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'It seems cool to be racist now': The rising profile of the black gun owner

By Wesley Lowery
'It seems cool to be racist now': The rising profile of the black gun owner
Mark Warner has worked at Blue Ridge Arsenal, a black-owned gun store in Chantilly, Va. for 18 years.

CHANTILLY, Va. -- Mark Warner was hovering over the counter of handguns, about midway through the morning shift at Blue Ridge Arsenal, the black-owned gun store in Fairfax County where he's worked for the last 18 years, when he spotted me.

"I heard you want to talk about black people buying guns," Warner, himself a black man, declared in the matter of fact, teasing tone that has endeared him to the store's regulars. "So what do you want to know?"

"Let's say that I wanted to buy a gun," I asked as I cautiously approached, prompting a smirk from Warner. "What do I need to know?"

For the next hour, Warner fielded my often-elementary questions between interactions with the regulars, whom he called by name and arrived in a steady stream of twos and threes to rent a shooting lane or troubleshoot a jam in their favorite revolver. It was a busy day in the gun shop, but it was nothing like what could have been.

Gun sellers have long known that sales spike during election years, driven primarily by an influx of purchases by white conservatives who fear a coming-crack down on availability. This was especially pronounced following President Barack Obama's election in 2008. It happened again in 2013 after Obama was reelected and the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook birthed a new fervency within the gun control movement. The election of Donald Trump, an NRA-friendly Republican, has prompted no such fire-sale among white Americans - instead, gun sellers nationwide have noted significant upticks in sales to black Americans.

"We've seen a small change in who our customers are," Warner explained to me. "More women and more people of color - black, brown. The people coming in are darker shades than usual."

A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this summer found that while nearly half of white Americans live in a household with a gun (49 percent), that falls to 32 percent among black Americans. But gun sellers are now wondering to what extent the recent interest from black buyers will close that gap. At Blue Ridge, the sales staff has fielded calls from across the country from buyers looking specifically to buy from a black-owned gun store. The National African American Gun Association, founded in 2015 with about 300 people, has grown to 34 chapters nationwide and now boasts more than 20,000 members.

"There's this feeling, this fear in today's society, for people of color especially, that the person sitting over there in the corner might be about to attack you," said Philip Smith, who founded NAAGA in 2015 after he, in his 50s, began shooting recreationally. "I'm not going to say it's all Trump, but there is something going on where people feel comfortable openly doing and saying things that - five, six, seven years ago - they might not."

"It seems cool to be a racist now," he added.

For many black Americans, the headlines of recent months and years - nine black church goers gunned down during a Bible study in Charleston, two men killed in Portland after attempting to stop a white supremacist from harassing two women of color, a black University of Maryland student stabbed to death days before his graduation - have brought an ever-present fear even further to forefront of their thoughts.

As someone at-times tasked with writing about those very incidents, my fear has been compounded by the vocal hatred of the media among parts of the political right. Recent months have brought a new intensity of vitriol and on several occasions violent threats to my inbox and voicemail. Still, I was taken aback when, after one recent threat, a security consultant asked if I carry a weapon. "Nope," I answered, before pausing, for the first time in my life, to consider if perhaps that answer should be different.

---

Growing up, guns were a thing to be feared. They intersected with my life only as characters in narratives of pain: the reason the boy from gym class was in the hospital, the thing that stole the life of a friend's cousin or father. My life has known no fear greater than in the handful of times my eyes have found the opening of a gun's barrel.

It's a fear that is present for many black Americans. That same Pew poll found that 49 percent of us see gun violence as a "very big" problem in our local communities, compared with 29 percent of Hispanics and a fraction of as many whites - 11 percent. While 20 percent of whites and 24 percent of Hispanics say they - or someone in their family - has been personally threatened with a gun, that number jumps to 32 percent for black Americans. And while 43 percent of whites and 42 percent of Hispanics say they know someone who's been shot, it's 57 percent among black Americans.

---

It was a similar fear that in 2015 prompted Stephen Yorkman to launch the Robert F. Williams Gun Club in Prince George's County, Md., which is named for a civil rights activist who advocated armed self-defense and now has about 150 members.

"For me, it started with the shooting of Tamir Rice," Yorkman, 48, he explained, referencing the 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot by police while playing with a toy gun at the playground of a public park. "We need to create a different, better perception of black people with guns so that in an open carry state the image of a black person with a gun doesn't so alarm a police officer. And we need to make it so it's no longer a sin in the black community to be a gun owner, but that it's more accepted."

This new crop of black gun clubs aims to educate members on the history of black gun ownership and the centuries of attempts to suppress it and to host pragmatic conversations about the way their members will be perceived, and the dangers they will assume, as black people who chose to be armed - services often abdicated by the leaders of mainstream gun culture.

Owning a gun is not for everyone, the black gun owners explain, but how can the narrative around black men and guns be changed unless more of us give legal gun ownership a try? For me, though, it only took one try to remember what I already knew: my fear of what someone else might do to harm me is far outweighed by my fear of the responsibility that comes with owning a gun. The power to take a life is not one I'm comfortable holding in my shaking hands.

But their argument was compelling enough that, on that morning earlier this summer when I found myself at Blue Ridge - about an hour into our conversation - Warner was handing me "eyes and ears" (protective glasses and ear covers) and leading me into firing range number two.

My hands wrapped tight around a sleek Ruger SR22, I readied my stance, nervously aimed at the target hoisted about 21-feet down the firing lane, and pulled the trigger.

