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Saturday, September 7, 2019

I don't own a gun

(This post is cross-posted with Ordinary-Times and is a revision of something I posted on Hitcoffee in May 2015)

I don’t consider myself anti-gun. I was raised around guns. I don’t have the knee-jerk reaction against “gun culture” that some do. There’s much to criticize in (what I’ve seen of) that culture. But the criticisms I and others have made are sometimes overwrought. They’re certainly not the whole story.
However, I choose not to own a gun. Here’s why:

I don’t hunt.

I don’t have anything against hunting. In fact, I think getting one’s meat through hunting, if that’s why one hunts, is much more ethical than getting it through factory farms. And I eat a lot of meat, almost all of which probably comes from factory farms.

I do have a personal objection to hunting for sport. But I wouldn’t outlaw the practice, and I have no interest in converting others to my view.

I probably couldn’t use a gun for self-defense.

If I tried to use a gun in a self-defense situation, the person against whom I’m defending myself would probably just take the gun away from me. Another possibility is that I’d end up hurting someone needlessly. Not all self-defense situations are really self-defense.

In theory I could take classes that train me how to safely use a gun. If I seriously thought I needed a weapon for self-defense, I definitely would take that class. However, I’d have to balance any perceived need for self-defense against my next reason for not owning a gun. And I don’t see that happening.

I don’t trust myself with a gun.

I have dark moods sometimes. It probably doesn’t count as bona fide depression, but the moods get very, very dark. And even when the moods aren’t dark, there’s always a reserve of darkness to check even my brightest moods.

Or if it’s not “dark moods,” it’s anxious moods. Think mild panic attacks and occasional choices to lose my temper. I undergo (thankfully brief) moments of impulsivity. In those brief moments, I wouldn’t like to be in possession of a firearm.

I don’t really believe I’m a danger to myself or to others. But it’s probably a good thing not to tempt fate.

Implications for policy.

My reasons for declining to own a gun have few obvious implications for gun policy. I’m not saying, “I shouldn’t be owning a gun, therefore we need to ban all handguns.” There are very good objections to many of the more restrictive gun control measures that I, for one, am coming around to supporting. Those objections need to be acknowledged and addressed. But I do think gun rights advocates need to consider my non-hunting related reasons above, or at least the spirit behind those reasons. A good number of those advocates already do, and those advocates are an important part of any solution even if I must eventually part company with them on policy.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Rocketman deserves an extra half-star

(Warning: this is a review of the movie Rocketman and it contains spoilers)

Christy Lemire gives the movie Rocketman,the biopic of Elton John, two and a half (out of four) stars. I believe it deserves at least three stars, maybe more.

Lemire sees this film as a "formulaic, paint-by-numbers biopic" that rehashes the tropes we see in most biopics of celebrity entertainers. The entertainer is shown as an extremely talented person at a very young age. They attain early success. They dabble in and are almost destroyed by some combination of sex, drugs, and overspending. They finally find salvation and stability. (Or....the greedy and corrupt entertainment industry and the consumers of that industry's products tragically destroy the entertainer.) In the meantime, especially if the entertainer is a singer, the film goers are treated to performances of their favorite songs by an actor "who does it so well but also adds their own spin on the performer's oeuvre." (Not an actual quote.) See also: The Onion's "rise-fall-redemption arc." (That's an actual quote.)

Lemire is right. The film has all those elements. But the film subtly plays with them and undermines the cliched narrative. It does so in two ways, one minor and one major.

The minor way is that we're (mostly) spared a recap of how the Elton John came up with his songs. We don't see a recreation of the scene from "Walk the Line" about Johnny Cash, where Cash's girlfriend/wife tells him he "can't walk the line" and then Cash writes a song called "I Walk the Line."

