Jumping to tribal conclusions and the death of thoughtfulness

Representative Mark Amodei is the first crack in Republican solidarity – now that he’s all for impeachment, the Orange Man is going down for sure this time! No, wait – Mark is loyal to the President, and stands behind him no matter what for ever and ever amen!!

I’m not sure which one of these sentences is stupider, or more incorrect. It’s a real race to the bottom, and this is just one symptom.

Amodei said last week that after allegations of wrongdoing by the president, we should “put it through the process” – that is, look at all of the evidence and then make a decision about how to act or respond. This is an eminently reasonable and correct statement that should apply to every single decision making process any of us ever engage in. It should certainly apply when accusing people of crimes or in attempting to undo elections. We’ve literally fought wars in this country in order to preserve those processes for our citizens.

Only in these Crazy Years, when we are so successful, safe, and prosperous that we have to make things up in order to whip up voters to get to the polls could such an innocuous and reasonable statement lead to such firestorms of criticism and/or euphoria on either side.

Amodei has since clarified, of course, that he does not support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Impeachment Inquiry, and for good reason. It is not a good faith probe where facts and truth will come out the way as they should come out – it was designed from the beginning with the desired outcome in mind (which is ironic, considering these are the same people howling that Trump is a Nazi or something). It is not a serious fact-finding investigation but a political power play, plain and simple. If you disagree with that, then you think Ms. Pelosi would be doing exactly the same thing if a Democrat were the president and his or her accuser was an anonymous whistleblower relying on hearsay. And if you think that, then I have a couple of bridges to sell you.

This is not a column defending Trump, because none of us – none – know enough facts to defend or attack him at this stage, and no one making the arguments at this stage can be trusted to give a fair accounting. This is a column defending a fair and open process, and lauding Mark Amodei as one of the few people in politics willing to even consider putting due process before partisan power plays, no matter who the president is. If we want more of that – and we all should, no matter who we vote for – we should all be applauding Amodei’s thought process and willingness to say it out loud, not trying to force him back into the tribal boundaries today’s political activists demand we all adhere to. 

One has to wonder – is there any other member of our congressional delegation willing to be (or admit to being) as fair-minded? Sadly, I strongly doubt it.

Can you imagine if our local district attorneys approached their criminal prosecutions this way?  Or if the supervisor where you work did so? We would all be rioting in the streets, and we would be correct to do so.  

If Democrats are confident that they have a strong case against the president, they ought not fear a proper open, fair, and transparent investigation, without their thumbs on the scales. If Republicans are confident the President has done nothing wrong, they, too, should welcome such an honest investigation. One would think, too, that after the number of times the left promised irrefutable proof that would take down Mr. Trump and ate a nothingburger instead, they’d learn the value of a little introspection and humility.  

Unfortunately, neither side cares about fact-finding, due process, fair-mindedness or the long-term impact on our culture of this no-holds-barred approach to politics. Today’s political class is the best argument that could possibly be mustered against giving these people an ounce more power or control over our daily lives.  

Mark Amodei got himself into “trouble” by being accessible to the media, sharing his thoughts freely, and saying something reasonable that didn’t fit into the tribal narrative. His sin is being in office at a time when people have neither the time, inclination, or attention spans to actually listen to and understand what is being said. How sad for us all, because our increasingly unhealthy politics definitely needs more guys like Amodei.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007.  He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016.  By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno.  Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.   

In a single week, Las Vegas again reminds nation of what’s at stake in gun debate

Flowers lay on the ground near the Route 91 Festival grounds

Snapshots from a week in America’s endless civil war:

Shortly after sunrise on Tuesday, a small but solemn gathering took place at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater to mark the second anniversary of the darkest moment in Las Vegas history. Respectful tribute was paid, as it should always be paid, to the victims of the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting. Not only to the 58 murdered, but also to the hundreds wounded and thousands whose lives were changed forever.

Those victims should be remembered as part of the legion of people who lost their lives on the way to treating the nation’s gun obsession, but those words sound naïve even as I write them.

There were tears and prayers and uniformed first responders. Even officials with prepared texts at times appeared to search for the right words to reflect an indescribable loss. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, who made gun safety measures and banning bump stock attachments a central part of his agenda, had it right when he said, “As painful as it may be, especially on a day like today, our capacity to remember, to feel what we felt all over again, is what binds us together as a community – as a family and it makes us strong.”

Las Vegas will always remember. But will America?

With a friendly Legislature marching behind him and the horrors of 1 October haunting so many, Sisolak had a relatively easy path to the passage of AB 291, an omnibus gun safety bill. It’s a reminder of the power of leadership at the state level when Congress perennially fails to act.

On Wednesday, Democratic Party presidential candidates gathered to remind the nation of their deep concerns about gun safety, universal background checks, and banning semiautomatic assault rifles that are so easily converted to fire automatically. They also reminded Nevadans of the importance of the state’s first-in-the-West caucus. Most sang from similar choir books. They were loud enough, but given their general track record you’d be forgiven for being skeptical.

Will this time be different? The Democrats have an anemic success record against the gun manufacturers’ best friend, the National Rifle Association. Without a sweeping victory in 2020 that also changes the balance of power in the Senate, their mid-week speeches will be political drift smoke.

Cut to Thursday morning in a crowded law downtown law office: Attorney Robert Eglet, a hometown boy who made good, stood before the press to officially announce one of the largest civil settlements in American history just two years and two days after the nightmare of 1 October. Among the country’s most successful litigators, he’d come not to ridicule Mandalay Bay parent company MGM Resorts, but to praise it following a months-long mediation that will settle a sprawling lawsuit and provide from $735 million to $800 million to approximately 4,500 participating claimants including victims and their families, and with no admission of liability by the state’s largest employer. At times, the public face of the Eglet Adams law firm sounded as much like a representative of the casino giant as the plaintiffs’ lead Las Vegas counsel.

“While nothing will be able to bring back the lives lost or undo the horrors so many suffered on that day, this settlement will provide fair compensation for thousands of victims and their families,” Eglet said. “MGM Resorts is a valued member of the Las Vegas community and this settlement represents good corporate citizenship on their part. We believe that the terms of this settlement represent the best outcome for our clients and will provide the greatest good for those impacted by these events.”

