Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Talking During the Movies or, Life Is Not Enough

When the lights at the Superdome abruptly went out Super Bowl Sunday and ten million people raced to Twitter to make their Bane jokes, I concluded that those 34 minutes of blackout were the greatest Twitter moments of my life. As joke after joke made me crack up, my dad kept asking, “What? What?” He doesn’t understand Twitter, Facebook, or generally any technological product of the past decade, so he attempted to make sense of it.
“Those are just people online, just saying stuff?” he asked.
“Pretty much.”
Why? To experience live events with 300 of your funniest friends! That should be obvious.
Of course, to those not used to this sort of thing, it’s not obvious. It doesn’t even seem like an option available, like how a person from the 1800s would view transatlantic flight. So I put it like this to my father: “Life used to be enough. But now it’s not.”
We assume that Facebook is so massively popular and ubiquitous in our lives because it offers us connectivity. There’s no more efficient way of communicating important news about your life or catching up with what’s going on in the lives of others than Facebook.
Facebook does offer great connectivity, it’s true, but that’s not why it’s so popular. Facebook is what it is because it offers us something we’ve always wanted, but which had never really been available before now: our voice.
Back in the halcyon days of MySpace, I joined that blossoming new thing called a social network for one specific reason: it gave me the chance to list my favorite bands. But go back even further. Remember circa 2000-01, when AOL Instant Messenger had its “Info” feature? This was my favorite part about AIM: coming up with a catchy and interesting few sentences for my Info. Space was limited, so the Info must be carefully thought-out and crafted. Those on my Buddy List and I followed a critical formula: state your name, where you go to school, who your favorite bands are, and then shout out to your friends. The order in which anybody’s friends were listed was a very hot-button issue—best friend first, obviously, followed by a lower-but-still-important tier of friends, followed by those who could more accurately be described as acquaintances but who were still necessary to keep the social order going, and an optional final, “And of course, how could I forget my dear friend Marnie” friend (Generally this was somebody who considered you a better friend than you considered them, but you don’t want to hurt his or her feelings. Sort of like the opening credits of a TV show: “And Mandy Patinkin as Saul.”).

It’s surprising how long it took for somebody to grab onto that small appendage of the AIM empire and build an entire platform around it. But four years later, MySpace finally took off as the world’s dominant social network, essentially a massive expansion of AIM’s “Info.” Now you were encouraged to talk about yourself and categorize what you like and, by extension, what you are like. This was why I was so excited to join MySpace, because for years I would just write the names of my favorite bands in school notebooks, and rank them based on how much I liked them via a very complicated algorithm… here at last was my chance to do it in public.
The friend shout-outs gave birth to, of course, the Top 8*. Ah, to receive a coveted spot in a friend’s Top 8 Friends was the highest of honors. This inevitably led to much heartbreak, and the field was eventually expanded to Top 16, Top 32, and Top 64. But it was never quite the same.
*I remember a few years ago, Facebook presented its own iteration of the Top 8 called Top Friends; it didn’t quite take off, probably because we’d all learned our lesson that, while we’d like to see how important we are to our friends, we’re probably better of not knowing.

Facebook would usurp MySpace’s throne rather quickly by offering a more streamlined and less cluttered means of sharing information about ourselves, and it’s continued to grow ever since. Its secret is no secret: it allows (and encourages) us to talk about ourselves, and that’s what we want to do more than anything.
Jim Letten, the venerable former US Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, was so widely respected that he was appointed to his office by George W. Bush and then re-appointed by Barack Obama, something rarely done when the Presidency changes parties. Letten successfully prosecuted former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards and a string of other high-profile defendants. He was widely revered and wildly successful in a position that tends to chew up and spit out its holders. Nevertheless, Letten’s career was undone and he was forced to resign last year when important members of his office started posting anonymous comments to articles about cases the US Attorneys Office was involved in. These comments revealed information only insiders could know, arousing suspicion and leading to their authors’ exposure, and Letten was forced to resign for the misdeeds of his underlings.
