beauty

[estimated reading time < 1 minutes]

as usual
beauty eludes me completely
yet i taste it
at the edge of my consciousness
and dream i am drinking it
though whether wine or hemlock
i am still unsure
with its bittersweet prickles
against my skin
and caressing tenderness
i suspect is the prelude
to proclamations of desire
i will never return

you walk on streets
populated by men
seeming as trees
but plundering your depths
with glances different only in their trapped rapelessness
from those of their mousterian precursors
yet your footsteps pause
not an instant
as the gauntlet is neither thrown
down nor unknown to you

i stare shocked
an interloper
confused by the language swirling
in the nearly-darkness
while crazed desperation meets obsessive hatred
in an instant
and jealousy dies fiery deaths
and ice-daggers
only barely managed to remain veiled
behind the moonlight
yet sidewalks don’t open to swallow them
across styx’ currents

perhaps it is me
who has already left this world
or never once entered it
if my delusions of friendship
taste only of smiles
and shadows of aesthetics
while swirling around me
are scents of pheromones
and ownership at one phallus’ removed
and bodies become instruments of torture
only in my fractured dreams

democracy has failed us

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

democracy doesn’t work. it never has and it is painfully incapable of functioning in a way that leads to a good society. perhaps a better one than other possibilities, at times. but not a good one because good from a moral and ethical standpoint is starkly opposed to collective desire and democracy is simply the practical representation of desire. but that’s a theoretical issue and there are dead children on the ground all around us so while you may not agree with me about the necessary failure of democracy in all its iterations it may be far less contentious to think about why it has failed in this particular instance and what can be done about it. whether you like democracy or, like me, see it as folly, we look around us and see small corpses riddled with bullets and if you are not crying you simply do not deserve to be considered human anymore. you are nothing more than flesh waiting to decompose. keeping our children safe is the most fundamental of our roles and we are failing. not just once. accidents happen in our lives. but when a situation repeats with no end in sight, when we continue to walk down a path expecting different results but change nothing about how we exist, that is not an accident. that is us being complicit, tacitly demonstrating our acceptance of the status quo. it means we either like the outcome or we don’t care enough to change it.

according to the cdc, a little over forty-five-thousand people are killed with guns every year in the united states – that’s about eighty-percent of murders. if this number isn’t striking to you, you have an interesting sense of proportion but i’ll make it more real with a comparison. if we take the official estimate of the number of people exterminated at the sobibór concentration camp during the second-world-war and average it across the whole duration of the holocaust, that’s approximately the same number of people killed every year. i’ll say that again in case it flew by so fast. the average number of people killed in the united states with a gun every year is about the same as the average number of people killed during the holocaust at the sobibór death camp.

but you were aware it was a problem before i started speaking, i have no doubt. it has been in the news for years. the subject of editorials and talkshows and more articles than anyone can count. despite this, it has continued. it hasn’t just remained a problem. it has gotten worse. i know what some people will say, of course. that there has always been violence on the streets and in schools and the fact that we have better communications technology and people are more plugged-in to a world of constant, ubiquitous access to instant information means we hear more about it. and that is certainly true. but just because you hear more about something doesn’t mean there isn’t more of it happening. statistics on shootings are increasing and have been for decades with no significant decline. even during a pandemic that kept us locked away for the majority of two years as some crimes declined in a measurable way gun violence increased – while complete statistics haven’t been released yet for part of the pandemic period for obvious reasons, those that have show absolutely no improvement and mostly a continuation of the worsening of the issue.

we agree there is a problem. the most die-hard conservative pro-gun obsessive agrees there’s a problem. we don’t all agree what the problem is but there is no lack of empathy on the conservative side of the political spectrum. republicans, i am absolutely certain, are not generally for dead children any more than non-republicans. and i’m certainly not a democrat so i’m not going to make the awkward mistake of thinking that everyone who’s anti-right-wing is necessarily pro-biden. which causes a significant issue when the democratic system is designed as an adversarial binary. either you’re for the republican party or you’re for the democratic party. and if you’re for neither…

which is where this issue raises its ugly head. democracy doesn’t work. it can’t. but specifically in this instance it isn’t just an intellectual exercise. the failure of democracy in america is resulting in children bleeding for our stupidity. i believe this must stop. but i am, sadly, not in the majority. i want to think we all care enough to prevent more death. i am, however, certain this is not the case. and the reason i know this is true is simply that after years of horrific results we have still done nothing. despite all voicing our desires to end the cycle of violence on both sides of the political aisle nothing has been accomplished. if it was important, we would have fixed it.

democracy is the application of mob rule to government. that’s not an opinion. it’s a definition. let’s take a look at how this works. the whole idea of democracy is not that the general public has a voice in making decisions, which may or may not be useful. it is that the general public, whether directly or through representation, actually makes all the decisions. this is disastrous for three reasons.

first, the general public is not well-informed about the basis for decision-making. if you want someone to make a good decision, you have to ensure they have the information required about all the options before making it. not just making that information available but guaranteeing its comprehension before the decision occurs. this is the basis for all contract law, for example. if you don’t understand the contract, you can’t legally agree to it. the fact that it is not the case in government shows exactly how much we don’t care about the decisions being made being good ones.

second, the general public is poorly-represented when making these decisions. according to polling data, the overwhelming majority of the american population is in favor of reproductive rights, strict gun-control and dramatically-increased environmental standards. yet none of those things has actually been represented in the discussions and decisions taking place in congress. whether the democratic concept of general-public-decision-making is good seems like a less-important question when faced with the issue that in a government pretending to represent those collective decisions the majority is not even being given the power to make them, simply a loud minority that happens to hold power because of voting equations and representation borders.

third, not only does the general public have a vested interest, its decisions change on an almost-constant basis. this is not a lifelong-policy question. someone who held an opinion yesterday often holds a different one today. while politicians rarely dramatically change their position on issues (or at least don’t publicly change those positions in meaningful ways), individuals truly do. this is partly because of manipulation but mostly because of lack of information. the public makes its decisions and forms its opinions from a very limited quantity of data in most instances. ask an average person how much they know about gun violence, abortion or the environment and you will discover the majority (the overwhelming majority) only has a small amount of data and that all of it has come from sound-bytes and sensationalized news broadcasts. we are showered and inundated with information on a constant basis but it fluctuates so dramatically from one topic to another, what happens to be a hot-topic today. a few weeks ago it was the war in ukraine. after that it was the supreme court. now it is the most recent school massacre. people have developed the emotional attention-spans of mosquitos and make decisions based on fluctuating interests and sensational, entertainment-focused information distribution and manipulative sources.

what this means is that we have a government system based on the notion that decisions are made by an engaged and informed public directly expressing itself to its representatives who turn those decisions into practice. setting aside whether those decisions are intended to be ethically or morally good for a moment, even if these people are intending to make the best possible decisions, they are being separated from those decisions by lack of information, an inability to actually have their decisions turned into policy and continuous manipulation and disinformation. that is the first half of the problem.

the second half of the problem is that the general public has a vested interest in the question. while that doesn’t necessarily guarantee immoral, unethical and frequently “evil” results, it’s a good place to start if that’s what you’re looking for. in taxation policy, there is a concept where the system is intended to be designed so the person making the decisions doesn’t know what their circumstances will be. it allows for far more fairness in designing tax brackets to ensure enough money is collected without causing more harm to those who are underprivileged than is necessary. it doesn’t work, of course. because the people making the decisions aren’t actually separate from the system and they have preconceived notions of what is fair that are simply not objectively true. but it’s a great theory.

the problem applies far more largely when the issue is emotional, however. people will fight for what they want. perhaps more than ever, the general public is against the idea of seeking a common, objective “good”. they don’t think in those terms. morality and ethics are no longer interesting. there was a time when people wanted to be good. they wanted to live good lives, ethically and morally. but that was a time when they were afraid of an afterlife in hell and we’ve spent about a century since those old mythical superstitions finally disappeared. sadly, without the threat of eternal damnation, we have become practical existentialists, floating from one insatiable lust to the next. we want more convenience, more money, more luxury. we want more personal freedom and don’t care how much that destroys the lives and happiness of those around us. because we come first. it’s not just cultural exceptionalism. it’s personal self-obsession.

so the result of this is that we have a system where people are supposed to come together to select good options and put them into practice. but they are poorly-informed and easily-manipulated by an entire interlocking system of media and culture. add to that the complete lack of desire to actually make choices that are good for everyone and an obsessive focus on making choices that are self-serving and you have a recipe for something. it’s not disaster. it’s worse than disaster. it’s dead children.

there are easy answers to these questions. the easy answer to children being killed with guns is not to eliminate the people who want to hurt children, though that’s a nice fairy-tale answer. it’s to remove the guns. all the guns. not just the ones people want to give up and not just the ones we think we can eliminate. we have to make gun ownership illegal. do i think that’s fair or culturally-valid? absolutely not. but we must give up our desires and our cultural background to save our children. that is what we as adults are supposed to do – sacrifice our wants and lusts and passions for pleasure in the service of those we have brought into the world that it’s our duty to protect.

these are easy answers. but our system is making them impossible to put into practice. that means the system is broken. whether we fix it is also a simple question. it’s the same as the answer to this one.

do we care if more children die?

