Yeah, Guns Again…

This morning I read two reasonable pieces at the National Review.

First was a piece by Kevin Williamson thoroughly excoriating the lunatic, paranoiac wing of the American Right so eager to dismiss the significance of mass shootings that they embrace conspiracy theories about “crisis actors” and school massacres as false flag operations aimed at stripping gun rights. It’s a reassurance that the Earth is not flat recently echoed by Marco Rubio who, in the hot seat from angry teenagers, has nevertheless taken the bare minimum steps required by human decency and denounced suggestions that these children were anything other than survivors of a gruesome atrocity.

The second piece was a very interesting analysis of the political divide on guns from David French. In it, French paints a picture of an America starkly divided. On one side, French quotes his colleague Williams to characterize the leftists who see gun culture as “an atavistic enthusiasm for rural primitives and right-wing militia nuts, a hobby that must be tolerated — if only barely — because of some vestigial 18th-century political compromise,” who are met on the other side by individualists who are “repulsed by the notion that personal security should depend almost completely on the government…[seeing] progressive peers as soft and unmanly.”

French worries that this divide, over such a flash point issue, could “break” America and he seems to earnestly worry over the widening divide as “geographic differences create cultural differences, and cultural differences hasten ever-greater geographic change.”

I have no reason to doubt this earnestness or sincerity from French. He sees an America split down the middle by this painful issue. But despite positioning himself in his piece as someone who knows both worlds and can see past the vitriol, what he sees is obviously biased by his position from deep inside his own “red” territory.

Because the facts paint a different picture of just how divided we are on this issue.

The NRA touts a membership of five million. The current U.S. population is over three-hundred twenty million. As the emerging #boycottNRA movement is quickly demonstrating, that’s just not that big a proportion of the population. It’s true that Americans have a lot of guns, but it’s also true that they are not evenly distributed and that despite ownership rates, some surveys suggest that up to 97% of the population supports automatic background checks for all firearm purchases.

French imagines a clean split, but the truth is that the Right in general has already lost the majority, a trend that many conservatives have worried over, even Williams who recently noted that in surrendering urban communities as hopelessly “blue,” the American Right was turning its back on “where the people are.” In any other democracy, the Republican party would already be out of power. We all know Trump won the election while garnering three million fewer votes than Clinton, but Republicans actually won the house with fewer overall votes than Democrats as well. Without gerrymandering–a practice losing in court battle after court battle–Pelosi would be back in as speaker.

French argues, and implicitly defends, the pro-gun view of the world as a legitimate way of “perceiving your role in a nation and a community.” It is, apparently, a fiercely individualistic worldview in which these patriots reject “the sense of dependence [represented by liberals]… at odds with their view of a free citizenry.”

It is also factually ridiculous.

This notion that being a gun owner will make you safer, that it puts your safety in your own hands is factually absurd.

American gun owners: you are not safe because you own a gun.

Your safety, the security of your lifestyle in which you can wake each day and be reasonably confident that you and your family will not be harmed, does not stem from your ownership of a firearm. If you doubt that, I invite you to reflect on the life of a Syrian rebel today. He has a gun. He woke up very much uncertain about his safety and security.

No, you are safe because you live in a stable and secure society, one defined by the rule of law and a tradition of individual sovereignty. Your gun did not keep murderous thugs at bay today. A functioning society, and yes, a functional government, provided that blanket of security.

It is possible that there could arise a moment or two in your life where your gun could be a tool for further guaranteeing that security, true. But statistically, that gun’s presence in your life is more likely to make you less safe. Whether by accident or misuse, that gun–from a strictly statistical point of view–is more likely to kill you or yours than to save you.

That is what all these guns in our society are doing for us as a nation as well. By most estimates we have as many guns as people in this country and so, unsurprisingly, we have more gun crime than any other developed nation. Even as crime rates have fallen in general, gun deaths are still a rough tie with automobile accidents as a cause of death. Then, of course, there is the grim spectacle of mass shootings, which is a uniquely American blight best captured by the Onion’s recurring headline: “No Way to Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.

