Saturday, April 20, 2013

Remember how you cheered

 On the evening of April 19th, after the capture of Boston marathon bomber “suspect #2” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Bostonians took to the street to celebrate. Facebookers and tweeters filled the internet with celebration. Police officers were cheered as heroes. Fallen MIT officer  Sean Collier was commemorated along with the other victims of the attacks.

My call is, remember this. Remember how it felt to know that there was this veritable army of brave men and women between American civilians -- perhaps you and your family, or at least your fellow countrymen and women -- and the terrorists who had no qualms about maiming and killing them. Remember how proud you were of our police forces.

Remember this the next time you hear about some incident where a police officer has abused his authority. Remember this the next time you hear about a township or city where graft or crime has corrupted the police force and its officers. Remember this the next time you have a run in with a schmuck in uniform.

365 days a year, 24 hours a day, these men and women are out there, on the streets of America. Yes, there are racist cops, and even entire forces full of racist cops. Yes, there are corrupt cops. Yes, there are abusive cops. Yes, they piss us off. And they get headlines. And they should, because police power is great, and abuse of it is extremely dangerous. But when the next headline comes along, if you feel inclined to issue a sweeping condemnation about law enforcement, remember those cops you were so proud of, who put their lives on the line to protect American civilians. Corrupt cops and police brutality should enrage us, against the guilty party. But the guilty party is the individual (or the individuals) responsible. Not cops in general. 

In Boston, cops in general were the guys out there keeping civilians safe, and dodging bullets to do it. Like cops in general do every day, all around this country.  Remember that.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Will Ron Johnson's “Victims of Government” campaign feature victims of his governing?

By now, you've no doubt heard that the background check bill was defeated, and – unsurprisingly – almost exclusively along party lines, with the self proclaimed “party of life” coming down on the side of easy access to arms for criminals. Now that might seem like an anomaly, when one considers that background checks are designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people in order to save lives; and that closing loopholes that allow people to buy guns at shows and online without background checks, thereby skirting the background check provisions, would be a generally useful thing to do, and altogether in line with the “party of life” mission. But if you think that, you've obviously been asleep for the last, I don't know, decade at least. At any rate, in this country, the “party of life” wants to arm criminals (you know, harmless ones, folks who have done minor things like trafficking drugs, bombing, and owning child pornography), jokes about arming fetuses (for self defense, dontcha know), doesn't both tempering its' abortion opposition with trifling matters like the life of the mother (because, screw her; she should have thought about that before having sex. Or getting raped, because that's not a valid exception either [see: GOP party platform, 2012; 2008; 2004]. And maybe it doesn't even lead to pregnancy [see: Todd Akin])...and, oh yeah, now doesn't think that we should bother keeping guns out of the hands of people who legally shouldn't be able to get them.

Now, as a Wisconsinite who has the honor to be represented (cough, cough) by Senator Ron Johnson, I can't say that I was surprised to learn that he, too, opposed a common sense effort to make it harder for bad guys to get guns while re-affirming protections against the dreaded specter of a gun registry, thereby protecting the rights of good guys. But the interesting part of all this, to me at least, is that this is Senator Ron Johnson, the Senator Ron Johnson of the “Victims of Government” project. In case you haven't heard about that, the "Victims of Government" campaign is the brainchild of Senator Johnson (cut him some slack; he obviously goes by the rule that activity is a a good substitute for productivity), and is designed, more or less, to show how horrible, evil, no good, and very bad government (except, presumably, his part in it) is. One of the entries on his site explains, “The root cause of our economic and fiscal problems is the size, the scope, and the cost of government - all the rules, all the regulations, and all the government intrusion into our lives.” Describing the project, he states, “far too often American -- government's actually abusive”. A most apropos sentiment, I think, when discussing a significant contingent of our legislative body (Sen. Johnson included) who prefer partisanship to keeping guns out of the hands of people who legally should not own them.

So my question to Senator Johnson is, will you feature victims of gun violence, people whose lives might have been very different if criminals were not able to purchase guns without restriction or screening on the internet and at gun shows and then use those weapons to murder or otherwise harm their victims, on your site? Will people who die as a result of votes like yours, that allow violent criminals easy access to deadly weapons, ever end up on your "Victims of Government" page as a reminder of the “abusive” nature of politicians who forget their basic mission, to serve the people (and not the special interests)?