(the statistics on gun deaths come from the centers for disease control and the pew research center with the latest official statistics being from 2020. the statistics on deaths at nazi concentration camps are those provided by the holocaust encyclopedia of the united states holocaust memorial museum. you are welcome to explore these statistics for yourself. gun deaths in 2020, 45222. total executions at sobibór in six years of the war, 250000, giving an average of 41667/year. while these statistics are likely estimates and both are conservative, their similarity is well within the range necessary for a comparison.)

linguistic overpopulation

[estimated reading time 4 minutes]

english has too many pronouns. and that’s not even counting the silly made-up ones that seem to be floating around lately that i’m not going to focus on. if we look at just the subject-form pronouns in english, what do we have? first person, “i” and “we”. ok, that seems reasonable enough, one that’s only me and another for me and others. a good distinction to be able to make. second person we have “you”. perfect. third person? this is where things really go off the rails. “he”, “she”, “it”, “they”. four. what’s the difference? grammatically, “he”, “she” and “it” are singular while “they” is singular or plural depending on circumstance. so there’s no reason to have the first three because they only do the same job “they” already does. but this causes a huge problem. “they”, even when used in singular form, takes plural verbs, which is extremely confusing to english-speakers even if they’re natives. even more confusing to learners, i assure you, as there’s no reason for it that seems apparent in the modern language.

why does “they” take plural verb forms? actually, they’re not plural forms at all and that’s why this becomes so strange. english doesn’t differentiate between singular and plural the way you might think. it’s a very fluid scale that has transformed into something fairly rigid only in the last century or so. if you look at old writing, you will find that when a speaker is being respectful (either of self or others) they use what has become the plural form and when they are being less formal they use what’s now the singular. there are reasons for this and we could talk about the “subjunctive” function plural verbs exercised in older forms of english but the easiest way to think about it is that the “modern english plural” is derived from the respectful, formal version and the “modern english singular” is derived from the more informal version. because “they” was focused on others and being respectful of others is often required in polite society it became more common to use the formal version compared to when talking about self or a specific other in everyday conversation. these connections became so strong they transformed into a differentiation between singular and plural rather than just formal and informal.

that completely aside, there’s another argument that continues to rage about whether “they” can even be singular. it shouldn’t be an argument. “they” was originally a singular pronoun with no plural function at all. there was another plural pronoun – in fact, there were several other singular ones and a variety of plural ones. “they” didn’t get its plural function until considerably later in the history of the english language. but none of that really matters. it definitely functions as either today and even the dictionary agrees. not that it ever really disagreed but people can get very focused on meaningless distinctions.

which is why i think we should leave these historical problems where they belong – in the past. english doesn’t need all these pronouns and we could very easily simplify it by eliminating the extra ones but i think that’s likely to lead to resistance and idiosyncratic whining, especially in native-speakers. so i think there’s a better solution that functions a bit more easily and streamlines the language a bit. we replace the existing pronouns with some that are simplified and others that are simply respelled. simply, english has too many pronouns so let’s add another. and remove a few.

i don’t think we need to change the first-person pronouns. “i” is simple. it’s a single letter and can’t really be any simpler than it already is. we can talk about object-form versions in a moment but let’s just focus on the subjects and assume this one is good. “we” could be improved but it wouldn’t really change anything meaningful and everyone likes it the way it is. there’s no real debate about “we” so it’s probably best to leave it that way.

the second-person pronoun is likely ok but we might as well look at it while we’re fixing pronoun problems. there’s no reason for it to have all those extra letters. two-thirds of its letters are silent. so let’s just eliminate them and spell it the way it sounds to make things easier without changing how the language is spoken at all.

so we have three pronouns – “i”, “we”, “u”. all fairly straightforward and relatively-uncontroversial so far. and this is where things get crazy and people start lighting things on fire.

let’s just eliminate all the existing third-person pronouns. they’re either unhelpful (“he”, “she”) or debated (“it”, “they”). think there’s no debate about “it”? believe me. “it” is my preferred standard pronoun. try to get people in our current age to call you “it” and everyone starts whining about disrespect and how “difficult” it is. difficult to use a two-letter word. i don’t know what’s wrong with these people. but it causes incredible problems and people have so much emotion trapped in these two words it’s better to simply discard them. which leaves us a small void. we now have to have a third-person pronoun and we’ve deleted all the existing ones. and we want it to be simple and completely without emotional baggage or history yet easy to remember.

our first and second-person pronouns are now single-letters (“we” is a single vowel-sound gloss so that’s close enough, just a strange idiosyncrasy of the awkward english spelling system) so it’s likely best to mirror that for the third-person. i suggest “e”. “he”, “she” and “they” already have that letter in them so it even looks similar and streamlines the shift in reading for those already used to text in the language. this pronoun would take singular verbs the same as “it” currently does but allow singular or plural meanings, eliminating the need for the plural verbs, another simplification english desperately needs.

now let’s take a look at object-form pronouns. there are lots of them. “me”, “us”, “him”, “her”, etc. there’s simply no need. english has strict word-order to determine subject and object. if i say “james gave linda the ball”, you know who had the ball at first and who has it now. so we don’t need different pronoun forms to tell us these things because we don’t modify the names they are replacing – we used to and some languages still do but it’s unnecessary in a language with word-order like english. so we can eliminate all the object-form versions (and all the reflexive versions like “itself” and “themselves” because they can all be simplified to “self”) and no meaning is lost.

“i gave jean the paper” or “jean gave i the paper” are easily-comprehensible so why complicate it by adding all these extra words?

english drastically requires simplification in so many ways – verbs, number, gender, spelling, etc. but the simplest of these is probably what i’ve just suggested. simplify english pronouns and at least we eliminate some needless complexity with minimal effort. thanks for exploring this idea with me today…

the second amendment

[estimated reading time 15 minutes]

i’m neither an american nor a constitutional scholar. but i am a language teacher specializing in culture and the development of contemporary language. and if that counts for nothing reading a document intended to be read by average people and understood by the masses as a guarantee of freedom, i’m not sure what better qualification would be. not that i care as i’m going to talk about it anyway and you’re welcome to move on to other writers if you prefer.

the second amendment to the constitution, passed in 1789 and ratified two years later, reads…

a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

aside from the obvious bad writing, which we can generally chalk up to it being written in the eighteenth century when the language was still rather cumbersome even by modern standards, this isn’t a particularly confusing passage. compared to most legal documents whose lengths are painful and technical jargon is incomprehensible, this is, at first glance, rather straightforward and simplistic.

except that it’s not.

the first issue is definitional. the second is attributional. the third is conditional. we’ll talk about them in that order. that’s not because that’s their order of importance or complexity, just because it’s what seems logical when looking at a passage from the perspective of language.

there are nine pieces of this sentence whose meanings are questionable. let’s take a look at each of them and try to put together a sensible unified perspective.