The question everybody kept asking about this story was, Why? Why risk your career and freedom (and your boss’s career and name) to post some anonymous comments online?
To me, it’s obvious why. It’s the same reason people talk in crowded movie theaters; almost all of us hate that guy in the theater who’s talking during the movie, and yet just about all of us will talk during the same movie if we have something to say. I’m guilty of it, certainly… I loathe movie talkers, but I’ll talk every now and then, and I’ll be loud about it, too, because I’m not a good judge of how loudly I’m speaking. Why? What’s the difference? Why should I be allowed to talk when nobody else can? Easy: Because it’sme.
It is very, very hard to not say what’s on your mind.
Until the internet came out, we were swimming in the abyss, lost and wayward souls searching desperately for something we didn’t yet have the words to describe. Used to be we would just do things. Minor events in our lives would go by without 100 smartphone photos, and every minor world event did not require commentary from all of us.
But no more. And frankly, I’m glad. I like that I can look at any day on the calendar from the past five years and give you a pretty exact breakdown of where I was and what I was doing that day. We’re all leaving a legacy; my legacy is boring, and it will probably won’t interest anyone other than me, but because it’s mine, it sort of matters.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What I Know About Self-Help

One crazy night I called the 1-800-number listed for the Popeyes near my house to register a complaint about something that happened to me seven months earlier. I’d gotten the idea from a tip on Lifehacker encouraging readers to call their favorite fast food restaurants to volunteer for surveys or to leave feedback in exchange for free meals. I vowed to obtain one of these free meals.
Popeyes is like crack.
It’s not that I lacked the eight dollars to spend at Popeyes, it’s that the inevitable guilt after a fast food run goes away when food is free. “I had to get Popeyes, don’t you see? IT WAS FREE.” Oh, how I longed for that guilt-free Popeyes.
It was not to be, however, because submitting a negative comment on Popeyes’ web site and leaving my phone number was not enough. The next day, I got a voicemail from a Popeyes employee who sounded very concerned about my comment. Now, voicemails are horrible, we all know this; they serve no functional purpose other than to inspire terror and dread in the hearts of their recipients*. But this may have been the scariest voicemail I’d ever received. Suddenly, shit had become real. Had I gotten a Popeyes employee in trouble for my blatant lie? Sure, the complaint was about something that really happened to me, but I altered the date so that it seemed like it had happened two nights ago and not seven months, figuring it wouldn’t matter and that I’d just be e-mailed a coupon. Not so. Of course I never returned the phone call, hoping to move past this pathetic chapter, never wanting to be caught in a lie by Popeyes, ultimately collapsing in tears and crying about how I just wanted free chicken. So I deleted the voicemail, along with the next one that showed up in my inbox, and ignored the two times the same number called me.
*To be fair, most of my voicemails are from my mom. “Matt, call me,” they all say. But until I listen and hear that my sister and dad didn’t go down in a fiery car crash together? Agony.
Such is true of all ugly behavior: We sweep it under the rug, ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, hope it disappears, hope it doesn’t define us. The only proven way to stop the behavior is to fully confront it, to fully accept it as part of who we are, and feel so profoundly filled with shame and self-loathing that we genuinely want to change.
My problem is not scamming fast food restaurants for free food; my problem is fast food.
It is, I’m convinced, just about the most destructive addiction anybody can have—aside from, you know, heroin and pills and stuff—in terms of what it can do to your health, self-image, and happiness long-term. Fast food restaurants are always there, never more than four blocks away, always willing to give you an easier and superior lunch experience than waiting your turn for the office microwave and heating up your shitty Lean Cuisine. The lunchtime fast food diners are a brood of people who keep violently away from each other, who don’t ask questions, and who never judge. You can find these people around noon on any given weekday in the parking lots of our nation’s parks and shopping centers, sitting alone in their cars, piling burgers and chicken wings into their gullets in solitude, always looking down, never around. This is who they are, although the worst part is, they don’t realize it; we never realize it because who we really are sneaks up on us, builds so slowly we never even really noticed it was there until it gets too loud to ignore.
