Saturday, December 29, 2012

(Not So) Good Grief, or, Empathy for the Devil

When I heard the news I worried about how it would affect my twelve year old son who is a sensitive child. I did not worry much about my older children until I received a text from my eighteen year old son reading, “turn on the news, I am so shaken.” Everyone is affected by what happened. Everyone needs a hug and to feel loved right now. This happened to the children of our nation and we must come together now to love and heal one another.

-- Blogger Tricia LaVoice

Oh, my.  Now on top of everything else I owe this lady a hug, and I’m morally obliged to sympathize with her poor son, who’s suffered being “shaken.”

At this stage, I’d gladly trade whatever hugs I have coming from the national bleed for a 24-hours moratorium on any sentence containing the words “grief,” “hug,” “heal,” “tragic,” “safe,” and “assault weapon.”

In defiance of all that is sacred, precious, and huggable, I’m proposing here that, while empathy is an admirable capacity when displayed in sensible proportions, in immoderate quantities, like any other emotion gone – frankly -- nuts, it is now only making things worse.  At this stage of our history America simply lacks civilizing norms to tell us when indulging an emotion has reached a healthy boundary, letting us know that any more of it will only be self-indulgence. The same social dictates that used to require a widow to wear black in public for a respectful time after her husband’s death also required that, beyond that point, she needed to stop wearing it, too.

Is there no useful human impulse we don’t manage to corrupt and spoil?   Et tu, empathy?  Alas, having suffered (because I support the Second Amendment) through two weeks of moral bullying over what happened in Newtown, I have to insist you have at maximum a two-degree proximity to the actual victims if you intend to claim my deference to your “need to heal.”  As for hugs – don’t even try it.  The Bible does indeed command that we’re to mourn with those who mourn. But if you expect me to send sympathy cards to all the rest of you who are mourning with those who mourn, I’m going to call a foul.

It’s not even the etiquette of all this that matters to me. It’s that all this boundless emotionalism is taken advantage of and exploited by people in this nation who know exactly how to use it.

Now, in the unlikely event that you are reading this and you actually are a parent or relative or associate of the victims of Sandy Hook, absolutely none of this intended for you. I’m sincerely sorry for your loss, and I have nothing more to add.

But for the rest of you, it’s time to get a grip. (Not a pistol grip, naturally. Those are going to be banned.) Or am I really the only one in America left able to distinguish what Adam Lanza did to 20 kindergartners in Newtown, Connecticut (he massacred them) from what “happened to the children of our nation” (nothing)?

Before six o’clock on Friday the 14th, the media powers-that- be had already decided the entire population of the country were in a state of mourning.  Even Fox News did a Thelma and Louise over the responsible-reporting cliff.  It was Nina Easton on Fox News’ Special Report who referred to the president as the “mourner-in-chief.” (Is there anything that guy’s not the -in-chief of?) Bret Baer spent 100% of that Friday’s newscast on Sandy Hook. 

The national wake – besides being arbitrarily open-ended -- has since been enforced according to the kind of Victorian-era rules of behavior we Americans don’t even bother with when our actual relatives die. In this case, showing a proper respect for the bereaved (none of whom I know, nor do they know me) for some reason means not contradicting the media’s lockstep adoption of this particular mass shooting as qualitatively different, more shocking, and more beneficial to a rational discussion about guns than any other.   A colleague at work told me she took offense at a gun-rights advocate on a panel discussion – not because of his positions on gun rights – but because he said that the Sandy Hook massacre wasn’t “that shocking.” Wasn’t how shocking? Is there a meter that measures these things?

We are now being divided over how bad we feel?  As William Hurt’s character in Broadcast News said to Holly Hunter’s drama-queen response to massive terminations in the office, “I won’t feel bad because I don’t feel worse. This has happened at every station I’ve worked at.”  And no one hugged me when JFK, RFK, or MLK were assassinated and I turned out – well, never mind how I turned out.

But here I’ve just said I didn’t know the bereaved, when I guess I do, because it’s all of us, right? Especially those who feel so deeply that Sandy Hook was caused by Too Many Guns. And we all do know at least enough about bereavement to know it’s just bad form to say anything to upset the bereaved in his, or her, grief.

