Thoughts on Las Vegas 10/2/2017
It cannot be argued that a man who uses a fully-automatic rifle and hundreds of rounds of tactical ammunition to shoot into a faceless crowd is anything but insane. But what makes him insane is not the weapon. It is festering rage.
What happened in Las Vegas is unique only in its scale. It is one of many tragedies that play out so often we debate changing the definition of ‘mass shooting’ because it requires only four deaths. How numb we’ve become.
Still, it is true that this latest tragedy could not have been prevented. We value our freedom to purchase things that are not good for us far more than we value the mental health of others or even ourselves. More such incidents will follow of course. Of that there is no doubt.
I am not insane. But if I WERE….
If I were unable to accept that life is unfair and people will take advantage of me if and when they can, I would be unable to control my rage and I would lash out. What if I suddenly lost it? What if I totally lost control and no longer felt constrained by the bonds of social norms? The result would just be a tantrum. The damage resulting from such an outburst would be minor and likely comical. Wholly unsatisfactory to me. That is why I don’t lash out. I would look foolish, perhaps receive mandatory counseling or spend a night in jail and then I’d be back to where I started.
Mankind generally behaves much like any other species in the animal kingdom. When we get pushed, we push back. When we are wronged, we want justice. When we are threatened, we resist. When we are cornered, we attack.
What sets mankind apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is the science and technology of efficient death.
I am at least as flawed as any man. I have known rage. I have lost control and acted irrationally. I have surrendered to blind panic and attacked when I believed there was no other option.
I am likely to lose my temper again.
But, I am a small man disinclined to pick fights I will not win. If I am carrying a gun, I don’t feel so small. I am less likely to back down. But, being armed is not enough to feel in control when everyone is armed. The only advantage is the element of surprise. Act first. Shoot first. Kill first. Vanquish. These are the stakes of a life or death scenario and every scenario involving a gun is a life or death scenario and may last only an instant. No time for reflection. No time for discussion. No time for debate.
Would I ever so thoroughly lose my way as to kill indiscriminately? No.
Could I get drunk enough to be the angry guy who shoots his friend in the face? Possibly.
We arm ourselves for defense, but we forget that the opportunity to shoot in defense requires not getting shot. As more and more people arm themselves, the advantage of having a gun goes away. For what it’s worth, I am past the tipping point and I now assume that everyone is armed rather than assuming a given individual is not. That assumption shapes my words. Shapes my actions. Shapes my fears.
As the saying goes, ‘God created men of all shapes and sizes. It was Colt who made them equal.’ But guns don’t make us equal, they just make us equally deadly.
Sparrow: Paul Simon 1964
Who will love a little Sparrow?
Who’s traveled far and cries for rest?
“Not I,” said the Oak Tree,
“I won’t share my branches with
No sparrow’s nest,
And my blanket of leaves won’t warm
Her cold breast.”
Who will love a little Sparrow
And who will speak a kindly word?
“Not I,” said the Swan,
“The entire idea is utterly absurd,
I’d be laughed at and scorned if the
Other Swans heard.”
Who will take pity in his heart,
And who will feed a starving sparrow?
“Not I,” said the Golden Wheat,
“I would if I could but I cannot I know,
I need all my grain to prosper and grow.”
Who will love a little Sparrow?
Will no one write her eulogy?
“I will,” said the Earth,
“For all I’ve created returns unto me,
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be.”
I am not asking you to share this. I am not asking you to ‘like’ this. I am not asking you to cut and paste this. I am taking the time to compose and share MY OWN words.
Many of us know this is a difficult time of year and many of us struggle with depression or know someone who does.
This year has been particularly difficult for many of us (including me) and this season is a particularly difficult time of this particularly difficult year.
Amidst the turmoil, division and hateful words of our leaders, the economic struggles we all face, the violence that desperate people inflict on one another, the on-going loss of our next generation to opioid and alcohol addiction and the seemingly limitless sorrow and misery here at home and abroad, we must find a way to stay connected…before it’s too late.
I don’t want to mourn the death of someone I love and I, me, personally will do anything to prevent that. But it has to start with a connection.
I believe lots of people think about suicide. As an artist, it fascinates me. I can feel the tug of hopelessness and fatigue, imagine the relief of ending the pain. But then what? What if your last thought was about the mess you left for the people who love you? This has always been the natural resolution of my internal narrative.
I still find this poem difficult to read although I wrote it over a year ago. It makes me cry. I publish it now, because I cannot imagine a better time.
But, I wrote it because I believed I had something worthwhile to say…and to remind myself that I really should cry occasionally.
AND THEN-Ken Miller©
I look at it in profile. Slowly turn it from side to side.
It is heavy and I draw a heavy breath.
It’s not as if I’d never felt like this before. I know this feeling well.
But, now my strength is gone. I’ve no more will to fight.
