Saturday, December 22, 2012

Last News Before Christmas

On Friday, Lawrence O'Donnell in 18 minutes eviscerates the NRA press conference and the NRA as the lobby for mass murderers, and its CEO as the most responsible for the shooter's ability to kill 20 first graders in minutes.  (I was going to embed that video but I can't deal with having that NRA Moloch's face on my blog. Instead I'm substituting a photo of President Obama and staff observing the moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. in honor of the victims of the school murders exactly a week before.)  
Also Friday, Rep. Mike Thompson, who is heading up the House Democrats efforts on gun control measures, affirmed that an assault weapons ban should include the type of weapon used in the Connecticut shooting, which by some interpretations would have slipped through the old assault weapon ban.  I'm proud and happy to say that Mike Thompson is currently my Congressional representative, although redistricting has redrawn the boundaries so he won't be after January.  He'll still be in Congress, as will the Democrat we in the new District 5 elected in November.  Thanks for everything, Congressman Thompson.
Also on Friday, President Obama talked to Speaker Banal and Senate ML Reid about crafting a simple bill (already dubbed Plan C) to ensure taxes won't be raised on the non-rich and unemployment benefits will be extended, all before the 1st.   He said: "So, as we leave town for a few days to be with our families for the holidays, I hope it gives everybody some perspective. Everybody can cool off; everybody can drink some eggnog, have some Christmas cookies, sing some Christmas carols, enjoy the company of loved ones. And then I'd ask every member of Congress while they’re back home to think about that. Think about the obligations we have to the people who sent us here. Think about the hardship that so many Americans will endure if Congress does nothing at all."
President Obama also announced that he was appointing Senator John Kerry to be Secretary of State.  A story I saw somewhere last week suggested that the climate crisis is likely to get more attention from a Kerry-run State Department.  That must be true, because the professional deniers are already slamming the appointment.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Wrong Doomsday????

Despite all the weird flourishes and theories, the Mayan calendar prediction of doomsday is an unusually short apocalyptic tale: one day (Dec. 21 or 23) the world ends. End of story. It’s not very satisfying.

We usually prefer our doomsday stories to be longer and more elaborate, with a hint of redemption and a happy ending. The oldest stories involved gods and human sins, with doom coming from nature, especially the sky (the Flood.) That changed in the early 20th century to humanity and its technologies as the predominant cause (according to W. Warren Wagar’s survey for his 1982 book Terminal Visions.)

In modern doomsday stories there’s usually a specific cause. It might be a violent end to civilization (thermonuclear war, pandemic) or the most subtle doomsday of dystopia: a Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Hunger Games, Brave New World-- the living death of an inhuman society.

These doomsdays, set in the future with a causal chain of events to get there, are often cautionary tales. The implication is that it’s in the power of the present to avoid them.

For example, the first modern doomsday story and cautionary tale was H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which took the growing distance between rich and poor in industrial England to the logical conclusion of a split into two human species, the effete Eloi and the marauding Morlocks. The future divided between rich and poor in The Hunger Games series seems a point between Wells’ 1890s and the far future of The Time Machine, as well as a little beyond our present.

These days there are also post-apocalyptic tales (from Mad Max to The Road, and arguably the fashionable zombie and vampire stories) that seem to articulate a feeling that avoidable apocalypse just isn’t going to be avoided.

Why not? Oddly common to Christian and other religious doctrines and their apparent arch-enemies, scientific evolutionists (from Social Darwinists to “selfish gene” adherents) is the basic take on human nature as predominantly selfish and sinful. Receptivity to scientists emphasizing the role of cooperation, empathy and altruism in animal and human behavior is only now becoming widespread.

So why are doomsday tales so popular? Here’s my theory. Animal intelligence is focused most basically on finding stuff to eat, while avoiding being eaten. More broadly, that translates as probing the environment for two categories of information: opportunities and dangers. Both of these get our attention, but dangers get very quick, intense and visceral attention, for obvious reasons—like a growling tiger. Doomsday is a very dramatic danger (particularly in IMAX 3D with special effects.)

