Saturday, August 27, 2016

Second Amendment overzealousness

A piece about concealed-carry laws and the University of Texas included this succinct statement of how gun-rights supporters view the Second Amendment.
... self-defense and the right of individuals to bear arms must not be restricted.
And indeed, the text of the Second Amendment is plain:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
"... shall not be infringed" is about as clear a statement as can be.

And yet ...

The Bill of Rights is a broad guide to principles. And if there's one truth about rights, it's this: they aren't unconstrained. They can't be. Not as long as there are other people around you who also have rights.

We intuitively know that. We put limits on free speech even though the very first amendment to the Constitution says Congress mustn't. We don't allow felons or the mentally unstable to own weapons. We know that "shall not be infringed" is not the absolute that pundits sometimes claim it is.

So the determination of the Texas Legislature to ignore the concerns of the administrators of the University of Texas when it comes to the circumstances under which guns should be allowed on campus is disquieting. What, after all, is the purpose of allowing weapons on campus to a greater extent than was already permissible?

There's only one reason: to cater to the fears of gun owners. Not only their fear that the Second Amendment is under attack by gun-control advocates, but their fear of ... the world. Consider the sentiments of Huyler Marsh, a student who carries a .45 caliber pistol:

“I wear it pretty much whenever I can,” Mr. Marsh said. “It’s not that I’m afraid of getting attacked all the time. It’s more like a fire extinguisher or a seatbelt. You always have it and hope you never have to use it. If I call 911, it might be 10 minutes before they get here. It might be more. It’s nice to know you have ultimate responsibility for your safety.”
Marsh may think he isn't afraid of being attacked, but the rest of his statement reveals that he is.

Most of us don't spend our time worrying about car crashes or accidental fires. We're grateful for seat belts and fire extinguishers, but we don't obsess about them. We certainly don't carry them around with us, "just in case". Partly that's for practical reasons. But mostly, it's because we don't live our lives assuming the worst is going to happen.

Marsh, though, does. He assumes that he just might need that gun at any moment.

That may strike you as admirably cautious. However, it strikes me as high-strung.

I'm not knocking high-strung people per se: I'm one myself. But it's not good to live your life in a state of perpetual readiness for attack. Physiologically, living in constant stress is detrimental to your health. Psychologically, it means that hanging over your interactions with others is the thought that they might attack you.

Marsh undoubtedly doesn't think so, and he might even argue that having his pistol makes him less nervous, knowing he's ready for whatever happens. That may be true. However, it doesn't explain why he feels so apprehensive about life outside the home that he has to strap the gun on whenever he leaves.

I'm not thrilled that his view of the world is so dark that he feels he has to carry in the first place. That's the real problem with the arguments for concealed-carry: its proponents are driven by a suspicious, highly fearful view of the rest of us.

As a practical matter, too, carrying a weapon tells us nothing of your intentions. The fact is that you know you're a good guy with a gun, but the rest of us have no way of knowing that. (Nor, for that matter, do you know that I am also a good guy with a gun, or would be if I carried.) If you reach toward your back pocket, is it to pull out your wallet — or a piece? If I know you're packing, should I wait until I'm sure, or should I act preemptively because, well, you look dangerous? Did you pull your piece because you spotted what you think is a suspicious-looking dude who's also packing? I have no way of knowing.

As a principle the Second Amendment is easy to fetishize. In reality, it's a principle that we struggle with, and we should. Guns have but one purpose: to kill. To treat bearing weapons as an absolutely inviolable right is not a viable attitude — not if we treasure the rest of our rights. That goes against what Second Amendment absolutists claim, of course; "we need our guns to secure our other rights!" But in practice, the danger of abridged rights doesn't come from the government — not today. Today, that danger comes from gun-toting zealots who refuse to accept that their favorite Constitutional amendment has limits. That a lot of these folks are also driven by fear, though they don't know it, just makes the situation worse.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

We'll miss you, Larry

Larry Wilmore's Nightly Show has been cancelled by Comedy Central. The network's president said that the show really wasn't capturing an audience, either live, DVR-delayed or online.

