Monday, July 29, 2019

A stupid tee shirt

Yesterday, a customer came into the shop wearing a tee shirt that said, "Ted Kennedy's car has killed more people than my gun."

The fact that I was trying not to bust out laughing at this idiot made me appear cheerful, which gave the impression of top notch customer relations.

First of all, the guy was obviously not even born yet when the Chappaquiddick incident occurred. Second, Ted Kennedy has been dead for ten years, and is hardly a factor in the current political scene. But the nice thing about kicking a corpse is that you know it can't hit back.

Then there's the matter of equating the lethal potential of a car -- a transportation device usually only lethal by accident -- with a gun, whose sole purpose is to cause injury or death. What do you mean your gun has never killed anyone? Have you had no opportunity to be a good armed citizen, or are you just a lousy shot? Did you serve in the military in any of our recent wars in Afghanistan or Iraq? If so, and you haven't killed any enemies, the taxpayers wasted our money on you, didn't we?

The purpose of such slogans on tee shirts is purely inflammatory. Inflammatory statements can still convey larger truths. But this one was just stupid. At least it wasn't a tattoo. A tee shirt wears out or can be thrown in the rag bin.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

We don't live in a single-issue world

As any election approaches, I get polling emails asking me to list my priorities for the country. What is most important to me? If I had to pick one or two things, what would they be?

Interesting intellectual exercise, but we don't live in a one-issue world.

Sometimes the poll will ask me to rank a long list of issues in numerical order from most important to least important. This is supposed to provide more detail and nuance, but that's another illusion. I never see a list that I can comfortably organize that way.

It's become a cliche that "everything is connected," but everything is connected. We can't solve one problem at a time. We can't half-solve a problem and call it good enough. Numerous philosophies have tried to blunt the human predilection for selfishness and violence. Not one of them has yet found the balance between permissible self interest and complete submission to the group. The philosophies read well. The basic principles usually include something like "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But what if you're a masochist?

The destruction of our environment is not just an aesthetic question. It's become a matter of survival. But we can be personally odious in a pristine environment. We can be greedy, racist, misogynist, bigoted assholes who shoot each other over a petty insult. We can have a profit-driven system of health care services designed to enrich the management and stockholders of a few corporations. So maybe we solve the environmental threat to basic survival and still kill each other off in plenty of other ways. We can produce plenty of carcinogenic chemicals in carefully isolated areas and still maintain just enough natural environment to keep the planet's life support system basically functional. Sound good to you?

All human conflict comes back to well-documented items on the naughty list. We can chip away at those behaviors while the atmosphere rapidly becomes toxic with the untreated exhaust gases of industrial society. Maybe we will enjoy one glorious moment of global unity just before we asphyxiate.

It all seems overwhelming if you look at it all at once, but we've avoided looking at it at all for so long that we can't look away any longer. Immigration and refugee displacement is a problem because the places they live have been made uninhabitable by human policy decisions. Humans decided to make messes that drive other humans to seek safety elsewhere. Humans implement the policies. Humans justify their indifference and hostility to each other just to get from one day to the next.

Political reality is not reality. An elected official has to get into office by appealing to enough voters to get elected, and then fulfill the duties of office under a different set of pressures from ordinary citizens and from information that might not have been available to them before. Sometimes they just lie. Sometimes they are forced to change a position because circumstances change. Government is where the fantasy life of voters comes up against the thorny tangle of real problems. What gets a person elected and re-elected might nurture the fantasy life while letting the tangle grow out of control.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Approaching legal murder

At what point in human evolution did it become a crime to kill someone who annoys you? We cannot know. We can only observe that in other species the pros and cons of killing are weighed on a purely practical basis.

Carnivorous animals choose prey that is likely to go down easily. They're looking for a good meal, not a good fight. Animals that battle for breeding dominance might not kill each other outright, but might leave both winners and losers too drained to make it through the winter. Sometimes, fatal injuries occur in the ritualistic confrontations as well. There seems to be no social stigma in the herd. It's just how their lives work.

