Gun Control

As with many hot-button issues, the problem with U.S. gun policy debates is that each side has a point (and therefore fallaciously concludes that the other side must be completely wrong). The first step toward resolution is acknowledging valid points on both sides. Gun rights advocates are right that a good guy with a gun at the right place can save lives, and wanting a gun to protect one’s family is not unreasonable.  When a deranged shooter opens fire in a mall or movie theater, I agree with my conservative friends that an armed bystander can make the difference between a rapid end and an escalating tragedy. But gun control advocates are right that a populace saturated with weaponry is a more dangerous place overall. It’s hard to believe that the discrepancy of 11,000 gun homicides a year in the U.S., compared to 90 in Spain or 70 in the UK, is completely unrelated to a plentiful access to guns (and handguns in particular).  Put 5000 guns into one city and 50,000 guns into another city of the same size, and you will have more gun violence in the second city.

The second step toward resolution is weighing those valid points to see which side carries the most weight in terms of personal freedom and public safety. For example, of those 11,000 homicides, how many were “justifiable”? The number that can be assigned to the scenario my conservative friends rightly tout – where a good guy stops a major tragedy in a public place – is a very small number, but lump them in with self-defense and all other “justified” killings and you get about 5% of the total (FBI numbers for 2012). That still leaves about 10,450 criminal gun homicides, a number far disproportionate to those numbers from the UK or Spain. (And this doesn’t count suicides and accidents, which bring gun deaths in the U.S. to a steady 31,000 per year.)

From a public safety standpoint, this leads me to conclude that the valid argument against extensive gun ownership statistically carries more weight than the valid argument in favor of extensive gun ownership. Assuming that public safety is a compelling state interest, I think this is a starting point for discussion. At least some regulation is necessary. Then finer distinctions can be drawn.  Traditional hunting rifles have a valid recreational use and let’s assume are less prone to criminal use than handguns, assault weapons, etc. In any event, there is little or no interest on any side to ban hunting rifles. Different weapons – handguns, assault weapons, etc., each may warrant different treatment.  Another consideration might be jurisdiction. Is it true, as Obama said in the 2008 campaign, that there are two different gun cultures – a (primarily rural) sportsman culture and an inner city culture – and that the same approach might not work for both (i.e., different jurisdictions might reasonably want to enact different policies)? And it is reasonable to have background checks to weed out felons, mentally ill applicants, etc. Resistance to all compromise is not a solution. Witness the National Rifle Association’s hard lobbying against a bill that would bar people on terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns. As a staggering tribute to the gun lobby’s power, Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republican leaders spoke out against the bill and it failed. Thus, “Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law” (GAO government report, 2010).

In any event, step one is acknowledging that just because you favor one approach (and I obviously lean to one side), it doesn’t mean that one side is 100% right and the other 100% wrong. Indeed the binary framework is itself misleading. It’s more like a scatter graph with “all guns should be banned” at one end and “access should be unrestricted to all guns in all places for all people” at the other end. Almost no one is at either extreme. It would be best if we could all resist the false binary of “us versus them” and negotiate our way through the many sensible compromise points along the gradient.

Suspension of Ethics

The recent beheadings and crucifixions in Syria and Iraq in the name of religion is atrocious in its own right, but raises a larger philosophical comparison between secular ethics and religion-based ethics, to the advantage of the secular. Of course, most religious people are horrified by ISIS’s actions and consider them to have no basis in religion whatsoever. I will grant the justice of that position, but it leaves open the question of whether a religion-based ethics is more risky in principle than a secular ethics.

To judge the risk requires pinpointing the essential difference between a religion-based and a secular ethics. The Christian theologian and proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard, is most helpful here. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard sees ethics as fundamentally as secular issue, a derivative of universal rational principles. Religious persons can follow those principles but that is not essentially a function of their religious nature. It simply means that they are following a set of rational principles in addition to being a religious person. The key difference is centered on Kierkegaard’s pointed question: “Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?” I.e., can the inscrutable commandments of God overrule “normal” ethical principles?