  1. bear arms. while this is the focus of most definition questions, i think it’s the one with the least obvious answer and perhaps the one least relevant to the issue in many ways. but we’ll explore it anyway as it’s pre-traveled ground and a good warmup. it also gives a solid argument for you to hold onto at dinner parties against anyone who happens to think this amendment justifies carrying a handgun around as they conduct their daily business. “bear arms” is an idiom. it has nothing to do with body parts or ursine militaries. in the eighteenth century, much as it does today, it meant “be part of an organized military group”. there has been a lot of argument about this centered on the notion that it had a different meaning then from its modern concept of “having a gun”. but it didn’t. not that it meant simply having a weapon then. it’s that it doesn’t mean that today either and everyone knows it. they just like to pretend it means having a personal weapon because it makes this amendment seem to say everyone can carry guns to work and the grocery store and they’ve played so many first-person-shooters and lust for violence so much that’s an appealing notion to them. this is pure silliness, though. we all know that “take up arms”, “bear arms”, “armed forces” and “being under arms” have very specific meanings in english and they’re all about organized military groups. they always have been and everyone hears them this way. they pretend not to sometimes when it’s convenient but that’s like the people who go to the desert counter and say “my wife told me i can only have one plate of cake so have you got a plate big enough to put the whole cake on?”. of course, this doesn’t specifically mean “being in the army” or even “being in the state-sponsored military”. it left interpretation open for individual groups to mount revolutionary forces. but we now live in an age where those forces are seen as insurrectionist and treasonous. in the eighteenth century, it was necessary for there to be a revolutionary army to fight against the oppression by the british and free the united states from imperial domination. that oppressive role has now been taken over by conservative politicians and we don’t need to fight them with guns. they’re the ones with the guns anyway.
  2. keep arms. here’s where things get interesting. the word “keep”, unlike phrases like “bear arms”, has changed significantly in the past two-hundred years. today, “keep” carries the meaning of ownership like “i like to keep a car because it’s convenient”. it sounds a little outdated but people still understand it. another few decades and it may have dropped from comprehension completely in that sense. it also has the meaning of “remain”, which is far more common – “keep your mouth shut”. the meaning a few hundred years ago, though, was far closer to “be responsible for”. “i keep a dog” or “i keep an army” weren’t unusual uses. what that means is that this phrase could easily have two interpretations but neither of them is the modern way of looking at them, especially in pro-gun circles. the first, more obvious perspective on it is that it means “be responsible for the use of weapons”. in other words, the right to keep arms is talking about having the right to be part of a society that uses military force to protect itself. it doesn’t in any way mean owning a personal weapon. it just means being ethically, morally and financially responsible for the state military. i think this is a valid interpretation and likely the one intended. the other option is a little more niche but it’s certainly a possibility. “keep arms” was a euphemism for “keep an army” as “arms” was just another way of saying “military force”. so what this might be talking about is the right not to have a gun but to have personal protection – bodyguards in the small-scale version but, more broadly, a local militia. the reason this comes up today is twofold. one is that it isn’t talking about individuals having the right to keep personal weapons (especially not in public places around others). it’s talking about the right to living in a safe environment – a place patrolled by security guards or an armed police force. this is, in fact, quite possibly talking about having an armed force protecting schools and public buildings, for example. while i think this interpretation is less likely to be the one intended at the time, it’s another valid way of reading the sentence and quite applicable to our current issue.
  3. right. we hear a lot about rights. i think this might be the largest problem in reading documents from the past like the constitution, though. people think they know what “right” means in this context and it’s not quite the case. you probably think of “right” as in “something i’m allowed to do” or “something nobody can stop me from doing”. and that is certainly one modern version of the term but historically it’s not really how the word was understood. remember we’re talking about a country whose people mostly left europe in search of freedom from oppression. not because they wanted more “rights” in the modern sense of the word but because they thought what they were doing was “right” as opposed to the “wrong” european governments told them it was. what were they doing? mostly practicing religious beliefs different from the catholic/anglican norms of their old countries. whether that was protestantism or judaism or something completely different, often no religion at all, they didn’t see it as “freedom of religion” as much as “freedom from state religion”. what we’re talking about here is a lack of judgment rather than a guarantee of permissibility. that’s a subtle difference but it’s quite striking in context. if you believe you have a “right” to have a personal weapon and you redefine what “right” means, it changes the inherent meaning of the sentence from “nobody can take away my weapon” to “it is ethically permissible to have a weapon”. now we’re not talking about laws anymore but morality. it’s good to have a gun. well, it might have been good in some ways in the eighteenth century even in an objective sense because we were talking about a revolution and a time of wild oppressive forces and constant government violence from various directions and countries. but is it “good” now? is it “right” in the sense of “not wrong”? and is that true for everyone? because we aren’t just supposed to be living in a free society. we’re supposed to be living in an equal society. so if it’s moral for one person it must be moral for everyone. do you want your children to have guns? what about your enemy’s children? the people you hate? the people who hate you? or would it be a more ethical perspective to have none? i’m not passing judgment on it, only asking the question. but remember this isn’t about a fundamental lack of prohibition. it’s about a question of morality and ethics. don’t forget the constitution was a document about deeply-held personal feeling and ethical truth far more than it was one of statements about behavior. we’re talking about a different age.
  4. infringed. while the largest question about the word “infringed” is about who was theoretically doing the infringing, its definition is a question more because it’s an unusual word than one that’s changed significantly with time. it’s not one you hear on a regular basis. study english for a long time and it may appear once or twice. study anything else and you might go your whole life without hearing it. it comes from the word “fringe”, of course, like “edge”. so what we’re talking about is something being seen as “outside the norm”. it’s not about “legal” or “illegal”. it’s about something being an accepted norm. once we start to understand that “right” is about a moral judgment, not a legal one, it starts to make a lot more sense. the right to bear arms is a right that can’t be declared a fringe belief – in other words, having an army to protect us from outside oppression and interference will always be socially, culturally, morally and ethically correct.
  5. miltia. this is a fancy word for an army. while it’s got a somewhat different meaning today, two-hundred years ago, it simply meant an army. like a real one with officers and soldiers. that doesn’t necessarily imply it was the official army of the government – at the time, the official government was in london, remember. so we’re talking about a revolutionary army and a variety of state armies. you already knew this, though, if you’ve studied anything about the revolutionary war. they don’t talk about the “pennsylvania army”. they call it the “pennsylvania militia” – it’s even recognized in the “militia act”. not just in pennsylvania but it’s a clear example to look at. if you hear “militia” and the first thing that comes to mind is a ragtag band vaguely approximating a mashup between the merry men of robin hood and a redneck posse going after immigrants like it’s a safari picnic, this is certainly the modern version of the word. but that’s not what people heard when it showed up at the time the constitution was being drafted. they meant uniforms and citations for bravery on organized battlefields. as organized as battlefields ever got, of course, which is a whole other issue and one of much myth and legend. but you know what i mean. drills and ranks and officers and more than anything large-group popular sanction for its actions to safeguard the general public so they wouldn’t have to fight themselves or suffer under oppression and conquest from outside. an army.
  6. necessary. this is an interesting word form a historical context. though its meaning hasn’t actually changed in any meaningful way. it just means “required”. but it’s a conditional marker. don’t forget that. we’ll come back to it in a minute. it means “true” or “needed”. and if you speak english you already know this. “conditional marker” is the key, though. we don’t speak like this anymore and that’s what makes it confusing. while you’re waiting, think about the sentence “dogs being necessary for happiness, my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. more on that later.
  7. free state. this is where things really become striking if you are looking at this amendment – or the constitution in general – for the first time in a serious historical way. because you have to ask yourself what “free” means and what a “free state” is in the context of the eighteenth century. this means we have to ask three questions. does “free” have a particular historical meaning? what is a “state”? and what would the phrase “free state” have meant to a newly-minted american of the time – perhaps with the addition of whether this would have had different meanings, for example, if you were in georgia or virginia or pennsylvania or if you were female, black or chinese. we’ll start at the beginning. “free” refers not to the ability to do but the lack of persecution. not prosecution from a legal perspective. persecution. that’s what people declared their independence from – external judgment and control. we’re not talking about a new country saying it doesn’t want to have laws. or even one where the laws would have been different. they weren’t measurably different laws. it was the lack of persecution and oppression that was at stake here. freedom wasn’t “i can go where i want, do what i want and be who i want” – it was “i can’t be hurt because of who i am and what i believe and neither can my children”. “state” in this context was a gloss of individual states and a nation-state. there’s a lot to unravel there but it’s not relevant to the current topic so i’ll leave it alone for the moment and you can assume whether we’re talking about individual states or a collective representing them all is irrelevant to this issue but it’s something you may want to explore in terms of the rest of the constitution because it changes the way some other things are looked at. like the first amendment and what it means for hate speech and freedom of expression. but we don’t express ourselves freely from the barrel of a gun so that’s likely enough about it. “free state”, though, has a very specific historical meaning. it doesn’t mean a place where you’re free to do what you want. that might be what people hear when it’s said now but that’s not at all what was meant by it in revolutionary times. it was linguistically exactly what it sounds like. not the people in the state who were free. the state itself was free from imperial control. free from britain. free from being controlled from the outside. this isn’t a declaration of individual independence but the independence of the colonies from the british empire. i can’t express too strongly how important this difference is. this is not in any way a statement about personal freedom, though personal freedom is implied in terms of how people are supposed to be treated from ethical, moral and religious perspectives. it’s a statement about the government of virginia not being subject to laws passed in london or controlled by an army issued from london – only laws, armies and police forces from within its own borders. whether that extends to those forces in washington is a different question and one not covered in this amendment in any way. but we’re talking about the state being free, not its people. while this may be a bit of a setback if you’re looking for justification here for racial equality, it’s not ambiguous in any way. and there are other places you can look for that. this just isn’t one of them. this amendment doesn’t guarantee any personal freedom. just that you’re not british anymore. but you probably didn’t think you were.
  8. the people. “people” means humans. but “the people” isn’t nearly as general as that. it means citizens. “the people of these united states” is not a statement about people who live there. it’s about people who see themselves as “of the place” and who are recognized as being part of the society and community around them. why is this of significance? it means we’re talking about fully-integrated members of society. there’s a pretty solid argument to be made that this doesn’t include women, children, slaves or visitors. there’s even a relatively-stable perspective that this doesn’t even cover people who don’t own land and make money from it. or at least who come from a family that does. but the important part here is that in the eighteenth century this was a collective term. it isn’t about individual freedom or guarantees of freedom from prosecution. it was actually the opposite. it was about a group that was intending to be more moral, more ethical, more free from external control and oppression to create a more thoroughly-integrated community in a specific place. freedom of individual behavior was certainly a topic of discussion. but it wasn’t discussed here. this is about people as a collective body of citizens coming together to decide they need an army to protect that cohesive community identity from external actors, usually outside imperial powers like britain, france, spain and portugal. the state and its population have a collective right to have an army to keep it safe, in other words.
  9. arms. this is a bit of a bonus one. but it’s somewhat significant to the topic at hand to understand what we’re talking about if we’re actually going to make sense talking about guns in this context. yes, arms definitely included guns in the eighteenth century. but not the kind of guns we have today. automatic and semi-automatic weapons? huge cartridges of ammunition? not on your life. we’re talking about clumsy weapons, many suited for nothing more than a single volley shot to disorient an enemy. they were heavy, cumbersome, slow, inaccurate and extremely dangerous not just to the person on the receiving end. and most people didn’t immediately die from the impact from an eighteenth-century firearm. for one, they were fired in a volley manner from a huge distance so the projectiles didn’t have nearly the force. second, they weren’t generally bullets in the modern sense. third, though, most importantly, they weren’t designed to penetrate as much as to repel. so when you picture the “right” to have a weapon, it might be a thought to look at what kinds of weapons they had in mind. guns were certainly there. but swords, knives and other weapons were far more the dominant items on the minds of most citizens when they thought about fighting. nobody was carrying around a 9mm in their waistband or a police special strapped under their arm at the time of the constitution. and i suspect few ever imagined such things would be possible. a modern handgun or assault rifle would be sufficiently advanced to the eyes of a revolutionary war solider, not even thinking about an average civilian, to have seemed like sorcery and witchcraft. the weapons used in most current gun crimes were so far outside the imagination of those writing the second amendment it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they were unthinkable.

