by Gilles d'Aymery
"Thinking is very upsetting. It tells you things you'd rather not know."
—Brickman, The small society
(Swans - April 23, 2007) AMERICA, LET'S HAVE A CONVERSATION, so said sweet Hillary R. Clinton when she launched her campaign a couple of months ago (looks like an eternity), or maybe she said "let the conversation begin." Either way, conversations and national dialogues are a favorite pastime of our decision makers and their media poodles. It's good for the ratings. So, I think, in the interest of Swans own ratings we should have a few conversations too. Light the candles, pop the cork, and enjoy.
US ATTORNEY GENERAL Alberto "I-don't-recall" Gonzales had a conversation with the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 19, 2007, in regard to his mishandling of the firing of a few US Attorneys. Gonzales was as straightforward as any government officials have ever been. He genuinely accepted full responsibility for the poorly managed firing of the attorneys fired for allegedly poorly managing their respective offices. He stood stoically by his decision to fire those attorneys for their alleged poor management and ardently argued that he should keep his job, notwithstanding his acknowledged poor management, in order to fix and improve his managing processes. He assured the committee that he was confident that having learned from his mistakes he could manage the process of managing an improved future management. He also considered, though did not testify about this open secret, that the committee could go to hell as far as he was concerned since the senators could not fire him and his job was dependent on the good pleasure of the president, since he holds a few savvy stories about the president's former dallies (like driving under the influence and other peccadilloes). The prez certainly does not want a telltale book at this time in his hugely successful presidency.
HOPEFULLY another conversation may take the glare out of the AG's predicament, in the wake of that disturbed kid who mowed down 32 of his fellow human beings in Virginia. For a few days at least, till the next news cycle and latest "24" episode, the country will mourn and grieve. Then experts will discourse on the various venues at hand to fix our schizophrenic society. Some will laud the merits of gun control and gun-free zones as others will call for more guns on campuses, concealed weapons in the classrooms, in the hands of other students and teachers to follow a uniquely American train of thought -- the more guns, the less crime. There currently are an estimated 200 million firearms in private hands in the U.S., and -- go figure -- the country has the highest gun fatalities per capita in the First World (in 2004, 29,569 people were killed and 64,389 injured, or an average of 81 dead and 176 injured per day). Perhaps schools, colleges, and universities could install metal detectors at the entrance of each classroom and dorm; or have a gun cabinet in each classroom (the bad guy comes in and boom, boom, voilà!); or, better yet, to follow the great Iraqi success, gated communities could be devised, built by Halliburton and guarded by the Blackwater folks. Walls and armed guards already pepper the land of the rich and famous. Why not following the same prescription for our kids, our future's best and brightest?
But think about it: As Hudson Institute CEO Kenneth R. Weinstein noted on Washingtonpost.com,
We live in a vibrant civil society, in which individuals take their responsibilities to each other seriously. We also live in a schizophrenic age: a church-going era, but one of electronic fantasy, of individualized entertainment that encourages atomization from our immediate social environment.
When, at times, our culture glorifies gratuitous and consequence-free violence through horror movies, Internet sites, and video and computer games, the impact on marginal personalities, like the murderer, can be deadly. That the mix of fantasy, narcissism, social frustration, mental illness and access to automatic weapons does not lead to even more frequent acts of horrific violence is itself astonishing.
See, it could be worse.
Sorry, our society does not have enough money to offer preventive mental care -- we need to keep our priorities straight. Fighting the "terrorists" in Iraq supersedes providing health care for our youth. Another American truism: Without safety abroad there can be no safety at home.