I hate eating. I don’t eat because I enjoy it. Eating for me is a burden. A friend of mine once asked what my choice would be between a pill that would ensure I’d never be hungry and never have to eat again and a pill that would ensure I’d never be full again. I chose the former, which surprised her; she insisted the latter is the one you want, the one everyone should want. I couldn’t even comprehend why somebody would want to not be full, to receive carte blanche to just keep eating and eating. At least your body gives you a reason to stop sometimes… why would you want to take that away?
When you eat fast food regularly, you’re not doing it because you love food, you’re doing it because you hate food. You hate the process of eating, so you want to do it as easily and cheaply and quickly as you can. You want to get in, get out, move on, and come back, because you’re addicted. There are proven to be additives in fast food that leave you hungrier in the long run and craving the same food again and again, but I almost don’t care about that. I care about this as a mental illness. McDonald’s—the most popular and ubiquitous fast food chain, so popular it dwarfs all its competitors in sales—sells comfort; this is a key component to their success. Ask someone what he thinks about McDonald’s, and you’ll hear him get strangely wistful and emotional, talking about his childhood, about trips to McDonald’s with his parents, playing in the ball pits, Chicken McNuggets, and Happy Meal toys. McDonald’s knows you feel this way, and it sells it back to you as an adult, offering up a mother’s cradle in the form of a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Psychologists agree that chronic overeating generally stems from a lack of nurturing in childhood. This seems rather broad to me, seems to encompass just about all compulsive behavior, but it makes eerie sense in the context of how food is peddled to us. McDonald’s sells its nostalgic myth to you, convinces you that it’s always there, an old friend willing to give a shoulder to lean on. Of course, the horrible thing about fast food addiction is the dread that builds as the meal disappears, giving way to instantaneous guilt and misery as soon as the food’s all gone and you’re left with nothing but a paper bag and the smell of your shame that lingers in your car the rest of the day.
Change? How does one change? Can you just will it into existence? An entire industry of self-help books will convince you that you can. But I have my doubts. I’ve dabbled in that world, spent years immersed in self-help books and lectures, trying like hell to find the secret formula for real, lasting improvement. One of the most popular books of this genre isThe Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which I obsessed over for a few weeks in 2010. Here is one of its ludicrous, dribbly passages:
“You were free of time for a moment. You moved into the Now and therefore perceived the tree without the screen of mind. The awareness of Being became part of your perception. With the timeless dimension comes a different kind of knowing, one that does not “kill” the spirit that lives within every creature and every thing. A knowing that does not destroy the sacredness and mystery of life but contains a deep love and reverence for all that is. A knowing of which the mind knows nothing.”
Yeah man! My whole problem is that I just can’t ever stop thinking. I need to live for the Now, then I’ll be able to lose weight. Because life isn’t all about where you’re going, you see, it’s about where you are.
…Actually, that’s a pretty great message. It sucks that it has to come packaged in a book with Oprah’s ringing endorsement on the cover, and full of language about trees and being with a capital B. The book’s message is that, to experience more peace and to get more enjoyment out of life, you need to not only stop obsessing about the past but to also not think so much about the future, to get more out of individual moments. That’s all well and good, but it’s really not something you can force by reading a book. Life’s revelatory moments arise organically, unexpectedly, like Tony Soprano taking peyote in Las Vegas and then wandering out into the desert and exclaiming to the heavens, “I get it! I get it!”
But here’s the thing*: Epiphanies are worthless. They don’t lead to real, lasting change. You figure out something crucial about yourself, something that explains so much, you change for a little bit, and then, well, you wear out, because change is difficult and, most of the time, we just do what’s easy. There’s a growing school of thought that willpower is largely an illusion. At the very least, it’s a limited tool; the study of ego depletion explains our finite capacity for acting on our best behavior—every time we behave ourselves, we weaken psychologically, and eventually we break.
*And one of the reasons The Sopranos was such a great show is that it understood this about people: We change, but we change right back. Insight is valuable and important, but it’s not really all that practical, because we’ll ultimately just continue being who we are, even if we understand our shortcomings. Tony frequently realized things about himself and vowed to change and become a better man, but within a few episodes he was back to being himself.