I want nothing. No one.
I lean forward and rest my head on it.
The forward sight digs into my skin, but it feels good.
I smell the oil and I summon the will to be angry.
Dammit! Fuck it! I quit!
I sigh and, with quiet reservation and determination, again I say, “I quit”.
I pull the trigger.
In an instant, the pain is gone.
I am flooded with an ecstasy I’ve never known.
An incredible cascade of…
I look down on the room and see the mess I’ve made.
I feel the hearts of everyone I love breaking.
Yes, only then, do I truly understand the finality of what I have done.
If you believe there’s too much political correctness in America, that people are too easily offended and should just suck it up and get over it, you’re probably right.
But if you also believe people should be punished for burning a flag…you’re just a hypocrite.
I am a white man, but I am a minority in the USA. I am coming to terms with this fact. I am coming to terms with the fact that the USA will never be the idealistic, inclusive, land filled with citizens who appreciate the planet, science, and unqualified compassion in the way I do. I am coming to terms with the fact that the USA cannot be the place I had hoped it would be. I was wrong about the USA. I own that. Truth.
I’ve come to view US politics in a new way: This most recent contest came down to a choice between two senior executives. It is a scenario I have watched unfold before and know a bit about (but a selection process I never got the opportunity to participate in). To my mind, this was a fight (I struggled with that word, but can think of no apt alternative), a fight between rival business executives to take control of our corporation. Both corrupt. Both flawed. Both repugnant. Both with long and well-documented public histories.
But, none of that really mattered in the end. In the end, we picked the loudest, angriest, most focused CEO. We picked him because he is as angry as we are even though he has never experienced the struggle of his most avid supporters. We picked him because he gives us things to be angry at and provides the emotional release we’d been told was beneath us. We picked him because we do not want anyone, anywhere to think we are weak or indecisive.
The voice of the people who spoke loudest is the voice of fear. A cry to band together in the name of survival. By contrast, the voice of moderation, inclusion, and broad-based social programs is comparatively soft. If we give our vote to those who promise to keep bad things from happening instead of those who seek to make good things happen, the former will always occur for someone and the latter will never happen for anyone.
We are not one country, but we already knew this. What is difficult to conceive is that the triumphant voting bloc are the locally ensconced, less educated, white, agrarian citizens and they are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. But their anger seemed blind and undirected to me despite decades of conservative opposition to things like vaccines, scientific evidence of global warming, maintaining standards for our drinking water, enforcement of environmental regulations, and this perverse notion that individuals are free to choose surgery to augment their bodies, yet must cede control of their reproductive genitalia to the government. That is why the USA selected an angry, confrontational, litigious, morally ambiguous, xenophobic new leader who effectively channels this anger and gives us purpose in a way his predecessors never could. He is a one-man angry mob. He is catharsis personified.
Our Democratic party tends to appeal to younger, culturally diverse, metropolitan, college-educated voters. Our Republican party tends to appeal to older, white, rural, less-educated (blue-collar) voters.
I’m not making that up. Look at the red and blue map from Tuesday night. Large, culturally diverse metropolitan areas and university towns vote Democratic. Small, rural towns with generational heritage and fewer college-educated people vote Republican.
I can conceive (or concede, if you prefer) that it really is better for everyone that Donald Trump is our next President. Sure, there are sporadic protests, but these will subside in time. On the other hand, I shudder to think what sort of protests a defeated Trump nation might have mounted.
I can continue to hope for humanity, but I cannot continue to expect the USA to come together as a world power and represent itself as something other than the alternative authoritarian power to Russia in the Middle East. I cannot expect the USA to awaken with the epiphany that it is accelerating down a dead-end path with a beer in one hand, a joint in the other and our collective sense of entitlement riding shotgun. We produce less and less, consume more and more and complain about the cost of things. These are not unique problems; every country faces them. What makes the USA unique(ish) is that we have convinced ourselves we are indispensable and eternal. It is true that the world wants us. But the world does not need us nearly so much as we’d like to think.
History is written by winners. No matter what happens next, political victory will forever be recorded as being won by the righteous. Future political initiatives will either be seen as successful (their outcomes attributed to their authors and proponents) or failed (victims of unfair opposition and obstruction against the righteous establishment). There is no other category. There is no middle ground.
I will no longer defend the USA either here or abroad. It is what it is.
I am preaching to the choir, I know. Speaking to those who value travel and education. Those who remember being “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Those who are not struggling to survive so desperately that they can still recognize there is personal opportunity in social change (perhaps with a dash of altruism).
Given the horrors we (as a species) are not only capable of, but routinely carry out every minute, of every hour, of every day, I believe that we are under-evolved vicious animals first and socially-conscious, compassionate, care-givers second. Beyond the local communities that define our peer group and directly sustain us, aid is a luxury. Therefore, it is something of a paradox that the only way to get everybody to help everybody is if nobody really needs it.
