Monday, December 31, 2012

The public anger against Congress

The CNN story that prompted this musing is entitled, "Social media: Fiscal cliff deadlock is 'jeopardizing faith in our government'". Josh Levs' story opens thusly:
Across the country, millions are fed up with a Congress that seems unable to get some important things done.

"We need Congress to represent the people, not two arrogant parties that can't see middle ground," Garry Benner says.

"Nowhere else in this country can you get paid for ... years and not do your job," Tom Jeffries says.

There's nothing terribly surprising in or about this story. People want "Washington to put 'partisanship aside'", "to grow up, act like adults, do your jobs or resign immediately".

However, all this nattering, which we've heard before, did finally crystallize an inchoate gripe I've had with all the griping. It helps that I already identified a similar problem involving the NRA:

It's easy, though, to forget all those millions of supporters, and to imagine that groups like the NRA are malevolent creatures with their own lives. "Standing up" to those groups thus conjures the image of St. George fighting the dragon. The reality, though, is that the NRA isn't a malevolent creature: it's a megaphone for millions of people. If elected officials hesitate to resist it it's because those officials know that a lot of their constituents agree with the NRA.
Rhetorically it's highly satisfying to vilify "Congress" in the same way as a malevolent (or at least hopelessly obstructive) beast with its own life. In a related vein, we like to vilify Congresscritters as "children", or villains themselves, petulantly or maliciously preventing the House and the Senate from getting work done.

Reality check: "Congress" isn't alive. Corollary: nobody in Congress gives the least little damn what we, the people, think of Congress.

The people quoted in the CNN article are seriously misdirecting their anger. "Congress" has no independent will or identity that responds to the public at large: it's a body of elected representatives. And a House member does not give a shit what millions of Americans who can't vote for him think.

Our elected Congressfolk do what their constituents want, or they don't represent those constituents very long. Ergo, Congress is dysfunctional because we are dysfunctional. We don't allow for compromises any more out of ideological purity, so of course Congress is deadlocked.

If anybody is being childish, it's the public. We are divided and at cultural war with one another, yet we have an irrational expectation that Congress is supposed to rise above our divisions. What is that but a childish refusal on our part to face up to facts?

"Congress" is not going to fix itself. If we want it to change, we have to change first.

Goodbye 2012

There is no way I'm disciplined enough to do a real retrospective on 2012, so I'll just say this:

To Adam Lanza (the Newtown, CT school shooter) and William Spengler (the Webster, NY murderer of firefighters) — I hope there is a Hell. You both deserve to burn in it forever.

To the rest of you — may 2013 be a happier, more peaceful, less strife-ridden year.

Saving everyday voices

Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times wrote a piece that struck a chord with me: "So Many Snapshots, So Few Voices Saved". We are used to having hundreds or thousands of photos of our loved ones, but we almost never have sound recordings of them except as incidental byproducts of video recordings. Yet our loved ones' voices can be important keys to remembering them. Klinkenborg muses as to why we make so few audio recordings.
Now, it’s every bit as easy to record sound on a smartphone as it is to record images. And yet because sound is always a function of time, most of us still prefer to capture digital snapshots instead of digital audio samples, even in the form of video. There is still a kind of documentary formality in setting out to record the sound of your parents’ voices — a formality that has vanished entirely from photography.
I don't think Klinkenborg quite hit the mark.

It's certainly true that even today, it's more natural for people to take snapshots rather than video snippets. Part of the reason, I expect, is "a function of time", as Klinkenborg says: while we're used to sitting still for the few moments it takes to take a photo, we're not used to remaining "camera ready" for longer periods.

And we do insist, by and large, on making ourselves camera-ready, don't we? I don't agree with Klinkenborg that a sense of "documentary formality" has vanished from photography, at least on the part of the subjects. Photographers, of course, whether amateur or professional, strive to capture "unscripted" or spontaneous moments. Most of us on the other end of the lens are less enamored of spontaneity: all of us have been caught in unflattering poses. We may be primarily visual creatures, but we aren't always ready for our visual selves to be immortalized in photos.

We want to make a good impression in an audio recording, too. The question is, how?

There are two components to our "audio selves", the voice and what we're doing with it (singing or speaking). We don't think much about our voices: they are the way they are and there isn't much we can do to pretty them up. What we say, though, we can control fully — and that can be nerve-racking.

Most video recordings are of an event in which we have natural roles to play, even if we're only spectators. We don't worry about what we do on camera: there generally isn't anything we can do to make ourselves look better in motion anyway. We also don't worry about chattering constantly: conversation is an adjunct to the visuals. By contrast, a pure audio recording is all about the conversation, or even worse, the monologue. Audio-only recordings are especially unnatural because rarely, if ever, is there a reason to make one instead of an audio-visual recording.