having looked at the definitions, the next question that comes to mind is the question of attribution. we’ve already alluded to it but there are two issues that must be addressed here. first, if this is about legality, who is making the laws and about what? second, if this is about morality, which is far more likely, who is doing the judging and who shouldn’t be?

the first part is clear. if we’re talking about laws, which is somewhat implied even if it’s not stated, who is making the laws? not the individual. if that’s not obvious, try to remember we’re talking about the constitution. it’s a government document as much as it was a revolutionary one. this wasn’t about individual independence. it was about collective revolution to create a self-serving government of the united states. not anarchy. personal responsibility and group freedom for the states – perhaps as a group or perhaps individually. but this much is certain. from a legal perspective, there were going to be just as many laws and perhaps just as strict if not more. they were just not going to be laws imposed from outside where the general public had no say in what they were. power to the people as a whole, one might say, not power to the individual. so who wasn’t going to infringe on those fundamental laws and truths? this isn’t about limiting the government, either of the states or the new united federal government and its congress. it was about limiting outside interference. the british couldn’t apply their laws anymore because it was no longer a colony. that’s freedom. and it still works that way.

the second part should be just as clear because it’s quite straightforward but it is often a bit fuzzy – likely intentionally but i try to give people the benefit of the doubt, assuming lack of information rather than malicious intent. assuming this is a statement about morality and ethics, which it probably is, that having an army to protect the people from outside interference and oppression is just and correct, it’s the same outside force we’re talking about. the dominant interpretation from the european side at the time, particularly the british one, was that the rulers were the ones who deserved power. it was the way of the world, how the universe and society was organized. it was correct, “right” for the king to govern the colonies and decide what was right or wrong there. this is a statement about taking that authority away. that the king would say it’s wrong for the states to have militias – revolutionary armies. that fighting against the crown, seeking freedom and independence was wrong. this is a statement that at that point and from then on for the rest of time the british and all other outside forces couldn’t “infringe” or push outside the normal and correct expectation the idea of self-preservation as a society, a collective and a new country. it’s not about whether it’s socially or ethically acceptable to have a gun. it’s about whether it’s socially acceptable to have an army to keep us safe from outside forces.

the last piece of the puzzle, though, might be the most-obvious yet least-explored.

the first part of this statement is a conditional. “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” like i said, we don’t speak or write like this anymore. so we’ll use a simple example i mentioned a few minutes ago – “dogs being necessary for happiness, my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. let’s think about what this means. it’s a complex piece of english grammar and an unusual one in our version of the language. “dogs being necessary for happiness” is a formal construction directly equivalent to one of two options – “because dogs are necessary for happiness” or “if dogs are necessary for happiness”. which meaning it has is a contextual answer based on what comes in the next piece of the sentence – “my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. that makes the first meaning obvious. “because dogs are necessary for happiness, my daughter got a puppy for her birthday”. the other doesn’t make any sense. it’s formal and arcane. but it’s not difficult to translate to modern english. let’s try that for the second amendment. “because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”. even without modernizing the rest of the language, it certainly makes a lot more sense in a contemporary sense. the question is whether this is true. is the conditional sensible? is, in other words, a militia necessary to secure that the united states is free from outside control? because if it’s not the rest doesn’t apply. so the sentence is far closer to “if a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state”. if it is, there needs to be one and it needs to be socially and ethically accepted. if it’s not, the rest doesn’t apply.

so let’s apply what we’ve explored and convert the second amendment to a modern statement using modern language but conveying the same message that would have been understood in the eighteenth century.

the original…

a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

becomes…

if an organized army is necessary to the nation remaining independent, it is socially and ethically acceptable for that army to be created, supported and maintained by the nation without interference from outside.

if (and only if) an army is needed to protect us from the rest of the world taking over, in other words, it’s both moral and ethical for the government to raise one and provide for it with public funds raised through taxation whether some people support it or not. is it necessary today? perhaps. that’s not for me to judge in this article, though i have a strong opinion on it. in terms of interpreting the constitution, though, it’s irrelevant. i’ll leave it to the american people to figure out whether an army is necessary for the country to remain independent. whether this has anything to do with guns or individual freedoms, though? not in the slightest.

thanks for exploring this issue with me today. enjoy your freedom…

evil, not guns

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

in the last few days, there has been an incredible increase in the amount of discussion of gun violence. of course, that’s not particularly surprising. people in the modern world jump from one hot-topic to another more quickly than changing their underwear. seriously. every day there is extreme outrage and emotional absurdity about something and the next it has been forgotten. not that i don’t think these issues are serious. i just think they’re serious next week and that we have to solve them rather than simply throw outrage and vitriol in their directions before getting distracted. the world is on fire. extremely. and we need to put the fires out instead of just wandering around, room to room, being shocked the fires are everywhere and continually getting worse.

this week’s fire of choice, however, is gun violence, particularly gun violence in schools. uvalde, texas, a city almost nobody outside that state and probably the majority of those inside it had heard of before this week, saw a disgusting attack on children. i hear people say “innocent children” a lot lately. which is an interesting distinction to make as if a bunch of six-year-olds have the possibility of being inherently evil and we only have a responsibility to protect those who aren’t. i generally believe people aren’t good or evil, just that their actions can be and change is always possible. but when we’re talking about young children i don’t really think there’s such a thing as a bad child. you may not agree. children, however, are our responsibility to protect. as adults, we don’t have a choice. it is a huge part of our purpose for existence. even the must rudimentary of animals with the simplest brains and social structures protect their children. it’s really only humans who have given up on our offspring, leaving them to be massacred in easily-avoidable ways. even encouraging their deaths. i know we have a population problem but this can’t be anyone’s reasonable solution to it, can it?

in that tiny city, twenty-one people were killed in one of the most deadly violent crimes perpetrated by an individual in history. given how horrifically violent our society has become, that’s not particularly surprising, either. violence is getting worse with every passing week, it seems, of late. and the statistics confirm it. as does the news with protests in capitals all over the world spilling into the streets and government buildings, leaving destruction and unprovoked wars of aggression springing up in places thought stable even a decade ago.

but let’s talk about the response.

the other thing that’s happened this week is the yearly convention of the national rifle association. it’s an odd coincidence but given the frequency of shootings lately it’s not really that odd when you think about it. has there been a week when no gun violence has been in the news? sure, not quite as severe as this. but people are dying, often children, killed by guns.

and i know what people are going to say. they’re not killed by guns. they’re killed by people. and that’s a valid distinction but it doesn’t matter. here’s why.

guns kill people quickly and easily. that means a single individual can cause vastly more death and destruction more reliably with a gun than without one. could a perpetrator do something similar with a knife? a sword? a heavy piece of pipe? a hatchet, perhaps? absolutely. but (and i admit i’m no expert on killing technique but i can extrapolate from common-sense) it’s more difficult and far slower. let’s say an adult wants to kill children in a school and they don’t have a gun. they get a knife, walk into the school and force their way into a classroom where they proceed to try to stab one of the children. they might succeed but while they’re doing it they have to fight off the teacher and the mass of other students, deal with the screaming that brings other adults in the building to help and protect themself from being disarmed. they might hurt one of the children. they might even manage to kill one. but there’s very little chance it would be a larger disaster. an attack on a child is certainly unforgivable and tragic. but a potentially-fatal attack on a single child is a vast improvement on a certainly-fatal attack on dozens.

it would be wonderful if we could eliminate the desire to cause harm, cause death, perpetrate crime. but since human society began these things have existed. it is the cost of human culture – greed, hatred and violence. and we must work to erase those from our societies, most certainly. but while we wait for the impossible to happen, perhaps we can do something to prevent it. there is a sentiment about violence similar to that of racism, that we must erase it from our hearts and minds before we can erase it from our streets. and that is true. but we’re not really ever going to be able to erase violence any more than we can erase racism. a half-century after the civil-rights movement and racism is still alive and well – in many ways more prevalent than ever in the 2020s. but we fight it with legislation.

perhaps we can fight violence the same way.