The paradigmatic case for Kierkegaard is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac.” So Abraham is forced to choose between the universal principles of ethics (against murdering your son) or accepting the “teleological suspension of ethics,” in which he suspends the rules of ethics to satisfy a higher end.

This to me is the fundamental difference between a secular ethics and an ethics based on religion (at least on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Religion allows for the possibility that we might suspend normal ethics in light of a higher commandment from an inscrutable God. Otherwise, it is no different from a secular ethics based on rational principles alone (holding God himself subordinate to the laws of ethics).

Although the acts of ISIS are condemned by people of all faiths, the dangers of a “teleological suspension of ethics” can be generalized to some extent, as a risk inherent in religion-based models. In pre-modern Europe, under the hegemonic rule of the Church, we saw the widespread development of those implements that today fill the torture museums of Europe, implements ingeniously designed to create more and more exquisite pain for the ill-fated heretic.  Then we had the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, brazenly carried on in the name of Church and the states under its authority.

With the 18th century Enlightenment, that largely changed. From the explicitly anti-Church philosophes to Kant, the hegemonic control of the Church gave way to a more humanist ethics grounded in rational principles. The ethics of Western culture today is primarily secular, a product of the Enlightenment. And although far from perfect, it has shaken off the worst abuses of the pre-Enlightenment theocratic ethic. At least now, one cannot break out the torture devices and flaunt them publicly as a general strategy of subjection. At least now, one cannot publicly suspend the normal rules of ethics because an inscrutable God has commanded it.

Now back to Kierkegaard, and to Abraham and Isaac. Although Kierkegaard is a Christian and I am unambiguous in my preference for a secular ethics, Kierkegaard may agree with me up to a point. He himself is almost Kantian in his emphasis that ethics is based on rational principles (unrelated to faith) and is therefore universal. The “ethical” and the “religious” are simply incommensurate categories for Kierkegaard. The ethical has to do with social relations and universal principles. The religious concerns only the individual in relation to the absolute. For Kierkegaard, the “religious moment” occurs when an individual, perhaps like Abraham, lives out his or her life among others, bound by the universal principles of ethics, and then one day something ruptures the plane of that living, and the individual’s identity shoots out in a perpendicular line to the absolute. His relation to the absolute (religious) and his relation to others (ethical) “cannot be mediated,” says Kierkegaard, in a jibe at Hegel and his understudies. Abraham cannot be justified on the ethical plane. He is up against an either/or crisis of the sort that most interested Kierkegaard. There is no gray area. Either you do something completely unethical in honor of God, or you reject God.

Kierkegaard may also agree with me that any social order would do best with a secular ethics based on rational principles. He certainly had no patience for state religion, and often disparaged the Christian state of Denmark and “Christendom” in general for their deployments of Christianity into the political or social arena. But he leaves room for Abraham, the “knight of faith” – not as a model of good citizenship or social order, but as a model of the individual wrenched away from his social identity by a connection to the absolute.

I finally disagree with Kierkegaard and reject the “teleological suspension of ethics” in all of its forms; however, I find Kierkegaard well worth reading and I myself have only scratched the surface of his thought. Moreover, no sound reading of Kierkegaard can ever use the “teleological suspension of ethics” to justify the behavior of ISIS or the Spanish Inquisition. In Kierkegaard, that suspension can never be applied as a public practice, but can only occur as a relation between the individual and the absolute. The problem is that so many groups at so many times and places have used a variant of the idea (God’s commandment allows me to overrule ethics) to vicious ends. In the case of the Middle East, this is further complicated by a historical trajectory quite different from Europe. Whereas the Enlightenment – the rise of secular ethics and secular democracies – in Europe can be seen as a liberation from the hegemonic oppression of the Church, in the Middle East of the past half-century, religion (in the form of a resurgent Islam) is often seen as the liberating force that can throw off the shackles of oppressive Western democracies. This inversion of the role of religion is historically explicable, but the ethical dangers are apparent when we see how easily ethical norms can be discarded when religious zeal is in full cry. Better to have a secular ethics based on rational principles. If you want to layer a religious faith on top of that ethics, fine, but don’t start believing that your faith trumps ethics or you become a danger to yourself and others.