Making audio-only recordings even more unnatural is the reality that the usability and fidelity of consumer audio equipment lags consumer video equipment by a lot. Getting a decent snapshot or video requires no work on the part of the subjects; getting a decent audio recording, on the other hand, requires them to be cognizant of the microphone's location and sensitivity, raising or lowering their voices as need dictates.

I've only mentioned the awkwardness of audio-only recording prior to the actual recording. Listening to the result ... that's a different kind of awkward. In my experience, people hate the sound of their own voices. They sound unnatural to themselves. (My guess is that our voices sound a lot warmer in our heads due to bone conduction.) A lot of people never want their voices recorded again, and who can blame them?

All that said, Klinkenborg made a good point: "... the intimate sound of a voice that has gone missing in your own life ... recovers memory and emotion and loss itself". When I think of my long-dead father, I don't just see his face: I hear his voice, especially his chuckle. He wouldn't be alive in my memory without sound.

Of course, he wouldn't be much of a memory without the visual of his face, either, so perhaps I've just made the case for the video as the best archive.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Friedman agrees with me

Just after the presidential election last month I wrote:
The Republican Party could split. If it did, my guess would be that the most uncompromising of its current members, politicians and voters both, would form a new party; let's call it the Conservative Party for lack of a better term. The Republican Party left standing would suddenly be a far more moderate place, though what its political heft would be is unclear.

Or the Republican Party might double down on its current bet, deeming Mitt Romney to have failed because he was insufficiently conservative. ... Over time it would purge itself of even more moderates, a process I imagine would be akin to the "self-deportation" Romney espoused during the campaign. The end result might be a Republican Party very much like the "Conservative Party" I mentioned above.

The New York Times' Tom Friedman essentially has reached the same conclusion.
Republican politicians today have a choice: either change your base by educating and leading G.O.P. voters back to the center-right from the far right, or start a new party that is more inclusive, focused on smaller but smarter government and market-based, fact-based solutions to our biggest problems.
We phrased it differently, but both Friedman and I agree that the truly reality-denying, anti-intellectual, uncompromising (not "principled", but "muleheaded") wing nuts who hold the party in its thrall have to be marginalized. We simply cannot afford to indulge their delusions — about climate change, the economy, job creation, the United Nations, the cost of health care, firearms regulation, the proper role of the judiciary, the deficit, Israel, the use of military force, separation of church and state, you name it — any longer. As Friedman put it, "Because they control the House, this radical Republican base is now holding us all back."

No kidding, Tom. Glad you finally figured it out.

So, who has to be jettisoned from the party in order for some kind of sanity to return? Let's set some conditions:

  • If you will fight any form of gun control until you're out of ammo, goodbye and thanks for playing.
  • If you are convinced that the only way to address the nation's mounting debt is to cut spending, don't let the door hit you on the way out.
  • If you believe the Bible is literally true or that history has been divided into "dispensations" or that "the Rapture" could take place at any moment, your participation is no longer required.
  • If you subscribe to the notion that President Obama is a "secret Muslim", was born in Kenya, or plans to turn the United States into a socialist paradise, you are excused.
  • If your sole source of information is any or all of (1) Fox News, (2) Rush Limbaugh, (3) Glenn Beck, or (4) the Drudge Report, please proceed in an orderly fashion to the nearest emergency exit.
  • If you believe "the 1 percent" is the job-creating class, what are you doing here? Immediately find the nearest obscenely well-off person and demand your living-wage job. Don't come back until you've got it.
  • If you are more interested in preparing for the imminent collapse of the nation rather than preventing it, repair to your bunker and stay there until the "all clear" signal.
  • Convinced that creationism or intelligent design is a "rival theory" to evolution? Here's a fifth-grade science textbook; kindly do not rejoin the conversation until you've mastered its contents and have cultivated the desire to learn more.
Of course, this list is just a start.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The N.R.A. is the problem

Although I recently wrote that focusing on the N.R.A. as a "villain" is counterproductive (I suggested trying to change the minds of acquaintances who espouse its policies instead), it's undeniable that Wayne LaPierre's remarks in the wake of the Newtown, CT shooting rampage added absolutely nothing positive or helpful to the national debate.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
It's not so much the content of this statement as its tone that is so objectionable. "Good guy", "bad guy" — obviously this childish phrasing is intended to evoke "simpler" times when Good Guys Wore White Hats. The N.R.A. wants to dumb down the conversation to bumper-sticker "ideas". This simplistic framing of the problem is insulting to everyone.
“More guns, you’ll claim, are the N.R.A.’s answer to everything,” he said. “Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less in our schools. But since when did the gun automatically become a bad word?”
Maybe since the N.R.A. went batshit crazy?

