November 26

The Real Fallacy of Liberalism

Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not a conservative. In fact, I sympathize with many of the goals of modern American liberals. But there’s a problem. It’s not the social goals, though I do disagree with some of them. Nor is it the candidates they run, though some of them are abominable. No, it’s something far deeper, and something that few people, left or right, seem to recognize.

In his book The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah refers to primary and secondary cultures. Primary culture is that group with whom we have direct, personal relationships. It’s the people we look in the eye, the family, extended family, and community we trust because we know them.

Secondary culture, in contrast, relies on systems and structures. It is the roads we drive on, and the market we shop at where we don’t know any of the employees. It’s the schools we send our kids to, trusting in a system rather than in the people, whom we don’t have time to know, and it’s FaceBook, where we accumulate “friends” we have never met, and with whom we share a carefully-edited version of ourselves that portrays us in our best light. They’ll never know any different because they don’t know really us.

What does this mean for how we live? Rah describes the impact of primary and secondary culture on our childcare:

Formalized child care in a primary cultural system doesn’t exist. Children are allowed to play out in the village because extended family liver nearby and they would ensure that our children would be safe. They know and trust all of their neighbors, who are likely related to them… In a secondary cultural system, we cannot trust our neighbor to not harm our kids, much less look out and care for them. Child care is obtained through agencies found in the Yellow Pages or a nanny webpage. We trust our most precious gift into the hands of total strangers who have received a seal of approval from other total strangers. (p. 101)

If you live in a city, perhaps you can’t even imagine a primary cultural system. It sounds like a fantasy. It can’t really exist, right?

Wrong. I grew up in a primary cultural system. My mom knew she could rely on our neighbors to keep me safe, just as she would keep their kids safe. Later, I spent 12 years in rural Utah, where it was much the same. We never locked our doors. We left our keys in the car. Some folks left their car running when they went into the post office or grocery store. Our neighbors wouldn’t care if we went into their house for an egg or a cup of flour, even if they weren’t home.

Life was very different during my 25 years in Los Angeles. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I locked my home and my car. I didn’t trust people I didn’t know, which was most of the 10 million people living in the L.A. basin. My safety and security were provided not by relationships, but by structures: locks, police, rules, and routines. Those friends I did have I chose because of shared interests and culture, not geography. There was really no sense of community, and what I thought was community was artificial.

Think about that when we talk about gun control. Many of those who favor it live in fear, because they don’t have much if any primary cultural system. Many who oppose it think it’s ridiculous because the chances of their neighbor shooting them are pretty slim. Both are true– in their cultural context. The fallacy is that one answer can apply to both situations. (That’s a liberal idea, too, though today’s conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon.)

Think about the food you eat today. How much of it was grown by someone you know? How much of it was prepared by someone you know? If you’re a typical city dweller, chances are, not much. That may also be true if you live in a small town, though it’s easier there to eat more food that was grown locally by someone you know simply because there are more farmers. Most of us rely instead on faceless systems and inspectors to ensure there’s no nasty bacteria on our lettuce. And, as we learned again recently, that’s not always reliable.

Why does it matter? Because relationships build trust. Without relationships, we can’t have much trust in our lives. That’s sad. It’s also not good for us. We begin to see systems as more important than people. Perhaps you’re familiar with Bob Seeger’s lament, “I Feel Like a Number.” Elevating systems over people is dehumanizing. If you have any doubt, try conducting a transaction at the DMV in Santa Monica or calling the California Franchise Tax Board.

When liberals call for racial equality, I see that as a good thing. But trying to do it solely through systems is a faulty approach. We are (all of us) human beings, not cogs in a machine. Tuning the machine cannot fix the very real human problems we face. I wonder how many of my white liberal friends who support racial equality would actually make friends with someone of another race, eat together, and have their kids play together regularly? If not, that’s not racial equality. (Remember “Separate but equal“? The Supreme Court declared it wasn’t equal at all!)

So let’s apply this to another problem everyone recognizes: school shootings. The liberal answer is gun control. If they didn’t have access to guns, they wouldn’t shoot anyone, right? Let’s assume for a moment that gun control could work. Heroin control isn’t working, but maybe gun control will. So Nikolas Cruz can’t get a gun, and that’s the answer to the problem. This autistic kid was bullied his whole school career, had just lost his only surviving parent, and had dropped through the cracks in the system. But the liberal answer says it’s not his suffering that’s the problem, it’s the gun he uses to lash out.

It’s not systems that keep us healthy, safe, and included. It’s people.