Yosemite in pieces

ice cream cliffs
an element of fear
two plums and a pair of chopsticks
a trip to mosquito town
hot cold chinese coasters
a dance in the river
a watercolor wordbook

trees reclaim the cabin window
a sudden smell of sage
miracle birth at the witching hour
a mistake

a priceless

The Case for Impeachment

Ronald Reagan famously asked in his 1980 presidential campaign, “Are you better off now than you were” when the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, took office. Sometimes the comparison is so stark that you simply need to impeach. Consider how things have changed between January 2009 when Obama took office and today:

  1. The economy was shrinking at an alarming 5.4%; now it’s growing at about 4%.
  2. The stock market had lost 40% of its value and was free-falling; now it has regained all of its value and gone on to record highs.
  3. We were losing 800,000 jobs per month; now we’re gaining 200,000 per month.
  4. The housing market was in crisis; now it’s stabilized.
  5. The auto industry was about to go bankrupt and crater the economy; now it’s running healthy profits.
  6. Young Americans were regularly coming home in body bags from foreign wars; now our combat units are out.
  7. We’ve eliminated Osama bin Laden, the Somali pirates who kidnapped Americans, the head of al-Shabaab (per Kenyan mall attack), and captured the guy behind the Benghazi attacks.
  8. After five presidents tried and failed at health care reform, the ACA (Obamacare) puts us one step closer to the affordable, universal health care that the rest of the West enjoys.
  9. Big banks had free reign; Obama pushed through Wall St regulations and credit card reforms mandating transparency in fees and rate increases.
  10. Pushed for a market-based cap on carbon and increased renewables such that wind capacity has tripled and solar capacity increased 16-fold.

We need to impeach the integrity of the media outlets that continually scream a false narrative about how this president had led us in the wrong direction.

Abbey Road’s Dead Space

I was talking the other day with a young Ukrainian physicist and all-round intellectual type about the 10-minute dead space (hidden track) on An Awesome Wave, the excellent 2012 debut album by the English indie-rock band, Alt-J. I thought the album brilliant, strong and subtle in its aesthetic, but I don’t like dead space. It is conceptually an interesting design idea, but it loses its novelty value after a few iterations and becomes gratuitous. The dead space at the end of Abbey Road, on the other hand, not only had the full novelty value, as the Beatles were the first to deploy the technique, but the entire structure of the album bends toward and justifies that 15-second hiatus, the dead space, the black sign of mortality, between “The End” and “Her Majesty.” (“Her Majesty” was not listed on the original cover or record.) Bear with me as I try to execute this analysis without reference to the “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy theory that swept across pop culture during the month that Abbey Road was released (September 1969).

Back when you had LPs with 2 sides, Side 1 of Abbey Road (songs 1-6 on the CD)* gave us an almost archaeological journey through genres, from cool, edgy “Come Together,” to the reflective love song (“Something”), to the bouncy, pub-sing-along sound of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” to the 50s-ish, doo-wop “Oh Darling,” to the child-friendly “Octopus’s Garden,” to the heavier, hypnotic rock and jazz counterpoints of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”  We also get a panoramic landscape of the Beatles’ sensibilities on this side, with songs by John, George, Paul, Paul, Ringo, and John, respectively.

The white noise that encroaches upon “I Want You” at the end of Side 1 might in some way foreshadow the black space at the end of Side 2, but it is really not until Side 2 proper that transitional spaces become blurred. The first song on this side (#7) is a beautiful acoustic with clear edges and clean finish. The transition from #8 to #9 is normal, except that #8 ends in the middle, not the end, of a musical motive, so we’re “waiting” for #9 in that miniscule gap between them. The move from #9 to #10 is a tiny bit more porous, as the edges are bridged only by the continuing sound of crickets. Then the medley begins in earnest, and remaining songs are really movements within a single whole.