Humans are more complicated than the more specialized species. We can exhibit aspects of every other life form from algae on up. No one has adequately catalogued the infinite variety. This makes it hard to write a good rule book. Even the concept of a rule book is unnatural. We have evolved some widespread general principles, which usually include a disapproving view of murder. But in the back of most minds, and much nearer the front of some remains the memory that at one time you could be more impulsively violent and come out better rather than worse for it, if you won the confrontation.

The gunslinger libertarian view of humanity holds that the only way to keep people in line is with the threat of violent retribution. An aggressor must be supported, if the cause is worthy, or opposed by force. In a world where everything is either a metaphor for war or an actual war, nothing prospers for very long, but anything that wins has earned its place at the top -- however brief -- by superior force. Eat the best food. Claim all the breeding females. The nostalgia runs so deep that it is prehistoric.

As civilization breaks down under all of the accumulating pressures, our advanced ability to rationalize and fantasize teams up with primitive instinct. We haven't quite reached the point where you can kill someone and go on about your day without further interruption, but tempers seem to be growing shorter. How often do you find yourself wondering whether you should speak up about something you see, because the person you see doing it might just pull a gun on you?

"Hey! Pick up your trash!"

Blam blam blam blam!

Authoritarians also believe that when all else fails, unruly citizens should be held down by force. There's less freelance murder, but the regime's scapegoats are fair game. And there are lots of job opportunities in government service for loyal violent people with no conscience. Under an authoritarian regime, the preliminaries to violence will be repressive laws guaranteed to irritate someone sooner or later. And then it's time put down the uprising, whether that's a single, loud dissenting voice, or a gathering of aggrieved citizens in public protest.

So far, there are only a few ways to get away with murder. Killing a bicyclist on the road is practically a freebie. Pedestrians are almost as easy. On a lonely road, just hit and run. In the presence of witnesses, you must stop and express remorse to avoid facing legal action. Make it look good! Otherwise, your legal defense might cost you a few thousand dollars and a couple of missed days at work.

In states with "stand your ground" laws, the person who shoots most accurately generally gets to tell the story. Your odds are much better running over a cyclist, because the use of a gun is more likely to put you in front of a jury. Not only that, most road users are just as happy to have one less cyclist in the way. A lot of people will be sympathetic to the poor motorist who suffered the trauma of snuffing out a reckless idiot who insisted on wobbling around on two wheels among the big, dangerous vehicles.

Friday, April 19, 2019

What will you do when the ethnic cleansing starts?

Forces are gathering in this country that are eager to begin gunning down the people they don't like, randomly and at will. Their numbers are still small. The actual trigger pullers will always be a small percentage of the group. But they are supported by a much larger population of half-assed, wimpy bigots who would be happy to see the world made safe for their kind. They just don't have the guts to come right out and lead the charge. Maybe some of them would join in once the carnage gained momentum. Others would just run out and kick a corpse a few times to feel the emotional rush with absolutely no risk to themselves.

Looking at history, after the extermination of all of their enemies and inferiors, the remaining homogenized population will romanticize them and role-play, like a sports team with a native American mascot, or white performers made up as black, or Asian. Perhaps a few token populations of the other races will be kept alive in controllable communities.

There are conservative people who are not "Aryan." When they have helped the white supremacists to achieve dominance, will they be allowed to keep their holdings, or will they be stripped of wealth and thrown in the camps with the other losers? Do they think that they can avoid that?

There are about 300 million firearms in the United States. Of those, approximately 5 to 10 million are assault-style rifles. How many do you own? Three hundred million is just about enough to arm every person in the country with a gun. The high figure of 10 million combat-inspired weapons is still a pretty small fraction. But when you figure that the 300 million figure includes esoteric target-shooting weapons, single and two-shot guns, tiny handguns, and some cheap stuff just as likely to blow up in your hand as send a bullet at a bad guy, a lot of us will be undergunned in a firefight.

