Thursday, January 31, 2013

Meanwhile, in the agora....

Growing up around guns and owning them as an adult affords a person memories and experiences that strangers to guns may have trouble understanding. The divide is phenomenological, not political (or not political until it gets to be), like the gulf between those who’ve had sex and those who haven’t or those who smoke and those who’ve never lit up. Pulling a trigger and being prepared to do so cuts patterns in the self. Depending on the nature of your social life, which time around guns can shape and color in ways that I’ll describe, you might forget that these patterns are even there, because you’re surrounded by people who share them—until someone or some event challenges you to answer for your thinking.
That's from an article Josh Marshall highlights at TPM, where he's trying to make much of the distinction between those who live in a "gun culture," and those who don't.  I rise to call "bollocks" on the whole discussion.

Replace "guns" in that quote with anything you like:  "Evangelicals;" "Bible-thumpers" or "holy rollers" would do, as well.  "Snake handlers" comes to mind, though I'm more familiar with the previous categories.  Maybe "Ultra-orthodox Jews," or "Fundamentalist Muslims."  You get the idea.  Drop in the term of your choice for the exclusionary group of your choice, and then tell me what's different about guns and gun owners.  JMM notes he's had correspondence with people fanatical about the "liberty" they think the 2nd Amendment represents, even though they don't own guns, and with gun owners who think all guns should be registered and very heavily regulated, so it's not a simple either/or equation, even as we try to make it one for easier discussion. But really, do we have to talk about "tribes"?

Part of the reason I object is the quasi-anthropological aspect of the topic.  "Tribes" is a term with specific meaning in anthropology, but a vaguer, looser meaning in the general public.  We can speak of "tribes" with in political parties, or even within national regions (or even local ones).  But when we speak of "tribes" in this context, it carries the idea that we must give due deference to that tribe's concerns.  And yet we don't have to acknowledge the "legitimate concerns" of the "gun tribe," anymore than we have to give due deference to the "tribe" of drug gangs.

Ah, you will say, but gun owners are not criminals, and drug gangs are; the comparison is unfair and unjust.  But drug gangs are only criminal because we have declared their activities criminal; there's nothing inherently good or bad about drugs; it's the ones we define as bad which are the problem (alcohol v. marijuana, for example).  The real issue is not the inherent evil of the fetish object (drugs, guns), but the question of recognition of, and response to, the "tribe" we say surrounds that issue.  Do we really need to recognize the legitimate concerns of drug gangs the way we recognize the legitimate concerns of gun owners?

Let me put this in religious terms.  We have a 1st Amendment, which protects religion in this country.  Does that mean we have to respect the rights of religious fanatics to firebomb abortion clinics, or commit terrorist attacks, or just insist our children learn that evolution is false and comes from Satan?  Do we even discuss such extreme ideas in terms of the "tribe" such people grow up in, or join in adult life?  We have a 2nd Amendment which we think protects gun ownership in this country (it is, even under Heller, far less protected than religious belief).  Does that mean we have to respect the rights of people to amass arsenals that can be used by family members, if not the purchasers themselves, to commit mayhem?

If  you understand religious extremists (Muslim, Christian, what have you) as a "tribe," does it advance your understanding of how to respond to them?  Do I really need to understand fundamentalist Christians as  "tribe" in order to know I don't want them writing laws about who can marry whom, or what can be taught in schools?  I've grown up around both gun owners and religious fundamentalists, and it's never occurred to me to categorize either as a "tribe" whose "culture" I must understand.  I understand full well the culture of both, and each partakes of the general culture far more than either creates a unique, individual culture apart from the main.  They aren't tribes so much as they are special interest groups.  They also move back and forth between wanting to ignore and withdraw from the general culture, and wanting to dominate and control it.  The former is their business, but the latter is political, a matter for the polis, the people in general.  And I don't really need to consider them as anything else but wrong, to confront that.

The "divide" is not phenomenological, unless you mean it is basic to human identity and existence itself.  But that's nonsense; how can gun ownership be any more basic to human existence than religious belief, and yet we don't allow religious beliefs not shared by the majority to hold sway over our legislative process.   As for "patterns" which are "cut into the self" which you may not even know are there, I could make the very same argument about growing up in a small East Texas town in the '60's.  Annie Dillard even wrote a very insightful memoir about a '60's suburban American childhood.  You could use the language of that quote to describe the weltanschaung she described from that experience, or to describe mine; and I've never considered such experiences to be "phenomenological" or like a gulf between the sexually experienced and the sexually inexperienced (which is a pretty silly gulf, looked back at from 40 years past the onset of puberty).  Are Ms. Dillard and I part of a "tribe" because our childhoods look familiar on "Mad Men"?  Hardly.  And as for events that have challenged my thinking, well:  if that hasn't happened to you by now, you haven't been paying attention.  That, or you haven't been out in the world yet.  Maybe it's time you joined the polis in the agora.

Molly Ivins once wrote that she liked the guys who ate lunch in the Petroleum Club, but she didn't want them running the country.  I feel the same way about the "gun tribe."  I have nothing against them, personally; but I'm not too concerned with the source of their fanaticism, or with the need to find a common language with them, any more than I want to reason with fundamentalists about teaching evolution schools, or with rabid anti-Communists about the fluoride in the public water supply.  Such fanatics are no less tribalistic than rabid defenders of what they think is the 2nd Amendment.  I don't have to understand and appreciate their position, to know I don't want them making laws.

This is, I suppose, "tribal" thinking:

 “Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ — we are not going to stand for this injustice,” [Oklahoma state Sen. Nathan] Dahm [(R)] told the receptive crowd. “Another quote that he said was, ‘Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’ Now, I’m willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt, and believe that this is just sincere ignorance and not conscientious stupidity. But I’m here to say, no matter what it is, we in Oklahoma will not stand for it. The Second Amendment reigns supreme. ‘Shall not infringe’ means ‘shall not infringe.’”
The Second Amendment "reigns supreme"?  Supreme over what?  The entire Constitution?  You can call this kind of reasoning "tribal," but it is also supremely stupid.  One might as well say there is a "tribe" that supports the cause of nullification.  They don't deserve my respect or consideration, either.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the best and final word on the subject:

"We stop being the world's greatest country when we allow our most vulnerable citizens to be slaughtered because we might offend people by taking away their guns."
Indeed, at that point it is safe to say we stop being a country at all.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

It's The Best There Is

Remington 750 semiautomatic hunting rifle. Remington's marketing material promises "super-fast cycling.... Rapid follow-ups are its specialty, but famed Remington one-shot accuracy comes standard."

 So in a Senate hearing today Wayne LaPierre argued that since no one is ever arrested for trying to buy a gun when they shouldn't (can you imagine how many prosecutors we'd need for those cases?  And isn't the point to keep them from getting a gun?), the background check on gun sales is useless.  And Ted Cruz argued that a proposed ban on assault weapons is useless because it doesn't go far enough and, if it did, it would go too far.

And he and Lindsay Graham, after failing to get permission to bring real guns into the Senate hearing room, wrote a letter to Sen. Leahy in a fine example of a Senatorial snit:

“Our goal is simple — to educate fellow senators and members of the public how and why firearms are used by millions of law-abiding Americans for self-defense, hunting, and sporting purposes,” Graham and Cruz wrote. “We also want to shatter the mistaken belief that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens are a danger to society. It is every bit as important we make that distinction as it is to note that one gun in the hand of mentally-deranged individual is one too many.”

Of course, the definition of a "mentally deranged" individual is pretty much anybody who takes a gun to a public place and starts firing.  But until then, they have to be considered law abiding citizens, because we have a 2nd Amendment that protects us from losing access to guns unless we're crazy, and only the truly crazy shoot people up, that's how you know they're crazy.