The better takeaway of The Power of Now and its ilk, I think, is that it’s important to accept that your existence right now is who you are, and it’s your responsibility to own that existence—if you don’t like it, change it; and if you like it, embrace it. It’s why I’ve been able to lose almost 20 pounds since the Popeyes incident—there is no magical formula to weight loss or to any other kind of big change, other than to do just do it. People ask how to lose weight, but I’ve always known (because I’ve done it before, and I can keep doing it again if necessary) it’s incredibly simple: Just don’t eat… seriously, you don’t even have to exercise; just eat fewer than 1500 calories a day and you’re golden.
But you can’t to that mentality where real, genuine change happens until you accept that the person you are right this second is who you really are, and to not listen to anybody and anything telling you otherwise.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Manti Te'o & Our Beloved Reality Distortion Field

Others have already done a good job of pointing out that the big loser in the Manti Te’o story is the media. This story has exposed what a poor job of reporting and fact-checking some of the biggest and most respected media outlets have capable of doing, the narrative goes. I’ve always thought the biggest problem with media right now is not bias orspin, even though this charge is constantly thrown out by people who claim to either never pay attention to news (“They’re all biased.”) or by people who only get their news from one source (“Everyone’s biased except for the channel I like.”). The real problem, I think, is user-driven content; the day web sites realized a slideshow of its readers’ Super Bowl party chili spreads would get far more page views than a lengthy expose of the corrupt state prison system, news was irrevocably ruined. The stories that make the most money—online, in newspapers, and on TV—are the easiest to produce, the least expensive, the most lightweight, the most fluffy. That’s dangerous; we started a marketplace for fluff, and the demand keeps getting stronger and stronger.
Good old-fashioned journalism, I thought, was expensive and required time, patience, resources*. A reporter would spend years on a beat, slowly accumulating and cultivating sources by building relationships with people who knew more about the subject than the reporter could; but this way of doing business is quite cost-prohibitive. These reporters still exist, but they find themselves in an increasingly competitive job market with writers and producers who can work much more quickly, generate content that gets traffic and makes money for the company, much more easily. Our attention spans are so tiny they crave a constant influx of new stories to read and YouTube videos to watch, so the media companies that can supply what we want the quickest will thrive. The difference and the key, I thought, was time, as somebody like David Grann proves when his annual article is published; Grann spends a year immersing himself in his subject, exhaustively researching, reporting, and fact-checking. If we could all just slow down, I’ve always thought, then maybe we’d see a return to quality.
*Note that it’s of course very naive to blindly believe things used to be better than they are now. When exactly was journalism better? During William Randolph Hearst’s day? Nobody answers, it’s just something we all throw out there and accept.
Turns out I had it a little wrong; it’s not a lack of time, it’s a lack of interest in reporting the truth. The writers at Deadspin uncovered the Te’o hoax needed less than a week. And it certainly didn’t require expensive reporting, because the Deadspin reporters really only needed Google and Lexis-Nexis searches. A few days’ worth of digging was all it took to uncover the hoax. And, yes, this search would never have taken place without an anonymous tipster, but the evidence was still in front of all of us, out there for anyone to discover. The size, reach, respectability, and wealth of resources of the media outlet didn’t matter; what the New York Times, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and basically every other giant that reported on the death of Manti Te’o's girlfriend failed to realize, two bloggers figured out.*
*I also think there’s something to be said for the age divide. The staff of Deadspin skews young, with most of the writers in their twenties. In other words, they grew up on technology that older reporters have to learn second-hand to adopt. Their deep understanding of this technology is plain to see, and it’s an understanding that even highly-paid social media “experts” who are handsomely paid by more traditional media outlets lack. To know how a Google Cache works is key to understanding how this hoax was exposed, and I could never see Sports Illustrated figuring that out.
So all I can wonder now is how badly reported and covered everything else I read and watch must be. And that this is just sports… can you imagine how badly politics are covered?
