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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

28 JANUARY, 2013

Stephen King on Gun Control and Violence

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“Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces … accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability.”

More than merely resurfacing the discourse on gun control, the recent tragedy in Newtown illustrated the futile ebb-and-flow of these debates as school shooting after school shooting shakes the nation yet fails to bubble up into actionable government policy. So argues Stephen King in Guns — a short Kindle e-book in which the celebrated novelist brings his uncompromising lens, at once passionate and rationally composed, to the issue of gun violence in America. He argues that while the mere presence of guns may not be a direct cause of violence, access to them in a formidable enabler of existing problems and pathologies in perpetrators who might not otherwise resort to outward violence, harming many.

He begins:

Here’s how it shakes out.

First there’s the shooting. Few of the trigger-pullers are middle-aged, and practically none are old. Some are young men; many are just boys. The Jonesboro, Arkansas, school shooters were 13 and 11.

Second, the initial TV news reports, accompanied by flourishes of music and dramatic BREAKING NEWS logos at the bottom of your screen. No one really knows what the fuck is going on, but it’s exciting. You get your still photo of the location; you get your map from Google or Bing. The cable news producers are busting their asses, trying to get some local news reporter on the phone.

[…]

Twentieth, there’s a killer tornado in Louisiana, or an outbreak of hostilities in the Mideast, or a celebrity dead of a drug overdose. Out comes the dramatic music and the BREAKING NEWS chyrons. The shooting is relegated to second place. Pretty soon it’s in third place. Then it’s a squib behind that day’s funny YouTube video.

Twenty-first, any bills to change existing gun laws, including those that make it possible for almost anyone in America to purchase a high-capacity assault weapon, quietly disappear into the legislative swamp.

Twenty-second, it happens again and the whole thing starts over.

That’s how it shakes out.

King cites the case of his early novel Rage, published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, which resurfaced in the late 1980s and 1990s in four separate incidents of mass shootings, both attempted and actual, by teenagers who had read and seemingly imitated the novel. Even though by the time of the fourth incident in 1997 the book was already part of an omnibus, King insisted it be pulled by the publisher. While his argument bears a faint hue of apologism (one can only imagine the cognitive dissonance that comes with a situation like this), King makes a lucid case for the triggers of violence, be those guns or novels, as precisely that — triggers — rather than singular causes:

These were unhappy boys with deep psychological problems, boys who were bullied at school and bruised at home by parental neglect or outright abuse. They seem to have been operating in a dream, two of them verbally asking themselves afterward why they did what they did.

[…]

My book did not break [them] or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.

Nevertheless, I pulled it with real regret. Not because it was great literature — with the possible exception of Arthur Rimbaud, teenagers rarely pen great literature — but because it contained a nasty glowing center of truth that was more accessible to me as an adolescent.

King goes on to argue how profoundly our adolescent experience shapes us, something science has corroborated:

Adults do not forget the horrors and shamings of their childhood, but those feelings tend to lose their immediacy (except perhaps in dreams, where even old men and women find themselves taking tests they have not studied for with no clothes on). The violent actions and emotions portrayed in Rage were drawn directly from the high school life I was living five days a week, nine months of the year. The book told unpleasant truths, and anyone who doesn’t feel a qualm of regret at throwing a blanket over the truth is an asshole with no conscience.

As far as I’m concerned, high school sucked when I went, and probably sucks now. I tend to regard people who remember it as the best four years of their lives with caution and a degree of pity. For most kids, it’s a time of doubt, stress, painful self-consciousness, and unhappiness. They’re actually the lucky ones. For the bullied underclass — the wimps, the shrimps, and the girls who are routinely referred to as scags, bags, or hos — it’s four years of misery and two kinds of hate: the kind you feel for yourself and the kind you feel for the jackwads who bump you in the halls, pull down your shorts in gym class, and pick out some charming nickname like Queerboy or Frogface that sticks to you like glue.

