordable for everyone, or without donation limits but with maximum transparency so every voter can see exactly which candidates the big donors are buying.

Jane Addams, A Great American Hero

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On our trip to Chicago, my wife and I visited Hull House, one of the first Settlement Houses in the United States and home to Jane Addams. It is now a museum located in the middle of the University of Illinois, but 130 years ago it stood in the middle of the worst immigrant slums in Chicago.

Addams was born into privilege, yet in 1889 she and her friend, Ellen Gates Starr, decided to moved into a house in the heart of the immigrant slums of Chicago. Their initial idea was to providing daycare for children living in poverty. In the process they came face to face with the great hardships and disadvantages or poor immigrants all around them. The focus or their mission kept growing to meet the endless needs. Daycare was supplemented with preschool and educational services. They opened the first playground in Chicago. She saw that child labor practices prevented theses children from having a full childhood, so she advocated for laws against child labor. Her mission grew to serve the parents and others adults.

Addams recognized that there were community and systemic issues that prevented the poor from improving their lives, things beyond their control. For example, the stench of garbage filled the streets and created unsanitary conditions. People were getting sick because the city wouldn’t regularly pick up the garbage in their neighborhood. She fought the city and won regular trash pick-up. When she learned that there were only 5 bathtubs in the whole community, she built a pubic bath beside the Hull House where hundreds of people came every week.

Intervening to help the poor and to lift their burdens on multiple social levels became her pattern. She took in homeless families, listened to their stories, helped them find housing and then advocated for better housing. She sheltered woman who were abuse by their spouse, listened to their stories, helped them get on their feet and used what she was learning to advocate for social change. Moreover, the work of Addams and Starr at Hull House attracted some of the best and brightest woman of the day to study the conditions of the poor and and disenfranchised, and to organize social movements for social change.

Addams became a prolific writer and prominent national spokesperson for social change in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The data she and other collected on the social issues of the poor, and social research at Hull House, helped inform her writings. Her advocacy and social ideas got her labeled as the most dangerous woman in America by none other than the Daughters of the American Revolution. Herbert Hoover’s FBI compiled lengthy files on her anti-war activities during WW I. Still she persisted.

Jane Addams was among the early pioneers of an effective method for improving peoples lives. It includes:

Meeting the immediate needs of a person in need


– Listening to their stories face to face


-Empowering them to get back on their feet through their own efforts whenever possible


– Collecting data on the problems and issues they presented


-Making observations about the local circumstances and social barriers that contributed to their problems, and


– Using that information to advocate for broader changes in laws, policies, funding and greater  social awareness 

This intervention methodology is the foundation for the profession of Social Work. This is the mission of social work and what sets it apart from psychology and other helping professions.

In 1931 Jane Addams became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work at Hull House.

South Africa – A Canary in a Cage?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

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Having come of age in the 1970’s, South Africa holds a special place in my heart.  Although I’d not been there before recently, the forced social separation by apartheid laws to reinforced White domination was a global disgrace, and I felt it. I signed petitions to get my college to divest from companies doing business there. Nelson Mandela’s political imprisonment was an international affront to justice that bothered me.

The spontaneous street protests in Soweto by Black high school student in the 1980’s was inspiring while the fact so many were shot dead shocked everyone.

And so  I celebrated along with the rest of the world when Apartheid was finally dismantled, Mandela was freed and the first free elections were held. It was a triumph of the human spirit over oppression and it sent a message of love and freedom to the world.

When my wife and I recently  booked a trip to South Africa, we were excited by the prospect of viewing great African animals in their natural habitat, but equally interested to see how this iconic country had fared during their 27 years of freedom.

The safari portions of our trip were spectacular, far exceeding our expectations. The landscapes, the plant life and geography were beautiful and so dramatic. All the people we met were friendly and welcoming. I felt I had come home to our mother continent where humanity itself was born.

Yet it was sad to learn how difficult the transition to self-rule has been for the people in this developing nation. We learned a lot about South African culture and it’s politics, much of which is just now seeping out to Western news outlets.

I can’t begin to do this topic justice from just a 12 day tour, but I can highlight some of my impressions.

Our tour guide on the trip was a brilliant, very engaging “colored” man (his term) who self-identifies as being from the Khoi-San tribe.

This is actually a joining of the names of two tribes indigenous to South Africa. The Khoi-San are genetically and linguistically among the oldest groups of humans on earth. It was they who Dutch settlers first encountered in 1656. Of course oppression and hardship followed the Khoi (or Khoe pronounced coy) and the San tribes throughout the colonial period under the Dutch, and then the English in the 1800’s.