So our defense against crazy people with guns is to not let them have guns after we're convinced they're crazy, and the only way to do be convinced they are crazy enough not to have guns is if they shoot up a place.  Just because you take a gun to a shopping mall or a grocery store, or threaten to shoot people who might try to take your guns away in some hypothetical scenario that only exists in your own fevered imagination, doesn't mean you're crazy enough to lose access to your guns; which must mean the only people crazy enough not to be allowed guns, are the people crazy enough to shoot up a shopping mall or a school, or maybe an office building.  Or maybe just a guy who's a survivalist.  If he's "standoffish," a Vietnam vet, and his neighbors say he suffers from PTSD, is that enough of a diagnosis to take his guns away before he shots a bus driver and kidnaps a 6 year old?  Or is he only "crazy" now?

If you're crazy, you can't have a gun.  But until you get a gun and do something crazy with it, you can have a gun.  Because until you do something crazy with a gun, you aren't crazy enough to not have a gun. It's some catch, that Catch-22.

Monday, January 28, 2013

And who will write love songs for you?

Some party hack decreed that the people
had lost the government's confidence
and could only regain it with redoubled effort.
If that is the case, would it not be be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?

--Bertolt Brecht

I want to rather dangerously tie this quote to the discussion of the state of the Protestant Christian church I've started.  I say "dangerously" not because this will be deliberately provocative and place me above the fray as I set off bombs that can't reach me, but dangerous because the whole venture may blow up in my face and make me wish I'd never offered this point in the discussion.

There is a point, though, in any church struggle with tradition and theology (again, where tradition is usually defined as "We've always done it this way!" and extends little beyond memories of childhood and who gets to put the Christmas decorations up where in the church, and theology is defined as "What I've always believed") where it becomes a question of who's in charge here?  It can seem to the laity that they have lost the confidence of the clergy, or the theologians, or more likely the seminary professors that send such foolish pastors to them (or such female pastors, or such gay pastors, etc., etc., etc.).  I've actually encountered church officials (and in a church with almost no official authority above the congregation, that's quite a feat!) who seemed to think like the Brecht quote:  that the people simply needed to be made to understand, with redoubled effort by the clergy, the rightness of the national church's position on gays, or marriage, or the death penalty, or ordination, or communion, or language (that last was a minor but not unimportant concern of the Session of FPC Houston.  I had that battle fresh out of seminary myself, and eventually realized it wasn't one worth fighting.)

Which is to say, I have some sympathy for the sentiments of the ruling class (that is what it is, no reason to be shy about it) at FPC Houston, or any Protestant church similarly situated..  Change is hard, and sometimes it is wholly unnecessary.  And often it comes because someone insists on it, not because it apparently needs to.  However, in the case of the complaints of FPC Houston and other Protestant churches, it needs to.

But you can't dissolve the congregation and elect another; so what to do?

Let's go back to why FPC, et al., need to change.  It is because the argument that homosexuality is a sin which bars such persons from being pastors is simply a chimera.  Marriage is not, for Protestants, a sacrament, so "living in sin" without the benefits of marriage is a bit of a false argument.  Protestants decided centuries ago that marriage could as well be handled by the state as by the church, which removed all clerical authority from the matter, especially after we separated church and state here in America.  The argument is made, nonetheless, but I wonder how many pastors are questioned about whether or not their marriage was in a church, or in a judge's chambers, since Protestants make no distinction between the two.  Marriage, for Protestants, is a wholly civil function.  Which makes the argument by Protestants against gay marriage doubly awkward.

Certain churches might decline to perform certain marriages, but the state will allow any couple not banned by law (such as by too close a degree of consanguinity, or too young) to marry, regardless of race, nationality, or religious background.  Protestantism ceded that ground to the state centuries ago, as I say.  It's a bit late now to complain if the state wants to move on to allowing same-sex marriages, except as a political matter (it won't happen in Texas anytime soon, but I suspect it will, eventually, happen).  Now, does that mean Protestant churches must accept gay pastors into their pulpits?  Well, no, congregations cannot, and should not, be forced to accept anything, but especially not a pastor they despise on such grounds (it's unfair to the pastor, as well).  But what is the argument for rejecting such persons?  Ultimately, it's that homosexuality is icky, or gross, or that such persons simply offend the sensibilities of some individuals.  All the rest is just window dressing.

Are homosexual pastors living in sin?  According to the basic Christian doctrine of sin stretching back to Augustine (who taught not only the Roman Catholic church, but through the Augustinian monk Martin Luther, the rest of Protestantism), we are all sinners living in a state of sin.  Augustine's insight was to confess this state of affairs, to admit it and accept it was irrevocable.  It was the awareness of the pervasiveness and omnipresence of sin which drove Luther to such despair he finally had his great insight about justification through faith by grace.  Luther never claimed to be worthy of the salvation whose doctrine he formulated; he simply claimed to accept it by faith.  So, if sin's effect is only dissolved by faith in the grace of God, who among us is truly free of sin?  All we are free of is the damnation that sin brings.  And who among us can claim to live so worthy a life as to deserve this grace?  To make any such claim is to commit the sin of hubris, if nothing else.

But does even that sin wipe out salvation?  Now we venture into gradations of sin, another arena Protestants are loathe to enter.  The very idea of rehabilitation of criminals began with the Quakers, based on the very Christian idea that while all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, salvation is equally always available to all.  Can one sin put a sinner beyond the reach of God's redemption?  Can a refusal to stop sinning do so?  And how, even if we are devoted disciples of Augustine's doctrine of salvation, can we ever stop sinning, when it is hubris (a sin) to imagine we have ever done so?

So what we are down to with the complaint that gays and lesbians cannot be pastors because they live in a state of sin, is that we have decided this is the only unforgivable sin.   If someone wants to seriously argue that a gay couple is equivalent to an unrepentant pederast, serial rapist, or serial murderer, I wish them luck with that argument.  I would agree those latter categories were unsuited to the ministry, but I would agree more on the grounds such person haven't the personal skills for such a difficult task long before I'd agree they were unfit because they are so determined to wallow in their sin.  But that is the argument presented against gay pastors:  that, like serial killers or child molesters, they won't stop doing what they do.  They may be otherwise perfectly qualified, but still.....

Except what they "do" as gay persons is not done to someone against their will; it is not an exercise of power; it is not a practice of abuse.  The calling to the ministry is a difficult enough calling that several personality types should never be allowed near it; but simply being gay or lesbian is not a valid criteria for exclusion; any more than being female, or blue eyed, or African, or Asian, or Hispanic, or even Irish, is.  Is what homosexuals do a "sin"?  Even if it is, how does that sin set them apart?  Is it a special sin, a more heinous sin?  Do we, as Protestants, really want to start grading "sin"?  I'm not saying we can't, but if we are going to, we need to start with a better system than picking certain "sins" as worse than others because it is so convenient to us to do so.  FPC says it is has been opposed to positions of the PCUSA for over 35 years, but the only position it openly complains of is the ordination of gays and lesbians.  If that is the dividing issue, what would the stance of FPC be to a pastor in an interracial marriage?  Where did they stand in 1967 on that issue, before the Loving decision?  I know people who still think interracial marriage is wrong just because they grew up thinking it was wrong.  How much respect are we required to give that opinion?

In the end these issues do matter to people, but the question is:  should they?  A Protestant church is free to accept an African American in their white church pulpit, but will they do so?  Outside of the Pentecostal movement, which was a distinctly interracial movement at least at one time (and hopefully still is, but I don't know), Protestant churches especially are still strongly segregated, and nothing about the changing culture is changing that.  (Even as I type that I realize there are probably exceptions among non-denominational churches built around the personalities of the pastors of those congregations, but I think that is still the exception that proves the rule.  Perhaps I am wrong, and my experience is too limited and behind the times.)  It certainly isn't changing it in the churches FPC represents for this discussion.  Should it change?  Yes.  Will it change?  It will if the congregation wants it to.  Can anyone force that change?

No.  Of course not.

On the other hand, can we continue to accept a group of people into society, while simultaneously telling them "Sorry, here you are not allowed, here you are not worthy"?  On what grounds do we do that?  Gender?  Skin color?  Sexual preference?  I know some Christian churches (and not just the Church in Rome) exclude from the ministry on the grounds of the first; I know most still exclude on the grounds of the last.