In likening the current state of American political dialogue, including the debate on gun control, to “drunks in a barroom,” King argues the solution lies in the bursting of the “filter bubble”:

If I could wave a magic wand and have one wish granted, I’d wish for an end to world hunger; the small shit could wait in line. If, however, the god or genie who bestowed the magic wand told me my one wish had to do with American politics, I think I’d wave it and make the following proclamation: ‘Every liberal in the country must watch Fox News for one year, and every conservative in the country must watch MSNBC for one year.’ (Middle-of-the-roaders could stick with CSI.)

Can you imagine what that would be like? For the first month, the screams of ‘What IS this shit???’ would echo high to the heavens. For the next three, there would be a period of grumbling readjustment as both sides of the political spectrum realized that, loathsome politics aside, they were still getting the weather, the sports scores, the hard news, and the Geico Gecko. During the next four months, viewers might begin seeing different anchors and commentators, as each news network’s fringe bellowers attracted increasing flak from their new captive audiences. Adamantly shrill editorial stances would begin to modify as a result of tweets and emails saying, ‘Oh, wait a minute, Slick, that’s fucking ridiculous.’ Finally, the viewers themselves might change. Not a lot; just a slide-step or two away from the kumbayah socialists of the left and the Tea Partiers of the right. I’m not saying they’d re-colonize the all-but-deserted middle (lot of cheap real estate there, my brothers and sisters), but they might close in on it a trifle.

[…]

Think of the quiet that might ensue if all that shrill rhetoric were turned down a few notches! Think of the dinner table arguments that might not happen! There might even be (o lost and shining city) a resumption of actual dialogue.

In trying to peer past the us-vs-them rhetoric of the gun control debate, King speaks to the cluster of contradictions inherent to each of us:

When I think of the politically conservative gun enthusiasts who are opposed to any form of gun control, no matter how many innocents die in acts of gun violence, I remember something a Democratic member of the House of Representatives is reputed to have said about Gerald Ford: ‘If he saw a hungry child as he walked to work, he would give that child his bag lunch without hesitation, then go ahead and vote against school lunch subsidies without ever seeing the contradiction.’

Most anti-control firearms enthusiasts have similarly split personalities, and the slogan you sometimes see pasted to the bumpers of their station wagons, campers, and SUVs — YOU WILL TAKE MY GUN WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS — does not make them bad people. It only makes them walking contradictions, and which of us does not have a few contradictions in our personalities? Most Americans who insist upon their right to own as many guns (and of as many types) as they want see themselves as independent folk who stand on their own two feet; they may send food or clothes to the victims of a natural disaster, but they sure-God don’t want charity themselves. They are, by and large, decent citizens who help their neighbors, do volunteer work in the community, and would not hesitate to stop and help a stranger broke down by the side of the road.

The only assertion I find worrisome is the bombastic certainty with which King dismisses how the “culture of violence” dominating the media, especially entertainment media aimed at young people, affects the development of the human psyche — not so much because I happen to have logged considerable academic hours studying developmental psychology in my own ancient past and remember well Bandura’s famous behavior modeling studies of violence, but mostly because sandwiched in King’s questionably substantiated contention is an outright affront to the general public’s capacity for intellectual stimulation:

The assertion that Americans love violence and bathe in it daily is a self-serving lie promulgated by fundamentalist religious types and America’s propaganda-savvy gun-pimps. It’s believed by people who don’t read novels, play video games, or go to many movies. People actually in touch with the culture understand that what Americans really want (besides knowing all about Princess Kate’s pregnancy) is The Lion King on Broadway, a foul-talking stuffed toy named Ted at the movies, Two and a Half Men on TV, Words with Friends on their iPads, and Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindles. To claim that America’s ‘culture of violence’ is responsible for school shootings is tantamount to cigarette company executives declaring that environmental pollution is the chief cause of lung cancer.

What a tragic conception of culture, if we were to subscribe to the binary choice between violence and intellectually vacant entertainment. Let’s instead stay with David Foster Wallace, who reminded us that “what we need…is seriously engaged art that can teach us again that we’re smart” and embrace E. B. White’s conviction that the role of the media is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Ultimately, King returns to the ethics and rationale behind his decision to revoke Rage, echoing Anaïs Nin on character and responsibility:

I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability. They need to say, ‘We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it’s the sensible thing.’