Thematically, with “Golden Slumbers” (#14), the clouds begin gathering at this, the final moments of the final album recorded by the Beatles (although Let It Be was released later). The final sequence of “Golden Slumbers – Carry That Weight – The End” sounds like a Beatles’ farewell, comparable to Prospero’s epilogue in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest. The voice in “Golden Slumbers” raises two possibilities: either it is a soothing lullaby to a small child (go to sleep now and you’ll wake up to smiles) or the last rites to someone dying (let yourself drift into sleep and the angels will greet you when you rise). In context, the second interpretation makes better sense, since the song is drenched in melancholia and pitched to one who might share in the lament that “once there was a way to get back home,” who might recognize that closed path as a weight to be carried across the next passage, the weight of all that loss, the weight of mortality. This is, after all, the dying moment of the Beatles, the cracks of the breakup filling in with nostalgia for the heady days when as teenagers they changed the trajectory of cultural history, relief to get away from it all, hoping that some smile will greet them when they wake up. “Carry That Weight” weaves back in musical motives from earlier songs — most notably, “You Never Give Me Your Money” — and we can now look back and see that beneath the surface strand of Beatles “celebrations” and “negotiations,” there is a hidden strand of “breakdown[s]” and missed connections.

With “Carry That Weight” behind us, we get an exuberant guitar interlude, a burst of life, a sense of relief and liberation from the heaviness – we are witnessing not just a death but an archetypal death-and-rebirth pattern, a sonic anticipation of breaking the shell of those golden slumbers, breaking from death to rebirth. Then the guitar burst mellows into a mystical conclusion, a final couplet (a perfect iambic tetrameter couplet if you read it as it would be read from a poetry book) that summarizes the 8-year dream of the Beatles, with a few potent words and a sudden orchestral gravitas.

After this powerful farewell, we get the 15-second hiatus, the dead space before the “hidden track” – and “well-hidden” in its day because 15 seconds was a very long dead space in 1969 and because the album had increasingly melted songs together rather than using the hiatus at all. So if we’re startled when “Her Majesty” begins playing, the shake-up is not gratuitous. In the moments after death, even symbolic death, any fluttering back to life in the blackness must be startling. In this case, after the grand summation of the Beatles phenomenon in that couplet, from out of the black hole of the Beatles’ mortality, inexplicably, we get a return glimpse of the simple, playful, beautiful acoustic roots from the brainstem of the early Beatles, before they had all that weight to carry. (I’m not sure because I have no real musical training, but “Her Majesty” begins with what sounds like a recapitulation of “the most famous chord in rock history,” the one that opened “A Hard Day’s Night.”)

As reflections on one’s deathbed must enable one to see the values of life more keenly, so we can, from the perspective of Abbey Road’s ending, go back and read earlier details with more meaning filled in. The following lines from “You Never Give Me Your Money,” for example, must surely be on one level the bittersweet last words John and Paul, lifelong friends feeling the weight of estrangement, would have for each other as Beatles:

Pick up the bags and get in the limousine
Soon we’ll be away from here
Step on the gas and wipe that tear away
One sweet dream came true today

Finally, it’s hard to listen to Abbey Road and not ponder that sometime between 1962 (when Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender” was the #1 song of the year) and 1969, an enormous paradigm shift had taken place and the era of music we now live in had begun. The Beatles not only mark the beginning of this era but, to a larger extent than anyone else, invented it.

(Related Beatles commentary in Led Zeppelin and Dr Freud and Morrison’s Women)


*Side One

  1. Come Together
  2. Something
  3. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  4. Oh! Darling
  5. Octopus’s Garden
  6. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

Side Two (original numbering)

  1. Here Comes the Sun
  2. Because
  3. You Never Give Me Your Money
  4. Sun King
  5. Mean Mr. Mustard
  6. Polythene Pam
  7. She Came in through the Bathroom Window
  8. Golden Slumbers
  9. Carry That Weight
  10. The End
  11. [Her Majesty]


Psychosis/Enlightenment 2

MT, we started by talking about Plato, and you pondered what would happen if we stripped away our illusions. Would we end up as the Dalai Lama or as Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger? Would we spiral towards madness or find serenity?

So I pondered Plato. Reality is a manifold, with some layers more illusory than others. Plato found the sensory layer most illusory (as do the Buddhists I presume), but he didn’t see it in black and white terms (illusion bad, reality good). Even the sensory layer is an important first step, a pointer to the next layer, which then seems “real” to us until we get one step deeper, etc. MT, you’re becoming a Platonist despite your own resistance.