Of course, we both know the answer to that. “Victims of government” only matter if they can be exploited to serve your interests. But if they're actually dying because of government policy that you support? Eh...

Friday, April 12, 2013

Missouri GOP rep puts business owners under the gun

One would assume that the self-proclaimed party of personal liberty, freedom, and all that, the party that complains about onerous regulations strangling business, would respect a person’s wishes regarding whether or not guns should be allowed in their business, right?

Well, of course they do. Provided that anyone who doesn’t want guns in their business is held liable for any damages that occur if it is found that the presence of a weapon “may have” prevented injury -- while, at the same time, anyone who allows weapons on their property is immune from any injuries that do result. At least, that’s the way small government patriot, Missouri state Representative Caleb Jones (R), wants it to be.

According to the text of the bill:

 571.124. 1. Any private business that displays signage which prohibits public invitees, business visitors, and employees from carrying a concealed weapon on the premises owned or occupied by such private business shall be liable for any injury or damages incurred by such public invitees, business visitors, and employees as a result of such prohibition if such public invitee, business visitor, or employee establishes by a preponderance of evidence that having access to a firearm may have prevented his or her injury or damage.
            2. Any private business that does not prohibit public invitees, business visitors, and employees from carrying a concealed weapon on the premises owned or occupied by such private business shall be immune from any liability arising from its decision to permit concealed weapons to be carried on business premises.

Hat tip Think Progress. How’s that for small government? Small enough to decide what’s best for you, on your own property. Not surprising, though, for the party that wants to police the womb. And, apparently, arm it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The dangers to gun control efforts (and civil discourse) of heightened rhetoric

The gun control debate has been raging in earnest for some time now, ever since the massacre at Sandy Hook. There are some staggering statistics out there, like the fact that more Americans have died since 1968 from gun shots than the number of Americans killed in all wars; or the 3,000+ deaths just since the Sandy Hook killings. And there are plenty of questions to be asked. Has the “NRA won”? Has the overwhelming consensus of the people been overruled by lobbyists, or will something come of it yet? Is there perhaps even reason to be optimistic?

One factor that can sometimes get lost in all of this, however, is the rhetoric we (by which I mean everyone, whatever angle they come at this discussion from) employ. But language is all too important to these types of discussions to be ignored, because language is both a reflection of and a guiding force for our thoughts. When that language is tinged with malice, when it casts ideological opponents as morally flawed, sometimes to the point of depravity, human beings, and when it debases and devalues the very lives of those on “the other side,” we have a serious problem.

Judging by the rhetoric employed in the gun control debate, we have a serious problem in this nation. A very serious problem.

This came to my notice first through family and friends. Most of my family and many of my friends are very conservative. As the gun control debate geared up, I started noticing various images like the following circulating:

In and of itself, these are fairly inconsequential images. Sure, they're petty and mean spirited, but it frankly says more about the person who not only would want to see but would invite harm upon someone because of a difference of principles than gun control advocates. But it also says something about the mindsets of the folks who liked it and shared it, the people who added malicious commentary and voiced spiteful thoughts about gun control advocates. Some of these people are close to me, and I broached the subject with them.
The reactions mirrored the sentiments displayed in the images. If someone advocates for gun control, they “deserve what they get”. For them, gun control advocates had ceased to be human beings with whom they disagreed; they were the enemy, trying to “disarm and destroy America.” Nevermind that almost no one, anywhere in the debate, suggests anything of the sort.

As someone who not only owns guns but would also feel a lot safer if a background check was required to do so, and who isn't opposed to reasonable limits on magazine capacity and civilian ownership of certain types of weapons, this was a little alarming to me. How can people, in the name of freedom and liberty, not only dismiss any attempts to limit needless killing like at Sandy Hook, but despise those who would see it done?

The answer, I think, is simple. It's all in how the conversation is handled. The Sean Hannity's and Rush Limbaugh's of our country have a lot to do with this. But it's not just them. I had previously explored in some length the various responses to the Sandy Hook massacre on my blog, and these types of reactions played an important role in shaping the debate early on.

It isn't an issue of too many guns in the hands of people who shouldn't have them, but rather not enough social conservatism. According to Mike Huckabee, “we've systematically removed God from our schools”, so of course he isn't going to “be there” when needed...that, and we have “tax funded abortion pills” and we don't call disorders “sinful” anymore. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association agreed (“God is not going to go where he is not wanted”), and suggested morning prayers would fix the problem. James Dobson opined that atheism and abortion were to blame. So, ultimately, for many on the right, the problem has nothing, nada, zilch to do with gun legislation, and everything to do with lack of theocracy.