Of course, we all know the N.R.A. isn't crazy, unless it's crazy like a fox. It pursues strategies that maximize its appeal to its base, just as any other advocacy group does. The trouble is that its base is batshit crazy — and armed.

Seriously, those who lustily cheer LaPierre's remarks are paranoid. Some of them see Armageddon coming. Some see civil war. Some see a tyrannical (and unprecedentedly efficient) government imposing its irresistible will on the nation. In each of these nightmarish visions, only those who have prepared themselves by stockpiling weapons will survive. (I thought Armageddon was supposed to be rather more than anyone could stave off with even a 50-caliber machine gun, but I'm no expert on the end of the world.)

Those who live in fear of the end times are dangerous. Not only do they represent a direct threat to the rest of us (at whom do you think their guns are aimed?), but to the extent these folks participate in the political system, they send equally crazy representatives to Congress to promote crazy legislation and to derail useful legislation.

I'm enough of an optimist (no, really) that I think most gun owners aren't crazy. Still, enough of them are to enable LaPierre and the N.R.A. to wreak havoc on the body politic. "More guns", indeed, is the N.R.A.'s answer to everything! You just said so, Wayne!

However, you knowingly misrepresent what the rest of us think. Contrary to your dismissive, simplistic and self-pitying followup — "Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society" — that's not what most of us believe. In fact, we've been listening to you. We've heard you say, over and over, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." And you're right. Guns don't have artificial intelligences built in; they don't shoot without a finger on the trigger. Guns aren't evil. Guns are tools.

As a society we tolerate a certain amount of injury, and even death, from the use of tools: it's the price we pay for the useful work we accomplish with them. We recognize that most tools are not designed to injure or to kill: death and injury are accidents, often the result of "operator error".

Firearms, however, aren't like most other tools. Their sole purpose is to injure and to kill.

I think it behooves us, as a society, to think long and hard about the conditions under which we want to let firearms float around among us.

Most of us would agree that you have the right to injure or to kill someone breaking into your home. That is eminently fair. It also seems unlikely that you'll hurt your neighbors by accident in the course of defending yourself, your loved ones and your property.

However, does that right to defend yourself, your loved ones and your property extend outside your home? Do you have the absolute right to shoot a pickpocket, or even an armed robber, on a crowded street?

That question, about whether you have the absolute right to defend yourself with a firearm outside your home, is worth discussing. Yet the N.R.A. and its most fanatical supporters refuse to admit that there might not exist such an absolute right. They refuse even to countenance the possibility that society has a legitimate interest in preventing essentially unrestricted gun violence in public spaces, even if the gun bearer has the best of intentions.

Instead, to counter the threat of shootings like the Newtown massacre, LaPierre and the N.R.A. want to unleash an army of "good guys" to counter the "bad guys". LaPierre and the N.R.A. do not admit, perhaps cannot even understand, that the rest of us have no way of knowing whether a guy with a gun is a "good guy" or a "bad guy".

LaPierre would rather have guns bristling everywhere. Sane "bad guys" would have to think twice before pulling their own guns out, not knowing which of those around them might be packing. Lunatics bent on a shooting spree could be taken down from unexpected quarters. Whichever category Adam Lanza fell into, LaPierre insinuates, a "good guy" could have prevented him from killing as many as he did, perhaps from killing anyone at all.

It's pretty bold to assume that untrained gun owners would respond effectively in such a crisis. (Research has suggested that in a crowd, people do not generally take the initiative in a crisis, figuring that someone else will do it. I see no reason to believe an untrained gun owner would behave differently.) Yet that's LaPierre's grand vision. That's the thin, thin premise, and promise, he holds out as the N.R.A.'s best solution to gun violence in this country.

If, as LaPierre thinks, "gun" is now a "bad word", it's not because the rest of us are stupid, as he implies. It's because the N.R.A. and its fellow gun-rights organizations have been fanatically opposed even to meaningful discussion about gun violence, much less any kind of legislation imposing the least restriction on ownership or carrying. Those organizations, in other words, have not been any goddamned help or use to society at large.

Is it any wonder that every time you open your mouth, Wayne, the rest of us don't give a shit what you have to say?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Energy independence is a misleading goal

In Michael A. Levi's op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled "The False Promise of Energy Independence", Levi lists a number of reasons why "energy independence" — specifically, regarding oil and gas — for the U.S., even if it should come to pass (and to my mind it's far from certain), could lead the country to make bad policy choices, notably, bad foreign policy choices.

Levi is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, so I get why he focused on energy independence's possible impact on foreign policy. Yet overriding every other concern is, and should be, this truth:

Reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable.

Fossil fuels are going to run out. That is an inescapable fact that no one, not even the professional reality deniers on the political right, can alter.

