Thursday, January 27, 2011

In other news, sun to rise in the east.

In what can hardly come as a surprise, we learn that the Second Amendment is soon to be in administration's cross hairs.

What is surprising, though, is the all-too-rare degree of honesty about the administration's means and motives, and its measure of what really matters:
The White House said that to avoid being accused of capitalizing on the Arizona shootings for political gain, Obama will address the gun issue in a separate speech, likely early next month. 

Read that again carefully.

The problem, evidently, is not actually capitalizing on the Arizona shootings for political gain. The problem would be to be accused of doing so.

Not to worry. The President's advisers have concluded that we are all such sieve-brained morons that in another couple of weeks we'll all be shocked, shocked, that there is politics going on here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I believe.

As of this morning, I have now been called both a “die hard liberal” and a reactionary in the same week. I confess that, on a certain level where my inner Mencken dwells, this rather pleases me.

But I also recognize that it is a signifier of a core weakness in the current public discourse – the widely held notion that by knowing any single belief a person holds, you can accurately predict his position on every other possible issue of human consideration. I call it “The Theory of Ubiquitous Polarity,” a system under which an observer believes that all beliefs must necessarily be aligned in whatever manner the observer himself aligns them.

Now, Ubiquitous Polarity is about as valid and useful a construct as phlogiston, but its proponents are equally as committed to it as any alchemist was to his own world view. So an intellectual conflict -- sort of a second hand cognitive dissonance -- arises in the breast of an adherent of Ubiquitous Polarity when he encounters someone who holds a belief with which the observer concurs and, simultaneously, a belief with which the observer disagrees. What follows is usually a resort to ad hominem attacks in which the person with "inconsistent" views is denounced as “a politician,” or one who seeks "to please everyone” or “to be all things to all people.” This exercise not only relieves the observer's cognitive dissonance, it spares him the exertion of actually considering another's opinions, or of even examining his own beliefs one at a time.

So, with a mischievous eye toward increasing such dissonance, without offering here the underpinnings of any of these contentions, and in the spirit of Walt Whitman,* let me set forth the following non-exhaustive list:

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate; God born fully a man to live a perfect life and die an atoning death, that sinful man might be reconciled to righteous God, and that this reconciliation occurs in each person by Grace alone through Faith alone in Christ alone.

I believe this faith is no accomplishment of mine, nothing for which I deserve credit, but rather a gift of a gracious God.

I believe there is nothing wrong with an occasional drink of whiskey, or an occasional cigar.

I believe there is no essential or meaningful difference between Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann.

I believe that human life begins at conception.

I believe the Earth is several billion years old and that the evolutionary process was pleasing to God, the creator of the universe.

I believe that enterprise, innovation, useful risk and hard work should be rewarded – for their own sake and because they are good for society as a whole – and that a free market economy is the best system for ensuring such rewards.

I believe that no one has the right – in pursuing such rewards – to jeopardize the health or well being of another, or to spoil the environment shared by all.

I believe that a civilized society can afford and ought to provide health care, education through high school, food security, and basic housing to every one of its members, as a human right.

I believe, with Thomas Paine, that that government is best which governs least.

I believe that, while taxes are not theft, the imposition of a dollar more than is necessary, or the waste or misdirection of a penny, is a crime against the people.

I believe that if you like your steak well-done and your coffee decaffeinated, you don't really like steak or coffee.

I believe the rights to life, to liberty and to pursue happiness and dignity come from God and belong to each individual who,  accordingly, has the right to defend those rights – even by force of arms – against anyone – any criminal, any institution, and even any government – that proposes to take them.

I believe the curve where a woman’s bottom meets her thigh is the most beautiful structure in nature.

I believe, with Robert Heinlein, that kids should be kept long on hugs and short on pocket money.

I believe our adversarial system of justice – while it can be brutal, flawed, indifferent and dangerous – works awfully well when the men and women engaged in it operate in good faith.

I believe in condign punishment for the guilty and that some crimes deserve death.

I believe it is better for a guilty man to go free than for the state to take the liberty of an innocent man.