French is right that there are two views of the world at odds here, but they are not equal. One is informed by facts and by a realistic reckoning with historical and international evidence.

The other is a fantasy.

It is a fantasy to imagine that having a gun makes you safe, that it is a realistic counter to violence in the world. The fantasy hinges on the presupposition that you, law-abiding gun owner, will see whatever nebulous threat you imagine endangers your family before it comes, that you will get off the first shot, that your aim will be truer than whatever criminal element threatens you. The probabilities stack up to the point of absurdity.

Rather than a gun, you are much safer if your community is well policed, if crime is dealt with systemically. Alarm systems are better deterrents to most crime than a gun. There are nonlethal means to defend yourself in close quarters like TASERs and pepper sprays that reduce the chance of accidentally killing your own family members–a grim kind of irony that is twice as likely as killing in self-defense.

The pro-gun worldview French describes is a fantasy.

But you know what, you can have it. Really, keep your guns.

I repeat: Nobody wants to take your guns.

Hillary Clinton didn’t. Obama didn’t. Nobody wants to take your guns.

Every time the NRA has said that someone was coming for your guns, they were lying. Evidence: You still have them. The Democratic majority under Obama in 2008 did exactly nothing to take your guns away. Instead, they just tried to give you health care (those bastards).

Keep your guns. But stop fighting background checks.

We can pinch the gun supply to criminals and crazies alike with a comprehensive system of background checks. Let law enforcement and healthcare providers put temporary holds on gun purchases for domestic abusers and sociopaths alike. Let courts put permanent bars on such purchases. Let’s make it so that gun transactions are documented and controlled like car sales.

Again, 97% of Americans support universal background checks for all firearms.

There are other rational steps–like putting licensing barriers between buyers and especially deadly weapons like the now-infamous AR-15. But the NRA won’t even admit to the necessity for the background checks and their Republican allies continue to defend the fantasies of the pro-gun set, preventing all progress on this issue.

What they miss is the demographic reality. They really are a relic. They are the minority. The pro-gun world view is slipping into the past, where it always belonged. Guns never made you any safer and some retreat into fantasies of an Old West balance of power will not lead to any real security.

We make a safer society together, not by balkanizing our communities behind armed fortifications. And the way people in a society do things together is, yes, through government. This irrational dread of anything collective from the Right isn’t just anachronistic, it’s wholly illogical.

The Right must abandon its commitment to the absurd conviction that government can do nothing right and begin participating in conversations about what’s the right thing for government to do.


Politics and the Superhero

So, Black Panther has arrived and everybody’s pretty excited about it (well, except racists). The film has delivered the biggest debut of any Marvel hero so far (though technically the character appeared first in Captain America: Civil War) and is second in its opening haul only to the original Avengers. Beyond its early box office might, the film has also garnered outstanding reviews, with io9 calling it Marvel’s first “Shakespearean Epic.”

It’s continuing proof that the Marvel is one slick entertainment factory. The film is sumptuous in its realization of the Afro-futurist world of Wakanda, the isolated and secret utopia protected by the titular hero and king. The cast is so undeniably stellar that it’s hard to even begin to talk about the performances without this whole piece becoming a tribute to the spot-on realizations of these characters (though I have to mention the star-making turn for Letitia Wright as the newest Disney princess, Shuri…and Lupita Nyong’o because she’s Lupita Nyong’o).

(Personally, the only disappointing thing about this film was the predictability of the plot. Even without being familiar with the comics, from which several key story points were apparently taken, if you’d sat me down before the movie and asked me to outline the story, I would’ve been able to hit every key plot point based on only seeing the first trailer.)

Of course, what’s keeping the conversation about this film going is fairly atypical for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Audiences aren’t coming out of the movie wondering about the infinity stones (okay, maybe a little) or how this will impact the next Avengers movie. Instead, Black Panther has us talking about representation (again, that cast) and–gasp!–politics.