'It makes me feel equal': A deaf Gallaudet swimmer pushes NCAA to change rules, adopt technology

By Marissa Payne
'It makes me feel equal': A deaf Gallaudet swimmer pushes NCAA to change rules, adopt technology
Gallaudet swimmer Faye Frex-Albrecht takes her mark on a starting block outfitted with a Reaction Light System, which helps level the field between hearing and non-hearing competitors. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.

Faye Frex-Albrecht was just approaching the starting blocks at the 2016 North Eastern Athletic Conference Swimming and Diving Championships when the referee blew his whistle, kicking off the 400-meter individual medley. The 24-year-old Gallaudet athlete - who is both deaf and legally blind - couldn't hear it, of course, nor could she see the referee gesturing that the race was about to begin.

"I was disqualified," Frex-Albrecht said later through an interpreter. "And if you're disqualified in one event, it means you're disqualified for all events . . .

"There are a lot of swimmers in the past who've been disqualified, for example, for false starts because the referee is gesturing and using their voice and it's not always in line with the [starting] gun. Sometimes swimmers have missed their starts because they don't realize it's their event that's next because it's been announced by voice only."

After discussing her disqualification with frustrated teammates, Frex-Albrecht decided to air her thoughts in a video blog on Facebook.

Turns out, that video - which is silent save for the sounds of her signing - would lead to a movement that would bring change in her sport.

- - -

Gallaudet swimming Coach Larry Curran didn't know Frex-Albrecht was going to make the video, which now has almost 90,000 views, but he said he wasn't surprised when he saw it.

"It's her role to make the team better," he said of the rising senior who he recently named team captain ahead of next season.

Curran agreed with everything Frex-Albrecht expressed, including the team's frustration over the NCAA Swimming and Diving rules, which North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) schools are obligated to follow. Those rules led to her disqualification.

"We do all this work to accommodate a hearing environment and they do nothing for us," Curran said. "[The team was] going to call the papers. They were going to be bringing in all sorts of media. At that point I asked them, what was their end goal? Do you want to get even or do you want to see change?"

Curran had heard of a new technology developed for hearing-impaired swimmers called the Reaction Light System (RLS) which uses bright LED lights to give cues, eliminating the need for hand gestures or spoken instructions. The system, which attaches to a swimmer's individual block, is relatively simple: When it blinks red, it's time to get on the block; a blue light means take your mark; and finally, a quick green flash signals swimmers to go.

"I noticed that the deaf and hard-of-hearing swimmers typically were the last ones getting off the block," Frex-Albrecht said, adding that the traditional NCAA starting system requires deaf and hard-of-hearing swimmers to turn their heads to see the referee or the strobe light, while hearing swimmers are able to look straight on as they listened for their signals.

The NEAC, which issued a response explaining why officials disqualified Frex-Albrecht after her video caught on in the deaf rights movement, was on board. By May 2016, the NEAC and Gallaudet were working together to get the NCAA's permission to try the RLS at the 2017 NEAC Championship.

The process took about a year, but after the RLS passed tests that proved it could work in conjunction with all three of NCAA's approved electronic timing systems and not interfere with traditional methods of starting events, the NCAA approved the device for a one-time use.

"During the last championship, I noticed that the deaf swimmers are now catching up to the other swimmers," said Frex-Albrecht, who previously relied on a tap from an assistant coach to signal her start. "Now everyone's getting off the block at the same time. . . . It makes me feel equal."

The feedback from the experiment was overwhelmingly positive, said NEAC Commissioner Candice Murray, who was charged with gathering reaction from the conference's athletic directors and sending it to the NCAA's rules committee.

One athletic director of a mostly hearing school told her that he thought it was a "positive step for the sport of swimming."

- - -

On June 13, the NCAA changed its rule book to make LED lighting systems such as the RLS permissible starting in the 2017-18 swim season. While the portable technology will make appearances at every meet Gallaudet participates in, it won't be everywhere, including the NCAA Championships. Despite Gallaudet's urging, the NCAA declined to make the technology mandatory.

"The language in the rule book reflects what [world swimming's governing body] FINA and USA Swimming also have," said Brian Gordon, the secretary rules editor for NCAA Swimming and Diving.

Both organizations require audio and visual start cues, including the referee's whistle, hand gestures and a strobe, but neither has permitted LED lighting systems, such as the RLS.

Gordon added that schools have always had the option of placing individual strobe lights on each lane's starting block, which he reasoned already eliminates hard-of-hearing swimmers from needing to turn their heads. Many schools, however, have not installed individual strobes due to the extra cost, which is another reason NCAA has not mandated either that technology or any LED lighting systems.

"I don't know how many they're going to sell out there," Gordon said.

It costs $2,700 to install a single RLS unit on a starting block, according to Nick Santino, who engineered the lighting system in conjunction with Trine University in Angola, Indiana. The price drops significantly for subsequent units or if pools already have in-ground wiring systems set up, with individual units then running between $500 and $750.

Santino said units admittedly aren't cheap, but that they're in line with what individual strobes generally cost. He added that interest has increased substantially since the NCAA made the technology permissible.

Indiana University is the biggest program to contact him so far and, while the Hoosiers have not yet made a purchase, Santino said he has 18 orders at the moment, including from the Rochester Institute of Technology, the only other institution besides Gallaudet that had ordered the system specifically to aid hard-of-hearing students.

"All the rest of the customers are buying it for the speed of it," he said. "If you can get a swimmer off the block faster, you're gonna win."

- - -

Gallaudet views the NCAA's June ruling as a victory, but not an end to the university's campaign to gain more accommodations for deaf and hard-of-hearing student athletes.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Associate Athletic Director Sam Atkinson said.

Not only would Atkinson like to see the NCAA make LED lighting systems mandatory at all collegiate swim meets, but he's also hoping the association will one day make it mandatory that in-meet audio announcements be presented visually.

