Friday, December 21, 2012

Pointing to the sublime to avoid the obvious

Anyone with any hopes that the National Rifle Association felt any responsibility for the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., last month is undoubtedly disappointed that its president, Wayne LaPierre, held a news conference today in which a) he said the solution to the problem is a police officer with a gun in every school; and b) didn't take questions.

Way to go NRA. Stick your head in the sand, disavow any part in any of this, and keep pushing your agenda.

Well, fine. If that's how he wants it, then don't give him and his group a seat at the table. Move to a new table and tell him he's not wanted.

The problem with the NRA is the same as with all agenda-driven groups. They're so proprietary that they miss the big picture. You want to ask them to take a step back and take in the entire landscape. Sick people don't use knives or baseball bats to commit spectacular murders so that they can leave this world in a blaze of glory. Unless they're devious enough, and smart enough, to be able to dose the water supply with strychnine, they use guns.

And weapons that can get off as many rounds as possible in the least amount of time are the preferred guns, too. Can't take the risk of popping two or three victims before someone catches up with you. That's not spectacular enough. To cause the type of carnage the killer (won't mention his name) caused last week, you need high-powered weapons that can spray bullets all over the place.

And then, once you get it all out of your system, you shoot yourself. That's how you end it. You don't go peacefully. Unless you're Mucko McDermott (and believe me, he was a rare bird).

Wayne LaPierre is free to say what he wants. And we're free to reject it ... in the strongest, most public ways we can. And I hope we do.

It's not that LaPierre is entirely wrong (something that pains me to say). He has some valid points. There is too much glorified violence in our entertainment industry. Someone on The View said the other day that these were "arcade murders" and that's exactly what they were. And while I've never been one to blame the media for the actions of people who are so disconnected from reality that they can't see the difference between a video game and 20 little kids, I'm willing to concede I may be wrong about that.

I'm willing to concede that the onus is on anyone who manufactures video games that dehumanize violence that the time has come for them to move away from that. I'm willing to concede that we, as a society, reject such "entertainment." If that costs the industry money, so be it.

I don't think you get anywhere banning things. All that does is turn the people whose products your "banning" into victims (and it's truly odious to me that the NRA can claim victimhood because of any imagined violation of the second amendment), and it turns the banned product into forbidden fruit.

What works is pressure. Life can be reduced to simple elements at almost every level, and when you understand that you're on the right road to a solution. Tom Brady cannot be Tom Brady if four great big, mean, nasty defensive lineman are in his face all day long

And were it not for Candy Lightner, perhaps we'd still be living in the dark ages with regards to drunk driving. But because her daughter was killed by a serial drunk driver, she got angry enough to form Mothers Against Drunk Driving -- an organization that went about putting pressure on authorities to change the way they think.

Has MADD stopped all drunk driving fatalities? No. Of course not. It's an imperfect world, people aren't perfect, a lot of them think that laws apply to everyone but themselves, and some are just truly ignorant of what driving while impaired means.

But Candy Lightner didn't set out to ban alcohol. In fact, she left the group she founded because she felt it was moving too far toward what she called "neo-prohibitionist." All she wanted to do was make it as difficult as possible for people to get behind the wheel when they've been drinking; and to make the penalties for those who drive drunk as severe as possible. She wanted no part of banning booze.

Similarly, banning all guns isn't the answer. Most reasonable people agree that the entire paradigm has to change. It's all-encompassing. But part of that paradigm involves guns. How can it not? How can anyone seriously suggest that guns are not a part of this equation?

We have the power in this country to reject that thinking, and to coalesce nationally to form a lobby as powerful as the NRA. And before anything gets done, that is what's going to have to happen.

And that means we have to frame the issue. It's no different than global warming. We're having a "storm of the century" every other year, it seems. If Sandy wasn't a wakeup call nothing is. My true belief -- despite what the Mayans said -- is that our species will be extinct well before the Biblical version of Armageddon ever occurs. And that's because we will -- by our inaction and squabbling on global warming -- render the planet uninhabitable for human life ... which, for all the gifts it has received in advanced intellect and reasoning skills, is perhaps more fragile than many other species.