I believe that “Casablanca” is a nearly perfect movie.

I believe in marriage, and that the fifth chapter of the Book of Ephesians offers a good manual for a successful one.

I believe God is perfectly sovereign, but that I am responsible for all my actions, and thus in desperate need of Grace.

I believe, with the ad writers, that life is too short to drink cheap beer.

I believe the best immigration policy is “high fences and wide gates,” wherein we vigorously protect our borders and sovereignty, but in which legal immigration – that brought everyone in my family here – is easy and attainable.

I believe that sometimes war is the answer, as it certainly was when my Dad went, and the question on the table was: “World slavery, yes or no?”

I believe we were right to go to war in Afghanistan and that we were wrong to go to war in Iraq.

I believe that has nothing whatsoever to do with the honor of the Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen who have fought there.

I believe, with Samuel Johnson, that every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.

I believe the designated hitter is bad for baseball, and that what’s bad for baseball is bad for America.

*     Do I contradict myself?
       Very well then I contradict myself,
       (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
                           Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sticks and stones.

Just a quick note to advise all of you engaged in the great exercise of political discourse that you may, evidently, feel free to go back to scurrilous ad hominem attacks, and to questioning the good will, patriotism and sanity of all those with whom you disagree.

It appears the whole more measured, reasonable tone thing is over. It was a sweet two-and-a-half weeks, though, wasn't it?

In post-Tscon discussions about gun control issues (I tend to be opposed, as you will be unsurprised to learn) I have been invited, none too politely, to find another country to call home. The sufficiency of my – how do I put this? – endowment has been called into question. I have been blamed for all three Bush presidencies. (I voted for Dukakis (Lord help me), Gore (not like it counted) and Kerry (yeesh)).

I have been called a pinhead.

I have been called creepy.

I have been called “a stupid, deity-worshipping ape.”

I have been unfriended.

I’ve been instructed to “read the fucking Constitution once in [my] useless life.” It has been suggested that I go “iron my sheet” by someone who – I am just guessing – was not referring to work I did as journalist to expose hate group activity in North Florida.

But my favorite, by far, was when someone called me a reactionary. Very few are the lifetime Democrats who are ever privileged to be called a reactionary. In fact, I’m not sure anyone has called anyone else a reactionary since my sister called my dad one in 1971 – which probably got her spanked, so maybe she was on to something.

Who's who.

“I’m going to be training the people I was trying to kill 18 months ago to kill the people I’ll be training 18 months from now.”

That was how a buddy of mine, a lifetime soldier and top sergeant, explained what he was going to be doing on deployment to Iraq a couple of years ago. He said it with a smile, but he pinpointed in a single sentence the problem America had on 9-12-01 and still has today: Who, exactly, is the enemy?

I’ll submit that Lawrence Wright knows and explains the answer to that question better than anyone else in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9-11.

Wright himself is a fascinating character. A journalist (this book won him the Pulitzer Prize) and sometime screenwriter, he wrote the screenplay for the weirdly prescient 1998 move “The Siege.” That fictional story -- about a series of massive, well-organized terrorist attacks in New York City, and a convulsive, angry, sometimes self-destructive American response -- foreshadowed many of the images, themes and abiding traumas of 9-11. (It was the most rented movie in America in the weeks that followed the real-life attack.)

The movie’s deadly intersection of art and reality wasn't limited to the prescience of its story. Even before the film was released, it was widely protested in the Arab world as being “anti-Muslim” (which it simply was not), and people died as a result of the protests. Wright was by all accounts shaken by the experience and, after 9-11 brought his movie horrifyingly to life, he turned to the question of Muslim extremism in a more journalistic way. The result was The Looming Tower.*

Despite the fact that the book is meticulously detailed and footnoted with an academic fervor, it reads like a thriller. Like the best fiction, you will be let down when you finish that there isn’t more to read. Like few scholarly works you’ve held, you will actually read all those footnotes.