The problem is that that kind of immunity, enjoyed by the wrong people, can be misused.  Look at what happened with Cindy Sheehan.  Maureen Dowd said the death of Sheehan’s son in Iraq conferred upon her “absolute moral authority,” and on the strength of that stupid comment the Democrats used Sheehan  as a blackjack for a while to clobber supporters of the Iraq War --  right up until they got tired of her and threw her over.

As just one example of the same kind of thing, we have the opinions of Tom Messenger, a St. Louis editor, published in The Detroit News the other day.  This writer is on record elsewhere opposed to permitting “any teacher or principal with a concealed-carry permit to carry a gun while teaching our children.” (“Editorial: More guns in schools? Wrong answer “).  Fine, so he has an opinion.  But he has more than that, or thinks he does; he has the moral authority of a man going through the “five stages of grief,” although he’s currently stuck at “anger.” He describes making full use of it on a radio talk show recently when he took issue with the host’s view that the struggle to protect the Second Amendment as a left vs. right issue, an opinion Messenger denounced as ‘bunk”:

I went straight to anger as I explained my grief over Sandy Hook.

On top of being an American, a human being, a father and grandfather of children the age of the 20 who were shot to death, two days before the tragedy I'd been thinking about what might happen in a real-life school shooting in my community.

Now I won’t spoil the surprise if I tell you all that Messenger turns out not to have experienced an actual real life shooting in his community, beyond thinking about it, and, of course, experiencing Sandy Hook through news reports – which, for some reason I feel it necessary to repeat -- is not the same thing as having it happen to you. Anyway, in his mind he’s one of the bereaved of Sandy Hook

And because he’s one of the bereaved, we have to listen quietly as he bullies us with his opinions (immunized by grief, don’t forget) that “we must do whatever we can to make sure our children are safe, [or else] we have lost our souls.”

But by “whatever we can” he really means the very limited list of things that didn’t work last time, (the assault weapons ban), wouldn’t have stopped Lanza this time (“making high-capacity ammunition magazines illegal”), or costly and impractical solutions (“finding the funding to support existing programs that put police officers — not armed teachers or volunteers — in schools.”).    Why not armed teachers or volunteers?  Messenger doesn’t say.  He only makes clear that he’s opposed to the NRA or “other pro-gun groups,” making  him, it’s fair to say, an anti-gun advocate.  This just happens to fit in nicely with the extremely anti-gun extremism of the party in power in Washington, which is nothing if not adept at exploiting tragedies to achieve its objectives. Messenger’s views, dressed up in widow’s weeds and multiplied by millions, are jet fuel for a crafty politician with a demonstrated record for harnessing emotion to political ends.

And that, my friends, is why we mustn’t humor empathy running wild.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

From Our No One Saw This Coming Department

This from the AP:

ASSIUT, Egypt -- A campaign of intimidation by Islamists left most Christians in this southern Egyptian province too afraid to participate in last week's referendum on an Islamist-drafted constitution they deeply oppose, residents say. The disenfranchisement is hiking Christians' worries over their future under empowered Muslim conservatives.

Around a week before the vote, some 50,000 Islamists marched through the provincial capital, Assiut, chanting that Egypt will be "Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians." At their head rode several bearded men on horseback with swords in scabbards on their hips, evoking images of early Muslims conquering Christian Egypt in the 7th Century.

They made sure to go through mainly Christian districts of the city, where residents, fearing attacks, shuttered down their stores and stayed in their homes, witnesses said.

The day of the voting itself on Saturday, Christian voting was minimal -- as low as 7 percent in some areas, according to church officials. Some of those who did try to head to polling stations in some villages were pelted by stones, forcing them to turn back without casting ballots, Christian activists and residents told The Associated Press this week.