After three-hundred years of colonial rule our tour guide, like most colored people in South Africa, is bi-racial with some Dutch and English ancestry. Colored people were oppressed in colonial times and still are today, although less overtly.

During apartheid, the designation of “colored” also applied to people from India who were brought there as slaves, and to any other group held in low esteem. If a black African wanted to appeal his designation as a colored person, a pencil was pushed through the person’s hair and they were told to shake their head. If the pencil fell out they lost their appeal.

The hope of inter-racial harmony and social unity that animated the successful struggle against apartheid in the in the 1970’s and 80’s has since given way to economic and political oppression by other factions. South Africa has among the greatest wealth inequality in the world.  In our guide’s telling, it is the black African immigrants from the North who mostly hold the reins of power, Among these are certain dominate tribes, such as the Zulu for one example. There is a social hierarchy among these black African tribes while middle-class white South Africans are not in power and colored South Africans are at or near the bottom.

The degree to which society is stratified along tribal traditions is evident in the parliament where everyone insists on speaking in their own dialect or language despite the fact that virtually everyone speaks English. This means everything said in parliament has to go through interpreters and is fraught with misunderstandings.

Not surprisingly, it is global corporations who appear to be pulling all the strings in South Africa. As we road in our bus for hours from one site to another we saw miles and miles of eucalyptus trees planted in perfectly straight rows awaiting lumber harvesting. We saw miles and miles of other single crop plantings as far as the eye could see. It was corporate industrial farming on a grand scale harvesting crops destined for international consumption. I couldn’t help but wonder what native species of animals and plants were displaced by all this cultivated land. I wondered if beautiful giraffes or lions had once roamed here. Does loss of habitat contribute more here to species decline than poaching?

 

The only small farming we saw was tiny gardens between certain shacks in huge, crowded shanty towns that dotted the lands outside the major towns and cities. On one side of the roadway you might see a square mile or more of closely packed shacks made of corrugated tin or wood planks with electric wires extending down to them like ribbons from a maypole. Sanitation is provided by long rows of outhouses along the periphery of these villages.

On the other side of the road you might see large gated communities of small, brightly colored masonry houses with modest flower gardens and a little driveway. There is razor wire on top of all the walls surrounding these communities. These four or five room homes were described to us as middle class enclaves. Only in the township of Soweto did we see a community where rich, middle class and poor housing existed in proximity.

Poverty is rampant everywhere, even in the wealth city areas. The unemployment rate in South Africa is currently approaching 50 percent. Crime has become an essential activity for survival among some South Africans. We learned that the country has an affordable and extensive railway system which is now plagued by long delays because robbers steal the electric lines to sell the copper.

Evidence of corporate industrial farming and its impact was just as evident in Swaziland, which is an independent nation within the northern mountain region of South Africa.

Here lives the only remaining sovereign king on earth. He disbanded the constitution when he took power and is the sole law of the land. A Western educated man with 13 wives, his most recent wife is just 19 years old. He is also one of the top richest men on earth living in a land of great poverty and very inadequate health care. Many people here still rely on medicine men when they are ill.

As we road through a rural landscape we passed hectors after hectors of sugar cane planted in neat, endless rows. Our tour guide told us all this sugar cane belonged to Coca Cola. Asked if the land was owned by the company we learned that all the land is leased to Coca Cola by the government, which is the Swazi king. Still, every child goes to school and has a school uniform. Parents who can afford it buy their child’s books and uniforms while poor parents apply for them from the government.

Back in South Africa the same is not always true. While every child is required to go to school and wear a uniform, in some rural farm areas there is a gap between sixth grade and eight grade. Parents who can afford it send their children to private 7th grade classes. Education stops at the 6th grade for those who can’t afford a private school. In this way there is a steady supply of laborers to work the fields.

Water resources have recently become a huge issue in Capetown, a city of twelve million people who are expected to run out of water sometime in April. Water conservation signs are everywhere, starting at the airport. In our hotel a four minute hourglass egg timer was glued to the shower stall to help guests take shorter showers. (Currently the recommended shower time is two minutes, not four).

Almost all of Capetown’s water comes from ground water reservoirs. So the environmental cause of this water shortage is a lack of rain due to five years of drought. But there are political causes behind the crisis as well. Endless squabbles and debates in the national government have resulted in years of delay in constructing a desalination plants.

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I couldn’t get a clear answer as to whether there were sufficient aquifers under the city to dig municipal wells, but an hour’s drive south brought us to the wine district what water is abundant.