I can't be too bitter about the cancellation — not without being a complete hypocrite, anyway. Although I said I might keep checking out his show, I mostly didn't: I relished too much the hour I recovered after giving up on the late-night variety shows.

Yet I feel bad for Wilmore. Unlike Trevor Noah, Wilmore actually has given a shit about his show and the subjects it covers. He has provided an important and unique perspective in the late-night universe and he has featured guests no one else has. Wilmore took a risk in addressing so directly the contentious issue of structural racism in American society.

He is also an unapologetic geek and promoter of scientific literacy. In that, his only competitor is Colbert. However, Colbert is known more for being a cultural geek (Tolkien, the Bible, etc.); Wilmore, though, is a space nerd. One of my favorite Nightly Show bits was Wilmore's "book club in space" with Buzz Aldrin. You could see the light of the true fan shining from Wilmore's eyes. It was delightful. In this age of rampant anti-intellectualism, we need all the science geeks we can get.

Perhaps most admirably, Wilmore hasn't been afraid to be thoughtful. Wilmore talks to his guests and correspondents, and not just in the standard six-questions-on-a-blue-card rhythm that is the M.O. for every other weeknight host. He actually has listened and responded to people in a way that makes both him and his guests human.

Yeah, I'm singing Wilmore's praises more effusively than I did in March. However, back then, I assumed that The Daily Show and The Nightly Show were destined for lengthy runs. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had been more enthusiastic about Wilmore.

In the end, I get why Comedy Central pulled the plug: The Nightly Show has neither ratings nor buzz. For better or worse, the network has bet on The Daily Show (and @ Midnight) to carry its late-night banner. I think the network has made a bad bet. At least now, though, I don't have to feel bad that I'm not letting Wilmore school me.

I hope Wilmore gets another chance to give us his take on current events, this time in a format that does him justice.

In the meantime, so long and thanks for all the fish, Larry. Best of luck to you.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Trump and sarcasm

In the least surprising turn of events this week:
Donald J. Trump tried to quash the latest controversy engulfing his campaign on Friday by claiming that he was not serious when he insisted several times this week that President Obama and Hillary Clinton were the “founders” of the Islamic State terrorist group.
Come again, Donald?
After making the suggestion at a rally on Wednesday night, Mr. Trump doubled down on the assertion on Thursday, insisting in interviews that he really did intend to say that the president and Mrs. Clinton had ISIS. But in an early-morning Twitter post on Friday, Mr. Trump said that he was just being sarcastic.
Teh Donald has pulled this stunt several times. If you're musically inclined you might call it a leitmotif.

Supporters are inclined to shrug off all the consternation over his inflammatory remarks. After all, his fans adore his willingness to flout what they call "political correctness". It tickles them even more when he turns around and says that of course he didn't mean it, that he was just being sarcastic. It makes the rest of us look like the hypersensitive sissies he and his most loyal supporters caricature us as in their private (and increasingly, public) conversations.

Teh Donald wasn't being sarcastic.

For sarcasm to work, you have to know, or believe you know, what the speaker's real attitude is — and that attitude has to be different from the one he expresses.

There is nothing different between the non-sarcastic sentiments Teh Donald spews, and what he calls his sarcastic comments.

His racism toward President Obama and his misogyny toward Hillary Clinton, as well as his fondness for quick solutions centered on violence, are at the very core of who he is.

For Teh Donald to claim he was being sarcastic is equivalent to giving the standard non-apology apology: "I apologize to anyone who was offended ...".

Fuck your evasion, Donnie.

You say hateful, vile shit. One day you will choke on it and leave the world a better place.

Oh, did you take me seriously? You short-fingered silly. I was being sarcastic.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The silly hope of a pivot

There has been a lot of chatter about Teh Donald's supposed any-day-now pivot to the political center over the last couple of weeks.

To which my response has been a weary, "Really?"

In elections past, it made sense to speak of politicians "pivoting" toward the center, after they'd thrown red meat to their party's more extreme base in the primaries. But could you really expect that of Teh Donald?