Moreover, the consequences of burning fossil fuels will be devastating for humankind. There might be time to reduce the impact on us by sharply reducing our usage of fossil fuels, but I strongly doubt it. That, however, is no reason not to be looking for sustainable alternatives. Remediating the environmental damage we've already done, and coping with the climatic changes we will have triggered, will require a lot of sustainable energy.

So, to reiterate:

Reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable.

More than that:

Not finding sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels is fucking insane.

A good question for the high court

In an otherwise unremarkable column by Nicholas Kristof, a commenter named "Ken" asks a remarkable question:
What I would like to know is why it is illegal to carry a firearm into the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court justices don't seem to have any issues with the rest of us being fodder for automatic weapons, whether we are in schools or universities. Since they believe so strong [sic] in the right to bear arms, maybe they should feel like the rest of us for a change.
Justice Roberts, do you and your colleagues have an answer for the rest of us?

I must disagree with a couple of Kristof's points.

And if you need to enter a code to operate your cellphone, why not to fire your gun?
I'm not a gun rights advocate, but this is an absurd comparison. Unlocking your cell phone is an operation that takes virtually no time relative to using it, no matter what you want to do with the phone. Unlocking a gun, on the other hand, would take an order of magnitude longer than using it. While a lot of people will argue that that's the whole point, it makes a gun useless. For a lot of well-meaning people, a gun is a tool for a crisis: if it cannot be used quickly and without a lot of conscious effort, they might as well not have it. If you're going to go down that route, Mr. Kristof, just admit that you want guns to disappear altogether.
Gun suicides (nearly 19,000 a year in the U.S.) outnumber gun murders (more than 11,000), and a gun in the home increases the risk that someone in the home will commit suicide. The reason is that suicide attempts with pills or razors often fail; with guns, they succeed.
To me, throwing suicide into the discussion muddies the waters. Suicide physically harms only yourself. A shooting spree hurts others. The emotional trauma in either case can be immeasurable, but the emotional trauma isn't the issue, just as suicide isn't the issue (if Adam Lanza had committed suicide, the nation wouldn't be talking about him). I support increased restrictions on gun capability and ownership because of the appalling toll they can take on people other than the shooter.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Ender's Game sequels talk too much

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is one of the best science fiction novels I've ever read. I'd recommend it wholeheartedly, except that it's a trifle on the harrowing side. The plot is clever and the world Card portrays is both interesting and believable, but it's what he does with, and to, the central character, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, that makes the novel compelling — and what he does with and to Ender is, to quote one of the novel's other characters, "not kind".

Ender's Game has spawned a number of sequels since Card wrote the story back in the early 1980s. The sequels fall into two groups: one set follows Ender's life, and the other follows a number of the characters who surrounded him in the original novel.

I've read or am reading all the sequels. None of them has been as compelling as the original. It took me a while to realize that, and even longer to understand why. It was only an hour ago, as I was reading Ender in Exile, the most recently published sequel, that I put my finger on the difference.

In Ender's Game, Ender's own thoughts form much of the narrative. I love the claustrophobic atmosphere this creates. It puts the reader in Ender's shoes much of the time. The story focuses on what is important to him and lets the reader imagine many of the details that must have formed the totality of his perceptions. Less obviously, there is a straightforwardness that keeps the narrative moving and a nervous tension in Ender's point of view that keeps it gripping. The reader comes to identify with Ender and to care about him.

The sequels lack the intensity and focus of Ender's Game. While the stories they tell are clever and there's a lot more plot, the point of view is more distant. Some of the difference between the first book and its sequels is unavoidable: Ender's Game is Ender's story, while the sequels, even the ones that include him, tell stories that are larger than him. However, the sequels also suffer from a change in Card's writing style.

Dialogue is limited in Ender's Game. Much of it is utilitarian and uninflected: Card doesn't often tell you how to interpret it with adverbs ("he said icily", for example). Also, much of it takes place in passages that open, but are separate from, each chapter. The passages are conversations that put the chapter's events in a larger context for the reader and convey information Ender does not have. In contrast to the conversations between Ender and other characters, these isolated dialogues are often lengthy, and the speakers are sardonic, sarcastic, and otherwise clever. Everyone in the Ender novels is smart, but in Ender's Game only the participants in the chapter opening dialogues are allowed to banter at length. In the sequels, Card abandons the terseness of the bulk of Ender's Game and lets his characters talk. And talk. And talk. And talk. And talk.

I like clever repartée: you can't be a fan of P. G. Wodehouse and not like clever repartée. But Card isn't Wodehouse, and Card's characters aren't caricatures. At least, they're not supposed to be.