Because a definite doomsday on a particular date is a clear-and-present danger, it’s the kind we respond to best. We don’t handle indefinite doomsdays as well. Much of humanity lived for decades with doomsday from thermonuclear holocaust as an everyday possibility. We still live with other indefinite doomsdays hanging over our heads, but the constant possibility plus its unpredictability leads to what Robert Jay Lifton called “numbing.” We can’t keep feeling it and stay sane.

A definite doomsday is a dramatic release. It permits feelings and expressions of dread, fright and regret, and focuses whatever ideas, faith or hope one has about a next world.

Why the Mayan calendar, though? Perhaps the doomsday we fear is no longer purely technological. We’ve returned to fearing doom from the skies (asteroids, aliens etc.) and from nature and the gods.

The most likely apocalypse is still that causal combination of technology and nature that is the climate crisis. Denial has been a remarkably strong response to its reality. But focusing on the Mayan doomsday exemplifies another psychological dodge called displacement. The numbed and repressed feelings in response to the future that is rapidly becoming the present can be released in what for most people is this slightly thrilling but mostly comic pretext. It’s a few days of social media buzz over a dubious interpretation of an ancient calendar’s non-prediction that conveniently displaces the indefinite doomsday of the climate crisis.

The climate crisis has been a test of the aggregate human intelligence of civilization: can we respond to a grave danger in the future that we can anticipate but isn’t actually growling at us? We’re not passing that test so far. Maybe any imaginary doomsday can eventually help focus our attention.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cliffnotes: Is This the End of the World?

In Washington terms at least, Speaker of the House John Banal's failure to get enough GOPer votes to pass his pandering Plan B, with its cuts to Meals on Wheels and other GOPer goodies, was spectacular.

Now the House has gone home for Christmas, and may not be back this year.  It seems that short of a last ditch final deal effort on Dec. 31, which Banal may very well not have the power to guarantee, it's over the fiscal cliff for the USA.

TPM seems right on this--it shows that Banal never had the votes to support any deal he was negotiating, and unless he is willing to take something to the House floor that can pass only with mostly Dems and a few GOPers, he can't even be considered a viable partner to negotiate with. 

Here's Andrew Sullivan:

"But the GOP appears incapable of acting for the public good. They cannot operate responsibly within the constitutional framework of this country. Their absolutism even in the face of stinging electoral defeat and hefty public opposition is a function of their existing in a hermetically-sealed ideological universe where the only thing they care about is not being primaried by someone even further to their right. That's right: the only thing. Not the country; not the debt; not the global economy; not the voters; not the American economy. They are vandals, not representatives, a rogue threat not just to this country but to the wider economic system in the world."

"We have a constitutional crisis: an opposition party so ideological and so bent on its own power at the expense of everything else, that the system cannot work. Only public opinion has a chance of swaying them. But when you're as fanatical as these zealots, public opinion is about as relevant as the thought that they should actually exercize basic responsibility."

Sounds like doomsday to me.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Moral Moment

As the funerals for the very young victims of the Connecticut shooting proceed, two each day so far, the story continues to dominate the news and the national conversation.

There is growing support for once again banning assault rifles, for making high capacity ammunition illegal and for expanding background checks to gun shows and the Internet--all of which the White House announced that President Obama supports.

There is also a great deal of skepticism that any of this will get through the U.S. Congress.  Others say this is the moment of opportunity and it won't last long.

  But one thing may be happening: Americans are waking up to the fact that things have gone very far wrong, while they mostly weren't paying attention.  Sales of assault weapons and 30-round clips have soared, guns (including these) are allowed in more places than they were in the Old West, much of this driven by greed--for the money to be made by the sale of more expensive and lethal weaponry.