we have spent a century or more taking one particular approach to violent crime – the threat of punishment. it doesn’t work. let’s look at how this is supposed to function. we pass laws that say the response to a violent crime is arrest, prosecution and incarceration in a prison. this is a deterrent for certain people but – and here’s the really important part – not the ones we need to deter. a reasonable, educated, sensible person will see the threat of prison as a huge reason not to commit a crime. they probably didn’t have much interest in the crime in the first place, though. that might be great if it’s a crime without much risk like breaking traffic laws or lying on an insurance claim document. but when it comes to a crime most people don’t want to commit in the first place like executing a classroom full of children we can’t rely on how most people hear a threat of prison. we’re talking about the tiny minority of people who actually desire to hurt kids.

or perhaps it’s not that small a minority. in fact, violent crimes are committed by vast numbers of people every year. and they’re not quite the people you’d expect. this is because our society is so fixated on self-justified violence and anger and aggression that it’s impossible to find people not impacted by it, either by being terrified or by being more angry and, as a result, more likely to be violent.

but with this rise in “acceptable anger” comes a decline in how much people care about being caught and punished. so the same argument realistically applies. the threat of punishment isn’t stopping people like it once at least somewhat did. all we end up with is more people in jail but no fewer crimes being committed – more, in fact, as time goes on and it’s more and more obvious the punishment is minimal.

so what works better than using the threat of punishment? well, as we’re talking about children, let’s think for a minute about how you stop a child from getting hurt in the home. any parent will know these basic things – or any teacher. and it sounds simple but stick with me for a minute here. we’re going somewhere important.

teaching a child to cook is an exercise in thinking about safety. take them into the kitchen and there are things they can do and things they can’t. let’s say the child is four. the first thing you’d teach an adult about cooking is probably chopping vegetables. it’s simple and quick and the result is immediately-visible. would you teach the four-year-old to pick up a sharp knife and start wailing away on some carrots and zucchinis? not likely. unless you’re a sadist, you know they’re likely to hurt themselves. the knife is dangerous. that doesn’t mean you take away their functionality in the kitchen. you just take care of them. they start by mixing ingredients for cookies, stirring, rolling out the dough for bread. they have fun, you have fun, they learn and they don’t cut off any fingers.

it’s not because the knife was evil. it’s because you’re not and you don’t want the kid to get hurt.

let’s apply that thinking to our school-shooting situation. there is only one reason to own a gun in the real world – i mean, outside target-shooting, which doesn’t happen out in the streets and could be done in a tightly-controlled environment. killing. that’s what they’re for. it’s why guns were invented. killing people or animals is their only purpose. if you bought a gun and don’t intent to kill with it, i really want to ask precisely what your purpose of it is. just threatening to kill? is that better?

i heard someone recently say “i don’t want your hunting rifles or your pistols, just your assault weapons”. no. i want your guns. all of them. would it have been a little slower to kill two-dozen children with a handgun? a little. but not much. so what difference does it make what kind of gun it was?

i’m so tired of the simple answer not being the accepted answer. i’m so tired of waking up to another story in the news about children being executed because we can’t just look at the situation and say “no, we don’t need to be armed”. in theory, we have a right to do many things that can cause harm. but we have accepted them being eliminated. there’s nothing in the constitution about taking away the right to take recreational drugs, for example. heroin, cocaine and myriad other substances are prohibited, though. and i don’t see anyone screaming on the national news about a violation of personal freedom. if you decide to take illicit substances and put them in your body, the impact is severe. and it has a knock-on result in your community. but the impact is far less immediate or deadly today than getting a gun and walking into a school.

yet we are willing to continue to sacrifice children to the notion that freedom is more important than safety, more important than lives and more important than children.

what good does it do if you’re free but your daughter was just executed?

what good is being free if you went to work this morning to take care of children and came home in a box?

yes, i want your guns. i want all of them. i want to take them away because they’re not safe.

and if you want to keep them you aren’t just part of the problem.

you are the problem.

sights and bites

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, the torah says. “retribution!”, you cry. and you are wrong.

there may be more frequently-cited phrases of biblical wisdom but i doubt it. good samaritans? needles’ eyes? solomon’s wisdom? even allusions to nudity and serpents in primeval gardens pale in comparison with this seemingly-obvious declaration of religious justification and divine instruction for retribution. it’s just what our culture is screaming out for. in an age where there is nothing more frequent than righteous indignation, nothing more desirable than justifiable anger and aggression, nothing more common than violence and no videos no more popular than payback (other than porn, which is the great equalizer in entertainment, as it has always been, though that’s another issue altogether), it sounds like not only do you have a right to be angry and demand retribution but you’ve got a god on your side when you do it.

and this is the point when you have to ask yourself a serious question. what if that really was the right way to read that statement, hear that logic?

וְאִישׁ, כִּי-יִתֵּן מוּם בַּעֲמִיתוֹ–כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, כֵּן יֵעָשֶׂה לּוֹ.
שֶׁבֶר, תַּחַת שֶׁבֶר, עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן–כַּאֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מוּם בָּאָדָם, כֵּן יִנָּתֶן בּוֹ.

there are three possible ways to read this. one is very wrong. the other two are definitely possible, though i think one’s far more appropriate than the other, especially from a contemporary perspective. but i’ll let you be the judge of that in a few minutes.

the first is the way popular culture reads it. if you kill someone, they can kill you. if you hurt someone, they can hurt you. not simply compensation but violent, equalizing payback. to look at this more carefully, it’s important to remember where this line comes from. it’s in leviticus about building a more stable society. guidance from divine speech to the israelites through moses. in other words, it’s a prescription for a better way of life after escaping from slavery. now it’s extremely important to remember that the “slavery” part here is relative. whether this was real slavery or simply economic servitude is an open question and the balance of evidence strongly favors the second – in other words, exodus is playing a bit fast-and-loose with the truth to paint a dramatic picture. but that’s ok. the message is pretty clear. things were bad in egypt and it was better to have a coherent, stable, egalitarian society in the land of israel, free from the racial and social pressures of being second-class material objects in egypt (and, for that matter, most of the levant and nubia where egypt was the ruling body at the time…). so moses led the israelites from egypt to … the middle of nowhere for realistically far too long to be sensible. was this blatant stupidity? quite possible. but that part probably really did happen. it’s the why part that’s debatable, though not really relevant to today’s thoughts.

but there’s another why question that’s quite important. why were all these rules being communicated. perhaps more significantly, why did the teachers and elders think they were so important to write and keep. don’t forget, this was a mass of mostly-disorganized people far from the only homes they’d ever known traveling to a place they didn’t even completely know existed and were hoping for divine guidance. yet with all that happening they thought it was significant enough to write a very short list of instructions on how to live. humans are vindictive and aggressive. they have been since the creation of society. in many ways, society was designed and extrapolated as an extended justification for retributive violence rather than the simple hunting-and-gathering life before pseudo-modern cultural norms began. so if the instruction was to act the way they’d already been acting and it was ok, what was the point? continue as if nothing had happened? might as well have just stayed in egypt. might as well have said nothing. if there’s going to be an instruction, it’s because something had to change. like all other human societies, the israelites were already more than happy to punish each other for anything and everything. that went without saying.

yet it was said. the next possible version, the version that was assumed to be true at the time, was compensatory retribution. i think this is a dangerous line to go down in the modern sense but at the time it made a huge amount of sense. the idea was that there was a set financial compensation for crimes against others. cause someone to be hurt and you have to give them more than the money they’d have lost from not being able to work while they recover. kill someone and you owe their family vast sums of money. and the most important part of this was that it scaled based on the simple matter of potential payment. so a rich person couldn’t just kill someone then pay their family for the privilege. the rich were given immense fines for their crimes to make them difficult to justify – it was prohibitively expensive to pay off the family of a victim. which answer the question of why this was instituted. if you understand what predated it.

the system that came before was very simple. if you hurt someone, you were dragged in front of someone who would judge you – a religious or political leader, usually the same thing but with a few subtle differences we don’t need to get into here, especially in the egyptian context. then you stated your justification. if they agreed with you, you got away with it. if they didn’t, the punishment was generally whatever the judge thought appropriate at the time. the important part, though, is that there was a pretty good chance you could get away with it if you were “justified”. this was a huge change in that concept. the idea wasn’t “an eye for an eye if it’s not justified and a tooth for a tooth if they haven’t hurt you”. it was retributive compensation for harm even if you had a good reason to do it. there was no more “getting-away-with-it” potential. why was this significant? because we’re talking about creating a stable society. the opposite of a stable society may be understood as one where people continuously fight against each other. or where one bad deed turns into hundreds, back and forth. that’s not just a theoretical state. that’s what happened in most of the levant (especially what’s now the arab lands) for many thousands of years. realistically until the rise of islam with its new brand of justice and stability, arab nomadic societies engaged in the sort of vendettas that would make sicilians surprised at their severity and length. so did the israelites. until leviticus. enter moses and standardized retributive punishment in economic terms.

but that was then, as they say. and this is a new age. so we have the third interpretative model and i think it’s just as valid from a historical perspective and far more applicable to our modern society.

