A few years ago, it was all the rage to blame spree killings and mass murder on “the mentally ill”, as if the fact that someone shot up a church or a Denny’s qualified as a diagnosis. In the last few months, that line has seen less use, as the facts come out that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. We know that the people who most often do these things are white men from what now count as middle class homes, many of whom are simply angry at the loss of privilege and status that their fathers had. They want to strike out at someone in protest, and those targets are often politically chosen, not for the number of dead or the assumed presence or absence of firearms in the possession of others, but because the shooter is striking at some group he blames for the fact that his life is harder than he thinks it should be.
The new argument that has started to take over is, not unfairly, that we have a cultural problem, and that banning guns isn’t going to change anything. People are mad, and they believe violence is a viable way to express their anger. Drivers shoot each other on the highway, but children fight viciously on school grounds, too. The problem is one that is part of how people think, and some people own guns because they want to feel powerful; others own guns because they are afraid.
The thing that is missing from this argument requires one to think a little harder. It requires one to plan ahead 20 years, rather than thinking only about the next few. The idea that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” isn’t a solution to our cultural disease. That is a symptom and even a cause. The idea that a person has the right to inflict his will on others in public, that violence and death are valid solutions to interpersonal disputes is the thing that people are claiming to be the illness, even as they claim that the cure is more of the same. This is the short term thinking of an addict, who knows that the habit is killing them but can’t face withdrawal. “We can’t change society,” they say, “so we have to protect ourselves from it.” If you can’t beat them, join them. Only, “them” in this case is a class of person no one wants to admit they are siding with.
The thing this whole line of thinking ignores, though, is that policy change can herald cultural change. We can make something not only illegal, but unpopular and even repulsive. We can turn the wheel of justice, and it turns the wheel of education and public opinion. Where racism was once enshrined in the governments of certain states, politicians will angrily defend themselves against any public accusation of it now. We can do the same for violence, if we are willing to put away the weapons.
I bring up racism not just because it is an example of measurable, if incomplete, success in doing just this sort of thing. I bring it up because this same argument, that we have a cultural problem that laws cannot fix, was lobbed at the civil rights leaders of half a century ago. So, I will close this with a quote from the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr in a speech given at Cornell College and many other institutions of higher learning in 1962 and ’63. If you swap the word “lynching” for the word “shooting” in this excerpt, you can apply it directly to the debate we are having today:
There is another myth that has circulated a great deal. I call it, for lack of a better phrase, the myth of educational determinism. I am sure you have heard this: “Legislation can’t solve this problem, only education can solve it.” Judicial decrees can’t solve it, executive orders from the President can’t solve it. Only with education and changing attitudes through education will we be able to come to a solution to this problem. Now there is a partial truth here, for education does have a great role to play in this period of transition. But it is not either education or legislation; it is both education and legislation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless…
This story on Buzzfeed was going around Facebook today, and I felt that I needed to expand on the point it makes.
In short, it is about a social experiment that may or may not have actually occurred in a classroom. Kids were asked to sit in their seats and try to toss wadded paper into a bin. The kids in the back of the class objected, stating that it was unfair, but the exercise went ahead. Many of the kids in the front made their shot, though it is clumsily pointed out that not all of them did. It is noted that “only a few students in the back of the room made it.” It succeeds in painting a relatable picture of what privilege is, but it fails to point out somethings that people who have privilege often miss.
I think, as a story, it would make sense to point out that there might be someone in the front of the class with a visual impairment or a physical ailment or disability who still missed, but had a much better chance for being in the front of the class than the back. Others may not have taken the exercise seriously enough to make a solid effort. Privilege does not ensure success, just as some people with less privilege, through hard work and/or luck, might succeed.
It fails to point out that the people in the back probably noticed right away that this was unfair, because it was obvious from where they were. Many of them might not have even been able to see the bin from their seat, having to either count on a description, someone pointing at it, or being allowed to look at it from another angle before returning to their seat to make the attempt. Maybe one of them was brave enough to try standing in their seat. All of these are forms of affirmative action. They give a person without privilege a better chance at success, but they don’t change the factors that limited them in the first place, or not all of them. We can give a person a place in an institution that they could not fully earn, but they would have no role models, no allies, and the resources would not be in place to ensure that they could cope. We can give them some relief, but they still have to work harder.