What they wind up being is mouthpieces through which Card can be witty. Initially the banter is fun, but over time the sameness of the rhythm is wearying. Worse, the characters never become fully fleshed out. They drive the plot, but they don't come to life: it's impossible to care about them. I kept reading just to see how the plot worked itself out. That's not necessarily a bad reason to read something: The Hunt for Red October is a pure pleasure in that respect, for instance. The trouble is that Card set up certain expectations with Ender's Game, and I was disappointed to find him working different territory, stylistically speaking, in the sequels. Plus, The Hunt for Red October has a much more compelling plot than any of the Ender's Game sequels. Finally, Card wasn't aiming to write tech-driven thrillers: the sequels require that you be emotionally invested in the characters (see, for instance, Miro). Unfortunately, they're too busy talking cleverly to be real.

I haven't read any of Card's works not set in the Enderverse, so I can't say whether the Ender sequels are characteristic of his style. If they are, we have to regard Ender's Game as the luckiest of accidents. In that singular work, Card fused a compelling story and an even more compelling storytelling style to produce a terrific book. Nothing (much) wrong with the sequels ... but nothing so ineffably right, either.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Missing the target

In an op-ed piece by Frank Bruni in the New York Times, an exasperated commenter wrote:
When will our President and Congress stand up to the NRA?
I've read some variant of this sentiment a lot in the last four days, and so have you.

The thing is, it's kind of misdirected.

We citizens have a bad habit of ascribing villainy to powerful interest groups with lots of money who bend our lawmakers to their will. The NRA is today's highlighted villain. The banking industry has filled this role fairly often in the past five years. Name the interest group, and millions of your fellow citizens have vilified it as corrupting our electoral and legislative processes.

Yet all these groups represent the interests of some of us.

Granted, a lot of these groups don't represent a large number of people: lobbyists for various industries (banking, energy, pharmaceuticals, etc.) can only be said to represent those who work in those industries (in general). But what about other lobbyists, like those representing religious or environmental organizations? Those lobbyists are potentially acting on behalf of millions of us who support those organizations with our contributions.

Now, there are groups that appear to represent the interests of a lot of people, but in reality act on behalf of only a handful. The National Rifle Association, though, is not one of them. Although its critics accuse it of advancing the interests of gun manufacturers rather than gun owners, there's no denying that millions of people are paid-up members, and that millions more agree with its positions.

It's easy, though, to forget all those millions of supporters, and to imagine that groups like the NRA are malevolent creatures with their own lives. "Standing up" to those groups thus conjures the image of St. George fighting the dragon. The reality, though, is that the NRA isn't a malevolent creature: it's a megaphone for millions of people. If elected officials hesitate to resist it it's because those officials know that a lot of their constituents agree with the NRA. Those officials can argue that they're just being responsive to those who voted for them.

If you don't like the positions the NRA advocates, stop trying to fight it directly. Instead, work on those you know who agree with it. The NRA will cease to be a political force in this country only when this country's culture changes.

The biggest misconception about guns

In an article about the resistance to gun regulation in Newtown, CT, a man named Scott Ostrosky said:
“Guns are why we’re free in this country, and people lose sight of that when tragedies like this happen.”
I think that's a terrible misconception.

In our society we rely on the free exchange of ideas to push our society in a given direction. When is it legitimate to conclude, "Talking is getting us nowhere. Time to fall back on my AR-15"? Is it ever legitimate?

Is it even true that the right to possess firearms is the source of freedom? I suppose it is, if you mean the freedom to live without restriction of any kind. Yet living in civil society implies accepting some restrictions. If anyone can throw off any restrictions he doesn't like, what kind of society is that?

That's not a totally strawman question, by the way. If the government were to knock on everyone's door to demand a DNA sample, I think most of us would feel it was totally appropriate to resist. We'd like to think we wouldn't let things get to that point, but who knows?

Yet the principle that resistance to injustice is sometimes acceptable doesn't mean that we need to accept unrestricted license to possess and to bear weapons. How many of us would feel comfortable, for instance, living next door to a group that possessed large numbers of automatic weapons and large quantities of explosives? I don't care if you're talking about a drug gang or an extremist cult (I'm thinking David Koresh), I want my government to be able to protect me from that group. After all, the right to possess weapons doesn't imply that the possessors are moral or well-meaning.

You say you don't want the ATF or the police doing the job, because the government can't be trusted? Well then, who can be? You? If you were to acquire the weapons and followers sufficient to defend against an outlaw gang, that would make you as potentially dangerous to the rest of us as the gang.

The government is the only entity that has even a semblance of institutional legitimacy baked into it. Institutional legitimacy, granted by the electorate, is what makes the police the police rather than a large and well-armed bunch of thugs. We rely on police officers to comply with the law themselves so they can act as guardians of our civil society. And for the most part, they do. We hear a lot about corrupt cops, but we forget that the overwhelming number of officers and departments are law-abiding themselves.