A few minutes later, Eglet went off script and said something that should echo all the way to Washington. Talk of change is fine as far as it goes, but turning back America’s semi-automatic slaughter machine will only be successful when the gun manufacturers who make the weapons of war and sell them to civilians can no longer hide behind the litigation impunity carved out in Congress by the gun lobby.

“Are we really free when children in our country are afraid to go to school because they might get shot?” he asked. “Are we really free in this country when people are afraid to go to the movies, or even the grocery store, for fear there may be a mass shooting out there? Are we really free in this country when people in Las Vegas and our visitors can’t enjoy a concert on a beautiful fall night here in Las Vegas? Are we really free? I don’t feel very free with those types of things. … I would hope our leaders in Washington will take notice of this and do something about it. I’m not optimistic that’s going to happen, but I still have hope.”

The October 1 settlement represents a moment of hope for healing against a grim reality in our ceaseless civil war.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

A farewell to Adele’s

Adele's seen before the fire

I don’t remember the first time I was at Adele’s, but I remember the last.

It was March 27 for a dinner with my beloved Indy team in the back room where so many major Carson City deals had been consummated, so much secret Nevada history made. I had no idea it would be my final meal at one of my favorite restaurants in the world, one I had grown to love, one that has so many cherished memories.

But it was.

A few hours after we left the iconic capital eatery, a fire broke out in a laundry room, causing smoke damage to the restaurant proper and shuttering Cafe at Adele’s, as it is formally known. After several attempts to sell it and after months of haggling with their insurance company, Charlie and Karen Abowd have decided not to reopen a place that gave so much pleasure to so many.

“We have to think of ourselves,” Charlie told me Saturday morning. “The restaurant was for sale. We were looking to retire anyhow.”

And he added: “There are so many memories, so many big events. We have seen children grow up, become adults and then seen their children. All of that is heartbreaking, but at some point in your life, you have to think about Charlie and Karen.”

It’s obviously bittersweet for the Abowds, who 24 years ago took over the restaurant from his parents – Paul, a chef in his 90s now who still goes into work every day at The Stone House Cafe in Reno, and Adele, for whom the place is named and who passed away almost two decades ago.

“It’s a big burden off of us,” Charlie said. “It’s been a horrific experience, dealing with this insurance company. Now we can move on with our lives.”

And, he said, with his 69th birthday coming next year, “I just don’t have it anymore. I would have to start from scratch.”

The announcement, inevitable as it may have been for some time, still filled me with waves of sadness and wistfulness as a cavalcade of memories rushed back. From my first legislative session in 1987 until this year, I had been there dozens upon dozens of times, first as any old customer and eventually as someone who felt like Norm in “Cheers” when I walked in, where everybody knew my name. And I was far from alone. Charlie and Karen and their incomparable staff made so many patrons feel at home inside the beautiful décor of the 1864 Victorian mansion.

How fondly I remember sitting at the bar and having Mark Nadreau give me the most generous Glenlivet pour imaginable or settling in on one of those comfortable couches and having Mark’s wife, Ellen, bring it to me. Mark and Ellen epitomized Adele’s staff, which provided impeccable service along with a diverse menu and, of course, the long list of specials that Ellen and every other member of the wait staff recited from memory each evening for all who would come to appreciate Charlie’s world-class culinary creations.

You could get up to wander around and run into legislators being wined and dined by lobbyists (although that had diminished in recent years with new disclosure laws). I picked up so many stories just walking from my table to the restroom during the years – it truly was The After Hours Legislative Building.

One of my favorite Carson City memories was the one night that two legends, Speaker Joe Dini and Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, neither of whom frequented Adele’s, both showed up. There they were, Mr. Speaker and Sir Bill, celebrating the end of session on the patio that was so wonderful for dining when the weather permitted. (Damn, I need to find that picture I have of them.)

The Adele’s experience was ineffable; you really had to be there. And while there are other fine Carson City restaurants, there will never be another Adele’s.

Charlie informed the staff on Tuesday that Adele’s would not reopen, giving them four months pay and benefits as severance. He told his father, whose 92nd birthday he had to miss last year because of work. “He’s heartbroken,” Charlie told me. “There’s no doubt about it.”

There is a silver lining, though.

“For so many years, we always put people in front of us,” Charlie said. “For the last six months, I have been able to participate in my children’s life, my grandchildren’s life, spend time with my wife. It feels good. Last night, I got to see my grandson play football.”

Charlie said he believes the property will sell, but it won’t be a restaurant again.

“We have been talking to a couple of different operators,” he told me. “I don’t see it opening as restaurant. One idea being tossed around is a mixed-use commercial building.”

Charlie says he and Karen can’t afford to fully retire and will remain active in the Carson City community. “I’ve got a mobile kitchen,” he said. “You may just see me out in front of the Legislature with hot dogs or tacos.”

I am happy for Charlie and Karen, who can now enjoy their lives, their families, each other. But as much as he sounded relieved, Charlie won’t be able to let go that easily.

When he answered the phone Saturday morning, Charlie’s first words were his usual greeting: “This is Charlie at Adele’s.”

Not anymore.

***

10/6/19 at 10:05 a.m. — Raggio’s biographer, Michael Archer, helpfully sent a photo of Dini and Raggio from the evening I was thinking of:

I work as a hotel maid on the Vegas strip. Deporting Nevada’s TPS holders makes no sense.

A view of Las Vegas Boulevard in the evening

By Francis García

Every day in the hotels that line the Las Vegas Strip, an invisible workforce roars to life. Inside the MGM Grand, where I work as a room maid, my coworkers and I plump pillows, scour restrooms, and attend to the everyday emergencies that arise when guests party a little too hard. We hand out floating tubes next to the Lazy River, offer kind smiles and Tylenol, and serve some of the state’s best cuisine in 23 on-site restaurants. 

Collectively, we are the workers who welcome the 42 million people who visit Southern Nevada each year and pour $58.8 billion in spending tied to tourism into the local economy. Immigrants who make up 41.5 percent of the local tourism, hospitality and recreation workforce. It couldn’t exist without us. 

Besides keeping tourism afloat, our city’s foreign-born workers contribute $2.7 billion in taxes annually, and hold $9.9 billion in spending power, according to data from the bipartisan nonprofit New American Economy (NAE). That’s why it’s exasperating, after 23 years in the United States, to find myself at risk of losing my legal status and being targeted for deportation.

It’s not because I’ve done anything wrong. The Trump administration has decided to rewrite the rulebook. Trump is seeking to deport virtually all of the 318,000 people living and working legally in America under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which grants visas to people from countries affected by violence or natural disasters.  