“retribution by active compensation” is what i have been calling it but i think a better term is “pay-forward culture”. in other words, reparative justice rather than retributive punishment. the idea is very simple, though not exactly in keeping with “human nature” – another word for “cultural norms” because “human nature” is to be like the great apes and they don’t do retribution, just survival and preprogrammed competition for sexual procreative supremacy. how does it work? if you take a life, you must spend the rest of yours saving the lives of others. if you have caused harm, you must spend your life relieving and preventing harm to others. hurt a child? help a hundred. kill someone? save a hundred lives.

of course, this is a startlingly departure from the traditional interpretation in popular culture of the concept of retributive justice. but it’s not at all a large departure from the traditional rabbinic interpretation. while the ancient version is financial rather than activity-based, that’s not as massive a leap as you might think. what would the money, land and possessions extracted in payment have been used for? to help those who suffered at the hands of the perpetrator, certainly, but far more frequently to prevent similar harm coming to others. and that, in effect, is exactly what we’re talking about.

so give it some thought. would you rather live in a society where payback and retributive violence were accepted and the norm or not? would you rather have the potential for self-justification and vicious anger or peace? i know where i’d rather be. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? i’m fine with that. sounds like more funding for medical care to me. thanks, moses.

preparing children for guns

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

when i was little, more moons ago than i would prefer to think about given the choice, it was very rare for intruders to penetrate schools and shoot children. it occasionally happened that an angry student in a high school or college would show up and start randomly attacking their classmates but elementary school felt relatively safe. other than the overwhelming culture of violence and bullying, of course. which is even worse now for many reasons, the main one being generalized acceptance of it. but there were no guns in my elementary school. not from the students or anyone else. and that is most definitely a good thing.

sadly it’s not true anymore. from sandy hook to uvalde and we know it’s not the last, only the most recent in the unending stream of school shootings — of elementary school shootings. we’re not talking about young adults. we’re talking about people committing mass-murder of children. of unknown, random children. there may be more evil things a person can do than execute children. but i can’t think of any.

what comes to mind, though, is the effort devoted to preparing children in modern classrooms for shooting incidents where an intruder enters the building and attempts to kill them. not only do they talk about it, they actually do drills to prepare in case it happens. which it seems likely to continue to. teachers have to coordinate locked doors and silent kids hiding out of sight. it’s like hide-and-seek but with the punishment for being found not being laughed at by the other children but your death and the execution in front of you of all your friends and your teacher.

it reminds me of something else just as meaningless and useless from my own childhood. i am a kid of the eighties — a millennial. which means i’m a child of the cold war, a time when here in north america we were told endlessly of the soviet threat, the russian soldier like goliath with an unlimited arsenal of nuclear weapons poised to strike and looking for the merest excuse to launch an unprovoked attack and annihilate the whole western hemisphere in a radiative nightmare of heat and light. this is what we were told by our elders, teachers, news broadcasts and popular culture. the russians were coming. if you haven’t seen red dawn, that’s about the sum of it. the old one. not the one about the north koreans. you should watch it. it’s awful but it’s a stunningly-accurate depiction of the cultural environment of the eighties.

the answer to this, however, was not to actually try to make real peace (korea? laos? vietnam? afghanistan? the war was, in fact, not particularly cold at all, was it?) with the soviet union and the rest of the warsaw pact but to train children to protect themselves in the face of a nuclear attack. by hiding under mdf-and-aluminum desks with our books over our heads. they called them “duck-and-cover drills”. we ducked under the desks and covered ourselves. because, of course, as we would later learn in our physics classes, the best possible radiation shield in an attack was mdf and hollow aluminum tubing, right? not to mention a hydrogen-fusion bomb wasn’t just going to vaporize us if it exploded in a nearby city… much like in our ridiculous religious indoctrination classes (yes, canadian schools were still run by the churches when i was a child) telling us not to worry about war with the soviets because god was on our side and wouldn’t let children die. yes, in the middle of the aids epidemic.

which is why it reminds me so vividly of that when i hear about these senseless but all-too-predictable shooting incidents like yesterday’s. we’re fighting the wrong enemy in a war that shouldn’t exist.

why are we training children to be quiet? that won’t save them. why are we training children to be afraid when all it’s doing is causing them to have more painful daily lives in school, wondering when the next terrifying adult will start rattling the doorhandles and screaming, waving a gun around? that certainly won’t save them. and why are we putting the idea in their heads that if they don’t shut up and hide the deaths of all their friends will somehow be their fault for not being good enough at keeping quiet and hiding from the enemy? if this isn’t a recipe for future therapy needs, i don’t know what is.

let’s fix the problem.

what’s the problem? it’s not that people are angry, though that’s definitely a problem. it’s not that people are self-indulgent, though that’s an even larger one. and it’s not that people have guns, though that’s a massive one right there, too. it’s that people believe that hurting others is valid, that children are a legitimate target for anger and violence and that hurting others is a possible solution to their problems.

how do we fix that?

well, there are many things that need to be done. but the first thing is to talk about it. publicly, collectively as a society. we need to start understanding as a group that anger is wrong. that violence is unacceptable. and, more than anything else, that causing others pain, even in retribution, is never a solution to problems. we need to get away from the “payback culture” or “retributive outlook” so thoroughly and ubiquitously adopted in the modern west. if someone hurts you, you hurt them back. that’s not what “an eye for an eye” was ever supposed to mean. and they’re not exactly up on their rabbinic literature, i suspect, anyway. but that’s what the western world has devolved into. payback. you’ve hurt me so i have every right to be angry and hurt you back. we binge youtube videos of retribution and causing harm. seriously, it’s one of the most commonly searched concepts. as a content-creator and teacher, this hurts me in more than one way.

there are practical things we can do, though, to improve the situation. other than cultural improvement, that is, to eliminate the source of the link between feeling angry and taking it out on innocent people.

the most significant thing we can do is take away the guns. no, i don’t mean background checks or mental-health evaluations or better tracking. i mean take away the guns. everyone’s. make firearms illegal for anything other than military and police purposes. this isn’t about “you have to register your weapon”. this is about “nobody should have a weapon at all”. and if you have one, it should be taken away and you should be prosecuted for possession. we don’t look at heroin or crystal meth and say “it’s a personal choice” or “it’s part of our history”. yes, what you put in your body is theoretically a personal choice. and drugs are certainly part of our history — at least as much as guns have ever been and if you don’t think that’s true let me know and i’ll convince you. with lots of evidence. we look at these as dangerous weapons destroying our children and young adults. among others. and we take them away because they’re too dangerous to be out there in the world killing people.

sounds like guns.

so there’s a clear decision to make — what we can do about guns. we can make a clear decision and say the lives of our children are more important than our personal freedom to have firearms. or they’re not. we can’t have it both ways. it’s one or the other. we sacrifice our guns to save our children or we sacrifice our children to save our guns.

i suspect, though it may simply be experience talking and experience tells me there’s no hope, i know the answer. we will sacrifice our children and allow them to die because we want guns.

prove me wrong.

abortion is good for you

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

yes. it’s good specifically for you.

i believe the question of abortion is an exceptionally-simple moral and ethical one. it is fundamentally and absolutely barbaric to force any living thing to undergo pregnancy and childbirth. it is physically difficult and destructive, not to mention emotionally draining. its impact on life is larger than any other potential shift in medical status. perhaps, however, you are a barbarian who enjoys seeing females incur pain and suffering lasting their entire lives, childbirth not being the end of the impact of pregnancy but only the end of the first almost-year of decades of physical destruction resulting from carrying an infant to term. perhaps you have undergone it and believe other females should suffer as much as you. perhaps you are a sadist. this isn’t about religion. there’s no large-scale religion out there that subscribes to the idea that you should force anyone to carry a child and give birth. none. if someone has told you the bible says abortion is wrong, either they haven’t read the bible or you haven’t. if they’ve said there are passages in the qur’an that say females can’t select not to be pregnant, they’re corrupting the message of the prophet. and those are the only two popular religious systems at the moment anyone is even pretending speak against abortion — judaism, hinduism, sikhism and even philosophies like buddhism, daoism and confucianism are openly pro-choice and pro-women.

but perhaps you really feel strongly it’s bad for society or for you specifically. perhaps you’re such a bad person you worry if abortion was more accessible you would have been terminated. maybe that’s what it is — you don’t think you deserve to have been born and wonder what would have happened if your mother had had easier abortion access. i can probably put your mind at ease on that one. legalization of abortion hasn’t changed the number of abortions, only the number of women who survive them without significant health degradation. so if your mother had wanted to terminate you, she probably would have. you have nothing to fear.

so let’s get to something a bit more functionally-useful. if the argument about it being brutal, barbaric and unthinkably evil to force pregnancy and childbirth on another living thing doesn’t strike you as a basic truth — which it should — there is a perhaps-stronger argument. abortion is good for you. no, i don’t mean it’s good for women or good for potential-mothers or good for those who like autonomy and freedom. i mean it’s good for you. and it’s good for society. you in particular, though. let’s explore that a little. i suspect you’ve never thought about the practicalities of it in terms of it’s impact on you in particular and those around you but it really has quite a few and they’re all positive.