But I find both grounds for exclusion indefensible.  Now, who do we fire?  The government?  Or the people?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Trampling on the grass

One of the interesting quandaries of First Presbyterian Church (and churches everywhere which worry about what their attendance figures mean) is the concern with declining church attendance in their denomination (I have no insight on whether FPC has suffered any decline in membership, attendance, or baptisms in its entire history.  It would be interesting to know.).

First, of course, is the question:  what does this have to do with anything?  Is an increased attendance a sign the Holy Spirit is moving in your church?  What of churches which not only ordain gays and lesbians, but espouse gay marriage?  Shouldn't they be failing because the Holy Spirit is not with them?  I don't want to turn this into a numbers war, but I know of several Open and Affirming (ONA:  "ONA is the designation for congregations and other institutions of the United Church of Christ which make public statements of welcome for persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities") churches in the UCC which are doing quite well.  Shouldn't they be failing, instead?

So what does growth or decline prove about any congregation, or any denomination?  Churches are especially tripped up by the buildings they own.  I visited several UCC churches in the St. Louis area which were suffering with being in neighborhoods no longer congenial to them.  There was, in particular, a church which had once been the church of mayors of St. Louis, and governors of Missouri.  They still had their own china and silver (sterling), with the church name on all the pieces.  Their decline was due to demographics and the emptying out of St. Louis into the suburbs, with radical and rapid change in the neighborhood around them.  The carriage trade that attended that church simply moved away and never came back.  The decline in the congregation was an accident of history, not theology.  The last church I pastored had a membership of about 150, and worshiped in a space built to house twice that many (and about 75 showed up on a regular basis).  Why?  Largely because the neighborhood that built that church had moved away, and the people around it now were Mexicans or Vietnamese or Korean or African-American, or just not interested in an old country church with a mammoth sanctuary next to a graveyard.  By a weird happenstance the buildings were so situated on the road that it was (and is) easy to drive by without even noticing the place.  So it was, in many, many ways, simply passed by.  Changes in theological outlook changed far more slowly there than did the demographics around it.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit wasn't interested in non-white non-Germans for that building?

I know, I know; pastors aren't supposed to ask such pointed questions.  Let's move on.

So is congregation growth a sign of blessing, or of expediency?  I still like Matt Taibbi's description of Joel Osteen:  

Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us," Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for "go, sell everything you have and give to the poor," and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.
 He also sums up Mr. Osteen's "theology" very well.  No doubt about it, Mr. Osteen runs a burgeoning enterprise, and I'm told people fly in from around the world to hear him in person on Sunday mornings.  His teachings are not exactly in keeping with the Reformed tradition, however.  But doesn't his success speak, somehow, to the decline of denominations like the PCUSA?  Is his example one that FPC Houston should emulate?

I can think of several reasons why not, but none of them have to do with Mr. Osteen's success in filling seats for his performances.

Again, I know; pastors are not supposed to be so blunt.  Let's keep going.

Last, but not least (to make my third point and so get my sermon fully underway), how much of the emphasis on growth is rooted in the scriptural witness, and how much is rooted in modern culture?  True, the Catholic church once boasted a membership of every person in Europe; but to this day, if I understand correctly, to be born Catholic (or rather, baptized Catholic) is to be considered Catholic until death (at least as far as the church membership is calculated).  Not that Protestant churches are all that good at keeping a sound headcount, nor guilty of listing numbers that might well be inflated.  My last parish (again!) officially considered itself 150 (or so) strong.  Yet many of those people hadn't darkened the church door in decades, or were considered members despite their absence because they were "family" of one kind or another.  And no one really wanted to do the dirty work of cleaning up the membership rolls (why give yourself more reasons to despair?), much less cross swords with "family" members who were still "church members" because, well, they were family.....

But where in the New Testament does it say "Thou shalt keep true and accurate membership records, and by the size of thy membership rolls shall thy faith be known"?  And yet, with FPC Houston as our example, 2 of the four (and ostensibly, 3 of the 4) talking points for why they should leave the PCUSA, have to do with declining membership, because....well, I suppose rats leaving a sinking ship is an unkind conclusion to draw, so maybe it's because declining membership clearly means the Lord (!) is no longer with us.

I guess, by the way, God is still with Mr. Osteen and with Rick Warren, though neither seem to get the headlines they once did.  I don't know if PR is a gift of the Holy Spirit or not, but I'd be interested in what the people who think church membership = God's favor, think.  No, I really would.  I'd like to understand the reasoning that concludes losing members means God has turned God's (figurative) back on a denomination, and not that the denomination has turned its (figurative) back on God.  I'm not judging, but after all, fair's fair.  If you consider one alternative, you have to give due consideration to the other.

That fundamentalist and evangelical and strictly conservative churches boast growth does not, for me, equate to theological or even doctrinal soundness.  Rather, it looks to me like the triumph of culture over religion.  Most Americans thinks of church as either the Roman brand, with censers and priests and chanting, or as Bible thumpers shoving peoples heads under water in rivers and praising Jeebus to the skies.  The tent revival and the hell fire and brimstone preachers is as cultural as apple pie and green suburban lawns.  Most people couldn't tell you what a revival is, or what purpose it is supposed to serve, but they are quite sure that's the "ol' time religion" and either they studiously avoid it, or they quietly long for an experience so passionate and fervid.

Well, among some who are, or want to be, Christians, anyway.

I'm saying nothing against Kathleen Norris or Anne Lamott or many other mainline believers like me, who don't go in for such emotional pyrotechnics and spiritual iron maidens.  I'm just saying that, as a culture, our idea of religion is either a rigid Roman Catholicism that doesn't have a lot to do with reality, or a fervent fundamentalism that most of us don't even begin to understand, but think is the "real deal" because, well, it's religion as we know it; at least in America.  At least that's what we think it is; and all the bestsellers by Ms. Norris or Ms. Lamott have not so much as made a dent in that perception.

And that religion, more often than not, reassures us, especially the "us" who to go to the Museum District of Houston every Sunday morning, that we are extra special in God's eyes, and God wants us to keep on keepin' on just the way we always have, and even if the issue isn't really about same-sex marriages which, thank God!, we don't approve of in Texas or in our denomination (not yet, anyway!), we still can't see why God wants us to allow gays and lesbians to be our deacons and elders and....gasp!  PASTORS!  'Cause guldurn it we really wouldn't mind if the pastor were black (though probably not if a black tried to be OUR pastor), because black is okay now, but dammit, homosexuality is a sin, and we're agin it!

Even though, by definition and Reformed tradition and theology, all persons are sinners and are constantly in a state of sin and while they may only be saved by the grace of God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and maybe even none of our pastors are ever gonna be among the Elect (who knows?  And when did we jettison the Reformed tradition of pre-destination, anyway?), and while they, being human, live in a state of sin, GODDAMMIT HOMOS IS GROSS AND WE AIN'T GONNA HAVE ONE IN OUR PULPIT, AND THAT'S THAT!!!!!!!

Which is probably more true to the motivating sentiment than not, when you get right down to it.  All the baggage about homosexuality and sin doesn't really add up unless you think homosexuality is an extra-special evil sin that negates the Holy Spirit calling a gay or a lesbian to the ordained ministry.  Now, what that has to do with declining membership or baptisms in the PCUSA, I'll leave to you to figure out.  But I think it has bugger all to do with tradition or theology, neither of which, I'll warrant, most of the good people of FPC Houston would know if it walked into their church and sat down among them on any given Sunday morning.

One last word on this topic of tradition and Reformed theology.  It's a little bit of applied theology from a denomination that had a double dose of the Reformed traditions in its heritage, and understood both the power and the responsibilities of that tradition, as well as its limitations.  They put it very nicely into a prayer the whole congregation could recite, on certain occasions.  Part of it went like this:

 Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.

That's a very hard prayer when taken seriously.  But it's also very hard, I think, to be a faithful Protestant (at least) Christian, and not take it seriously.

The pastor is now going to atone for his unpastoral acts, including the fact that he feels so much better.....

Holy, holy, holy....