Here there were reservoirs filled with water as well as ground wells to irrigate the vineyards. There were lush fields of grapes in this fertile valley waiting to be picked and turned into that famous South African wine. Some of these vineyards are over 300 years old.

As my wife and I traveled around and observed all the contrasts and disparities, we got the sense we were not seeing South Africa backsliding towards it’s past, but rather a glimpse into our own future here in the United States. A future dominated by corporate servitude and stateless billionaires. South Africa, the cradle of humanity, is a place of awesome beauty and friendly, descent hard working folks. But the politics right now is frightening. The resources and economy of this developing country is increasingly falling under the control of private international companies and powerful foreign states, especially China. It is not unlike what we see happening here in the United States.

These are among my impressions, my cultural snap shots that a camera can’t capture. Since we returned home South Africa has been on our minds and in our hearts every day. A beautiful land. A beautiful people with high ideals and aspirations trying to find their way in a world full of economic wolves.

Mass School Shootings – A Framework for Prevention and Change

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

[The following post was re-edited on 2/24/18, mostly to shorten and improve readability]

There have been at least seven school shootings during school hours so far this year where children have been killed or injured.  This includes 17 students recently killed in Parkland, Florida. We can’t normalize this. Mass casualty shootings are a public health crisis.

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ABC News

We don’t really know much about what triggers a young person to start shooting his peers. Part of the reason we don’t know is that the shooters don’t always live to tell their story. But there are also “don’t ask, don’t tell” government policies surrounding gun violence. The NRA has gotten the US Congress to block the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) from collecting data on gun violence or from studying the problem.

What we know is that these mostly young male assailants are not terrorists in a formal sense. Terrorists are motivated by politics and oppression. They commit horrible acts against soft targets to draw attention to their views. Sometimes terrorists do act out of vengeance while hiding behind politics or religion.

Tentative Profile of the Shooters

School shooters like Nikolas Cruz in Parkland seem to be motivated by internal fantasies that stem from a social pathology. They have troubled histories with symptoms of odd behaviors and emotional disturbances that are not clearly tied to a specific underlying mental illness.  For example, they have no brain-chemical imbalance, no obvious thought disorders or don’t hear voices telling them to do these things.  As a result, they often aren’t diagnosed as “mentally ill” in a strict clinical sense. This diagnostic ambiguity complicates their interactions with mental health systems and the law, and parents find it difficult to get effective help.

Instead, these loners become increasing self-isolating. They have weak social relationship and poor social skills. They may have a history of been shunned or bullied by peers, perhaps because they act so differently. They can appear passive or unpredictably aggressive. They excessively engage in solitary activities such as video games or social media. Some come to feel powerless and insecure on many levels and may then develop an active inner fantasy life to help them cope with their short comings.

A percentage of these socially troubled youth may become fascinated with military style assault weapons for several reasons. These weapons look “cool” and powerful, like the military hardware they see on TV and in their video games. They develop a strong desire to own these weapons. and owning them makes them feel powerful, more in control and perhaps more manly. By contrast, their actual cross-gender relationships are often either absent or very dysfunctional. Once they own these weapons their inner fantasies begin to evolve around the weapon and how they might use them.

This probably describes a large group of cohorts of youth. Most don’t become a mass murderers. Why a few flip is anyone’s guess. Was Cruz’ expulsion from school a triggering event for him?  We shall see.

In all cases, young people who exhibits these sort of histories and behaviors are seriously in need of help. Current mental health screening protocols, treatment methods, treatment accessibility and mental health laws are not adequate to identify and help this population. The efforts needed to identify and treat potential mass shooters will take time. If we started today to study, identify and treat these kids it might take a years to bring the present crisis under control.

Guns and Gun Culture Factors

A much faster, direct way to curb the violence would be take these murderous military style weapons out of the hands of civilians, and young people in particular. A key concept here is  “style”,  as in fashion. It isn’t the technical capability of an AR-15 that attracts these kids, but it’s looks.

Gun enthusiasts will tell you the AR-15 is semi-automatic and therefore it isn’t an assault weapon. This definition is a distinction without a difference.  The design is such that a large magazine clip and a bump stock is all it takes to turn them into fully automatic assault weapons. Moreover, they have three times the muzzle speed of a handgun which gives their small bore bullets more kinetic energy and much greater killing power.

More importantly, the perception of the AR-15 as a military style assault style weapon is very powerful. It impacts the attitudes and behaviors of everyone who owns them and this has an especially powerful impact on socially vulnerable youth. And as we know, what is real in its perception is real in its consequence.