TPS was supposed to end at some point, but the problem is that decades have passed. In my case, I’ve already lived here in the U.S. 23 years. My kids are U.S. citizens. Many TPS holders also have mixed-status families like my own, and we’re deeply rooted in our communities. This nation is our home.

New House and Senate legislation aims to protect both TPS holders and Dreamers, and give us a secure future in America. The American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 passed the House, and now it’s fate lies in the hands of the Senate. Unless bipartisan legislation is enacted, we could all be targeted for deportation. 

I was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and fled the violence and poverty there decades ago. My parents had passed away, and my life was difficult: I was in school during the day and worked nights. My country was struggling with increasing crime, political devastation and a very slow recovery, and then was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. A few years ago, San Pedro Sula was named the most dangerous city in the world, with 173 murders per 100,000 residents. I was granted TPS in the U.S. in 1999.

I settled here because I wanted to pursue the American dream: a life free from fear, and a chance to accomplish my simple goals of supporting myself and contributing to my community.

Because of TPS, I was able to do that. My three children were born here. Now 15, 19, and 21, they’ve never known the pain and fear that marked my own childhood. 

All of that will change if the Trump administration has its way. The effort to gut the TPS program and forcibly deport TPS holders like me is not only cruel but economically nonsensical. Immigrants are the backbone of our state’s economy.  Here’s why. 

Almost one out of every five Nevada residents is an immigrant. There are also almost 103,000 immigrant homeowners in the Las Vegas metro area, supporting both the housing market and the local tax base. 

Immigrants drive entrepreneurship. According to NAE data, 30 percent of Nevada’s entrepreneurs are immigrants. Our state’s immigrant-owned businesses generate $795.3 million in business income, and employ 61,196 Nevada residents, including lots and lots of Americans. Nationally, 3.2 million immigrant entrepreneurs employ almost 8 million American workers.

Such numbers are a reminder of the high stakes. For TPS holders, the administration’s effort to take away our immigration status is terrifying. My extended family back in Honduras tells me it’s still not safe to return. I don’t know how I’d support myself, or what would happen to my American children if I tried to move them to a country they’ve never known. 

TPS holders are workers, consumers, taxpayers, entrepreneurs, and homeowners. It’s in everyone’s interests for us to stay and to keep on contributing to our communities. That’s why Congress should pass bipartisan legislation protecting both Dreamers and TPS holders, and refuse to treat us as political bargaining chips. It’s the right thing to do and the best thing for Nevada’s economy.

Francis García is a maid at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV. She was assisted by New American Economy (NAE), a nonprofit that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform through highlighting the economic contributions of immigrants to the U.S.

America’s mob boss at work

The front of the White House. Public domain image.

I spoke to a lively group of organized crime aficionados last week at the Mob Museum downtown as part of a gathering called “The Summit.”

Set amid the handsomely curated displays of a former federal courthouse, now officially known as the Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, my bit was a reminiscence of some of the criminal cases I worked and the notorious characters I met — fellows with nicknames like “Charlie Moose,” “Fat Herbie,” and “Springfield Sam.” You could almost hear the ghosts of Las Vegas past grouse from the grave about how the town was better when the mob ran it.

It brought back memories of the capers some of those criminals pulled. They couldn’t help themselves. Gangsters steal, grifters grift.

A scam that’s basic throughout the hoodlum hierarchy sometimes goes by the name “create and alleviate.” In brief: You create a problem for a businessman or politician, then offer to fix it — for a fee or a favor, of course. It’s not the most sophisticated hustle on the street. Corporate America and the Congress have refined it to a high art, but it’s a staple of a crowd that counts extortion as just another business practice.

From the look of things, the create-and-alleviate is in full effect these days in Washington. It’s being practiced not by some treacherous mug with a grade-school education, but by America’s “Boss of Bosses,” President Donald J. Trump. For those who have followed Trump’s scam-riddled career, it’s no surprise. Anybody whose admiration for the late mob mouthpiece and fixer Roy Cohn borders on hero worship is bereft of conscience and capable of anything. 

Even mobster diplomacy. Even working the create-and-alleviate with the president of Ukraine.

What we’ve already learned in recent days thanks to a courageous whistleblower puts America’s Boss in a stark light that promises to make even some of his unabashed acolytes cringe. But in the coming weeks, those who watch the House impeachment investigation into allegations that Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Joe Biden and his son are going to learn a lot about the create-and-alleviate hustle as it was practiced by a master of corporate gangsterism.

The whistleblower, identified by The New York Times Thursday as a CIA agent, wrote in the complaint that he’d “received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” In addition to arm-twisting for an investigation into Biden and his son, who serves on the board of a Ukrainian petroleum company, the whistleblower wrote, “The President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General (William) Barr appears to be involved as well.”

Biden in 2015 courted controversy as vice president when he persuaded Ukraine officials to fire a prosecutor during an investigation of the country’s natural gas giant, Burisma. Hunter Biden joined the board of Burisma in 2014. Nonpartisan fact-checkers have shot holes in the tawdry tale of Biden & Son corruption that is circulating cyberspace.

In a July 25 phone conversation with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, following the administration holding back (just days earlier) $400 million in allocated U.S. military aid to the country, Trump quickly dispensed with the pleasantries and almost immediately “sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid,” according to the whistleblower complaint. The information was confirmed by multiple White House sources, the whistleblower said.

Then America’s Boss of Bosses spelled out the deal: continue an investigation into his likely presidential rival, Biden, and his son; assist in shifting the blame for the site of the hacking of servers used by the Democratic National Committee from Russia to the Ukraine; meet and confer with Trump representatives Giuliani and Barr. 

Trump didn’t ask Zelensky once or twice, according to The Wall Street Journal, but at least eight times.

Trump had Zelensky at hello. After reminding Trump that he had friends at Trump Tower in New York, according to the official transcript, the Ukrainian leader enthused, “I also wanted to thank you for your invitation to visit the United States, specifically Washington, DC. On the other hand, I also wanted to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation.” 

It’s not much to speculate that a $400 million delay created a problem for Ukraine and opened the door to a request for assistance — none dare call it an extortionate threat. Nor was it mentioned during the phone conversation. There was no need.

Good relations would mean not only the delivery of that delayed military aid, but another prized perquisite, a White House visit.

