Monday, July 30, 2012

Mystique of 'guns' ensure control efforts fruitless

Previouisly published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 29 July 2012

A simple Google search on “Batman shooting” produces about 376,000,000 hits. That number isn’t very meaningful until put in some context. “Barack Obama” produces about 280,000,000 hits; “Mitt Romney” about 21,000,000 hits.

Not to diminish the tragedy, but in the big picture, the upcoming presidential election is more important, yet its Google search just barely out-“hits” “Batman shooting” with 387,000,000 hits. Worldwide phenomena should produce more hits than the “Batman” shooting, so “2012 Olympics” produces about 2.4 trillion hits. It helps to put things into proper perspective.

As a sociologist I am usually more fascinated by people’s response to this kind of tragedy than to the event itself. In an age of round-the-clock media, to borrow from Roger Ebert’s review of the tragedy, “we’ve seen this movie before.” The responses are predictable: the NRA wastes no time in doing its version of a deranged Paul Revere shouting through the land, “gun control is coming, gun control is coming.” As if on cue the anti-gunners call for closing some obvious loopholes in our current gun laws which in turn has the NRA pointing with glee at evidence for the truth of their delusions.

Politicians eager to up their hits on Google issue ridiculous statements like Louie Gomert, R-Texas, suggesting that prayer in school would have prevented this problem. I’m sure Charles Whitman (the Austin, Texas, shooter from 1966 who killed 16 people) had plenty of school-led prayer growing up in Lake Worth, Fla. He had a brain tumor that likely explained his behavior. Who knows what we will find with James Holmes, the Batman shooter? There are those who blame media violence; those who blame the death penalty (both sides, too much and not enough). There are those who blame the victims for not being armed, stupidly relying on the “guvmint” to protect them.

I predict that, as with Ted Bundy, eventually someone will get an interview with him, and he will explain his own behavior. Bundy basically agreed with the theory that pornography made him do it. The psych-pundits are saying paranoid schizophrenia. Stay tuned.

I don’t think we can prevent incidents like this. We could possibly reduce the opportunities for them to happen, but in the present cultural and political climate, any attempt to control guns isn’t going to happen. The gun control lobby doesn’t seem to understand gun owners and especially the very vocal and organized (and perhaps big in numbers) “gun fetishists.”

Some disclaimers: I own guns. I grew up with guns and learned to safely handle guns very early in life — before I could drive, before I could pilot a powered watercraft, before I could go to a movie by myself. I’ve enjoyed guns for recreation; I’ve never felt the need to protect myself or my “castle” with one. I knew three people who died from gunshots (one murdered, one suicide, and one accidental), more than I knew who died in car accidents. According to the CDC, more than 30,000 people die from gunshots each year, just a few thousand less than who die in car accidents each year. Injuries are much higher. Indeed, the price of freedom is very high.

Just as cars are more than just a means of transportation, guns are more than their designed function: recreation, protection, and a means to kill others (all protected by the Second Amendment).

People add much more to them than their designed functions. For instance, an armed populace represents the ultimate bulwark against tyranny. (Please don’t try to argue whether this is possible or not, it is part of gun mystique.) Guns represent “power.” It is the ultimate way to say no or to force someone else to say yes. With our hyper-emphasis on “individualism,” guns represent freedom, independence and self-reliance every bit as much as cars do. And when we add “gun culture” to the many fears that people have of “they” (as in “they are taking away our freedom; they are taking away our way of life; they are coming for our guns”) a gun provides a sense of security and safety that our society does not provide to everyone.

And yes, as the number of guns increases and the number of “yahoos” with guns increases, more gun tragedies are going to occur with increased handgun sales and applications for concealed carry permits following each tragedy. DIY.

As long as people perceive that guns provide more solutions to their problems than does “gun control,” effective gun control is a dead-end.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

As Americans, we're still far too wasteful

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 8 July 2012

When did traditional American values change from thriftiness and frugality to “shop ‘till you drop,” buy now—pay later, and waste, waste, waste?

This isn’t an essay on the political mess in Washington, DC, this is about American households and “policies” that have put us on an unsustainable path (on so many levels) that a different future is inevitable.

The change in these values was not an accident. Henry Ford populated his early assembly lines with European immigrants and confronted his workers’ thriftiness and frugality with the Sociological Department who pushed the workers to spend their incomes on consumable durables instead of saving, saving, saving.

In the 70s and early 80s, tax policy gave a tax deduction for credit card interest.

How long has advertising been a business deduction? Indeed, television is practically completely paid for through advertising and television’s influence (and its advertising) on American culture is undeniable.

Mortgage interest deduction encourages home ownership and all the “stuff” that comes with it. And houses are huge compared to what they were just 30 years ago and those big houses need lots of stuff to put in it. I have a 25 year old refrigerator, dryer, and washer. I dread the day they need repair because repairs are hard to obtain. Instead, the push is to “just replace it.” My repair people scavenge parts from old machines because getting parts is difficult since they are no longer made.

We have so much “stuff” that each of us throws away 4 to 5 lbs a day, even when as much as 70 percent of it is recyclable. The amount of food Americans waste is astonishing. After paper and paperboard, food is what we throw away the most of. A University of Arizona researcher, with USDA funding, estimated that 40 to 50 percent of the food in the US is wasted. And our waist lines keep growing, nevertheless.

This was not always the way. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and they had different values, many which stuck with me. My parents didn’t throw anything away (it seemed), especially food. My dad always thought there was something he could do with cigar boxes, wrapping paper (yup, we reused it over and over again), plastic bottles and lots of other stuff. Wastefulness was not permitted! We shut lights off when we left a room, we didn’t take 45 minute showers, we didn’t waste things, even stuff that was cheap. Today, wastefulness is the default lifestyle.

Wastefulness used to be a vice (gluttony is a sin), now it is virtue. It is almost cliché to say we are “addicted to oil”, especially “cheap” oil. We have grown so used to wasting oil and other fossil fuels, from ridiculous SUVs, to monster houses, to 80 inch TVs, to moving goods from long distances, that we are now trapped by it. You can see the trap in the anemic recovery that now looks even more anemic. Despite an uptick in jobs, despite interest rates that are nil, despite the lowest taxes in 50 years, as soon as the recovery began to show some legs, oil prices began to tick up, gas prices began steadily rising, and because our society is so dependent on oil (for everything from the obvious, transportation to growing our food, to the myriad plastics that make life so cool, to pharmaceuticals) that it sucked the life out of any recovery.

We have the ingenuity to solve some of these problems. Oil is far too valuable (even if it is “cheap”) to burn up in our gas pipes. Oil is necessary if we hope to feed 9 billion people by 2050. It is too valuable to throw away in landfills in the form of one-time use plastic utensils, plastic water and soda bottles, and plastic bags.

At the very least recycle it, but even that still wastes this precious substance. We must demand greater efficiencies, eye with skepticism how much energy “convenience” actually costs, and develop alternative and renewable energy sources, including a return to human energy (that will help reduce our “waste” lines (pun intended)).

These aren’t brilliant insights nor an original viewpoint, but it’s a viewpoint that few of us and even fewer of our “leaders” are willing to address head-on. We don’t have to wait for government to begin change in our households. Recycling is getting more convenient locally even if the economics on it are upside down. But that is a start.
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