Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Can we talk?

We don't talk much about "going postal" any more.  The preferred venue for demented folk who want to die in a blaze of glory and/or be the talk of the town for a week or so as payback for having been ignored or misunderstood or reviled is no longer the United States Post Office.  Schools are now the place, or at least a popular place. Shock value is about as high as it gets and apparently killing kids is as easy as taking candy from them.

But it's certainly not exclusive to the US or the direct consequence of the 2nd amendment or the NRA. Norway, Great Britain and even Switzerland have recently been host to wild and often suicidal shooting sprees by demented individuals not connected to terrorist groups and as far as I know, none of those countries have guarantees of any right to keep and bear arms.  Does the alleged "ease" of obtaining firearms or the right to obtain them play a part in the frequency of such insane actions?  Has it more to do with the rates of fire of available firearms, the type of ammunition, the appearance of a gun, the materials it's made of?  A great number of words have been spoken, shouted, screamed and written down about such questions and some of those words and related opinions have been false or deliberately misleading and the result of organized groups using public outrage as a political tool.

The Sandy Hook school shooting had, as it seems, something to do with some miserable tortured soul wanting to emulate Anders Breivik, the Norwegian nut who used explosives and firearms to kill 77 hapless young people and perhaps other similar killers. Perhaps Adam Lanza, had he not killed himself as well, would have been interested in today's workplace shooting near Luzern, Switzerland leaving, at last count, three dead and seven wounded. At least it would have been easier to top. Lanza never came close to Breivik's "score."  I use the word score by the way, not because I'm cold and without feeling, but because I believe such monsters are that way and see all this as part of a gruesome game.  It's game and a game played on TV screens as much as those ever popular "first person shooter" games played on X-boxes and computers.

Run Amok shootings are much more rare in Switzerland, a country with its own gun culture and high level of recreational shooters and low crime rates -- but still they happen and some obviously happen as some sort of grotesque competition, some sort of rage to go out as a part of some sort of bloody horror that I can't understand, nor do I have any qualifications as or the vocabulary of a psychologist.  I think I can however, talk about the differences in the ways other countries react. Switzerland's liberal voters recently rejected tighter gun controls while American Liberals, for the most part have been so eager for more of any type that the inconsistencies and inaccuracies and falsehoods used to argue for them go unnoticed. Their political opposites are in a similar state of panic. Any legislation is the end of all freedom.

Great Britain banned handgun ownership in 1997 along with other firearms with short barrels -- and even some BB guns -- after only two rampage killings since WWII. Yet there was another in 2010 with thirteen dead and eleven injured.   Firearms fatalities continued to increase until 2008 after which they began to decline as they have in the US. Anti-gun sentiment there exists to the degree that few police officers are permitted to carry guns.  Yes, they have a lower gun homicide rate but then it always was lower and it seems hard to prove at this point that all that restrictive legislation has achieved more than to force the Olympic pistol shooting team to practice abroad.  It remains a very popular sport in Switzerland.

Attributing different rates of  gun crime to cultural and social conditions or to availability of  mental health services in different countries isn't a popular or well tolerated subject in the Liberal community, at least in my  experience. Far too much energy goes into the inflation of fear and we have for too many arguments for gun control that depend on calling Grandpa's Remington 700 deer rifle a "sniper rifle," a Ruger Mini 14 Ranch Rifle an "assault rifle" if you put a plastic stock on it -- full metal jacket bullets are "armor piercing" if they will penetrate body armor and hollow points for hunting become "cop killer ammunition."  For years, the line of Glock pistols used by most police departments were described by anti-gun writers as plastic guns designed to be smuggled onto airplanes and those aren't the only lies and distortions that drove me away from their side. 

Are we all at a higher risk of mad, rampaging lunatics mostly because we allow certain 100 year old technology or because we allow lunatics the same freedom as the sane and responsible?  Would movie theaters, post offices and schools still be scenes of slaughter if we banned 10 round magazines, autoloading rifles, etc? Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US history says even full auto weapons, already banned, aren't the weapon of choice if you want to kill a lot of people.  It's hard, unfortunately,  to question the dogmas of either side in our emotional climate and with wildly polarized propagandists shouting down discussion -- while blaming the other side for stifling discussion..