The gun lobby has no boundaries, even successfully censoring information gathered by the federal government on gun violence--the public is kept in the dark by congressional fiat.  The gun lobby has also successfully restricted federal research into gun violence, and presumably non-federal as well.  It won't do for citizens to see who pays the price for these weapons, or that the assault weapon ban and other bans in the past have actually worked to reduce the number of these weapons and the violence associated with them.

It's difficult to know how surprising all this is for much of the public, since a meaningful dialogue on gun violence has been missing in America for a generation, while guns have become easier to fire, faster in firing more bullets, and generally more lethal.

 The tag I use for posts like this is "land of guns," which comes from a line of a poem written after Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in 1968, while his wife was pregnant.  I think the poem was mine but frankly I don't remember.  There was some gun legislation after that, not enough, as LBJ said, principally because of the power even then of the NRA.  The blizzard of assassinations joined the violence of Vietnam and police tactics against demonstrators etc. led to an impassioned discussion on a whole range of matters that was described as the culture of violence.  Maybe it was too impassioned, but the total lack of it hasn't resulted in more rational laws and boundaries.

Today gun culture is ingrained further in popular culture.  We all see this.  Guns are linked to manhood in gun ads, without irony.  There is hardly a hero in an American movie or TV show who isn't blasting away with a gun.   The big cultural advance is that sexy women are shown blowing people away with the same aplomb. 

What we do not all see is how much this translates into reality, into an actual gun culture that worships and fetishizes firearms. For all their actual or pretend technical knowledge, that doesn't make the people involved in gun culture any more realistic.  Like everyone else in America, they see their heroes dodge bullets and only protect the good people and blow away the bad.  Like too many scenes in too many movies and TV shows that depict heroes walking away from explosions that in real life would have splintered them, they believe in the immortality--and maybe even morality--of the hand with the gun.

The slaughter of children is unspeakable, impossible to dwell on for long, for anyone.  But for some active or passive captives of the gun culture who never even imagined the possibility, it is a sudden awakening from a deep delusional dream. 

Of course there are many immune to even this.  They are out there right now buying up the same assault rifle with the same clips before they're banned.  There are the officious idiots calling for the arming of teachers.  But at least for the moment their voices are not the ones speaking most clearly. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cliffnotes: No Deal or Bad Deal

Nobody seems to know what John Banal is doing with his Plan B, but the deal that some (but not all) are saying is close includes a provision to cut Social Security benefits.  Well, thanks a lot.  It's supposed to be the "least painful" option.  Least painful to who?  Not to me.  I don't think this is what I voted for.  Why is hitting the most vulnerable the "least painful" option?  Why is this limited damage?  It is, as Krugman says, cruel and stupid.  And as he points out, it's not justified except politically.  Not the change I believe in.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Into Each Moment

Without disputing the immense tragedy of the deaths of children, in Connecticut or anywhere--for infants and children die unspeakably every day, often of easily preventable diseases-- there is also the solace of the life they had.  I thought especially of these words by playwright Tom Stoppard.

In Stoppard's play Shipwrecked, the middle play of his Coast of Utopia trilogy, Alexander Herzen has just suffered the sudden death of his young son.  Michael Bakunin attempts to comfort his by saying, "Little Kolya, his life cut so short! Who is this Moloch...?"  Herzen replies:

 "No, no, not at all! His life was what it was. Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into the each moment. We don’t value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life’s bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it’s been sung? The dance when it’s been danced?...   Was the child happy while he lived? That is a proper question, the only question." 

We Will Have To Change

At the memorial service in Newtown, President Obama gave voice to the weight the nation feels because of this tragedy.  He also expressed the anger and the resolve many are feeling, that action must be taken to prevent whatever future violence of this kind it is possible to prevent. "Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?" the President asked, and answered, "I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change."

 He brought both sentiments together in the simple act of reciting the first names of the 20 children who were killed.  Children's names often have a fashion according to the years in which they were born, so millions of Americans know children with these names--perhaps 6 or 7 years old, as these children were--or a little older, a little younger.  My own grand-niece Oliva.  My friend's new grandson Benjamin.

