Bob in the Heights, you’re on the air

In the short happy life of HIPRB! nothing has generated more comments (and thank you all) than the discussion of political polarization and irresponsible news media reporting which arose from the Tucson shootings this month.  DunnTower What most of you couldn’t be expected to know is that the transfer of Gabrielle Giffords here to Houston for rehabilitation has created a “local” story which Houston’s Leading Information Source can’t leave alone—so much so that my old friend Bob Eddy, who used to regularly regale a favored few with his thoughtful and entertaining rants during the Shrub Administration (until the relentless idiocy just wore him down), has been inspired by this development to return to the keyboard.  He’s given me permission to share with a wider circle.

Alright, please, enough with the teary Giffords coverage.  The vigils, the minutiae, the outpouring of sentiment, the blah, blah, blah.   It’s been over two weeks now and she’s still front page news —  even more so here, after she recently flew into Houston’s medical center.  When they ran out of anything substantial to say, the Chronicle ran stories on people that have survived “similar” brain injuries, or are even just patients at the same facility…Yaaaaawn…

Ouch, pretty cold there Bob…yes, but it’s not the congresswoman who pokes my ire, I surely wish her a full recovery and long life  —  being a Democrat.  It’s the nature of the story.  I’ve got two words — shit happens.  That’s right, in a country where any deranged nut job can legally — and in Nevada without even a permit — walk up to a political event in a crowded supermarket parking lot packing an automatic handgun with a 30+ ammo clip, you get nothing out of me other than “shit happens.”  Oh the shock, the horror, the humanity!!!  You would have to have been Nostradamus to have seen this coming!!  Let’s look at the math:

A state that even the local sheriff bravely characterized as “the wild wild west” (an opinion that got him absolutely reamed in the conservative media) + highly-charged political rhetoric fueled with blatant references to armed insurrection + everyday American sponge-brain = political vigilantism.

But you see, America loves a good story of triumph against adversity and tragedy.  We would much rather talk endlessly about Congresswoman Giffords’ time in recovery and rehabilitation hell, the incremental medical milestones with her heroic astronaut husband by her side, than why things like this keep happening.

Yes, the desperate, flaccid Democrats did themselves no favor by latching onto the kneejerk Palin connection before we knew anything about this guy.  And because they are a bunch of spineless weasels whose wallets get padded and arms twisted by the same NRA, they were powerless to take on the real nut of the issue and say “you know, after at least half a dozen similar horrific instances in the last 10 years, can we now at least all agree that America is full of nut-jobs ready to fulfill their fantasies and paranoias with a gun, and in such a volatile environment, is all the gun imagery and metaphors — sorry, used solely by the opposing party — acting in a responsible manner?  Is it even remotely appropriate in a public forum?”

The other night Bill Maher brought up a thought-worthy point:  Remember the pointy-brained tea bagger/gun nuts who showed up at all the town hall rallies during the 2008 campaign openly touting their side arms and rifles?

What if they had been black?

Ironically, poor Obama has become the best thing that ever happened to the gun market in the last 50 years.  Sales have skyrocketed ever since he’s been in office, and after this last shooting people couldn’t get to their gun outlets fast enough to purchase their own Glock 36 “before Obama tries to outlaw them!” 

Hey, Thelma Lu, believe me when I say this on my mother’s grave — Obama will propose weekly piñata parties on the White House lawn where all the scrappy immigrant kids get instant citizenship cards with every piece of candy bashed out of a hanging Ronald Reagan effigy before he even mentions in public the first syllable of  the words “gun control.”  He has waaaaaay too much other shit to stir up at the slightest provocation without tempting that bottom of the barrel wet dream.