The story fails to make the point that maybe even those in the middle of the second row who were still closer to the bin than those on the edges of the front row. Because privilege isn’t a straight line. It is a graph with a hundred axes. I score well on several important ones, like being a white, straight man in the United States. You may score less well, because of gender or sexuality, or better because you live in a country with universal healthcare and better market regulations. Your religion may be closer to the cultural assumption of mainline protestantism; Catholics have it better than Hindus through much of the United States. You may be a transgendered person who is lucky enough to rarely have that fact noticed, and therefore can live under the assumption of cisgendered privilege most of the time, or a person of Hispanic decent who looks white enough that people don’t discriminate against you for your race. Privilege is a tricky concept with a lot of variables.
I like the way this experiment sets up the discussion, but I think that it lacks follow-through in helping to go beyond the idea that “some people start closer to the basket”. That is essential in making it a discussion that reaches those people who need to understand it the most: the people in the front row who still see a challenge in getting that ball in the bin and don’t have to think about how much harder it is for the kid behind them because that is happening outside the focus of their objective. And we all need to be reminded, sometimes, that all positions in the front row are not equally advantageous, and it doesn’t illuminate every challenge that a person might face. If a person is struggling, we can acknowledge and hear that without diminishing the understanding that they might still have privileges we do not; it simply reminds us that, occasionally, perspective is also a privilege.
I recently got a trial subscription to HBO. I would never have asked for it, and I can’t imagine making enough money to ever have added it to my cable subscription; a suscription that I keep mainly because you cannot get decent reception locally, and I really love BBC America. HBO is an incredibly low priority in my life. Since I have it, though, I have been binge watching “The Newsroom”.
I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing. I loved his movies and I have loved his Tv shows since my exwife introduced me to her Sports Night DVDs back in 2001. I found copies of the West Wing up to that point and I watched every episode until it was canceled. As a person who grew up Republican and wasn’t ashamed to call myself one until the 2000 nomination (and I say that as a Texan), I love that the main character of “The Newsroom” is a Republican with fairly moderate views.
In an episode in the second season, he is asked about his party affiliation. He then asks why no one ever asks the question, “Why are you a Democrat?”
I can answer that. The Republican Party stands for things and against things. They have a platform that is full of value statements, if very little policy. The fact that almost no one agrees with all of those statements isn’t actually a flaw. It means that people choose to be Republican because they agree with more of them than not, or, in too many cases, they have a small group of issues that matters so much to them that they are willing to vote against their interest on everything else to support those positions. That is exactly why, as happened in “The West Wing” before, people are asked why they are Republicans.
http://youtu.be/QNoauwt0NE0?t=4m57sThe Republican Party stands for things, and even when Republicans disagree with some, many, or most of those positions, it matters to them to stand for the rest and for it to be known that they would rather stand on that ground and accept the consequences than to move.
Let me say that I have come to understand how dangerous that thinking is. I also know full well how powerful and seductive it is.
The reason that few people are ever asked why they are Democrats is then threefold:
- The opponents tend to think in terms of issues and ask about specifics rather than the party; “How can you support more government intrusion?” “Why don’t you just say it is wrong to kill unborn babies?”
- They know that the average Democratic voter isn’t loyal to the Democratic party anymore; there isn’t much leadership or vision capable of inspiring loyalty.
- Democratic voters aren’t really loyal to the party for the above reason, and so they don’t tend to own the label strongly in the first place.
As the right has moved the conversation further and further to the right, the center has been taken in by the Democrats. More people are calling themselves Independent with each election cycle, fleeing the GOP ranks without committing to the Democrats. They have gladly tried to cater to this ground swell, such that there is no longer a real platform under the party. If every seat is thought of as building material for their platform, every candidate adding either thickness or width to a plank, then they have, to use a phrase, spread themselves thin at the expense of depth and stability. And this, I think, has finally cost them more than it has earned them in an election.
