Monday, May 26, 2014

The Dumbest Argument of All Time

Wayne LaPierre, executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, announced his current argument about gun ownership on the day after the Newtown, CT mass shootings. On December 12, 2012, LaPierre announced that what caused shootings by nice young people was mental illness and video games. The answer, he declared, was easy and obvious: "Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun."

The Republican Party, and much of the Democratic Party, has faithfully echoed LaPierre's remarks. The GOP has been relentless in saying that video games and R-rated movies are to blame. (Today is the day after a shooting in Santa Barbara, and something called The Daily Republican has an article pointing out that the shooter's father is a movie director and therefore tied to the "culture" of violence. I won't link to it.) Paul Ryan and a few others have even talked about the culture of "urban youth." Poor people outside of "urban" areas are deserving poor, but the people who are "urban" have a bad "culture."

LaPierre has been doing that "kids today and their scary movies and video joystick games" junk for a long time. In fact, it's such a stale act that, when he responded to Newtown in 2012, he did so by blaming "Natural Born Killers" and the video game "Mortal Kombat." A movie from 1994 and a game from 1992 were to blame, he claimed, for a severely mentally ill child killing his mother and then children at a primary school. It was such a lazy and slapdash evasion, blaming "media culture," that it didn't catch on. The people who have followed LaPierre have typically done so by just using "culture" as the grand conflating variable -- the monkey wrench with which they plan to deny any causality to a correlation between guns and crime (e.g. "Sure, when children have access to guns they're more likely to have gun violence, but how do you blame the gun instead of the insanely violent culture?").

What amazes me, though, is the staggering number of people -- mostly men -- who seem competent enough to hold down jobs who will say that "only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun." That is, quite literally, the dumbest argument of all time.

First, if you have been near a shooting, you know, as I do, that you didn't know it when it was happening. You are trying to sleep, and the noise you hear outside will be anything -- your brain will do its best to ignore it, as you're trying to sleep. If you can't ignore it, you'll imagine that it's a trash can lid falling, a piece of metal falling from a rooftop, anything. If you are going down a street, and someone is shooting ahead of you, you will be thinking, "Where do I need to go next? She's pretty. Do I have money to go there? Maybe I'll walk this way," and you simply won't process the sounds as gunshots. Even if you know what gunshots sound like, you won't think "gunfire" until your eyes tell you something is wrong or your ears give you other signals -- quiet, screams, sirens.

Second, if you process quickly, you have to be extremely accurate -- as accurate as you are fast, at least -- to know where the gunshots are coming from, take cover, get your own gun, remove the safety, chamber a round, and then shoot as few times as possible. Every time you miss, your bullet will continue travelling until it is stopped by something solid, like an innocent person's body. If you were in Santa Barbara and strapped, there is no way you would say, "Pistol shots," get your gun out, and aim carefully before the shooter had moved on.

Here, though, is why it's the stupidest argument in history: I'm writing this on Memorial Day.

During war, do all of the good guys come home uninjured and all of the bad guys die?

In war, we have good guys who are well trained, expecting to have to fire, armed with the best weapons, and facing off against "bad guys with guns," and yet -- amazingly -- it appears that bad guys with guns actually win some of the time and good guys with guns kill bystanders sometimes and good guys with guns are killed sometimes. In other words, in the best possible case of a "good guy with a gun" -- an armed soldier anticipating battle -- we do not get greater safety, just greater casualties and greater death.

That is what Wayne LaPierre is selling.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

"9/11 Changed Everything," indeed.

To begin to write for the third time on this subject, I would need to go to the ends of the subject. As with each previous time, the real occasion for writing is obscure, as it should be, if there is going to be any use to it. Way back in 2001 and 2002, the fools who had to have something to say as they closed their thirty minute tours of news would quote governmental press releases and talking points fallen from Dick Cheney's desk and say, "It's no exaggeration to say that 9/11 has changed everything." I didn't believe them. I vaguely remember a floating head on a screen waxing poetic and summoning all the atmospheric Murrow he could (but only managing Brokaw) and saying that we would be telling our children about the event that defined their world. It was Pearl Harbor. . . or not quite that, but it was like it.

The news readers going basso profundis was inconceivable comedy to me. Even looking back, the most I can come up with by way of how I felt is a paraphrase of Lincoln, who said that, if the United States were ever to die, it would be by suicide, not conquest. 

Then again Lincoln embarrassingly underestimated the thanatopsic urge. So did I.

Oh, historians of the time in question have said that Cofer Black and the Spook Patrol began giving W. Bush daily briefings with unfiltered intelligence -- that is, with no analysts involved, no hierarchies of threats, no assessments of feasibility or reliability, just every single hateful and violent threat made by the whole world -- and this every morning before the Ovaltine. It scared Bush senseless, and he said "Yes" to every request. This is how the USA PATRIOT ACT went from controversial to routine -- even boring. The same scary people with scary reports kept working on their haunted house routine, because Obama began saying his job was, "Keeping Americans safe" in 2009. The man who campaigned on civil liberties began devouring them at a pace that his predecessor would not have imagined.