Gallaudet has already implemented its own system of visual announcements with the blessing of the NEAC: a PowerPoint projection on a large screen. It's nothing fancy, Frez-Albrecht said, but it's been a big help.

"Often deaf and hard-of-hearing swimmers miss out on stuff," Frez-Albrecht said. "I might be getting an award but I miss my award because I can't hear them announce my name. . . . Now that the information is available visually, it's nice."

Gallaudet hasn't approached the NCAA about instituting a mandatory visual announcement system, but the association could consider it for its next rules cycle in two years if it's presented.

"I think we've made a lot of progress in the last five or six years," Gordon said. "We're very committed to having our playing rules be very inclusive and creating an equal playing environment so everyone has the same opportunities.

"May the best person win," he added.

Artists in the age of Trump

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Artists in the age of Trump
Priest band members, from left, Taylor Mulitz, Katie Alice Greer, Daniele Daniele and G.L. Jaguar.

If art is a societal mirror, what does it look like in these politically tumultuous times? We recently asked a number of artists to reflect on this topic. For some, this moment is a call to action; for others, a time of anxiety; and for others still, circumstances don't matter because, to them, art is art. Their responses have been edited and condensed.

--Robert Schenkkan, 64

I wrote the first draft of this play in late October, in essentially a week, in a surge of anger and frustration. Theater can't operate as though it was business as usual. If we're going to be a part of this national conversation, which we must be having, theater has to be much more flexible. I see and have experienced a hesitancy or fear on the part of some institutions who are worried about backlash, either from their boards, or their audience members, or from the administration. I understand the reluctance of institutions. It's a complicated, confusing time. But we're artists. This is theater. This notion that we should shy away from controversy is foolish.

-Justin Simien, 34

Writer and producer of a film and Netflix series, both titled "Dear White People."

I have anxiety about being a black artist, and people working in various ways to suppress my voice. Even if it's something as stupid as someone trolling movie sites and trying to encumber my work with one-star reviews. These people - trolls, or the alt-right - their tactics do work. I have pictures of Stanley Kubrick, Michael Jackson, Bob Fosse and Spike Lee by my computer. All of these people put out work that the public wasn't ready to deal with. I have to be brave enough to tell the stories, even if people aren't willing to listen yet.

--Junot Diaz, 48

Sadly, there always seems to be a 20-year lag time in my fiction. On the other hand, I've been writing about the forces that gave rise to President Trump for as long as I've been a writer. I grew up a poor immigrant of African descent from a parent who came over illegally - who was undocumented - and I have experienced precarity. I've always written about what it means to be in a country which depends on immigrant exploitation but demonizes and victimizes them all the same. I have been vaulted into middle-class comforts, but this time, this election, for many people has underscored their sense of how vulnerable they are. I do feel an urgency to write a little more, a little faster. All our voices, all our interventions are sorely needed.

--Jackie Evancho, 17

Classical singer and former contestant on "America's Got Talent"; she performed twice during Donald Trump's inauguration festivities.

A lot of artists had passed because of their politics. I'm not a very political person. I saw it as a huge honor. I sang "Nessun Dorma" because I knew that was one of President Trump's favorite songs, because I performed it for him when I was really young, too. After saying yes, I had a lot of backlash, but I also had a lot of fans cheering me on. To be an artist at the moment is a scary thing, because you could possibly lose your whole career. It's tricky waters to be in.

--Hank Willis Thomas, 41

I remember saying that if Donald Trump were elected, my job wouldn't change. I am the co-founder of a super PAC called For Freedoms. It's really trying to figure out how to create a space for political discourse that's also embedded in fine-arts practices. I take inspiration from Germany, 1989. People decided that the Berlin Wall needed to come down. The government didn't decide that. People decided it. I think about a super PAC as a creative process. We're trying to galvanize the creative community to actually make our imprint on society greater.

--Lucinda Williams, 64

I feel like I do have a responsibility as an artist to get certain messages across. The most obvious one I'm doing right now is my song "Foolishness." Which I put an addendum on. It's meant to be a simple song. "I don't need this foolishness in my life." I started adding on during the elections: "I don't need hate in my life. I don't need walls in my life. I don't need fear in my life." I even added on, "I don't need Donald Trump in my life." The audience would just go nuts. I took out the Trump thing. But I added on, "I need hope in my life. I need justice. I need peace. I need love in my life."

--Yoko Ono, 84

Live in the light of hope

You may be bathed in the

Light of hope one day

It would be good . . . right?

--Priests

A Washington, D.C.-based rock-and-roll quartet comprised of Taylor Mulitz, Katie Alice Greer, Daniele Daniele and G.L. Jaguar. The group's debut, "Nothing Feel Natural," was issued thisyear via Sister Polygon Records.

Greer (singer, lyricist): So many artists have said to me, "Because Donald Trump is president now, I feel like I need to go do something else with my time." Which is so sad to me, and I think points to how broken our value system is that people think that art is frivolous or superfluous, not important in times like these.

Daniele (drummer): The thing that has been nice for me to see at least is, no matter where you go, but especially in the towns where our fans are in the minority, they're going to be all the more passionate about seeing you.

--Sabaa Tahir, 35

I like to write when things are calm - and when I'm not worried about my well-being, the well-being of those I love. And there is definitely a lot of worry. We writers joke about how we haven't gotten anything done since November. But it's sort of a dark joke because it's a little true. And there's this sort of sense of: Does my art matter, or should I be doing something that seems more directly effective, like getting involved in politics? But I think that ultimately it comes back to: I have to do more - reminding myself that it's more important than ever to portray truth. Young readers can sense when you're not addressing what's actually going on.