Let's digress for a moment. In 1998, as Jan and I were looking for a canine companion, we went to the San Mateo, California, Humane Society. We had heard they had a young cattle dog that needed a home. Once there, a friendly attendant showed us the dog. He was joyful, endearing, jumping all over us, and nipping at our jeans with delight. Once the introductions were made, the friendly attendant took us into an adjoining room in which we all three, without the dog, sat around a table. She began asking questions about our lifestyle, the kind of people we thought we were. We answered that we were a rather quiet couple. She kept asking questions: Why do you want a dog? What tasks do you expect the dog to perform? Do you exercise much, lots of running, and playing? We answered that we did some bike riding and walking in the neighborhood, that we did not run much since I had a bad leg (severed in a motorcycle accident) and Jan had bad knees, and we wanted a friendly dog that would grow and live with the chickens we intended to bring in our yard. She proceeded to explain that our profile did not match that of the cattle dog. They are dogs that need a lot of attention and a lot of exercise -- a couple of hours a day at the very least -- and a lot of training and attention if we wanted the future hens to remain healthy and alive. That meeting took just about 20 minutes. Then she walked us to the kennel and showed us a small 8-week-old mutt they had just received from Oregon. He looked adorable. To make the story short (there's much more to it), he was a taker. We've never regretted that woman's gentle psychological profiling, and subsequent advice and suggestion. Priam remains as adorable, though older and afflicted with arthritis, as the very moment we first laid our eyes on this faithful and quiet companion. That friendly woman, quite possibly a volunteer, should be congratulated for her keen attention and her genuine help to make the right decision.
What would have happened had a staff member of the gun dealer in Virginia sat with that young man and asked him questions about his lifestyle and his interest in buying a 9-mm Glock handgun? What's your expectation with this gun? I want to play and shoot targets at the local firing range. I see, I see, and why would you want 15-bullet cartridges instead of five to shoot at targets? Well, I want to be able to defend myself too. I see, I see, and what do you do, and where do you live, young man? I am a student at Virginia Tech, and live in a dorm there. Hmm, I see, I see, and why would you want such a weapon when you live in a gun-free zone? One question after the other would have divulged the inconsistencies the same way that the questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee members showed for all to see the baloney being strung out by Alberto Gonzales. Add the purchase of the 22-mm one month later and imagine the obvious questions that could have been asked of the mentally ill kid. Hey, you bought a Glock last month; what's the need for this one? Is the Glock not good enough for target shooting? Need another gun for your personal defense? Is Virginia Tech such a dangerous environment? Then, imagine that the mental health record of that disturbed kid had been available to the gun dealer. Would it have made a difference?
It's not about the process. It's not about rationality. It has nothing to do with reason. It's about selling guns in the name of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." A well regulated militia is not about a few well-armed people on the ready to defend the polity's right to a (relatively) safe and free life against the intrusion of government. It's about the right of the entire population to bear arms. That is, in the pro-gun majority view, America has 300 million single militias. Each and any one of us thus becomes a militia on her own volition.
In a society that has institutionalized violence, guns do not kill but people use guns to kill. It's the culture that should be recognized for what it is. The commercialization of violence for profits in all strata of our society is directly linked to these recurring tragedies. Like Kenneth R. Weinstein, I'm actually astonished that these acts of horrific violence are not more frequent.
TAKE THE OTHER EPISODE that led to another conversation, which was abruptly interrupted by the carnage in Virginia: The Don Imus flap. I've never listened to his show. Not once, not twice; never. I did not even grasp the meaning of the three words he uttered until Jan explained them to me. I thought, wow, that's quite a feat, the ability to express misogyny, sexism, and racism all at once with three little words. Then I found out he was quite adept at making disparaging comments against people with darker skin color (I hate the expression "people of color" -- that is, people whose skin pigmentation is not white...its subtext being that these people are somehow different from us white...it's another form of white supremacy.). He once slurred journalist Gwen Ifill when she was covering the White House as a "cleaning lady." He would also regularly debase Jews, women, gays and lesbians, and myriad foreign ragheads. He was an equal-opportunity entertaining hater.
The misfortune of this grumpy and tasteless old man had more to do with being caught in the age of YouTube and for having directed his demeaning comment at the wrong target than him having pronounced those words in the first place. Had he referred to Janet Jackson, for instance, rather than a team of young, decent women, chances are he'd still have his job, and MSNBC and CBS their advertising dollars. Misogyny, sexism, and racism are as American as apple pie -- manifestations of violence that profoundly pervade the dominant culture of white America. From the near extinction of the Indian Nations, chattel slavery, mass raping of African American enslaved women, to sexual exploitation and commercialization of women (porn sites, sexually explicit magazines, Hollywood, music), gender discrimination and ongoing racism, the history of the country is replete with that kind of violence.