But the theocrats weren't alone in suggesting that the problem had nothing to do with guns. One Tea Party Nation contributor blamed “radicals in the classroom” and teacher's unions, all while managing to throw in some racist fear mongering (what better opportunity to talk about “black thugs,” after all, then a mass shooting committed by a white kid?). Others on the right suggested that video games were the problem (some constitutionally protected freedoms should have limitations, apparently; just not the right to bear arms!), while others felt too much femininity was to blame. Freedom of speech, progressive policies, feminism, unions...blame can be diverted there. But not lax gun laws.

Then there were the folks blaming gun control for gun violence. Gun control advocates are not only wrong, but they have “blood on their hands”; so, if any one is to blame for gun violence, it's the people trying to keep guns out of the bad guys' hands.

Now, these were responses within the first few days after the massacre. The message was quite clear: gun control is not the solution. The problem is [insert popular social conservative or tea party talking point], any legislation that does not [choose all that apply: force God on everyone; ban abortion; crush unions; put more guns in more hands!] will be useless, or, worse, destructive.

Then there was the flood of Hitler/Stalin/Fascism/Communism comparisons. Half of the conservative news world and blogosphere, it seemed, was on fire with the idea that gun control advocates were really brown shirts, all goose stepping behind our democratically elected president Fuhrer in order to bring about the end of America, western civilization, Christianity, Christmas, Jesus, the Easter Bunny and the world as we knew it. Nevermind that Americans on a whole overwhelmingly support some gun control efforts, like background checks, and that the whole Hitler-gun-control-thing is more or less a myth anyway. It's powerful rhetoric, and an epic battle of good versus evil sure sounds a lot better than “my right to avoid inconveniences outweighs a kid's right to grow up.” What's more, “my right to avoid inconveniences outweighs a kid's right to grow up” isn't going to appeal to most Americans, because an enormous majority of Americans actually support gun control efforts like background checks. So to win an argument against gun control measures, rhetoric is not only important, it's everything – because gun control opponents have already lost it on merit. Gun control opponents picked up on this very quickly, and have been very successful with it. Gun control became gun confiscation, and gun control advocates became some bizarre hybrid of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Sauron. But that, too, was only part of it.

Then came the “liberal hypocrisy” angle. Not only are gun control advocates Nazi Orcs, but we're also hypocrites. There was the “Hollywood Hypocrites” nonsense, which furthered the (untrue) notion that any attempt to limit gun violence means a gun grab, and also falsely equated make-believe killing and gun ownership with, you know, actual killing and weapon ownership. Then there was the NRA's infamous attack involving the Obama girls, which again floated the specter of “liberal hypocrisy” – but this time, with two little girls at the center. The president was an “elitist hypocrite” who more or less wants your kids to be shot while he protects his own. You see, now things are getting personal. Not only are gun control advocates in general, you know, evil nazis and genocidal scumbags; but now they're trying to get your kids shot. While protecting their own, with armed guards. The same armed guards that they're keeping away from your kids! (Despite the fact that none of that was true).

Finally, any gun control measures were also patently unconstitutional and un-American (despite the fact that many of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms are limited). It would “shred the constitution”. And, anyway, the second amendment is designed to keep us free from the yoke of a tyrannical government – and any attempts to limit it must be with the opposite goal in mind. (Regardless of the fact that you're going to need more than AR-15's and a “re-issued” “man card” to save you from the full might of the government, should it ever turn tyrannical and have a bee up its bonnet about you). Again, gun control advocates weren't just people you disagree with; they're anti-American, constitution shredding, tyranny embracing villains.