Additionally we may know people very much like the heroic teachers and administrators at the school who without hesitation put the lives of the children first, and some of these adults were also killed.  One of the heroic victims looks much like one of my nieces, who teaches children of just that age at a small school in a small town.  As President Obama said, this was something that could have happened anywhere.

We are only beginning to learn as a nation the extent to which guns and gun culture have overtaken sanity, in Newtown as well as elsewhere. We are perhaps wakening to what we have let get out of control.  But we must do what we can.

Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Sane Comment

This comment posted on Andrew Sullivan's blog:

Guns don't kill people - people do. By the same token, planes don't kill people - people flying them into buildings do. And yet, I recall that we immediately and decisively worked to keep deranged people from gaining possession of planes when a handful of those people used them as tools of mass murder; indeed, we made it much more difficult for the overwhelming majority of peaceful, law-abiding citizens to board a plane.

The Story's Story

This is not about the horrific events at the Newtown school, where 20 first graders as well as 6 teachers and administrators were shot to death with a semi-automatic military assault rifle with bullets designed for maximum injury and death.  It is about how the story of it was told.

I leave it to others who followed the news concerning the Connecticut school shooting via social media, Twitter, etc. to describe the ebb and flow of that information. (Apparently the name of the shooter went out via social media as the actual shooter's brother; he contradicted it by posting on Facebook, and police later verified he was not involved.)  Being a child of print and television, I followed it mostly by cable "news" stations on Friday afternoon and thereafter online, favoring established newspaper web site stories.

The narrative of what happened has changed many times over the first 36 hours of coverage.  How did the gunman gain entry to the school?  At first there was no information on school security.  Then the NY Times posted the letter sent to parents about the new system in which visitors had to be identified and buzzed in before allowed entry.  This system (according to the letter, which was months old and stated that the procedure might be refined after first implemented) was to kick in at 9:30 a.m., after the ordinary entry of students.  The Times blog entry suggested that the shooter got in before 9:30.

The newspaper's story overnight Friday presumably for the Saturday edition stated something different: that the shooter gained entry because the principal recognized him as the son of a woman who had worked at the school.  There was a different account reported by either NBC or CNN, that the shooter had shot his way through the barriers.  By late Saturday, the Times story revised its account to conform with this narrative of how the shooter got in.

This is relatively ordinary revision of what is known, although the Times story that said the principal had let the shooter in did not say how it came by that knowledge, since the principal was one of the adults who was killed.  That the information was incorrect was one thing.  That the Times did not couch its account as what x source said was sloppy journalism, at least by the standards I knew.  The same was true of accounts I read in other newspaper stories and web stories.

Then there is the matter of the shooter's mother.  For much of the day Friday she was reported to be a teacher in the school where the shooter attacked.  By nighttime this was called into question, and she was variously described as a substitute teacher, someone who volunteered at the school, or someone who had worked in the school in the past.  By Saturday night, accounts were referring to her as having no job or employment, and dropping any assertion that she was involved in that school in any way.

I bring up these two changing assertions of fact principally to point out their effect in the age of 24 hour cable coverage.  The effect generally is that the "facts" as they are known or assumed get quickly absorbed into a particular narrative, which is repeated, embellished and commented upon.  Pretty much exactly like gossip.

Some "expert" commentators and some politically motivated ones on FOX (which predictably saw the shooting as an argument for more guns) railed against the school for having no security and no barrier to entry, before the existence of both were known.  Similarly, I heard commentators talking about the shooter going to the school to kill the children his mother taught and "loved."  Yes, I heard the word "loved." 

Not all the reporting was slipshod, and the circumstances were very difficult.  But these examples suggest the danger of poorly sourced information being strung together in a narrative that people repeat because they have to say something to fill the time during continuous coverage.