Zelensky was no dummy. He knew who was boss.

Think Trump insiders weren’t scared when word of the conversation began to leak? From the complaint: “In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced — as is customary — by the White House situation room.” If they could do that, then, as any mob guy might say, “Nobody heard nothin’.”

But somebody did hear. Numerous persons, in fact. And now it’s all playing out in ugly detail. As the nation is learning day by painful day, America’s real “Boss of Bosses” isn’t in some sweaty East Harlem social club, but gets his mail at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Under increasing pressure Thursday, in true gangster fashion, Trump resorted to tough-guy patter in a private event at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York: “I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little bit differently than we do now.”

Nice. The leader of the free world pops off about whacking whistleblowers. 

Back in Las Vegas, it’s easy to imagine what the apparitions of the Strip’s mobbed-up past would say after learning of the create-and-alleviate hustle pulled by America’s Boss of Bosses. For one thing, they’d be impressed. They might even forgive the guy for talking on the phone for his long-distance shakedown.

Listen closely and you’ll hear those ghosts of gangsters groan, “Maybe we should have dreamed bigger.”

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

Sacrificing our kids on the altar of woke

The Washoe County School District's logo as seen on an office building

Earlier this week, the Washoe County School District sent out passionate, almost blubbering apology, and no one knew what it was for.

The statement was about an “incident” that while “unintentional,” was “clearly” offensive, and had something to do with Damonte Ranch High School’s homecoming. But in spite of the “clearly” part, no one actually seemed to know about what the district was groveling (that word doesn’t quite begin to describe the floor-licking silliness of the statement).

If one didn’t know any better, one would describe it as a marketing ploy to actually generate interest in whatever they were supposedly embarrassed about. It was so vague that the Reno Gazette-Journal had to file a public records request just to figure out just what in the hell they were apologizing for after direct requests were ignored.

A few days later, we learned via an investigation (that was probably more thorough than many actual criminal cases I handle) that a poorly constructed parade float was the culprit. The kids wanted their cowboy mascot to lasso an inflatable mannequin dressed up as their opponent’s medieval “Lancer” mascot. Quelle horreur! They wanted a gray dummy, because that was one of their opponents’ school colors. But all Amazon had was a black one, so that’s what they used. The lassoing was supposed to all be done on the float, but the inflatable knight didn’t stay put after being lassoed, and was drug along behind the float. I blame the fact that DRHS converted all of its shop classrooms to dance studios a few years back.

No one believed that this was intended to be a racist threat. No one believed there was any malice involved, beyond that which has routinely been leveled by any red-blooded American high school student at a homecoming rival. The complaints by various activists was that they should have been “better educated” so that they would know how naughty they were being. In other words, it wasn’t that the students were racist, but that they were so not racist that it didn’t even occur to them that dragging a mannequin around would offend anyone except the other school’s sports fans.

So why did school officials apologize as if their student body had donned white hoods and burned a cross while chanting racial slurs as a sanctioned official activity? Why were the kids involved punished (as we were assured they would be)?

That, at least, we know the answer to. First, it seems that, once again, the demand for hate crimes has outpaced the supply, so we have to make ‘em up where they don’t exist. But more broadly, we’re creating a culture where no past mistake must ever be forgotten, where taking offense is a commodity to be exploited, and where subjective intent of the speaker is irrelevant because “woke” scolds get to move their offensiveness goalposts around at will in order to ensure maximum control over what everyone else does, says, and (most importantly) thinks. 

This garbage needs to be called out, early and often. And hard. Otherwise, it leads us to some very, very dark places. None of this is about sensitivity – it’s about power, pure and simple.

When I was a kid, the woke scolds were generally religious people who were discovering political power. Many were on the right, but things were less partisan back then, and moralizing busybody church lady types could be found everywhere, looking to save us all from ourselves. Their standard-bearer was, after all, Tipper Gore, who used her husband’s political fame to launch herself into the national consciousness as the censor-in-chief of popular music. And further to the left could be found the identity-politics-wallowing proto-PC crowd, altering language periodically and randomly to purposely blur the lines between actual bigots and those who simply used older phrases.

I had no patience for them then. I have less now. These people do real harm to real people.

I suppose that the students involved with the lassoing should probably have recognized their unintentional symbolism, although the fact that they didn’t is actually a good sign in terms of the laudable goal of a colorblind culture being closer than ever. 

They didn’t, because all teenagers, regardless of IQ or goldenness of heart, have, are, and will always be stupid and/or thoughtless for significant portions of their waking hours. This is why we don’t let most of them vote, rent cars, run for office, buy cigarettes or alcohol, dictate global environmental/economic policy, gamble or sign contracts. Admit it – you said and did some regrettable stuff when you were in high school at one point or another, and if you are beyond a certain age, Dear Reader, you thank God social media wasn’t around during YOUR homecoming weeks, although most of those things were cause for eye rolling, not trembling genuflection in the newspaper by your principal.

But intent matters. Context matters. Where a speaker means no harm, the listener does not – or at least ought not – get to punish the speaker as if he did. Kids (and adults, for that matter) should never have to worry that an overheard conversation could be reported to the authorities, and that they’ll be drug off for reeducation, or publicly humiliated. It’s bad enough if the busybody tattler is honestly offended, but wait until bullies of all descriptions learn they can ruin a classmate’s life just by clutching at some pearls with enough fervor. That’s not a society any freedom loving person is willing to live in. We’re already experiencing these little “terrors” with cancel culture among our entertainers because they tweeted something off-color years ago and their careers are being ruined now on account of it.  Is it any wonder that Donald Trump’s “Oh, go boil your head” attitude resonates so powerfully across middle America?

I want our kids to be taught math and science and social studies and English. But it is equally important to teach them how to be good citizens. We want them to know enough history so as to know, for example, why casually throwing around racial slurs is a bad thing, but also enough history to know why banning even vile and offensive speech is an even worse thing (and always counter-productive in the end). 

I want them to learn, by the example of the adults who mete out consequences in their school, that intent matters, that punishments should fit crimes, and that public statements of outrage and apology should only come after people know with accuracy what they’re supposed to be upset about. They must learn that going around looking for reasons to be upset is a pretty crummy way to go through life. They must be taught that their feelings or opinions don’t give them heckler’s vetoes over the expressions or actions or life-choices of others. Most importantly, they should live in a world where youthful mistakes are not fatal to prosperous adulthood. Blacklists and thoughtcrime witch hunts are a pretty stupid way to model tolerance.