Is it really ever more dangerous to live in America?  It's hard to substantiate the assertion that it is, as heinous as some spectacular crimes may be and as relentlessly as they are exploited by our ravenous for ratings day and night media.  Mass killings by religious leaders, like David Koresh and Reverend Jones don't seem to generate talk of banning anything and many seek to explain them as the result of religious persecution by the government, yet anything pertaining to guns seems to bring out stock rhetoric that often seems canned and unrelated to facts. That sort of thing seems as American as a love of weapons. As American as sweeping problems under a legislative rug. As American as witch hunts, cover ups and made up minds.  Can we talk?  Sorry, this is America.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Handling the Truth

One of those movie quotes that may well long outlive not only the actor who spoke the lines but those who saw the movie when it was first released, is Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth."  As a general statement about Americans, it may well be true and we don't really need to in many cases since media corporations from Hollywood to Newscorp are there to give us tuned up, revised, redacted and sanitized version with beautifully produced happy endings. Take Argo, for instance.  Will history reflect tendentious interpretations of what happened during the Iran Hostage crisis the way Happy Days or those Austin Powers flicks reflected the 50's and 60's -- in a fun house mirror? People who remember the times clearly and as adults may not think those days were so happy and the buck toothed Powers dressed up as Friedrich Schiller may seem bewilderingly irrelevant.

It's hard -- hell it's impossible to imagine how the early years of our new century will be portrayed whether in thriller or sit-com form in 20 or 30 years.  I'm almost glad I won't be around to see it for fear of some George Bush as the Fonz with his flight suit and aircraft carrier musical.  Heyyyyy.  Or perhaps George and Cheney and their adventures in saving the world from Liberals and terrorists.  But if my worst fears come true, if we descend into what I hope is only a nightmare from which one awakes to the smell of coffee and the morning paper,  how will today's crazies look on tomorrow's TV?  Will we even acknowledge the Survivalists and Preppers stockpiling weapons for an apocalypse that still hasn't happened, the revolution they still dream of. The Tea Party, the Homophobes, the Fundamentalists, the immigrant haters, the white supremacists. . . 

 Will we watch Springtime for Limbaugh on Broadway or will he just fade away like Father Coughlin? Will Osama have been caught through the use of torture and by George Bush while the Recession was caused by the president who inherited it?   Ask some scriptwriter and director yet unborn.

Who knows, but I doubt we'll have ceased to be a war worshiping nation of swaggering Chauvinists and self styled saviors of "freedom,"  So maybe we will have saved freedom at least in the movies and won't notice that we have a government that knows every breath you've taken and every thought you've had and doesn't trust you with cash or nail clippers of liquids in more than 3 Oz containers and tracks you with GPS and micro-drones and will arrest you for having bad thoughts.

I hate to sound like one of those "everything is getting worse," wolf crying, Chicken Little types you find on the Right and the Left.  I'm not, but I think it's always been bad and we just hide it and explain it away and paint it over with murals.  It's human nature and it's the nature of nations and creeds.  The only truth we can handle is the stuff we make up.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Vacating the Vatican

Now that the annual movie industry festival of self adulation and fulsome self promotion is over, a world that likes to speculate can't help but turn its attention to the scheduled departure of Pope Benedict XVI this Thursday -- and the reasons behind it.  Yes, of course he's 85 and it's quite possible his heart is failing in the metaphorical and medical sense, but with the apparently never ending story of child molestation and cover-ups and lawsuits and more cover-ups, one can't help entertaining  the suspicion that what we have is a Ratzinger leaving a sinking ship.  Is the resignation of Scotland's Archbishop  Keith O'Brien now embroiled in another sex scandal and the moving up of his scheduled departure from March 17 a hint that there is something going on below the surface, like the base of a huge iceberg?  We'll have to wait.
"The Lord is calling me to go on top of the hill, to dedicate myself once more to prayer and meditation," 

said the Pope at his final public prayer yesterday.  As with all such calls, nobody but he can tell us about it and nobody but God can tell us why. I don't think he will tell me.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Shame, Shame

Remember when anyone like the Dixie Chicks, for instance, or you and I expressed any sense of shame for any actions our country may have taken or not taken: any shame for having elected Caligula Jr. the Warpresident?  Well certainly the great weight of Limbaugh and the fire-farting far right came down on such unfortunates back in the day when expressing pessimism about the Stock Market was evidence of being an "America Hater."  Even peripheral actions like perhaps wanting to publish the names of soldiers killed in the early days of our Shokinaw war in Iraq was disgraceful and shameful because there was the chance someone might use it to express regret for or disapproval of any action of a Republican president, illegal or otherwise.