In part, that's because Bernie Taupin wrote a good number (most? almost all?....the film isn't very clear about that and I don't know) of John's songs, while John provided the music, melody, and performance. But more important, it's also because the film isn't about the songs' creation. It's using the artwork that John (and Taupin) created to meditate further on John's life. The "Bitch is back" may or may not be about his childhood relationship with his mother, as the second scene of the film implies. But it's purpose in the movie is to introduce John's childhood. Most of the song presentations in the film are like that.

The songs may or may not have been inspired by the scenes in which they're presented. But the songs' actually inspiration is never (as far as I can tell) the main point. The idea is to use John's artwork to think about John's life. We see that most prominently when John starts to descend rapidly downhill. In that scene, he's doing his cover of The Who's Pinball Wizard, a song not written by Taupin (whom the film portrays as a true and caring friend), but by another group. It's something not original to the Taupin-John team, and it signals a sad decline.

The major way is more important and, well, major--yet subtle. We see it when John goes into rehab for his drug addiction. (I'm referring here to the second time we see him enter rehab. The first is at the beginning of the film.) The scene is triumphant. We see him shedding some of his outrageous costume--a costume that, we're given to understand, acts as something like a prison--while he's making his way to the rehab center. By the time he actually enters the rehab center, I was actually rooting for him. I was glad he was there. Maybe I even teared up a little.

Contrast that with other works' treatment of The Onion's "rise-fall-redemption" arc. (By "works" I'm including cinematic biopics as well as things like VH1 "behind the music"documentaries.) In those works, rehab is presented as the low point in the celebrity's life. Something he or she is reduced to. Rehab augurs well for their future, but their actual future begins later, when they reconcile with their partner and go back to entertaining without the drugs and alcohol. In Rocketman, the triumph is the decision to go to recovery. It's something to celebrate. It's the true climax of the film.

Now, I say Lemire should have given Rocketman an extra half-star, maybe more. I still wouldn't give the movie a full four stars. There's still enough of the caricatures and cliches from the usual biopics that probably detracts from the fourth full star. John's mother and father are probably too static. And the film assigns only one interpretation to the mother's statement that John, being gay, will "never be loved properly." That interpretation (presented at the end of the movie when we're informed that John eventually did find someone to love him "properly") is one in which his mother refuses unflinchingly to accept John, when I think we can also interpret that scene as one of sadness and pity.

At any rate, I think Rocketman is a better movie than it seems at first glance. I recommend that you see it.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Leaglizing weed: good policy, one problematic argument

I support legalizing marijuana, and I'm glad my state is about to do so come January. One argument I hear in favor of legalization bothers me.

It's the argument about racial equity and goes like this. Drug laws are used as a tool to harass and incarcerate primarily persons of color. By legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, we take away that tool to harass such persons.

(That's the generic argument. Any given attempt at legalization may do more to advance racial equity. My state, for example, has created an expungement program for certain prior marijuana convictions and has some provisions for ensuring new weed dispensaries are minority owned. Those more expansive attempts work (or don't) on their own terms and aren't what I'm addressing in this blog post.)

The racial equity argument isn't false, in my opinion. I believe it's true, although I'm a little skeptical about how much legalizing or decriminalizing drugs will actually work. The police are pretty clever and have strong incentives to find ways to harass the least advantaged among us, and I suspect decriminalizing won't be much of an impediment if we don't fix other things.

My main problem, though, is that it's a misplaced argument. While I make no admissions about what I currently do or will do in the future, I really want weed to be legal. One of the many reasons I want legalization is the racial equity argument.

And yet....if I'm honest, it's mostly a argument of convenience. I'd support legalization anyway. And more important, there are many, many potential reforms that could help bring about racial equity. I'd support many of them, such as, for example, reinvigorating the voting rights act. But my support for them is more abstract and detached. I think many f them would be good things to get done, but I'm not doing much to bring them about, even if "doing much" is only occasionally writing blog posts about the topic. I'm not even keeping myself up to date on the current efforts to implement such reforms. For weed legalization, on the other hand, I paid close attention to the legalization path in the legislature and seriously considered writing my state senator (something I've never done before) to thank him for voting for it.