Because we create a demand for fluff, we’re served up plates and goblets of the stuff. For whatever reason, it’s especially pervasive in college football. Something about that sport calls for it; college football fans are unusual in their piety. It’s funny that one of the words you’ll hear college football fans throw around to brag about their team’s coach is “classy.” It’s not enough that my college team wins, basically; my team must win while occupying the moral high ground. I’m not sure why this is so of college and not pro football, but you’ll hear college fans going on about the “purity” of their sport: of school bands playing, of cheerleaders and the smell of barbeque, of the thrill of athletes playing for the love of the game and not for dirty stinking money, of the CLASS of the head coach who coaches not for money or love of the game but because he feels a calling to mold young men. College football does this to distinguish itself from the NFL (which is self-evidently great, and doesn’t need to be so defensive about how much better it is than its counterpart). Maybe it’s overcompensation for how sleazy and disgusting college sports are, with their unpaid workforce and slimy boosters; maybe it’s the makeup of the fan base; or maybe there’s no easy explanation, but it remains so that college football is uniquely vulnerable to a hoax like Lennay Kekua.
Think about how perfectly college football this hoax was: We have a deeply religious athlete attending a religious institution that prides itself on doing things the right way (Satisfies our need for piety with our sport.); this athlete comes from a unique background and a rags-to-riches story by working hard and scrapping and being a great teammate, leader, and all-around good guy; we have a formerly great school (Notre Dame) being led out of the depths of ruin by this amazing young man; this amazing young man is inspired to play better than he otherwise would have because of the deaths of both the grandmother he adored (Awwww!) and the girlfriend with whom he had a meet-cute at a football game and shared a wildly chaste romance (Again, moral piety.); said amazing young man puts the team on his back post-tragedy, sprinkles his magical leader dust all over his team, and together they have a wonderful season and go all the way to the National Championship Game. It couldn’t be a more perfect story for college football; the author of the hoax could very well be making a meta-point on how cliche we like our sports stories.
We want cliche, so we’re given cliche. Deadspin ran a story last year showing a series of e-mails the Auburn media director sent and received during the school’s 2010 National Championship season. These e-mails mostly request interviews with Auburn’s star quarterback Cam Newton, and one e-mail from a Montgomery, Alabama TV producer explains that the producer wants a segment showing “Cam’s softer side” (his words) by doing a story on Newton visiting with elementary schoolchildren. The producer had already written the story in his head, he just needed Cam to fill in some quotes and smiles. “See, Cam’s not just a super athlete, he’s also a heckuva guy.” It’s the easiest story in the world to tell, and the story of the season wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been told, because in that world you can’t win the National Championship if you’re not also a saint. Cam Newton’s softer side needed to be seen because we demanded to see it.
We’ve made it too easy for the media, and we may have broken it. And it isn’t just sports, the media is mostly just playing along. How many stories are out there told by guests on Bill O’Reilly’s TV show, explaining that after he yelled at them on-air, he apologized during the commercial break and explained that it’s all a joke, really, that none of it is real? Or, better yet, watch the clip below, when these TV hosts crack themselves up, unable to remain serious about the nonsense they’re spewing.

Bill’s right: None of this is real, but we prefer the lie.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What I Know About the Apocalypse

Here’s what I know:
I know that this Friday, our planet is going to collide with the planet Nibiru, explosively ending all life on Earth in seconds. Or, it might be that the Earth narrowly misses Nibiru, but will still experience devastating effects of the Earth’s polarities shifting. Rapid climate change, disease, starvation, and worse will sweep over all of us, effectively ending life as we know it. I know this because the Mayans knew this; they were great astronomers, and their long-count calendar ends at December 21st, 2012. I also know this because there’s plenty of compelling corroborating evidence, and because it perfectly jives with the Biblical prophecy that the End Times will be preceded by “earthquakes, war, and famine,” and we’ve certainly seen plenty of that in the world this year. [Although, to be fair, that also would have been true of 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1992, 1991, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1987, as well as every year between roughly 10,000 BC and AD 1986. So, grain of salt.]
This, obviously, is bad news.
