April 9, 2013
February 11, 2013
On December 14th, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, I popped off with a quick, frustrated, angry tweet that seemed to me to be the simplest way to express the political situation in this country when it comes to gun laws:
shunn: Can we just come out and say that the NRA, when its position is stripped down to basics, favors civilian shootings?
This didn't excite much comment on Twitter, but when the tweet reached Facebook it was a different story. The first comment, right out of the blocks, from a friend, was this:
Loved M. Gunns: We could say that but we'd be stupid assholes for saying it.
A lot of very smart people (including some very smart, very wrong people) waded into the fray over the next 24 hours or so. I stayed out of it as long as I could, leaving the defense of sanity in the capable hands of my like-minded friends. But finally, after my own cousin called my initial comment "wrong and silly," I had to jump in and defend it.
Bill Shunn: The NRA wants us to have more guns. (We already have 300,000,000 in this country, up 50% in the last 30 years.) More guns, the statistics show, leads to more shootings.
I suppose I was using a lot of words that were easy to pick on, verbs like "favors" and "wants" that imputed volition to an organization. This response was typical of what we saw in the exchanges:
Loved M. Gunns: It's inaccurate to characterize the NRA as wanting us "to have more guns." Come on, you're smart as hell, Bill. You can argue a good case without making stuff up.
This is a typical response not just from my Facebook debate but from the gun-control debate at large. "You don't know what you're talking about," say gun advocates to opponents. "All your stats and science are so much nonsense."
Look, the NRA is a political-action group that has spent the past thirty years doing nothing but fighting to roll back every last sensible gun-control measure, to oppose every new gun-control effort, to crush every political candidate who talks about gun control, and to expand the accepted constitutional definition of the right to bear arms.
The NRA has created the conditions that have allowed firearms sales in U.S. to proliferate to ridiculous levels, and that in turn has created the conditions that have turned mass shootings into a regular feature on our television screens. In the same way that the resurgence of the American economy created conditions that favored an Obama victory in November, NRA lobbying efforts favor an atmosphere conducive to civilian shootings.
The NRA claims to be an organization representing the interests of gun owners, an organization that promotes gun safety and responsible gun use. If they truly favored safety, though, it seems to me that they'd support policies that ensured that guns would end up only in the hands of responsible owners. Instead, their opposition to any attempts to limit access to semiautomatic weapons or to impose background checks on gun buyers results in millions of gun sales that would never happen if saner policies were in force.
Particularly at a time when polls show that even the vast majority of NRA members are in favor of more background checks and limits on semiautomatic weapons, it becomes increasingly difficult to defend the idea that the NRA doesn't want us to have more guns. This seems so self-evident to me, in fact, that claims to the contrary (like that of my friend "Loved M. Gunns" above) strike me as willfully naive and, yes, stupid.
And why would an organization like the NRA want us to have more guns? There can only be one reason, and that reason has to be money. As I said to a different friend at the end of one of the saner exchanges in that Facebook thread:
Bill Shunn: I suspectwill need to researchthat the ultimate positive correlation with NRA lobbying efforts is the fortunes of the arms industry.
In other words, my guesswithout having looked into the question at allwas that the NRA has become a tool of the firearms industry. Last week, the proof of this assumption landed on my doorstep.
The February 14th issue of Rolling Stone contains an excellent investigative article by Tim Dickinson called "The NRA vs. America" that delves into this very issue. I highly recommend you read the full piece, which is available online in its entirety, but let me just highlight a few salient passages.
Here's one about the composition of the NRA's board of directors:
Today's NRA is a completely top-down organization. It has been led since 1991 by LaPierre, its chief executive, who serves at the pleasure of a 76-member board that is all but self-perpetuating. Only one-third of the board's membership is up for re-election in any given year. Voting is limited to the NRA's honored "lifetime" members and to dues-payers with at least five consecutive years of being in good standing. Write-in candidates occasionally pepper the ballot, but in practice, the tiny slice of eligible members who bother to vote rubber-stamp a slate of candidates dictated by the NRA's 10-member nominating committeeone of whose members is George Kollitides II, CEO of Freedom Group, which manufactures the Bushmaster semiautomatic that Adam Lanza used to slaughter children in Newtown.
The NRA's board is stocked with industry brass. Pete Brownell, president of Brownellsan Internet arms superstore that features "ultrahigh-capacity magazines"campaigned for his seat touting the importance for the NRA to have "directors who intimately understand and work in leadership positions within the firearms industry." Another board seat belongs to Ronnie Barrett, CEO of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, whose company produces .50-caliber sniper rifles capable of piercing armor from nearly a mile away. Barrett's firm also sells scope-mounted ballistics computers that enable clueless civilians to hit targets like they were special-forces snipers. The ammunitions side of the industry finds a voice in board member Stephen Hornady, whose company peddles armor-piercing bullets and trades on the slogan "Accurate. Deadly. Dependable."