When the Democrats failed to show up with strong opinions and a defense of their leadership, both in the White House and the Senate, people realized that the platform was about to give out. Nothing more could get done, in part because the Democrats had given up on doing them. They weren’t trying to convince people that they could lead, and so the people took away their leadership. It wasn’t that the Republicans made such a better claim, but at least it seemed like giving them a chance might result in something getting done. At the very least, it reminds the Democrats that they owe the public more than platitudes. At least, I hope that it does, because what we need is progressive leadership, and the Tea Party backed GOP isn’t capable of that.
I am not a Mexican. I have ever even been to Mexico. If you were to ask me about the authenticity of a particular restaurant, I couldn’t help you. What if, on the other hand, you asked 20 Mexicans, and 10 of them said “Absolutely authentic,” and 5 said “Pretty close,” and 4 said “Well, not from my part of the country,” and one said “No”? I would trust that it is authentic, wouldn’t you?
I am not a coder. All code looks a little random to me. If you asked me if a bit of code were efficient or well done, I could not answer you. I would ask a few friends. If I asked 50 friends to evaluate it, and 25 of them said it looked great, 15 of them said “I think it looks good, but that’s not a language I am really skilled at, so maybe it could have been done better,” 7 of them said “It will defintely get the job done, but it could be more efficient,” and the last three said, more or less “No”. I will still use that code with confidence.
Like so many members of Congress, I am not a scientist. Like members of congress, I have not really studied the issue of climate change and I could not hope to make reasonable predictions about the effects of greenhouse gasses and global temperature shifts. Like Congress, I am not ashamed to say that I don’t have the expertise to make predictions or reasonable hypotheses about the effects of energy or economic policy on the atmosphere and how that will change the habitability of the planet. That isn’t my job.
Honestly, that is what should be great about having career politicians; we should elect people who know about policy and law and economics to handle those things for us because we can’t all be experts in all things. Like us, politicians call for plumbers when they have a leak or doctors when they are ill because, like us, their job focuses on a different skill set and knowledge base. Like us, they shouldn’t all be scientists, because they need to know the legal system, the financial system, how our highways are built and repaired, and many other aspects of creating policy to make the country run better.
The problem is that many of these politicians are looking at the science, reading the conclusions of scientists, and, not understanding it for themselves, they are ignoring what the professionals are trying to tell them because the truth is comfortable.
The federal government has several divisions that are paid to do research and make predictions. Those divisions have helped us prepare for tornadoes and hurricanes. They have helped us target missiles and fly aircraft into dangerous situations. They have taken us to the moon and landed a robot the size of a small SUV on Mars. They have proven that they are good at science, and they warn us that climate change is real, and that humans are impacting it in a substantial way. That means that we could change our actions and have an impact on the course and rate at which this change is happening, and that certain actions will improve the stability of the countries and infrastructures currently in place.
When it comes to war, the Republicans are on the record saying that the government, and especially the current president, should trust the generals. They believe that the people who have fought in and risen to lead our military are trustworthy on issues of national security. The Pentagon has had military scientists looking at this, and the US military has concluded that Climate Change is a threat and that renewable energy needs to be a priority in national security. Why aren’t we listening?
When it comes to atmospheric science and the ability to look at the big picture here on Earth, few human institutions come close to the resources of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They put most of our satellites in orbit, and they track weather patterns and changed to geography. We pay them to do it, because we need that information. Their mission is the advancement of science with the intent to “benefit all humankind“. They have been tasked with the non-partisan job of making the world a better place for people. They warn that climate change is a real threat to human civilization as we know it.
More importantly, as with the examples I opened with, we can trust that the people who know what they are talking about agree that human activities, especially the release of carbon that had previously been trapped underground in fossil fuels like oil and coal, back into the atmosphere, are making the problem much worse. Scientists who are working in the field of climate change overwhelmingly agree that it is a problem, and that we can make changes that will lessen its impact.
Now, of course there are some who look at the same facts and come to different conclusions. That happens in every field. Literary scholars argue about author intent. Music scholars may argue about the historical value of certain composers. Biblical scholars are the reason that there are over 40,000 different denominations of Christianity. And, this is a really good thing in science, as the point of peer review is to be skeptical and make sure that the facts point to the conclusion reached. We need curmudgeons and malcontents to keep everyone on their toes and honest. Sometimes, the facts available require a change to the conclusions that science has been working from. That is how we discovered climate change to begin with.