Note Plato’s assignment of sensory data to the lowest level (most illusory) of reality/truth seems to pit him against the empiricist epistemology that dominates our current Age of Science (late 17th century to present); however, one of the foremost thinkers of the emerging Age of Science, David Hume, who carried empiricism as far as it could logically go (much to the consternation and inspiration of Kant), concluded much the same – that following the truth of sensory data (empiricism) leads us to conclude that sensory data tells us nothing about the objective world “out there” but only tells us about the imprints some presumed world out there makes on our personal sensory registers. The only difference between Hume the empiricist and Plato the rationalist is that, after they’ve both deconstructed the idea of gaining knowledge about the world-as-it-really-is via sensory data, Plato seeks a deeper layer through rational inquiry while Hume says that’s the end of it and goes out for a pint and a game of backgammon (and my Scottish friends can take that as an insult or a compliment, as you will).

I like your Dalai Lama or Meursault reverie, but I’d go a step further and say that these are the utopic and dystopic outcomes, respectively, of stripping away our illusions.

Although at first glance it seems cute but false to say that madness equates to “stripped of illusions,” it seems believable when I think of illusions as filters. To lose all of your filters would seem a form of psychosis. Someone — was it Aldous Huxley in Doors of Perception? — suggested that consciousness itself evolved not as a way to increase access to the world but as a filter for limiting access to the world, for blocking all the “ambient noise” as it were, so we could focus on a smaller zone of input more efficiently. And if the Huxley/Doors reference is right, I think he went on to say that hallucinogenics remove filters, quite literally expanding the scope of consciousness (and he struggles with whether the output is more akin to psychosis or enlightenment).

For the psychosis side of the equation, see psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his sometime follower, Julia Kristeva. In my primitive understanding of Lacan, we pass through three “orders” in the formation of the psyche (or rather we build up three layers, like rings in a tree). The “real” order is the hidden kernel to which we have no analytical access. Like the noumenal world in Kant’s metaphysics, it is merely a logical assumption that we must make in order for later stages to make sense. We enter the “imaginary” order when we one day see ourselves in the mirror, so to speak (maybe around a year old), see an entity with clear boundaries, and come to imagine ourselves as separate individuals surrounded by external people and environments. Later, we enter the “symbolic” order with the formation of language skills. We begin to process the world through a symbolic overlay (e.g., the sound “tree” symbolically represents the concept “tree,” which isolates and defines a whole range of sensory inputs, the sound “me” represents…, etc.). We now define our personhood relative to that symbolic overlay. We have entered the symbolic order.

In trying to access the “real,” we can only “imagine” it as an undifferentiated flux, or conceptualize it via the symbolic order (as a logical presupposition, an object of psychoanalysis, etc.). Either way, our view is mediated through imaginary or symbolic orders – we have no direct, unmediated access.

Kristeva followed Lacan in theory and focused in practice on “borderline” patients, patients whom I think she found permanently stuck between imaginary and symbolic orders, with perhaps some tantalizing glimpses of the “real” (alas, I’ve lost my original notes on Kristeva and Lacan to Hurricane Katrina).

Back to Huxley’s inference about hallucinogenics, he might say that they strip away the layering of the symbolic order, the webs and webs we have thrown over the flux of original experience, dividing it up into regions we can name and render intelligible. If you strip away all that layering, all those illusions, and get back in some fashion to the lived experience of the “imaginary” order or even the “real,” is the result more akin to psychosis or enlightenment? I think Huxley tentatively concludes that it can give you isolated moments of personal enlightenment but that it is inconsistent with everyday life; it inhibits your ability to function successfully in the workaday, social world (which seems consonant with my personal LSD experiences). In other words, you can strip away the illusion and dip into those pre-symbolic levels of experience, but you have to come back up to sustain your everyday life, since the very enlightenment you feel on the personal level renders you psychotic relative to the social order within which you must live.

Then again, there’s always the Dalai Lama.

Prequel:  Psychosis and Enlightenment