The Thinker

Review: 12 Years a Slave

It’s Oscar time, at least for me, as I am just now getting around to seeing last year’s award winning movies including its “Best Picture”, 12 Years a Slave.

Best Picture? It’s not a best picture in the sense that it’s a good movie. From its title you would have to assume it’s a horrific movie, and it is. If you want to spend 134 minutes examining slavery up close in the middle of the 19th century, then this is the movie for you. 12 Years a Slave is frankly beyond appalling and it is unfortunately quite faithful to the book of the same name, written by Solomon Northup, a free African American living in Saratoga, New York. I know this because after seeing the movie I downloaded the book, which is in the public domain and available on archive.org. As appalling as the violence and inhumanity to man is in this movie, if anything the book is even more appalling. It’s just that on the silver screen you get to see it in all its gory detail.

Slavery has been largely a taboo topic in Hollywood cinema, but it’s becoming less so over the last couple of decades. What’s good/bad about these movies is, unlike say Gone with the Wind, its depiction is becoming accurate. One of the more recent movies featuring slavery was Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx. That movie was more satisfying though because at least the slave masters and slave owners got what was coming to them. Solomon Northrup at least returned to freedom a dozen years after being kidnapped and sold into slavery, for which he was very lucky. He was one of a handful of free black men caught this way to return to freedom. His slavery started on a trip to Washington, D.C. where he had supposedly been hired to play the fiddle for a touring troupe. At the time our capital had both slaves and some free blacks, but of course it wasn’t too hard for free blacks coming from outside the capital to find they had been illegally sold into slavery. It didn’t take too long for a plastered Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to end up in chains.

The violence appears over the top, but was rather typical for slaves at the time. A few whites could see human beings behind black faces, but in the South they were fewer and further between. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the first to own Northrup, was one of them. He has a few pangs of conscience separating a mother from her children but what could he do? Not to worry. He assures her that she will soon forget them. To most, like the slave broker ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti), slaves are simply property to be sold like horses for their youth, stamina, muscles and subservience. It’s not hard to feel nothing for them when you see them as simply property.

The movie makes clear just how pervasive this attitude was in the south. Violence, lynching, abuse and working a slave almost to death were commonplace. Good Southern women, who you would hope would have a heart, have little in this movie. Indeed, they eye their slaves, particularly their female slaves with suspicion. Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), the wife of a plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) simply urges greater punishment of her slave, particularly when she suspects her husband has feelings for her.

Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to keep track of the violence and cruelty. Northrup quickly learns not to complain too much, since his first whipping nearly kills him. Life is problematic for slaves and even if you are alive, it’s not much of a life. Life is so bad that some of these slaves would rather be dead. One woman tries to enlist Northup in an attempt to kill her, figuring it has to be better than her living hell.

Unsurprisingly, most of the slaves are half dead anyhow, if not physically then spiritually. Their lives are hellish and brutish, and often capricious as well. Director John Ridley takes us on this adventure of man’s inhumanity to man in very clinical and personal terms. It’s a world that is utterly bleak. Northrup’s claims of being a free man are at first derided and subsequently punished. He discovers it’s a mistake to confide these secrets, or even to try to get a letter posted to set him free. His comfort, such as it is, is remembering his beloved wife at home and playing a fiddle he is given when his talent is confirmed. He even has to hide the fact that he can read.

Some of the saddest moments occur not through violence but simply witnessing the deadened faces of these slaves who are physically alive but mostly spiritually dead. At times they are required to dance, one time in the middle of the night, to entertain their masters and are “treated” to cookies. They are simply in a deep well of pain where not much registers other than an instinctive and sullen desire to simply endure the absurdity until they can catch some moments of relief in restless sleep.

The movie doesn’t need to feel authentic because it simply is authentic. The screenplay could not have been too much work, since it is often word for word from the book. A hundred and fifty years later it seems crazy to believe this happened in the United States. But it’s clear from my reading of history that this inhumanity toward man was every bit as bad as it is depicted here. The most appalling part of the movie is simply the indifference from the whites to the whole crazy system. It’s like, whatever. This is normal. How could it possibly be any different?