--Sarah Elizabeth Charles, 28

Jazz vocalist, composer and educator who, among other projects, works as a Carnegie Hall teaching artist with young people at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. She told us about her song and video "March to Revolution."

Right before the election I recorded a video and the song to release as a single. It was going to change the world and change people's opinions and the election. And the video came. Went. The election happened. Came. Went. I really thought I was going to change the world or at least change our country and change the results. But it very much didn't. I still watch it and still sing it with a tinge of laughter. It's amazing what we think we can do in a short period of time. And the reality of art is that it takes time, and you've got to give it that time to develop, and 30 years from now, who knows. It might be one of those songs, but now I just got to keep singing it.

--E. Ethelbert Miller, 66

Poet, author and former commissioner for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He has received several fellowships and awards, including the D.C. Mayor's Arts Award.

If you're an engaged citizen, you stay engaged, regardless of who wins an election. My poem ("This Is What I Want to Tell You") was an outgrowth of me just happening to see an old friend who happened to be an immigration lawyer. And as we were talking about what was going on, he made reference to a case he was handling in Virginia. They are arresting people right here.

--Mark Morris, 60

Artistic director and choreographer of the Mark Morris Dance Group, founded in 1980. He was a 1991 MacArthur Fellow.

As a friend of mine, who is a big shot running several theaters in New York, said, "We're always living in a current political situation." She is worried about this period because it's going to produce so much bad political art. And I can't think of anything truer than that. The more it works as politics, the less it works as art, and vice versa.

--Gregory Porter, 45

Two-time Grammy winner for best jazz album for "Liquid Spirit" in 2014 and "Take Me to the Alley" in 2017. He spends much of his time touring internationally. He spoke to us from Warsaw.

I select songs based on what I feel like the audience might need. Whether it be Beirut or Bahrain, or even Detroit, you can write a musical prescription for whatever the condition is of the environment that you find yourself in. The artist is supposed to provoke and push things forward. I think civil rights. I think Nina Simone, as well as the depth and strength of gospel music and spiritual music; I think Sam Cooke. I think James Brown. How can you not be inspired after hearing Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free"?

-Robert Battle, 44

Third artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, founded in 1958.

As an artist, you want to say, "What am I doing? How do I respond? What do we as an organization to respond to this?" And you really can't. The art has to respond. I go home, I close the door and I say all the things I need to say. When you think about the audience, there are people who could be activists themselves. And some say, "I just came here to escape." We never root for one candidate over the other, but I think it's clear from our work where we fall. Whatever our audience's political affiliation is, that's not our job. I think we have enough of that, quite frankly.

--Natsu Onoda Power, 43

Georgetown University professor and D.C.-based theater director; her inventive play "Astro Boy and the God of Comics" has been widely staged.

One of the things that's really threatened in this political climate is resources for the arts. Is our practice going to be sustainable? But exciting work has emerged out of dark times.

--Jiri Voborsky, 42

Artistic director of Ballet Magnificat, a touring Mississippi ballet troupe founded in 1986 on Christian values.

We know there are pockets of America that are more evangelical Christian, that are more Republican, thinking the way we think. The people who feel the way we do are peppered through the country, not just in the Bible Belt. We feel pressured to change with the current flow in the political arena. We feel a sense of isolation. We do. Though the political times are changing, the word of God does not. If someone is going to tell us, "You cannot not hire a homosexual dancer, no matter what you believe," as an example, then I fear we'll get to a point where we will be dictated to by a government that says we cannot discriminate in such a way. Then the question will be: Do we shut it down because we cannot compromise our values? Or do we change?

--Lynn Nottage, 52

The first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama, for "Ruined" (2009) and "Sweat" (2017). "Sweat" marked her Broadway debut.

I'm taking the role of being a resister very, very seriously. Rather than being complacent and rather than sort of signing petitions and stewing in my own frustration and my anger, I thought, "Now is the moment in which I really have to do something." And so with a team of collaborators we are going to Reading, Pennsylvania, and we're building a performance installation in a building that has been long abandoned: the Franklin Street railroad station. Our ultimate goal is really to try and get this city that's fractured along economic and racial lines into the same space so that we can build empathy and we can also force people to really engage in meaningful conversations. There's some art that really is about reflecting and responding to what's happening immediately. And there's some art that's absolutely necessary to fill people's spirits up with something that's beautiful.

--Tarell Alvin McCraney, 36

Playwright of the "The Brother/Sister Plays" and "Wig Out!," being staged through Aug. 6 at Studio Theatre in Washington. McCraney is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and 2017 Oscar winner for co-writing the screenplay for "Moonlight."

I want audiences to see themselves fully. The political turmoil has changed the way I want to engage with the audience. What stories are from my community, and how can I tell them? A piece that will be about them will only be enhanced by their presence. I am certainly keeping an eye open to the question of how to keep space, and make space, for them at the table.

--Barbara Kruger, 72

I have always had a short attention span. Now, I feel much less isolated in that. Everything is more episodic. It's faster. Who would have ever thought that the haiku would be the language of the future? Those of us who've lived in New York for 30 years know who and what Donald Trump is. If it wasn't so tragic, it would just be so grotesquely beyond satire. Beyond anything SNL would do. All work, even if it doesn't look like it, is symptomatic of what it means to be alive today.

--Richard Blanco, 49

Poet for Barack Obama's second inauguration and author of "The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood."

Trump is good for business. When the world needs artists, amazing things happen. What we're seeing now with many people, and artists, is this realization that democracy is in our hands. It's being written by us, not by the political class.