We peaceniks don't want a firefight at all, of course. A few of us are so committed to nonviolence that we would let ourselves be slaughtered rather than become combative. A somewhat larger percentage believes that they could be that calm, but would definitely hide behind something for as long as they could. In a larger ring around this stand the reluctant warriors who would resist force with force if they had to. The question is, resist with what?

The advocates for gun control want background checks. This is an excellent idea. We want to filter out people with documented tendencies to violence. But the current administration in Washington, and the governments in many states, clearly want a certain demographic to be armed and ready to do violence on their behalf. It can't be an official policy, but if you look at trends in law enforcement, and at the pervasiveness of white privilege in all things, you can sketch in how it might develop from here. The people who insist most strongly on being armed are the ones most likely to be useful to a wealthy, racist state. And the wealthy, racist state doesn't even have to pay them and put them in matching uniforms. The "well-ordered militia" is perfectly happy to act on their own. As long as no one treads on them in a way that they can actually understand, they'll do the wet work for free, just for the pleasure of it. Governments will drag their feet on background checks until the shit is about to hit the fan. Then they will enact them. But they won't be filtering out the abusers, the bigots, the borderline mentally ill control freaks. They'll be filtering for the reluctant warriors for peace. They'll look at political leanings, personal and published writings, any hint that you might stand in the way of what they call progress.

I have never wanted to die from a gunshot. As a normal male in a culture shaped by testosterone, I have imagined putting a few slugs into someone who might "have it coming," but it only took a little more thought to realize how that might apply to me. And it isn't just cowardice to say that perhaps blowing each other away is not the best way to solve a long-term conflict of belief systems. It's an emergency action. I certainly don't want to give any satisfaction to a punk with a bumper sticker that says "Visualize no liberals," by letting him put one through my forehead, either execution-style or as a sniper. But I would still rather that he wised up, rather than have me gun him down.

They've got us by the paradox when we say that no one should be killed for their beliefs, and then they go start killing people for their beliefs, forcing us to kill them back. We are then killing them for their beliefs. And if we seek them out and kill them beforehand because we knew that they were about to kill us, we've hopped right over the line and played by their rules.

So what do you do when the genocide starts? What do you do when a killing madness finally erupts in the small but significant number of people who want it to be that way? The question is especially acute if you don't happen to have a soft, fuzzy belief in a loving god smoothing the upholstery on a radiant heavenly couch for you to relax on after your martyrdom. There are atheists in foxholes, just as their are gay, lesbian, and transgender members of the armed forces. Some belief in a better future makes the idea of personal sacrifice palatable. Unfortunately, history has shown that every bloodbath has only brought partial and temporary relief from the forces of darkness. Sometimes it hasn't even brought that. So perhaps one accepts the martyr's death because there's nothing worth sticking around for anyway. Say a sad farewell to beauty, pleasure, joy, and love, because darkness will always force itself on you and make you kill or die.

If you plan to put up a fight, you might do well to arm yourself now, while it's easy, get trained, practice, and stockpile ammunition so that you can give as good as you get in the hail of gunfire. Train as well with hand weapons and with no weapons. Become as much of a super soldier as possible, while still doing whatever else you might have preferred to do with your life. Or start thinking differently, and talking relentlessly about the choice being forced on us now, and in other countries where the dark side has risen again.

We may not be able to stop the ethnic cleansers from starting a few massacres, but we can at least put governments in place that will recognize it for what it is and prosecute it. We can take the high ground and make the bigots scale it. We can demand that government be for all the people. Like it or not, we're all equipped with a racial identity. We're born with physical characteristics that other people react to. We have a limited ability to control the reactions of others, but we can control our own. That's why any durable change has to come from within individuals, one at a time. It may never work. But it definitely won't if we don't keep the idea alive that it should.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Ruthlessness is bliss

A recent on line article in Texas Monthly reported how great it was that a man living off-grid in the Scottish highlands was rescued after a distress signal he sent out was received by a response center in Houston, Texas and relayed to Scottish authorities.