This is it, guys, and it’s way scarier than last year, when on May 21st, the world was scheduled to come to an end as we know it when we experienced a worldwide Rapture. The Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping made a very scientific prediction by deducing from a lifetime of scriptural readings that the Rapture would hit, starting with New Zealand at six o’clock in the evening New Zealand time. The build-up to this event was huge, and Camping’s crew sunk more than $100 million into an awareness campaign for the occasion.

When the world did not end and Judgment Day never happened, many people were disappointed, devastated even, that they didn’t get to see the End Times. Count me among the devastated, as I sat on my porch, waiting for the Rapture so I could live-blog it. When it didn’t happen I had to come up with something else to write about. I was pissed.
Luckily Ole’ Harold, reeling from a lifetime wasted, went back to the books and discovered that, actually, he hadn’t been wrong, that the Rapture had hit, but that it was just a different kind of Rapture than he had been expecting. The fire and turmoil and plague and apocalyptic destruction was coming, see, but for five months prior to that we’d be experiencing a spiritual Rapture. Camping thus revised his prediction, and forecast the ultimate demise of the Earth for October 21st of 2011.

Then, when the October Rapture didn’t happen either, Camping just had to admit that he didn’t know what he was talking about. So we had to move past it, just as a year earlier we’d had to move past the failure of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s prediction that the world would end in 2010. That one was a particularly potent blow, because the Golden Dawn was one of the chief influences on modern-day astrology, numerology, and Tarot, so none of us knew what to believe anymore.
Now, we were lucky to have dodged these calamities, sure, but our luck was perhaps never as big as when we avoided the Y2K catastrophe. Not an end-of-the-world prediction, to be sure, but the buildup to the inevitable failure of data systems to recognize dates starting in 2000 (Something about reliance on data cards that required saving as much space as possible, so conserving the first two digits of the year was essential. Or something like that.) was sure to cause every airplane to fall out of the sky; every hospital patient on life support to die instantly; for every food delivery worldwide to be derailed, leading to widespread starvation; a global recession; and our society, basically, reverting to feudal Europe circa the 500s. That would have sucked.

We were fortunate, sure, but we must not forget the lessons of Y2K. Here’s what I learned from Y2K: I learned that we must train ourselves to be as skilled as possible whenever the apocalypse hits. And there are many different kinds of apocalypses, so let’s just SUPPOSE that the world doesn’t end in a fiery blaze on Friday (Absurd, I know, because the world will totally end in a fiery blaze on Friday. It just will.), it’s very possible that our apocalypse could be of a different sort. A zombie apocalypse, frankly, just seems a little far-fetched to me, so I won’t even waste thought on it. A technological apocalypse? Sure, I’ll allow myself to believe. An epidemic, a viral outbreak? Absolutely! Those dirty UNIONS maliciously shutting down the world’s cargo ships, depriving us all of medication and toilet paper and foodstuffs and deodorant, which leads to the inevitable World War ZZZZZ? I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen, honestly. Point is, we’ve got to be prepared. We have to be very honest with ourselves, and equip ourselves with as many skills and supplies as necessary. Basically, if you’re not in nursing or whittling school right now, you’re wasting your life.
I know that maybe the apocalypse will be something entirely different, like a pharmacological apocalypse. Author and mind-altering plant aficionado Terence McKenna took LSD and all kinds of other hallucinogens for years and years, studying with shamans and wandering through mountains, before eventually realizing the hour of the pharmacological apocalypse is upon is. McKenna argued in his book The Archaic Revival that mushrooms are actually alien fungi, and they contain within them the tools to access the extraterrestrial realm. See, hallucinogens don’t actually cause hallucinations; rather, they allow human beings to witness the alien world that we otherwise can’t even fathom without supremely heightened consciousness. We live only in the physical world, so we’ll never understand any other way of being until the big day when our world is destroyed, and we’re carried away to the world of the psychedelic alien. I could see that.