Factually, all of these attacks are baseless. It's not hypocritical to own a weapon and advocate limits on weapon ownership, provided you stick by your own rules, anymore than it's hypocritical for a car owner to think that there should be vision tests for a driver's license. It's not hypocritical to play with a gun, even one you think civilians should not own, in a controlled, legally compliant situation for people's entertainment, anymore than it's hypocritical to pretend to kill people (!!), steal stuff, or otherwise do things that you don't find morally permissible, for people's entertainment. (Stories and movies would be pretty boring if there were no “bad guys” and no conflict...) It's not hypocritical to have the secret service guarding our president's family, while suggesting that limiting mag capacity might be a good idea. Moreover, limiting gun ownership to those who are legally allowed to own guns is not only a widely supported notion, but a damned sensible one. And, agree with them or not, mag limits, assault weapon bans, etc., are not Mordor's latest communist/socialist/fascist scheme to destroy all that is good and green, but honest efforts to prevent the next Sandy Hook massacre. Reloading times have saved lives in some mass shootings. In others (like Fort Hood), the shooter had more experience and was not slowed. Assault rifles make up a small portion of overall gun deaths in the US; but they have been used, as in Sandy Hook, to devastating effect when they are employed. These are points to be considered in a debate. None of them, however, are the frightening, end-of-America-as-we-know-it, gun grabbing motives that many on the right make them out to be.

But facts are all too often lost in rhetoric. Thus any mention of “gun control” conjures up the well crafted imagery the NRA, the Sean Hannity's, and the Rush Limbaugh's of the world have put together – even though people overwhelmingly support at least minimal gun control. The success of this strategy has the immediate effect of turning people away from measures that they in actuality agree with; but it has the perhaps more damaging effect of convincing those people to fear and hate anyone who disagrees with them.

This is where gun control advocates need to be careful. The right, the left, and the middle should be – and, in theory, are – in agreement on much of this. But extreme rhetoric has established a barrier that, in many instances, prevents us from communicating or reaching that common ground.

We, gun control advocates, need to be aware of that, and tailor our language accordingly. We need to be honest and frank about our goals --€“ not the longhand, lofty or ambiguous versions like "we want to make sure that not a single kid is denied a chance to grow up if we can prevent."€ Is that what we want? Yes. But to anyone who listens to Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter or Michelle Malkin, anyone who reads conservative blogs or watches Fox news (much of my family, for instance), that immediately translates to "we want to take your guns, cart you off to a gulag, and murder your babies." We need to own the conversation, and to do that, whenever possible, we need to lay out specifics -- what we are, specifically, aiming for, in a way that is open to as little interpretation as possible." We want to institute a background system that makes sure the laws that we already have on the books are effective in keeping guns out of the hands of bad guys; this doesn't affect anyone already legally allowed to own a firearm, but it will protect all of us from those who are not but are slipping through the cracks to get one anyway." There's far less gray area there than in the mission statements. Now, that doesn't mean that some people can't or won't twist that into dark visions of Sharkey's Shire-scouring, rather than the straightforward attempt to implement laws we can almost all agree are necessary and good, for propaganda purposes. But, particularly for middle ground listeners who are not heavily invested in the issue, it will make our position much clearer: we will be giving specifics as to what we  want to do, and the talking heads of the other side will be forced to offer a counter argument, or be left screaming, "OH MY GOD! Nazis!”

But most importantly for those of us in the vast majority of Americans who support gun control, we do not want to fall into the pattern that many on the right have dropped into. We have a substantiative argument, an argument that can and will win on merit. We need to be aware of and counter propaganda efforts directed against it, but our message is solid. What we do not want to do, though, is fall into the trap of viewing people who disagree with us as “the enemy.” Yes, there are some people who stand to profit, either through on-air advertisements, gun sales, etc., from unfettered gun access. But the vast majority of people who oppose “gun control” are just regular people. They may be misinformed, they may be wrong, they may even be endorsing dangerous policy; but they are not “the enemy.” Gun owners are not “gun fetishists”. When bad things happen to gun owners, it's no time to gloat, or opine that “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword”. These are things I've seen gun control advocates write, not all the time, but enough. Too much. It's perfectly acceptable to point out the flaws in policies that lead to such deaths; but celebrating those deaths makes us as bad as the people who celebrate when bad things happen to gun control advocates. It's our version of the images above. We do not want to mirror the vitriol that many on the other side of the issue have been pushing; that has done enough to polarize the discussion, and make it a conflict of good guys versus bad guys instead of good ideas versus bad ideas. We have the better argument. Our idea will save lives and hurts no one if implemented. We do not want to squander or surrender the strength of our case for the petty satisfaction of schadenfreude or gloating. This is a long fight, and there are a lot of powerful voices and deep pockets arrayed against us. If we want to achieve those lofty goals of making our country a safer place to live in, a place where more kids have hope of actually growing up, we cannot ignore the power of language – our own, or that of our ideological opponents (and fellow Americans).