SO THE CONVERSATION began all over the media in earnest. Here was a good opportunity to address, in the words E. J. Dionne Jr., "the structural problems of poverty, racism and class inequality." ("The Ills Behind That Slur," The Washington Post, April 17, 2007.) But these issues did not surface. Instead, the punditry focused on free speech, political correctness, and subliminal racism. Dionne added:
Words such as "class" and "structure" are so boring. It's much more fun to talk about talk.
But let's look at a few of the supposedly boring facts. According to the U.S. Census, black households in 2005 had a median income of $30,858, compared with $50,784 for non-Hispanic white households. The black poverty rate was 24.9 percent. The white poverty rate was 8.3 percent.
In 2005, according to the Justice Department, 4.7 percent of black males were in prison or jail, compared with 0.7 percent of white males. For men in their late 20s, just under 12 percent of blacks were incarcerated, compared with 1.7 percent of whites. Life expectancy for black men is more than six years shorter than for white men.
None of this was broached by Imus's defenders (and there were legions). The "debate" took a tangent in the direction of hip-hop and rap lyrics, shifting the attention to who else but African Americans again. If "they" (the N-word, as Don "I am not a racist" Imus has called African Americans) use those dirty words too, chanted the white crowd in unison, then these words originated with those artists; and therefore, but for the crime of political correctness and the object of his slur (the young women) -- Don "I'm a good man" Imus should be forgiven and allowed to keep his job in the name of free speech.
The sheer hypocritical cynicism of that discourse was immediately picked up by the black community. In "Caucasian Please! America's True Double Standard for Misogyny and Racism" (Black Agenda Report, April 18, 2007), Dr. Edward Rhymes wrote a scathing critique of the corporate media's continued "attempt to divert attention from long-established institutional sexism, in order to depict Black youth culture as the vector of the disease. The American reality is one of pervasive celebration of violence, in general, and violence against women, in particular -- a white cultural invention." Rhymes added, "Black rappers, who are owned and controlled by white corporations, did not create this culture of violence and misogyny, but are made the scapegoats for a much deeper national social crisis -- a landscape in which 'The Godfather' and 'Goodfellas' are revered as 'classic' films." He expanded at some length on the history of misogyny, sexism, racism, and provided samples of obnoxious, debasing lyrics originating in the dominant (white) culture, and concluded: "most hypocritically, if we were to purge the sexist and lewd lyrics from hip-hop, there would still be a multitude of primarily white bands and principally-white musical genres generating song after song glorifying sexism, misogyny, violence and lionizing male sexuality and sexual conquest." (A must-read article, indeed.)
For his part, E. J. Dionne Jr. concluded his column thus:
Yes, these numbers are an ongoing legacy of racism. And cultural factors, including family breakdown, are an important part of the story. But unless we spend a lot more time, energy, intellectual capital and money grappling with these facts, we can hold countless seminars on "Who Can Say What?" -- the words pasted over Imus's mouth on Time Magazine's cover this week -- without doing a single serious thing to undo racism's gravest damage to our most left-out citizens.
What bothers me most is that all of us will feel so much better about ourselves after we condemn Imus -- or hip-hop or trash talk or whatever other target we pick. And when we've finished talking, how much will we have accomplished?
TO ANSWER HIS QUESTION: Not much has been accomplished besides a lot of self-serving hot air and the firing of the old dunce. The tragedy in Virginia ended that conversation in a hurry.
ON THIS MATTER, I'll end with my own question. Had the Virginia Tech student who committed this mayhem been the son of a nice, white, upper-middle-class family, do you think that NBC news would have aired the sickening video footage, pictures, and writings of the obviously deranged murderer and taken the also obvious step of bolstering and giving ideas to all the nuts that are out there? Let me know your thoughts.
THERE IS ANOTHER CONVERSATION that's slowly gaining some steam, that of global warming. Politicos are finally talking about it in the corridors of power (and in the boardrooms). The Union of Concerned Scientists has carefully itemized the many misdeeds of the current administration, which "has consistently sought to undermine and censor global warming science." "In 2003," the UCS continues, "the administration forced the Environmental Protection Agency to substantially alter the science behind its Report on the Environment, causing the agency to delete all references to climate change." The UCS further reports that in 2005, "global warming skeptic and science fiction author Michael Crichton -- an individual with no regulatory or earth science expertise -- was called before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to testify as the lead witness in a hearing on the science behind climate change." And on, and on, and on...
