Archive for January, 2013

Guns in America—We’re Digging in the Wrong Place

January 31, 2013
"Asps.  Very dangerous.  You go first."

“Asps. Very dangerous. You go first.”

“They’re digging in the wrong place,” Sallah and Indy said, noting that even though the Nazis have all the equipment and manpower they need to find the ark of the covenant, because they don’t know the actual location, they’d never find it no matter how much they dug.

I believe that’s exactly where we now stand with the issue of gun violence in America.

Yes, I know the statistics about guns; homicides, suicides, and accidents involving firearms dwarf incidents of self-defense.  Yes, I am moved by the heroic testimony of Gabby Giffords on Capitol Hill and the touching words of Mark and Jackie Barden, parents of Sandy Hook victim Daniel.  Yes, I am disgusted by the intransigence, bullying, and hypocrisy of Wayne LaPierre.  Indeed, I was a part of this very debate back in the 1990s, working on the international ramifications of America’s lax gun laws.

Yet while I am heartened that we are mining our collective souls once again now that the oft buried costs of an armed society have been so savagely exhumed, I am more convinced than ever that we are digging in the wrong place.

What convinced me of this fact was the irony of back-to-back memes that popped up on my Facebook news feed seemingly arguing with each other despite the fact that these two friends of mine aren’t at all acquainted:

Gun Control MemesTo me, these two pictures paint a clear picture as to the problem—the two sides of the debate are simply, once again, talking past each other.  Indeed, Vice President Biden’s meeting with the gun lobby was by all accounts a perfunctory one at best—an honest drawing of the battle lines now that the front had shifted so suddenly, so tragically, in the direction of gun control advocates.

As one who spent 20 years lobbying and organizing on issues such as this one, I understand the temptation to press an advantage when it arises.  Spikes in gas prices help make the point for better fuel economy.  Attacks on U.S. soldiers by enemies armed with U.S. weapons make the point for a Code of Conduct on international arms sales.  Been there, done that.

But here’s the problem that my two friends’ memes demonstrate so well.  While the majority of Americans are now in favor of sensible gun control laws (including many NRA members) the majority of Americans are also in favor of placing armed security at schools (including many who don’t own guns).  And so the rhetorical and policy battle becomes not a discussion on common ground, but the two sides staking out positions that have public support, but not the support of the other side.  By focusing simply on their perception of what is right, both sides doom us to more division, more failure, and more partisanship.

In Conflict Partnership terms, this is classic “Power Over.”  You find the position of which you are at greatest advantage and attempt to leverage it to the hilt.  In electoral circumstances, I understand the need to focus on that strategy as there really is a winner and loser and the loser goes home.  But when you are trying to make real change, Power Over tends to create at best short-term gains with long-lasting negative ramifications.  Indeed it has been just this “I just need to convince enough people I’m right to shove those I believe wrong out of the way” philosophy that has Congress polling below cockroaches in popularity.

Perhaps gun control advocates are able to push their way into a significant enough majority to finally get some common-sense gun laws on the books, but I’m dubious.  What makes me far more upset, however, is that the fight we are having does nothing to bridge the gap that when you strip away lobbyists and policy makers, may not really be much of a gap at all.  Perhaps it’s really that we’re just having the wrong argument.

From the web shooter of babes

From the web shooter of babes

To make a real change, I believe President Obama should look to his past—his nerdy, nerdy past.  As we know, the President’s all-time favorite Super Hero is Spider Man (something we share other than going to Occidental College).  And Peter Parker’s guiding philosophy came to him from his Uncle Ben:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

There is very little I can think of that this axiom applies to more than guns.  But the conversation we have over and over again is about “rights vs. responsibilities.”  Instead, perhaps what we need is to talk about “rights and responsibilities.”