Before closing I’d like to emphasize that what I refer to as sensible gun control has nothing to do with their abolishment, nor is it a slippery first step toward it.  Just some common sense rules for a nation that kills more people by hand gun violence every day than most countries do in a year.  Although Mexico is giving us a good run for the money…

You might not know, but Giffords’ astronaut husband Mark Kelly has a twin brother, Scott, who is currently commander aboard the space station.  After hearing about it, his official downlinked message included the sentiment “We are better than this.”  Really?  I’m not so sure.  Even as I type, there are states all over this country fighting for the right to openly carry arms into public parks, places of work, schools, restaurants and even bars.  Many have already won.  I haven’t heard churches mentioned yet, but my money says that can’t be far behind.  In 2004 we quietly let the assault rifle ban expire without a ripple.  Someone please explain to me why anyone in the 21st century should be able to legally possess an assault rifle, not to mention as many as he wants.  When America pictured itself as a modern society, did anyone really envision one where 200 years later people are still carrying side arms out in public?  Frontier justice…what does that say about us as rational, communal human beings?  Shit happens.   

And in closing, while we’re on guns, couldn’t someone please shoot Justin Bieber!?

Why we are so polarized

A man opens fire on a crowd in front of a grocery store; six are dead and 13 more are wounded.  A quick and easy explanation that somehow blames a political enemy would be nice, right?  Not so fast…

doc4d290f6a042817218110492This discussion got jump-started last week after the Tucson shootings thanks to the rampant news media speculation that accused gunman Jared Loughner was encouraged in this crime by violent rhetoric from the political right.  It turns out, most Americans aren’t buying: in a CBS News poll nearly 60% say there is no connection at all.

But Loughner is mentally disturbed, and according to his friends his view of the world, and his imagined grudge against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were influenced by extremist conspiracy theories (read about a couple of them here and here).  And so, some argue, Loughner is responsible for the crime but was influenced by a world in which violent rebellion against those who would hijack “our America” is seen as an heroic act.

…if you decide to go kill a bunch of innocent people, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re not a picture of mental health. But that doesn’t sever the link between you and the people who inspired you, or insulate them from responsibility.

The quote is from Robert Wright’s Opinionator blog entry on Tuesday about the growing demonization of “the other” in our society.  He makes the point that any demagogue can whip up a fear frenzy among the gullible, that today’s technology allows each of us to shield ourselves from any competing point of view if we choose to, and that it’s easy to think the worst of people “you never communicate with, and whose views you never see depicted by anyone other than their adversaries.”

It feels true: most of us rarely discuss political issues with people who hold different views.  There seems to be no common ground from which to start a discussion, no one wants to hear what the other side has to say, and we end up beating each other over the head with talking points rather than exchanging ideas.

Paul Krugman attributes this to a deep divide in American political morality:

When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.

He does a good job identifying the roots of today’s ballistic political tone, attributing it to a morally-based difference of opinion about what is appropriate, or constitutional, for our government to be doing.  A disagreement stemming from moral belief, as Krugman believes this one is, would be a disagreement not easily reconciled.

That doesn’t give us permission to stop talking to each other, or stop trying to find common ground, or to subtly encourage violent means to win the moral struggle.  Because then nobody wins.

What I learned this week

First off, I learned that I got off track on the way to making my point in Monday’s post.  I was unhappy, but not surprised, that speculation about political influence as a motivation in the Tucson shootings was at the top of the agenda for every broadcast and cable network last weekend.

I think it is both natural and appropriate for us to wonder why someone would shoot 19 people in a grocery store parking lot, and it is a valuable service when journalists report what they’ve learned in their investigation.  But it is irresponsible and inflammatory of you, Mr. Fourth Estate, to let us listen to your imagination while you work.

It is said that there are two things you don’t want to see being made: sausage and legislation; journalism makes it three things.  If you don’t know something, say you don’t know—don’t then list all the speculative and unsubstantiated possibilities and rumors as if they all deserve equal and serious consideration…and certainly not at the point in time when you don’t even know the suspect’s name!