But we haven't been able to frame the issue in such as way as to produce consensus. We are overrun by fanatics on both sides of the issue, and that prevents us from being able to come up with a reasonable set of objectives and goals to address the problem.

So it is with guns. To those who say the answer is to confiscate all guns: Don't be foolish. Nothing will drag this discussion down faster than to paint responsible people with the same brush as the lunatics and socio/psychopaths. Gun violence is the problem ... not necessarily gun owners.

 But saying that doesn't absolve the NRA -- as the primary spokespeople for gun owners -- from at the very least being willing to examine its own agenda, and its own membership, and to add to the national dialogue in a meaningful way. And while it's disappointing LaPierre chose not to, it's also not surprising.

They are who they are. And too many of them don't see the connection between what they hold near and dear and what reality is. And reality is that it's much easier to commit mass murder with a gun than it is with any other means of violence. It's over quicker, and it sufficiently dehumanizes victims because you don't have to look them in the eye, or get close enough to them to even see who they are. You can just go into a room and start shooting indiscriminately.

It's pointless to argue that the framers of the Second Amendment were talking about muskets, because the Constitution was written as a document that its authors hoped would stand the test of time. These weren't stupid people. They'd already seen enough change in their world to understand that nothing remains the same. They'd just survived a revolution!! Maybe they couldn't foresee the scope of modern weaponry, but I'm sure it occurred to them that someone, someday, might come up with a more reliable one than a musket.

But they weren't 100 percent clairvoyant. What they perhaps couldn't foresee was how much the times would change ... and how society would move so much faster 200 years from the time the Bill of Rights was passed ... and how thoroughly detached some of the ones who just cannot seem to catch up seem to feel. We were largely an agrarian society in the 1790s. There hadn't been an industrial revolution ... there hadn't been mass immigration ... perhaps we hadn't developed the hard, almost avaricious version of capitalism that exists today.

I'm just throwing things out here to make the point that there are so many people fighting for the same crumbs of the pie, and the fallout from it is akin to a feeding frenzy of lions fighting their way to get at the zebra they've just taken down.

Some people just go completely off the rails. And they fuel themselves by what they see around them ... and that's all-encompassing. And in the long run, THAT'S what has to change.

In the meantime, though, we have to address these problems as they come up. And while gun violence is but one symptom of a hornet's nest of sociological issues, it is a symptom that cannot be ignored any longer. We cannot keep pointing to the sublime in an attempt to avoid the obvious.

Yes, we are an avaricious society that smiles proudly on anyone who can make a buck ... no matter how. If you happen to make your money peddling the worst kind of mindless, dehumanizing violence, good for you. If you get rich enough, you'll see your name in Fortune 500 and be treated as if you were Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Yes, that has to change. But that's going to be a slow evolution, and it's going to involve waiting until enough people make the connection so that they can -- of their own volition -- reject such manufactured inhumanity. And that's not going to happen tomorrow, that's for sure.

And yes, we are going to have to -- at some point -- pull the belts in and concede that a society with so many members falling through the cracks gets more and more dangerous with each passing days. Thy whys and wherefores don't really matter. The reality does. And the reality is that there are far too many untreated -- even undiagnosed -- cases of mental illness of all varieties, and with every new case is the potential for enormous tragedy.

Overriding any of that, though, in the year 2012 going into 2013, is the common denominator. Guns. None of this happens without guns.

So the problem is to frame the argument in such as way as to come to a consensus, so that the numbers of those with a responsible plan of action can successfully butt heads with the Wayne LaPierres of the world.

But we cannot keep sitting there, sucking our thumbs, and crying that there's nothing to be done. Not true. We just have to figure out what it is. And do it. We can use the bully pulpit too. But we have to understand that's what it's going to take. Because unless we do something like what Candy Lightner did in 1980, all the politicians are going to do is wring their hands, say all the right words about how shocking and terrible this all is, and go right back to changing the subject to something far less challenging and divisive.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Some straight talk on pro athletes and strikes

It's' time for some straight talk on professional athletes who either go on strike or dig in at contract time, thus forcing their leagues to lock them out.