The point of the center-pivot is to make yourself a plausible choice to undecided voters. Those voters have to believe it's possible you might mean what you're saying now rather than what you said during the primaries. They need to think you're not the extremist you sounded like a few months ago.

Pick your favorite Trump statement. If he discounted or disavowed it tomorrow, would you believe him?

Of course not!

If you believe Teh Donald has no filter, that he says exactly what he's thinking at that moment, then how could he maintain his brand if he explicitly contradicted himself?

On the other hand, if you believe that Teh Donald has no fixed relationship to the truth, then nothing he says means anything.

He has said childish, ignorant, threatening, bigoted things. If he has no filter, then he means those things. If he has no fixed relationship to the truth, he might or might not mean those things. But even if he doesn't mean them, he's perfectly comfortable sounding like he means them. That kills any possibility of reassuring the undecided populace that he isn't nuts, which is the whole point of the pivot to the center.

The Republican establishment would love for him to start talking like a guy you could trust as commander-in-chief and man with sole authority to use the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal.

That's not gonna happen. Even if it did happen, we'd all assume they'd done a Manchurian Candidate on him. We would never trust a pivoted Trump.

So can we all stop the pretense that Trump wlll pivot, and that a pivot would make him a viable candidate?

He is exactly what he sounds like, a dangerous narcissist and ignoramus who shouldn't be allowed to tour the White House, much less live in it.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Can Hillary reach Trump's America?

In a Salon piece entitled, "Trump's suicide mission: He's not trying to destroy his own campaign — the destructive urge he represents is much bigger than that", Andrew O'Hehir observes that Americans love to talk big, love to thump our chests and proclaim our exceptionalism (well, I don't but then, I'm an outlier), but we also have deeply self-destructive impulses.

He argues that suicide and obesity rates, along with political polarization that results in closed information bubbles, have created

... a health crisis on an enormous scale — a crisis that is simultaneously physical, psychological and spiritual and is hardly ever understood in holistic terms. If Trump is the most prominent symptom of this systemic disorder at the moment, he is not its cause or even its leading indicator.
Or, putting it less abstractly:
I’m saying that the state of borderline psychosis produced by electronic consumer society leads to OxyContin addiction and Baconator Fries and a suicide epidemic and Donald Trump. Those things are not all the same, but they are interconnected.
It's a vast argument and no little Web article could hope to make it effectively, so although he didn't succeed in convincing me I'm willing to chalk that up to insufficient space.

Given my skepticism that he's onto something, I would not have mentioned this piece except that he makes a troubling point in passing:

I’m not sure the Clinton-Obama-Clinton leadership of the Democratic Party has the slightest understanding of the physical and psychological dislocation of so much of America, the loneliness and desperation that has found its voice, for the moment, in Donald Trump. Why would they, since they are every bit as complicit in the political economy that made all this possible as the Republicans are?
A Trump victory in November would be a blind cliff jump for the country: we might fall into water and live, but there's a substantial risk we'd break ourselves beyond recognition or even recovery. (That's what I think a lot of Trump supporters hope: that the country will change from what it is, a multicultural stew of many hues and opinions, to a place that looks and feels a lot more like Pleasantville before Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon started messing things up.)

Yet even if Hillary Clinton wins, Trump's supporters aren't going away. Forget the immediate aftermath, which Trump, by talking darkly of rigged elections, is already setting up to be nastier than Bush v. Gore. What's going to happen when we get past that Constitutional crisis? Trump's supporters are going to be in the same economic and cultural places they are now, and those places led them to support him and despise her (if they didn't already). They represent too numerous a constituency to be ignored. More to the point, I think a lot of them are genuinely in need.

If their need is a job or substance abuse care or something else altogether, is Clinton ready to do something about it? Does she have even the foggiest idea what to do? Can she find a way to break through their hostility toward her, both to hear how they genuinely feel and to get them to understand her position? Can she, in short, plant the seed for even the most basic national consensus on how to move forward?

(And yeah, I know she would face as uphill a communications battle as any president ever has, considering there's a genuinely vast array of right-wing media whose business model is inextricably tied to fostering distrust of anything to its political left. Well, them's the conditions that prevail. Nobody forced her to run this year.)