The Washoe County School District’s unctious groveling conveyed exactly the opposite of all of these things. If public education is – as it must be – a way to ensure future generations can keep the prosperous and free society we now enjoy, our public educators owe it to our kids to handle things like this so much better the next time a teenager acts his or her age.

In the meantime, the only apologies owed are to the students who have now been unfairly and publicly maligned as closeted bigots by school officials who themselves lack the perspective or maturity to put the things teenagers do in their proper context.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.

Human frailty and domestic violence

Scales of justice.

There have been a lot of intriguing words written about a new, transformative Nevada Supreme Court decision cementing a right to a jury trial for people accused of minor domestic violence. There should be a lot more. This is a big change for Nevada. At a quick glance, it appears fewer prosecutors will sustain convictions and all the justice court systems throughout Nevada may come to a screeching halt from the new processes and demands because no one was prepared for this to happen. What’s not being reported is that behind the courthouse scenes, most stakeholders are freaking out about the mechanics of finding jurors, picking jurors, having room to seat jurors — and where the funding is going to come from.

On the other hand, I think this is a gift of time to assess just how we got to have so many domestic violence criminal complaints in the system. To ask the question: Why, after years of increasing penalties and more arrests, is there still far too much domestic violence and murder of intimate partners in Nevada?

However, it looks like folks in power don’t want to ask that question and are clinging to the old ways to protect what is perceived to be the only approach to the devastation associated with violence between intimates. As such, the only question really floating around right now concerns how can we work the system to make sure the status quo of misdemeanor convictions and punishments stays the same. In fact, the City of Las Vegas has already floated the idea of passing its own (likely unconstitutional) law that manipulates the definition of domestic violence and state penalties to avoid the new high court decision. All that, and a heaping helping of “how dare the Nevada Supreme Court do this?”

Given some of the rhetoric from laudable non-profits like Safe Nest (providing advocacy and more for victims of abuse) and strong language from our attorney general, Aaron Ford, one might think the state’s high court on a whim decided to officially shame all victims while throwing a glorious funfest with free sleeveless T-shirts and meth for citizens accused of misdemeanors. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Before we dig into existing law, it must be noted that most of the vitriol directed at the Nevada Supreme Court conveniently overlooks that people are absolutely innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It also seems that people bemoaning this new ruling simply don’t appreciate the opportunity our high court has given the citizens to fix a broken system. 

See, our state has fallen into a very simplistic and overreaching rut when it comes to the charge of “domestic violence,” in the form of law after law getting us closer to zero tolerance for any physicality between people in a relationship under any circumstances while at the same time tweaking up (and up) the penalties (and cost) for being convicted of domestic violence. 

It’s easy to understand how we got here. Oftentimes, when a clearly identifiable societal ill comes to the Legislature, the unsophisticated default is “let’s get tougher penalties on the books”; an idea that we can arrest our way to a serene place where lovers only love and no one will ever be hurt again. And Nevada has a big societal ill in this arena. For more than a decade, Nevada has consistently logged some of the highest rates in the country of women killed by men – and of that group, the victim was almost always at some point in a domestic relationship with her killer. Of course, domestic violence laws don’t merely cover relationships between men and women. In fact, a lot of intimate connections qualify.

 The Nevada Revised Statutes broadly define relationships deemed “domestic” and require arrests of at least one or sometimes both individuals. And while the law provides that if the police determine there are “mitigating” factors an arrest doesn’t have to occur, rarely if ever are mitigating factors found. In fact, the non-arrested party saying “Hey, I don’t want to press charges,” (by law) cannot be considered. I have had more than one case where the arrested person was an acting-out Alzheimer’s patient (or someone intellectually disabled) whose caretaker called the police to help calm things down. The intention of the caretaker wife was never to put an 85-year old in full-throttled dementia into jail, but that’s what happened. It created far more problems than any sort of protection the law was ostensibly designed to solve.

That’s where it kind of goes sideways, sometimes. The law is the law. Indeed, prosecutors aren’t even allowed to dismiss the cases, absent extreme circumstances. The law of “domestic violence” means “any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another” no matter how slight. And by slight, there’s not an attorney who practices in this area who hasn’t seen a case involving an allegation of a light push, a single slap, arm grab or accidental injury under all sorts of give-and-take scenarios as the cause for a misdemeanor charge. And to that end, the named victim (more times than not) decries the prosecution to the very end, but to no avail. Advocates would say that they know the statistics, so they know better than the autonomous human who sometimes pleads for the government to just let it go. Few are willing to engage in dialogue in the zone of tension between human frailty, self-determination, and stats.

Anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence is required to attend six-months to a years’ worth of expensive classes (mostly by private firms with opaque websites that don’t speak of profits or even qualifications), pay a hefty fine to the court and jump through a number of hoops as well as serve the aforementioned jail time (up to six months) and the well-known loss of gun ownership rights – and well, all the other stuff that elevated this to a “serious” crime requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt in front of a jury of peers, now.

Understandably, those who advocate for the abused or those who have been affected by real violence have little patience for those (like me) who point out that the Nevada approach to solving domestic violence woes (and theoretically, escalation) is highly flawed and catches far more people (and sometimes the wrong person) than necessary; that it is also far too expensive, arduous and often-Kafkaesque in the net of court proceedings and court-ordered restrictions and “classes” (which apart from being for-profit are not easily vetted for effectiveness nor tracked for outcomes). Victim advocates usually advance as common wisdom that major violence starts with minor violence and better to interact with as many people as you can as early as you can and allow the government to intervene. That may very well be true, but it doesn’t justify a non-sustainable, impersonal approach.

Even the most ardent victim advocate will have to admit the criminal justice system is not a sanctuary or healing retreat, the police are not trained counselors and the costs (both financial and time) of domestic violence cases often adds to the struggles within relationships instead of “fixing” them. The causes of violence amongst intimates is usually not a deliberative crime (“today I plan to commit domestic violence”), but typically a dysfunctional response to a host of emotional triggers. These triggers are typically heightened by financial difficulties, mental illness, addictions and scores of other societal ills that disproportionately affect the poor. (Rich people rarely have a neighbor call the cops on a loud argument; they also have access to lots of private counseling and tend to convince the police that everything is alright with the authority of a person with a Lambo in the driveway). Some relationships have a degree of physicality that both parties consent to, and while the outer boundaries of that have objective limits, a one-size, zero-tolerance model is an ill fit for many situations.

