Sunday, November 23, 2014

Immunization and reduced susceptibility

When I went for a flu shot today, the young woman who attended to the initial paperwork saw my address and remarked that she knew the road well. She said she also works for the Green Mountain Shooting Preserve. That's the place that moved in and took over what was once a beautiful area in which to take little walks, ski jaunts and mountain bike rides. It was where I used to be able to nip over for a quick dose of rising sun long before that light would reach my house. It has been barred to me since the early 1990s when the present owner posted it with warning signs about the gunfire that rakes it whenever the guys are practicing or the clients are actually there for a nice killing spree.

"Have you met Dave?" she asked. "He's such a nice guy."

I knew she meant the owner. I did not say, "Has anyone asked what the birds think?" I did say I had not made his acquaintance.

The nice young woman said she takes care of the birds. I assumed that she meant this was before the clients "take care" of them in the manner of Guido the hit man.

When I got home and went out back with the cats, we met a refugee from the shooting preserve's recreational death factory. I don't know enough about game birds to know the species of this particular survivor. It was speckled, seemed taller than a quail, and not terribly afraid of humans. I was able to walk quite close to it, talking quietly. It blended so well with its background that I could not get a clear photograph even from a few feet away.

These birds are unrescuable. They don't live in this climate naturally. They become easy meals for local predators or the winter kills them. I suppose I could build a nice chicken house for them and call it the Real Green Mountain Preserve (where we actually preserve something), but that could turn into a pretty big operation. Probably better to let the foxes, weasels, coyotes and bobcats clean up after the wasteful humans.

The Green Mountain Shooting Preserve website is full of happy talk about bonding with your fellow humans, and -- get this -- "enjoying the solace of nature." I'm sure nature enjoys the solace of a rain of hot lead.

In another context I wrote something about hunters salivating over a picture of a deer. I was told reprovingly that hunters don't do it for the enjoyment of the kill. If the people who line up to blast a flock of pen-raised birds aren't enjoying the process of killing, what exactly are they doing it for? Be honest. It only takes a minute to explain to critics that humans are predators and that killing things is fun. Hell, I've even heard that killing people is fun. I don't advocate it, but I understand it. Once you suppress your susceptibility to the plight of your target it just becomes a game. See how many you can blast. It's cool. Everything dies eventually. Why not have some fun with it?

Hunters have referred to the clean death they offer their victims, as opposed to getting shredded alive by a pack of predators, or dying of disease, or starvation. That holds up as long as the hunter does not merely wound quarry that then escapes to finish its agony, or, as happens with many of the shooting preserve's birds, misses entirely, leaving confused and unready creatures to fan out through the woods to suffer various fates. In no case does that life amount to much of a "happily ever after."

Right before getting jabbed with a needle did not seem to be the time to fire up a controversy at the pharmacy window. I don't want to make this woman hate her job and I probably wouldn't be able to make her see her employer for what he is in the few short minutes I would have had to crap in her pool. Maybe Dave really is a sweet guy who simply hasn't connected the dots in his lifestyle. I will say I doubt it. He's selling a death sport and sugar coating it to attract clients and deflect critics. Since he's kept the place going for about 20 years now, I'd say he has plenty of customers who enjoy snuffing out baffled featherbrains. You can't argue with success, right?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans' Day: Military Industrial Complex meets Guilt Complex

When the United States moved to an all-volunteer military force in the 1970s it addressed many of the problems that the military had suffered as a result of unwilling conscripts.

Once the Vietnam War ended, military service wasn't such a bad deal. You had to cut your hair and take orders, but you got cool machinery to play with and you could present yourself as a badass. We might still go to war with the Soviets. And if we do, those Russki bastards are in trouble! Especially as the 1980s ramped up under The Great Actor, military prowess became fashionable as its use remained genuinely unlikely. If The Big One hit, there were going to be a whole lot of fireballs in quick succession and then maybe some ground fighting, or maybe just a long period of lingering death. So it was safe to wear and rattle a saber. It was also safe to think of those volunteer warriors as another form of nerd, pursuing a taxpayer funded fantasy life with expensive hardware.

If you had the right specialty you could be thoroughly trained at taxpayer expense and then lured away by a private-sector employer to do the same job for much more money. Military service was just another career move.

At the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union crumbled. As the 1990s began, American military might steamrollered Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. Conflicts were picking up, but our forces prevailed routinely.

All this time the public paid no attention to the fact that the volunteer military had created a warrior caste separate from the everyday citizen. Military forces became just another service provider. It was a bit riskier business than most, but our technological superiority made the risk seem manageable. There was a little flurry of concern when we sent a large force to Kuwait. We made a point to welcome them back properly, to avoid any sense that we did not appreciate the fine job our brave fighters had done. Good. That's taken care of. Now, back to my stock portfolio.