This story is interesting to me in part because it represents in microcosm the enduring problem of change.  It seems First Presbyterian Church in Houston is considering leaving the denomination (PCUSA) in order to join with a denomination more to their liking.  That is, and should be, the decision of the congregation.  I don't want to comment on what they should, or shouldn't, do.  But they are quite clear about where they stand:

The Session’s position on the theological changes within the PC USA has not changed in over 25 years of ongoing discussion, debate and distraction.
What interests me is the problem of change, and resistance to it.  For example, the pastor, the Rev. Jim Birchfield, insisted to KUHF that the primary issue in the congregation's concerns is not homosexuality or even same-sex marriage:

"No, at this point it's really not about gay marriage. It's really more about the fundamental differences in how we interpret scripture and how we view the nature and work of Christ."


The amendment of ordination standards comes after 35 years of debate and strife and permits individual churches and presbyteries to decide what ordination standards they will apply to ordaining pastors and church officers. As a result of the adoption of this amendment, some churches and presbyteries have chosen to allow the ordination of open and practicing homosexuals. In addition, many churches have reacted by leaving the denomination.
 The Session of FPC has taken a firm and consistent stand on the issue of same sex ordination many times throughout its history.
We see these decisions [to ordain gays and lesbians and extend coverage of healthcare to same-sex domestic partners of PCUSA employees] as a departure from the historic, orthodox Christian understanding of how Scripture defines biblical morality. We recognize our own fallen nature. We are deeply aware of our continual need for repentance and for pursuing a radical conformity to the life of Jesus Christ. Our hope for conformity to Christ rests not in our acts, but solely in the gracious mercy of God. We also understand that it is an unloving act to condone actions which Scripture calls sin.
The fact that Amendment 10-A, permitting gay ordination, finally passed is by no means the end of the controversy within the denomination. [This sentence introduces a new discussion in the document, about PCUSA recognizing same sex marriages at some point in the future.]
 To be fair to the Rev. Birchfield, the "talking points" generated from several church meetings doesn't get so specific about what issues are dividing the congregation from the denomination.  The four areas of concern are identified as:  "Theological Drift; Mission Drift; Denominational Decline; Ongoing Distraction."  The first is
defined as "A Theological Drift Away From the Confessions and Essential Tenets of the Reformed Tradition (Presbyterianism)," which is a matter that is always in the eye of the beholder.  "Mission Drift" has to do with the decline in baptisms in the church, and the general decline in churches in the denomination since 1965.  This is not a problem peculiar to either the PCUSA or to churches in America in general.  This leads to the problem of  "Denominational decline," and finally to the "distraction", which I quoted in full above.  Apparently not agreeing fundamentally with your denomination is very distracting to the congregation.

And I know it is.  This is not a unique problem of a conservative church in a declining congregation.  I have a close friend who pastors a church which voted, many years ago, to leave the UCC (my denomination).  These things happen.  It's a fundamental of Protestantism.  The church I last pastored suffered a split decades before I got there, over the issue of whether or not to spend the money to re-carpet the church sanctuary.  Many members left and started their own church down the street (a church which has since lost all connection to those original members, at least from appearances; it's now a wholly Spanish-speaking church, which is in keeping with the neighborhood, anyway).*

No, what strikes me here is the reluctance of the pastor to name the concerns of the congregation, either on the radio or in the very vague talking points that he produced for the congregation.  The only subject of concern in the "Report from the Session’s Task Force on Denominational Issues – Examining Changes in PCUSA Governance and Related Matters" is the ordination of gays and lesbians, and the prospect of the PCUSA sanctioning same-sex marriages.  That will probably be the catalyst of many a lively discussion among the congregation members, but it's interesting that the love that once dared not speak its name is already becoming the hate (or disgust, or rejection, if you prefer a milder term) that dare not speak its name.

And so do the times change.  I grew up hearing the word "nigger" used simply as a descriptive by elderly people, even as my parents refused to use it themselves and made clear I shouldn't use it.  Now I even type it on this blog with trepidation.  But is racism dead therefore?  Hardly.  This congregation is struggling with social change once again (one wonders how they felt about miscegenation, something only ended in law in 1967.  The term itself has practically vanished from usage in a very brief time, and our first black President actually had a white mother, yet almost no one considers that an unholy marriage.  Almost, I'm sure....).  But they struggle with change even as they accept the change itself, and the inevitability of change.  After all, to openly declare same-sex marriage a sin and something that will invite the wrath of God, is to ally oneself with extremists.  First Presbyterian Church is undoubtedly very conservative (I would disagree with them on practically every theological issue, and align myself with the very claims of the PCUSA they find most troubling), but it isn't extreme; or doesn't want to think it is.

They want to think they are reasonable people holding to the historical witness.  But that very witness is subject to review and reconsideration by the very principles of the Reformed movement they now want to preserve in amber.  What's interesting to me is not that they want to preserve it (everyone does, in some measure or another, and I still believe one of the great challenges of the teachings of Christ is that everything you know is wrong.  Now trust in God....), but that they cannot do it in full defiance of the culture around them.  They may resent the intrusion of that culture into their church structure, but they also would resent they idea that they are extremists rejecting that culture wholesale.

*I'm not sure it actually hasn't become Korean.  I really should check (living in ethnically diverse neighborhoods can be SUCH a chore!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ted Poe may actually be stupider than Louie Gohmert

I was teaching a class and we got off on the topic of school shootings.  A student offered that he'd just gotten an e-mail about a shooting at North Harris college, but he doubted it would so much as make the evening news.

Then I got in my car, and it was the first story on NPR.  O boy.

The details were very obscure yesterday, and they're still obscure today.  The cause of the shooting was an "altercation," that much seems clear.  As the Chancellor of the Lone Star College system would later report, it was "not an active shooter scenario" (and is that phrase now going to enter our discourse?).  But three people were wounded, one a school employee.  That led to the assumption there were two guns involved, and each shooter shot the other; but that may not be true. A local news report on a press conference about the shooting left the impression there was only one gun involved.  Only one person has been charged with aggravated assault as of this morning.  And while no one else is speculating on it, expect him to claim he was "standing his ground" and so the shooting was justified.  Except, of course, he shot somebody he wasn't being threatened by; which may keep that particular defense from being any use to him.  We'll see.

As for the shooting itself, it produced panic:

Mobley and other students ran from the scene.

“As soon as I heard the bullets flying and the gun being fired off, then everyone started running and it was a hint for me to start running as well," Mobley said.

The NYTimes had a similar report:

Students said they did not realize that the shots were actually gunfire. Because the shooting occurred outdoors — in a center courtyard near the library and academic buildings, officials said — many heard the sounds. One student sitting at a table on the third floor of the library thought it was a book cart toppling.

“Later we heard people screaming, and we knew it was gunshots,” said the student, Jonathan Moreno, 19, a freshman.

Mr. Moreno hid with other students in a back room on the third floor of the library in the moments after the shooting. “It was a scary thing,” he said. “Some people were panicking. Some lady was about to have like an asthma attack. There were some people crying.”

Other students sat or crouched in classrooms in buildings with the lights turned off. Some fled classrooms and buildings so quickly that they left their belongings behind and planned on returning late Tuesday night to retrieve them.

And yet another student had exactly the right response:

"I heard some guys arguing. I heard one guy shouted, 'Dude, I'm not fixing to play with you.' So I turned around because I thought somebody was about to fight, and when I looked, I seen a guy, he had his back to me. He pulled out a gun and he started firing the gun. I heard about two or three shots, but some people said they heard more. But as soon as I seen the gun, like as soon as the first shot went off, I had already turned around and ran up the stairs."

 But the response of the US Representative (Ted Poe, Guns Over People)  for that area?

 POE: It brings to focus the fact that many schools and universities and students have — are defenseless at the schools and places of higher education and this seems to show that.
I've yet to read of the students who wanted to run toward the shooting.  Indeed, local news indicates the campus had just completed training sessions on what to do in case of a shooting incident, and the faculty and staff did just what they were supposed to do:  kept the students in classrooms until the campus was secured, then told the students to leave the campus.  I suppose it would have been better if every student on campus had decided they were "heroes" and knew who the original shooters were, huh?