The activists now see what happened in Assiut as a barometer for what Christians' status will be under a constitution that enshrines a greater role for Shariah, or Islamic law, in government and daily life. Even under the secular regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's Christians complained of discrimination and government failure to protect them and their rights. They fear it will be worse with the Islamists who have dominated Egypt's political landscape since Mubarak's ouster in February 2011. (“Fear keeps Egypt's Christians away from polls”).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More Heat Than Light

From Wednesday’s Detroit Free Press:

With the shock of the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school still fresh on the nation's conscience and protests and vigils by clergy and others closer to home, Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a bill Tuesday that would have allowed Michigan gun owners with extra training to carry concealed weapons in schools, day care centers, churches and stadiums. (“In light of tragedy, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder vetoes bill that allowed guns in schools”).

This paragraph makes sense under one, and only one, condition: that you accept as true the premise that the Sandy Hook massacre was carried out by a lawful gun owner  permitted to carry a concealed weapon, (which, in a related assumption, is why whole thing can be laid at the feet of “the nations’s conscience.”)

But that isn’t the truth. Adam Lanza was not a lawful gun owner (he stole his mother’s guns), he did not have a CCW, and his murder weapon was not concealed.

The same poor logic is echoed in a statement by State Rep Shanelle Jackson:

“Gov. Rick Snyder made the right call in vetoing a bill that would have allowed concealed weapons into schools, day care centers, hospitals and places of worship,” Jackson's statement said. “In light of the tragic loss of children's lives in Connecticut, this was simply not the time to recklessly advance the expansion of concealed weapons in Michigan.”

Once again, this statement is devoid of a scintilla of sense if you don’t already take as given that Adam Lanza’s rampage – or any part of his plan or execution of it – had anything at all to do with anyone’s freedom to carry a concealed weapon into a school.

And yet both of these statements are meant to explain how Sandy Hook informed Snyder’s decision to veto the bill.

I’m not asking for much here; I never do.

But if anti-gun enthusiasts insist on using expressions like “in the light of the tragic loss of children’s lives” as a moral club to flatten whatever follows, it’s only fair that whatever follows actually have some moral connection to the opportunistically cited tragedy.

Yet not only is there no such connection, but the obverse thing being implied isn’t true either – that no reasonable person could envision how the presence inside Sandy Hook of an armed, trained citizen could have possibly lessened the tragedy of what happened. 

Even Gov Snyder manages to make things worse by protesting how he prefers to consider the concerns raised in the bill he vetoed in a “holistic manner”:  including finding “a way to better incorporate community mental health workers into schools.”

Except Sandy Hook had a mental health worker on the job: the school psychologist, who heroically lost her life, along with the school principal, taking on the killer without assistance of any weapon suited to the threat.

I don’t quite see how vetoing a bill that would have changed that dynamic should a similar scenario ever threaten a Michigan school can truly be said to have been made “in light of the tragedy.”

In fact, I’m stumped if I can understand how, with all the “light” the Newtown massacre is supposed to be shedding on everything, so many people are so much in the dark.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

For Egypt, Not a Hand Out, But a Hand Off

Andrew G. Bostom writes on Friday at American Thinker:

Hadd Times Ahead for Egypt?

Today (12/14/12), the senior Egyptian judges of the so-called "Judges Club" reaffirmed their previously announced abstention from overseeing the two-stage (i.e., December 15th and 22nd) referendum on Egypt’s draft constitution.

A rival judicial club body has announced it would oversee the plebiscite. Zaghloul al-Burshi, head of the council responsible for overseeing the referendum, told Al Arabiya during an interview Monday 12/10/12 that between 7,000 to 9,000 judges, had agreed to oversee the referendum, which he maintained, was "more than enough"

Ahmad al-Zind, Chairman of the Egypt Judges Club, which declined the referendum oversight responsibility, nevertheless opined that all judges seek to protect the country’s national interests despite their differences.

We accept judge’s stances either way. People from here can learn democracy.

Al-Zind’s own recently aired "stance" on Sharia, specifically his condoning the mandatory hadd (plural hudud, or hudood) punishments, is well-worth noting given his prominent position.