  1. population. this planet has dramatically too many people. there is absolutely no debate about whether earth is overpopulated, only what can be done about it and how large this problem actually is. the problem certainly exists. the impact of overpopulation is, as we have seen in recent years, significantly-increased risk of viral outbreaks, degradation of the environment, reduced availability of food, less available land and destruction of natural environments for housing, food-production and commerce. we need there to be less people. that either means less children being born or killing people to make the population sustainable. i’m not sure if you’re for or against killing people but i’m going to hope you’re against it. hope is good. i like to think everyone agrees with me that slaughtering large segments of the population for sustainability is a bad idea. the other solution to this problem is a dramatically-lower birth rate. we can only achieve that in practical terms by allowing people to select not to give birth and accept the social responsibility that there are already too many children so any new ones should be carefully planned and desired — and there are even too many of those. reducing the population over time will have the single largest potential improvement of any change we could make to this planet in terms of the survival of our species on it.
  2. healthcare. many of us live in places where there is poorly-provided socialized medicine. others in places where medicine is mostly-private but working on a market-demand system. in either situation, there is incredibly-strong demand in the medical system in general. this has two significant impacts on us as individuals. it reduces the supply of doctors and other healthcare professionals — try to find a good local doctor accepting patients and i suspect you’ll have difficulty and if you want to find a mental health practitioner you’re likely out of luck unless you want to be on a waitlist indefinitely. and it increases the cost of those services. whether that means the cost is increased in terms of government spending on healthcare putting more pressure on already-overloaded taxation systems or translates to you paying more and more in health insurance and in-hospital billing, the link is clear. more pregnancies, more births and more children being brought into the world combine to add a massive stress to an already-broken healthcare system through the vast majority of the world.
  3. housing. there are far too many people but the largest pressure-point in the contemporary housing market is new families looking to shift from small-apartment life to small-home and large-apartment life to accommodate young children. this is depleting the supply of affordable housing and pushing the housing market into a tailspin of pricing increases. the knock-on impact of this is the dramatic increase in cost of new-build supplies and labor, shortages in available housing and the inability of many people to afford either to remain in their current homes or move to new ones. with each new child born, your housing situation becomes more difficult.
  4. environment. children in the modern west require vast amounts of energy, water and manufactured goods to grow up. far more than most adults in practical, everyday terms, in fact. even if it was less, we are still talking about a significant impact on supply-chain systems and an already-overburdened world of production, transportation and disposal. in other words, having children means buying things for them, which had to have been made somewhere, using them and disposing of them when they’ve reached their end-of-life points. this increases demand for chemical and materials mining, extraction, processing and distribution, pollution from production, cost in financial terms and environmental degradation from disposal of used items, especially plastics. as children change far more quickly, disposal cycles tend to be much faster for children and as they are less discriminating consumers in general there is a tendency for their products to be lower-quality and more disposable — at least, on average. this means children are a significant factor in environmental damage. not to mention the impact their requirements for food-production and land-use have on an already-taxed ecosystem. more mouths to feed, bodies to clothe and individuals to keep busy means more damage to the world around us. while i’m sure we’re not suggesting we stop feeding and clothing our children — at least i hope we’re not — forcing the number of extra people created seems irresponsible in at least this way. added to the others, that is.

forcing another to experience pregnancy and childbirth is unthinkably horrific. it is evil. it is immoral. and it goes against the principles of all accepted philosophies and religions. if this means nothing to you, however, not only is abortion good for society but for you as an individual. it reduces the stress on a healthcare system that is, if not already failing you personally, will in the future. it reduces the pressure on the housing system, limits population growth at a time when it is out-of-control to the point it threatens our extinction and it reduces our impact on the natural world, which i’m sure you love to experience as much as me. it has no negative side-effects on those not directly undergoing the procedure — if you’re not the one having the abortion, you can’t possibly suffer from it. but you can certainly benefit.

so there’s no reason, unless you’re an ethical person, to think about the women who shouldn’t be forced to do these horrible things to their bodies. think about yourself. be selfish. be self-obsessed if you want to. look at the benefits to your society and you in particular of allowing abortion. it’s good for you.

thanks for exploring this with me.

the wrong questions

[estimated reading time 11 minutes]

there was an article in the times this morning (yes, the new york times — if you’re reading anything written or recorded in the united kingdom, you’re doing it wrong and i’m absolutely serious about that) bemoaning the fact that the person responsible for a recent mass-shooting was able to purchase an assault rifle despite having been mentally-unstable to the point of intervention recently in high school. and that is definitely troubling. but they’re asking the wrong question. why was he permitted to purchase an assault rifle while mentally unstable? well, because you can purchase an assault rifle. the answer to the question is as obvious as it is stupid. and there is exactly where the problem begins.

people have become conditioned to ask the wrong questions about violence. the question is not why he was able to purchase the weapon in his circumstances but why he was able to purchase the weapon at all. the question is not why he was able to plan violence without anyone noticing. it was why those who did notice didn’t do anything about it. and the question is, more generally, not why he wanted to perpetrate such an act of violence but why anyone would think of that as even a potential solution to the problem they are experiencing — perhaps in an even broader sense why they feel there is a problem in the first place and why they feel they should do something about it. why, in other words, is violence a possible answer to anything?

so let’s ask those questions.

1 why was it possible to buy an assault rifle?
2 why was it possible to discuss violence and nobody intervene?
3 what is the problem he was seeing in the world?
4 why was violence seen as a possible solution?

the first one has a simple answer but it’s as mindless as it is irrelevant. he was able to buy an assault rifle because it’s legal in most of the united states to do it. there are restrictions and perhaps he didn’t meet all the requirements, though i suspect if he didn’t he was very close. but again the question has an implication that makes it rather less functional in terms of understanding the greater issue. what do you use an assault rifle for? it’s a military device. its purpose is simple. it’s the purpose of all firearms. killing or at least hurting living beings.

given the generalized disregard for life in the western world, i expect this is somewhat unsurprising. the vast majority of people in the modern west daily cause the mass-slaughter of non-human life not just for their consumption but their pleasure. while that is disgusting and reprehensible, that is less the concern in terms of violence than a much larger issue of failed morality. the disregard for human suffering and death, however, has been made very clear by the recent pandemic. two years have passed so far and more than a million people in the united states alone have been relegated to worthlessness by causing their deaths instead of preventing wave after wave of infection through tight controls on movement and infection. the government didn’t care. the people supporting the government didn’t care. the message was clear — if you’re not in my family and you’re not my friend you don’t matter and my money, my job and my pleasure are far more important than your survival.

then we ask the question why someone mentally unfit to have a device built to kill people was permitted to acquire one? if you want a device designed to kill people, are you not automatically mentally-unfit? in all seriousness, there are only two reasons to own a weapon. one is to collect them as objects of art and i know a few people who do this, usually with historical weapons. and they can certainly be beautiful. the other reason is to kill people. it really is that simple and most people who own weapons do it because they think they’ll have to use them for their intended purpose, not just to decorate their homes. so instead of asking the question why someone likely to use a gun to kill people can buy a gun it’s probably far better to ask the question why it is permitted at all to have a weapon in the general public.

i strongly believe in the abolition of the military. very strongly, in fact. but while there is a military it needs weapons. but military and law-enforcement are the only legitimate uses for deadly force. if that’s the only place people should be permitted to kill, why are we giving anyone else the increased ability to do it? sure, you can kill someone with your hands. or an ax. but an ax’ primary purpose isn’t to cause death. unless you’re a tree. that would be like saying you can stop the abuse of prescription drugs by returning to a system of medication that uses nothing more advanced than herbs — the medication is useful enough for the side-effects on society to be unpleasant but necessary. in terms of guns, though, that’s more like the addition of heroin to the standard list of items at your local drugstore. it’s not just unnecessary. it’s unthinkable. yet we do it all across western society.

beyond having a gun, though, people plan attacks. whether they do it in their heads or with others is often unpredictable and depends on their particular situations but it is often the second. these discussions sometimes get reported to the authorities or mental-health intervention teams and are stopped before they become violent and people are killed. but all too often they are not. is it because people don’t take these discussions seriously? in the climate of the last few decades, i suspect that is far less-frequently the case than people like to pretend when they’re trying to absolve themselves of guilt in the aftermath. much as the holocaust was perpetrated by willing participants and facilitated by willing onlookers across the whole western world who felt it wasn’t just desirable but justified — those who didn’t want to do it were perfectly happy to watch it happen. it was open antisemitism on the part of the actors and thinly-veiled antisemitism on the part of everyone else who knew it was happening — and it was reported in the public press repeatedly so anyone who says the world wasn’t aware is either lying or stupid.

so the question is why didn’t these people who were aware of what was being said (in this and other instances) say nothing. and the answer is as troubling as it is obvious. it’s because they desired the outcome they thought was likely. either they didn’t care people were going to be killed or they wanted it to happen and the distinction between being ok with death and desiring death is a question of minimal darkness rather than one of direction. are we talking about extremists or simply people who love violence? are we talking about those who desire death or those who find it entertaining? are these people who enjoy the suffering of others in general or these target populations in particular? i suspect you know the answers as well as me.

which gets to what is potentially the most painful of these questions to ask — what is the world’s problem identified by the violent perpetrator in this and many similar events? there are several candidates. the obvious answer, though perhaps not the correct one, is the existence of black people in a country they believe should only be filled with whites. it’s part of the answer, i suspect, though not the whole story. what we’re talking about isn’t just white-supremacy. we’re talking about american exceptionalism and racial gradation theory and that is far more complex than just “i hate black people” or “white people are better”.