Until that happens, shooting sprees will continue. We will see the BREAKING NEWS chyrons, the blurry cellphone videos of running people, the tearful relatives, the rolling hearses. We will also see, time and time and time again, how easy it is for the crazies among us to get their hands on portable and efficient weapons of mass destruction.

Because, boys and girls, that’s how it shakes out.

Guns comes as a kind of follow-up to King’s 2008 op-ed on video game violence and, at just $0.99, is well worth a read.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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22 JANUARY, 2013

On Art and Government: The Poem Robert Frost Didn’t Read at JFK’s Inauguration

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“Summoning artists to participate / In the august occasions of the state / Seems something artists ought to celebrate.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested poet Robert Frost, who had been appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress in 1958, participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. JFK asked Frost to either compose a bespoke poem for the occasion or read “The Gift Outright,” written in the 1930s and published in 1942. Frost responded to JFK’s invitation with bold enthusiasm in a telegram sent the following day:

If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration. I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause — the arts, poetry — now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen. … I am glad the invitation pleases your family. It will please my family to the fourth generation and my family of friends and, were they living, it would have pleased inordinately the kind of Grover Cleveland Democrats I had for parents.

As Natalie Bober writes in A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost (public library), Frost had planned to read “The Gift Outright” — which he once described as “a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse” — but once he arrived in Washington two days prior to the inauguration, the 86-year-old poet got so absorbed in the excitement that he decided to compose an additional poem and recite it before the one already planned. Titled “Dedication,” it was at once a celebration of JFK’s slim victory over Nixon (“The greatest vote a people ever cast, / So close yet sure to be abided by.”) and a wider ode to the dream of including the arts in government at the dawn of the “next Augustan age,” framing investment in the arts as an essential part of patriotism and democracy.

'Dedication' by Robert Frost, handwritten and signed by the author, January 20, 1961.

Image courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

DEDICATION

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded his approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood,
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison
So much they saw as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what not appears,
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did they say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom’s story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right divine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.

Robert Frost recites 'The Gift Outright' for John F. Kennedy in 1961

Image courtesy The New York Times

Once Frost completed the 42-line poem, however, he realized he had no time to memorize it — he’d have to read it instead. But on the white winter day of the ceremony, he ran into some meteorologically induced technical difficulties: The sun’s glare in the surface of the snow was so bright that the poet couldn’t read the text past the third line. Armed solely with his memory, he was able to recite the familiar “The Gift Outright” only. Per Kennedy’s request, however, Frost changed the last line from “Such as she would become” to the more assertively hopeful “Such as she will become.”

Though a recording from the actual inauguration doesn’t appear to survive, this reading by Frost himself approximates the occasion as fully as one could hope:

“Dedication,” which was eventually retitled to “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration,” and “The Gift Outright” both appear in Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (public library).

Open Culture & Poetry Foundation

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21 JANUARY, 2013

Remembering Aaron Swartz: David Foster Wallace on the Meaning of Life

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“Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

This past weekend, I attended the heartbreaking memorial for open-access activist Aaron Swartz, who for the past two years had been relentlessly and unscrupulously prosecuted for making academic journal articles freely available online and who had taken his own life a week prior. A speaker at the service read a piece by one of Aaron’s personal heroes, David Foster Wallace — an excerpt from Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement address, the only public talk he ever gave on his views of life, which was eventually adapted into a slim book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (public library).

I’ve written about the speech previously, but the particular excerpt read at Aaron’s memorial resonates with chilling clarity in light of recent meditations on the meaning of life, how to find one’s purpose, morality vs. intelligence, and whether money can really buy happiness. Wallace remarks:

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Also speaking at the memorial, data visualization godfather Edward Tufte captured the essence of Aaron’s character:

Aaron’s unique quality was that he was marvelously and vigorously different. There’s a scarcity of that.

Hear This Is Water in its entirety, with notable excerpts, here. Help fight the broken system that mauled Aaron here. Honor his legacy with a contribution to Creative Commons here.

Portrait: Aaron Swartz by Fred Benenson under Creative Commons

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