This is an in your face, up close and personal movie full of excellent acting, if vividly and accurately portraying immense suffering is your idea of great acting. I am glad to see Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role. Ironically, in the movie Serenity he plays something of the opposite of this character, so it shows his flexibility as an actor. He’s terrific but really there’s not an off note among either the white or black cast of this movie. Among the talented actors is Brad Pitt as Bass, a suspiciously liberal tradesman that Northrup eventually confides in. The hardest part of this moving is enduring your heaving stomach.

Best Picture? It is most certainly the most sickening and moving movie of 2013, but not the sort of movie that you will seek out for entertainment. I’ll leave it unrated.

 
The Thinker

IBM: The Dilbert of companies

IBM
UBM
We all BM
For IBM

HARLIE (the computer), from When HARLIE was One, by David Gerrold

I grew up in an IBM town. IBM pretty much owned Endicott, New York when I lived in the area. The exception was the Endicott-Johnson shoe factories, which were in serious decline in the 1960s. In fact, IBM was founded in Endicott, New York in 1911.

Big IBM-white boxy concrete buildings line McKinley Avenue and other Endicott streets. If you didn’t work for IBM, you prospered from mooching off of IBM. IBM guys were cool if white guys in white shirts, black pants, narrow ties and short hair could be cool in the 1960s. In any event they lived well, worked hard and gave their all to the company Thomas J. Watson founded. It sure looked like a cool company to me back then. Not only did they rake in all these billions in revenue, but also their employees were happy with terrific pensions, great salaries (because IBM hired top talent only) and had pretty much a guarantee of lifetime employment. Management actually listened to their employees and encouraged them to be creative and innovative. The guys (and they were almost all guys, except in the clerical or punch card pool) wore THINK buttons on their suits and shirts. It was embedded in their logo — so much so that it was hard not to associate IBM with THINK (in capital letters).

That was then, but it bears no resemblance to the IBM of today. At least that’s my conclusion having finished Robert X. Cringley’s eBook on IBM, The Decline and Fall of IBM: End of an American Icon? Cringley has been a tech journalist since the 1980s, and made a name for himself (under a pseudonym I am pretty sure) writing for InfoWorld, the tech publication that focuses on information technology in the enterprise. I credit InfoWorld for much of my career success, since it was always topical and ahead of current trends, plus it told me stuff I needed to know to succeed in the workplace of the moment.

InfoWorld is still around, but its print publication is long gone. So, in fact, is Robert X. Cringely. Well, not quite. You see, there are two Robert X. Cringleys. There’s the guy that wrote the original columns over many years, and then there’s the trademark “Robert X. Cringley”, which InfoWorld claims to own. So there is still a reputed tech spy named Cringley on infoworld.com, but not the real Cringley, the tech guy that amused us with likely fictitious anecdotes about his relationship with “Pammy”, a curvy younger woman that ran hot/cold. Reading his column was half neat behind the scenes tech news, and half soap opera. It was fun and addictive. Anyhow, the first and legitimate Cringley, now 60+, is still one of the few people doing honest information technology journalism, and can be read on his website. And I assume the model in the picture is “Pammy”.

Cringley has been studying IBM for a long time, having grown up in an IBM town like me. He believes the company is ready to implode. This is because, very sadly, the company has morphed into the Dilbert of companies. It is overrun by pointy-haired bosses that are busy working their employees into early graves, if they are not being summarily fired to hire greatly discounted and frequently incompetent employees from India who largely have no idea what they are doing, or who have mastered the idioms of American English.

From the perspective of Wall Street, IBM is doing great. The managers are doing a great job of increasing their earnings per share quarter after quarter. It’s a metric they are focused on like a laser beam. You know what the problem is when you focus: it distracts you from the rest of the world. As Cringley’s analysis points out, the things that should matter about IBM are simply being ignored. It’s crazy what its managers are doing to its core assets, not to mention its employees. They are burning the seed corn, to use an analogy from the Civil War. For many years they have been relentlessly firing their best employees, mainly because they cost too much. They cut pensions and eventually did away with them altogether. They outsourced a lot of their work overseas, adding huge communications barriers and dispensable employees, who were often just cheap contractors, to handle technical interactions with their global services customers. These are very profitable customers that need a long-term relationship with a tech firm to manage their complex systems. To do this right, it requires a deep understanding of their technical needs, their business and a rigorous, engineered approach to managing their complex technical infrastructure. Done right these are hugely profitable customers for life. They used to do this right, and now it’s hard to find an example of a company that does it worse, or charges more for the privilege.