As our state has been embracing an increasingly draconian system of punishments and bureaucratic involvement in the already complex lives of people, there was invariably going to be a tipping point. The Nevada Supreme Court did what most scholars knew was coming for a long time – they said the penalties are severe enough to require a jury of peers (versus an elected judge) to make the call as to whether punishable criminal behavior occurred.

And despite the hyperbole that giving a person a full due process day in court (over an often one-sided and abbreviated bench trial) is going to have a significant impact on how many lives (or relationships) are saved, it is not. Because as it stands, the laws in place virtually guarantee that as a society where minor physicality comes into play – we are creating classes of abusers and victims with no nuance and no measure for much beyond punishment. 

It should be noted that in cases where serious violence occurs, or where there is any degree of hands on a throat, or in the case of three-time repeat offenders, or where the named victim is pregnant, jury trials are already warranted since they are more than misdemeanors. The same is true for obtaining restraining orders, which just got less difficult by way of new laws from the Legislature.

The new Nevada Supreme Court opinion doesn’t change a thing in these situations.

What the opinion does do is two things that have the potential of changing everything we know, independently, about court systems and domestic violence. 

First, it will invariably result in fewer people being convicted on marginal cases. Judges don’t get elected on a platform of holding every verdict to the high standard of reasonable doubt. And while I like to think that every judge purges lingering worry of being deemed too light on crime – there is a common feeling around the courthouse that nowadays most judges err on the side of conviction because well, “domestic violence.” No one wants to be on the wrong side of it. It’s just a lot easier to say “guilty” than “not guilty” for many sitting judges today.

Second, it could shut down the system for a while — until the system figures out how to adjust. Judges are already asking people if they want a jury trial when the question shouldn’t even be asked – people are entitled to one as a default under our Constitution now. I’ve also heard there’s an idea of empaneling one set of jurors to hear all the cases which is equally odd given that each defendant has a right to delve deeply into the biases and possible conflicts of any potential juror. Having one set of jurors may be convenient, but it tends to disrupt an important protective process. 

Some prosecutors are thinking about going to the Legislature and asking them to remove the suspension of gun ownership rights. And about that money, well, jury trials are more expensive than regular court proceedings, and there’s been some talk of taking the money from the very diversion programs that (arguably) help people not get into domestic violence situations by treating some of the underlying pathological factors.

Certainly, it will all work itself out as any expanded guarantee of rights does, but in the meantime, many people for the first time in a long time are taking stock of just how many misdemeanor domestic violence cases are in our systems – and the number is astounding. This pause in what to do with domestic violence cases should be a call to consider what can we do differently than lean so heavily on zero-tolerance law enforcement, harsher criminal laws, and a dysfunctional court system to address the basic issue of how can we stop people from hurting and/or killing intimates and family members. Whether that means bolstering NGOs to educate and empower individuals in these relationships, pouring tons and tons more money into the sorely needed mental health care and addiction treatment in our communities, strengthening safe facilities and programs for people to get away from a serious abuser, or simply taking the time to create dedicated, trained law enforcement teams with the goal of diffusing the potential violence instead of taking broken people and forcing them into a broken system… maybe we can take this moment to find a meaningful new approach.

In light of having hundreds, if not thousands, of very small domestic violence trials in the public eye to the potential shutdown of other parts of our justice court system, perhaps we’ll finally see the folly of depending on government prosecutions and incarceration to make humans safer and better. And not just in domestic violence cases, but all cases.

Instead, we need a true criminal justice reform conversation.

Dayvid Figler is a private criminal defense attorney based in Las Vegas. He previously served as an associate attorney representing indigent defendants charged with murder for the Clark County Special Public Defender’s office. During his legal tenure, he served a brief appointment as a Las Vegas Municipal Court judge. Figler has been cited as a noted legal expert in many places including the New York Times, National Public Radio, Newsweek, USA Today, Court TV and the Los Angeles Times. His award-winning radio essays have appeared on KNPR as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered program.

Political rice bowls, the real energy crisis and how Nevada can benefit

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, California

By Steve Curtis

Ah, the political rice bowl. Spend enough lobbying and campaign money and you can force the system to develop federal law that favors your industry, service or product so you can make more money. That is what makes the world go around, right? Maybe, but when it comes to energy policy, this attitude may be leaving environmental, social and financial bills for our next several generations to pay. 

There is a loud clashing of opposing wills being played out in the public on energy policy these days. We want very cheap energy, both for transportation and electricity; we want clean air, despite a greater demand for energy through a growing population; and we want an uninterrupted supply of energy. Add federal subsidies, mostly paid by unborn generations, and the problem seems (to the public) to be well in hand. But this witch’s brew of an odd energy dichotomy in our daily lives is a recipe for disaster. 

The problem is further framed by the following observations:

  1. There is a growing concern that excess carbon dioxide is ruining our planet on a short time scale.
  2. Fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) continue to be cheap, but are polluting our air.
  3. Renewables are heavily subsidized, so they appear inexpensive to the public.
  4. Battery-based storage does not seem to be mature (yet) and is also expensive.
  5. The existing electric grid and distribution system is facing challenges from intermittent power produced by renewable energy.
  6. Nuclear power is just as effective a clean energy source as renewables, yet shunned in the media and in advertising (though this is slowly changing).
  7. Our society is “going electric” for transportation, putting more pressure on clean electricity production.
  8. Foreign competitors are moving strongly toward nuclear power and usurping the United State’s former leadership in this huge market.
  9. The easiest part of the nuclear fuel cycle, used nuclear fuel, has languished without a solution for four decades in the most technologically advanced country in the world.

All of these factors are crying for attention among the so-called “rice bowls” — competing special interests trying to focus policy and law to work to their favor economically. Although some of these interests can be compatible with solving our problems, none seem to be working toward a national energy policy that suits the long-term best interests of our country.

There are simple steps we, as a nation — and that Nevada, as a state — can take, but the focus must change to collaborative, market-based efforts instead of setting policy influenced by the last advertisement we heard, the biggest campaign contributors, or the loudest voices on social media. These are tall orders, but I would like to lay out a two-part plan that could enable things to move forward.