So shocked I was to hear than ol' rant 'n rage Rush declare yesterday that he was ashamed -- that's right, ashamed of the United States of America.  It's hard to reconcile that with all the loud Limbaughian flatulation when Michelle Obama said that for the first time in her life she was really proud of our country, which allowed speculation that she might ever have thought less of it than she thought of God Almighty or perhaps Allah to some dittoheads.  There's usually no worse offense, nothing closer to  treason than not to gibber in epiphanic ecstasy at any description of  our New Jerusalem, our greatest of all Christian Nations under God and all it ever has done.

But not this time. 

“To be watching all of this, to have my intelligence – all of us – to have our common sense and intelligence insulted the way it is….it just makes me ashamed,” the fat man sang on his afternoon radio program. “Seriously man, here we get worked up over 44 billion dollars — that’s the total amount of money that will not be spent that was scheduled to be spent this year.”

Only $44 billion he said as though we would hardly have a problem if we hadn't and still didn't have the most expensive and protracted war in our history and one which not only didn't pay for itself as promised, but didn't solve any of the problems it was supposed to do.   How many trillions did George spend and refuse to pay for?  Isn't nearly all of that "spending" he wants to cut service on the Commander Guy's extravagance?  Well of course it is, but all that sound and fury could never be as offensive to Rush as making sure that other people don't have to die of things like infected anal cysts or that some kid doesn't have to go to bed as hungry as Rush gets after 10 minutes of not stuffing his fat face. It's shameful that the less than wealthy should presume to do more than ditto him.

“We just keep spending more money. We create more dependency, we get more and more irresponsible one crisis to the next, all of them manufactured. Except for the real crisis that nobody ever addresses — and that is we can't afford it.”

Nobody Rush?  Perhaps not so you could hear over your own sound and fury, but your party hasn't shut up long enough for anyone to pause and ask who decided we could afford the most expensive war we ever had because the magic Tax Fairy would pay for it.  Wasn't that a manufactured crisis that created a real crisis -- the WMD that weren't, the yellowcake hoax?  We couldn't afford it and you told us we could because tax cuts for you would create magic money instead of the predictable debt and crisis that in fact created all that dependence.
So,  I'm sorry to insult your intelligence with the truth and sorry to mention that your followers tend to be on the two digit side of the bell curve, but your self serving, self contradictory logorrheic slurry
of never-ending shit is an embarrassment to God and country -- and to me. 

“I've said the same things over and over for 25 years” 
said Rush, but of course he said it during the most prosperous period in our history as well and while the debt shrank and the surplus grew. "I just hate slick Willie" he said.  "I mean he just makes me sick."  While employment and wages grew and debt shrank and Lord Rushbaugh and millions of us got rich: while the economy bloomed and peace prevailed; while he screamed about the greatest tax increases in world history.  "Both parties are spreading fear and panic," said Rush who may be afraid that he'll not get this year's Oscar for fear and panic mongering. What else has he ever done?
But hey, I wouldn't want to live in a country Limbaugh approved of so I can't say that I'm sorry for his simpering claim to shame.  He's not ashamed of backing Joseph Koney while claiming that Obama was not a Christian, he's not ashamed that none of his prophecies, his apocalyptic warnings  have shown merit.  He's not really ashamed at all. It's just another gambit, another  lachrymose plea for attention, another distraction, another smokescreen to hide his irrelevance, his dependency, his shameful life.


Monday, February 18, 2013


It isn't common for the US media to make an issue of the level of violence in South Africa, but Oscar Pistorius is a celebrity and the woman he's accused of murdering was a celebrity.  The lives of our secular pantheon are important to the public and particularly if the celebrity has to do with sports.  Are the successful athletes we love to appoint as role models, whom we love to pretend to emulate, really paragons of virtue and discipline or does their drive, their ego, their motivation spill over into something sometimes less than wholesome?  I'm not going to generalize about the famous, but like the USA, South Africa is a violent nation and one with a long history of violent racism and violent crime and a population with a large difference between haves and have-nots. The murder rate is high, about 50 per day, and while I read that only about 12% of South Africans own guns, the probability is that many more are not reported and are illegally owned.