Sadly, the more you read of this relatively short eBook, the more appalling the whole thing becomes. (It’s a quick read and at $3.99, this self-published book that no publisher would otherwise touch is also a bargain. About half of it is an appendix of comments he has received over the years.) It doesn’t take much reading though to discover what the real problem is: managers come exclusively from the sales ranks, not the technical ranks. Consequently overall they have little clue what their customers want, and lack the creativity to direct their employees to give them what they want, or even bother to ask them. Moreover, it has more bureaucracy than the federal government, so many incredible layers of hierarchical management, despite implementing a flawed version of the Lean efficiency program.

Managers and employees often widely geographically separated, causing stilted communication that adds cost and delay. Not that employees have the time to give feedback. They are kept working like slaves: sixty or more hours a week, for now below par industry wages and they are massively overcommitted, with the grim reaper of outsourcing always at their heels. Their customers are being pick pocketed too: they pay highly inflated prices for crappy services, made worse by contracts based on billable hours that are often inflated. The smarter customers have moved on, which is fine with IBM. They then lay off more employees, which helps increase earnings per share, and Wall Street applauds because they equate this with good management.

Cringley has solutions but IBM’s leadership has proven both tone deaf and hostile to creating growth again in the company. As for listening to their employees, they simply can’t be bothered. Which means that IBM is a shadow of its former self. And this has been going on for a decade or so. I know people who have been laid off from IBM. As I read Cringley, I wonder why they didn’t bail long ago. In many cases, it’s because they are in their late 40s and 50s, and it’s hard to find a job that pays as well or even at all.

IBM is also buying back tons of its own stock, often with borrowed money, simply to prop up its earnings per share. No one seems to be looking at its sales and how they have been dropping, and how many of their largest customers have gone elsewhere. No one, least of all its management, is looking at the quality, innovativeness, or value of its product lines. Management simply isn’t interested.

What is IBM management good at? It’s good at creating Potemkin Villages: shells that look good to outsiders, but with hollow or non-existent insides. Its major advantage is a huge legacy of accumulated cash from its glory years that lets it hide its inefficiencies and which they apparently won’t invest in innovative products and services. Touring Endicott, New York, where only a couple hundred of the thousands that it employed in its glory days remain, easily demonstrates its hollowness as a corporation.

Cringley’s analysis, and it’s voluminous as well as filled with insider dope, is unfortunately right. I don’t invest in individual stocks, but if the price of increasing earnings per share is to piss off its customers and stop creating products that lead the market or offer greatest value, then it’s only a matter of time before its house of cards collapses. From the looks of things, it shouldn’t be too much longer. It won’t matter to its managers. Much of their pay is based on IBM’s earnings per share so their prosperity is already assured, so in some sense they are betting on failure. By tying pay to earnings per share, IBM embraced a false Wall Street value. Real growth and real value comes from companies that innovate, like Apple Computers. IBM is proving to be the stodgiest and most tone deaf of companies. The Davids of the corporate world have already hit this Goliath with a rock on the forehead. Goliath simply hasn’t figured out that he is falling to the ground.

At the start of the book, Cringley relates a real story. As a child in the 1950s he had a great idea that he took to IBM. Thomas J. Watson himself read and forwarded his letter. He actually got an interview with a group of IBM engineers. To say the least those days are long gone. Watson should be rolling in his grave. Most likely though IBM executives will remain clueless until Wall Street finally notices, and the company collapses into a bunch of sub-prime parts that get sold off by ticked off stockholders. Pretty much any company out there could do a better job of managing these parts than IBM.

I hope you will read Cringley’s book. It doesn’t take long and should make you cry, particularly if you knew the IBM that used to be. It should also make you very angry.

 
The Thinker

The path to genuine enlightenment

Religious violence is hardly news. Religious violence, such as what is currently going on between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq, should drive millions of people to atheism. No God worth worshipping could possibly approve of any violence in its name, let alone require us humans to use force and murder as a means of spreading the faith.

