Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Touching Greatness?

Tonight my friend Ted was three rows from someone I know he admires greatly. Ted and his wife spent the night in the company of Gord Downie, and the rest of the Tragically Hip. Ted's written about Gord in at least one post in his blog and the quote at the top of his blogroll is from Gord. He's a good person to admire - actually they both are; Ted and Gord. Speaking specifically of Gord Downie though, a friend of mine once finished a book that he thought Gord would enjoy. So, Jason wrote a note, tucked it into an envelope and mailed it off to Kingston. Four months later, Jason got a package in the mail. It was the book he'd sent off, with a handwritten note: Jason, the book was great. Thanks. Gord Downie. That's class, right there. I can see why Ted would admire a guy like that.

My friend Charla spent this evening in the company of a mega star; spending copious dollars to go to Calgary to see Oprah. Like Ted with Gord, I think Charla sees an inspirational character in Oprah - something that is totally lost on me - and feel a connection to her at her live performances.

Suffice to say, I don't think that I'm stepping too far out of bounds when I say that both Ted and Charla would list meeting Gord and Oprah, respectively, as something they would like to do. They would both likely get something of tremendous value from a potential, intimate meeting; from the chance to sit and talk with someone they greatly admire.

Which got me thinking... who would I like to meet? Who in this world, living right now, would I give up my precious time, to sit down with and have a chat. Taking away all the unattainables - Darwin, Einstein, Marie Curie, P.E. Trudeau, Charles Schultz, and myriad other historically, scientifically, and socially important thinkers - who would I want to meet?

I don't know.

Maybe President Obama because he's such a polarizing figure, who's done more to try to actually lead his people than any other American President in recent memory. Possibly the band They Might Be Giants, to thank them for producing a kids album that encourages children to discover, to learn, and to value the empirical data of science. Perhaps Richard Louv, or as we call him somewhat tongue in cheek, "The Prophet Richard Louv". That's a tough one because on the one hand I'd like to pick his brain about the need to get kids out into nature and where he sees society headed. On the other hand, I'd like to smack him for reducing the issue to snappy catchphrases and idioms. Jon Stewart would likely make the list - one of the few celebrities who I have no reservations about.

But, as far as "popular" people go, I'm afraid that's my short list. A-list celebrities hold no interest for me. Oprah's glow doesn't extend this far, and current "popular" music (while entertaining) is contributing next to nothing in the way of social dialogue. Let's face it, from Michael Vick, to Tiger Woods; and from Manti Teo to Lance Armstrong; from the histrionics of the NHLPA, to the whining of pro tennis players, is there any sports figure worth listening to?

I think that's the problem with the question: What famous person do you want to meet? It can lead to a number of possible negative outcomes. Personally, I don't want to meet a famous person, because I don't care about fame. Part of why we want to meet famous people, can be seen manifested in our fascination with pop culture.

We demand acceptance. We thrive on familiarity. By meeting famous people, yes we may get some insight to them, but what we really gain is the perception of acceptance into their tribe, their clan, their world. Once that meeting takes place, there are a few possible outcomes: You may further identify with that person, potentially shaping your worldview so that it matches with theirs; you may become disillusioned when that person doesn't meet your expectations, forcing you to either reevaluate how you feel about that person, or alternatively, change your values to match theirs  (see Cognitive Dissonance); or you may come away feeling totally ambivalent about the meeting and the person - this may be the best possible outcome because in a way, it would totally validate you as a person.

I'm not knocking anybody for wanting to meet the rich and famous. I am saying that while it can be fun to play the game, be careful what you wish for, and be ready to have to do some serious rearranging of your psyche if things don't go well.

Let me use Oprah as an example here.. A few years ago Oprah decided to give voice to Jenny McCarthy and let her rant incessantly about vaccinations causing autism. Oprah nodded sagely and agreed with Jenny that parents should think long and hard about having their kids vaccinated. Between the two of them, they convinced thousands, tens of thousands of parents, not to vaccinate their kids. This despite there being no peer-reviewed evidence ever published, about a link between vaccinations and autism. They were basing their assertions off of one poorly written, poorly cited and ultimately discredited paper - and McCarthy's belief that her vaccinating her own child, was what caused that child's autism. When that study was finally discredited, Oprah was silent. There was no hauling Jenny back out to account for her actions, the way she just did with Lance. There was no call for an apology the way there had been with James Frey, the author who'd lied to Oprah, on her show.