Captain America: Winter Soldier surprised me by delving into the politics of the drone war and the post-9/11 surveillance state. But those themes were really quite secondary to a plot that was still, at its heart, a superhero’s story. Black Panther, though, inverts this ideological hierarchy, putting the action and whiz-bang antics in the back seat. Up front, it offers several layers of political discourse between its varied (and surprisingly earnest) story beats, from overt commentary on the African Diaspora through the righteous but perverse ideology of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger to implicit critique of American isolationism and exceptionalism expressed through the allegorical mirror of Wakanda.

For whatever reason, the discussion swirling around Black Panther has me thinking back to one of the biggest disappointments in the history of superhero filmdom: The Dark Knight Rises.

That film’s problematic, muddled political themes always bothered me. The way Bane tries to offer himself up as a savior of “the people” in a direct mockery of Occupy Wallstreet was a particularly noxious bent for a movie about a billionaire savior to take. Taken seriously–and Nolan’s movies plead to be taken seriously–Bruce Wayne is, indeed, a problematic figure. How many millions does he spend fighting crime through vigilantism and how much more impact could that money make actually improving communities?

The Dark Knight Rises might have explored those questions. At a few turns, if feels like it wanted to. When Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle warns Bruce Wayne that he and the other filthy rich should “batten down the hatches” because “a storm is coming” it felt as though Christopher Nolan might be game to question the inequality of Batman’s world. But when the storm comes, it is brought by the masked Bane and his master Talia Al Gul. These villains purport to be carrying on the work of the latter’s father from Batman Begins, but Ras al Gul wanted to destroy Gotham to stamp out its decadence and corruption as an example to the rest of humanity. Bane seems only interested in causing despair.

In the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent said, “You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” What a much more interesting film The Dark Knight Rises could have been if it found Batman wondering–in the light of the League of Shadows’ continued assault on a seemingly at-peace Gotham–whether he had become the villain, the lynchpin holding together a corrupt economic system that kept the rich rich and the poor under control.

But alas, that opportunity was wasted.

So The Dark Knight Rises misses its chance to comment on its times. Perhaps Nolan wanted to repudiate the Occupy movement, but refused to make it an overt propaganda film where the rich, like Batman, should really just be trusted with the reigns of society. It certainly doesn’t seem interested in interrogating the inequality or corruption that was so important in Begins.

In a way, then, Black Panther is the film that The Dark Knight Rises could have been. It is unafraid to question its hero’s position within its fictional world. In the beginning of the film, T’Challa has complete faith in Wakanda’s long standing secrecy, even when urged to abandon it by his love interest Nakia. It is only through his struggle against Killmonger and the revelations his appearance in Wakanda brings that he changes his view of what Wakanda should be to the world. It will not be master as Killmonger would have it, but nor can he allow his country and its myriad gifts to remain aloof from the rest of humankind. The film may have landed during the Trump presidency, but its theme is unmistakably of the Obama era: unabashedly against isolation and militarism alike, advocating principled engagement.

In these troubled political times, a success story like Black Panther is a beacon–made more explicit by a mid-credits scene at the UN in which T’Challa warns the world that we must seek unity, arguing that “illusions of division threaten our very existence…But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

Check out “Inversion” over at The Drabble

The Drabble put up some flash fiction from me the other day. Go check them (and it) out:


Merry Christmas

From the first moment he saw the sign, he felt aggrieved on their behalf:

“Open Christmas Day 24 Hours.”

He was not overly fond of the holidays. In fact, he mostly resented the days overstuffed with his wife clattering around in the kitchen while he talked to portly second cousins about their peculiar interests–one was especially fond of beach volleyball and always had predictions for the upcoming Olympics.

Yet, this, this was a bridge too far. Fast food workers consigned to laboring all day and night on Christmas!

The plan was cemented in his mind as the brown-toothed woman who always served him his morning McMuffin and McCafe deluxe chanted cheerily, “Merry Christmas” on the 23rd. He had to do some last minute shopping anyway, he thought, finding that perfect something for his wife–the cranberry colored purse she had picked out and put on hold at the mall–so he had ample opportunity to do his own little part to put things right.