I pointed out that the man's happy tale of rescue and support owed a lot to Scotland's universal health care system. This observation received a lot of "likes," but also the predictable flamethrowers from people who take pride in their freedom to pay too much to a system that is designed to profit by denying them health care here in the United States.

"You certainly love to spend my money," one of them commented. Another one tried to say that universal care systems only work in smaller populations, which is the dead opposite of how risk pools work. Managing one database centered on patient care rather than profitability would have to be cheaper for the consumer than the current overlapping bureaucracies of care providers, drug companies, and insurance companies, all trying to protect as much as possible of their profit margin.

On another page, trying to combat the malignant growth that has already obliterated most of Annapolis, Maryland, I mentioned that transportation cycling could be very helpful to reduce traffic congestion. I no longer live in Annapolis, because of the malignant growth and the ridiculously high cost of housing, but I have friends who are still fighting the battle there. It used to be a nice place.

An angry commenter snapped that I must be in favor of the ridiculous waste of tax dollars on a bike lane that no one uses. I admit that my response was not the most level headed and charitable. When someone automatically equates support for alternative transportation with "a waste of tax dollars," it tells me a lot about their world view. So I said, "you sound pretty hot under the collar. You should either loosen your shirt or tighten it the rest of the way and end your suffering." He responded by calling me a libtard, thus confirming my first impression of him. I replied that he sounded like a typical money-obsessed conservative, to which he volleyed back that he wanted to keep the money he makes and leave a nice inheritance for his kids.

Here's the thing about a nice inheritance: unless you're bequeathing a billion, and sticking your kids in the right schools to meet the right people, they're going to have to go out and lick boots and grub for cash like most of the rest of us. The boots they lick might be more expensive and walk the halls of the executive suite, but the model of moneyed power is inescapably hierarchical. And a financial cushion might make them decadent, rather than provide them with a platform from which to reach higher.

As the argument escalated, his closing screed called me a cuck (a cherished pet insult of fascists and racists) and a beta male, and described in detail the kind of anal sex I should be subjected to.

A search on the guy's name disclosed very little. I found a Linkedin profile that seemed to match his name, location, and personality type, listing his occupation as "military professional." If he's active duty military, we all pay his salary through taxation. If he's a defense contractor/mercenary, we still pay his salary through our tax dollars, with less accountability. So of course his posturing about being a lone individual profiting from his own intelligence in a hostile world is a crock of shit. But he and people like him will never acknowledge the interconnectedness of all things, because they feel disconnected and oppressed. That religious tenet underlies all of their thinking. They're blissful in their unhappiness, because they're sure they know what's wrong and who is responsible. They take pride in their strength and ruthlessness. The ones with the most integrity really will accept death if they're unable to maintain life under the harsh terms they have endorsed. But most of your "live free or die" types have already agreed to be a little less free and live a bit longer. You will hardly ever get one to admit it, though.

Collectivists exhibit a similar religious devotion to the virtues of their view. The better future leans more to collective efforts that will improve the average for everyone. Yes, that will make the super-wealthy obsolete, but the super wealthy don't provide much value in return for our investment. The hell of it is that nearly every actual religion has some good principles along with their heavy component of destructive bullshit. You choose a way forward based on what you expect the future to look like.

The ruthless future is full of fire and blood, conflict and conquest, the rise and fall of empires. It unleashes the most ambitious passions, granting freedom to the strong and trampling the weak. For those who fancy themselves strong, it sounds like heaven. However you end up, if you gave it your absolute best shot, you ended up where you deserved to end up. It cannot be a peaceful future, because the super ambitious and greedy will take everything they can get, and hold it until someone more powerful blasts them out of the top spot. Armies will clash over and over across the trampled and scorched fields of endless battle. If too many people refuse to fight, the power structure will freeze in place, leaving most of the population to toil as underlings while a tiny minority controls the wealth and enjoys the leisure.

The United States Constitution accidentally provided a mechanism for citizen government that would make the actual bloody warfare unnecessary, if enough citizens could agree on what to demand from their government, and what limits to set on the private sector to keep it from becoming the de facto government. Just as our environmental neglect is at a crisis point, so is our civic neglect at the last intersection before the doors close against us and we have to accept slavery or bloody revolution.