If you don't trust the police, if you don't believe that government has any institutional legitimacy, then you don't think our civil society works. At that point, the only "freedom" that is possible is the freedom to live apart from civil society. That's at least a rhetorically defensible stance, though to make it physically true you're going to have to work hard.

We don't enjoy our freedoms today because a little more than half of us have a gun in the house. We're free because the vast majority of us are committed to a shared set of ideals, and to living together in peace. That shared commitment, not pistols and rifles, is what keeps us free.

The Newtown massacre

The last three entries weren't about the shooting itself so much as some of the reactions to it (the really appalling/dumb reactions). In part that was because everybody, and I mean everybody, has been reacting to the story — online, on TV, in restaurants and bars and coffee shops, everywhere. I didn't see the point in adding to the noise, especially since I largely agreed with what everyone was saying.

In the last few hours, though, I've realized something: I am less viscerally troubled by this incident than I thought I would be.

When I saw the headline Friday morning, right after I had woken up, I was aghast. My stomach fell and my heart pounded furiously in shock. It wasn't just a mass shooting: it was a mass shooting of children. As time passed, it became clear that these were young children, too — all of them six or seven years old, as we now know.

It's customary for some people to wonder out loud how such an "evil" act could occur. Strange as it might seem, I didn't think of this as an evil act. It's not that I thought, or think, that it was in any way "good" or "not evil". No: rather, I couldn't fit this incident into my comparatively limited notion of "evil". The enormity of the tragedy transcended my idea of what constitutes evil.

I don't entirely understand why I should feel this way. I am well aware of the butchery of the Nazi regime, and of Stalin's purges. I don't know how many of those who died in those bloody episodes were children, but obviously it was a lot more than the twenty killed in Newtown, CT on Friday.

Yet those twenty weigh far more heavily on my mind than the millions who perished unnecessarily during the twentieth century.

Is it because I watched the terrible story unfold as "news" rather than "history"?

Is it because the shooting was an isolated incident in a country whose soil hasn't known the carnage of war since the nineteenth century? In other words, would it have had the same impact if it had happened during a war being fought on our shores?

Is it because my images of the bloodshed are in vivid color rather than black and white?

Is it because so few grieving relatives of the earlier massacres survived to tell their stories?

All these reasons no doubt play into my feeling that this shooting somehow is more than evil. I think that repeated exposure to documentaries and histories of the terrible slaughters of the twentieth century forced my mind to squeeze them into a mental box marked "evil". The trouble is that this had the effect of making butchery on an unimaginable scale imaginable. Rather than leaving me with a proper understanding of the true scope of those tragedies, I was left with what you might think of as scale representations that would fit neatly into that mental box.

The Newport massacre is life-sized — it doesn't fit into that box. It's not an historical abstraction. It's a warm, bloody, pulsing, raw wound in my psyche.

So how does this conception of the massacre as "more than evil" square with my previous assertion that I'm not as troubled by it as I thought I would be?

Well, I can already feel the story fading into abstraction.

The pictures of the victims are becoming disturbingly similar to the ones I've seen in World War II documentaries. I even understand why. All victims, you see, eventually are reduced to flat and static images in the minds of spectators. Only those who actually knew the victims have a genuine emotional connection to them that keeps them vivid. And the more the victims become flat and static images, the more the incident resembles the "scale representations" that fit into my mental boxes. As it can be mentally filed and pigeonholed, it becomes more distant and less viscerally real.

What I just described, though, is a normal and unavoidable mental process. Someone once said our memories are scars — and like physical scars, they become less vivid over time. We can take some comfort in knowing that the fading is not of our own volition.

My concern, though, is that not that the shooting is fading into memory. No, my concern is that I'm all but completely resigned to the idea that nothing will change as a result of it. I am sorrowful, but not truly angry.

You might be surprised that I'm not angry. After all, the last three entries were fairly bitter in their denunciation of fanatical gun rights advocates and holier-than-thou scolds. (In fairness to Mike Huckabee, by the way, I must admit that on reflection, my insistence that further gun-control laws are obviously the only responsible reaction to this incident is no less strident, and possibly no less irresponsibly opportunistic, than his insistence that not proselytizing the Christian God in schools was a proximate cause of this tragedy.)

My bitterness and anger, though, were and are directed at The Usual Idiots who advocate what I consider to be borderline insane positions. I'm angry at egregious stupidity and arrogance.

Where, you might ask, is my anger at the shooter, Adam Lanza?

I've certainly been asking myself that.