He did not explain the package to his wife when he got home. (Perhaps she thought it was something extra for her.) After watching his two children dig, ferret-like, through the glittering vistas of pre-printed snow scenes on the three hundred square yards of wrapping paper his wife had used on their various presents, he excused himself and snuck to the garage. Before his wife could even protest the grinding of the garage door, he was off on his own personal Santa mission.

As he’d feared, there were customers making the employees’ Yuletide drudgery even worse. Seeing the cars in the parking lot made him feel even more righteous about his Christmas errand.

He strolled in with the over-size gift basket under his arm. Pretzels and truffles, cheese and crackers, some peppermint sticks and durable, blackberry scones. A little knot tightened, though, as he approached the counter and faced the bepimpled young man at the register.

“Hello…may I take your order.”

“Actually,” he told the boy. “I don’t need anything. I, um, I actually wanted to give you guys something. I felt bad for you all having to work through the holiday, so…”

“Oh, okay, sir,” the register jockey said, raising his stick-like pasty arm to point. “Thank you, you can leave it with the others.”


He turned and noticed the cornucopia of pre-packaged and baked goods piled on the largest of the dining tables behind him.

“Um,” he muttered to himself as he nestled his shrink-wrapped care package between a long dish with a fresh fruit cake and a white Merry Christmas bear holding a box of caramel candies.

Confused, he bowed his eyes as he inched away from the pile of gifts and back toward the exit.

“Thank you, sir,” he heard the boy call after him mechanically. “And Merry Christmas.”

Where Does Wealth Come From?

Over at the National Review, Jonah Goldberg is waxing philosophical about the tax bill and contrasting America with Venezuela. In his essay he takes on the Rawlsian thought experiment of the “original position,” imagining a disembodied soul waiting to be born.

Goldberg thinks that such a soul should really choose to be born right here, right now in the good ole US of A because we are such a great capitalist country and we know how to produce wealth.

Goldberg says, “But if you recognize that humans create wealth with their brains and their industry and that it therefore belongs to them, you’ll be a little more humble about the state’s ‘right’ to take as much as it wants to spend how it wants. Human ingenuity is the engine of wealth creation, and there is no other.”

His argument is a mix of sensible commitment to the foundations of Western liberalism…and a healthy dose of naïveté.

Yes, ingenuity produces wealth, so does good old fashioned hard work. A culture that does not value these qualities is not with its salt.

But it is not the only way wealth is created. Not by a long shot.

For one thing, his assertion that there is “no other” factor is fanciful. Wealth begets wealth all on its own in 21st century America. If I already had a few million dollars, I could just put it in the market and let it ride, living quite nicely for all my days off the churning capitalist engine of Wall Street.

I suppose Goldberg’s answer would be that I’d still be generating wealth from good ole human ingenuity–just not my own.

Exactly. Not my own. There’s the rub.

Goldberg’s idolatry toward capital rivals Ayn Rand’s. But just as her novels crafted a fantasy world to make the capitalist class mythic heroes, Goldberg’s simplistic rendering ignores reality–mostly by ignoring the contribution of others, of the working class and middle class, to the creation of wealth. Not every wealthy person sits atop wealth they created solely through their own labor and genius.

Take Jeff Bezos. Now the richest man alive. Good for him. If you look at his story, you’ll see a man with a vision to transform retail. That vision has paid off.

Goldberg would say that he deserves to be rich.

And yeah, he does.

But does he deserve to be that rich? How is it that he came to control so much of the wealth his company has produced? It was not, after all, a sole proprietorship. Bezos was not burning the midnight oil packing all those smiling brown boxes himself. It took thousands of people working together to create his empire. What’s more, it took a whole landscape of infrastructure and culture to allow him to accrue this wealth on behalf of Amazon.