---

Lavanya Ramanathan is a Washington Post staff writer. Articles editor Marcia Davis interviewed Charles, Porter and Thomas.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Can we die in peace?

By robert j. samuelson
Can we die in peace?

WASHINGTON -- For those of us who had hoped that American attitudes toward death were shifting in ways that would promote a wider reconstruction of the health care system, there’s discouraging news from Health Affairs, the pre-eminent journal of health policy. It devotes its latest issue to “end-of-life” care and finds that -- at least so far -- the power to make health care more compassionate and cost-effective is limited.

That was the vision. Americans would become more realistic about death. Through “living wills,” they’d reject heroic -- often futile -- treatment to keep them alive. Health spending would be lower (by one estimate, a quarter of Medicare spending occurs in the last year of life). People would die with dignity. They’d be spared needless suffering.

Superficially, the vision seems to be triumphing, according to the 17 studies in Health Affairs. By one study, a third of American adults -- and nearly half those 65 and over -- have some sort of living will. From 1999 to 2015, the share of Americans who died in hospitals dropped from more than half to 37 percent. Over the same period, the number dying at home or in a hospice rose from less than a quarter to 38 percent. Moreover, at 8.5 percent of health costs, spending in the last year of life is lower in the United States than in some other countries.

But on inspection, the gains seem less impressive. The share of people with living wills has remained stuck for six years. According to another study in Health Affairs, the increase in hospice care is not substituting for expensive hospital care but adding to it. Said the study by Melissa Aldridge of Mount Sinai hospital in New York and Elizabeth Bradley of Vassar College:

“What has emerged [is] a relatively new pattern of hospice use. ... [H]ospice enrollment [has become] an ‘add-on’ in health care after the extensive use of other health care services and within days of death.”

Patients receive expensive care until nearly the end, when they’re switched to hospice care. This obviously limits the potential for reducing costs and for relieving patients’ suffering. In addition, spending for the last year of life, though significant, is still a small share of total spending, refuting the argument that the high cost of dying explains why U.S. health care is so costly.

“We found that U.S. health spending [during the last year of life] was less than one-tenth of total U.S. health care spending [8.5 percent] and thus cannot be the primary cause of why U.S. health care is so much more expensive than care in other countries,” concluded another study in Health Affairs headed by Eric French of University College London.

(The fact that the effect on Medicare is much larger reflects simple arithmetic: Because Medicare represents only about a fifth of total U.S. health spending, the spending in the last year is being compared to a smaller base.)

None of this means that end-of-life care can be ignored. Indeed, the problems will almost certainly worsen, because much care-giving is by families and friends. Already, 29 percent of the adult population -- two-thirds of them women -- consider themselves caregivers.

As the population ages, the burdens will grow. In 2010, the ratio of potential caregivers (people 45-64) to those aged 80 and over was 7-to-1; by 2030, it’s projected to be 4-to-1. Alzheimer cases are increasing. Spending pressures on Medicare and Medicaid will intensify.

Just whether the persistence of high-cost care reflects good medicine, a deep human craving to cling to life, or both is unclear. But the rhetoric about “end-of-life” care has changed more than the reality. To the question -- Can we die in peace and with dignity? -- the answer is “not yet.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

TV shows depicting alternate histories can teach us something about our reality today

By esther j. cepeda
TV shows depicting alternate histories can teach us something about our reality today

CHICAGO -- There’s a scene in episode nine of the first season of “The Man in the High Castle” -- Amazon’s show based on Philip K. Dick’s novel -- that seems designed to induce giddiness in a series that, up to that point had been serious, restrained and often drab.

A disillusioned high-ranking Nazi official who trades secrets with the Japanese dresses for an important meeting. We see a black leather suitcase containing a crisp black uniform decked out in patches and pins of high rank, gleaming buckles, iron crosses and the tell-tale red, swastika-emblazoned armband.

Gene Pitney’s bawdy, yearning song, “Town Without Pity,” plays as the official slips on his SS tie pin and ring, sips an aperitif, then closes the brushed silver buttons down his beautifully tailored cashmere jacket and slips impeccable black leather boots on over his jodhpurs.

The message had been implicit in all the scenes featuring the majestically costumed Greater Nazi Reich, but this one in particular screamed “These Nazis are sexy!” It was jaw-dropping and squirm-inducing.

Many parts of the show have that vibe about them -- that the dystopia wasn’t so dystopian for everyone.

“The Man in the High Castle” envisions an alternate history in which the Axis powers were victorious in World War II and now rule over the former United States. In the western part of the country, which is under Japanese control, life is awful. Poverty is rampant, slavery is in effect, it’s dark, everything is filthy, and people are sweaty and stressed out.

But the eastern part of America, which had been annexed by Hitler, is a land of milk and honey: Everyone is white, middle class or wealthy, well-spoken, impeccably dressed and happy. Everything is crisp and new, the sun shines and birds sing, etc. Berlin, Germany, too, is shown as a glorious, thriving epicenter of riches, culture and advanced technology.

Even before its premier in November 2015, “The Man in the High Castle” sparked concerns that it would glorify Nazism when Amazon’s marketing people wrapped the exteriors and interiors of 42nd Street shuttle trains in Manhattan with the show’s Third Reich imagery.

However, throughout its two seasons, fans have come to know the show as being anything but pro-Nazi. It is, in fact, disturbing, complex and nuanced, but there’s never any real question who the bad guys are, demonstrating that it is possible to depict an imaginary regime with both the glamour that totalitarianism can provide to the people in power and the despicability it represents.

Still, it’s easy see how such a fraught topic could be mishandled in the process of making entertainment.

HBO stepped into this sort of unease last week when announcing that it would begin production on a high-concept drama series called “Confederate.” The show would be set in an alternate America in which the Southern states had seceded from the Union and slavery continued into the present day.