First, I've been in a union my entire professional life. I was even president of one back in the eighties. I certainly recognize the need for them, and will defend their existence to anyone who tries to claim their obsolescence.

But this doesn't mean everything unions do is right and holy. Sometimes, they pick the wrong hill to die on. Job actions involving professional athletes? The worst, most wrong hill possible.

Nobody says it's easy negotiating contracts. But it should be easier when there's a pile of money lying in the middle of the table that could probably finance a third world country for a decade. When the squabbles involve divvying up that much money, the only thing standing in the way is greed. On both sides.

It's certainly hard to hold either side blameless in the NHL labor dispute. Owners seem to want to put the entire onus on players to rescue them from their bad decisions, and, of course, that isn't fair. But players have to understand, too, that they stand to make, in their short careers, more money than most of the fans who pay their salaries will make in a lifetime. They have to negotiate with that in mind ... that sacrificing a few bucks when the money they make in comparison to everyone else on the planet is obscenely out of balance would certainly be a noble thing to do.

Nobody suggests that a player turn down a contract worth gajillions if an owner wants to pay it (though it might have been a good idea in Carl Crawford's case). But if an owner doesn't want to pay it ... when an owner (or group of owners) sees that, even within the context of the Monopoly money being thrown around, the entire thing is getting out of control ... then you know what? It's time to make the best deal you can and go back to playing hockey. That's what the rest of us -- the ones who will probably have to work until they die on the job to be able to afford living -- have to do. And that goes for jobs covered by unions as well as those who aren't.

Those who support the union in this case always say "you're making us pay because you cannot control yourselves." Maybe. But if I make two or three million dollars over the course of a five-year career, shouldn't that go a long way toward setting me up for life? Is it an owner's fault if you blow through that money because of your lack of discipline and planning? When I hear an athlete say "I'm talking about feeding my family" when he's ALREADY making about six million a year I want to scream.

Does this person have any clue?

Do these players have any clue? All any of them have to do is turn on the TV and listen to story after story about teachers who heroically threw themselves in front of bullets to protect their pupils in Newtown last week. They didn't make one tenth of what Zdeno Chara makes in a month. Don't these players -- and the owners too -- look foolish? Do they have any relevance at all?

One of these times -- and it may just be this time -- the fans who feel betrayed by athletes and owners fighting over incomprehensible amounts of money aren't going to come flocking back. How many times must our intelligence by insulted by the likes of Donald Fehr? He may be a brilliant negotiator, but it's questionable, at this point, whether his hard line will end up being helpful. Sometimes you overplay your hand.

Most fans understand that the Bruins aren't as important as what goes on in the real world. We know they're a diverson ... a way to escape the challenges of our own lives in hopes of seeing something truly memorable every time we watch TV (and we pay for THAT, too). That's all we ask. It's not much. And most of the time, we even accept -- albeit grudgingly sometimes -- that the special skills these players possess make them deserving of the money they get ...

... Until they start wanting more ... until they become party to job actions that put what they make versus what they do under a harsher microscope. And until their protracted absence gives us the opportunity to examine their contributions to society against those who do far more for its advancement -- and make far less money -- than they do.

They may be right in principal. But being right never got anyone anywhere. Being reasonable is better. And making a deal and going back to playing hockey is even better.

I'd suggest that they NHL Players Association do that. In light of today's economic climate, and the enormous tragedies that have befallen this country, they look like fools every day they're still squabbling.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's time for some serious introspection

I feel the same way today that I felt on September 12, 2001: I woke up to a permanently scarred, and permanently changed, America.

How can things ever be the same after the carnage in Newtown, Conn., yesterday? There is no way they can be. What kind of a depraved human being could walk into a grammar school, filled with little kids, and shoot 20 of them dead? How horrific must it have been for those teachers and administrators who had to make snap, heroic decisions to throw themselves in front of children in the line of fire ... knowing they were giving up their lives for their pupils? 

