Thursday, January 16, 2014

What's good for the goose...

I saw a post on a liberal page on Facebook criticizing Republicans for thinking the nation would be better off if everyone had guns and nobody had health care. The Republicans don't have a monopoly on idiocy, though. To their credit, they haven't been applying anti-gun arguments to health care coverage. Imagine if they did:

"Nobody needs that!"

"What do you want it for? What kind of injury or disease are you planning to get?"

"You're paranoid! People only get sick in the movies."

"If you want to be in a hospital, go work in one."

"Have you been properly trained to handle this health care? You should have to take a class so you don't do something stupid like running out and getting your limbs amputated as soon as you get your health insurance."

"You shouldn't be allowed to have health insurance, because someone might steal it and use it illegally."

"You should have to go through intensive screening first to prove to society that you're not going to abuse this privilege: a criminal background check, a psychological test, character references, and a signed letter from the director of your local health department certifying you to use health insurance."

"Health insurance doesn't keep you from getting sick! It just puts more people in the hospital."

"Studies show that you're more likely to die in a hospital if you have health insurance than if you don't. You're safer not having it."

"You're a coward. Only pussies sit around worrying about getting sick."

"If you avoid risky behaviors and don't do things you're not supposed to, you won't get sick or injured in the first place."

"You think having health insurance will make you immortal. It won't!"

"I can see having insurance to cover sports injuries, but covering injuries from violence will just encourage more violence."

"Studies show that doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are more likely than the general population to abuse prescription drugs. That just proves they're not safe for anybody. We should end prescription drug coverage."

"I've got an idea: we let people go to the doctor, but we charge 'em $5,000 for an aspirin. That way, nobody will go unless they REALLY NEED to!"

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Goosebump Politics: Warriors and Worriers

My kids were watching "Goosebumps" for the first time tonight. For those not familiar, it was a TV show in the '90s made from a popular line of horror books for children. Watching a few episodes with them, I noted a heavy reliance on a standard trope in horror, a fear we all learn as children: being dependent on someone else to protect you, and then having that person dismiss or disbelieve in immediate threats to your safety. There's a monster under your bed, and only Mom or Dad can protect you from it, but they refuse to even come look under the bed because they don't believe there's anything there.

It occurred to me that there's a similar thing going on in the gun control debate, and that this is why it becomes such an emotional conflict. Observant people see that in instances of interpersonal violence, the police typically don't show up until after the fact. They're not there to head off the attack. They just snap the pictures and interview witnesses after the damage is done. Some folks react to this by preparing to fend off attacks themselves until the police arrive: arming themselves, training in martial arts, buying stronger locks, etc. Others simply call for better prevention—more police, more cameras, block watches, training in anger management and conflict resolution, etc. The first group doesn't necessarily rule out the methods of the second group, but the second group wants nothing to do with the methods of the first.

The first group is convinced of the inevitability of violence. They don't trust any prevention method to be 100% effective. When they ready themselves for an attack and other people dismiss their concerns or try to outlaw their solutions, they're experiencing what our monster-under-the-bed kid is experiencing when he screams for his parents to investigate the growling under his bed, only to be told he's going to be punished if he doesn't go to sleep.

The second group of people, who prefer preventative solutions rather than tackling threats head-on, feel that attackers cannot be defeated, only outwitted. To them, the only way to stay safe is to scour from their lives all potential for danger. It's like they're in a zombie movie where the zombies are unstoppable, so the only way to be safe is to prevent people from becoming zombies in the first place...and just to be safe, they chain up anyone who's at risk of becoming a zombie. Common rabble with guns are what are scaring these folks in the first place, so they see letting even more civilians have guns as being like trying to protect yourself from zombies by making more zombies.

These are both visceral fears, and people who are viscerally afraid tend not to think clearly. That's a bad engine for politics.We can never reach consensus if the only agreement possible looks to at least half the people like letting the zombies eat us.

As any thriller fan knows, there's another character who regularly appears in survival-horror flicks: the one who's paralyzed with fear. They either panic or go immediately into deep denial, and they invariably do something incredibly stupid that endangers all the other characters. These people exist in the real world, too. In the movies, they often act as a stand-in for the protector who won't do anything. In the real world, they tend to align themselves politically with the people who say prevention is enough. If you want to pretend a problem doesn't exist, you'll be able to maintain that illusion longer if you hide from the problem rather than locking horns with it. 