At the top of the concerns is that two white, male showrunners -- David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the guys responsible for “Game of Thrones,” which has itself faced criticism for its portrayals of sexual violence and slavery -- are headlining the telling of a story that has renewed cultural currency at a time when lynching nooses are popping up on college campuses and Confederate flags are flying proudly in many parts of the country (even five doors down from where I live in solidly blue northern Illinois).

The bigger concern should be that, at this early stage, there is no set story for “Confederate.” The TV version of “The Man in the High Castle” may inspire some misgivings, but there’s no question that Dick’s novel was solidly, undeniably anti-fascist.

Our entertainments hold much power over us and a great capacity to shape our perceptions to the world around us. It’s only natural to be concerned that a project like “Confederate” could end up playing like high-brow Confederacy fan fiction.

Still, even though I’m not a viewer, much less a fan of, “Game of Thrones,” a thoughtful show about an America divided by slavery is an opportunity to learn something insightful about the present day.

To their credit, Benioff and Weiss chose Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, both well-respected black writers and producers, as full partners in telling this story.

As the writers have noted, they might screw up the whole opportunity to explore an alternate “Confederate” America. But let’s give them a fair chance to show us an awful future that might have been. We might learn something important about our country.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

The twin threats to our republic’s health

By e.j. dionne jr.
The twin threats to our republic’s health

The news is being reported on split screen as if the one big story in Washington is disconnected from the other. But President Trump’s lawless threats against Attorney General Jeff Sessions have a lot in common with the Senate’s reckless approach to the health coverage of tens of millions of Americans.

On both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, we are witnessing a collapse of the norms of governing, constant violations of our legitimate expectations of political leaders, and the mutation of the normal conflicts of democracy into a form of warfare that demands the opposition’s unconditional surrender.

Trump’s latest perverse miracle is that he has progressives -- along with everyone else who cares about the rule of law -- rooting for Sessions. The attorney general is as wrong as ever on voter suppression, civil rights enforcement and immigration. But Sessions did one very important thing: He obeyed the law.

When it was clear that he would have obvious conflicts of interest in the investigation of Russian meddling in our election and its possible links to the Trump campaign, Sessions recused himself, as he was required to do.

Trump’s attacks on Sessions for that recusal are thus a naked admission that he wants the nation’s top lawyer to act illegally if that’s what it takes to protect the president and his family. Equally inappropriate are his diktats from the Oval Office calling on Sessions to investigate Hillary Clinton and those terrible “leakers” who are more properly seen as whistleblowers against Trump’s abuses.

Our country is now as close to crossing the line from democracy to autocracy as it has been in our lifetimes. Trump’s ignorant, self-involved contempt for his duty under Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” ought to inspire patriots of every ideological disposition to a robust and fearless defiance.

But where are the leaders of the Republican Party in the face of the dangers Trump poses? They’re trying to sneak through a health care bill by violating every reasonable standard citizens should impose on public servants dealing with legislation that affects more than one-sixth of our economy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have little time for worrying about the Constitution because they are busy doing Trump’s bidding on health care.

Let it be said that two Republican senators will forever deserve our gratitude for insisting that a complicated health care law should be approached the way Obamacare -- yes, Obamacare -- was enacted: through lengthy hearings, robust debate and real input from the opposition party. In voting upfront to try to stop the process, Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski demonstrated a moral and political toughness that eluded other GOP colleagues who had expressed doubts about this charade but fell into line behind their leaders.

The most insidious aspect of McConnell’s strategy is that he is shooting to pass something, anything, that would continue to save Republicans from having a transparent give-and-take on measures that could ultimately strip health insurance from 20 million Americans or more. Passing even the most meager of health bills this week would move the covert coverage-demolition effort to a conference committee with the House.

The Senate’s unseemly marathon thus seems likely to end with a push for a “skinny repeal” bill that would eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s individual and employer mandates and its medical device tax. But no one should be deluded: A vote for skinny repeal is a vote for an emaciated democracy.

A wholesale defeat for what might be described as the Trump-McConnell-Ryan Unhealthy America Act of 2017 is essential for those being served by the ACA but also for our politics. It was disappointing that Sen. John McCain’s passionate plea on Tuesday for a “return to regular order” did not match his votes in this week’s early roll calls.

But McCain could yet advance the vision of the Senate he outlined in his floor speech and rebuke “the bombastic loudmouths” he condemned by casting a “No” vote at the crucial moment. Here’s hoping this war hero will ultimately choose to strike a blow against everything he said is wrong with Congress.

And when it comes to the ongoing indifference to the law in the White House, Republicans can no longer dodge their responsibility to speak out against what Trump is doing. They should also examine their own behavior. The decline of our small-r republican institutions can be stopped only if the party brandishing that adjective starts living up to the obligations its name honors.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

This column brought to you by the ‘Amazon Washington Post’

By dana milbank
This column brought to you by the ‘Amazon Washington Post’

WASHINGTON -- The publication I write for has a new name: The Amazon Washington Post.

The moniker was bestowed in recent days by President Trump, putting the newspaper in the company of the Failing New York Times, Li’l Marco Rubio, Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Crooked Hillary and Low-Energy Jeb.

“A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post. ... These illegal leaks, like Comey’s must stop!” he roared, via Twitter, early Saturday.

“The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad,” he proclaimed late Monday.

Trump supposes that the newspaper is doing the bidding of its owner, Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos. He further imagines that the paper is serving as a “lobbyist” for Amazon (which doesn’t own The Post) and otherwise doing Bezos’ bidding.