But, we need to say something to fill up the air time…no, you don’t.  When you’re finished reporting what you know, stop talking—go to a commercial; go back to regular programming and break back in to recap or when you have something new to report.  That need to fill time is one of the root causes of the decline in your standards and, as a result, the decline in the trust people put in you and your work.

Second, the capacity of the human body to withstand injury is just stunning.  A bullet fired from close range forced its way through Gabrielle Giffords’ head from front to back, and although in critical condition a week later she is making a miraculous recovery—moving her extremities, responding to commands, and today the doctors removed her breathing tube.

Third, you can’t outsmart crazy.  It seems clear that Jared Loughner didn’t open fire on the congresswoman and the crowd because of any perceived encouragement in the political speech of an elected official or candidate for office, or from radio or television entertainers; he’s mentally disturbed.  We could debate whether Arizona’s gun control laws made it too easy for a mentally disturbed man to legally acquire a gun, or whether people who knew Loughner should have tried, or tried harder, to get him help for his mental illness, but people (crazy and otherwise) can get guns no matter what the law allows, and we don’t lock people up because of what we think they might do. 

Last, we got off to a good start on a reasonably serious discussion about just what the hell it is that has people in this country so polarized about almost everything.  I’ll pick it up there next time.

“We are better than this; we must do better”

I knew it:  I knew right away that whether or not there was any evidence that the person who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was motivated by the loudmouths on radio and TV, that some of those loudmouths would be blaming the others for inciting political violence.  And I was right…I also predicted the sun would rise in the east this morning.

405992-giffordsMore than two days after the fact and there is no evidence (of which I’m aware) that the man who shot Giffords and 19 [1/12, authorities have revised the figure to] 18 others was persuaded to lethal levels of violence by radio and TV stars; short of his declaration that “so-and-so said it was the right thing to do,” I don’t see that there ever will be.  So let’s leave that alone.

Starting with Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at Saturday’s news conference, there has been a lot of ink spilled calling for restraint, for throttling back the vitriol that fuels so much of the political discussion in our halls of government and our radio and television studios.  It is worth considering to what extent the personal viciousness—and the attendant self-satisfied smugness—of the professional politicians and the paid-to-be-controversial “opinion hosts” has created an environment where consideration of physical violence becomes less theoretical.

I’ve written about the tone of modern political discussion, which is clearly not intended to appeal to the intellect but to rouse the emotions and appeal to paranoia.  And I’m troubled by how successful those messengers and their messages are.

Sure, I’d like to see more restraint and less accusation in political speech, but I know that real world politics isn’t an academic debate.  And I agree with Jack Shafer’s insistence that there be no government-imposed restriction on political speech—the First Amendment makes clear that is not allowed.  (Check my We the People page for a collection of quotations on free expression.)

But I wish there was more self-control when it comes to speech intended to demonize political opponents: to say not just that someone’s position or opinion is wrong, but that those people are evil, or hostile to American ideals and virtues, because of what they believe.  Disagree with me?  Fine; argue my conclusion, dispute my facts, prove me wrong, ridicule my reasoning, do so with vigor; but to respond that my disagreement with your point of view is evidence of imbecility or treason is not a rebuttal.  It’s a sign of the weakness of your position; it’s a sign that you have nothing to say.

One of the more touching observances of a moment of silence for the victims of the shootings in Tucson came this morning from Giffords’ brother-in-law: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, the current commander of the International Space Station.  (Full disclosure—I work at NASA Johnson Space Center and am acquainted with both Scott Kelly and his brother Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband.)  The good stuff starts 1:27 into the clip–

We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station.  As I look out the window I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful; unfortunately, it is not.  These days we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions but also with our irresponsible words.  We are better than this; we must do better.  The crew of ISS Expedition 26 and the flight control centers around the world would like to observe a moment of silence in honor of all the victims, which include my sister-in-law Gabrielle Giffords, a caring and dedicated public servant.  Please join me and the rest of the Expedition 26 crew in a moment of silence.