Wright tracks modern Muslim extremism back to where it was just a gleam in the eye of some very angry (justifiably angry, one has to say) Egyptian students. From the earliest stages, you learn, the men who would later lead the movement so effectively against us had a deep familiarity with the United States – having studied, for example, at Midwestern universities. From the earliest beginnings of the Muslim Brotherhood, Wright details a burgeoning – then flourishing – ideology that made 9-11 or something like it all but inevitable from the standpoint of the perpetrators. And far from being “anti-Muslim,” Wright’s book makes clear the distinctions between these dedicated enemies and the rest of Islam. Indeed, the book chronicles a volume of Muslim on Muslim terror, perpetrated by Al-Qaeda and its forebears against those seen as apostate, about which you may not have heard before.

Of course, much of the book is dedicated to Osama bin Laden, who turns out to be simultaneously much less and much more of a figure, man, leader and threat than his typically cartoonish depictions in other media let on. (The detailed accounts of OBL’s father, a self-made construction genius with essentially no formal education, are fascinating in themselves and give tremendous insight into who OBL really is.) But Wright also gives much space to issues others simply take as read: Why, for example, are certain Middle Eastern nations such fertile grounds for harvesting willing martyrs? It may not be why you’re thinking.

The book is four years old now, but I re-read it recently and it could not be more relevant to a country that has declared – if not exactly victory – at least an end to the war in Iraq, while leaving 50,000 of our countrymen at risk there, and is simultaneously struggling to define the mission of many more than that in Afghanistan. (And is fighting this war in lots of places like the Philippines and Somalia that do not feature on the nightly news.)

Ultimately, even as Wright’s book provides abundant nuance, it does not fall victim to equivocation. Instead, it identifies our enemy convincingly and definitively: not Islam itself, but a certain strain of Islamists for whom terror is not a means at all, but an end in itself, and who are not susceptible to any dissuasion short of utter destruction.

*In what has to be the best recent example of comprehensive vertical integration in the world of arts and culture, Wright then created a one-man Broadway show to talk about all of this, which was then became an HBO special. One imagines Wright’s wife, if he has one, gently suggesting it might be time for a project about the history nutmeg, or Great Lakes ore boats, or anything else.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hard facts, bad law.

In the wake of the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the killing of six others and the wounding of nearly a dozen more, it was a simple certainty that – along with grief and national introspection – nonsense would follow. This is what happens , not just nowadays and not just in America, but through all of human history. Grief does not grow good policy; the frightened are seldom wise.

For an apt, enormous and spectacularly disturbing example, one need only look back at the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act* of 2001. You may recall it as the USA PATRIOT Act. It is a fine manifestation of Robert’s Rule that the more contrived a law’s acronymic name, the worse the law. (A relationship of inverse linear proportion.) The corollary to this Rule is that acronymic names that invoke patriotic signifiers or the names of animals betide even worse laws. (A relationship of inverse geometric proportion.) I haven’t done the math, but I would suppose that the lousiness of legislation that has a cutesy acronym which actually employs the word “patriot” is measured both inversely and exponentially.

Thus an event like the Arizona shootings must be expected to stir this same impulse, which arises not only from grief and fear, but from the irresistible desire most folks have to make things better once it is too late. This impulse is then elevated into idiocy by legislators smarting from a tragedy-freshened realization that most of what they “accomplish” is irrelevant, if not patently inimical, to the wellbeing of those they are set to govern. And so I give you Rep. Peter King (D-NY3) who is proposing national legislation that would make it a crime to possess even an otherwise lawful concealed firearm within 1,000 feet (a fifth of a mile) of an elected or appointed federal** official.
“We have to have regulations modified and improved, enhanced,” said King, in a recent article. “Laws have been passed; they haven't been sufficiently enforced. The regulations have not been inclusive enough, so we have to move forward on that.”
I propose that we call the law The Stopping Armed Violence In Neighborhoods, Groups, Real Estate, Peoples’ Residences and Everywhere Senators Ever Navigate, Travel, Attend, Tour, Investigate, Visit, Embark or Stay Act (acronym: The SAVING REPRESENTATIVES Act), but I don't fool myself into thinking the good congressman reads this blog.