I don't give the bloody revolution very good odds, because the environmental crisis will go all to hell while we're trying to hold off a professional military with our AR-15s and pipe bombs. We can die gloriously on principle, but that's about it. Meanwhile, if we'd gotten our shit together and been a bit more collective, we could have straightened out both the environmental issues and the governmental issues.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The funk

"Today I put pen to paper to..." do absolutely nothing.

I turned down a request for a drawing yesterday. This makes an interesting bookend to the happiness I felt in the fall, when a local group requested some of my work and I cheerfully complied. They ended up ditching me for someone better known, and never paid me for the piece that they did use, but that's not the cause of the funk.

The funk needs no invitation. It relies on no inspiration. It just settles in and blankets everything with a thick layer of dust. The dust is made of particles of every setback and obstacle, every disappointment, grief, and sadness.

Among the billions of humans crawling the Earth, waste no time on those whose weaknesses make them fall and die. Feel justifiable anger about those who are struck down by the actions of greed and prejudice, but anyone who just runs out of energy is easily replaced by someone more fitted to survive.

The funk is like the winter as it affects wild animals. A particular weakened individual might make it through to spring, if no predator finds it. If the weakened one can keep trudging forward, foraging minimally, greater light and warmth might save it. But let one blop of snow fall a little too heavily on it or in front of it, or let the cold wind rake it for just too long, or a carnivore spot it and give chase, and the story ends there.

Functional depression is just that: functional. In that condition, a person can go through the motions of daily routine and continue to work, but that's the limit. It may be beyond the limit for someone whose job calls for too much spontaneous energy or complex thought.

I turned down the request for artwork because I haven't picked up a pen in months. What used to be a compulsive habit has deserted me. I don't want to tell someone that I will produce for them when I don't know if I can, or how long it will take me. Interesting ideas occur to me, but the habit pattern is broken, like almost all of my other habit patterns: exercise, music practice, exploration, interest in the future.

Enough spark remains to warm me almost to the point of enthusiasm at times. Food brings comfort, so cooking seems worth the  effort. Music was a comfort, but suddenly I ceased to progress and started to lose whatever scraps of ability I had managed to compile. "Don't be afraid to make an awful noise," a generous and kind professional musician and teacher told me. But now that seems to be the only kind of noise I can produce. I'm on the verge of quitting my weekly music group because everyone else is capable of producing so much better sounds. Why should I mess up everyone's evening? The group's teacher can use my money, but the shared goal is the music that I'm butchering. Poof goes another refuge from solitary darkness.

The biggest problem is time. I have a job that I used to enjoy. Now I'm just good at it. I need it to earn income to keep myself fed and sheltered. But, as the business I work for struggles for its life, I cannot fill the blank spaces in the work day with my own ideas anymore. I have to look as if I am busily engaged in things when there are no actual productive things in which to be busily engaged. For the peace of mind (relatively) of the poor bastards writing the checks, I have to fill every moment with something, even if it's just carrying a clipboard around and looking thoughtfully at some pile of clutter that used to serve a function when more people needed what we do and sell. And then it's time to go home and feed myself, do whatever domestic chores demand my attention, and fall into bed.

You need to learn to kill your dreams early enough in your life to come to grips with the reality of survival. Survival itself is victory. If you haven't amounted to anything by the time you're in your late 20s, it ain't going to happen. You blew it. Find something useful to do and crush out your imagination. That shit about how it's never too late? It's just that. Shit. You're burning daylight. Get busy.

Having used drugs and alcohol, I can tell you with certainty that they don't work. You may pass time in oblivion, but when you emerge from oblivion the things that sent you there will be waiting, and they have not been on vacation while you were away. I am fortunate that my consumption habits have never managed to take over my life. That's a lucky accident of my own physiology, not a commendable result of my iron will and strong character. For the benefit of all I report on the ineffectiveness of chemicals to truly banish the funk, to save anyone else from repeating the experiment. But in a way that makes it worse. There's nowhere to hide. There may, however, be somewhere to run. Physical activity can banish the funk, if you can get into it on a routine enough basis. It will be a struggle.