White, middle and upper class South Africans live in fear and those who can afford to, live in gated enclaves behind iron barred doors and windows; behind electrified fences with sophisticated alarm systems and armed security guards -- and they own guns.  The standard of living is lower for non-whites but the level of fear is high for all and one can argue that it's justified. Guns are used in 77 per cent of house robberies and 87 per cent of business robberies, and they are the cause of death in more than half of all murders.  Many burglars are seeking guns over other items.

South Africa is often described as a "gun-loving" country. Yes, of course if one lives on a remote farm in the bush, there are leopards and lions and hippos and elephants that argue for heavy arms, but I think that for the most part, owning a gun is all about crime and a sense of security in a violent nation. According to Wikipedia, A survey for the period 1998–2000 compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked South Africa second for assault and murder (by all means) per capita and first for rapes per capita in a data set of 60 countries. Total crime per capita was 10th out of the 60 countries in the dataset. A study by the government  on the nature of crime in South Africa  concluded that the country is exposed to high levels of violence as a result of different factors, including:

The normalization of violence. Violence comes to be seen as a necessary and justified means of resolving conflict, and males believe that coercive sexual behaviour against women is legitimate.
The reliance on a criminal justice system that is mired in many issues, including inefficiency and corruption.

A subculture of violence and criminality, ranging from individual criminals who rape or rob to informal groups or more formalized gangs. Those involved in the subculture are engaged in criminal careers and commonly use firearms, with the exception of Cape Town where knife violence is more prevalent. Credibility within this subculture is related to the readiness to resort to extreme violence.
The vulnerability of young people linked to inadequate child rearing and poor youth socialization. As a result of poverty, unstable living arrangements and being brought up with inconsistent and uncaring parenting, some South African children are exposed to risk factors which enhance the chances that they will become involved in criminality and violence. 

The high levels of inequality, poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and marginalization.

Much of this should seem familiar to Americans and the kind of  justification many Americans feel in owning guns is the same. Discussions of gun control in South Africa have understandably become as heated as they once again have in the US after high profile, heavily publicized murders, but in neither place will effective debate be conducted without acknowledging the various reasons people buy and own guns: without acknowledging the kinds of perpetrators and their proportion.  Not as long as we focus on undoing the latest headline, not as long as we depend on fear rather than fact.

In both nations, the murder rate is declining. In South Africa after tougher limits on gun ownership took effect in 2004,  the number of gun-related crimes has dropped by 21 per cent. The Globe and Mail tells us that  this decrease is not merely because of a general decline in crime in South Africa. One study of female victims, we are told,  by the country’s Medical Research Council, found that gun-related deaths had dropped by nearly half from 1999 to 2009, while other causes of violent death were virtually unchanged. You'd think you'd hear us talk more about the how and why of it.

In the US, gun-related violence has been declining for longer and has declined further.  Does this argue that gun control can be effective?   I think it does. Does that prompt us to improve our efforts along the same lines and with regard to underlying causes?  I think it does,  yet in the US I see little effort being made to acknowledge this; to look at what works and what has not worked -- but rather we seem to champion ideas without support of experience, despite experience while demonizing the pragmatic, scientific efforts. Too many of our arguments and most of the angriest seem to have more to do with blaming certain weapons with certain appearances or often fictitious attributes and rely on using certain kinds of descriptions designed to inflame, not to inform -- and may people who agree in principle that there are things we can do to lower the violence and the fear find it impossible to work together, to cooperate through the barrage of  passionate slogans and shoddy shibboleths.  Too many of our arguments depend on denial and maintaining, despite the truth, that everything is getting worse as if hope were an enemy, confidence a conspiracy and truth irrelevant.

We Americans seem to think that nothing that works elsewhere can work here, that we are so unique in our nature and the nature of our problems that we retreat into solipsism and blindness.  In fact, looking at our history of prohibitions and bans and the emotional dishonesty and selective blindness that supported them,  it seems to be an American tradition of long standing.