We know so little about Lanza, and so much of it is frankly of dubious reliability. All of it comes from people who claim to have known him, yet all of them acknowledge that he was difficult to know. How much can we trust their recollections and impressions, especially after the information has been filtered through the warped glass of the media? (I would like to know, for instance, whether the New York Times' frequent assertion that Lanza had a "flat affect" is a direct quotation of someone claiming to know Lanza, or an interpretation made by a reporter or editor. I consider "flat affect" to be a clinical description that is trustworthy only if provided by a mental health professional.)

Was Lanza a conscienceless monster? Was he a deluded madman? We will probably never know.

Should that matter to me? After all, he slaughtered innocent women and children. It could scarcely harm anyone to hate him, even if he was not in his right mind: he's dead and can't be hurt.

Yet I don't hate him. He's dead and gone. What good would it do me to hate him? He's not around to feel my wrath, and that's the only satisfaction I could take from getting mad at him. I would want him to feel my anger and sorrow.

Anyway, I'm still baffled: what on earth was going through his head to make him do this? My extreme puzzlement trumps my righteous anger, at least for now.

If I'm not angry at Lanza, shouldn't I be angry at those who have lobbied so hard for our permissive gun ownership regime? Shouldn't it have been a hell of a lot harder for Lanza to get his hands on so many weapons of such great lethality?

I can't muster up such anger.

Right now, my feeling is, "This is the way people want it, apparently." A majority seems to want the broadest possible right to own and to bear weapons. A tragedy like this shooting is, as far as I'm concerned, a foreseeable and inevitable byproduct of a society that esteems the Second Amendment as all but sacred. A pox on the gun-rights zealots, is my feeling. Let them bleed in the house they made for all of us.

It is probably true that I would feel differently if I had kids, or if I were younger. Since neither of those conditions holds true, I'm a lot less concerned about gun violence than most. If I fall victim to it, it will affect no one but me, and I'm not all that fussed about dying.

The arguments on both sides of the gun debate are so stale, and the possibility gun-rights advocates will experience an epiphany is so remote, it's impossible to imagine any sensible change coming out of even this atrocity. Just as I can feel this shooting starting to fit into my mental boxes, losing its ability to fill me with consuming shock and sorrow and anger, so I can feel the shooting being digested by the body politic and turning into mere fuel for the gun debate. The Newtown shooting all too soon will be no more than another data point in people's mental spreadsheets, and we have so many such data points already that even this one won't make a difference to anyone's mental calculus.

So I don't care for myself and I doubt society will care enough to do anything constructive, even though we're talking about the most primal of dichotomies: life versus death.

That's a troubling resignation to terrible circumstances. And yet, I'm not that troubled.

I suppose it's a good thing I'm but one passing stranger in this world.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Huckabee on Newtown shooting

On his Daily Show appearances, Mike Huckabee has seemed a nice enough fellow.

Remarks like the following have done a lot to destroy that reputation.

"We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools," Huckabee said on Fox News, discussing the murder spree that took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, CT that morning. "Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?"
Fear of God, after all, did so much to stop the violence of the Crusades, and the Inquisition, and the witch burnings in Salem, and the massacres of nonbelieving peoples in South America by the conquistadores.

If, as early reports have suggested (and I hasten to add that early reports are so often incomplete, misleading, or flat-out wrong), shooter Adam Lanza was mentally disturbed, pray tell us, Gov. Huckabee, how would talking about the Christian God in school have helped?

For that matter, mightn't it have been just as or even more helpful to have taught Adam Lanza meditation techniques used in non-Christian religions like Taoism or Sufism? By teaching students ways to calm their minds and achieve a sense of peace, these techniques might have prevented Lanza's attack. That's at least as plausible an idea as Gov. Huckabee's unproven assertion. Would such religious teachings have the governor's equally full-throated (and ill-timed) support?

Nobody yet knows why Adam Lanza committed this atrocity. It is therefore grotesquely opportunistic for Gov. Huckabee to be pushing his pro-Christian agenda in the wake of these killings, as if pushing Christianity into the public schools would have been a panacea. Shame on you, Governor. Your hucksterism is repugnant.

Firmin DeBrabander, "The Freedom of an Armed Society"

DeBrabander wrote a thoughtful essay in the New York Times about the kind of "freedom" that is embodied in the ideal of an armed society.
The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

As our Constitution provides, however, liberty entails precisely the freedom to be reckless, within limits, also the freedom to insult and offend as the case may be. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld our right to experiment in offensive language and ideas, and in some cases, offensive action and speech. Such experimentation is inherent to our freedom as such. But guns by their nature do not mix with this experiment — they don’t mix with taking offense. They are combustible ingredients in assembly and speech.

The gun rights advocates who call for arming ourselves to an even greater degree, like Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX), however, are immune to such arguments. They simply don't accept that there is any justifiable restriction on gun ownership.

Would blowhards like Gohmert be so arrogant if their children had been massacred? For that matter, would they be the ones to preempt such killings, heroically (and accurately) taking out the would-be killer without harming others?