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Bible is not a scientific treatise on biology...

The Bible is not a scientific treatise on biology, reproduction, or anything else

It seems an obvious statement, except, based on the number of times I hear Bible verses, cherry picked of course, thrown out in abortion debates, it apparently isn't. So let me say it. The Bible is not a treatise on biology. It's a book of song, of poetry, of law, of story, even of the first recorded instances of men reproducing without female involvement (“and he begat a son who begat another son who begat another son”)...what it does not contain, however, is a study of the biological aspects of human reproduction.

“But...but it says God knew me in the womb! It says God wove me together! That means that I was a person from the instant sperm met egg! Which obviously means that abortion is murder!”

No, on all counts but one. Those verses exist, yes, but they are not – as context makes very clear – intended to be scientific commentary or an actual representation of the biological processes involved, anymore than the phrase “before you were a glint in your father's eye” is.

Let's start with Psalms 139:13-14. The New American Standard reads:

“13 For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;”

That's the part that you'll see quoted, a lot. But that's only a verse and a half. Let's keep reading (emphasis added):

“Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
16 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.”

All of a sudden, that seems far less, “Oh my gosh, God is hand-crafting kids and every abortion is destroying God's handiwork!” and more creepy, “Keebler-elf” kid factory. At least, that's the mental image that my weird mind conjured up. (For curiosity's sake, verse 15 in the King James reads, “My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.” I do love the KJV...everything sounds so much more intense and interesting there...). At any rate, you will often see  the “formed my inward parts”/”fearfully and wonderfully made” lines, but you will never see it used in conjunction with the continued sentiment. Why? Because the poetic license the author uses throughout becomes increasingly more clear if you read the very next verse. It's going to be hard to convince the faithful that every embryo is a handcrafted Jesus Original© if you bring up the underground baby factory.

Then there's Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”

This is the chapter detailing the calling of the prophet Jeremiah, where God explains how and why he has chosen him. While the good Lord uses some figurative language in these descriptions (verse 18, for instance: “For, behold, I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land”), it's that verse in particular upon which people focus their literal interpretations. No one, for obvious reasons, suggests that God actually made Jeremiah a city, a pillar and walls; but they accept the literal reading of the other verse, the one that suits the pro-life argument, without question. God handcrafted Jeremiah the Fetus, because a literal reading of verse five says so; but did he handcraft Jeremiah the City, Jeremiah the Walls, or Jeremiah the Iron Pillar as a literal reading of verse eighteen suggests? That's just being silly.
This is, perhaps, the strongest verse the anti-abortion crowd quotes (simply because there's nothing in the next sentence to show that it absolutely, without a doubt, shouldn't be interpreted literally) -- and there's nothing beyond wishful thinking to indicate that it's anything more than figurative. In fact, there's nothing beyond wishful thinking to indicate that verse eighteen should be read as “you're going to be the defense of my people” but five should be read as anything other than, “since I know everything, including the fact that you'd be born, I've long planned for you to be my people's defender.” But there's plenty of wishful thinking out there...

There's another, perhaps more obvious, side to this though. The Christian pro-life movement is eager to seize upon any verse that might, if read in the necessary way, anthropomorphize a fertilized egg. But what about those verses that suggest that the Jesus Original©, full fledged (albeit single celled) human being starts before it's a fertilized egg? What about, say, Hebrews 7:10, which lends “personhood” to a sperm: “For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him”? The silence, particularly from the Protestant pro-lifers, is deafening.

Why? Again, it doesn't further the argument to acknowledge those statements. The “glint in his father's eye”-type references only matter, and are only quoted, when they can be interpreted in a fashion that furthers the idea that every zygote, every embryo, and every fetus is a Jesus Original© baby. Therefore God's in-the-womb construction must be quoted, but the next-breath underground-baby-factory is ignored; God's choice of flowery language is to be interpreted literally as it references Jeremiah in the womb, but figuratively outside; and we just won't mention the anthropomorphic sperm that Melchisedec “met”.

This is the problem with trying to glean scientific truths from cherry-picked, half-quoted bits of ancient text: it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. If this is the crux of your argument, you will have no argument after a few minutes of intellectually honest examination. Snippets of select verses might make nice sound bites and look good splashed across cherub-faced-baby-memes, but they make shallow and intellectually lazy arguments. Ultimately, the Bible is not, and should not be treated as, a scientific treatise. It's just that simple.