Monday, May 14, 2018

An Alternate History Poem


The hosts of the Romans have surrounded Jerusalem
but they bide their time while in the holy city’s streets,
rival factions reach for each other’s throats. 
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai watches,
powerless as Jeremiah,
as the bands of zealots bleed each other dry.
Once, by the waters of Babylon, an exiled people sang:
If I forget thee, Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its skill. 
If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my tongue cling
to the roof of my mouth.
Now, sheltered within her gates,
they deface her.

The people are already hungry
when the factions set fire
to each other’s food stores.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai calls
his disciples together.
It is better to go to a house in mourning,
he tells his disciples, than to go to a house where they feast.
So they lay him in a coffin, lift it up on their shoulders,
carry it out past the rebels
who bar the way against escape.

And so it is
that Yohanan leaves the embrace of Zion’s hills
in a box as dark as the womb.
And as he leaves,
he prays for the holy city.

That it never again
see such strife.
That it never again
be used as a pawn
in some self-styled savior’s
That its gaze be turned away forever
from the vanity
and iniquity
and ignorance
of men.

His cry ascends
from the pit of a feigned death
and the last rabbi ever to teach on the temple’s steps
is granted a single
God bends the arc of time.
In the heat of the fire,
as the three walls of the temple burn,
the Lord forges a future where the fourth burns also.

Roman generals order the stones of each building
to be scattered, the earth sewn with salt.
No strangers settle there, no flocks lie down
to pasture: the ruins of Jerusalem are home only
to wild beasts: scavengers in a desert.
Pilgrims come only to tremble in fearful awe
at the valley of unmarked graves.
Muhammed’s night ride
is from a heap of ash.
Would-be Crusaders bash
each other’s heads in
at home, because
there is nothing
called Jerusalem
to conquer.

No Jerusalem to inspire.
No Jerusalem to divide.

In a quiet cemetery in Tiberias,
Yohanan ben Zakkai
in peace.

Friday, February 16, 2018

An Unpopular Opinion on What Causes School Shootings

Before I hit an open nerve, let me just say: I'm not writing this to oppose whatever action you feel like the country ought to take right now. I understand you're worked up and I don't want to argue with you.

If you want to try some type of gun control, I will not stand in your way. If you want to tax me a little more so the country can provide more mental health services, you are welcome to a share of my wages. If you want me to make personal efforts to reach out and include people who feel marginalized, I will do so (not out of fear that someone in my circle of influence will snap and become a mass shooter, because that's a weird thing to think about, but because I genuinely like people and feel like everybody does better if I can help smooth over the friction of human interaction a little for someone else).

Look: I'm willing to try it all, even if I don't actually think it will do much to reduce, let alone end, school shootings.

If you will give me a moment to be honest, though, I will admit to you: I think the main cause of American school shootings is the way Americans talk about school shootings. And if I had a magic wand to wave on this issue, I would use it to convince people to change that.

Let me back up and lay out my case before you dismiss my conclusion.

It seems like we can all agree that a school or other mass shooting has three essential elements:

1) Someone who hates the world and wants to die.
2) A gun.
3) The idea that shooting a bunch of people with a gun would be an effective way to show the world how much you hate it.

I've seen a lot of people who talk about elements #1 and #2 above. After I review them quickly, I want to talk about the typically neglected element #3.

Mental Health Options

One school of thought on how to prevent school shootings is centered around changing the shooter. If no one hated the world and wanted to die, the thinking goes, then no one would go shoot a bunch of innocent people and get themselves killed in the process.

So far, so good...but can I get people to stop hating the world and wanting to die? That seems like a question that philosophers, saints, and psychologists have been wrestling with for an awfully long time.

Could we do it by funding more professional psychiatric care? Maybe. A little bit. Counselling does make a significant difference in many people's lives--but it's not like everyone who has ever gotten counselling or other psychiatric attention acts as a good citizen thereafter. Even if we could get everyone who hates the world and wants to die into counselling, we can't come close to guaranteeing that they would listen to the counselor or that the experience would change them.

And how do we figure out who needs intervention? If there were a reliable test to diagnose murderous world-hatred, nations, employers, and school counselors alike would be all over that thing. But there's not. So how reliable can we be at getting at-risk people into counselling? It's tough.