Besides, which guy was the "bad guy" here?  If you ran up on them, who would you shoot first?  And if they both had guns, why didn't their guns magically shield them from harm?  Wasn't the "good guy" protected by virtue of carrying a gun?  Or were they both guilty because they violated Texas law by carrying a gun on a college campus?  And what about the custodian who was shot because he was nearby?  Would he have been defended against bullets if he'd had a gun on his hip?

All I can say in Ted Poe's defense is that it took a major effort to even verify he sits in the US House.  The only reference to him regarding this incident took me back to Think Progress, where I found his comments in the first place.  Otherwise, he hasn't made any news that separates him from somebody with the same name who went on "American Idol" about a year ago.  So he's pretty much a non-entity.

Then again, it's a representative government, as Molly Ivins used to remind us, so maybe he's doing what the people who elected him want him to do.

Is this the place to note some in the Texas Lege want to reduce the "training" time to get a concealed handgun license from 10 hours to 4?

And does Texas law allow guns on college campuses?  Actually the law, for the moment, is quite clear:

Sec. 46.03. PLACES WEAPONS PROHIBITED. (a) A person commits an offense if the person intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly possesses or goes with a firearm, illegal knife, club, or prohibited weapon listed in Section 46.05(a): (1) on the physical premises of a school or educational institution, any grounds or building on which an activity sponsored by a school or educational institution is being conducted, or a passenger transportation vehicle of a school or educational institution, whether the school or educational institution is public or private, unless pursuant to written regulations or written authorization of the institution;
 And by the way, what absolutist-hating Constitution destroying American institution defending freedom do you think said this?

 “First, we believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools. That means no guns in America’s schools, period…with the rare exception of law enforcement officers or trained security personnel.” 

No points for peeking. 

I have to add two things about this story:

 Richard Carpenter, chancellor of the Lone Star College System, said the campus is a gun-free zone that "has been safe for 40 years."
 And the time it isn't safe, some idiot brings a gun on campus in violation of state law and for no good reason.  Because the argument between the shooter and his victim was, according to the sheriff: "idiocy, stupidity."  All it needed was a gun to elevate it to the national news.  Not that any of these facts are getting in the say of the geniuses of the Texas Legislature:

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who filed the Campus Personal Protection Act last week, called the Lone Star College shooting a prime example for the need for his bill.

"It affirms what we know is true: When you disarm law-abiding citizens that we ought to trust, we make them defenseless," Birdwell said.

"It levels the playing field," in terms of safety, said Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. "We have to allow people the option for self-protection."
No one wants to mention the shooter was probably a law abiding citizen himself, until he brought this gun on campus and then pulled it out and started shooting.  And clearly what this situation needed, where three people were shot, one of them a bystander, was even more people spraying bullets in all directions.  You know, when someone pulls a gun, you need to level the playing field by arming everyone in the vicinity, and let the bullets sort it out.

Good grief.....

Thursday, January 17, 2013

We're mighty reckless....

Greg Abbott needs to put a sock in it:

[Texas] Attorney General Greg Abbott Wednesday launched a Google web ad campaign inviting New Yorkers who feel their gun rights are threatened by a new law just signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to move to Texas where they will have the right to bear arms, and, with lower taxes, more money to buy ammo.
Yes, come to Texas!  But don't make too much noise, or your neighbors will feel empowered by our "Castle Doctrine" law to come over and shoot you!  But it's okay!  If he's stupid enough to shoot you AND videotape the event, we'll put him in jail!*  Otherwise, you'd better keep the music down, okay?

And we have low taxes because we don't pay for public education anymore!  So come for the lax gun laws, stay for the undereducated populace!  Maybe you'll get to shoot a teacher!  But again, just don't videotape it....

*And yes, if you're dead from the shooting, a 40 year jail sentence is weak recompense for empowering stupid people to claim your music is physically threatening them, but that's the price we pay for freedom in Texas!  Well, the victims pay the price; the shooters probably get away with it, even if they do it shooting people in their front yard in full view of a cop.  Like I said, as long as you don't videotape it, you're good!  Welcome to Texas, Yankees! 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


The Texas Legislature only meets for 6 months every two years, according to our state constitution.  This is why:

Representative Dan Flynn hails from District Two, an area between Dallas and Austin. His House bill is proposing reducing the ten hours the State of Texas requires spent learning things like gun safety, gun storage and dispute resolution to four hours.
“It allows more people to have the opportunity to come and take it. They don’t have to take a day off of work to come and take a class. They don’t have to use a whole Saturday. The proof is whether or not you pass the test.”

Right now out of those ten hours, two are spent on a shooting range to prove weapon proficiency. Representative Flynn says that portion of the test will not be impacted by his proposed legislation. However the eight hours of theory would be. What exactly will be covered in those four hours hasn’t been fleshed out yet, nor has the question of whether that’s enough time to get through the material.
Texas schools are grossly underfunded.  There is a lawsuit (another one) in progress on that very issue.  The State Comptroller has announced a surplus in state coffers, and Gov. Goodhair has already declared it cannot be used to educate our children.

And so what we really need to worry about is how quickly we can get to that handgun license.  Of course, not to be outdone on the stoopid:

"The Vice President's committee was appointed in response to the tragedy at Newtown, but very few of his recommendations have anything to do with what happened there.

"Guns require a finger to pull the trigger. The sad young man who did that in Newtown was clearly haunted by demons and no gun law could have saved the children in Sandy Hook Elementary from his terror.
"There is evil prowling in the world - it shows up in our movies, video games and online fascinations, and finds its way into vulnerable hearts and minds. As a free people, let us choose what kind of people we will be. Laws, the only redoubt of secularism, will not suffice. Let us all return to our places of worship and pray for help. Above all, let us pray for our children.

"In fact, the piling on by the political left, and their cohorts in the media, to use the massacre of little children to advance a pre-existing political agenda that would not have saved those children, disgusts me, personally.

The second amendment to the Constitution is a basic right of free people and cannot be nor will it be abridged by the executive power of this or any other president."

I actually heard a guest today on World Have Your Say, a man from Arkansas, argue that the deaths of innocents in Connecticut or Colorado, or the 900 President Obama mentioned who have died since Newtown around the country, are the price we pay for the right to keep and bear arms.

This madness has to stop.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Time to get serious

Read this op-ed carefully, and there are more than a few problems with it:

When I was about to start eighth grade, my father almost shot my mother. It was another of their many ugly fights. I got between them — literally — and tried to grab the gun.

It starts there, then veers off in this direction:

My husband, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), is a former board member of the National Rifle Association and a lifelong supporter of the right to bear arms. My stepson believes even more strongly than his father in that Second Amendment right. They are two of the most responsible, safety-conscious gun owners anyone could ever know. Their dedication to the right to bear arms, to hunt, to compete in rifle and skeet matches, and to protect themselves and their families has been passed down from generation to generation.

This belief is as central to them as the freedom of speech and religion. As a result of knowing them, I have come to respect and understand the importance of this right to gun owners in ways I did not used to understand, certainly not as a scared child. The ability to defend one’s self is a human right that ensures the protection of other basic rights.

Which is an interesting place to go, because nothing in her story of that horrible night in her home, of the fight between her parents, has anything to do with self-defense.

Let me stop there a moment, in fact. A new round in the "guns don't kill people" argument is that hammers and hatchets would be used if guns weren't available.  Well, only a knife was available at an assault at a school the same week as the Newtown shooting; but it was in China, where guns are banned, so several people were wounded, none seriously.  But 30 people were not killed.  It helps to keep that in mind, especially as that story is already disappearing from the public "conversation."  The other fact is, I can defend myself very well against an attacker, any attacker, with a baseball bat.  Having a gun won't defend me against someone with a gun, however.  Body armor might, but unless I'm going to do everything but shower in the stuff, I don't see the point.

There's also the issue that, in nearly 60 years, neither I nor any family member nor friend I know or know of, has ever needed a gun to defend themselves.  One relative found a burglar in her home, but he ran off (her husband has guns, but keeps them locked up).  My mother was mugged years ago, but the assailant hit her from behind; she never even saw who it was.  That's it for my "self-defense" stories, and frankly, the only time I've ever felt the need to defend myself was in junior high, in the locker room after P.E.  But I wouldn't advise arming 13 year old boys because of that.