More to the point, do we want to live in a society where everyone is packing? Do we, in other words, want to return to the Old West, where might (and only might) made right?

This is why we can't let libertarians run things

In an article on Talking Points Memo about the Newtown, CT, school shooting, the comments raged — and I use the term advisedly.

One of the commenters, "John Pidaras", is a strong advocate of gun ownership as the only cure for shooting rampages. To another poster asking whether teachers should be armed (itself an exasperated response to multiple back-and-forths with Pidaras), Pidaras replied:

To answer your question, one for every teacher should suffice. Make it a requirement for teaching. The same standards that you want to impose on gun owners should be imposed on teachers, rigorous background and psychological tests as well as firearms competency and safety training. That is, only if we are interested in preventing school shootings, which of course is not the goal here. The goal here is to ban guns, not make schools safer. If it was to make schools safer then you would overwhelmingly support my idea.
Elsewhere Pidaras claims to oppose "pretty much all wars including the drug war and all forms of corporatism", so I'd say that puts him in the libertarian camp. There's something appealing about libertarianism to a nation weaned on the romance of the Western; even I, who dislike Westerns thoroughly and am convinced this country could stand a lot more consideration for the community in its politics, have been seduced on occasion by the individualist's siren song.

The thing is, libertarianism allows only the barest outline of a civil society to exist. Libertarianism requires the greatest self-sufficiency of any philosophy of governing, and a populace accustomed to fending for itself for the most part isn't going to be easy to unify, or to keep unified. Libertarians insist that no government should dictate how they should live their lives, and that's admirable in principle, but what if a group of like-minded folks decides to impose its views on a smaller group? What is the smaller group's recourse?

In a society in which "individual defense" was the watchword — a society in which, for instance, teachers were armed to protect their students (and in some places, I'm sure, to protect themselves from their students) — what would civil society be like? Could you even call it civil society? Wouldn't it simply be an atomized aggregation of millions of mutually suspicious people, or a collection of fiefdoms created by local strongmen who aggregated power by opportunistically creating the biggest gang first?

A libertarian society, it seems to me, could only survive if the populace was extraordinarily moral. Otherwise, the inclination to dominate would eventually leave everyone under the thumb of the most aggressive.

In such a society it might be the norm for teachers to be armed, as much in their own interest as in the putative interest of their students' safety. However, this is not a norm I want to see. It comes from a gun enthusiast who cannot understand that some restrictions on gun ownership and gun capability are rational and not the first stumbling steps down a slippery slope. It comes, in other words, from a raging ideologue who doesn't live in the real world. Kind of like a lot of libertarians, really.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Pranks r us

A lot of people seem pretty stirred up about the death of a nurse that seems to be connected to her very recent public humiliation at the hands of a pair of DJs in Sydney, Australia. The nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, accepted a prank call by the DJs, who were pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, and connected them to the duty nurse attending the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge. The call became a minor sensation around the world, presumably because no one could believe how easily Saldanha had been taken in: even the DJs were surprised their stunt succeeded.

Saldanha was found dead on Friday by what the New York Times is calling "an apparent suicide". Suddenly no one is all that amused by the prank any more.

Yet be honest: how many of you laughed when you first heard the story, before Saldanha was found dead?

Not to be holier than thou, but I've never found prank calls funny. Not even a little. I've never understood where the humor is to be found in making someone else look, sound, or feel foolish.

I'm evidently very much in the minority, though. From Candid Camera onward, the audience seems to have rewarded producers who have figured out how to make ordinary folks look ridiculous.

Even two of my favorite TV shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, do this on a regular basis. I hate those bits. It's one thing to deflate the hypocrisy of politicians. It's quite another to humiliate ordinary people just going about their business.

At least in the DS and CR bits, people know they're on camera: they are willing (if seemingly oblivious) conspirators. What seems to make prank calling so appealing to so many in the audience is that the victims don't realize anything is amiss.

Apparently nobody stops to wonder how he or she would feel if the tables were turned. Nobody stops to wonder if there might be consequences to these little pranks, either.

What the hell is wrong with you people? And by "you people", I mean not just the producers and (using the term loosely) talent, but the audience, too. Are you totally incapable of empathy? Does it take a death to wake you up to the cruelty that has always been at the very heart of your insipid "comedy"?

You say all comedy is cruel? Maybe so. But the cruelty of a stand-up tends to be aimed at groups, or at people who have willingly placed themselves in the public eye. Prank calls aim right at one person, someone who is just trying to live his or her life. When you focus the cruelty so tightly and make it public, you have stopped being funny. You've become merely the sorriest of assholes.

If you reward such assholes by listening to them and laughing along, you're a sorry asshole too.