I suppose I'm suggesting that a good deal of the racial equity argument is what's known online as "concern trolling," or expressing concern for someone when it's convenient to do so and then abandoning that concern when it's no longer convenient. There seems something....not wrong....but inconsiderate about using the racial equity argument. And that's what bothers me about it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

We can be better than our principles

Behind the curve

As I've confessed elsewhere [here and here and here, for example], I was behind the curve when it came to gay rights. Or maybe I was with the curve, but barely. The point is, I came to publicly support gay marriage and tolerance and acceptance only at about the time publicly supporting them became a mainstream view. In the meantime, I missed opportunities to help others, even in the limited sense of offering my moral support when my own mind had changed but the mainstream view remained decidedly anti-gay. Late was better than never, but it was still late.

In part, I hesitated because I was working through my sincerely held beliefs. My beliefs about sexuality, identity, morality, and civil rights were in their own way thoughtful and coherent and at least partially came from a place of love and empathy. The worldview on which I based my beliefs wasn't necessarily more unfair than some of the supposedly "welcoming" worldviews I've encountered since then.

And in a wider sense, there was and is a certain imperative to be true to myself. I ought to forbear embracing that which I'm not ready to embrace honestly. It's a balancing act of sorts. I must honor a disposition to the truth even as other things make me question the truth as I currently discern it.

At any rate, adhering to my anti-gay views entailed tolerating and gainsaying certain real dangers that gay persons faced. Whatever justification I justly marshaled in support of my views, I helped in my own way to create a space and set of policies under which people were bullied or assaulted for being gay, where people were being disowned by their families, and where a devastating disease that disproportionately affected gay men was publicly (and with minimal censure) touted as just deserts for a lifestyle choice.

That problem--holding sincere beliefs while also creating real harm--is always with us, and ultimately I don't know how to resolve it.

I can advocate one step, however. That step is, don't insist on a final resolution. Sometimes when the issues are fraught with competing moral claims, or when the right outcome (whatever that is) is either impossible to fully implement or comes with disturbing collateral damage--in those cases, we should sometimes just address the question and situation before us. We should put aside our honestly and deeply held theories about how things should be and instead focus on immediate situation.

Sometimes is not always. On some occasions, we have to settle on our principles and stand by them. Those occasions are interesting but rare, and are not usually of the sort we want to experience. Or maybe those occasions are more common than that. But the point is not to get bogged down in resolving all the world's problems or coming up with and enforcing a complete system of thought unless we really, really have to.

I am thankful that for most of the very contentious issues these days, I am not responsible for determining their resolution. I don't have to set immigration policy. I don't have decide how to use U.S. military forces. I don't even have to ultimately decide on how to enforce such seemingly trivial (to those to whom it's not an everyday issue) concerns about preferred pronoun usage. [UPDATE: It's not that I surrender the prerogative to opine about those issues and others. But I should keep at least one eye focused on what I can and should do personally, in my daily interactions with others, even while I explore broader concerns.]

On a day-to-day basis, I'm fortunate to have less monumental concerns, to be confronted merely with treating people well or at least treating them less poorly than I could. While I fall short even with those responsibilities, I'm thankful my responsibilities aren't even greater.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Lessons from a popcorn fire

If you've worked in an office, chances are good you've experienced the popcorn fire. That happens when someone microwaves popcorn for longer than they should have and the popcorn burns, creating enough smoke to set off the fire alarm and force the building to evacuate.

But the hard thing about a popcorn fire is that you usually don't know at the time that it's a popcorn fire. When it happens, all I know is that the fire alarm has been activated for some reason and that it's time to decamp from the office. Most of the time, I never even see or smell the smoke from the fire, so I walk calmly out of whatever exit there is and enjoy the unexpected break from my work day.

Except one time. I was on the 10th floor of a high rise office building. When the alarm went off, I could actually smell the smoke. Instead of calmly walking to the exit, I walked briskly to the exit. I didn't panic, but my goal was to escape and not just leave.