Certainly there’s a role for systems. We can’t live without them. But putting our emphasis on systems over people dehumanizes us just as much as it dehumanizes everyone else. As Rah says, God created us in community, in relationship (81, ref. Genesis 1:28). Without relationships, we are less than human.





December 4

Major Media Outlets Need a Fact Check on Guns

Today Rolling Stone published a list of 353 mass shootings so far this year. (The number 355 is what most media outlets are using.)

Click on this link and read carefully. You’ll notice that it includes gang violence, bar fights, riots, acts of terrorism, and plenty of domestic violence. The media has just redefined “mass shooting” to scare the crap out of us!

I agree there are way too many mass shootings. I agree there’s too much violence in general. But this is a factual misstatement worthy of Fox News!!

October 8

Guns and Scars, Liberty and Hell

“You should wear with pride the scars on your skin
They’re a map of the adventures and the places you’ve been.”Poi Dog Pondering

Let me tell you about the time I got shot in the head.  No joke.  I’d recently bought a Ruger LCR .38 Special revolver.  My friend Jason came over, and I wanted to show it to him.  I opened the cylinder and removed the bullets.  He closed the cylinder and took it from me.  Then he asked if he could dry-fire it.

I hadn’t looked closely to ensure that all five bullets were removed.  He hadn’t checked at all when I handed it to him.  There was still one in the cylinder, and it went off.

As best we could tell, the bullet went downward through my file cabinet, ricocheted off the floor, bounced off my desk, and hit me in the temple.  It stunned me, but bounced off.  We never did find it.

I was lucky in so many ways.  First, it was a .38 Special which, although one of the most popular rounds in the U.S. is not very powerful.  Second, the bullets were XTP, designed to expand on impact, so (though they are deadlier in a direct impact) the ricochets took much more velocity out of them than they would a full metal jacket.  Third, the bullet went through several layers of furniture before it hit me.  The accident could have been deadly, but wasn’t.

It was my second firearm mishap.  In the first, after following online directions to adjust and safety-test the trigger assembly on a Remington .270 hunting rifle, a round discharged when I released the safety in the kitchen, blasting through a wall and through my pantry, making a terrible mess and deafening both my dog and me for 24 hours.

I don’t share these two incidents lightly.  I learned from them.  First, always check and double-check to ensure a gun is really empty.  Then treat it as though it’s loaded.  Second, leave critical adjustments to the experts.

And that’s the point: I learned.

I’m always amazed at the conflicting “wisdom” our society offers.

“We learn from our mistakes.”

“Don’t make any mistakes.”

“Adversity builds character.”

“No one should have to face adversity.”

Is it any wonder our nation is led by idiots who have no character?

Some people seem to envision a world that is safe for everyone.  Motorcycle helmets are required.  Cars should be collision-resistant.  Swimming pools should be three feet deep, and fenced, and of course there’s no diving allowed.

I’m a little surprised that after the Boston Marathon bombing, no one suggested background checks and licenses be required to buy a pressure cooker.  Or, in more mundane circumstances, that the law require steel cables be attached to scissors to keep kids from running with them.

I was taught to dive at YMCA camp when I was a kid.  Yes, I can dive safely, even into three feet of water.  And I enjoy it.  Sure, I belly-flopped a few times as I was learning, knocked the wind out of me once off the diving board, and scraped my belly on the sand learning to shallow dive.  But I learned.

The “safe” world doesn’t appeal to me much.  In fact, it sounds like Hell.

As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859,

“[W]hen there is not a certainty, but only a danger of mischief, no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk: in this case, therefore, (unless he is a child, or delirious, or in some state of excitement or absorption incompatible with the full use of the reflecting faculty) he ought, I conceive, to be only warned of the danger; not forcibly prevented from exposing himself to it.” (On Liberty, Chapter 5, v.5)

As for the danger to society,

[I]t must by no means be supposed, because damage, or probability of damage, to the interests of others, can alone justify the interference of society, that therefore it always does justify such interference. (5.3)

It is one of the undisputed functions of government to take precautions against crime before it has been committed, as well as to detect and punish it afterwards. The preventive function of government, however, is far more liable to be abused, to the prejudice of liberty, than the punitory function; for there is hardly any part of the legitimate freedom of action of a human being which would not admit of being represented, and fairly too, as increasing the facilities for some form or other of delinquency. (5.5)

Mill was required reading in my school, back in the 1970s.  How times have changed!

Before us is a choice about what sort of society we wish to live in.  On the one hand, some would have all dangers removed, and encourage government supervision to ensure such is the case.  On the other, absolute freedom for the individual, complete with its inherent dangers. (Few truly believe in this, for even those who claim to support it tend to want to limit others’ actions according to their own moral code.)