With the attacks on 9-11-01, the national psyche abruptly changed. First there was a wave of enlistment and a less well documented wave of excuses for not enlisting. The Afghanistan War began. We watched the news. It seemed to be going well. Not Kuwait well, but well. We were cooperating with the local insurgents already fighting the Taliban. We were getting along.

Then came Iraq. To many of us this had all the earmarks of another Vietnam. Many details differed, but the general opportunity to wade into a tar pit was exactly the same. After the invasion established the American occupation, the strange war continued. Casualties mounted. Goals kept changing. All the while, military personnel were sent to do whatever it was we were doing over there, while the ordinary citizens were encouraged to shop and consume, to keep the economy going. The economy is the symbol of our country. It must be kept aloft at any cost.

While the troops were over there we sent them toothpaste, candy, and letters from schoolchildren who were being indoctrinated into the reverence we express for the warriors who face our heinous foes. Yes, you could grow up to be such a hero yourself. When troops returned home they were greeted with hugs, colored ribbons, firm handshakes and fervent thanks. Oh, the thanks. And that is the guilt complex. The noncombatants know they owe the combatants a debt they can never repay, because the noncombatants have not faced death in the same way the combatants have. Suddenly everything you do at home seems trivial compared to tense patrols among IEDs and snipers, or firefights in dusty towns. The warrior servants we created by separating military service from the timeline of every person's adulthood now face us with the knowledge that we let them go without questioning how we got to that point and how we might reasonably avoid it in the future. Most people want to think about it so little that they don't question the system at all. They just offer firmer handshakes, flowerier speeches and more fervent thanks. And tomorrow they move on.

Veteran's Day 2014

Time once again for the annual apology to the human sacrifices made necessary by the human predilection for violence. The fact that many of them are proud and happy to serve underscores how deeply ingrained the habits of combat are. They may be hopelessly ineradicable. Still, dreamers dream.

When someone suggests that humanity might redirect its energy from warfare to more productive and cooperative behaviors the smart kids say things like, "As soon as human nature changes, and we are no longer naturally nasty, violent, and savage. Human nature has not changed in all of human history (and prehistory, evidently). Once it does... yep, we're all over that." Indeed, it probably isn't even worth trying, because it's just a ploy to sucker weaklings into disarming and reaching out in trust and attempted friendship.

In a world of warlike beings, peace is temporary. One can only hope that the shit does not hit the fan in one's lifetime. Good reason not to have kids, because if you got lucky they probably won't.

War evolved with us. It comes from the unquestioned emotions of an animal, mixed with the higher level of imagination that develops in larger brains. Even as we could imagine peace we could also dream up more and better ways to take each other out. The temptation to try to eliminate a bunch of the competition supersedes the notion that we should make a stronger effort to kick that habit. Warily we square off, jab a few times, test the defenses. When the time seems right an aggressor launches an attack. The game is on. But it's not a game. It's a disgusting slaughter. We vie to see who is better at it. The survivors of this are called veterans. We revere them because of the hell they have faced. And the smart kids shake their heads when someone says they hope we can move beyond it some day. That day is never coming. But you know another Veteran's Day is, and another and another.

Thank you for your service, you poor fuckin' bastards. I really do wish you the best in the coming year and ever after.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The American Revolutions

Listening to the gunfire from up the road I thought about the Second Amendment fundamentalists, and how they like to talk about standing up to the government and criminals and powers of repression with their trusty shootin' irons. And I realized that we have had numerous revolutions in this country since the wars that severed us from Great Britain, and in all but one of them the winning side was mostly unarmed.

The Civil War was the one real armed conflict in America's evolution over a difference of political philosophy. All it really settled was the issue of that particular instance of secession and the legality of slavery. Slavery is a big issue, but obviously the underclass of former slaves endured many more years of harsh oppression after it was no longer legal to own them outright.

Just skimming history you can't overlook the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women's suffrage, and the civil rights  and anti war movements of the 1960s. These were politically effective revolutionary acts carried out largely without the use of force by the advocates of greater freedom. Armed conflict would never have yielded as satisfactory a result. Nor will it help in reestablishing civil rights and labor's power now.

A brutal dictator will not respect nonviolent protest. But we don't have a brutal dictator right now, and we can avoid having one at all if we get back to the individual liberties that matter and quit cranking up so much tension about the hypothetical necessity to shoot our way out of a situation. If it comes to that, every responsible adult, particularly weapon-owning ones, will have failed miserably going into the disagreement by letting the discussion get dragged into such unproductive territory that we have no recourse but to start shooting each other. And I guarantee if guns are outlawed and suddenly we need to have them to fight off our own government, freedom fighters will find them. We've seized arsenals before. We can do it again. Quit freaking out.