Assuming she can design a reasonable plan of action, does she have a plan for enlisting Congress to act on it? Can she break through the partisan logjam, knock heads together and make our legislature actually do its job instead of obsessing over securing one party's supermajority so that party's platform can steamroll over the other's? (I'm sorry to say that nothing short of a Moe Howard-ish clunking of heads together is going to focus our major parties' Congressional leaders on actually passing meaningful legislation.)

By the way, if you're thinking that it would be really nice if these Trump supporters just left the country (jumped into the ocean, were taken by aliens, whatever), you're part of the problem. If we can teach ourselves to find the humanity in refugees 10,000 miles from here, we can damned well teach ourselves to find the humanity in someone 10 miles from our home. Maybe in the process, we can reach out to him and figure out how to get him to see the humanity in us. We're in this together, people. We need to act like it.

It's an open question whether anybody can ameliorate the conditions that have fed the political rise of Trump. The thing is, if Hillary Clinton becomes president, she's going to have to try. Does she recognize the challenge? Does the famously calculating HRC have a plan?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Spare some pity for Donald Trump

It seems insane to suggest we should spare a moment of pity for Donald Trump. He doesn't want it, and given how enthusiastically he has incited hatred toward individual people and groups, he doesn't deserve it.

And yet ...

Think about his behavior. Most recently, responding to an annoyingly effective rhetorical salvo against him, he derided and vilified the Khans, parents of a U.S. military officer killed in Iraq. As anyone but he could have predicted, his heartless remarks blew up in his face.

Why did a man who claims to be smarter than everybody else in the room behave so stupidly, and why has he committed such unforced errors so often during his campaign?

One answer is that he has found that his comments go over like gangbusters with his supporters. But another is that, contrary to his own pronouncements, he's not that smart. He actually doesn't know any better.

Trump has gone his entire adult life without knowing how to be an adult. He has never had to be one: first his father's money, then his own, has served to smooth his path. Physically he's seventy but emotionally, he's somewhere around four. Really.

What about his family, especially his children? (Best to tread lightly regarding his wives.) Well, I didn't watch the convention speeches so I don't know what his relationship with his kids is like. I assume it's at least okay or they wouldn't be campaigning for him. I conclude he's at least somewhat capable of warm feelings for others.

Yet we don't hear longtime friends and acquaintances gushing about what a great guy he is. Trump is the only one who gushes about Trump. By way of compensation, perhaps, he does so unceasingly.

That's sad.

In my experience, the more you praise yourself, the more desperate you are for others' esteem (understandably, if you never get it) and the worse you take any criticism. Throughout his adult life, Trump has sought to aggrandize himself. Throughout his adult life, he has overreacted to criticism or mockery. (He's still very publicly pissed about that "short-fingered vulgarian" epithet from more than a quarter-century ago, for heaven's sake.) He loves the spotlight, but only on his terms.

He's the presidential nominee of one of the two major political parties, in spite of that party's leaders' best efforts to deny him that prize. He's also the leader of a mass movement. Even his fiercest critics, and I'm one, have to admit that he has come farther than anyone thought he would. Yet even if he wins in November — even if he captures the country's ultimate political prize — it won't be enough. Becoming president won't garner him the respect and admiration he craves. Becoming president won't fill the void in his heart.

Whatever happens in November, Trump will try to spin it to his best advantage. That alone would make pitying him a tall order. Remembering that he has cheerfully flouted all sorts of rhetorical taboos, inciting (or rather, reinforcing and legitimizing) bigotry and violence among his supporters, makes it almost impossible to imagine feeling sorry for him. (I'm trying not to envision the damage he could do as president, lest I undo my whole argument.)

And yet ... his lifelong, very public quest for respect from anyone and everyone attests to how badly damaged he is. If his reckless, divisive campaign for the presidency (or, heaven forbid, his capture of the office) doesn't wreck the country, you might spare him just a bit of compassion. However much money he has, he's a most pitiable person.