At the end of the day, Oprah chose to remain silent on an issue that was of far greater importance than whether or not some super-star athlete stuck needles in his arm so that he could ride his bike faster. She was quiet as a dormouse about her part in perpetrating one of the most dangerous public-health unravellings of the 20th century. In the end, Oprah chose to do nothing - which is worse than doing the wrong thing. And so I have to ask myself "Why?". Why would Oprah, a woman beloved by millions, choose to hold Lance Armstrong to account, choose to demand an apology from James Frey, and choose not to bring back Jenny McCarthy for the same treatment.

All I can come up with is money, ratings, and self-identity.

The first two are easy. What are you going to tune in for? Lance Armstrong admits he took performance-enhancing drugs? It was the highest rated Oprah television event ever, I'm sure. Jenny McCarthy talking about being wrong, about medicine... boooorrrriiiiing. Nobody's watching that, so Oprah ignores it.

The self-identity part is trickier and slipperier for Oprah. See, in the case of Lance and James, she was one of us. She was taken in and can claim the same moral indignation as the rest of us. But with McCarthy, Oprah was a willing participant. She helped spread the gospel about the dangers of vaccinations, just much as she spreads the word about her favourite things. In the McCarthy case, if she brings Jenny back on the show, she herself has to admit her own complicity. And, for those of us with normal egos that's hard enough. When you're considered the Queen of television, that's damn near impossible.

And yet, that may be what she wants more than anything: To identify with us, "the normal people." If she doesn't make McCarthy apologize or at least rebut the actual science, then she (Oprah) gets to be a victim, just like you and me. She gets to identify with the rest of us and to be part of our tribe; one that is totally closed off to her because of her fame.

So, Oprah has spoiled me for meeting celebrities. I just don't know where the line between real and fake would lie. I'm not that good a detective. So, for the most part, I'll pass on the famous. I'll dream of meeting Jill Bolte Taylor, the brain researcher who documented her own stroke, while it was happening, Or maybe Alex Zanardi, the Formula One driver who lost both legs in an F1 race and then went on not only to drive competitively again, but to win Gold at the London Paralympics in handbiking (paralympic cycling). Perhaps Neil de Grasse Tyson, or Richard Dawkins has some time for me, to discuss where we've come from and where we're going.

Or maybe, I'll just drive to Canmore to hang out with my friend Colin. Colin ran across Canada last year to raise awareness about the plight of overweight, under-active, nature-deprived kids. He did it on his own with no corporate backing. He cashed in his life savings, quit his job, and put his grad school thesis on hold, because he believed that this needed to be done. He has a hell of a lot more credibility and class than Oprah ever will, and there's no doubt about his motivation, his commitment, or his depth of character.

And if Gord Downie ever want to drink a beer on my porch... Ted knows where to find both of us.

Friday, January 18, 2013

That's a Hell of a Milestone

1017 as of 3:20 pm this afternoon.

There have been 1017 people killed by another person with a gun, in the US since the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings. That's 1017 lives ended by a firearm, in a month and four days. Let that sink in for a minute. One thousand, seventeen dead people, who but for the easy access to a firearm, may be alive today. One thousand, seventeen people killed in gun-violence in 35 days - in one country. Divide 365/35 and then multiply by 1017 and you get a projection of 10,605 gun-deaths in the US this year.

By comparison, England and Wales had 39 gun-deaths in two years in 2008/2009.

You see there was a spate (actually two) mass shootings in England in the early 2000's and the UK response was to simply ban the private ownership of handguns, semi-automatic rifles, and automatic weapons of any kind. Any NRA gun-nut who tells you "guns don't kill people, people kill people" and that without guns, people will find other ways to kill people are completely out of touch. The takeaway message from the UK is  crystal clear. Take away the guns and fewer people will die due to person-on-person violence. Period. There is no intelligent (or semi-intelligent) rebuttal to this fact. No guns = fewer violent deaths.