let’s take a moment to look at the complexity of this argument. it’s not that i support it. very extremely the opposite, in fact. but it’s important to recognize the argument to be better able to fight against it. the argument looks like this. western countries are inherently and historically dominated and controlled by white majorities subjugating non-white groups. these countries are economically and militarily (the first because of the second, in fact) more successful and this is because they are run and populated by whites. as a result, whites are better. this is compounded by the notion that evolution was progressive so as the original people (likely dark-skinned) moved out of africa the new populations (with lighter skin) developed more so the black races are more evolutionarily-primitive and deserve to be subjugated. before going on to the exceptionalism argument, it might be useful to take careful note of the fact that these assumptions are based on blatant lies and i suspect most of the people teaching them and a lot of those accepting them and embracing them know they’re lies — that’s not how evolution works and skin color isn’t about evolving abilities but latitude. the closer you live generation after generation to hot, sunny climates, the darker your skin will be. travel in a place like north africa and you’ll see the gradations of skin color approximately following the distance from the equator. it’s not as obvious in the united states for three reasons — mass-migration on a short time-scale, frequent relocation within a span of generations and a generalized mixture of skin color to begin so a non-homogeneous population baseline to compare.

the exceptionalism argument follows much the same trajectory. america functions on a somewhat different platform of government and economic planning than other countries. it has been successful. it must be better. so americans and the american way of doing things is better. of course, american in this context is usually a filler for “white, anglo-saxon protestant american” because in the minds of people with this type of argument you can’t be a real american while being non-white or non-christian, for example. a black muslim might be a citizen. a secular chinese person might be a citizen. but an average dude from alabama or rhode island is an american, passport-irregardless. this avoids a very clear historical truth, though. america is successful by accident, not design. what were the other possible dominant economic and military powers in the world at the time when america was asserting its dominance? russia? just destroyed by the war. all the major european powers? they just spent the first half of the century destroying each other. japan? bombed into submission by an aggressive american government using mostly-european technological advances paid for by american money. china? just went through multiple revolutions and conquests by an american-encouraged imperial japan after centuries of fighting over tea and opium against the british and facing internal rebellions perpetrated by supporters of christianity to subjugate the ruling dynasty. american won because it was doing things right? not even slightly. it won the economic and military game because it was the only one left standing in the middle of the twentieth century and that’s when the game ended because continued war on a global scale was unthinkable. not that it’s stopped. just that it’s stopped being called that. it was like climbing to the top of a mountain that’s only as high as your house, planting a flag and declaring yourself the winner while everyone else is still asleep then building a fence around the mountain so they can’t climb it at all. it’s not difficult to climb. not at all. and in this case china has done is far more thoroughly, which scares many of these extremists — and those who sadly listen to them.

so they see these as problems. people who aren’t white being treated as equals. having jobs. having rights. having anything or even being there. and they want to fix it as if that’s their worst nightmare. as if it even has an impact on their lives.

which is where i think the largest problem actually appears. not that they think this is a problem but that violence is the solution. why?

i suspect there are three reasons — extreme thoughts, culture and acceptance.

we know these people are extremists. but i think the notion that violence solves problems is extreme but generally accepted in modern society. the first reason it’s seen as a solution, though, is that violence is the most extreme possible answer to any question. thinking about something is very quiet. talking about it is less but quite peaceful. yelling about it is less peaceful but still nonviolent. violence is the end of that line. so we can talk about these people as extremists. but that just absolves us and our societies of guilt. and that’s neither fair nor the majority of the truth.

our culture is a massive part of the reason these events happen. violence is seen as an acceptable answer to problems. i suspect i know what you’re thinking — i’m going to complain about violent movies and video games. actually, no. while i think those are symptoms of the problem, they’re certainly not the cause. there was plenty of violence in the world in america and everywhere else long before the advent of movies, television and video games. though in many ways it has become worse since their invention. that link isn’t nearly as causal as people like to believe, though. i’m not a fan of violent movies and games but i don’t think eliminating them would have a significant impact on our current situation.

why do i say they are a symptom? it’s because of fulfillment of desire. companies spend literal billions of dollars producing movies and video games that are extremely violent for one reason and it’s not because they want our streets to be more violent or have more guns on them. at least i hope not. but i can’t imagine large-scale enterprise having an interest in that unless disney and ea games have been significantly investing in the global arms trade. they’re doing it for the same reason companies make anything else — it’s profitable. and it’s profitable because people are prepared to spend money on it. a lot of money. all the time. there are few more profitable industries than entertainment, though it takes huge investment and comes with massive risk. which leads us to a very dangerous question. if people, most of who spend a large portion of their lives complaining they don’t have enough money, are prepared to spend untold quantities of that money watching movies and buying games that are violent, what’s the attraction?

from the beginning of the world, humans have used violence to solve their problems in a way animals never did. animals attacked each other for evolutionary reasons. humans did it for emotion. they felt disrespected or afraid. they lashed out in anger or jealous or rage. not to guarantee their survival or protect their children but because they wanted to. take a second to think about that. they used violence because they wanted to. in anger or frustration they turned to fists. those fists became knives and swords, eventually guns and bombs and chemicals and biological agents. lust and jealousy, anger, frustration, sensations of disrespect. they started to see violence as a valid way of getting what they wanted. this is why revolutionary leaders preaching nonviolence were so shocking and so feared by governments whose whole way of dealing with the world was either violence or the threat of it returning, either from outside (like the roman empire) or directly from that government (like the soviet union). you may be thinking ghandi but the mahatma was far from the first to preach nonviolence. turn the clocks much, much more in that direction and you’ll see nonviolence preached by the buddha and everyone’s favorite spiritual figurehead, jesus of nazareth, perhaps the most misunderstood of history’s significant figures and a teacher whose lessons in love, acceptance and peace were some of the most profound and meaningful things ever spoken. my respect for jesus knows no bounds. sadly so many who pretend to speak for the “white american christian population” haven’t just missed the main points (love, acceptance, peace) but have subverted his messages and turned him into a warrior king, which he didn’t just not become but specifically talked about why he wasn’t.

of course there are plenty of nonviolent protestors in the modern world who deserve our respect. martin luther king jr and thich nhat hanh immediately come to mind but there are thousands of leaders in the black and latinx communities in america, for example, who espouse these methods. not those who commit violence, though.

but what’s most troubling isn’t either of these. the extremism is part of humanity. not good but frequently present through history, at least in small portions of the population. the violence is part of human history and we have a duty to eliminate it that has been avoided and ignored for far too long. but it’s the acceptance that’s most terrifying in the modern popular context. there was a mass-shooting this week. and what do we do? we accept it. we accept that violence and just shake our heads. we think “oh how sad” and move on with our days and do nothing. this is more serious than a pandemic of virus or a war. this is our whole society turning its backs on a problem with an obvious solution. because we don’t want to give up violence as a possible answer.

don’t like the government? revolt. don’t like the way things are done? fight. don’t like the guy next to you in the bar? call him out and hit him in the face. want sex from someone who isn’t receptive? force them onto the ground and do it anyway. violence is inherent in our culture and society and we accept it as part of everyday life. we don’t scream about it or try to eliminate it in a real and coherent way because we want to reserve ourselves the option that when we get angry, when we feel trapped and disrespected and when we don’t get what we want we can turn to our fists or even our guns.

so we are to blame for what happened. we’re always to blame. because in our collective desire to give ourselves a justification for our own past and future violent thoughts and actions we have justified and accepted those of others and validated their thoughts on the matter by simply not changing. we are saying violence is valid. it’s ok. it’s a possible solution to problems.

shame on us.

sensations

[estimated reading time < 1 minutes]

(a poem about hypersensitivity)

no darkness consumes the soul
like the black of panic
flowing through the veins
and stealing every last drop of energy
to create a lightning bolt of passionate self-loathing
to suck the life
from not just this moment
but each instant to come
as an electrical storm within the spirit
focused on the lightning rod of the passing seconds
exterminating them
with the shallowest of breaths
and stealing the future from between my fingers
that taste of nothing but the blood
pounding between my ears
and echoing against my rib cage
suffocating the life from the moments
i had thought once i was able to steal back
from the mind that drinks my essence
and spits it into the river
where it drowns in the salt of earth
dragged from the depths of my long-dead desire
to stay awake
i reflect
yet know there is no reflection
no echo
no self to be seen
even if there was a mirror
i could look into
without crying and screaming
in the darkness of self
lost into the path
where light has no way to touch the feet
or the soul
or the spirit
or even the body
whose sensations have redefined haywire
and exploded
into an uncontrolled spiral of clouds
where ions charge themselves
then careen into the walls of the unconscious mind
where they sink deep below the surface
and start fires
with the flames of gunpowder on water
whose flames no longer consume
but only exploit those nearest
until their hearts swell to breaking
and their compassion turns to lost wanderings
in a desert of hopelessness
that smells vaguely sweet with orange blossoms and mint
until it drowns
in the missing footsteps of mirages of pretended sanity

thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.