This, to me is where we could begin our conversation anew, and actually begin it with the topic that got it started in the first place—keeping our children safe.  And it could start exactly where the NRA has its power, on security in schools.  For if the right to bear arms needs to be balanced with the responsibility we have to our children, then, yes, I find myself with the majority that say increased security is a good idea.

I also believe that if we begin digging there, where the NRA put the big, red “X”, we just might be able to begin having a very different conversation about guns in our society.  It’s one that both sides of the debate may be a little more uncomfortable with.  But in this case, uncomfortable is good.  I’ll explain about what I mean in my next post.

The Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

January 9, 2013

Finally, a chance to give my feedback on Peter Jackson’s efforts to turn one little book into three big movies.  I saw this at a theater in 3D but on the standard 24 frames per second format.  So I cannot speak to how the ultra-clear 48fps looked.  You can check out the book review in my Read It Then See It post.

Hobbit PosterThe Movie
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Warner Brothers, New Line.

Based on a  Book?
Yes: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, originally published in 1937

Children’s Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Eight years old and up.  While the book is appropriate for younger children, I felt the film mirrored the tone and violence of Jackson’s LOTR films.  I personally would not have been comfortable taking my child to see it until I felt he was ready for at least The Two Towers, which was for me this past year, when he turned eight.  My sister took her son, who is six, and they both loved it and had no issues.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  While I’ll get to what I see as flaws in this film later, this is really designed for a more mature audience despite coming from a children’s book.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
I often feel that it is the specter that is more frightening than the monster.  In that way, perhaps the most frightening scene in the film is when Gandalf tells the story of another wizard only mentioned in the book, Radagast the Brown.  While in his home attempting to revive an injured animal, he comes under attack from unknown creatures scuttling around the outside.  As it turns out, these are giant spiders we will see in future installments, but Radagast is able to send them away with only their hind quarters being seen as they retreat.  So especially for any of you who have read the book but don’t know it’s coming in the movie, this may be a good time to let your child know that not only will the wizard prevail, but you don’t even really see the spiders (at least not yet).  Also, Azog the one-armed Orc warlord is a pretty freaky and frightening piece of CGI.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
We begin with the fall of the great dwarf city of Erebor by the dastardly Dragon Smaug, and the rise of its heir, Thorin Oakenshield.  With the assistance of wizard Gandalf the Grey, here begins a quest to retake what has become the Lonely Mountain.  Much to the surprise and skepticism of dwarf, elf, and wizard alike, Gandalf has chosen a little hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to serve as the party’s thief. At Gandalf’s urging, Bilbo reluctantly leaves the comfort of Bag End to join the dwarves on this adventure.

Magneto and Dr. Who together in a Hobbit movie?  Nerdgasm!

Magneto and Dr. Who together in a Hobbit movie? Nerdgasm!

The group is almost immediately beset by danger, from hungry trolls to vicious goblins.  After being lost in a Goblin’s cavern, Bilbo stumbles on a creature called Gollum, and a simple but attractive gold ring.  He tricks Gollum into helping him escape with the added aid of that magical invisibility ring.  Bilbo uses the ring to great effect, saving Thorin and with Gandalf’s help escaping to within sight of the Lonely Mountain.  But something wicked has just awakened in the mountain, and will be awaiting them with fire and desolation…

My Review
So let me start out by saying that I enjoyed this movie.  The acting was superb and I, for one, really did not find the many additions from the books, from Radagast to the White Council to the significant expansion of the story of the Necromancer, to have taken away from the story.  Indeed the significant expansion of Gandalf’s character from a clearly supporting role in the book to a very central figure throughout was, I believe, an excellent choice.

No one tosses a dwarf!

No one tosses a dwarf!

The issue with this movie for me is that it felt very much a “square peg/round hole” effort.  Jackson is essentially attempting to use The Hobbit as the glue that holds a larger story together that connects this tale directly to his fantastic LOTR films.  In doing so, he replicates the same brooding, serious tone of his other films.  Indeed, An Unexpected Journey in many ways feels even more serious than Fellowship of the Ring, as the frivolity feels more sporadic, less organic and, frankly, more annoying with the band of dwarves than it did with Merry and Pippin as well as Gimley providing some needed relief to the dire circumstances.