I’m not really so misanthropic; Perhaps, we just need to rise a little from our current condition (whatever it is and however we measure it) to appreciate that we now have a capacity to effect positive change in a way that we couldn’t before.
I believe it is too much to ask a being that believes its existence is threatened to look up, out, beyond the next fence, the next town, the next state, the next country. It is ridiculous to ask a struggling person to help the less fortunate. After all, we cannot help anyone else if we ourselves do not survive. It’s a kind of trickle-down socialism that works as well as the other kind and for the same reason.
I mean; the struggle to survive is the struggle to survive, right? There are no degrees. There is no mechanism within the human psyche to temper (or regret) any means we use to survive. The thing is though, we can’t all win…but, we can all survive.
Why do we feel this way? Why do we reject science and embrace faith? Why do we feel entitled to special status among the global community? Why are we obligated to control how our neighbors live? Why do we feel the world should serve us instead of the other way around? Why do we define freedom so narrowly that it now means the right to defend our way of life against those who seek to live like us?
It’s really very simple. It’s what we’ve been taught.
This brings me to my point (finally). The answer is education. I’ve never been in a conversation with anyone who regrets having a college education, but I’ve been in lots where someone regretted not getting one. Yet, we follow leaders who routinely dismiss the opinions, evidence and, in some cases, the entire life’s work of college-educated experts. It is natural to be suspicious of things we do not understand, but shouldn’t the most advanced, sentient species on the planet seek to learn stuff instead of hiding behind faith or being so suspicious as to ignore information rather than considering it and appreciating the work that went into it? How odd it seems to me that we demand qualified teachers for our children, save money so our children can go to college, expect qualified professors to teach our young adults…. And yet, we don’t trust the professors and we don’t trust other people’s college-educated children.
Who betrayed us? What intellectuals lied to us?
I know capitalism lies to consumers because its function is to make money (not goods, they lied about that too). And it gets its money from us by persuading us to buy stuff. It was corporate-sponsored ‘spokespersons’, it was the act of selling you something you didn’t know you needed. There is always someone trying to convince you to buy something and the scientists and physicians they hire lie (or at least they vigorously promote the position they’re paid to). Businesses can and do co-opt scientists and physicians in order to sell their products or defend their interests. It is right and prudent to view sponsored opinions with a jaundiced eye.
So, who do you trust?
We used to trust universities as independent bastions of learning, but that is becoming less and less accurate. At one time, research was conducted by universities and sponsored by tax-funded government agencies or philanthropic organizations that could not specify how their money was used. That’s no longer true. Funding from government agencies like the NIH, NSF, NLM, NASA, NEA, etc. have all but dried up (budget cuts) and the few, remaining philanthropic donations universities receive are often earmarked for specific uses. This makes operating a university without going bankrupt a tricky thing to do (even when it has new chairs in the student lounge, a new practice facility for the tennis team and fresh mango is now available in the cafeteria every day).
Corporations are responsible for the lion’s share of the research that’s done in US universities and they are looking for their own very particular outcomes. Not surprisingly, the sponsors expect to get what they pay for (wouldn’t you?).
We used to trust the media, but media outlets are businesses too. They vie for our dollars just like any other business and they seek out markets they can exploit. Network newscasts used to be a line item in a local station’s budget. The station sold commercial time, but the news (per se) did not. Now, cable news networks rely on commercial sponsors to pay for their news shows directly. If you agree with the positions of the journalists on a particular network, chances are you like the products that are being advertised. The two go hand-in-hand.
OK. The media is influenced by its advertisers, the government is corrupted by PACs and corporate donors and universities are compromised by corporate sponsors and donations that have strings attached. What have we missed? Where do we get a “handle” on this? Oh yeah. The one handle that everybody can pull: vote. But I’m not taking about turnout and I’m not interested in getting anyone to vote for anything in particular. I am suggesting that we give serious thought to whether we want to continue to allow corporations into our homes, into our houses of worship, into our wardrobes, into our bedrooms, into our bodies and into our minds. Let’s not let them pick our choices. Let’s not let them dictate our loyalties. And for God’s sake, let’s not let them educate our children!
I am not happy about the outcome of this most recent Presidential election nor am I angry. I am ready to accept it. But, I am still feeling the inconsolable sorrow and frustration of a son watching his mother die.
I am getting really tired of the overly-dramatic political ads with teary-eyed parents warning me that I should vote against marijuana legalization because of the potential for impaired driving (I’m looking at you @AAAauto). That position is disingenuous and insults my intelligence.
There are any number of credible reasons to oppose marijuana legalization, but it is hypocritical to cite DUI as a reason to maintain criminal penalties for marijuana and not be equally devoted to reinstating prohibition.