Below is a picture of two rifles with almost identical capabilities. In both models, a bump stock and a large capacity magazine would turn either into an assault weapon.

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It is obvious from the captions that this comparison is used by gun rights advocates, but just consider the visual impact. The Ruger Mini looks like a regular hunting rifle. The AR-15 stands out. It looks the military grade hardware depicted in Hollywood movies and just about every video game kids play. What child would prefer the Ruger Mini to an AR-15?

Perceptions matter. Perceptions alter behavior and cultural. The advertizing impact of these weapons in games and movies is a powerful force in a developing mind. It’s a marketers paradise.

Along with there, there is an overall militarization of our culture in recent times. Police training is being turned over to companies that also train our solders. A government program sells excess military equipment (initially set up in the 1990’s by Dick Cheney) to local police departments who are trained in their use. This alters the culture of our domestic police forces and creates an “us vs. them” militia mindset. And a growing fervency in patriotic adulation for our soldiers and police officers, (as opposed to the due respect and appreciation they deserve) has an impact on our children’s cultural development and values. We are all blurring the lines between military culture and a more peaceful minded civil society.

A General Framework for Action

There are at least two main, interdependent parts to the mass school shooting problem. One is the increased proneness of certain children towards gun violence, and the other is the ready availability of highly lethal assault weapons that play into their fantasies. The first part is complex and difficult to change quickly. The second part can change quickly but for strong political and cultural opposition. The parts are interdependent steps take in each can have an effects on the other. For example, changes in the prevalence of assault weapons can impact the gun culture and how guns are perceived by children. Conversely, detection and interventions for socially at risk children in eliminate violence incidents and improve the overall milieu and learning environment, in schools. A healthy child in a healthy environment is a more responsible gun owner, if they choose to own a gun.

What can politicians do to end these mass casualty episodes?. What can parents do to help their children who get caught in a web of social failure?

A Public Health Emergency

The most immediate actions we can take on the mental health side is to untie the hands of the NIH and the CDC. Let them do their job. For too long Congress has tied our hands so that the gun industry won’t be encumbered by inconvenient truths. The NRA has blocked gun violence research for over 20 years. Congress won’t even let the CDC collect data on gun violence. This is not acceptable.

Let our public health institutions treat gun violence and gun deaths is a public health crisis. Give them the funding they need bring science to bear on the issues. Make mass shootings at our children’s schools a national emergency. Set up task forces to study the issue. Let them identify better screening protocols and intervention strategies that can be introduced at the local level so parents have the help they seek. Provide community based strategies to help communities prevent these children from falling between the cracks. We need healthier social environments in our schools and our communities. For that we need stronger national leadership. We have a significant public health  crisis and the champions in the best position to help us with it have been sidelined.

Gun Control and Changing Gun Culture

The quickest way to curb mass shooting episodes by socially dysfunctional students is to simply make ownership or possession of military style weapons illegal. These weapons are the objects of their murderous fantasies. Take them away.

High velocity, rapid fire weapons with large magazines are not appropriate for hunting game. They are killing machines of war. Banning them is also a step towards reestablishing a cultural separation between weapons of war and a more wholesome respect for guns in a peaceful society.

Current marketing forces are at work to make military hardware sexy and desirable to boost profits, but this campaign has negative impacts on children who are culturally developing. The proliferation of ultra lethal weapons, even among local law enforcement and criminal, foster a more aggressive militancy. Nobody wants this. The Ruger Mini 14 (above) has all the same capacity and a higher muzzle velocity than the AR-15 but it doesn’t convey the same messaging. Perceptions matter especially for the young. Maintaining a distinction in weapons of war and peace doesn’t violate a person’s right to bear arms. It sets reasonable limits on that right, as is true with every other constitutional right. It sends a cultural message.

Making all weapons less lethal should be part of the strategy to curb mass gun violence. Bump stocks and trigger cranks easily turn any semi-automatic weapon into a fully automatic killing machine. Banning them should be the message our cultural heritage conveys. And we should limit the size of a magazines capacity for semi-automatic weapons. Comprehensive background checks, ending gun show loopholes and all the rest of the other standard fixes that are offered after horrendous shooting incidents are all worthy considerations as well. They convey the message that gun ownership is a serious business and is not every member of society can be trusted to own a gun.

We are in the midst of a public health crisis and we have to do whatever it takes to prevent further tragedy. We should stand up with the students and parents of Parkland, and New Town and Columbine and everywhere these events have taken place. We have to come together as a country, find our compassion and make whatever sacrifices are necessary to end gun violence in our schools and communities. I welcome anyone who reads this to offer their own comments and perspectives.