One solution offered by many religious groups is to treat everybody as a risk and get them in for regular counselling. At least weekly in church, though multiple times a day seems like a good way to play things safe. The only problem with that approach is that you have to mobilize basically your whole community of believers to come close to meeting demand, and we're not terribly well trained. God himself has to cover for a lot of the empty spaces, and he seems to have a hard time getting through to people, too.

So there are some big limitations on our ability to adequately tackle mental health. Doesn't mean we shouldn't try, but it's one of those big, endless tasks people are always getting tired of. Do we have other options?

Well: as many commentators have pointed out, people in lots of countries hate the world and want to die. But they don't seem to carry out mass shootings anything like as often as Americans do.

Gun Control Options

Which leads us to element #2. The main focus of debate after a school shooting seems to be on this one. In what is either common sense or totally circular reasoning, we can state with 100% confidence that every mass shooting involves a gun. Otherwise it would be a school stabbing or a campus bombing or an anthrax attack. Etcetera ad naseum.

Would gun control measures stop mass shootings? My Facebook friends are passionately split over this issue.

One thing seems clear. If we could get rid of the supply of guns altogether, we would, at a minimum, replace mass shootings with another form of mass violence. Quite possibly with a less lethal form--though unless you follow news about China, you might be surprised how many people die in mass stabbings.

One immediate problem, though, is that most people see the total eradication of firearms as either unattainable or undesirable. Because we generally accept that we won't get rid of guns altogether, most proposals involve trying to limit the supply of a certain type of gun or taking measures to keep a certain type of gun out of the hands of a certain type of person (who, going back to element #1, might be at risk for hating the world and wanting to die). What if we made, for example, a rule that said a person who had certain, measurable risk factors had to wait a certain amount of time before purchasing a certain type of gun? Or ammunition? And maybe had a stiffer penalty if they got caught stealing or borrowing one?

It can get a little Rube Goldbergy at some point to think about how many steps there are between a prospective rule and a potential tragedy.

Gun control measures might make a real difference addressing other problems. Fewer guns and more training have a good chance of reducing the number of children who play with guns and shoot each other. I've seen compelling arguments that wait times could help reduce the suicide rate. But while feasible gun control measures might have a distant trickle-down effect on mass violence, they hardly seem to be the golden ticket to give everyone what they want: which is to live in a world where they don't have to think about violence against the innocent anymore.

Which leads us to element #3 in my list above. Assuming that there will always be people in your society who hate the world and want to die, and assuming that there will be guns lying around in homes and stores and wherever else guns lie these days, a mass shooting still requires the idea that shooting innocents is an effective way to show the world hatred.

Concept Contagion

I suspect that the availability of this idea is a major feature in the American cycle of mass shootings. We have had people who hate the world and want to die for a long time. We have had a lot of guns for a long time. The number of school shootings seem to have increased more recently, though, as the idea has permeated our culture.

School shootings are rare enough that I'm not aware of any research on the role of narrative availability in contributing to them, but we do have a substantial body of research on "suicide contagion." If you haven't heard of this idea, I strongly recommend looking it up. The gist is this: lots of people may be depressed enough to attempt suicide at any given time, but many won't actually get the point of making and carrying out a plan for a suicide attempt on their own. When people hear about another suicide, though--whether it's in their school, their community, or in media coverage of a celebrity suicide--the idea becomes more available and the suicide rate increases.

I did some research on this after a friend of mine committed suicide. A year or so before it happened, she'd worked with a theater company I was helping run. So as I processed the news of her death, I'd considered writing a play about suicide. As I started doing research for the project, I ran across a list of best practices for covering suicide. You can take a look at one now: I'll even give you a link.

You can see that there are ways to talk about suicide that have been demonstrated to increase the risk of contagion. As I processed them at the time, I decided not to write a locally timely play about it at all. The idea was already in the community at that moment, and I didn't want to get my storytelling wrong in a way that increased the suicide contagion risk. A while later, we did a play that did engage with the suicide in a way I would judge, based on guidelines, to be helpful: at a point of deep personal isolation and despair, the protagonist considered killing herself--and then didn't. And went on dealing, day by day, with the pain of life. We gave our attention to a story that could resonate with someone feeling a sense of isolation and despair, but one that highlighted the ongoing battle of life, not one that inadvertently highlighted or even glamorized self-harm.

Again: I don't know for sure if the psychology of copycat suicide and copycat mass violence is the same. But let's assume it is.