So that's the board of directors. Now here's a sobering passage about NRA funders:
The NRA insists in its publications that it is "not a trade organization" and that it is "not affiliated with any firearm or ammunition manufacturers or with any businesses that deal in guns and ammunition." That is a lie. NRA's corporate patrons include 22 firearms manufacturers, 12 of which are makers of assault weapons with household names like Beretta and Ruger, according to a 2011 analysis by the Violence Policy Center. The report, drawn from the NRA's own disclosures, also identified gifts from dozens of firms that profit from high-capacity magazines, including Browning and Remington. Donors from the industry and other dark reaches of the corporate worldincluding Xe, the new name of the mercenary group Blackwaterhad funneled up to $52 million to the NRA in recent years.
More disturbing, the NRA receives funds directly from the sales of arms and ammunition. The "Round-Up" program, launched by arms retailer Midway USA, encourages customers to increase their purchases to the nearest dollar and sends the extra coin to the association. Midway customers alone have contributed nearly $8 million in this way to support NRA's lobbying division, the Institute for Legislative Action.
And finally, this passage about the NRA's allegiances:
Top corporate patrons are treated like royalty. Those whose giving to the NRA reaches $1 million or more are inaugurated into an elite NRA society called the "Golden Ring of Freedom" in a ceremony where they're presented with a silk-lined golden blazer with a hand-embroidered crest. Industry honchos seen in "the million-dollar jacket" include the heads of Ruger, Beretta, Midway and Cabela's, an outfitter that sells 12 models of semiautomatic rifles.
Much like elite funders of a major political party, these Golden Ringers enjoy top access to decision-makers at the NRA. Their interests, not the interest of the $35-a-year member, rule the roost. "They've got this base of true believers that they mail their magazines out to," says policy analyst [Tom] Diaz. "But the NRA is really about serving this elite."
Like I said, I highly recommend that you read the entire article (though I'd suggest you take your blood-pressure medication first), but I think it's obvious from these selections that the NRA could care less about the opinions or the well-being of the average hunter or sportsman. The NRA may not actively wish any given civilian to be shot by a gun-wielding lunatic (though in my opinion that's still open to debate), but as long as the firearms industry is pulling their strings, they seem perfectly happy to ignore all the collateral damage they're enabling.
In other words, the NRA favors civilian shootings. Q.E.D.
November 7, 2012
So, over on Facebook I opined that it's now time for Mr. Obama to get his ass in gear about global warming. I further opined that it was time to stop referring to it by the namby-pamby term "climate change" and get back to calling it "global warming." Boy, did that incite some strong responses!
As I said there and will reiterate here, "climate change" may be a descriptive term in a bland way, but it's way too soft and weaselly. "Climate" as a scientific term is just not understood well enough (or at all) by most of us, and "change" is just, well, change. It says nothing about the degree or direction of the change, about whether it's good or bad, and it even leaves some dangerously stupid pundits enough wiggle room to say, "Hey, change is no problem. We'll just adapt."
"Global warming," on the other hand, is direct and scary, and we need to be scared by it. We need to be shitting our pants because of it. "Global"it affects all of us, everywhere. "Warming"this identifies the most direct effect of the most critical element of the climate-change equation, to wit that if we keep dumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere, the average global temperature will keep going up faster and faster, leading to every other bad outcome, like increased sea levels, decreased permafrost, increased ocean acidity, increased extreme weather events, and so on. The most important thing we can and must do to stop climate change is to stop that temperature rise.
Now let's all change our underwear and call Congress (202-224-3121) and the White House (202-456-1111) and tell them now is the time to get very serious about halting global warming.
Don't believe me? You cannot possibly be informed about the urgency of this matter unless you're reading journalists like Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben. Go back and read Kolbert's "The Climate of Man" series from The New Yorker seven and a half years ago, then read McKibben's recent Rolling Stone article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" and reflect on how damn fast climate change is changing for the worse, and how little time we have to ameliorate its effects. And then change your underwear again.
October 22, 2012
To follow up on my post from Friday, the latest issue of Rolling Stone features an article by Mikal Gilmore called "Mitt Romney and the Ghosts of Mormon History." It provides an excellent overview of how the Mormon Church has drifted away and distanced itself from its founding philosophical ideals, and how Romney has done the same with his own family's legacy. Here's a great passage:
When Romney veers from liberal to conservative to moderate stands, what he makes plain is that the world he is in, but not truly part of, is the political world. The shifting is a sleight of hand, like Joseph Smith's magic, a means to an end. That end is higher attainment in the big payoff, the eternal world. As a result, expecting Romney to be accountable to a secular morality is to misunderstand him. That's part of the Mormon hubris, and it's what grants him the right to withhold specifics about both his political vision and his deeper beliefs. But if you hold yourself apart from the world, how can you understand those who do not? And how can they ever understand you?Gilmore was born into a troubled Mormon famly, and his grasp of the church's history is incisive. I'll link to the article if it ever appears online, which I hope it will in the next couple of weeks.