The next part of Ms. Dingell's argument is perfectly predictable:

Demonizing the NRA or gun owners in general gets us nowhere. A fresh round of old proposals for gun-control laws won’t work and will be followed by the renewed frustration of different factions going to their respective corners to fight instead of seeking real solutions.
Honestly I think Wayne Lapierre and David Keene have done a good job of making the NRA look demonic all by themselves.  Arm school teachers to prevent another Newtown?  Isn't that rather like saying we should build shelters over every building to keep the flying rocks out?   How many school shootings have we had in 30 years?*  And the answer is more guns?  Seriously?  Or better yet, since we can't stop all murders, why bother to police murderers at all.  That's the logic Mr. Keene recently offered. Not that anyone in America would apply that logic to any topic except guns, but who is the demon here, and who is doing the demonizing?  Is any discussion of gun control really about taking guns away from people?  Why can't we own RPG's and fully automatic weapons, then?  Remember the tommy guns of yore?  You can't own weapons like that anymore, even under the 2nd amendment.

We, as Americans, need to be willing to acknowledge that we have serious social problems and have to get at the root causes for so many of these horrific scenes: mental illness, failing educational systems, lack of job opportunities, the disintegration of families. We need communities more willing to identify behavior problems early on, to express zero tolerance for bullying, to implement processes that protect individual liberties yet flag potential problems.

Yes, we do.  And blaming our current gun problems on the mentally ill is the worst kind of demonizing, yet both Mr. Lapierre and Mr. Keene have done it repeatedly.  Besides, our gun problem is that we have all these other social problems, and we have almost as many guns (according to official estimates) as we have people in this country.  Since I don't own any guns, and the only people I know who do only own a few guns, some small percentage of the population owns an arsenal of weapons per household. Turn those guns into cars, and for every citizen of New York City or Philadelphia who doesn't own a car at all, someone else could fill a large used car lot.

That isn't demonizing.  But it is insanity.

 Most important, we must remove the stigma of mental illness so that those who need help get help. We need law enforcement agencies that understand problems when they are identified, along with systems that support parents, teachers and employers in intervening and getting help to those who need it.

And then what?  Take the guns away from Adam Lanza's mother?  If not, what?  Lament the fact Mr. Lanza is mentally ill and has access to an arsenal and then tell the community to arm themselves and wait for him to go walkabout?  Is that more sensible and less damaging than "demonizing" gun owners?

If this is a "complex" issue, it is so only because there are too many guns in America already, and there is no reasonable way to retrieve them.  Even if the federal government wanted to confiscate every firearm in America, it would be easier and safer to recall every automobile on the road.  We can't get them back, but we can't blunt their usage by taxing the ammunition that they fire.  Is there a constitutional right to fire a weapon?  No.  If there were, there would be no need for "stand your ground" laws, or self-defense claims of any kind.  You may have a right to carry a rifle in public; you don't have a right to point it at anyone, much less the right to pull the trigger when you do so.

Tax the ammunition.  Control it as tightly as we control prescription drugs, as carefully as we control pseudoephedrine.  The ammunition is doing as much, if not more damage, than all the meth labs in America combined.  And we can do something about that without demonizing the NRA or gun owners or violating even the broadest, most ridiculous reading, of the 2nd Amendment.

Tax the ammunition.  Take it out of circulation.  Control it so we know who has it and when.  Let's put an end to this nonsense.

*The answer is:  9.  Which is 9 too many, but the proper response is not to put armed personnel in every classroom of every school from pre-school to university in the country.  That way lies madness.  If having a gun prevented shootings, all wars would cease tomorrow simply out of rational self-interest.  But people with guns do not always act in rational self-interest.  And people with guns can do far more damage than people with knives; or with hammers.  Besides, I can't build a building or prepare a meal with a gun.  So let's stop speaking as if they were comparable.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Bang, you're dead"

The first bit of positive news is that David Keene, the President of the NRA,  sounds much more rational than Wayne LaPierre.  Why is that positive?  Did you even know anyone else worked for the NRA besides Wayne LaPierre?  But obviously he's too inflammatory, so they're going with the avuncular uncle who almost makes sense.  And so David Keene is interviewed by NPR.

How rational, you may ask?  He ended the interview with the seemingly rational observation that rifles ("long arms" as he prefers to call them) were only responsible for about 236 deaths in 2011, which really isn't enough to warrant any kind of new laws restricting sales of such weapons.

At which point it's worth noting that any consumer product which, when used as it should be, resulted in 200+ annual deaths, would be yanked off the market immediately.  Well, unless it was an automobile, I guess.  Then again, we could say the automobile is far more important to American society and commerce than "long arms," so I'm not sure the comparison would do much for Mr. Keene's argument.

But the really interesting point is that Mr. Keene is terrified of the "slippery slope" of gun registration which will lead to gun confiscation, donchaknow?

KEENE: A registry of people who own firearms - citizens who've broken no law, who are not prohibited from owning firearms - would be very dangerous because it can easily result in confiscation of those firearms. For example, both Sen. Feinstein of California, and Gov. Cuomo of New York, have suggested what they call a forced buyback. In other words, if they know that you have a gun - and this has happened in other countries - you can be required to turn it in and be sold, you know, for a hundred bucks or 50 bucks, back to the government.

Except, tacitly at least, Mr. Keene has no problem with concealed weapons users being both registered and licensed.  Which bring us to Mr. James Yeager.

Mr. Yeager's claim to fame is announcing to the world that he would start killing people if President Obama issued any executive orders relative to guns in America.  This apparently alarmed the state of Tennessee to the degree that they suspended his concealed handgun license.  I don't know if the state of Tennessee licenses or even regulates firearms and tactical training, bu if they do, apparently Mr. Yeager's comments weren't outrageous enough to affect his ability to do business.  Nor do they qualify as crazy enough to remove Mr. Yeager's guns from his possession.  In fact, according to Mr. Keene, no amount of "crazy" or "mental illness" (let us carefully distinguish that they are not one in the same) is enough to take guns away from anyone in America.

KEENE: Well, the fact of the matter is that unless you're talking about the confiscation and elimination of firearms, none of these things are going to make much difference. They haven't made much of a difference elsewhere, and they aren't going to make much difference here. So when you combine the fact that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of people who are not breaking any laws to own and enjoy firearms in this country, for self-protection; to collect them; to use them in sport shooting, for hunting and the like; when you combine all those things, there is no effective reason for doing what these folks suggest.
 We believe that the problem is not the firearm. It's not the AR-15. It's not the pistol. Or in the case of a killer with a knife, it's not the knife. It's the person wielding the firearm, or wielding the knife. And what you have to do is punish those who would misuse these inanimate objects.
So there we are.  We can only punish people who "misuse these inanimate objects."  And we should keep guns out of the hands of "crazy people:"

 And the real question, in our minds, is people who shouldn't have firearms - and this includes, frankly, virtually all of the people who've been involved in these mass shootings. Virtually all of them have displayed to others - who have either ignored the signs or just let it go - have shown signs of being potentially, dangerously, violently mentally ill. Those people shouldn't have any firearms.

But you can't take guns away from people once they have them, because that would violate the fundamental precept of the 2nd Amendment (no word on how we removed all automatic weapons from private hands after they were banned, but anyway.....).  So once crazy people have guns (like the shooter in Newtown, who shot his mom and took her arsenal) , there's nothing we can do about it.  We can suspend their concealed handgun license because, well, we can't let nutcases carry concealed weapons now, can we?  I mean, that'd be....crazy.

But just being crazy isn't breaking any laws, because we can't have laws that declare people who become crazy have to give their guns up, because that's the slippery slope to tyranny, so, really, the only solution to this gun mess is more guns!

Which just so happens to benefit the arms manufacturers of America, who just so happen to be the biggest financial supporters of the NRA.

Funny, that......

Friday, January 11, 2013

Keeping the elephants away

The guy on the radio insisted, over and over again, that no school with an armed guard had ever suffered an armed attack.