Research tells us that the copycat risk increases with the "amount, duration, and prominence of coverage." Guidelines say to avoid coverage that "describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images" and "repeated/extensive coverage [that] sensationalizes or glamorizes a death." The website I linked to above specific cautions against "describing recent suicides as an 'epidemic,' 'skyrocketing,' or other strong terms."

How do we hold up in terms of the media we consume, share, and create (keeping in mind that even a social media status is a kind of media)? Put another way: assuming there are people in the country now who already (or will soon) hate the world and want to die and have access to firearms, how much have we increased the chance that they will get the idea to go shoot a bunch of innocent people?

For amount, duration, and prominence of coverage, we fail miserably. We can't seem to keep ourselves from obsessing. We unwittingly imply that if you ever really want the world to notice you and how much you hate it, there is an easy recipe.

As far as describing the method and using dramatic/graphic headlines: we are awful. I can't even count how many infographics I've seen with little pictures of guns to show the number or feature a given model's role in mass shootings. We're not just handing people a script for this: we are giving them careful, detailed illustrations.

What about glamorizing? You could argue that we never glamorize mass shootings in the way that some coverage or fiction glamorizes suicide. And yet: what if the appeal of mass violence is not to be missed, but to be feared? Again, the way we talk about mass shootings tells the at-risk person in no uncertain terms that this is a way to be remembered--and furthermore, as a way to be remembered as someone who had power. During the shooting, power over victims and potential victims. And after the shooting?  Power continuing to play out in national conversation, in nightmares, in haunting parents' relationships with their own children. We fail the dark glamor test every time.

Finally (of the handful of guidelines I picked off the page at a glance--not finally in terms of actually keeping up with research), how are we doing in terms of how we talk about frequency? Have we used careful, neutral ways to discuss data rather than sensational ones? Or did we trip over ourselves trying to show how common this is? My guess is that going out of one's way to increase the total number of school shootings by counting accidental discharges of firearms on college campuses does not qualify as a best practice here.

Look. I know you feel bad when kids get killed. It's awful. It's awful when it happens from cancer, in accidents, and definitely when it comes unexpectedly through violence at school.

But what if our best shot at changing things is to change the way we talk?

Maybe you can, in your own way, do something. Maybe you can refuse to share sensationalized coverage. Maybe you can rethink the unintended side effects of tone and style in your political speech. It could make a difference: America had a long rash of campus and other bombing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those types of incidents stopped happening with the same frequency once they receded from national conversation. Forms of violence do go in and out of style.

And maybe we can do better than just swapping one form of violence for another. Maybe, even with millennia of conditioning against us, we can try to respond less viscerally to violence. Maybe we can learn to frame it as sad and pathetic rather than terrifying when someone resorts to force to try to lash out at others. It's a long shot, I know, but I think it would make a difference. I think we could teach people to be less violent if we could teach ourselves to be less impressed by violence.

I don't think we're going to have a world where no one hates the world and wants to die. But if we could give more attention to the devastating ways people have poured their pain into their music and poetry and novels and less attention when someone resorts to copycat acts of violence, then maybe (just maybe) people would think less of physical force when they decide to give their demons a voice.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I Was Right Before It Was Cool

In this moment of national discourse, you and I seem to have found some common ground on an issue I see as having paramount moral importance, so I thought it would be a good time to remind you: I was right before it was cool and if you ever try to agree with me on something again I will remind all the world what a poser you are.

Look: I get it. In a moment of reflection, you realized you needed to speak up and contribute to a growing national consensus on a specific issue. But where were you back when I was basically the only one who was smart and compassionate and with it enough to be right and being wrong was all the rage? You had no taste, that's where you were. Maybe it's because of the way you were raised or because you mistakenly think you actually have a point on some other issue or just because you made poor choices about your demographic characteristics. I don't know. The point is: you were wrong and unless you want to go back in time and change all your opinions to have matched mine always, you're hopeless. You just don't get it.

Other people might praise your individual stance on this issue with disclaimers about how they know you're usually not that with it to make sure everyone knows they're way more right than you are, but those people are also posers. I was right before they knew it was cool, because they still don't know what is right or why it's cool. They've just memorized a bunch of talking points. Pathetic.