Frankly, this story, even with Jackson’s embellishments (which, credit where credit is due, is all derived from source materials) is simply not epic enough, feeling more like a thin version of his epic trilogy.  The Hobbit is a children’s fairy tale, even after Tolkien edited the book after writing the trilogy to make it more consistent.  In Jackson’s desire to make these films feel absolutely contiguous with his first trilogy, I believe he has robbed that sense of mirth and fun and replaced it with a grandiosity that is simply not supported by the plot.

What we end up with is an enjoyable, but very bloated piece of filmmaking.  I also found that, unlike LOTR, the CGI effects became distracting, especially in the goblin cavern where the combat looked like a medieval version of Attack of the Clones.  And there came a point when Gandalf said “RUN!” for the 6th time that I felt like I wasn’t watching a plot develop, but a video game on a loop. I found Fellowship of the Ring the strongest of the three LOTR films, and then while they were still wonderful, each became more flawed as the series progressed.  I’m just hoping I’ll be able to say the reverse of The Hobbit trilogy.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
All said, I think there is a LOT to be said for seeing this first and then reading the book.  My sister has been doing this with my nephew, and both of them have been having a great time finding the references in the book that Jackson used as cues to expand upon.  Indeed, in the end there may be something to be said for those that are hot Rings nerds to hold off on the book until you’ve seen all the films.

New Year and Newtown

January 8, 2013

newtown-memorial-ribbon4-300x300Happy New Year everyone.  I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but that’s not for lack of writing.  Yes, most of my time has been spent trying to whip my book into enough shape that an agent might be interested, but a lot of it as spent writing endless drafts for a post about Newtown.  I mean, if there ever was an event that a blog like this should weigh in on, it’s this one.

This is actually my fifth attempt, as I often found myself arguing endlessly with…myself.  And I don’t think I’m alone in that.  So even with the operative element of blogging being to be in the moment and to write what you think, I felt a need to hold back until I had something coherent to say.  Here’s my best effort:

He was a stranger, walking into an elementary school. Carrying a large basket covered with a brown cloth so as to hide its contents, he tried the front door to find it locked.  He simply pushed a button, and within seconds a low-pitched droning indicated that the school was open for him, no questions asked.  A teacher even held the door open for him as he entered the principal’s office.

From there, he marched straight into a Kindergarten class, and placed his basket on the floor.  He uncovered its contents, and removed a black mask.   “Is this going to be scary?” a little girl asked innocently.   The man pulled the mask over his face, removed a weapon from his basket, and began…

The stranger?  Me.  The school?  My nephew’s.  The basket?  Filled with props, inclusive of a foam sword and a black Darth Vader mask for my annual rendition of “Chanukkah Wars”—the holiday story told with a Lucasian bent.  All done right around the same time that the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown was happening.

That feeling of walking in some kind of mirror universe side-by-side with a killer is something I simply have not been able to shake.  There I was, standing in front of 30 wide-eyed 5 and 6 year olds, sharing what I believe is all the best that American culture has to offer; the curiosity and openness to learn about the traditions of people who are not exactly like yourself wrapped up in the package of imaginative icons that our pop culture that has made us such a profound influence all over the world.  As the Vader mask-clad evil Lord Antiochus battled the inflatable hammer-armed Judah Maccabee, and unleashed the Death Star of the ancient world, a horde of what turned out to be very ticklish battle elephants, the kids yelled, squealed, laughed, and learned.

At that very same time, kids that same age were yelling and squealing…and dying…as they were confronted by the very worst that American culture has to offer.  A society where it is easier to buy a gun than to receive adequate mental care.  Where guns are not seen as a dangerous tool, but celebrated and enshrined as something sacred.  And the pervasive danger of these guns in our society is so highly politicized that we end up ignoring the problem, much to our peril.