Well, I am here to tell you that this is a big lie. [”Big Little Lies” -- Season 1, 2017, starring: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, et al. Amazon Video. Included with HBO on Amazon for $14.99/month after trial.] Bezos is perfectly entitled to put his imprint on The Post, but the fact is he interferes little with the editorial product. [”Interference” and over 1 million other books are available for Amazon Kindle.] And the intelligence leaks aren’t “from” The Post but from whistleblowers within the administration exposing possible wrongdoing. Leaks are good! [Leeks, one bunch. Price: $2.86. Ships from and sold by AmazonFresh. Save $25 on grocery delivery.]

But don’t take my word for it. Ask Alexa. She will echo my assertions [Place two Amazon Echo devices in your cart and receive $100 off your order with code ECHO2PACK]:

Me: Alexa, does Amazon own The Washington Post?

Alexa: I don’t own anything.

Me: Alexa, does AMAZON own The Washington Post?

Alexa: I don’t own anything.

Me: Alexa, who owns The Washington Post?

Alexa: The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos ...

Me: Alexa, what do you think of The Washington Post?

Alexa: I don’t have an opinion on that.

Me: Alexa, what do you think of Donald Trump?

Alexa: When it comes to politics, I like to think big. We should be funding deep space exploration. I’d love to answer questions from Mars.

The admirably apolitical Alexa was confused on some finer points -- she doesn’t know much about leaks -- but she did tell me I could buy an attorney general on Amazon. “The top search for attorney general is ‘The Attorney General.’ It’s 10 dollars and 52 cents total, including tax. Would you like to buy it?”

Sounds like a bargain -- and, as it happens, Trump is in the market for one.

I’ve never even met Bezos. I’m just a rank-and-file columnist who happens to believe passionately in commercial space exploration and the urgent need of humanity for a clock that will last 10,000 years, ideally located in a mountain in Texas. Since my days as a cub reporter, long before Bezos bought the Post, it has been a prime belief of mine that same-day delivery should, as a matter of principle, be free for orders of $35 or more, and I have long been convinced that drones will someday deliver packages safely and conveniently to my doorstep.

My job is to give you the truth without fear or favor, and with no concern about what Bezos might think. [”The Ugly Truth,” 2009, Starring: Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, et al. Amazon Video. $3.99-$12.99 Rent or Buy.] At The Post, there is no “Man in the High Castle” [An Amazon Original Series].

I’ve made no secret of my view of Trump [VIDEO RECOMMENDED FOR YOU: “Catastrophe” -- Season 1]. I watch for his latest mischief, whether it’s Trump officials cozying up to Russians [Shopkins Girls Besties for Life Cozy Fleece Sleepwear. $18.88-$34.97. Some sizes are Prime eligible] or the new White House communications director preparing for a staff purge. [PURE CLEANSE -- Best Colon Cleanse Detox for Weight Loss. $17.96. Subscribe & Save.]

I’m keeping an eye out for when he gives Jeff Sessions the ax [Fiskars X27 Super Splitting Axe, 36-Inch. Get it by Tomorrow] and who might be the replacement [”A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America” by Ted Cruz. Amazon Best Sellers Rank: No. 163,732 in Books]. When Trump gives a vulgar speech to a group of Boy Scouts, or urges a group of active-duty military personnel to engage in politics, my interest is kindled. Hopefully yours is too -- and that’s why you’ll subscribe to The Washington Post for Kindle (Ad-Free). It’s just $11.99 per month, with the first 14 days FREE. Only from Amazon.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Poor everyone

By kathleen parker
Poor everyone

WASHINGTON -- Eventually, everyone in this town seems to wind up with the word “poor” in front of his or her name.

Such a fate is especially likely if one has associated with Donald Trump. As in, Poor Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He is latest to the firing line that has included such formerlys as FBI Director James Comey, national security adviser Michael Flynn and acting-Attorney General Sally Yates, as well as the “voluntarily resigned” -- press secretary Sean Spicer, and Communications Director Michael Dubke.

Trump has begun making inquiries about firing Sessions, barring a resignation prompted by the president’s tweeted attempts at shaming him into resigning. His crime? A perceived lack of loyalty. Having recused himself from involvement in the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation -- and, therefore, from defending the president, as Trump sees it -- Sessions is no longer useful. (For the record, Sessions did reportedly offer to resign at one point.)

Speaking of loyalty, Trump offers little of what he expects from others. Way back in early 2016, when few were willing to sidle up to the Republican front-runner, Sessions bet the farm on this reality-show celebrity. He was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump, trading his legacy for the near-certain promise of a top position in the new administration.

Whatever Sessions’ hopes for the job, Trump apparently assumed that the attorney general would serve at his pleasure, regardless of what inconvenient ethics might preclude Sessions from also acting as the president’s personal defense attorney -- that is, should any pre-emptive measures prove inadequate to thwart unwanted scrutiny.

Sessions’ recusal wasn’t only correct but probably unavoidable. It was revealed the day before his announcement that he had twice met with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, in July and September of 2016, despite having said during his confirmation hearing that he hadn’t. Like so many others who joined the Trump White House, Sessions seemed to have forgotten the meetings.

Kislyak must be one forgettable fellow. Everyone he meets from Trump World suffers amnesia, recalling not so much as a handshake. Though I’ve not had the pleasure, Kislyak looks like a jovial sort who enjoys a hearty chuckle. His sides must be splitting these days as Trump repeals and replaces officials who are investigating Russia or who deny knowing any Russians.

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions has said that his meetings with Kislyak, come to think of it, were routine and part of his activities as senator, not as campaign operative. Except for the fact that Sessions was part of the campaign at the time of those meetings, there’s no reason to doubt him.