Assassinations? Secret detentions? Suspension of habeas corpus? Phone taps on a national scale (i.e. a small nation of people, not every person in this nation)? "Why object, if you have nothing to hide" uttered as a legitimation, when it had last appeared in satire or dystopian cliche? All of this has come to be a portion of the invisible architecture of American reality -- a base condition for living for most citizens. W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" is unteachable now, both because its commentary has been bunted in front of home plate and, more, because its world of a state with an indexed population of statistics is now so far beneath the N.S.A.'s capabilities and the ostensible goals of "total informational awareness" as to seem boring.

September the eleventh thrust a cup of hemlock into national hands. Our leaders presented as a chalice, and all drank. 

I do not mean, though, that losing "the American way" or civil liberties was the death of America. Instead, I mean that, frighteningly, the vapid people were right: we changed everything on the day, soul first.

In 2011, the little people who live inside of the television asked, "What have we learned from 9/11?" We learned nothing, of course. We learned nothing because there was nothing to learn from a billionaire attacking centers of international capitalism. We learned nothing because 9/11 handed its victims suffering rather than pain, and suffering neither teaches nor presents norms. Most of all, though, we learned nothing because to learn we must first recognize our world and ourselves.

September the eleventh was suffering for those of us in New York City. I feel confident that it was for those in the affected wing of the Pentagon and for the families of the lost in Pennsylvania as well. No one can learn from suffering, only  from pain, but suffering is less focused. Rarely is suffering for a particular reason, or even for a passion. Even more rarely is suffering for a passion or reason that carries with it a moral value or heuristic principle. Instead, people may grow while suffering, but they grow by having empathy or understanding (of humanity, of self, of family) increase. 

Most of us would rather attend a seminar.

Among our problems with 9/11 is just simple recognition. "We" don't do much introspection of the moral sort. For a nation of self-help patrons and "Face the Press in Review This Week" organizers, we love to look at the individual self and the weekly events, but not much from a decade or a community.

 Why there is a new government,
and why the parties are disenfranchised
The Republican Party has variations on "self" in its definitions. It's the party of "self-reliance," of "individual liberty," of "personal responsibility," and it performs a fan dance with libertarianism. (Well, it used to. Since 2012, it has been more of a peep show, where the primaries are all access libertarian and the general elections put on a flag G-string.) The Democratic Party is the party of good governance, of community building, of ensuring welfare and commonweal. Most of its definitions feature "community" and "common" in them.

September the eleventh made both parties aliens to the United States. Unlike the United Kingdom and numerous European nations, the U.S. has no "government" distinct from its politicians. We do have a civil service, but it is weak and without an identity of its own. It is certainly not operating contrary to the political system. There could be no American "Yes, Minister" the way there was an American "House of Cards," because our civil servants have less and less job security and are beholden to political appointees who face the spoils system. Thus, most talk of "the government" Americans do has been faulty from nearly the day of Andrew Jackson. It has certainly been faulty since the 1980's. However, since 2001, we have begun to grow a government, complete with self-protection and ideology separate from the political EVEN AS the traditional civil service has been put under more political control than ever before.

This government of 9/11 begins and ends with a fiat: It is the job of government to keep the citizens safe from "evildoers"/ "those who wish us harm" (the difference is one of dialect, not language). You heard Bush say that his job was keeping Americans safe countless times. You may have even heard Cheney and others lie and claim that Bush was a good president because there were no terrorist attacks on Americans during his presidency. If you have been listening, you have also heard President Obama define his job this way, and probably as often as his predecessor. 
The problem is that, well, keeping citizens safe from harm is simply not one of the duties of the presidency. The president of the United States is the head of the executive branch. He is the chief cop and the chief enforcer of laws. In war, she is the coordinator of the armed forces ("commander in chief"). There is no warrior king, priest king ("decider"), or even "CEO president" function to the job. Armed forces keep us safe from foreign powers, and police keep us safe from those on our soil if they have broken a criminal law. Secret services stop agents of enemy and foreign powers. Quick: what part of the government is the Secret Service a portion of?

We all want to be safe, of course. However, we also all want to be asked how we are kept safe, if we are a democracy. A critical difference between democracy and fascism is that we do not believe that a Great Man (or woman) might, with will or strength, achieve what the people, with consent, do every day. A critical difference between democracy and the Soviet is that we do not believe that the Party or state leadership can, with critical efficiencies or expert policy, achieve what we do in our stumbling consensual manner.

Never mind my idealism, though. The parties are aliens to the government of the United States because this government dedicated to keeping Americans safe has a new question to ask. It is no longer concerned with the individual's happiness or the group's welfare, as both are irrelevant. Instead, it asks, over and over again, "Who are you? What is the identity of the citizen?"

Define for yourself the goal of N.S.A. and other agencies dedicated to defeating foreign agents in an era when "agent" no longer means what it once did. Whereas once an agent was a person not only acting in the interests of a foreign entity but acting at the behest of that foreign entity, an agent now does not need the alien entity's knowledge, much less involvement. This is because the agent is no longer of a foreign power, but a foreign ideology. Furthermore, that ideology is not named. It isn't "the Communist Party": it's "terror" or "wishing us harm."