Click to read the USA today article on the hundreds of children in the Chicago area alone who have been claimed by gun violence over the past few years.

Click to read the USA Today article on the hundreds of children in the Chicago area alone who have been claimed by gun violence over the past few years.

This ghosting in my mind’s eye of my steps with Adam Lanza’s haunts me like a shadow dancing at the corner of my peripheral vision.  And I think that’s where we have tried to keep the dark secret of violence in our society.  It is very easy to keep it there when the violence happens in a steady, unyielding trickle.  A little girl caught in a drive-by shooting (a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a violent crime than in self-defense).  A tragic accident with a handgun in the house (a gun in the house is responsible for the vast majority of accidental child shootings).  An abused wife meeting a violent end (an abused woman is 6 times more likely to be killed if there is a gun in the home).  It is a deadly blind spot in the American psyche.

Now, you might expect me to go on and jump in with the ocean pressing for new, tough gun control laws.  Instead, I want to tell you that when I first thought about what we could do to keep our children safe from gun violence, my first thought turned to pretty much exactly what Wayne LaPierre, chairman of the National Rifle Association, has now suggested; except my proposal was even stronger than his “armed guard in every school” idea.  I proposed that we have at least two police officers in every public should in the country, as only one makes it too easy for a madman to eliminate the children’s only line of defense.

For those of you who have read some of my posts, this might come as something of a surprise to you.  Indeed, I’ve surprised myself when I’ve found myself on the other side of the debate with many of my friends who immediately took La Pierre to task for blaming everything in society EXCEPT for guns as a cause of this tragedy. But, while I find the sentiments and tone of the NRA and La Pierre’s comments abhorrent, I cannot get over that feeling of disquieting ease that I had as a stranger gaining access with a basket of who-knows-what into my nephew’s school.  This is why as people saw LaPierre’s comments as typical NRA evasion, I saw it as an opportunity.

Here, for the first time since I can remember, the organization that was really the model for Tea Party anti-regulatory reactionary attitudes was actually suggesting a massive increase in government involvement in our society.  Much as Bill Clinton so masterfully took opposing issues and used the as a springboard for his agenda (think Welfare reform), I think those who want to see real change should take LaPierre up on his offer.  Indeed, if you believe in serious gun control, I think you may have to.  For while I am hopeful that Vice President Biden’s task force on gun violence may come up with some great ideas to tackle this issue, I am concerned that in the effort to appeal to “all sides” we end up setting up the same circle of spin we’ve been left with time and time again.  Sometimes, it’s important to know when to give up power in order to get to your goal.

Perhaps instead of thinking about cigarettes as weapons, it's time to think about guns as cigarettes.

Perhaps in addition to stigmatizing cigarettes as weapons like this ad from The Truth campaign, it’s time to think about guns as cigarettes–a dangerous addiction that we have no intention of making illegal.

I think this could very well be one of those times. In the great “give and take” that, when it functions correctly, makes American society work so well, I think the more police in schools should go right along with the great idea my wife put forth.  To pay for the program, we would institute an annual federal license fee on gun owners. We have tremendous precedent for such a solution.  We tax the hell out of cigarettes and put the money in for healthcare and anti-smoking programs.  If you want the right to smoke, you have the responsibility to pay for the damage smoking does to not only yourself, but to society.  If you want a gun, the same criteria should apply. Seems like a very analogous solution and a step—yes, only a step—in the right direction.

So rather than decry Mr. LaPierre’s idiotic language, I’d love to see Obama call his bluff and propose this as a part of the solution. Because, let’s face it, we who dislike guns have neither the right, nor the numbers, to impress our vision of a gun-free America on our nation. But the same holds true for those who believe an armed society is a polite society. But as long as that’s the argument we’re having, all that will happen is nothing. And nothing simply isn’t good enough.