I know that in 1999, we were spared the wrath of the “great king of terror” that Nostradamus famously foretold in the 1500s; Nostradamus predicted a sky king would descend from the heavens and murder us all. We were blessed in 1997, when the coming of Comet Hale-Bopp did not, as it turns out, portend the destruction of this planet, as Marshall Applewhite of the Heavens Gate cult had convinced many it would. Louis Farrakan of the Nation of Islam said the Persian Gulf War of 1991 was actually the Battle of Armageddon–prophesied in the Book of Revelation as a precursor to the End Times–but it wasn’t. Somehow the great evangelist Pat Robertson was wrong about the Rapture occurring in 1982 (He was later wrong about it happening in 2007, too.). And there wasn’t a person alive in 1910 who wasn’t convinced that Halley’s Comet would bring with it a giant cloud of poisonous gas that would plunge the world into sickness and ruin.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But come on, all those doomsday prophets were wrong, what makes you think this time the prophets are right? I mean, you didn’t even mention failed doomsday predictions like the one by the Romans in 634 BC, or by the Donatists in 380, Bishop Gregory of Tours in 806, everyone in the world in 1000, Pope Innocent III in 1284, Arnold of Villanova in 1378, Michael Stifel the mathematician in 1533, the Fifth Monarchy in 1673, or the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844… they all thought they were right too!” Well, that’s a reasonable point, but I’ve got a one-word retort for you: Mayans. You know the phrase, “Smart as a Mayan”? As in, “Tommy, I’m so proud of your 3.8 GPA, you’re as smart as a Mayan!” Well that phrase speaks for itself. But how about all the great technological innovations for which we can thank the Mayans, like……… …….. art. They knew all kinds of things about astronomy that modern man, in all his hubris, could never expect to learn. And so they drew up a calendar, and that calendar just freaking ends, man. It ends! Does that sound good to you?
And yeah, I mean, maybe we skate by on this one. Maybe this Friday, we Earthlings catch a break and avoid the apocalypse. Again, it’s unlikely, I know, because we’re totally all dying this Friday, we just are. But say we do make it out… you know what’s coming up soon? The year 2015. What happens in 2015, you ask? Oh, it’s only the year that the renowned Methodist theologian Adam Clarke worked out as the date for the Rapture, for reals this time. Yeah. Scary stuff. We all have a lot of repenting and saving to do between then and now, I think.
And maybe, just as a precaution, just in the teensiest most miniscule chance that we survive even past that date of certain doom, we need to be prepared. Because we’ve only got about seven-and-a-half billion years until the Sun becomes a red giant star and expands exponentially, engulfing the Earth and everything surrounding it, destroying the physical space of the Solar System. Basically, total annihilation. Seven-and-a-half billion years, you guys. Let’s get ready.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Empathizing With Gun Lovers

This is not an argument for anything. By writing this, please understand that I’m not advocating for any gun policy or for any sentiment for or against guns. This is a thought experiment.
First, I’ll disclose how I personally feel: I don’t own a gun, and I don’t plan on ever owning a gun. I don’t like guns, and I don’t like that people feel like they need to own guns. But I also understand that the way I feel comes from the way I grew up and the way I see the world, which is that I think people are inherently good and that you’ll generally be okay, no matter what. I never feel threatened and have never in my life felt threatened. I could, of course, actually have been threatened, but I never felt that way, and I’ve lived in some pretty dangerous cities. And since I’ve never felt in danger, I’ve never felt inspired to arm myself for protection.