What, one must ask, does Rep. King imagine will take place in the corkscrew caverns of the demented mind of any subsequent Jared Lee Loughner, with such a law in place? Does he suppose the armed, angry and deluded paranoiac reasoning thus:  “Well, I sure would like to drive down to the Safeway and take out that federal official. Maybe that would quiet these damned voices in my head. Yup, people need to die until I am out of bullets if I can have just a moment’s respite from this pounding bloodlust. Oh but wait. I am stymied. I’d have to get closer than 1,000 feet to that federal official with my gun, thus violating Rep. King’s new law. And that , sir – that I will not do.”

Now, I don’t know Rep. King. Chances are I probably won’t know any of the scores of legislators who will doubtless line up to co-sponsor his bill. But if I assume that he is not terminally stupid or clinically insane, I am left to wonder about his motives. Because – if he is not a moron or a loon – he cannot possibly imagine that his ridiculous, impossible, impracticable, nonsensical proposal*** can ever protect anyone from anything.

Well, at least that's the only silly law this horrible crime will inspire.


* That really is its name.

** State, county and municipal officials may, evidently, go pound.

*** I have omitted here any discussion of the obvious, abundant, fatal impracticalities of such a law. You’re reading this blog, so you are clearly smart enough to figure them for yourself. I do note one benefit, which is that all “elected or appointed federal officials” will presumably be required to wear large, self-illuminating name tags identifying themselves, so that we mere armed citizens can attempt to comply with the new law by fleeing headlong at the sight of them.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Doubleplus ungood.

I love Mark Twain. By all accounts, Samuel Clemens was an insufferable, unlovable asshole, who vacillated between breathtaking arrogance and consuming melancholy. But Twain -- him I love. He's one of the few authors whose works I've ever read out loud to adults -- and had read to me. Cigars and whiskey are not strictly required for such readings, but I cannot imagine any reason for their exclusion. Lord knows Twain wouldn't have stayed to listen without them.
So the cultural crime being done to him offends me on a personal level. My friend over at Gun Free Zone (hint: as I've previously noted, Robert's Rule holds that gun free zones aren't) tapped into exactly what's  creepy and worrisome about bowdlerizing Twain in terms larger than my personal outrage -- things like artistic integrity, free speech, and the corrosive effects of rampant political correctness. He did it with a deft quotation of another author who is regularly banned and watered down:

Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. There's no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak.
By the year 2050 - earlier probably - all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron - they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of The Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like "freedom is slavery" when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
 You must agree.

The Ugliest of Things: Chapters Seventeen and Eighteen

Note to the reader: COMING SOON TO AMAZON

Friday, January 7, 2011

Weighty considerations.

John Adams, during one of the most courageous representations ever undertaken by a lawyer on this continent,* noted that “facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  Long before Adams said so, Scottish children were schooled in the same notion, by way of James Carmichael’s collected proverbs, which held that “if wishes were horses, pur men wald ride.”

And so some facts: The murder rate for the United States in 2009 was 5 in 100,000, or .005 percent, while the overall violent crime rate was 429.4 in 100,000 – still not even one half of one percent. What is more, the incidence of intentional violence against people of my particular demographic skews much lower than as against the population as a whole.

Meanwhile, the leading cause of death among males of my age and ethnicity is heart disease, which takes nearly a quarter of white males men who die between 45 and 54. After that, cancer takes nearly another quarter. Diabetes and stroke together put about 5 percent of my cohort in the ground. As we all know by now, the big killers like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke are by no means entirely random. Yes, skinny fitness pioneer Jim Fixx illustrated a fatal irony by succumbing to a sudden heart attack.** But there’s no real debate that being overweight contributes hugely*** to the incidence of these maladies.

Stubborn things these facts. Stubborn, insistent, relentless, pesky, cursed things. Because, you see, I don’t want to lose weight. And while I’m happy to be active and to be outside to play, but I don’t want to commit to take the time and trouble to exercise – and vigorously – every day.

But that is just too damned bad. Because, in accord with John Adams and centuries of Scottish moms, Robert’s Rule clearly states: Facts don't care.

