Saturday, December 22, 2012


“You’ve slept too long in silence,” Mama said
Remember Mama said --ticking, ticking
“Crazy boy you’ll only wind up with strange notions in your head”
Hear it, hear it, ticking, ticking

            from “Ticking,” on Elton John’s Caribou album (1974)
            Lyrics by Bernie Taupin

Public discussion about the Newtown mass murder has been depressingly pat and predictable.  Conservatives generally blame video games and the lack of armed teachers and principals. (I’m trying to imagine my white-haired first grade teacher, Miss Borden, with a .357 magnum strapped to her 1970s school marm dress.)  Liberals generally blame the National Rifle Association and something they call “gun culture.”  Both sides call each other names and accuse the other of having blood on their hands.

Right wing nut jobs of the Alex Jones variety equate the mildest calls for stricter gun control with “fascism” and are quick to remind us that the first thing the Nazis (supposedly) did was take all the guns away.  Liberals emote irrationally against the idea that an armed security guard might be the best defense against an armed attacker.

The media, for all its hand-wringing, loves these stories.  Riveting wall-to-wall coverage of every possible angle sells advertisements and improves the bottom line.  I have a vague memory of watching a movie back in the 1980s or early 1990s.  I can’t remember the name of this movie for the life of me.  But what I do remember is a scene in which a local news station stumbles into taping live, exclusive, up-close footage of a hostage situation.  As the camera rolls and the criminal points his handgun right into the temple of the terrified hostage, the news producer is seen whispering under her breath: “do it . . . DO IT!”

I would have no objection if every state and commonwealth in the country went and banned semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines tomorrow.  If I were a state legislator, I would cheerfully vote for such measures if it would make our simple-minded electorate feel better.  (And according to polls, it would.)  But thirty seconds of reflection ought to be enough to see that laws like these would do virtually nothing to stop the determined Adam Lanzas of the world.  The country is swimming in hunting rifles, shotguns and pistols.  At close range, a couple of handguns with standard-capacity magazines can kill 20 first graders in 30 seconds or less.  Double the number of perpetrators – a la Kleibold and Harris – and the carnage of Newtown becomes extraordinarily easy to pull off.

I agree with the NRA that the Second Amendment embodies a basic right to self-protection with firearms.  (I could care less about the “rights” of hunters even though I have enjoyed bird hunting in the past.)  Liberals who correctly defend the integrity of the womb – while denying the integrity of the whole person in the face of violent attack – annoy the piss out of me.  Moreover, I’m not sure I want to live in a country where the only people with guns are criminals and the government.  While I have to fight back the reverse peristalsis I experience admitting it, the NRA is the one organization devoted to this important proposition.  Self-protection, however, does not require an attic full of military hardware.

If all schools had armed security guards, then a statistically negligible number of lives would probably be saved.  I would have no objection to putting armed guards in all schools (and libraries and bus stations and other places of public accommodation.)  But the NRA’s apparent belief that this single measure would end school massacres is as stupid and goofy as the liberals’ belief that banning assault weapons will measurably reduce mass murders.  And the trembling fear and loathing liberals feel towards guns is as stupid and goofy as the creepy fetish gun nuts feel towards the same inanimate objects.

With that throat clearing out of the way, I am whole-heartedly with those who contend that the reason we have these massacres is mostly due to the broad cultural rot in our society. (Still not sure what “gun culture” is.)  By saying this, I don’t mean to suggest for a second that I accept the absurdly reductionist argument that we can stop these things from happening if we just ban violent first-person-shooter video games and put God back in school.  (Indeed, the latter would probably make things worse; read your Old Testaments people!) But for a host of really complicated historical reasons, we have reached a point where these things are going to happen every so often and there is virtually nothing meaningful or practical to be done about it.  Just accept it, OK?  You are living on the down slope of a decrepit and corrupt civilization.  These things will happen.  If banning assault weapons makes you feel better . . . fine with me.  But you still need to accept reality, OK?

Elton John’s haunting song “Ticking” is about “an extremely quite child” who, unbeknownst to anyone, is a ticking time bomb of pent up rage and resentment.  I tend to think of American society in those same terms.  As James Howard Kunstler is fond of saying, we are a wicked people who deserves to be punished.  When reality really starts biting, and millions of Americans start losing the obscene standards of living to which they feel entitled, the Newtown massacre will look like a family argument over whether to max out the credit card to purchase granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, or a weekend in Vegas.

There are hundreds of millions of guns in this great big country of NASCAR and Ultimate Fighting Championship morons.  Brace yourselves for what’s coming.