Except at Columbine.  And yesterday in the high school in California.  And Virginia Tech.  The latter, ironically, being cited by the guy on the radio as a reason his Texas public school board authorized teachers to carry concealed weapons.  Except, as in Utah, this is another example of keeping the elephants away.  Texas hasn't had a mass shooting at a school in 30 years.  Longer than that, actually: the last mass shooting at a Texas school was the infamous assault by Charles Whitman on the UT campus in 1966.  The last mass shooting in Texas was more recent (2009), but it was at a place with a lot of armed people around:  Fort Hood, Texas.

Still, you can't argue with success.  I'm sure he hasn't seen any elephants near his school, either.

So it's a double benefit!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Day in the Life

I was at the neighborhood pharmacy today, waiting to pick up a prescription.  There on the counter was a large index sized card covered in small type detailing precisely why, if I wanted to buy any product with pseudoephedrine or "ephedrine" in it (I specifically remember the quotation marks), I would have to leave my name, address, and other identifying information, which information would be entered into a database and made available to any number of people elsewhere in these United States, whether I liked it or not.  It was that, or suffer with my sniffles and runny nose.

I reflected as I stood there that if I walked to the other end of this same shopping center I could walk into the sporting goods store and make off with all the ammunition my cash would allow me, and not leave so much as an initial with the cashier.

And this state of affairs is required by the 2nd Amendment?  Is a fixed an unalterable point of our precious freedoms?  Is the foundation and bedrock of our liberty and democracy and very existence as a nation?

How can that possibly be?

Lighting up

Part of this is me; part of this is what's going on.

Advocates on both sides of the gun control debate are prepared to make a lot of noise about the future of gun regulations in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. shooting. That’s the message from the first of House Democratic gun violence pointman Mike Thompson’s violence-focused town halls this week.
“It’s not the guns that kill people,” an area firearms instructor said, according to the Register. “A magazine has never killed anybody either. If you’re mentally ill and you’re going to kill somebody, you’re going to kill somebody.”
It may just be me, and not popular opinion, but that argument sounds completely worn out.  Does anyone seriously think the massacre at Newtown could have been carried out with a knife?  Or a hammer? Even the idea that guns don't kill people doesn't really have any traction anymore. Not after Alex Jones and Wayne LaPierre put a face on opposition to gun control.

Not that this sentiment is uniform.  Utah is one of two states which allows teachers to carry concealed weapons in the classroom, and Utah seems to be the hotbed of interest in arming teachers in the classroom.  Which says more about the impact of Newtown than it does about danger in Utah schools:

It wasn’t unusual for Kevin Leatherbarrow to hear gunshots during the school day while teaching at an inner-city high school in Buffalo, N.Y.

Counseling students who lost classmates or relatives killed by violence on the city’s tough east side was part of his job description. He witnessed fights on school grounds between students who’d come to school armed. One day, when a student threatened to kill him after becoming angry over a routine classroom issue, Leatherbarrow decided it was time to arm himself: He obtained a permit that allowed him to carry a gun.

Two years ago, Leatherbarrow accepted a job at a charter school in Utah, where he signed an agreement stating he wouldn’t carry a weapon to school as part of his teaching contract.

But there’s discussion among him and his colleagues and administrators that maybe that policy needs to change, especially in the aftermath of a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. earlier this month where 20 children and six teachers were killed by gunman Adam Lanza before he killed himself.

Leatherbarrow, whose job at a high school so far comes with much less violence than his prior career in Buffalo, is among Utah teachers who favor the idea of carrying guns to school. He is encouraging his co-workers and other Utah teachers to attend training in West Valley City on Thursday offering free concealed-weapons permit courses and mass-violence response training to educators.

"We’re trapped. We’re just fish in a barrel," said Leatherbarrow of feeling vulnerable to a potential situation like that which unfolded in Newtown. "After this shooting, it’s not unreasonable to say we are all looking at this [school security] as ‘We really have a problem.’ It’s being brought to our higher-ups and even though [administrators] are sending out emails saying "we are safe" ... the schools are not safe. They’re just not." 

Actually, according to Mother Jones and my own quick Google search, teachers in Utah are perfectly safe.  There's been only one mass shooting in Utah in the past 30 years, and that was in a shopping mall in Salt Lake City.  Maybe we should consider arming retail staff in Utah.

Where else do we see cracks in the armor?  The NRA is meeting with Joe Biden, but refusing to discuss new gun control laws.  Sounds like a very hard line stance; but, they are meeting with Joe Biden:

Still, the fact that the NRA is showing up at the White House at all could be seen as an acknowledgment of gun control momentum by the nation’s largest gun lobby. The NRA rejected a White House invitation in March 2011 during a brief discussion of new gun regulations following the shooting in Tucson, Ariz. in January of that year.

“Why should I sit down with a group of people who have spent their life fighting the Second Amendment?” LaPierre told the Washington Post after the 2011 invitation.
But LaPierre hasn't spent his life "fighting" for the Second Amendment; he's spent his professional career lobbying for gun manufacturers.  The NRA clearly understands its power is in the legislature; and that power is not even strong among the people:

At the gun buyback, gun-rights advocates held signs reading "Cash For Guns" and "Pay Double for Your Guns." As cars pulled into the parking lot, they asked drivers if they wanted to sell their guns privately rather than turn them in. There were few takers.

Doug Deahn couldn't understand it: "Can't figure they'd rather line up and give them away. Can't figure that out."
That gun buy back was in Tucson, Arizona; not "liberal" New York City.  It was on the two year anniversary of the shooting of Gabby Giffords and several other persons, in Tucson.  And while the local NRA threatened to sue under Arizona state law, claiming the police had to resell the guns, not destroy them,  the 205 weapons turned in were destroyed the next day.  The NRA didn't even try to get a TRO (temporary restraining order) to stop the destruction, instead vowing to change the Arizona law.

And then two things happen today as I'm working on this.  One:  the NRA comes out of its meeting with Joe Biden still ranting about the sacrosanct nature of the 2nd Amendment:

"We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment," read the statement. "While claiming that no policy proposals would be “prejudged,” this Task Force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners - honest, taxpaying, hardworking Americans."

"It is unfortunate that this Administration continues to insist on pushing failed solutions to our nation's most pressing problems," it continued. "We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen. Instead, we will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works - and what does not."

While in California a student was proving that the right to bear arms does not incorporate the right to fire them at people:

 As Vice President Joe Biden held a press conference announcing the progress of the White House's gun violence task force on Thursday, news broke that there had been two people shot in a school shooting in California. The news grimly underscored the urgency -- and difficulty -- of addressing the problem of mass gun violence.

At 12:32 p.m. ET, KABC in Los Angeles tweeted, "#BREAKINGNEWS Report of shooting at Taft High School in city of Taft, Kern County. At least 1 victim, students being evacuated." Other outlets were quickly spreading word of the shooting as well.

At that moment, Biden was reading off the list of stakeholders in the gun violence debate with whom he had met, saying there was "no single answer" to such a "complicated problem.
By the time you read this more may well be known about this shooting.  At the moment, we know the shooter was a 16 year old student who used a 12 gauge shotgun.  We also know the armed guard who would normally have been at the school was "snowed in" and not present for the shooting.  Which may turn out to have been a good thing:

A Taft, Calif., school teacher and a campus supervisor talked a shooter into surrender on Thursday, the AP reports. At least two people were shot and the suspect is reportedly in custody.
How good?

Had another teacher and a campus supervisor not talked the shooter down from firing more rounds, Youngblood stressed, the situation could have been far worse. Youngblood estimated that some 20 additional students were had been at risk. Police arrived at the scene a minute after the first calls came in at 9:00 a.m. PST., and the suspect was in custody by 9:20 a.m.

I don't even know which number incident this is since Newtown; but none of this is adding up favorably to the NRA's extreme and increasingly untenable position.  Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal has already floated the idea of controlling access to ammunition, which he rightly calls the "black hole" of this discussion.  Gen. Stanley McChrystal made the rounds of talk shows recently noting the caliber and muzzle velocity of "assault weapons," making the argument such weapons belong on the battlefield, not in our schools.