Some stories will have a pivotal moment where the panicker gets it together and turns into a warrior. Other times, he just get killed off--usually fairly early on--and viewers from the first group celebrate. Of course, these movies are made for them. I'm not sure what a movie made for the second group would look like, but you can be sure it wouldn't be at all exciting. The conflict would have to all be in the backstory. The film would open in Utopia, and we might hear a tale of how a noble visionary crafted an elegant solution that enabled her society to evolve into something like a cross between Pandora and Lothlórien...but without all the monsters and scary weapons.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Such things occur to me throughout the day

I've had a number of random thoughts bumping around in my head that may or may not open some interesting discussion:

 I've long felt that the positions of the Democratic and Republican parties on gun control are the opposite of what they ought to be if they were being ideologically consistent. Democrats claim to champion minorities, the oppressed, the underdog, democracy, everybody getting a vote, equal rights, and so on. You'd think they would be against giving the powerful elite a monopoly on violence. You'd think they'd want to empower the oppressed instead of the oppressors. You'd think they'd try to equip the downtrodden to resist tyranny.

The Republicans, on the other hand, hold that the elite--the innovators, the gifted, the achievers--are more competent and deserving of leadership and privilege. They're of the opinion that rich people deserve to be richer than the rest of us, and that the world just works better when we get out of the way and let those natural-born leaders run everything. It would stand to reason that those Chosen Few would have a much easier time running things if the common rabble were powerless to interfere. It makes no sense, then, that they want guns to be plentiful, legal, and easy to get, so that every ignorant yahoo is capable of mounting an insurrection.

Likewise, their positions on abortion should be switched. If Democrats belong to the party of compassion, they should be the ones whose hearts are bleeding for a little bundle of cells that has the potential to one day grow into a baby. The Republicans, you would think, would be mandating abortions for...well, basically anyone who's not one of them. Anyone who's even suspected of not being a rich, white, able-bodied, English-speaking, heterosexual, cisgendered, Protestant Republican would be snuffed out before they could draw their first breath.

I've recently developed a hypothesis to account for this inconsistency. The parties aren't formed along ideological lines, as I'd first thought. Instead, they conform to gender stereotypes. The Republicans are the men and the Democrats are the women.

Think about this. The Democrats envision a world of sugar and spice where everyone's nice, where everyone settles conflicts by talking about their feelings, where aggression and machismo are shunned, and where we judge the rightness or wrongness of a person's actions by how sorry we feel for them because of unrelated circumstances. The Republicans, on the other hand, favor institutions like the military, law enforcement, big corporations, and contact sports, where domination, aggression, penetration, and insensitivity rule. Democrats think Republicans are dicks; Republicans think Democrats are pussies.

If there's anything to this, then there's really no hope of overcoming the political polarization in this country unless our value systems become a lot more androgynous.

In discussions of race relations, gender issues, and the like, one often hears it said that "you can't know what it's like" or "you can't possibly understand" some other person's experiences. I think this idea insults both parties. It presumes that one person can't articulate his experiences in a way that's easy for others to understand, and it presumes that the other person lacks empathy and basic listening comprehension skills. I wouldn't argue that one person can know intuitively what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes, but there's no reason they can't be taught. It seems to me that the purpose of these statements is to shut down communication and to elevate the status of the person claiming to have "unknowable" experience above that of the person who's allegedly too dim to understand.

In discussions of privilege, I think it would be helpful to distinguish among three different types of privilege.
   1. Freedom from externally-imposed oppression
   2. Freedom from natural obstacles
   3. Freedom from self-repression

Let's say, for example, that a privilege you have that I don't is that you're the kind of a person who can go to a gym to lift weights and I'm not. What does that really mean? Well, we have to ask why I can't. If the gym has a policy of only approving memberships for serious bodybuilders like you and not for fat guys like me, then that's an example of externally-imposed oppression. If I'm paralyzed from the nose down, or if I'm stranded on an island where there is no gym, then I'm physically incapable of going to a gym to lift weights. That would be an example of a natural obstacle. If it turns out there is a gym nearby that I can get to and afford, and they'd be happy to have me, but I don't go because I feel self-conscious about working out in front of other people because I imagine they're judging me, then that's an example of self-repression.

Dividing obstacles into these three categories would help us to better identify whom, if anyone, is to blame for a particular problem and what, if anything, can be done about it. Despite all reassurances to the contrary, the label of privilege has been weaponized. It's used to shame others into silence, or to invalidate their opinions. We need tools for determining whether that's ever actually justified, and for demonstrating when it's not.

People consider reading books to be a virtue, but watching TV and movies to be a vice. Even reading on the internet gets trashed while books are sanctified. Why is that? Why don't we refer to people who lay around on the couch reading books all day as lazy or addicted, rather than studious? If you're talking about great books and trashy TV programs, then of course, you're comparing the best to the worst, but it's about content, not medium. I don't see how reading trashy romance novels is superior to watching, say, a documentary or a TED talk. What is the particular virtue of taking in printed-on-paper words through your eyeballs instead of taking in spoken words through your ears? Personally, I find instructive videos to be of far greater educational value than written instructions. I like to see a thing demonstrated.