BUT THE GORE EFFECT, made for the TV audiences, and, more importantly, the "Summary for Policymakers" issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regarding "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis," have begun to impact the body politic. The report markedly states that (among other points):
- Global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years.
- Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.
- Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse concentrations.
- Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century.
- There is now higher confidence in projected patterns of warming and other regional-scale features, including changes in wind patterns, precipitation, and some aspects of extremes and of ice.
- Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized.
EVEN MILITARY "EXPERTS" are concerned. Global warming "presents significant national security challenges to the United States," statea a medley of retired US generals and admirals. (See their 35-page report, "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change" [PDF].) British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett's answer to the question, "What makes wars start?" is clear enough: "Fights over water. Changing patterns of rainfall. Fights over food production, land use. There are few greater potential threats to our economies ... but also to peace and security itself." (Christian Science Monitor, April 19, 2007.)
IN THE LAST WORLD (if there is a First World, there must be a last one...) the predicament and its origins/causes are not ignored. Beckett indicated that, "Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, whose economy depends on hydropower from a reservoir that is already depleted by drought, has called climate change 'an act of aggression by the rich against the poor.'" (AP, April 17, 2007.)
A WAKEUP CALL, NO? Senator Boxer (D-CA) is sending e-mails to her constituents on the subject of global warming. She says that, "we must also address global warming by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into our atmosphere. Global warming is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing our nation today." (Err, sorry, not the nation only, but the entire planet.) Accordingly, she's going to send a few "Take a Step" tips on a regular basis. Her first tip has to do with switching to compact fluorescent bulbs. Says she: "If every household in the United States replaced one incandescent light bulb in their home with a compact fluorescent, it would save a total of 90 million pounds of global warming pollution over the lifetime of the bulbs. This would be equal to taking 6.3 million cars off the road."
GOOD, because in the lifetime of those bulbs, more than 6.3 million cars will have been added to our roads!!! But, hey, it's the start of a conversation.
ANOTHER ONE -- that is, a "conversation" -- occurred on April 10, 2007, in Washington, D.C., between Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The debate was hosted by New York University's John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress. Both gentlemen were talking about global warming and climate change. Both were in sync that actions needed to be taken as fast as possible. Both knew that global warming was not a fluke and that we had to become a carbon neutral economy/nation. Both knew how much CO2 a gallon of gas releases into the atmosphere. Both were aware of the data (e.g., the 35 percent increase in the level of acidity in the oceans is destroying the world's fisheries). Awareness was evident.
YET, AS THEY KEPT talking and talking, one could not but feel at a loss. They were disagreeing on the extent of the predicament. They could not come to a consensus on the actions that should be taken. Kerry was advocating governmental mandates and the subsequent work of the ("free") market. Gingrich would have nothing to do with bureaucratic regulations that would lead to increased governmental powers. He wanted incentives -- tax credits (as always) -- to make it desirable to create a green economy and a green prosperity. He wanted to shore up optimism and stay away from catastrophism. Kerry's only answer was to have governmental mandates followed by the miracle of the free market. Money was there to be made for the smart people out there. Carbon-trade taxes were the direction to take, advocated Kerry. It was a form of exporting pollution retorted, reasonably, Gingrich. They talked and talked and talked. A couple of hours' worth of listening.
CONVERSATIONS AND NATIONAL DIALOGUES are sprouting like spring's weeds. Let's end with those two tidbits of information:
President Bush has vaunted the merits of ethanol. His younger brother Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and secret aspirant to a higher office, is currently, among other endeavors, the co-chair of the Inter-American Ethanol Commission. As is well known, follow the money...
Chalmers Johnson, the author of a powerful antiwar trilogy, suggests that maybe the only way out of our schizophrenic state of being is financial bankruptcy. Well, he should be gratified: According to US Comptroller General David Walker, current US government liabilities are $50 trillion dollars (twelve zeroes), or about $46,000 per each US household.
We are bankrupt -- emotionally, financially, morally, reasonably, rationally. Let the conversations perdure. We shall all dig our graves further.
. . . . .
Ç'est la vie...
And so it goes...
La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a difference for Swans.