In the meantime, would everyone please calm down a little bit?  Stop calling gun control advocates “Nazis” and stop telling the NRA that it has blood on its hands. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

It's F%$*ing Hot Out There!

So after slacking off a bit in the month of October and the first two weeks of November, I have done a better job in the past week and a half getting outside and running a 4.5 mile loop around my neighborhood.  It has been freakishly warm out there -- in the high 60s and low 70s.  It has no business being this warm in Colorado Springs in mid to late November.  According to my local news station's website, it was 73 degrees on Saturday in Pueblo -- a short 45 miles south of where I sit.

For about five years in a row in the early to mid aughts, I would go on an annual pheasant hunt the day before Thanksgiving about an hour due east of Colorado Springs.  I remember it being below freezing a few times and always very cold.

Growing up in New England, Thanksgiving was always the biggest day of the year for high school football.  I remember playing defensive end my senior year in below freezing temperatures.  Friends and family tell me it's been in the 50s and 60s this year in the weeks and days just before Thanksgiving.

I have never "doubted" either the fact of global warming or the scientific consensus that it is man-caused (or at least, man-exacerbated).  But it was never an issue that troubled me very much.  I was certainly no alarmist.  That is starting to change.  Something is really off-kilter out there.

I recently read Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone article:  "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math."  The crisis is astonishingly (and frighteningly) easy to understand when reduced to three simple numbers:

1.  It is widely accepted (by politicians, too, not just by climate scientists) that an average global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius would have devastating environmental consequences.  Actually, the 2 degree figure is thought too generous by many scientists; it is the political compromise number settled upon in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.  In the past few generations, our planet has already warmed .8 degrees Celsius -- we're almost halfway there -- wreaking already observable havoc.

2.  There is also broad consensus that we will blow past the 2 degree barrier if we allow ourselves to put another 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere.

3.  Known reserves of fossil fuels represent 2,795 gigatons of stored carbon waiting to be pumped into the air.

The way that McKibben puts it:  think of 2 degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit.  565 gigatons is what we can drink without getting drunk.  The 2,795 gigatons in the ground are like three 12-packs of beer sitting on the table waiting to be consumed. 

Stated differently, we need to leave 80% of this fossil fuel in the ground to avoid crossing the (probably too high) 2 degree threshold.  Yeah, right!  As if!  It'll never happen.  Those reserves represent both the booked wealth of the energy companies and the abolutely essential ingredient of future economic growth.  It is impossible to believe we will not burn through most of it -- if not all of it.

By some estimates, burning most of it will raise average global temperatures 4 to 6 degrees Celsius.  McKibben says this would create a planet "straight out of science fiction."  No doubt it would.

So yes, after years of ambivalence born of apathy and ignorance, this topic is very suddenly starting to alarm me.  I am somewhat embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I had no idea how serious the situation is.

The Interantional Energy Agency ("IEA") just released its annual World Energy Outlook for 2012.  It caught my attention due to its headline-grabbing forecast that by 2020 "the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer" due to the shale oil boom.  (I am actually quite skeptical of that claim but for present purposes assume it is true.)

What should have grabbed headlines is the IEA's cry of lament that "successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius is becoming more difficult and costly with each year that passes."  "Costly" in the sense that more and more drastic cuts to emissions are required with each passing year.  "Costly," in other words, to economic growth -- our country's religion.  (And you thought it was Christianity?)

That statement gave me the idea to go back and look at prior years' reports.

In 2008, the IEA said: "Preventing catastrophic and irreversible damage to the global climate ultimately requires a major decarbonization of the world energy sources."  But since non-carbon forms of energy are utterly inadequate to run civilization the way we have been running it for the past 100 years, this statement seems to mean that we have the choice between global economic collapse (i.e. massive lifestyle sacrifices for ourselves) or leaving a nearly inhospitable planet to our grandchildren.

Gee, I wonder which choice we will make.

In 2011, the IEA stated that "the door to 2 degrees Celsius is closing."  Reading the fine print, however, the door looks for all intents and purposes to already have closed.  Under what the IEA calls its "New Policies Scenario," the planet is heading for an average 3.5 degree temperature increase.  And worse, "without these new policies, we are on an even more dangerous track, for a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius or more."

I am just a lowly history major.  But it sounds to me like the IEA is saying the world will blow past the 2 degree barrier even if nations adopt the recommended "New Policies."  And if we stick with business as usual, as we probably will, we are looking at that planet "straight out of science fiction."