I didn't panic, but I also didn't follow certain procedures that had been discussed by our building manager. Those procedures advised us to knock on every office door on our floor to let people know there's a fire alarm and to see if anyone needed help. I didn't do that. I just walked on out and saved myself.

I was still technically following the procedures. The fire safety procedures always had this proviso: leave right away if you feel your safety is threatened. Ergo: don't be a hero. I had no difficulty following that part of the procedures.I should also state that while I had smelled smoke, the smell wasn't very strong, and I don't think I actually saw smoke. In other words, I probably could have at least knocked on doors while I left. But I didn't do that much.

So, I didn't exactly cover myself with glory.

What did I learn from this episode? Well, it reminded me that I'm not really brave. I needed the reminder, and I still need it. I've actually had other reminders throughout my life. It's not always a popcorn fire. (Actually, other than the episode I'm relating here, it's never been a popcorn fire.) But it's usually an opportunity to show some bravery, and I fall short. Usually--almost all the time--the opportunities in question are as dangerous as a popcorn fire.

And it's more than just "showing bravery." If simply "showing bravery" is the goal, then it's not a very good goal. I could do that by exaggerating known popcorn fires or (if I were ambitious and a little bit criminal) manufacture my own popcorn fire. But usually "showing bravery" is coupled with doing something to help others or with doing the right thing.

When minor emergencies like popcorn fires aren't happening, I tell myself, mostly sincerely, that I'll do what I'll need to do if an emergency arrives. The reminders tell me not to be so confident.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Outsourcing judgment, and taking good conscience where you can get it

In a recent post at Ordinary-Times, Will Truman makes the argument that Donald Trump and many of his supporters are racists. It's of course not new for someone to make that argument, and Will of course has ready evidence at his disposal. But that post is post is different because Will rarely makes "X is a racist" declarations.

In his post, Will refers to some of the ways that Trump supporters dodge the racism issue. One of them is 

usually something about crying wolf and how liberals call everyone racist. That’s sometimes true but beside the point. The fact of the matter is that I do disregard what a lot of leftwards have to say on the subject. They have proven to be unreliable and I have responded accordingly. It would, however, be the height of intellectual laziness to simultaneously outsource all of my judgment on racial issues to them and then reject their opinions. If you don’t have your own opinions on what constitutes racism, that’s on you. [bold added by me]
I am similarly guilty of outsourcing in two ways.

The first is pretty much what Will is referring to. I too often take the opinions of my liberal-leaning friends and coworkers and use those opinions as a gauge to measure my own (usually contrarian) response to whatever issue they're opining about. The upshot is that I too often resort to the "but actually" and the "well, you have to understand" approach to the bigotry of Trump and his supporters. But Will's post reminds me that ultimately I have to decide to call something for what it is and to reject the pleasures of contrarianism.

The second way I am guilty of outsourcing my judgment is evidenced by my willingness to embrace what Will is saying in that post. There are some left-leaning people at Ordinary Times with whom I have a frosty relationship. If one of them had written a similar post calling Trump a racist, I would have had to stifle the temptation to contrarianism. But I have a lot more respect for Will than I do for them. When he speaks out on any issue and especially on this issue, I'm much more willing to agree, and not reluctantly, but with (shall I say?) enthusiasm.

In a sense, I'm using him as a moral compass, as a standard by which I measure my own notions of right and wrong. I'm "outsourcing" at least some of my own morality to the example of someone else. In choosing Will as one of those someone else's, I believe I'm choosing wisely. I could certainly choose worse. But the racism that Will is calling out would remain racism even if Will had not called it out, and even if Will denied the racism instead of naming it.

At the end of the day, Will is only a human and has the failings of a human. I shouldn't tether my morality to his views or to anyone's views. But even if I am making a mistake, the mistake fosters (I hope) my own good conscience so that in the future, if I ever have to choose in the absence of a good example, I might choose rightly.