This fall, I resumed a regular schedule of really trivial physical exercise -- just a few light weights and some stretching -- that improved my outlook considerably. Something blew me out of the groove, probably the holidays and expanded work hours. I look now at a few hours or a day or two to myself and see a chaotic pile of everything I wished I had done for the past 40 years. See earlier reference to killing your dreams. But it's hard to know exactly when to put a bullet through their head. It's so irrevocable. You will be tempted, as I have been, to reanimate the corpse many times as the years pass. You'll fall for that bullshit about how it's never too late. I really want to. But I look at the work of people who did settle in and focus, and I see how wrong I am to believe that any other way can work.

The exception, I suppose, is writing. The verbal diarrhea never quits. Whether it's worth reading is another matter. I have been putting together words since I could hold a pencil. You can write whatever you're feeling and thinking, even if what you write is, "I feel like shit and I would jump off a bridge if that didn't seem like it would require too much energy."

When the funk lifts, it leaves us embarrassed by the feelings of uselessness and despair that had so recently seemed like the only reality. It can seem like a responsibility, to be that flat-affect character incapable of pleasure. Everyone is used to you in that role, so why disorient them? Besides, you know that sorry bastard is only off taking a piss behind a dumpster and will be back to inhabit your skin as soon as whatever sparked your unseemly bout of euphoria goes away. It even provides a nifty gateway to further self contempt, because you aren't even world class at depression.

For the moment, I have baked goods and cats. Much of winter lies ahead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

James Madison was an idealistic dipshit

I'll admit that during the years when I was supposed to be getting an education I was much more concerned with looking cool and getting laid. Everyone who was around me at the time can attest to my failure at both of those, but they were still my preoccupations. Otherwise I would have come to this opinion much sooner.

To be fair to all the boneheads like me, and all of the others who accepted the world as they found it and got on with their personal ambitions, the country was turning 200 years old when we were in our school years. We'd beaten the Nazis and were holding the Commies at bay. We were growing up in the greatest country that had ever existed, and it had nowhere to go but up. Wasn't everything worked out already? Sure, there had been slavery, but the Civil War stomped that out. Sure, there had been civil rights problems, but that was getting sorted out, too. Cynics could say what they wanted about corruption and incompetence, but the country was fundamentally great.

My nearsighted eyes scanned the world through prescription rose-colored glasses.

Now here we are with it all falling apart. And I come to find out, from this handy article in The Atlantic, that the defects were all built in purposely, by our revered Founding Fathers, who turn out to be a bunch of idealistic dreamers. This country badly needed some cynics back while there was still time for the cure to work.

Lots of things leaped off the page at me, but this one was especially poignant:

"The best way of promoting a return to Madisonian principles, however, may be one Madison himself identified: constitutional education. In recent years, calls for more civic education have become something of a national refrain. But the Framers themselves believed that the fate of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. Drawing again on his studies of ancient republics, which taught that broad education of citizens was the best security against “crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty,” Madison insisted that the rich should subsidize the education of the poor."

The poor bastard had no idea that the crafty and dangerous encroachments on public liberty would be the absolute aim of the rich. The rich had no need for democracy and individual liberty. The term globalism might not have been coined yet, but rich people everywhere share one unifying philosophy: become richer.  Once the war of independence was done and dusted, the rich could get back to commerce. The nation itself was just a vehicle for ensuring that power remained concentrated in the right hands. Sure, the concept of liberty meant that a commoner could join their ranks through the right combination of education, experience, acquaintances, and luck. But no one had to take seriously the opinions of tradespeople and farmers unless they had managed to make their commercial endeavors sufficiently lucrative.