Mikal Gilmore also wrote the excellent memoir Shot in the Heart, about his relationship with his brother Gary, the executed murderer, and their relationship with the church and its murky doctrine of blood atonement. Dark, dark, dark, but highly recommended.
October 19, 2012
Referring to his fluid political positions, a number of commentators of late have been making statements to the effect that the only thing Mitt Romney seems to believe in is that he should be president. That got me thinking about how such a belief might have arisen, and how it might explain all the shifty flip-flopping we've seen over the course of the presidential campaignand, in fact, the whole of Romney's political career.
Mormons believe that God has an individual plan for every one of us. This is not to say that they believe in predestination, an idea that would play havoc with their crucial belief in free will. Mormons instead believe in the doctrine of foreordination, in which God has specific tasks in mind for each of us to accomplish in this life, but with the actual accomplishment of them being dependent upon our own faith and diligence.
Another thing Mormons believe in is personal revelation. This means that if we have a problem or a question or a goal, we can turn to God in prayer after sincere consideration and ask for direction. God, we are told, will answer either by causing a confusion to come upon us that makes us forget the thing that is wrong or by affirming through a burning in the bosom that the thing is right. (See Doctrine & Covenants 9:7-9.) No good Latter-day Saint should undertake any major pursuit without having gone through this process of spiritual confirmation.
But this is a tricky doctrine. When I was growing up, I myself was able to convince myself that God approved of many different courses of action that probably weren't so good for me, simply by praying about them persistently and feverishly enough. And this is where Romney's belief that he should be president comes in. I have no doubt that, being a faithful Mormon and in fact a Mormon leader, he prayed long and hard about whether or not to pursue this office. The fact that he threw his hat so firmly into the ring is proof that he received his spiritual confirmation.
In other words, Romney must believe that running for president is what God wants him to do, that it is in fact God's plan for him. This belief could trump any need to have a detailed and specific policy plan. He'll say whatever it takes to get into office because that is where God needs him to be.
One of the great heroes of Mormonism is the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi (either a fictional character or a real human being, depending on your point of view on these things), who was charged by God with obtaining certain scriptural records from the keeping of a bad old fellow named Laban. God needed Nephi to get those records, and anything Nephi had to do to accomplish this was fineup to an including lying and murder. (See The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 3 & 4, and specifically this passage.) (By the way, the same sort of anything-is-okay-because-I'm-righteous philosophy justifies every horrible action committed by another fictional character created by a prominent MormonEnder Wiggin of Ender's Game.)
Mormonism is steeped in this idea. What I really worry about, to get right down to it, is that Romney believes not only that God wants him to be president, but that there is some specific crisis coming which he is the only leader capable of meeting. It doesn't matter what this crisis may be. Mitt himself probably has no inkling yet of that. But when the time comes he will recognize it, or will think he does, and he will do what he thinks God wills.
That's what really scares methat where Mitt Romney himself may have no plan, his God surely does. And there's no way for us as voters to know what that may turn out to be.
October 18, 2012
Mitt Romney's comment about "binders full of women" during the debate the other night could not have been more unfortunate, especially considering his family's history of polygamy. Anything that inadvertently conjures up images of the young women in Roman Grant's "joy books" on Big Love is probably not a place Mittens wanted to go...
August 28, 2012
As the Republican National Convention gets into full swing today, one of the topics that probably won't be talked about very much is Mitt Romney's religion. It's odd that this has become such a non-issue during the campaign, given that a) Romney is the first Mormon ever to receive a major-party presidential nomination, and b) the Mormon Church is the fourth largest church in America.
Yes, I too was startled by that statistic, which I've been hearing time and again from various outletsfor instance, in an "On the Media" story from late last year about the LDS Church's "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign. I was catching up on that episode via podcast when this statement from LDS Internet and Advertising Senior Manager Ron Wilson caught my ear:
"Even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fourth largest church, fifty percent of the population didn't really know who we were."The fourth largest church. I was raised Mormon, which means I was raised with the Mormon inferiority complex. Somehow that assertion didn't strike me as quite right. It sounded like a small man reporting his height in inches, not feet. I decided to do some digging.
In the strictest sense, I discovered, the statistic turns out to be absolutely true. The Mormon Church
So let's examine the numbers. You'd expect the fourth largest church in the country to represent a significant fraction of the population. According to the 2012 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, the Mormon Church reported a total of 6,157,238 members in the United States in the year 2011. That's a lot of people, no doubt, but out of an estimated 311,800,000 Americans, that's just a hair under 2% of the population, or about 1 in every 50.