The IEA apparently knows what everyone who follows this knows:  the global-industrial economy is not going to just cut its fossil fuel consumption by 80%.  If anything, global demand is increasing as people across Asia and other previously underdeveloped regions contiune striving for the obscenely high-consumption lifestyles we take for granted in the West.  We simply will not do what is required -- massively reduce our standard of living.  ("Pro-growth" progressives give aid and comfort to the enemy on this score.)

My generation -- to say nothing of the loathesome baby boomers who came immediately before us -- cannot conceive of consuming less.  But consuming less -- much, much, much, much less -- is the only solution.  We won't make that choice.  We will exit the stage having wrecked the joint.  Our grandchildren will hate us and curse us.

This rather depressing thought brings to mind the final stanza of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "Justice Denied in Massachusetts:"

Let us sit here, sit still,
Here in the sitting room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children's children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till,
With a broken hoe.

Millay was expressing the hopelessness she felt after the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.  But the lines would appear to work well here too. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thoughts On The President's Re-Election

Some thoughts on the President's re-election as contained in e-mail correspondence with a client:

Dear ____________ ,

I was intrigued by your comment this afternoon that Michael Barone is predicting a Romney win – mainly because it is so contrary to everything that I have read or seen elsewhere.  Apparently, it's true; Barone has made that prediction.  I don’t watch Fox News very much any more but this is what is on their website:

Last night On the Record, Greta Van Susteren and a panel of political pundits sat down to discuss the Election Day prediction of Washington Examiner columnist and Fox News contributor Michael Barone.

Barone is forecasting that Romney will defeat President Obama by a wide margin, 315 electoral votes to 223. He predicts that Romney will win nearly every swing state, including Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado and Virginia. Barone admitted, however, that he is going out on a limb with some of his calls.

So it looks like Barone admits he is “going out on a limb.”  I would say so.  No one expects Romney to win PA or WI.  I will personally be shocked if he does.  I note that Barone’s forecast of only 223 electoral votes for Obama is about 20 fewer than what most pollsters have calculated as his “safe” or “guaranteed” minimum.  It looks totally crazy to me – like so much of what is on Fox News.

I guess we will all see tomorrow night.  I will eat crow if Obama gets 223 or fewer electoral votes.


Post-election follow-up:

Dear _________ ,

Not to pile on, but you might find this link interesting.  Or just aggravating and infuriating:

You may have assumed that I’m some kind of liberal Democrat.  Not true.  I lean to the right – sharply on some issues.  But in recent years the Republican Party has been taken over by crazy people.  Worse, Fox News and talk radio have created an alternative reality that too many people are getting sucked into.  All those pundits being “certain” that Romney was going to win a landslide – when the hard math was projecting the opposite – is just one example. 

Nate Silver nailed it.  He called all 50 states correctly, and even more amazingly, the margins of victory he was predicting in the swing states, pre-election, were very close to what actually happened.  He is not a psychic and he doesn’t have a crystal ball.  What he has is a solid mathematical model that works despite his liberal views.

You probably think MSNBC's in-house liberal lesbian Rachel Maddow represents everything that is wrong with this country.  I don’t agree with her on very much but I really like her style of commentary and she is absolutely right in this clip:

If Republicans and conservatives take her advice, I will enthusiastically start voting for their candidates again.  But as long as the Republican Party is the party of people who believe the universe is 6,000 years old, I refuse to pull the lever for them.  (It didn’t help that they nominated a robotic plutocrat with no discernible core values.)

I am not a fan of the President.  But although he had an extremely liberal voting record during his brief stint as a U.S. Senator, and although he probably is very liberal in his core values, he has governed – as President – as a fairly conventional, slightly left-of-center Democrat.  He is not a secret Muslim.  He is not a communist.  He is not the devil.  He looks like a decent family man with some good ideas and a lot of bad ones.

I would like to think conservatives in Congress will work with the President over the next four years – now that his re-election has deprived them of the option of devoting all their energies to making him a one-term President.  The deficit has to be brought under control.  That’s going to take both spending cuts, favored by Republicans, and tax increases on the top 1% to 5%, favored by everyone (excepting rigid ideologues). 

The immediate reactions of right-wing outlets to the election results, however, do not leave me with much hope:

For the record, Michael Barone, who is actually a fairly serious and credible pundit, wrote a heart-felt and classy mea culpa for his terrible call of a Romney landslide.  No word yet from that venal dough-boy Karl Rove or that sleazy buffoon Dick Morris.


Friday, April 6, 2012

God's Inscrutable Justice

To the Editor:

A few words in response to your paper’s bizarre contention this morning that the ancient fable of God’s murder of innocent babies demonstrates divine “justice” for the Pharaoh’s interference with God’s plan for “individual” freedom:

First, the Exodus story very likely never happened.  The archaeological evidence that has come to light in recent decades leaves little room for honest debate about this.