Or maybe he wrote the whole thing with a twinkle in his eye, as a sop to any among the rabble who might be able to read and reason a little bit. Many of our public documents scan really well. But then the Soviet Union had a nice constitution, too. And the very same US Constitution was used to justify racism and to combat it. It brought us Roe v Wade and might take it away as well. It's all subject to interpretation. Laws are only as good as their enforcement. If it was all cut and dried, no one would bother to become a lawyer.

The very concept of a republic unabashedly favors elitism. Those are your choices: the mob rule of direct democracy, or the elitism of a republic. The idealists who penned our owner's manual at the end of the 18th Century believed that an enlightened elite existed and would continue to exist. They believed that some concept of inclusive, socially responsible virtue would naturally accrue through education and good breeding. They had faith that the concept of the republic of free men would have such eternal appeal that the rich and powerful would revere it for generations.

Perhaps the fact that it was a republic of free men made its odds seem much better. Viewed through that lens, it becomes a joint business venture in which all the major shareholders get a voice unlimited by hereditary aristocracy or an overbearing monarch. The United States of the founders' vision was a nice private club. Too bad they didn't have the wit to write their charter a bit more exclusively from the outset. It would have saved us a lot of grief. Of course if you happened to be a slave or a woman or a native, things would have stayed as bad as they ever were. Careless writing set the stage for centuries of bloodshed. I blame the pot. You know those plantation owners grew hemp and wacky weed. I can just see a group of them, sitting around in a cloud of smoke. One of them, holding in a cough, says:

"Gentlemen: Imagine a country in which the only limits on a man are his own initiative and the gifts God has given him." Coughs through his nose, loses it, the whole room breaks up laughing.

I'm sure they meant well. But every concept can be twisted, and some concepts lend themselves much more easily to it than others. The United States was designed to depend on the good faith and intentions of its most powerful and influential people. And yet what do they say of power? It corrupts. Even the desire for it corrupts. We have no fail safe mechanism to filter out the greedy and the grandiose from the truly selfless and dedicated. And why should we have to depend on our leaders being saintly? If that sort of behavior wasn't rare, we wouldn't have saints. We would just have people, being routinely good.

The America of the modern ideal, say the fantasy we held in the1960s, depended on a sense of shared struggle and shared reward. That supposedly drove the country during the Second World War, and evolved into the antiwar and social justice fashions of the 1960s and '70s. But it was crumbling by the end of the 1970s, and took fatal blows in the 1980s. 

I used to believe that human nature was fundamentally good. Then I started to believe that maybe some people were fundamentally bad. Now I believe that the concepts of good and bad depend entirely on your point of view. I know what I think is good and bad, but the world has demonstrated time and again that it doesn't care what anyone thinks. Evolution merely tallies the totals from every category and spits out a result.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Bump stocks and bombs

After a couple of nice, quiet years, the neighbors have started blowing things up again.

When I moved here, the mountain behind me was entirely covered with mature forest. There was one house across the road. There were other neighbors, but the next nearest occupied house on my side of the road was hundreds of yards away. Except in hunting season, no one seemed to venture into the woods up the mountain, or explore the flood plain toward the river. There was a little cabin right next door, but the owner was elderly and seldom got to come to it anymore.

I had good relations with my neighbors. When hunters cut a trail across the elderly neighbor's land, I contacted him to make sure that they did not have permission and then confronted them when they showed up to use their unauthorized access on opening day of deer season. When a timber thief showed up and started cutting where it was easy instead of where he was being paid to cut, I alerted the neighbor and had a few conversations with the logger until he gave up and moved his operation to where it belonged. But, for the most part, good relations consisted of quiet coexistence, appreciating the natural setting we were fortunate enough to inhabit, and seeing little of each other.

Incrementally, houses pop up. Some rich guy started a "shooting preserve" on what had been a beautiful parcel of undeveloped floodplain. It had been cleared for ill-advised development in the 1980s, and then abandoned when the scam went belly up. It was a beautiful place, thick with blueberries and wildflowers. Now it is closed off to the public and it makes its money letting paying groups shoot at pen-raised exotic birds. Bang b-bang bang bang pop pow b-bang bang. But they're not the bombers.

