Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snowmagedden 2011

Appearing on CNN today, renowned physicist Michio Kaku explained why—contrary to what we might expect—global warming often results in more snow and rain.

Simply put, warmer air around the tropics results in more water evaporating into the air—only to fall somewhere else as rain. Snow storms occur when warm, moisture-laden air currents collide with frigid arctic air; then the water droplets freeze and fall as snow.

For decades, scientists have predicted that, as the average temperature of the earth rises, storms of all kinds would become more frequent and more severe.

They were right. Just ask anyone from New Orleans, Bangladesh, or New England circa 2011.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sticks and Stones . . . and Lethal Language

A year and a half after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, who had been a frequent target of Glenn Beck’s savage rhetoric, a sociology professor in New York seems to be in the cross hairs of this criticism. Now she’s dealing with death threats.

Violent rhetoric can seep into society like poison gas and, directly or indirectly, result in tragedy and death.

The Limits of Debate

Throughout high school and college, I was involved in competitive speech and debate. My first job after college was as a high school debate coach. Skillful debate requires logic, research, and critical thinking. I think it should be a required subject in schools.

In a debate class, as in law school, students are required to be able to argue both sides of an issue. I remember a year when the national debate topic was nuclear weapons. I got pretty good at arguing against disarmament treaties to limit the number of warheads in the world.

Did I believe governments should ignore the horrific dangers involved in stockpiling nukes? Not for a minute. But regardless if we debated on the affirmative or negative side, debate was just a game. We were arguing for points, not power.

The danger is that people who get good at debate can forget the critical difference between winning and being right—both factually and morally.

Persuasion—making others believe what you’re saying—is an essential skill in debate. It requires appealing to the emotions, as well as the intellect, of the audience. Like any tool, it can be used for different purposes. You can use a hammer to pound a nail—or to hit someone in the head.

As citizens of a participatory, democratic government, we are morally obliged to look beyond the arguments—no matter how logical or persuasive—to see what their effects may be in the real world.

And what yardstick should we use to measure those effects? There can be no other than the impact of policies—the real-world results of successful debating—on individual human beings and the other living organisms that share our planet.

Looking at the impacts of arguments is not part of being a good debater. It’s part of being a compassionate, responsible human being.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Crazy in America

Major events are always determined by not one but several factors. Since January 8, when 20 people were killed and wounded in Tucson, much of the public discussion has focused on the availability and lethality of weapons. That’s a topic worth debating.

But in a recent poll, more than half the people who responded felt that the “mental health system” in America was a primary cause of the tragedy.

What mental health system? In America, the vast majority of people who are mentally ill can be found in one of two places: in prison or on the streets of major metropolitan cities.

People in the grips of a serious mental illness typically cannot hold a job, so the very limited and convoluted health care system we had until last year has left the vast majority with no resources for getting help.

Public funding for any kind of social programs, including those that help the mentally ill, are constantly being cut from inadequate to nonexistent, thanks to a culture that does not see taxation as a legitimate way to generate the kind of income government needs to fund the programs we need or want.

The American culture is about thirty years behind science in understanding the biology of mental illness. The 16th-Century definition of “insanity” used by the courts means that most anti-social actions committed by people who are mentally ill are treated as crimes. In a truly civilized country, people like Jared Loughner would be confined to a mental facility for the rest of their lives. (As of now, there is no cure for paranoid schizophrenia, and those who have the disorder cannot be trusted to manage it themselves.)

As it stands, however, our choices as a society are to lock the severely mentally ill up in cages with the most vicious criminals, murder them by government, or warehouse them indefinitely until they are paroled or released at some future time. None of those are rational or compassionate alternatives.

It’s very common for psychotic disorders to “present,” or become evident, in the late teens and early twenties. That’s why a Jared Loughner can seem perfectly normal to high school classmates but loonie to those who know him after graduation. Many of the most seriously ill who are dangerous to themselves and others commit violent acts in their early twenties—or at least fail to become independent, productive members of society. I can’t count the number of families I’ve known in anguish because a loved one desperately needed psychiatric help but could not afford it.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, young adults who do not have their own insurance can at least be covered under their parents’ plans until they are 26. That means the Jared Loughners of this world can afford to get psychiatric help.

It’s not a complete solution to the problem by any means—but at least it’s a very good start.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What Sarah Should Have Said

Sarah Palin’s not the only office seeker guilty of using loaded language (pardon the pun) in recent months. Not once but several times during her campaign, Sharron Angle made the statement that resorting to “Second Amendment remedies” would be an appropriate response to an election that didn’t swing in favor of the Tea Party. And Michele “Locked and Loaded” Bachmann has routinely asserted that it is the right of conservatives to “rise up” against their elected government. These voices, added to those of extreme right-wing media personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have created a veritable fog of hostile rhetoric filled with violent imagery.

But Sarah is in a league of her own. You’d think a woman whose every twitch and twitter is duly reported by the right wing and echoed throughout the mainstream media would learn to choose her words. But what Sarah thinks, Sarah says.

On her web page, Palin literally targeted twenty House Democrats who were up for reelection by showing a map with their districts covered with the cross hairs of a weapon. Eighteen of the twenty did not return to Congress, and one got shot: Gabrielle Giffords. The headline of the widely broadcast image read, “Don’t Retreat. Reload.” The implication couldn’t be clearer. Anyone na├»ve enough to think there aren’t people who would take that literally doesn’t know squat about human nature.