I’ll spare you any daily or weekly updates – indeed, I’ll spare you any updates at all. But suffice it to say that it has at last dawned on me: Little good it does the sheepdog to have clear eyes, sharp fangs and a valiant heart, if he’s too fat to heave himself off the porch when the wolf comes through the gate.

* Adams was representing the British Soldiers accused of murder in the “Boston Massacre.” You can read the original transcripts if you like. In the Spring of 1770, Boston was a hotbed of pre-revolutionary fervor. Attempting to quell what was almost certainly a riot – and in what may have been self-defense – Redcoats  fired into the crowd, killing three on the spot and wounding eleven, two of whom would die of their wounds. Passions had hardly cooled when the trials of the captain in charge and his men were conducted in the Fall – an uncharacteristic delay, designed to let things quiet down. The captain was acquitted, as were six of the soldiers. Two soldiers (one of whom later admitted to having yelled “Damn you, fire!” after being struck with a club thrown from the crowd) were convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to be branded on the thumb in open court.

** Later attributed to rampant atherosclerosis that had almost entirely blocked three coronary arteries.

*** Please assume all puns are intentional.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Eye spy.

Thirty years. Thirty years is a career. Thirty years is a man in his prime. Thirty years is the age past which Baby Boomers vowed no one would be trusted. Thirty years is a storied marriage. Thirty Years is how long it took 17th Century Catholics and Protestants to kill 12 million of one another in the eponymous war. Thirty years is longer than half the population of the United States has been alive.

Thirty years is how long Cornelius Dupree Jr. spent confined in the Texas prison system for a crime he did not commit.
Consider the exquisite horror of that. Spend an hour thinking about it. Mr. Dupree had more than a quarter million hours in which to do so after he was wrongly convicted for a 1979 abduction, robbery and rape. Or, if you prefer, think of the worst day in your life. Consider how that day stacks up against a day in a prison system widely recognized as among the nation’s most vile. Mr. Dupree had just about 11,000 days of that.

Mr. Dupree is just a year older than I. When he went to prison, I was blasting through my sophomore year at college, skipping classes, chasing girls, drinking beer and gallivanting through wild Kentucky caves. During the time Mr. Dupree has been fighting for his freedom and, one presumes, fighting merely to survive, I have had two marriages, fathered two sons, come to Jesus, enjoyed success in two careers and, more to the immediate point, gone where I damn well pleased, when I damn well pleased.

In what must be the most gracious and galactic understatement ever recorded, Mr. Dupree said “it’s a joy to be free again” when a Texas judge sent him home after DNA evidence established that he did not commit the crime.*

How had he landed in prison? So far as I can tell, unlike some of the more than 250 defendants who have so far been exonerated by just the Innocence Project alone, there are no allegations of knowing misconduct by police or prosecutors. Instead, as happens more often than folks outside the justice system realize, Mr. Dupree lost more than half his life simply because the crime victim misidentified him. This phenomenon is but a reflection of the larger problem of “eyewitness testimony,” where the sometimes fatal danger lies in the gulf between how reliable such testimony really is and how reliable jurors think it is. (I leave it for you to consider the implications of prosecutors who know the weaknesses of eyewitnesses, yet advocate it as the sine qua non of evidence before jurors and fight to exclude experts on the topic.)

Of course, it is not only the Mr. Duprees of the world who suffer for this, although their suffering is most obvious and acute. The victims whose assailants have gone free, the families of the wrongly convicted, the subsequent victims of those assailants who go unpursued as other pay for their crimes, even the witnesses who learn their flawed testimony sent a man to prison for decades** suffer as well. The universal victim is the honor, trust and dignity of our entire justice system.

* He’s been out of prison on parole since July, but the hearing this week released him from any obligation to the corrections system.

** Please learn about the amazing, tragic and – at last – redemptive story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. She identified him as her rapist and he went to prison for eleven years before DNA evidence proved she was wrong. Cotton managed to forgive Thompson and Thompson managed to forgive herself. Together they have become a single, powerful voice of reason, appearing and writing together about these issues.