Wealth is not the inevitable byproduct of ingenuity. You don’t just input your genius into a machine and POOF! out comes your fortune. Wealth flows through a system and right now, the way that system channels wealth is skewed.

Here’s the crux (and I’ve said this before). If it was only ingenuity and hard work that dictated how wealth is created and who gets it, then something interesting has happened in the world since the 1970s:

The wealthy have gotten much, much more ingenious and are working much, much harder.

Inequality is the bugaboo for people like Goldberg, but they won’t talk about it. In their world view, wealth is the straightforward reward for hard work, oh and “ingenuity,” nothing more. But for over a generation now, that wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in a few hands. So how can they account for this?

The simple answer is that they can’t and don’t. Republicans largely ignore the issue of inequality. Partly because their plutocratic donors don’t want them to, but more so because it represents a clear a challenge to their world view. CEO pay, for example, has grown 930% since 1978. You’re seeing that right. Not 93%. Nine hundred and thirty. As a ratio to average worker pay, the average CEO now makes 271 times as much. That’s up from CEOs earning around twenty times what average workers made back in the 70s. Mr. Goldberg, are today’s CEOs really more than ten times more ingenious than in the past? If not, how can you account for this inequality? Whence comes this massive concentration of wealth?

It is not just the product of hard work or ingenuity–unless you mean the ingenuity to rig the entire economic system to screw over workers and benefit the investor class.

Sorry, Mr. Goldberg, there is another way to accumulate wealth. You can design an economy with systemic channels of wealth that invariably favor supply-side factors like capital and grant the wealthy disproportionate access and influence to politicians, and you can refrain from taxing huge investments in any meaningful way to allow existing wealth to grow and grow without limit.

So, for your hypothetical floating soul out there in the aether, it would be a good time to be born here in 21st century America…if you were sure you were going to be born rich.

Because the rich are only getting richer,

On Reading ‘The Wasp Factory’

Iain Banks had an interesting career trajectory. He set out to write science fiction novels, but found it impossible to break into the genre. Then his more literary The Wasp Factory was received to great acclaim, launching his dual career. (His Culture series and other sci-fi was published under his name, but including his middle initial “M.”) He said, though, that The Wasp Factory was not so different from science fiction–that its protagonist and narrator Frank was something of an alien consciousness in his own right.

Frank is a sixteen year old who, as a child, killed three children in three carefully staged crimes meant to look like accidents. Yet his prose reads like a somewhat more intellectual Holden Caulfield as he describes his isolated life on a Scottish island with his father. He seems at most times grounded and perceptive–until he launches into a excursion into the woods to slaughter local rabbits with explosives and petrol or before he introduces the titular Wasp Factory itself. It is a huge labyrinth he has constructed in his attic with various ingenious means by which captured wasps might blunder into their own demise. Their deaths in his enormous contraption he reads as prophecy, using the factory as a means of prognostication.

The world, even his father, has no idea about Frank. No one knows he is directly responsible for the three deaths from his childhood (and he is careful not to kill again) or suspects the depravity of his other activities. They all do know, though, that his brother Eric is insane. As a med student, Eric was exposed to human horror so jarring that he was shaken out of his mind and developed the bad habit of setting dogs on fire. Frank spends much of the novel worrying about Eric who has escaped from protective care and, we learn from a series of raving phone calls to Frank, is making his way home.

The mishmash of coming-of-age teenage narrator and heavy helpings of the grotesque worthy of Flannery O’Conner make The Wasp Factory a puzzling exploration of otherness. Banks complicates that exploration by delving into misogyny and genderedness. Frank harbors a deep hatred towards women, beginning with his absentee mother, and has a complex about his own masculinity because he was essentially castrated by a dog attack as a young child.

If that sounds improbable, there’s a twist that I won’t reveal except to say that it feels unearned at the end of the novel and doesn’t make Frank’s psychology any more believable.

But that may be the point, after all. Banks succeeds first and foremost in crafting a very alien mind in his narrator, one you forget to be disturbed by more often than you should.

Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.