First, next generation nuclear power and renewables (defined as solar and wind) must work together to attain climate and pollution goals. Nuclear power plants are operational, on average, 92 percent of the time, and produce no carbon dioxide. Renewables are operational, on average, about 30 percent of the time, and also are clean. It is strange that people who profess to be worried about the planet self-destructing because of carbon dioxide levels do not acknowledge and embrace nuclear energy’s clear advantages. Renewables backed by base-load nuclear plants is the clear and most effective answer for reducing emissions.

Today’s nuclear power industry has the best industrial safety record among all energy industries.  Next-generation reactors will be even safer than these are. They will be smaller, adaptable to many different power requirements (i.e, remote, neighborhood, individual industries, and huge power requirements) instead of the “one size fits all” solution of today. 

If you ask anyone educated in the science and engineering of nuclear systems, you will find that public fears you hear about nuclear and radiation are greatly exaggerated (I will leave it up to the reader to ask any industry professionals they know). The reporting on the three big nuclear accidents we have all heard about (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima) did not offer a balanced, objective explanation. Rather, most of the reporting seemed designed to drive fear into the hearts of the public over nuclear energy.

Three Mile Island was actually an example of how the safety systems built into nuclear reactors worked well in a crisis situation. If you saw the Netflix production of Chernobyl, you know the incident was actually the result of a marginally-designed reactor pushed into a disastrous condition by a madman inflicting his authority in a dictatorial regime. Fukushima was a natural disaster which killed more than 19,000 people, none of whom died as a result of the nuclear meltdown caused by the same disaster. And even considering all these disasters, the nuclear industry is still the safest when measured in either deaths per terawatt hour (0.0013) or in accidents per 200,000 worker hours (0.03 in 2015). It is also among the most regulated industries in the U.S.

The next biggest worry in the nuclear energy debate is storing used fuel. The reality of this situation is that storing nuclear waste is the simplest part of the nuclear fuel cycle, technologically speaking. It is a very compact waste stream that is completely sequestered from the public. Nuclear waste also contains about 95 percent of its energy, and should therefore be recycled. That’s right — recycled, just like we do with almost everything else.  

Presently, most people are so scared of nuclear waste material that no state in the U.S. will allow it to be brought within its borders. But the situation represents an opportunity for Nevada. Burying the nation’s nuclear waste looks to cost at least $200 billion, but a recycling facility can be built for just $25 billion and operated for about $1 billion per year. 

Many people do not know that Congress maintains a fund of more than $40 billion to support waste handling. (This is the money long collected from nuclear utility ratepayers and was also the fund that paid for a study of Yucca Mountain. It is held in interest-bearing T-bills, so the amount is increasing. By law, it cannot be accessed without congressional approval, and no such approval has been legislated since the Yucca Mountain project was “killed” in 2010. A lawsuit brought by nuclear utilities regarding the fees was settled in 2013 by permitting payments into the fund (about $750 million per year) to stop — but the funds remain.)

A state that accepts used nuclear fuel for recycling can ask for (and receive) funding and almost immediate economic benefit worth at least $5 billion per year. The energy market (combined transportation and electricity) in 2016 was $1.2 trillion, so even 5 percent could total $60 billion per year pumped into the Nevada economy in the form of highly-paid technical and professional jobs. While Nevada is the premier location for this business case, other states are starting to get on the dance floor. Virginia is already on it (more details about their nuclear energy initiative and more facts about waste processing can be found here).

The risks are low, and the prize is high. It makes no sense for Nevada to wait any longer.

Next-generation nuclear power production working along with renewables is a sensible way to proceed in the electricity production business of the future. As we develop this path, we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels as it makes sense. In the future, space-based power and fusion promise to further ease our clean energy pains. So, let’s start thinking more about our future and less about political “rice bowls.” Our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren deserve sensible action, and Nevada certainly deserves the economic break.

Steve Curtis holds a Health Physics Masters Degree (radiation science as it concerns human health). He has more than 30 years experience in university and Department of Energy technical and project management areas in nuclear emergency response and field research programs. He is a senior consultant for Readiness Resource Group, Inc. in Las Vegas, a member of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and a past president of the ANS Nevada Section.  He can be reached at curtis@readinessresource.net.  The content here is the sole opinion of the author and not affiliated with any other organization.

FBI public corruption specialist retires, takes wealth of knowledge into politics and P.I. work

When I heard Joe Dickey had retired as an FBI supervisory special agent and was starting his own private investigations business with an emphasis on political campaigns, I couldn’t help smiling.

Joe Dickey, the Las Vegas FBI’s most experienced public corruption agent, working on the inside of Nevada politics? Talk about a curveball.

But there he was, sipping a decaf at a Starbucks, laughing at the irony of mixing with members of the crowd he often worked against in a 20-year career spent almost exclusively in Southern Nevada.

For those unfamiliar with Dickey’s efforts, he led the “Operation G-Sting” investigation in the early 2000s, which led to the convictions of four Clark County commissioners, Erin Kenny, Dario Herrera, Mary Kincaid-Chauncey, and ex-cop Lance Malone. Two San Diego city council members also went down during the probe along with strip club mogul Michael Galardi, who was convicted for playing in both cities.

More recently, Dickey’s squad nailed Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow and state Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson for illegally skimming their campaign contributions for personal use. Both investigations led to convictions and have raised the bar in Nevada when it comes to the traditional practice of politicians using their campaign accounts as glorified ATMs. Before that, most politicians who tapped the campaign piggy bank received no more than stern looks and wrist slaps here.

Let’s just say Dickey may have trouble breaking the ice with some elected officials, people who have had to slug it out on the muddy campaign trail and raise small fortunes just to remain competitive. It’s not easy staying clean in the Silver State, and raising funds can also raise ethical dilemmas.

So, does he envision a problem developing trust?

“I hope not,” he says. “I’m not in law enforcement anymore. I take what I’ve learned and will try to help people stay out of trouble.” He also plans to bring his own ethics and judgment to the new assignment as the face behind JD Consulting & Investigations.

He wouldn’t be the first ex-fed or Metro detective to hang out a P.I. shingle, but few who’ve tried spent most of their careers working public corruption cases. Where some might see a stigma and suspect he might be too square for the game, Dickey sees an opportunity to raise the bar and remind skeptics of the many good people in politics.

“People think it’s worse than it really is, I believe,” Dickey says. “I think the vast majority of politicians are in it for the right reasons. There are the few that spoil the whole bunch, quite frankly.”