If society collapses and we need to establish our own personal forts, again we have no one to blame but our stupid selves. It may seem glorious in fantasy, but it will be nasty, brutish and short in reality.

The whole Second Amendment thing doesn't seem like the biggest issue in this election. The gunfire brought it to mind, and the "us or them" mentality in political discourse. After this election we will either have a Democratic majority in Congress, in which case the surviving Republicans will simply obstruct everything they can, or we will have a Republican majority, in which case they will enact whatever they think is a good idea. But if they're smart they won't do anything to make things much better for the common folk before 2016, because they can't risk making a Democratic president look good. So no matter what we have a tough couple of years ahead. Then we get to endure another expensive and nasty campaign starting in 2015.

Or people will get their heads out of their lower crevices and realize that we're all in this together, so we'd better start talking about how things really work instead of inflating scary monsters like Socialism and Fascism and kite fighting with them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Good" versus "Evil"

No matter how good you try to be, someone will accuse you of being stupid or up to something.

This point of view gains strength from the existence of so many people who actually are stupid or up to something. And this is before we start to sort through the honest differences of opinion.

Somewhere under all the obfuscation and misinterpretation some things must be true. We can destroy our environment and render our planet at least highly unpleasant if not utterly uninhabitable. We can create widespread misery by picking on each other. Greed and corruption are worse than laziness. More people are thoughtless than are evil, but some people are genuinely nasty. Among them, some choose to do it retail, as criminals, while others go wholesale as national leaders with global aspirations. Initially, the key factors are a willingness to hurt others with little or no provocation and an enjoyment of their suffering.

Niceness and nastiness represent the ends of yet another continuum in human behavior. Almost no one is entirely nasty or totally nice to every living thing they meet. But you can generally pick up on reliable trends to indicate a person's probable bias.

All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. That seems like a simple call to action. Get up! Do something! But you get the same result when a whole bunch of people who think they're doing the right thing are busy busy busy promoting their agenda and obstructing competing agendas with the result that nothing gets done. Problems grow worse as the argument goes on. We can't even agree on what the problems are. And some of those agendas will only make things worse. So we can't just randomly decide to throw all our weight behind any proposed solution as being better than nothing. We could hasten the destruction much more easily than we seem to be able to develop a consensus about what constitutes the common good and how we can attain it.

Political advertising fills the media right now. It's all pretty cynical. The campaign geniuses who produce the ads obviously believe that a significant number of people will be swayed by these little bits of melodrama that are stuffed with emotional triggers and very short on actual information.

All political advertising on broadcast media should be banned. I would rather sit through an endless Public Broadcasting fund drive, and those make me want to scream. However, the ads do fit the Halloween theme extremely well. What could be more horrifying, terrifying, sure to open the gates of Hell than The Opposing Candidate? Mwa ha ha ha ha ha! None can stand before The Opposing Candidate! Spawned by Satan! MBA from Hades University! Steeped in corruption, perversion, greed and lust! Thou shalt not vote for The Opposing Candidate! Dooooooom!

This message paid for by Americans for a Better America. We bring you everything you hope someone will bring you. Honest.

The little films give you a villain and a hero. Just as the annual flu vaccine contains three or four strains expected to be most common, a political ad can only contain a handful of key points the makers of it hope will inoculate you against infection by the wrong political choice. If distortion or outright lies seem like they'll have the desired effect, the end justifies the means.

After all the political theater dies down we'll be left with another batch of elected or re-elected officials. Most of them will have their sights set on 2016. Whatever they do or don't do will be shaped to fit the campaign narrative regardless of actual events.

The rich really benefit from expensive elections because even the well-meaning populists have to spend so much time raising money and building their image that they have much less time to spend on meaningful debate. Lots of people want to be in the information business. If people are properly informed they can make better choices. Ah yes. Better for whom?

I want to believe that people I perceive as good are good. But I think the principle of the secret ballot is as much to prevent embarrassment as it is to facilitate free expression of political will without threat of coercion. It's a sickening feeling when someone for whom you had high hopes turns out to be an idiot or a sleaze. Nobody's perfect. But when you've bet on someone's integrity and judgment you hope they manage to continue to display both at least until their term ends.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Yes Means Yes Means No

It's easy for an old man with no power to speak sagely about sexual restraint, but I was not always that man. At one time I thought I was sexually attractive and a few women helped foster that misconception by exploring that potential further than with a cursory and dismissive glance. It was the 1970s. Men and women were figuring out a lot of things about themselves in a social setting that was pretty relaxed about taboos.

The backlash started in 1980. While parts of popular culture in the 1980s continued the movement toward social acceptance of various sexualities and other recreational habits, the conservatism of the Reagan administration rode the wave of reactionary repulsion. Where most media seemed to portray what was right about sex and drugs and rock and roll (and disco and whatever you're into) in the 1970s, the 1980s saw more portrayal of what was wrong with it as well. A buzz kill that may be, but it's also necessary to a truly complete discussion of the consequences of libertinism.