Guns are a fact of life (and cause of death) everywhere. When the cellist is in Baltimore she hears gunfire, and its intent is usually homicidal. Up here, the projectiles are usually aimed at animals and birds, or at various inanimate targets. The river valley is an amphitheater. Sound carries a long way. You start to get a sense of who shoots what where, as the years go by.

A few years ago, my elderly neighbor with the cabin finally died. He had no children, but apparently left the property to a nephew or something. The new owner subdivided the lot and logged the half farthest from me. He sold that piece to some people who built at the back of it, sticking a house into what had been the lower skirts of the mountain's little wilderness. They have some animals and poultry. Occasionally someone will come charging out of their driveway on a racing ATV and zoom up and down the road in front of my house. It seems like a test run after working on the machine, perhaps. As much as I detest motorized recreation, I have to tighten my gut and let it happen, because they have every right to waste fuel and spew pollution to get their jollies in this free country of ours. Clean air and quiet are the casualties, the lesser rights that are easily trampled by noisy, smoky people's right to whoop it up.

Not long after these new neighbors settled in, we started hearing explosions quite close at hand. Maybe they have a cannon. Maybe they're experimenting with fertilizer bombs. I don't know. There would never be any warning. The blasts could occur at almost any hour, but seldom very late at night. We would just tighten our guts a little more, and try to get our breathing back down, and hope that one day we would hear ambulances arriving for them after one of these explosions.

One evening, several years ago, the blast was so powerful that the shock wave actually made our house bounce. The wave and the bang came out of nowhere. I felt it compress my chest as the floor dropped momentarily. It was the kind of sound you would expect to be followed by screams as a fireball billowed up into the night sky, but instead there was only blackness and silence from over there. That was a bit disappointing.

The size of the blast prompted me to call the state police to ask politely how large an explosion private citizens were allowed to enjoy before they had crossed some legal line. That prompted the staties to swing by and find out a little more from me. They may have talked to the neighbors after that, because it did usher in this long period free of bombs. From time to time I might have to put up with a little small arms fire, but that is one reason people move to the country, to be able to set up a little range and fire away. It was pretty nice.

That ended last night.

Pop pop bang bang. Bangbangbangbangbangbangbangbangbang. ....silence....BOOM 

I went out onto the deck and heard the cackling and yeehawing from next door. Years before, the staties had questioned whether I could be sure where the sound came from because of how noise travels in the river valley, with the mountain as a reflector. There was no doubt last night. It hadn't been as big as the house-shaker, but it did have a punch to it.

Some of the smaller noises could have been fireworks, but others were either firearms, or fireworks carefully created to mimic firearms. And in the bursts the rate of fire was faster than the human finger can twitch; not quite the speed of full-auto, it still marched with a quick, relentless cadence. I did not count how many rounds it was, but it was more than a few. Gunfire has a more directed sound than fireworks. You can sense that the detonation is coming out of a tube rather than simply bursting in air.

Forces gather in our troubled land, celebrating the impending abandonment of civilization. They consider themselves realists, these people who build and promote that reality instead of trying to seek a different, equally possible path. Human nature is incorrigible, they tell us. Face the fact that humans are killers and survival depends on your skills and equipment for defense. Human evolution is best represented by the evolution of our weapons, and our ability to view their effects without horror.

No thanks.

I no longer believe that humans will get their shit together and start treating each other decently. We gave up on that notion almost immediately after it reached peak popularity in the early 1970s. And even at its peak popularity, it had a long way to go to start actually making meaningful inroads on the prejudice and paranoia that shape most human interaction. But I refuse to join the forces I cannot beat. I simply spared any future generation from my loins having to live through the coming times of pain and destruction. Every bang, every boom brings a little thud of pain and sadness. I can't help a feeling of regret that my species loves violence and destruction more than anything else. But that appears to be the case. Bang. Boom. Rev. Zoom. Fire. Smoke. Cut. Dig. Grab. Consume. Discard.

I continue to support the other way, without the faintest hope of success. Just because it's losing doesn't mean it is wrong.