Second, the Passover myth is anything but a tale of “individual” freedom.  While the Old Testament is full of divine commands for war, genocide, slavery, cruelty, etc., it contains precious little in the way of political liberty for individuals.

Third, if God had a plan for individual freedom, how come we don’t see anything like that notion appearing in human history until the relatively secular Enlightenment – some twenty centuries later?  Jefferson, it is true, appealed to the Deistic concept of “the laws of nature and nature’s God” when proclaiming that all men have the basic right to liberty.  But when seeking to defend slavery in our own country, in relatively modern times, the southern racists simply pulled out their Bibles and cited chapter and verse.  Here, one might consult the Book of Exodus (21:7) or the Deutero-Pauline Epistle to the Ephesians (6:5).

Fourth, how can Pharaoh be blamed for interfering with God's plan for "individual" freedom?  In my translation of the Bible, at the crucial moment, God "hardens" Pharaoh's heart against Moses' plea to "let my people go."  (Exodus 7:2-3, NIV).  The whole thing was God's fault / plan!

Finally, is it not odd that the faithful want to credit God for all that is good in the world while absolving Him for what is bad?  If God is so omnipresent and caring that even the lilies of the field find comfort in his bosom (Matthew 6:28), then what are we to make of tsunamis that wipe out thousands of innocent children in the blink of an eye?

God’s justice is indeed inscrutable, I suppose.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Urinating Marines

Guest column published in the local paper on January 15, 2012:


“Thus shamefully did Achilles in his fury dishonor Hector.”  This was Homer’s commentary after narrating how Achilles, in an act of pure revenge, desecrated Hector’s corpse by dragging it behind his chariot three times around the topless towers of Ilium.  Homer's Iliad is nothing if not a foundational text of Western civilization.  And at least since its emergence from the dim mists of antiquity, decent people have recoiled in horror at the desecration of corpses. 

As Americans, we were rightly horrified when the burned corpses of our countrymen were strung up in public in the darkest days of the Iraq war.

And far less shocking acts of disrespecting the dead can still cause outrage.  Consider the revulsion we feel towards grave robbers like Jerry Crunchers in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities or towards real-life anti-gay fanatics who protest at the funerals of fallen soldiers.

If these infamies are so reflexively revolting to normal and healthy people, what could possibly account for the terrible recent news that four American Marines were filmed urinating on the corpses of three dead Taliban fighters – their fellow human beings who no doubt went to their deaths believing zealously in the rightness of their cause?

It could be a case of “bad apples,” as some will probably claim.  But is it not equally possible that this is what happens to normal young Americans after they have been mentally and emotionally brutalized by 2, 3, and 4 rotations of killing and watching their brothers in arms getting killed? 

It is not a normal thing to kill another human being. It is not even an easy thing to kill a large quadruped.  The hunter feels a surge of adrenaline but also a small pang of regret as his bullet screams towards the docile deer in the field.  Our normal hesitation to kill explains why Edna St. Vincent Millary’s imagery, in her great poem “The Buck in the Snow,” can rouse the sympathy of even this enthusiastic meat eater (“Now lies he here, his wild blood scalding the snow.”)

Fresh-faced boys from Iowa, raised on NFL Football and American Idol, do not enter active duty with a natural capacity to kill.  They must be taught to see their enemy as less than human.  Otherwise, their own basic humanity would chill their ardor for pulling the trigger. I think this explains why, even in the relatively milquetoast environment of the 1980s Air Force Academy, my classmates and I sang marching songs that glorified chopping up babies with machetes.  We laughed about it.  But it is not a very big step from this to laughing and joking while pissing on a dead man.

The demographic odds are that at least one, and probably all four, of these Marines entered military service as decent, well-adjusted kids from good homes.  Today, according to the New York Times, they are possibly war criminals.

In our dying democracy, we do still debate the costs of war in terms of “blood and treasure.”  But this most recent case of desecration should remind us of other significant societal costs.  We have hundreds of thousands of young people – many who have been physically maimed and/or mentally scarred – returning from war and trying to reintegrate into civil society. 

It is a major scandal that taking first-class care of these broken souls is not a top national budgetary priority.  (But I noticed we still spend money on expensive fly-overs at Air Force football games.)  As a country, and as taxpayers, we need to do much more for the young men and woman we have asked to fight our battles at such terrible cost to themselves.

These four Marines need to be punished.  Then they need our help and compassion.