No question a lot of us could benefit from loosening up a little. But some of us could benefit from snugging it down a tad, too. But that's why you think and talk about things that may seem creepy and uncomfortable. It's why you draw out lines of speculation to explore possible results before you set them in motion.

California's recent enactment of the law requiring positive and ongoing consent before engaging in sexual activity, aimed at state funded universities to establish stronger safeguards against sexual assault, is misguided, unenforceable, doomed to failure and bound to lead to lots of litigation. But it's another step in the discussion about the general sexual relationship between people.

Sexuality is built into us. Some people have strong urges. Some people have no urges. Some people have urges for things that other people find incomprehensible. In most of us, admit it, when you see a stranger, isn't one of your questions, "would I want to shag that?" Come on. You know it's true. In polite society we don't act on it and usually don't even reveal that the thought flickered through our minds, but you know it did. If you think it didn't, start paying really close attention to every feeling, no matter how fleeting, that goes through you when encountering other people.

To think is not to act. It's merely the mind exploring possibilities, another trait that's built into us. It's why we live in constructed shelters, cook our food, bathe, treat illness and travel around in mechanical conveyances that go faster and farther than we could easily walk or run. It's what got us to the moon and makes us dream of traveling to the stars. It's how we invented the artificial heart and the motorized dildo. Ingenuity, baby.

If I could go back in time I would have less sex. I know, easy to say now after the fact. But the fact that I started believing this in my 30s, when I was still bursting with testosterone and foolish desires lends it more weight than simply the pendulous mass of an aged, reluctant phallus. It's mind over matter, because civilized society depends on it. Part of me regrets the opportunities missed to shag, but the wiser part realizes that in order to meet the standards of feminism with the strength of character they require, I should be able to witness the most piercingly erotic display without assuming an invitation. And certainly I should be able to walk among a throng of summer-clad lovelies and merely be happy for them that they can dress in comfortably scanty clothing that happens to reveal details I find sexually arousing. My arousal should not be their problem.

An impossibly high standard? Possibly. But people die all the time trying to climb the tallest peaks. Why not aspire? That's the thing about keeping your zipper locked: no one ever died of it. You can fall or freeze or have something fall on you and crush you as you assault the high mountains. The only thing that will harm you when you try to control your lust is whatever you brew up in your own mind.

In the 1970s I was immersed in a culture in which  -- supposedly -- the cool guys got lots of chicks and the chicks loved it. More things reinforced stupid male conceit than challenged it. I sought partners because sex is fun and if I'm enjoying it everyone must enjoy it. It seemed like the thing to do. It paid off in orgasms. What could be wrong with that?

Sorry about that. Like I said, if I could go back I would play hard to get, knowing full well that this would mean that I went ungotten. But the universe in which I actually lived has to exist for me to know why the universe I imagine would be better.

I'm not formally joining the celibacy camp or promoting virginity pledges. I don't believe in declarations of that sort. But if consent is revocable at any time ( "Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.") that includes retroactively when the only standard of verification may be the conflicting accounts of the only two people in the room at the time.

Once again it turns out to be true: the only truly safe sex is no sex at all. The only way to have your nobility untarnished is to avoid rubbing it up against anything. So not only does the cool dude never ask for sex, but waits to be asked instead; when asked, the answer is a polite "no, thank you."

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that from time to time I still have sex in the context of my ongoing relationship. It gives me a more informed  understanding of the expression, "get lucky. " I do not initiate, but I don't say no when asked. I like to be asked. What can I say? I'm a horn dog. If I was young and virile and sought after I would face a terrific challenge combating a naturally lustful tendency. It's tough out there, guys.

Yes Means Yes reminds us all that nearly any sex can be considered a violation. Who with a scrap of decency wants to be a violator? I stand on the sidelines because I'm out of the game I was never very good at anyway, but I can still connect the dots. I can observe and point out what I see from up in the bleachers that may not be obvious in the confusion on the field. The ramifications of contact don't end when the impacting bodies separate. In some ways they last as long as either player is alive. I'm not talking about unintentional pregnancy or the transmission of disease. I'm talking about how an experience changes as the echoes Doppler down the tunnel of time and the light hits the image differently as long as the memory lasts. What seems okay at the time, and even shortly afterwards, may turn into a regret at some point. So what is the statute of limitation on perceived sexual violation? If a violation took place, its heinousness never diminishes. Look at how we continue to hunt down World War II concentration camp guards in their 90s. If the standard of violation is revocable consent "at any time" that means any sexual contact remains an open case forever. This was always true in a way. Yes Means Yes merely codifies it officially.

Don't be a filthy brute. Just walk away. It's the next stage in evolution.