What we see here, though, isn’t scientists arguing about methodology or conclusions. What we see here is an overwhelming consensus of professionals who are being ignored anyway because what they have to say is inconvenient. We have lawmakers admitting that they are not scientists, in the same way that the President of the United States is not a general, and instead of listening to the experts and taking the advice of the majority, they are choosing to do nothing on an issue that threatens us all.
“I am not a scientist” should be a bold statement of ignorance and willingness to listen to professionals. Instead, it is being used as a smoke screen to dishonestly claim that no one knows what the facts are. The folks doing so should be ashamed of their hubris.
Below is a sourced version of a letter I wrote to the editors or the Denton Record Chronicle. Not knowing if it will be published, and knowing that the facts will be questioned, I invite you to share this with anyone who still has questions about the drilling ban. We can always revoke the ban if the slogan of “Responsible Drilling” is ever more than a campaign promise. We cannot undo some of the damage that will be done if we allow things to continue as they are. Additionally, I feel that I must point out the foolishness of shouting about “energy independence” while stumping for fossil fuels that are rapidly running out rather than backing the development of renewable and, preferably, non-centralized sources of energy like residential solar and wind power. We need better than status quo if we are going to prepare for a bright and healthy future for Denton.
The “Vote No” campaign against the ban of hydraulic fracture gas mining in the City of Denton uses the word “Responsible” without any context or meaning.
How can “responsible drilling” not include new regulations, oversight, or accountability? They say they want support for “Responsible Drilling”, but that is not what they offer as the alternative to the ban. If it were, the ban might not be needed.
Rachael Rawlins, of UT’s School of Architecture, as published in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, shows that state and federal regulatory programs fail to effectively address emissions, the risk of malfunctions, encroaching land uses, or the potential interactive effects of fracking chemicals. Her studies show that “rates of childhood leukemia and lymphoma in Flower Mound are significantly higher than expected”, tying these findings to the exploitation of the Barnett Shale.
If health risks aren’t enough of a concern, there is considerable risk to the local economy. Fracking sites provide lower tax revenue than most other land use; their equipment taxes our roads, our water supply, and other resources. Worse than that, fracking presents an imminent risk to Americans’ most important financial investment: their home. Scientists across the country collaborated on a geological study, finding “fluid migration from high-rate disposal wells in Oklahoma is potentially responsible for the largest swarm” of otherwise unexplained earthquakes 3 hours north of us. Add the fact that pollution fears are driving home prices down already, according to Forbes, and oil companies seem like very irresponsible neighbors to have.
That’s right: I rarely refer to myself as a feminist. I don’t like the term. I don’t think it applies to me. This frustrates my significant other at times, and so I thought I might share my thoughts, because others might find them equally maddening, and that is good for page hits. Let me explain further with a comparison:
I am not gay, transgendered, or otherwise “Queer”. I don’t cal myself a part of the LGBT community, though I fully support their right to be heard and included and their civil rights. I do not have their experiences, and I cannot rightly claim to be one of them. I mess up all the time when talking about the issues of homosexuals, including the fact that many of them now dislike the term “homosexual”. I certainly mess up when speaking about and with transgendered persons and it is nearly impossible to speak about the gender-nonbinary without an introductory lesson in each person’s preferred lexicon.
I am, likewise, uncomfortable calling myself a feminist. I support equality and representation and empowerment, but I do not have the personal experience with discrimination to draw from. I do not have a connection with “feminism” that runs any deeper than my connection with the LGBTQ community: I love these people, and I support them, but it feels wrong to claim to be a part of their struggle. I am an ally for equality and justice, but that is the only label I am comfortable with. It is not that I am against feminism, or even just the word; it just doesn’t speak to who I am or what I am for.
I am an ally for all those people who need to be heard and who need to be treated better. I am strongly against gender bias, and actually against the concept of binary gender even as I am very happy and comfortable as a man. I want my penis to matter less in other people’s valuation of me than what I give back to the world. I want that for everyone no matter what their biology, how they dress, or how they identify. If you think that makes me a feminist, then so be it. I don’t call myself by that term except when it must be defended against people who use it as a slur.