I await the arguments on how the 2nd Amendment assures one of access to unlimited ammunition, and to guns that spit out a 5.56 mm round at 3000 fps and a rate of fire little distinguishable from the "tommy guns" of the old gangster movies.

I wonder if Mr. Lapierre will argue those Warner Bros. classics made us as violent then as "Natural Born Killers" does today.  And then explain why we didn't have any mass shootings of schools and shopping areas until relatively recently.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

In the days of thy youth....

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; 2 while the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain: 3 in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, 4 and the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low; 5 also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: 6 or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. 7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.

And moreover, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. 11

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. 12 And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. 

No particular purpose here.  An old friend of mine (but not old enough, dammit!) has gotten some bad news about a cancer thought to be in remission.  It has, instead, metastasized, as cancer too often does in these situations.  It has "progressed," as if diseases move forward.  I suppose the alternative. that the patient has "regressed," is no better a metaphor.

Taking down the Xmas decorations and thinking of her, and these words from Ecclesiastes keep going through my mind.

Nothing more.

Friday, January 04, 2013


So I'm on my hobby horse about cliches we can do without.  Thinks like "Pain is just weakness leaving the body."  That one's fairly new, and it's fairly offensive.  A more familiar one is:  "That which does not destroy me makes me stronger."  Just don't drop that one in conversation in Newtown, Connecticut anytime soon.

And it's not just that a cliche like that is offensive in the wrong context, it's offensive, period.  It's a stupid idea.  So enough poison to make me sick but not kill me is a good thing?  A little mercury in my diet is not so bad?  Feh!

My latest cliche that should be tossed is the one tossed around lightly by people who think they are being scientific, or who think they know what the word "evidence" means:  "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  Often used in discussions about the existence of God (which discussions are never conducted within the understandings of the discourse on philosophy of religion), it is meant to shut down the authority of believers by putting them on the spot, since, well, "proof" of God is a problem that goes back to Isaiah:

Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence,
As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!
When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains flowed down at thy presence. 

Isaiah 64:1-3, KJV.

Yeah, like that.  "Evidence," however, is a term I am quite familiar with; to a lawyer it means something rather different than it does to a non-lawyer, even a scientist.  But a good empiricist never strays far from the proof of the evidence either, and anyone with a minimal appreciation of the complexity of the concept realizes "evidence" is not a unitary term measurable on a scale from "extraordinary" and "quite ordinary."

Much of scientific reasoning, as Kuhn established, is altered by paradigm shifts.  It isn't done by the presence of extraordinary evidence.  Einstein shifted physics from Newton by building on the work of others, not by producing sui generis his own theory which no one could deny.  Indeed, some parts of Einstein's theory have only been established in recent decades, which is not to say the physical evidence was unimportant, but the theory was accepted long before the evidence for all of it was available. There were, of course, good reasons to accept Einstein's reasoning, just as there were good reasons to accept, or at least pursue with fantastically expensive equipment and an untold number of man hours, the suppositions of Peter Higgs.  And the reasoning about the Higgs Boson is not fully accepted until enough evidence is present to establish it, but the finding of evidence always follows the theory; it is seldom the other way around.  Reasoning leads to conclusions, not observations alone.

This has been true in Western thought since Socrates, who from argument alone established the idea of the immortal soul, and idea that may have no post-Enlightenment merit, but which as proven durable across the centuries nonetheless.

Science simply doesn't shift because of "extraordinary evidence," and it never has.  Science shifts because of reasoning, as Kuhn showed.  It shifts in part because evidence accumulates that supports a new claim, but it also shifts because reasoning leads to the search for evidence that supports a new claim.  Extraordinary evidence is never available, because what is "evident" or even "evidence" depends upon a claim to establish it.  Evidence does not walk up, shake your hand, and explain to you what it is in terms of current scientific reasoning.  Reasoning looks for, and eventually finds, the evidence.

For example, when I was a child, there were two kingdoms in the Linnean system of classification:  animals and plants.  Viruses were known, when I was in elementary school, but they had no language of "genetic material" to describe them, and I remember one theory that wasn't rejected out of hand, was that viruses might be proof of extraterrestrial life, because they didn't fit the classification system of "life" that science had established.  Well, now, of course, we know viruses are quite terrestrial.  We also know there are five kingdoms, not two.  Because we discovered variant life forms never accounted for when I was a child?  No, because we finally let go of the old classification system by realizing its limitations and errors.  Did extraordinary evidence lead to this massive change?  Evidence of what:  the existence of algae and fungi?  No; observation and reasoning led to the conclusion that just because a living organism didn't seek its food, it wasn't necessarily a "plant."  It might have been an extraordinary claim, when I was a child, to say that fungi were not plants; but it didn't take extraordinary evidence to establish it.  It just took a reconsideration of the system of classification.

Science is full of such changes, and never relies on "extraordinary evidence" to establish a claim.  If anything, science relies on careful examination of its own reasoning (and it's a good thing, too!).  Which brings me to the relationship of evidence to the law.

In a court of law, nothing is taken for granted.  If you want to establish that it was raining on a day important to the facts of the case, you need to bring acceptable records of atmospheric conditions for that day.  You need even to establish your client's identity, their relationship to other witnesses, even the smallest details of their story.  Any claim made in a court of law is subject to proof by evidence, and in a very literal sense every claim of fact, however small and "ordinary" it may be, is treated as "extraordinary" in a court of law.  Not because it must be established beyond any reasonable standard (and what constitutes "evidence" is a complex set of determinants, not all of them clearly established rules), but because it must be established at all.  If we can return to Kierkegaard's example of the prisoner on trial, the prosecution must establish not that the person on trial exists, but that he is the criminal guilty of the crime.  This does not rest on "extraordinary evidence," as it does on TV or in the movies.  It rests on a great deal of tedious and minute evidence, the kind that makes trials last for weeks, not minutes.  Even then, of course, we don't establish the truly extraordinary claim: that the criminal exists.  To do that, we have to establish a working definition of existence.  The best Descartes could do was "Cogito, ergo sum."  And he only stopped at the cogito because he quite reasonably reasoned that to wonder if he weren't thinking at all, if even his own self-awareness by knowing his thoughts was an illusion, would lead to a reductio from which there was no escape.  That way, he concluded, lies madness; and that would lead him to no conclusion at all.

To establish the existence of any scientist, then, for example, would require extraordinary evidence indeed; starting with the criteria for establishing existence at all.

Science never proceeds from the proof of "extraordinary evidence."  It proceeds from extraordinary reasoning (the "paradigm shift") to identify evidence in light of the new paradigm, much as a court of law examines evidence relevant to a case, but limits evidence subject to consideration to that which is deemed relevant to one theory or another presented by the case.  "Extraordinary" evidence doesn't establish anything outside an accepted paradigm, because it isn't taken as evidence within that paradigm.  If it is accepted, it isn't "extraordinary," it is consistent with the paradigm in effect.  If it isn't consistent with that paradigm, it isn't evidence.  I can, for example, present all manner of "extraordinary evidence" which I claim established the reality of ghosts.  But since no scientific paradigm (well, not in physics; perhaps in anthropology) accepts the claim of an immortal soul which can exist apart from the body, such evidence will never be accepted as proof that ghosts are, in fact, real.  Such evidence will always be explained in ways that support the existing paradigm.  Which doesn't mean ghosts are, in fact, real; it just means acceptance of their reality means stepping out of the existing scientific paradigms, or radically shifting those paradigms.  Whether that has to happen, or ever happens, would require, among other things, a re-definition of the subjects of science, and how science understands, and so explains, the world.  If science ever has to accept the reality of ghosts, or of an immortal soul, the currently accepted thinking is that it would break science to do so.

So better to say there is no extraordinary evidence available to do that, than to change fundamental scientific reasoning.  At least, among some scientists.  But do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?  Better to say they require a shift in what is allowed to be considered evidence, which means a shift in what is allowed to be considered:  period.

(And do ghosts exist?  I dunno.  Depends on how I examine the evidence....)