In the wake of September 11, 2001, this country launched a massive effort to improve security at airports and in other venues where, when you think about it for a second, people have probably been sitting ducks for these enormous tragedies for decades. All it took was enough depravity on the part of the perpetrators so set such a historical atrocity into action.

We may have had debates about whether everything the president did back then was ethical and moral, and whether it was an erosion of our liberties. But he operated under the belief that one of these tragedies was one too many ... and that two would be absolutely, positively catastrophic.

And while we may have argued over the direction George W. Bush took in that "war on terrorism," nobody with any sense could deny there needed to be one.

So why can't we take the resolve we showed after September 11 and apply it to what has happened in our society over the last few years. Because seriously? What happened in Newtown yesterday is simply the culmination of  a series of mass shootings where someone who had no business having access to one gun, let alone three, was able to shoot his way into an elementary school in an upscale community and kill 26 people -- 20 of them children -- before turning his weapons on himself.

This is when I wonder whether we have any national resolve left in this country. I can't pinpoint when, exactly, the tipping point was, but nobody in this nation wants to confront difficult issues anymore. Oh, we talk our way through them and around them. But we don't do anything. We don't have the courage to confront serious economic issues and establish a consensus that prevents us from falling off the "fiscal cliff." We don't have the courage to come up with a meaningful policy on immigration. We'd rather stand on opposite sides of the street and scream at each other than meet in the middle and solve anything.

What I find ironic about this is that the people who complain the loudest about "entitlements" act pretty damn entitled themselves when it comes to stepping up to the plate, compromising, and sacrificing anything they feel they're owed. 

And we can throw the obstinate among us who simply refuse to view all this carnage without feeling a bit of responsibility for any of it into that mix too. If I heard it once I heard it a thousand times yesterday: Now is not a time to "politicize" this tragedy. It's a time to mourn and to pray. We can do the debate later.

Let's just get this out of the way now. How many "laters" are we allowed in this lifetime? How long are we going to put intelligent, adult discussion off? When are we going to rise up and understand that the only people "politicizing" this issue are the ones who might stand to lose a small portion of their "right to bear arms"? 

I wasn't around when the Bill of Rights was constructed and neither was anyone else in this lifetime. A huge portion of the American public doesn't understand what the First Amendment means, and the Second Amendment is worded so clumsily (apparently lawyers and obfuscation have gone hand-in-hand since forever) that anyone who claims to really know what it means has one on me.

The First Amendment doesn't mean your boss can't fire you, or suspend you, for saying things that make him, and his company, look foolish or worse. And it doesn't mean that religion -- however odious it might be to some people -- cannot exist in a free society. But it does mean that the U.S. government can't put you in jail, or otherwise persecute or prosecute you, for expressing unpopular opinions and it cannot coerce you into worshiping anything if you don't want to.

The Second Amendment says -- quote -- "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Like I said earlier,  that is some seriously ponderous wording. And if you read any of its history, you'll see that there was some fierce debating over how to word it .... right down to a comma that, in one of its earlier forms, stood between the words "arms" and "shall."

But however vague the wording is, one thing is, or should be, pretty clear: it does NOT mean that someone's 6-year-old child should cower in fear in his or her own school because a deranged, heavily armed person has stormed his way into a classroom and started shooting at random.

How can anyone justify this? How can anyone see this an not acknowledge that, at the very least, there should be some mature, adult dialogue on this feeling that the right to arm yourself to the teeth is sacrosanct?

To me, there's a special place in hell for anyone who seriously believes that our gun culture isn't linked to these heinous mass murders; and right next to it is a special place for all those pusillanimous politicians who grovel at the feet of those to perpetuate this warped culture.

I'm no pie in the sky idealist. I understand that you can't just unilaterally ban guns ... no more than you can realistically round up every illegal alien in the United States and deport them back to their native lands. Anyone who thinks you can do either is -- at this point -- doing nothing more than acting as a huge impediment against coming up with an answer to the thousand million questions we have about hate and death and war (apologies to Justin Hayward).