What are the so-called hadd punishments condoned by Chairman of the Egypt Judges Club, al-Zind? Defined by the Muslim prophet Muhammad either in the Koran or in the hadith (the canonical collections of Muhammad’s deeds and pronouncements), these draconian punishments include: (lethal) stoning for adultery; death for apostasy; death for highway robbery, when accompanied by murder of the robbery victim; for simple highway robbery, the loss of hands and feet; for simple theft, cutting off of the right hand; for "fornication," a hundred lashes; for drinking wine, eighty lashes. Muhammad Abu Zahra (d. 1974), was a prominent member of Al Azhar’s Academy of Islamic Research, professor of Islamic law at Cairo University, and prolific author. These extracts from Abu Zahra’s "Punishment in Islam," featured in the seminal 935-page Proceedings of the Fourth Conference of the Academy of Islamic Research, September 1968, provide the mainstream institutional Islamic context for the contemporary views expressed by Ahmad al-Zind:

The hadd punishments being prescribed for the protection of society, their execution is tantamount to an act of worship and equivalent to a holy war [jihad] in the cause of Allah. To purge the community of pernicious elements is a sort of holy war to safeguard religion and morals. . . . From the words of Ibn Taymiya [d. 1328, the seminal jurist] it appears that Hudud are prescribed as a divine blessing. This idea is further developed by al-Mawardi in his ‘al-Ahkam al-Sultaniya’. [d. 1058, author of this landmark treatise on the governance of an Islamic state, Mawardi writes] "Hadd punishments are imposed by Allah as [a] deterrent from his prohibitions and the omission of His commandments."

In accord with this mainstream, Sharia-based Islamic jurisprudence across a millennial continuum, the following are excerpts from an interview with Ahmad Al-Zind, which was broadcasted on Egyptian television (Dream 2 TV), November 26, 2012:

The judges have a burning desire to instate shari’a laws regarding Islamic hudud punishments and the diya indemnity. The UAE [United Arab Emirates] has resolved this issue without problems and in a simple way -- the first article of its penal code states that shari’a law will be implemented with regard to the hudud and diya. When shari’a laws are implemented, they leave no room for bargaining. Any country that refrains from implementing these punishments is lacking in many ways. People should not fear the implementation of the hudud punishments, because this could be more lenient to the accused then ta’zir punishment [in which the judge has discretion]... Yet people terrify you with talk about the hudud. There is no backwardness in Islam, and people who claim otherwise are backward themselves. Allah’s mercy towards His servants is evident in the fact that the person administering lashings places a notebook in his armpit, preventing him from inflicting pain by raising his arm too high, lest the notebook should fall.

Unfortunately, Ahmad Al-Zind’s opinion reflects the overwhelming vox populi sentiments of Egypt’s Muslim masses, while providing a respected contemporary jurist’s authoritative Sharia-compliant validation of such views. Dating back to within a few days of their publication in April, 2007, I have repeatedly highlighted data from Egypt indicating that 74% of Egyptians favored "strict" application of the Sharia in general. As recently as December 2010, Pew polling data revealed that with regard to the draconian hadd punishments, 84% of Egyptian Muslims rejected freedom of conscience in the most ugly terms claiming apostates should be killed (i.e., that percentage would likely be well over 90% if less draconian punishments, such as imprisonment and beating till recantation were queried), 82% favor stoning adulterers to death, and 77% approved of mutilating punishments for theft.

Given such widely prevalent attitudes, even Muslim Brotherhood "Spiritual Adviser," and esteemed, prolific commentator Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s cautious admonition to reapply the full panoply of Sharia’s odious regulations "gradually," may not be necessary. With likely passage of Egypt’s Sharia-affirming draft constitution in the offing, "hadd times" may be returning to Egypt sooner than even confirmed Arab Spring pessimists like myself ever imagined.


Sunday, December 02, 2012

No More Phobia?

Charles C. W. Cooke at NRO writes the following:

‘Phobic’ No More

‘In politics,” Coleridge wrote, “what begins in fear usually ends in folly.” In journalism, he might have added, what ends in “-phobia” usually suffers the same fate.