When a mentally deranged young man literally put Gabby Giffords in the cross hairs and put a bullet through her brain, Sarah might have expressed some degree of the horror and shock felt by the rest of the country. She might have said something like this:

“It’s clear that there are legitimate questions to be asked and answered about what contributed to this deadly rampage. I do not believe that gun-related images and metaphors alone would inspire this kind of violence. But in the interest of ensuring that violent rhetoric does not spur extremists to commit violent acts, I call upon my fellow gun-rights supporters to be careful of using language that, if taken literally, would suggest that bullets should be used to settle political differences.”

But no. Not a word about toning down what every rational person in America agrees is hate speech. Rather, Sarah cast herself as the victim, a martyr comparable to Jews tortured in killed in the radical belief that they habitually murdered children.

Rather than getting defensive, the former half-governor could have used the occasion to say something socially responsible. But as with every other event that occurs in her world, this event was essentially all about Sarah.

That’s what we expect from many of our superstars. But from our public representatives—and those who claim to want to serve—we should expect a great deal more.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Guns and American Entitlement

When I was a little girl, my dad sometimes took me shooting. We’d go someplace near the edge of town, set up a row of cans, and use bullets to punch holes in them. On those days, I imagined myself putting every bullet where I wanted it to go (and sometimes it happened that way). I wanted to be Annie Oakley.

I enjoyed spending time with my dad, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought the whole exercise was rather pointless. There are lots of ways to hit targets—with arrows and darts, for example. I wondered then, as I wonder now, why so many people are passionate about heavy, noisy, expensive, and dangerous weapons—people who, like my dad, didn’t hunt and had no enemies against whom to defend himself.

I married a man who grew up on the prairie and whose father had some good reasons to carry guns—mostly to defend against coyotes, as well as making a little money on the side selling pelts. My husband’s father was a mechanic who loved anything made of metal that had moving parts—the more complicated the better.

My husband inherited his love of gadgets and became a mechanical engineer, as well as a locally well-known expert on guns. When his first child was a girl, someone asked him if he was disappointed not to have had a son. Bemused by the question, he responded, “Why would I be disappointed? I can teach her to shoot just as well as I can a boy.”

About three years ago, my husband and I went with my oldest stepson and daughter-in-law to an event at a gun club shooting range. Hundreds of automatic weapons were laid out on long tables, and anyone could shoot them for the price of the ammunition. Hundreds of people, mostly men and boys, lined up at every table to take a turn pummeling targets with streams of bullets. I took my turn, and at almost every family gathering since then, someone says, “You know, Mom has shot a Thompson submachine gun.” Only in America would that be a badge of honor more worthy of mention that any of the hundreds of other quirky things I’ve done in my life.

Last 4th of July, my husband and I went with three of our sons and a family friend to a local shooting range. The men in my family all top six feet (some by several inches), and I thought even the range master looked a little concerned as we started unloading armfuls of armaments from the car. He soon relaxed, however, when the shooting started. My husband has seen to it that all his sons learned early how to handle guns, and very few of the hundreds of rounds shot that day missed the bull’s eye (except the ones I fired).

So I understand how integrated guns are in American culture. And I say something has to change.

The slaughter by guns of innocent people is so routine in this country that, unless the victims are famous, it takes at least several deaths to even make the national news. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 people every year in the U.S. are killed by gunfire, not to mention the additional thousands who are wounded and maimed.

Thanks to the relentless, radical, well-funded defense of weapons by the National Rifle Association, it has been politically incorrect for many years to even mention common-sense controls that might keep guns out of the hands of violent and crazy people (not to mention children). Thanks to the national paranoia created by extremists and conspiracy theorists, a good percentage of Americans hold the irrational belief that the government wants to disarm its citizens in order to control them. Right-wing politicians have succeeded in making issues regarding “gun control” pretty much synonymous with burning the American flag and killing babies.

Enough. This ridiculous, emotional, all-or-nothing mentality with respect to guns in America needs to be examined in the cold light of reason.

Americans, we have to talk.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Culture of Killing

Today's murderous rampage in Arizona is a historic national tragedy. With six people dead, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the head. Thirteen others are wounded.

In the immediate aftermath, much of the national commentary has appropriately centered on the violent rhetoric and frequent allusions to guns that have, all too often, been a part of political rhetoric in recent months. But among the early headlines is also this item, regarding the shooter, who is clearly deranged:

"Arizona Suspect Likely Facing Death Penalty
for Fatally Shooting Federal Judge"

See the irony here?

Good luck, America, with that whole business about scaling back the violence.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011: Great News for Seniors!

More senior Americans stand a chance of seeing the new year through to the end, thanks to one of the several provisions of The Affordable Care Act (ACA) that take affect today: help with the infamous and deadly "donut hole."

Last year about this time, my husband and I took a little day trip with a group from our local senior center. Most of the people on the bus were retired and dependent on Medicare for their basic health care expenses. They were worried.

Those taking prescription medications necessary to protect their health—and in some cases, their lives—were now facing a three-month period during which they could afford to buy them, if at all, only with extreme financial sacrifice or help from their families. Medications for heart problems, epilepsy, even cancer were suddenly beyond the means of many seniors on the bus and throughout the country. They were faced with the prospect of not being able to take their life-giving prescriptions during one whole quarter of the year—and in some cases two quarters—because they couldn't afford them.

For most seniors, the cruel and inexplicable complexities of George Bush's prescription "help" plan—a deficit-busting plan crafted with the help of the insurance industry to ensure maximum profits for them—was like giving bread and water to starving people: it couldn't help much or for long, but it was better than nothing.

Happily, the new year begins with real help from the new health care plan so many disparagingly call "Obamacare."

Thanks, Mr. President!