Ahh, says the NRA and the paranoid-tea-party-gun nuts, we have a constitutional right to bear arms, guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Have you ever read the second amendment? It does not say you can have any gun you want, for any reason you want to have it. In fact, it doesn't really say that anybody in the States has the right to have a gun, under any circumstances.

Here's what it says: "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."  Most pro-gun-advocates gloss over the first 1/2 of that statement in the original wording of the amendment. The part about "A well regulated militia" is grossly underestimated.

Jim-Bob in his safehouse/barn/basement/armoury/delusional-state is not "A well regulated militia." He's a guy with a bunch of guns. That's it. This is what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote "A well- regulated militia": The term militia (pron.: /mɨˈlɪʃə/),[1] or irregular army, is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as an army composed of ordinary citizens[2]rather than professional soldiers or the whole body of physically fit civilians eligible by law for military service to call for service in times of emergency. 

The people whose right "to keep and bear arms", are the people who would be expected to be called upon for service in times of a state or national emergency. However, we live in different times now. It's not 1776 any more. The second amendment has itself been amended by the supreme court of the US to include wording that allows for the lawful possession of a firearm for legitimate purposes; such as home-defence. The individual states have expanded that definition to allow for the argument that people need things like Barrett .50 calibre sniper rifles "for home defence", or "hunting". This is a rifle that fires a bullet the size of your thumb, through a concrete block.

Furthermore, the "well regulated militias" themselves have morphed into groups like the Connecticut 51st Militia or the Illinois Sons of Liberty whose stated goals seem to be related to the idea that the Federal government is coming to get them and take away their freedom; their freedom being the right to stockpile as many firearms as humanly possible. These aren't the only militia groups out there, convinced that "The State" is planning a campaign of tyranny against them. Here's a list of group who feel that the US government has absolutely nothing better to do, than invade them and take away their oddly-perverted view of "freedom".

It's these groups and their followers, the NRA, and the unaffiliated so-called Patriots, that are preventing the US from having an actual adult conversation about guns and gun violence. See, they just don't care about the 10,000 or so annual gun deaths in America. To these people and groups, it's more important to adhere blindly to a 237 idea that the citizens should be protecting their country and to do that, they have the right to own a gun.

Guess what, in 237 years, the US has managed to create the most powerful armed forces on the planet. They don't need militia groups to help protect the State. Addressing the other issue, if the American government really did want to overturn American freedoms and values, do these militia groups really think they can stand up to a military that has tanks, fighter planes, the largest navy in the world etc...? Really?

I think it's safe to say that the American way of life is secure. They are free to go on watching inordinate amounts of TV, free to eat all the processed food they can cram into their statistically unhealthy bodies, frack all the natural gas from the aquifers, and consume all the consumer goods they can (and can't) afford. The government isn't going to get in the way of any of that. They can continue to drive more cars per capita than anybody else on the planet, travel to whatever county will let them enter, and troll the internet looking for pictures of cats doing funny things. 

All the rest of the world wants, is for them to stop killing each other. We don't hate you America. If we did, we wouldn't hound you incessantly to rethink your antiquated gun laws. This is a plea from your concerned global community. Most of the rest of us have managed to get beyond the need to own and shoot guns at each other (at least domestically; we apparently have little trouble shooting people in other countries), and we want the same for you and your kids.

Have the discussion now. Asking you to give up guns that fire bullets as fast as you can pull the trigger, or to give up guns that can be hidden in a coat pocket, is not a sign that your freedom is under threat. Rather, it's a sign that the world thinks you are still too young to have the responsibility that your founding fathers gave you, those 237 years ago. You can't be trusted not to use your easily accessed, easily hidden firearms against each other, much like an alcoholic can't be trusted not to drink and drive. So, why not give up the most problematic guns? Call it FA, Firearms Anonymous. I'm sure the rest of us would help you write a 12 step program. The first step as always, is admitting you have a problem.

As of today there are already 1017 clues, that you have a problem to admit.