The Associated Press’s November announcement that it will cease conflating “phobia” and “criticism” is a welcome one, and both other news outlets and the general public would do well to follow its example. For a criminally long time now, “-phobe” has been lazily tacked on to other words without reference to its meaning or judgment about its suitability. In the dictionary of modern usage, “-phobe” is to “critic” what “-gate” is to “-scandal.” Oppose gay marriage? You’re a homophobe! Defend the Mohammed cartoonists? You’re an Islamophobe! The word joins others, such as “racist” and “misogynist,” in the twisted arsenals of those who would lob loaded terms into the field of debate in order to kill discussion.

The word “phobia” is derived from the Greek phobos, which translates literally as “panic flight,” and which medical dictionaries tend to translate more loosely as “morbid fear.” In the modern world, the term is most commonly employed by clinical psychologists as a label for a specific form of anxiety disorder in which a person experiences “excessive or unreasonable” — in other words, irrational— fear in response to a given stimulus. The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders explains that in order for a person to be a “phobic,” “exposure to the phobic stimulus” must “almost invariably provoke an immediate anxiety response.” Among other things, this response can include loss of control, flight, fainting, and panic attacks. And the reaction can be classified as “phobic” only if “the person recognizes that the fear is excessive and unreasonable.”

Here’s the question for those who casually launch the word against their ideological opponents: Is there really no better description of democratic opposition to, say, gay marriage than “phobia”? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual would certainly suggest that there is. The medical profession, too, which holds that one can diagnose a phobia only if “the anxiety, panic attack, or phobic avoidance associated with the specific object or situation are not better accounted for by another mental disorder.” It helps if those symptoms actually exist, too.

Explaining the AP’s decision, Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn expressed his concern at the way in which “phobia” is being misused.   “‘Homophobia’ especially — it’s just off the mark,” he observed. “It’s ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge we don’t have. It seems inaccurate.” I’d go one step further than Minthorn. It doesn’t just seem inaccurate, it is inaccurate— and wildly so. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why the “phobia” tag is appealing in political discourse. By insinuating that your opponents are irrational and motivated by primal fear — mentally ill, even — you are free to discount the legitimacy of their position without actually having to debate them. After all, who would bother to argue with a madman?

At this point in any discussion about language, someone usually pops his head above the parapet and says something to the effect of, “Calm down, language changes, and besides, it’s all about communication anyway.” This is true, and far be it for me to discourage lingua Anglica’s virtuous flexibility. But my complaint here is not so much about the changes in words’ meaning and use as it is about language that exists simultaneously in two states. “Phobia” has a clinical definition that is universally understood. It also has a colloquial — primarily political — usage that is not. The trouble is that the two uses do not coexist in separate, hermetically sealed arenas. The colloquial use has not become wholly divorced from the original use.

For Dave Minthorn, this is problematic because it results in copy that is “not quite accurate.” It’s a little more serious that that. We cannot have fruitful political discussions if we don’t know what we’re talking about or if we shut down our interlocutors at the first hurdle. Granted, this is a symptom as much it is a cause. But there are good reasons to remove barriers from our discourse, and I would applaud the Associated Press for recognizing that “phobia” is often an inappropriate descriptor. Perhaps Franklin Delano Roosevelt got it slightly wrong. What we have to fear is less fear itself, and more the prospect of losing the ability to talk about fear.

Presumably, there are some people who are genuinely scared of homosexuals. After all, there are people who are irrationally terrified — phobic, if you will — of garden spiders (arachnophobes), of string (cnidophobes), of chins (geniophobes), of stars (siderophobes), and of everything (panophobes). But homophobia is not a condition that afflicts many — certainly not all of the 44 percent of Americans who oppose gay marriage. As strongly as gay-marriage supporters (and they make up nearly half the population) might feel about the issue, it helps nobody for them to pretend that their fellow citizens are clinically ill.

“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” adding, “It is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.” In our diffuse and noisy modern world, Orwell’s “we” is made up of billions of autonomous people each jostling for his say, and the temptation is to fall in line and contentedly reassemble those “strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else.” Congratulations to the Associated Press for having the courage to reject this pernicious tendency and demand that if language is to have any purpose at all, it should actually mean something.