Even though we in the United States do not have an official religion or official ideology, we have a shifting net of enemy ideologies that are largely identified solely by the willingness of anyone propounding them to, coincidentally or consequentially, advocate violence against the U.S. military, U.S. citizens, U.S. territory, or U.S. assets. Think back to 1978 for a moment and remember the anti-nuclear protests held throughout Europe. It was a weapon that made plain the fact that some of Europe would be a battlefield in a coming war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and the people living on that battlefield were less than pleased. Some of them were infiltrated by Soviet agitators. Some of them were violent. Most of them were neither. Were that today, would N.S.A. label "Belgian" or "Social Democrat" as enemy ideologies? Under the philosophy that demands that all believers in a religion or religious sect are "enemy" today, it might. This is a consequence of 9/11 and defining the goal of government as "protecting Americans." Once that becomes the goal, violence is the only qualification for enemy status.
Imagine that you are floating in the ocean. Now, so long as you float, you will be rescued. However, a line is tied to you and attached to everyone you know. For reasons unclear to you, some of these people cannot swim and have weights attached to them, while others are just struggling swimmers like yourself. Even the people you are tied to who are swimming are themselves tied to all the people they know, and some of them are sinking. It is fairly likely, depending upon how many people you know, that you will be dragged down.

As far as the security government is concerned, a person is not a person. A person is a set of associations -- a deferred identity calculated by its connective power. Each association is either dangerous or not. If an association is not dangerous, it carries no weight. If it is dangerous, it weights the person. Furthermore, the attachment's weight is determined by its own attachments. Are you an enemy of America? Well, a friend of yours who has a friend in the Peace Corps who made friends with a group of people in Yemen has sunk you. You do not know this, of course, because you do not know your friend's friends. Your friend, in fact, does not know his friends are today called "terrorist" by someone. They, indeed, do not know that they are "terrorists," necessarily. Even if they have shouted, "Death to America," they could have repented of the view. It would not matter. It does not matter because the government's role is to "keep Americans safe," not to produce an accurate risk assessment.
Once we take the one, small step, from "provide for the common welfare" to "keep Americans safe," safety trumps all political activities and all operations of the state. The citizens cease to have civic value and transform into menace or neutrality, and only menace or neutral. The two political parties, therefore, become entirely beside the point. Individual liberty or community building are meaningless questions to a government dedicated to detecting threats and sifting its own population into only two piles.

I could offer up homespun analogies on the philosophy of safety. I could ask you to compare a nation to a household and to think of the effects of parents who seek to keep their children safe at all costs with not a thought to the children's happiness, prosperity, or education. However, those analogies foster reductive thinking, because nations are not families, or businesses, or enough like anything except themselves to be profitably compared except to each other. In fact, nations are capable of a phenomenon that is almost without parallel in any other organism: they can grow alienated from themselves. Nations can, under the worst possible circumstances, begin to operate one way while believing another; they can begin to concentrate power in one spot while announcing it in another. The most famous, and therefore guarded against, condition of national alienation is the phenomenon of bureaucracy. When the civilization is not rule by the demos (democracy) or representative (res publica/republic) or divine person, or by select family, or by the wealthy, but, instead, by bureaus, then an unthinking, vegetable mind governs indifferently to all concerns and makes all political exchanges inefficient.

We are not in a bureaucracy. We have something else. Dana Priest's report on “Secret America,” where she began to see just how large the expenditure and secrecy is in Classified work, certainly testifies to a potential bureaucracy of safety, but, forgetting the inefficiencies of duplication and lack of oversight, we have an alienation where no one votes for safety as a national priority. Neither chamber of Congress, no election, and no presidential order reorganizes society onto safety first. All the same, it is there, and it determines the activities of all other facets of the nation.
One way that we can tell that our nation is alienated is the staggering bathos of the safety measures. When, two weeks after September eleventh, military with sub-machine guns were stationed in Penn Station in New York City, it did not make travelers feel safer. Coming in from Madison Avenue and having one's eye first fall on a soldier with a slung machine gun did not set a commuter's mind at ease. The harlequin pantomime that has replaced airline boarding – shoes off, hands up, standing in a booth – does not give safety, either. Crucially, both “left” and “right” react the same way to these measures. The left rejects the loss of civil liberties, and the right fears “the government” and calls for a right to have personal firearms to protect itself. These measures launched in the name of security represent no one's political idea, no one's civil goal, and deliver no one's social good, but there they are. The most conservative president in history and the current president alike have presided over measures seemingly no one has endorsed.

What began as an urge to reverse every expansion of civil liberties of the 1970's with the USA PATRIOT ACT turned into something else. It has turned into something with the power to generate itself, something that moves by a vegetative mind, with a motive (to make America safe) that is paramilitary and unconstitutional. The government that is arising now, what people call “the security state” (a misnomer, as this is not the state; it is beneath the state and beside the state), sets out an end goal that cannot be achieved without the elimination of free will.