That need is not something any of us can control, I don’t think, any more than we can control where we went to high school years after the fact. All the things that go into our biases are things we can’t really control, so I can’t control my own bias of thinking that the need other people feel for guns is entirely irrational. Irrational in that people almost always argue they own guns to protect themselves, but you’ll just as often seeing the same people exhibiting dozens of other behaviors that are far more dangerous than the danger of their ever being attacked by another human being (Texting while driving, for example, is something that almost everybody does, and it’s voluntarily putting us all in constant mortal peril. It’s proven to be as dangerous as driving while drunk, with the added bonus of drunk driving usually contained to late at night, whereas texting while driving happens all day long.). I think that gun owners and gun supporters are deluding themselves by arguing that guns make society safer because they’re ignoring overwhelming evidence that suggests otherwise… all you have to do is look to other countries that have stricter gun policies and see the comparative lack of violence; or, you can look to the United States’ geography and see that the most violent crimes occur in the areas that also have the highest concentration of gun owners. And yet, I understand that we all engage in all kinds of destructive behavior, even when there is plenty of evidence telling us not to do it. I can look at my life and see dozens of things I’m doing wrong while knowing that it’s wrong; do any of us stop eating like crap even though study after study shows that a lifetime of poor eating is deadlier than a lifetime of drinking, smoking, or doing drugs? Instead, we do mental gymnastics such as employing Optimism Bias (the thought process of naturally assuming things will work out better for ME because, after all, it’s ME) to convince ourselves it’s okay to want what we want.
But, try as I might, I’ve never been able to wrap my head around how somebody could be so attached to something as gun owners are to guns. I’ve searched my life for the objects I care about–things I’d defend so staunchly as to invest time and money into protecting–and I can’t think of a thing. Guitars? I love my guitars, I feel empty when I go too long without playing one of my guitars. But if countless studies demonstrated that guitar ownership was positively correlated with violence and death, I wouldn’t protest the government making guitar ownership illegal. At least I don’t think I would, which is key.
That’s not it, though. It’s not the right comparison. Guns are, after all, about an idea rather than mere physical space. They’re about the idea of self-defense, about the protection and empowerment of the people against their enemies near and far. What, then, do I feel so strong an attachment to that can even come close to that?
The answer immediately popped into my head: Information. If I strip away the things in my life that I care the most about (excluding people, obviously), if I get to the core of these possessions I surround myself with, I realize that all share, at their core, information. What’s more, they’re also about how that information is shared. So what if there were some hypothetical scenario in which it was conclusively proven that the internet was responsible for the deaths of many innocent people? If the internet, as a whole, had become so dangerous and unwieldy that there was a movement for the government to shut down the internet (Also, suppose that such a thing as “shutting down the internet” could even be possible.)? How would I feel then? The internet is so important to me that I can’t even quantify it; my job revolves around the internet, I write on the internet, I write about the internet, I think about the internet all the time, and I am on the internet for almost all of my waking life. I could not live this life without the internet, not really.
So, in my hypothetical alternate reality in which the internet was linked to thousands or even millions of deaths, how would I feel about the movement to shut the whole thing down? What would I think about that? My first instinct is to recoil at the thought. The internet, to me, feels important enough to fight wars over, it matters that much. But if the internet were destroying lives, and we had unrelenting proof that this was so, wouldn’t our government have to get rid of it for the greater good? After all, it wouldn’t be as if the government were suppressing and censoring information a la Fahrenheit 451; we’d still have books and TV and radio and magazines and newspapers and mail, we’d still have cell phones and text messaging, we’d even have intra-office networks so that companies could still communicate internally by e-mail. We just wouldn’t have the instantaneous transfer of information that the internet allows. We’d be losing speed, convenience, efficiency. Worth it?
It’s an absurd scenario, of course, even though it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem, because the internet as it’s currently constituted does ruin lives. But in my absurd scenario wherein the internet is linked to the deaths of innocents, I’m still saying to myself, “Yep. Worth it.” Because, in my mind, nothing is more important than freedom, even though my view of “freedom” is muddled in this case, just as gun lovers’ idea of the “freedom” provided by guns is muddled. Freedom would still exist without the internet, and truth would still exist without the internet, they would just be slower and slightly more difficult to obtain; and in whatever form of gun control America eventually does or does not get, guns wouldn’t go away, they’d just be more difficult to obtain. So, efficiency and convenience are worth fighting wars over?
Apparently, the answer to that question is, if it’s something I like and it’s something I care about, then yes.
The point being, I can’t any longer begrudge any emotional attachment to guns. I can’t understand it, but I can at least try. That doesn’t change the conversation for me, but it does make me empathetic, does make me think that people are not just being petty when you suggest they give up something that makes them feel good. Because I’d feel the same way if it were asked of me. I just happen to like different things.