By contrast, the largest church in the country, the Catholic Church, reported 68,202,492 members. That's nearly 22% of the population, and more than 11 times the American membership of the Mormon Church. Running a distant second is the Southern Baptist Convention, with 16,136,044 members (5.2%), followed by the United Methodist Church at 7,679,850 members (2.5%).
But this begs the question of how a "church" is defined. In the case of the 2012 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, what we're talking about is organized religions. This means that the Southern Baptist Convention is counted separately from the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. (5,197,512), which is itself counted separately from the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. (3,500,000), and from the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America (2,500,000).
In all, there are six different Baptist denominations listed in the Yearbook's top 25, with a combined membership of 29,651,610 (over 9.5% of U.S. population). Similarly, the three Methodist denominations listed in the top 25 total 11,579,850 members (3.7%).
Moving on down the list, we realize that when we ask which has the larger membership, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (4,274,855), the answer is the LDS Church. But if we ask whether there are more Mormons or Lutherans (6,553,441) in the country, the answer is Lutherans. And mind you, I'm only looking at the top 25 denominations, which account for a little under half the population of the country!
(And yes, I know there are other Mormon sectsnotably the Community of Christ, with about 250,000 members worldwide. It's hard to get an accurate count, but altogether these sects would appear to number less than 350,000 throughout the entire world, so they don't really change the math by much.)
So far, our analysis has dropped Mormons down to fifth place, if we're talking about broad families of denominations. But what about the Evangelical movement? According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 26.3% of Americans, or more than a quarter of the population, identified themselves as Evangelical. Though countless small churches make up that number, taken as a whole the Evangelicals form the largest religious movement in the country, larger even than Catholicism. This drops Mormons to an ever more distant sixth place in the national standings.
The point is, simply saying that the Mormon Church is the fourth largest in the country, while technically true, implies that it's far more significant a player than it actually is. Out of every 100 people in the United States, 26 are Evangelical, 22 are Catholic, nearly 10 are Baptist, almost 4 are Methodist, more than 2 are Lutheran, and a bit fewer than 2 are Mormon.
By pointing this out, I'm not saying there aren't a lot of Mormons in America. Six million is clearly a large number. It's just not nearly as large as you might expect from the oft-repeated statistic. In fact, the figure of one Mormon in every 50 Americans pretty much implies that, out of 50 states, we have exactly one state's worth of Mormons in the country. Which we all pretty much knew anyway.
So let the Mormon Church continue to aggrandize itself with a misleading statistic. We've had a Quaker president in the past, and Quakers don't even come close to making the top 25. The truth is, maybe Mitt Romney's religion isn't all that big a story after all.
UPDATE: Thanks to Eleanor Lang for pointing out that Herbert Hoover was also a Quaker. That's two past U.S. presidents from a denomination that's about 18 times smaller than Mormonism.
August 23, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jeff Lang sent me a link to Studio 360's listener cocktail challengecreate a cocktail inspired by and named after a classic work of literature.
I wanted to give it a try, but I wasn't able to work on it before the August 12th deadline. Last night I had some spare time, though, so I cobbled together a drink I'm calling the Quiet American. I combined 1.5 oz. of Laird's Applejack, 0.75 oz. of Créole Shrubb liqueur, and 1.5 oz. of blood orange martini mix (blood orange, key lime and cane sugar), stirred with ice, and strained.
The result was not badsweet and orange-y with a slightly bitter undertaste. It gets that name because of the distinctly American spirit (the applejack) getting all into the poor tropical country's business (in this case, Martinique). Of course, it was Vietnam in the novel, so my cocktail inhabits the entirely wrong part of the world, but hey, it was the best I could do.
Laura thought it needed more of something tart, like lime juice or a twist. I'll keep meddling with it, like a good American.
April 16, 2012
Here's a Daily Show story from last week that just about made me spit a tooth across the room. It's about the amendment State Senator Constance Johnson attempted to add to Oklahoma's odious "personhood" bill. The amendment would have tacked this language onto the bill:
[A]ny action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman's vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.This video segment was the first I'd heard about the proposed amendment, and I'm embarrassed to say that it took me until partway through to realize that Sen. Johnson was making an absurdist pro-choice statement with her amendment. Then the story was twice as funny as it had been before.
April 13, 2012
Elect Judge Kevin Horan
Yes, our minds went there almost immediately. We imagined his future reelection campaign:
Let's Keep Horan Around!
Or maybe his opponent would want to flip that:
Don't Keep Horan Around!
And then there's the thought of that dream ticket with the renowned sheriff of Aiken, South Carolina, Mike Hunt:
Keep Horan Around with Mike Hunt!
Oh, if only. If only.