Campaigns run on more than cash stump speeches. They’re also fueled by research and background investigations. Consider it his strong suit.

“I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot,” says Dickey, whose wife is a local school teacher. The couple has a son and daughter in college. “As far as opposition research and vulnerability assessments, issue management, I think I can bring a lot to the table to help good people get elected and help good people stay in office.”

That investigative skill set could come in handy as the behemoth 2020 election cycle heats up and not just candidates, but contributors are scrutinized. Although he’s focusing on politics, which he calls a longtime passion, he’ll also pursue more traditional investigations involving business and the casino industry in a highly competitive market.

His desire to work for the kind of people he’d be proud voting for will be just one challenge to the new work. For a guy whose worn a white hat, the gray areas can be tricky.

With the bureau, his interest in politics led him to raise his hand in 1999 when Special-Agent-In-Charge Grant Ashley drew up and started the first public corruption unit in the history of the local FBI office, which had been kept busy over the years with graft cases involving county commissioners, state legislators, and judges.

That hotline approach generated leads that eventually turned into Operation G-Sting. Dickey came away from that investigation and others with perspectives on the nature of the beast. In the end, three current and one former commissioner were convicted.

“We had a quorum,” he says with some satisfaction. The case was like many corruption investigations in that it was essentially greed-based. Despite all the pay, perquisites and profile of elected office, a few politicians are never satisfied.

“It boils down to greed,” Dickey says. “It’s nothing more than greed. They get into it for themselves and not for the public’s interest. And greed takes over, and they make mistakes.”

Some successful candidates, especially those who entered the game with meager means, have difficulty adjusting when they suddenly find themselves in fast company.

“They start running in circles they’ve never run in before,” he says. “They kind of get starry eyed about it.”

In politics, forgetting where you came from can cost a candidate more than an election. It can also take away freedom and ruin a reputation.

Nevada’s traditional liberal campaign laws have only fed its reputation as a player’s paradise. Dickey recalls that during the G-Sting investigation, San Diego council members were running for office with $20,000 budgets. In Southern Nevada, commission races were being waged with seven-figure war chests.

And seeing officials Barlow and Atkinson use their campaign accounts for personal use made a mockery of the process. “Why take a bribe when you can accept a contribution?”

“Those were two cases where federally we went after state and local officials,” he says. “It had never really been done that way before. I’m really proud of that. It’s an accomplishment, a sea change that we were able to make. I hope that that will cause people to think twice about using their campaign funds for personal use.”

In a state with a rich history of political shenanigans and outright graft, Dickey’s expressed standards made me wonder whether his phone will ring. He doesn’t seem too concerned about that.

If it does, it’s possible Nevada politics will never be the same.

And who says that’s a bad thing?

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

Liberating aliens, burning men, and the glory of our freedom to be silly

A person in a mirrored suit at Burning Man.

I love Burning Man. I mean, I’ve never been and am unlikely to ever actually go. I’m not nearly cool enough for the playa, and there are too many other things I’d choose to spend my time and money on instead. 

But I love that some like-minded people had an idea to get other like-minded people together, and do something they thought would enrich their lives in some way. Now it’s an 80,000-person cultural phenomenon that adds tens of millions of dollars to our local economies every year. It produces art installations which beautify our public spaces long after the Man is burned, and enriches Reno’s cultural identity. The festival is ostentatiously silly in so many ways, but celebrating ostentatiousness while laughing at ourselves is so healthy, and so quintessentially American. It’s not my scene, but I’m glad that people who dig that sort of thing have a place to go do it. 

Burning Man tells us a lot about the human condition, in ways that many burners probably don’t expect and many may not admit. All humans are capitalists in whatever ways their circumstances allow – the fact that markets rely on barter doesn’t mean they aren’t still markets, and people bringing goods and services to exchange for other goods and services is what makes us all mutually wealthy. The already-rich will exploit their own resources to add to their own comfort in any environment, and some small but not insignificant percentage of regulatory agents will abuse their power if they are not checked. 

It also tells us that we are so ridiculously, gloriously well-off as a society that we literally create artificial hardships for ourselves for the thrill of it. At most points in human history, “radical self-reliance” and surviving in hostile environments without significant government infrastructure was called “Tuesday” – we evolved with the expectation of being stressed out, and as a species, don’t know what to do when we’re not under pressure. Most of our socio-political controversies these days also fall into the category of “making stuff up to be upset about because we have it so good,” but Burning Man may be the most concrete example of this weird and ultimately happy phenomenon.

Once Burning Man became part of the culture, it was inevitable that Americans would start simultaneously emulating and also pushing back against it, looking for alternative and cheaper festivals to go express themselves, and letting their glorious weirdness hang out.

And so it came to pass that thousands of people flocked to Southern Nevada to “storm” Area 51, confront one of our most secure and secretive military installations, see them aliens, and have a good time doing it. Most of them just went to Vegas to enjoy a concert and costumes, but a few dozen went to hang out in the desert and party it up without having to pay the exorbitant cost of a Burning Man ticket. 

I love what this says about us, too. The healthy irreverence for powerful government institutions, and the sedate government response. (If Donald Trump was the dictator his more hysterical opponents secretly wish he were, those gathering near the base would have been shot and buried rather than shooed back to Rachel). The ability to laugh at ourselves. The fact that we look for excuses to party, and create them if we can’t readily find them. That a silly social media joke wound up making people both richer and happier as they went about their lives. That none of this economic activity required a “plan” from political candidates or elected officials, except to react to and support the privately launched events.

The fact of the matter is that a similar story happens in our country hundreds of times every day. Someone has an idea to make something, or sell something, or to perform a service for their fellow citizens – and then they just do it. They make some money, some customers are satisfied, and the wealth and happiness of our communities grows. Most of these entrepreneurs don’t have the alien liberation schtick or abject silliness to keep them in the headlines, so we don’t hear about them, but all of us benefit from them in one way or another every single day. 

No government agency can plan such things, and no single bureaucrat can determine what millions of people want, need, or are willing to pay for. How lucky we are that, for now at least, we generally don’t let them try.

We are so fortunate to live in a state and in a country where we are free to be so creative and spontaneous, and allowed to profit from our ideas. May we always keep it so. Who knows – one of these days, exactly this sort of private entrepreneurial exuberance really will lead us to actually see some of them aliens…

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com