But you can move forward. You can at least acknowledge that what we're doing isn't working. If we have 100 gun laws on the books and we're still seeing rampant gun violence, then we need to change the laws. We need to attack the problem from a different perspective. We need to do SOMETHING. 

We cannot just sit there and admit defeat without trying. Because if we do, there will be another day, another massacre, and it'll keep getting worse.

We also have to grow up and realize that it's not just guns because guns are simply a means to an end. They are not THE end. They may be the quickest way -- short of a bomb -- to inflict mass casualties in the most spectacular fashion. For that reason alone we should all be horrified -- and ashamed -- at their rampant proliferation  ... especially assault weapons that serve no logical purpose EXCEPT to inflict mass casualties as quickly as possible.

But the problem is much bigger. We've all heard the term "culture of violence" and I'm afraid it's true. We do have a problem with it. We are desensitized to it. Violence permeates our entertainment media, and the incessant glorification of it is insidious.

I'll give you an example in my own life. I've sat in front of the TV for hours at a time marveling at how clever, and darkly funny, the movie "Pulp Fiction" is. And on one level it is brilliant.

But does it not glorify violence? Does it not leave you, at the end of the day, with the feeling that resorting to violence to settle scores is just a little too easy? And do we accept it a little too easily? 

Are we a little too accepting of misogyny in our culture? Of hostile language? Of bullying (though thankfully we seem to be aware now of how destructive bullying can be)? 

And here's where things just start falling together like a jigsaw puzzle. Violence begets violence. And I think back to the mass shooting in Arizona -- the one that left Gabby Giffords irreparably harmed and that little girl dead -- and remember the debate over whether the hate-speech spewed on all sides of the political spectrum may have spurred the perpetrator on.

And I remember how many people took umbrage over the suggestion that their lack of civility may have played any part at all in this. And I wondered at the time what it would take for people to understand.

It's a given that anyone who would take a gun and start shooting indiscriminately is deranged. Whether they're clinically deranged, or just so full of hatred and resentment that they become that way, is of small comfort to the victims or their families. In fact, it's almost irrelevant (even though we also should probably start another dialogue about how hard it is for mentally ill people to get treatment versus how easy it seems to be to get guns). 

Deranged people aren't stupid. They can read. They can hear things. In fact, paranoid, deranged and  unbalanced people often have more finely tuned antennae than you and I. And you don't need to be a psychologist or a psychiatrist to understand they feed off hate and negativity. 

This isn't to say that we're singularly responsible for any of these atrocities or that we should all retire from watching adult-level entertainment and stick to "The Waltons." But collectively, we can, and should, demand better. 

We should be able to distinguish the truly grotesque and misanthropic and -- of our own volition -- reject it. We should be able to tell the difference between legitimate debate and inflammatory pandering on hot-button issues and reject the demagogues. We should send a message to politicians all over America, whether it's by demonstrations, mass-mailings, whatever ... that we are angry over something besides whether our taxes are going to go up a few dollars. There's got to more to existance than that.

We need to get a grip on the fact that evil exists, and that evil people will forever look outward, rather than inward, for the reasons they're unhappy. And we need to be protected from them BEFORE THE FACT; NOT AFTER IT. AFTER IT IS TOO LATE.

The time for this introspection is not next week, or next month, or the next time Congress convenes. It's now. Today. Sit down and write your congressman. Flood his office with voice mails. Vote the sonofabitch out of office the next chance you get. Hold your leaders responsible for the fact that we're almost into 2013 and we're no closer to finding the right path that might lead us out of this wilderness than we ever were.

DEMAND uniform national standards for the right to own a gun and stand up to the people who throw states' rights at us as an impediment ... and remember that the cloak we used to justify slavery for 80 years after the Constitution was ratified was "states' rights." And remember the country is called the "United States" of America. Not "50 Individual States of America."

But most of all, and apart from the anger, please, please keep the victims of this and all these massacres in your thoughts. Because the minute they -- and these events -- recede from the national consciousness, the debate and discussion we always way we're going to have on this issues somehow recedes with it.