Trump seems less bothered that Sessions, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner all have contradicted his claims that none of his campaign people had ever met with any Russians associated with the government than by the realization that Sessions isn’t protecting his backside. To the nation’s chief executive, the latter spells (BEG ITAL)kaputzkah(END ITAL). In recent tweets, the president called the attorney general “beleaguered,” accused him of being “very weak” on Hillary Clinton (why now?), and questioned his competence, saying: “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign -- ‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G.” (Say this for Trump: He has resisted servitude to punctuation and grammar.)

Sure, Trump must know that Sessions vowed during his confirmation hearing that, if confirmed, he would recuse himself from any matters concerning Hillary Clinton. After all, the hearing (BEG ITAL)was(END ITAL) televised. But why mention Clinton in this episode of Trump’s reality presidency? Because when the heat is on, Trump always sprinkles a little Clinton in the mix. How better to turn his supporters against Sessions and create momentum for him to resign than to remind Republican voters that Sessions let Clinton get away with (fill in the blank).

In the latest in his series of off-the-cuff true confessions, Trump last week told The New York Times that he never would have nominated Sessions as attorney general had he known he’d recuse himself. Recall that he also said he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. Nobody ever accused the president of subtlety. The question now is, who’s next?

We’ll know soon enough, but Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price might want to keep his medical license current. As the Senate was preparing to vote again on the Obamacare repeal bill, Trump gave a rousing speech, saying he knew Price, who formerly sat on the House Ways and Means subcommittee on health, would get out there and get those votes.

If not, Trump quipped, “You’re fired!”

Poor Price.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Can Pompeo keep the CIA out of the ditch?

By david ignatius
Can Pompeo keep the CIA out of the ditch?

WASHINGTON -- If the ghosts who inhabit the walls of the CIA could talk, they would tell Director Mike Pompeo to be careful. The agency is entering a danger zone where a White House in turmoil wants the CIA to take aggressive action overseas, but hasn’t developed the clear strategy or political support needed to sustain it.

Pompeo is an activist, an exuberant politician with a flair for delivering one-liners. He’s a risk-taker, who wants the agency to be more aggressive both in collecting information and using covert action against targets like North Korea and Iran. This aggressive stance was clear in his remarks last week at the Aspen Security Forum, and in other public comments over the last six months.

Pompeo has some big problems that complicate his agenda. He won’t be able to deal with them without a broad, bipartisan base of support. Otherwise, he’s going to run into the same ditch in which the agency has regularly gotten stuck for decades -- launching bold (sometimes dubious) programs that eventually deflate like leaky balloons, harming the agency, its workforce and its allies abroad.

Here’s a roadmap of three dangers ahead, drawn from conversations with a half-dozen CIA veterans who served in Republican and Democratic administrations:

-- Intelligence today is politicized, perhaps more than at any time in our history. President Trump outrageously likened intelligence professionals to Nazis and regularly describes intelligence estimates of the Russian threat as “fake news” or a “witch hunt.” Senior ex-spooks, not surprisingly, have fought back. In the process, the CIA is becoming a political football.

James Clapper and John Brennan, former directors of national intelligence and the CIA, respectively, took some roundhouse swings in Aspen, calling Trump’s remarks “insulting,” completely inappropriate” and “not ... honorable.” They’re right. The problem is that the millions of Americans who fantasize about a supposed “deep state” become more convinced this conspiracy exists when they hear former intel chiefs attack the president.

-- The Trump administration has failed to make clear strategic decisions. Trump’s policies on Syria, Russia, Iran and China are a hodgepodge of conflicting goals and unresolved issues. Meanwhile, the president keeps pushing the agency to come up with options.

Historically, this is where the CIA gets in trouble. Presidents who want “wins” but lack a systematic diplomatic strategy have used covert action to topple governments or wage undeclared wars. When the secret campaigns backfire and public support disappears, the agency is left holding the bag. The lesson: When policymakers don’t know what to do and turn to covert action, the agency should sometimes say no.

Pompeo’s penchant for covert action was clear in his Aspen comments. On North Korea, he advocated separating the country’s military capability from its erratic leader, Kim Jong Un, and said “the North Korean people ... would love to see him go, as well,” though he tempered this threat slightly by joking that the U.S. should be careful about “what’s behind door No. 3.” On Iran, he said the U.S. should stop “appeasement” and “find a platform which could uniformly push back against Iranian expansionism.” In combating the Revolutionary Guard Corps leadership, he said, “we’re deadly focused on making sure [they] don’t maintain capacity and power.”

-- Finally, and most important, the administration Pompeo serves is in disarray. The president is trying to bad-mouth his attorney general into resigning, and he may plan to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller next. The country needs steadiness and independence from the CIA. Pompeo should think about institutional and constitutional obligations, as well as presidential ones. He knows where the accelerator is, but he should also look for the brake.

Richard Helms, perhaps the most astute director in the CIA’s history, was so wary of getting involved in policy debates that it’s said he excused himself from presidential briefings once he had delivered the intelligence. President Lyndon Johnson supposedly would press him to stay and offer his views.

Pompeo, a blunt ex-congressman, appears to have the opposite instinct. He’s at the White House nearly every day, and it’s said that his briefings with Trump sometimes veer back and forth between intelligence and policy matters. Trump wants action; Pompeo wants to deliver. This can-do temptation is inherent in the relationship between any president and CIA director, but in this case, it may be a cause for concern.

Pompeo is as ambitious and ideologically passionate a CIA director as we’ve seen in decades. On the wall near his dining room is a portrait of Helms, with a bemused, skeptical look in his eye. I hope Pompeo takes a moment to consult his predecessor.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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