To be honest, it's better this way. If most people weren't wrong most of the time, the whole being-right movement would just seem so unoriginal and derivative and I'd have to go be wrong about something ironically just to live with myself.

So please, can we just forget this moment where our interests could have aligned to move the nation forward? I'd like you to go back to being a walking caricature of all that is wrong with America while I go back to being extremely satisfied with myself and how cool and right I am.

I hope it never goes mainstream.

Friday, January 12, 2018

A parable (with some profanity)

"Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" senators who did not know they could still be shocked heard President Trump say yesterday during negotiations on policy for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and several other countries. Today, the president disputed those accounts, suggesting he probably used slightly different abusive language to communicate his contempt.

How do I feel about that language? Icky. But what do I think about that language? I think I see a pattern. 

Remember when Donald Trump called the White House a "real dump"?

Remember that speech he gave that speech at his inauguration talking about how crappy and rundown the United States is and how its neighborhood (among the other countries on planet earth) sucks and everywhere you look people are garbage?

Maybe I'm just bitter because I'm like two Nobel prizes short of enough points to get into the country on Trump's proposed merit-based system. I'm starting to suspect that the man has a low opinion of everyone and everything--except, of course, himself.

Maybe he just figures that there's a certain limit on the amount of quality in the world and he takes it all up?

I don't know how this story ends, but I already know the moral: everything looks like a shithole if you are a giant ass.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Calm down, America!

Is Donald Trump the worst world leader in recent memory?

Not even close.

Our research suggests that the President-Elect is: 

Less temperamental than Rodrigo Duterte!

“Judge me not with the newspaper articles they come up with everyday.
Judge me at the end of my term. If I do bad, shoot me.”

Less sleezy than Silvio Berlusconi!

"When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30% of women said, 'Yes',
while the other 70% replied, 'What, again?'"

Less egoistic than Kim Jong-un!

“Suddenly, the whole country is engulfed with happiness
and the people endlessly inspired.” 

Less nativist than Robert Mugabe!

"The white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for Africans. Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans…
The white man is here as a second citizen. The only man you can trust is a dead white man."

Less confrontational than Mahmoud Ahmedinejad! 

"We thank God that our enemies are idiots."

Friday, February 20, 2015

Life's Little Yoga Instruction Book (part five)

"Life's Little Yoga Instruction Book" is a spiritual journey through several contorted bodily positions, plus a voice of wisdom from a land twelve and a half time zones away. 

Part Five: Child's Pose

Now that you are in child's pose, your body is fully rested. But your mind is still crazy. Your mind is still thinking of shopping lists and TV shows and old regrets. That is why you have come to yoga class. You think maybe you came for fitness? Don't be silly. Your body is fine.

All your discontent is coming from your mind. All your discontent is keeping you up at night. All of your discontent is leading to online shopping sprees and 2 a.m. browsing of Facebook. It's 2 a.m.! Your body doesn't want you to browse Facebook. Your body is ready for the world to shut up!

Close you eyes. Imagine your mind: it's a fortress where all the soldiers are on high alert. That's because you told them something important could always happen at any moment. But you were wrong. Important things don't happen any moment. Important things don't happen that often at all.

So tell the archers to ease out of their position and let their bowstrings relax. Tell the spear-men to set down their pointy sticks and throw the city gates open.

Let your exhaustion pour into the fortress. Let your exhaustion conquer you. Let your exhaustion replace the soldiers' torches with Tinkerbell nightlights and the guard dogs with teddy bears. Then lie down, O General of the fortress of hustling chaos, and go to sleep.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Life's Little Yoga Instruction Book (part four)

"Life's Little Yoga Instruction Book" is a spiritual journey through several contorted bodily positions, plus a voice of wisdom from a faraway land of the free and home of the brave. 

Part Four: Cat Pose

You don't need to be angry to arch your back. You don't need to smell the scent of some invader's urine or come home to find some stupid human has bought the wrong cat food again.

No, just let your back lift itself up because that's where it wants to be. And let your head hang down, down, because that's where it wants to be. Don't you wish you could walk into meetings this way? In your mind's eye, you can. Go back to your last meeting in cat pose. Watch yourself shift abruptly into cobra pose--then back out. Into cobra pose again!--and back out.

In cat pose, you are at once above everything and disconnected from everything. Keep your back high, your head low. Breath in or out when you want to. You're a cat. You don't need permission for anything.
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