There is a middle path, for the liberty on which this nation was founded is not anarchy.  Polluting the oceans so that people get mercury poisoning from eating fish is not legitimate liberty, for it despoils the common resources of the people.  But allowing the majority of Americans who are not criminals to own firearms if they so choose is a risk that in my opinion cannot be legitimately argued against.

The opposing logic would suggest that the cheeseburger (or at least diet in general), which kills 130 times more Americans than guns each year, should be regulated before we even begin to discuss firearms.  Yet few are willing to give up their freedom of choice in food.

Some would argue there’s a difference, that for most Americans firearms are not a necessity but a pleasure.  I would argue the same of cheeseburgers, as I haven’t eaten one in 20 years.  The logic is the same: do we have the right to restrict another’s pleasure, even if its effects cause indirect costs to society?  (In this instance, I’m thinking about the billions of dollars in health care costs incurred by those who ate badly but can’t afford the cost of medical care, and the family members left behind as McDonald’s or Burger King takes another life.)

When I was 11 years old, my cousin Karl and I engaged in a mock duel.  My weapon was a bottle of Elmer’s glue.  His was the Exacto knife I used for building models, a pastime I very much enjoyed.  At that age the lack of parity between weapons did not occur to us.

Karl sliced open a knuckle on my left hand, which required a trip to the hospital and several stitches.  (Naturally, we lied to my mom about how it happened.) I still have that scar, and it’s a reminder of what an idiot I was.

Is the message of that event that children ought not to have access to Exacto knives, or that children learn from their mistakes?  I submit that a life that includes danger teaches in a way a padded room can’t.  Education serves us better than elimination.

August 12

Forget About Guns

I’m going to make a statement that will likely get me crucified by conservatives and liberals alike. Here goes: If you argue that the solution to gun violence is more guns or less guns, you are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

That’s because focusing on the symptoms of a disease doesn’t cure the disease. And America has a disease. It’s called untreated mental illness.

Ever since the national mental health system was dismantled under Ronald Reagan, our country has increasingly suffered from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.

It’s not just crazy gunmen. They’re the ones that make the news. But we live in a country where schizophrenics intentionally get arrested because jail is the only facility that will care for them, where PTSD sufferers live on the street because, even though they can’t work, they aren’t “sick enough” for admission to an institution, where bipolars who need six weeks of hospitalization to balance their meds get kicked out in 5 – 7 days because their insurance won’t pay for more, where mental health hotlines go unanswered, where GPs administer psych meds because psychiatrists are unavailable or too expensive, and where the suicide rate is more than double the homicide rate.

The recent wave of mass shootings is a clear sign of how sick we are.  Yet it’s only the visible tip of an unseen iceberg.  Mentally ill people don’t look different from anyone else.  We can’t see them.  We don’t count them.  At least, not until they’ve committed harm to another person.  And there are literally millions of them.  No one knows exactly how many, because too often we don’t diagnose them anymore.  But we can see from the suicide statistics that we are not a healthy nation.  Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in this country, and the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.  Veterans are reported to make up 20% of the suicides each year.  And the overall suicide rate is rising.

If you need more evidence, check the stats for antidepressant prescriptions.  CDC reports that 11% of Americans take them!  NAMI reports that one in four adults – 25% – experiences a mental illness in a given year. That’s an astounding figure!

Yet we spend our time arguing about guns.

Our mental health system is a travesty.  When Reagan dismantled the national system, the states were supposed to pick up the slack.  They didn’t.  They had neither the funding nor the inclination.

Now we have the third-highest suicide rate in the industrialized world.  We have homeless dying on the street because there’s no help for them.  We have people dying from poorly prescribed medication.  And, of course, we have people dying from murder by a growing handful mentally unbalanced people.

That doesn’t take into account the suffering of those who are untreated or poorly treated.  It doesn’t address the cost of using first responders to treat mental health emergencies, or the cost of medical ERs attempting to treat mental health crises from patients who can’t pay because without proper treatment they are unemployable.

What bothers me most is the suffering of those left untreated.  Mental illness isn’t fun.  Being unable to function isn’t fun.  Being unemployed because your brain doesn’t work right isn’t fun.  (Ask me how I know this.)

What bothers everyone else seems to be fear of getting shot.  So let’s face the truth: mentally balanced people don’t shoot each other, or attack each other with knives or hammers or hatchets or any other weapon.

While gun opponents and proponents argue, Americans are getting killed.  So please: shut up and let’s talk about mental health.