Religions though really aren’t so much about God as they are about people. Supposedly the purpose of religion is to draw us closer to God. What’s its real purpose? As best I can tell, its real purpose is the largely futile attempt to calm our restless and flawed human souls, something it does imperfectly at best. Sometimes it does succeed in bring some of us to a higher spiritual or moral plain, but overall its track record is pretty poor and its lessons don’t tend to stick permanently. If I had to pick a number, I’d say it works perhaps ten percent of the time, at least in inculcating permanent behavioral changes for the better. What typically happens is we may get better for a while, but then we revert to doing what we do best: being flawed human beings.

It’s worse than that because we all have certain imperfections and angsts, which means that we will be drawn toward religions that accentuate these issues within us. What a lot of us really crave is absolute certainty in an uncertain world, and most religions offer that. You just have to find the religion that most closely aligns with your imperfections and predispositions. But mostly, as I first pointed out a long time ago, we tend to be drawn to the religions we were born into, if any. If we are going to stay with a religion, it will be with one that has the comfort of familiarity and the sanction of our parents.

If you live in Iraq, it’s almost certain that you are a Muslim, but alas what kind of Muslim is what is far more important. Both Shi’ite and Sunni believe there is only one God: Allah. Great, you would think that would make religious life pretty simple. But instead they are arguing, and have been arguing and killing each other for more than a millennium and about something that really doesn’t matter. This is: when Mohammad died, did he intend for the religion to be dynastic (what the Shi’ites believe) or not (what the Sunnis believe). ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is busy killing Shi’ites in areas it has conquered, but really anyone, including Sunnis, that don’t or won’t tow the line on their extreme and puritanical version of Islam.

I’d accuse them of channeling George W. “You are either with us, or against us” Bush except of course both sects have been doing this far longer than our last president has been alive. It’s a cycle of violence that shows no sign of ever being extinguished. Neither side will ultimately prevail. As best I can tell, the only way to really kill this cycle of violence is for everyone Muslim to simply abandon the faith. That doesn’t seem likely.

Of course it’s not just the Muslims that can’t get along with each other. Protestants and Catholics have been murdering each other for centuries. Even before Protestantism emerged, Christianity was rife with religious persecution. My particular religion is Unitarian Universalism. Early in Christian history, the Trinitarians ruthlessly persecuted the Unitarians. The Unitarians (very sensibly I believe) concluded that the notion of God in three parts (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) made no sense whatsoever, so they were killed or persecuted for their heresy. They eventually sought refuge in what is now Romania and Hungary. Within Protestantism, various denominations persecuted minority denominations. The Pilgrims that helped form the United States was but one of them.

The general problem is that humans don’t deal well with people that don’t conform to their beliefs. Of course it’s not just religious beliefs, but all sorts of arguably weird stuff like whether gays should get married or the limits of government that foment our intolerance. It seems we are born to factionalize, and leaders of our factions assume leadership because they have learned the art of persuading followers that their beliefs are the only correct ones.

Given all of this, why wouldn’t you want to be an atheist? Why wouldn’t an atheist go out and evangelize? Curiously, die-hard atheists imitate the tactics of die-hard theists. Mostly what you hear is, “God is total bunk, a fairy tale, just Santa Claus for adults” and they will argue endlessly why this is so with their scorn clear in their voices. They tend to lampoon the religious as intellectually flawed sheep.

Atheism has always struck me as just proselytizing of a different sort. What is the track record of atheism? Does it make for a better world? While the jury is out, we do have the example of the Soviet Union, which was basically an atheist state, not to mention communist China. Its leaders did a wretched job of managing the country or even making socialism work. So I am skeptical that if we were all atheists and that they were in charge that we would end religious violence. For atheism has all the hallmarks of a religion, including its dogmatic certainty, just without God at its center. I am convinced that if we were all atheists, we would find reasons to beat the heads of other atheists. We haven’t seen much of this yet probably because they have not evolved into a large enough force. I can see splits between dogma-driven atheists, who might forbid the teaching of religion, from humanistic atheists.

So the larger problem is not religion per se, but the dogmatic nature of our species in general. We find comfort in being with people like us, be it culturally, racially or spiritually, but it seems best to us when it is all of the above. And all this is because to make sense of our world we have to discern clear patterns, even where they don’t exist clearly and even where the differences really don’t mean anything. We actually worship the necessity of patterns that we can slavishly follow, not God. I contend that the crux of the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite are trivial. And yet century after century they keep killing each other because of their need for certainty and comfort. They seem ill equipped to expand their thoughts to the larger notion that we are all brothers.

So, to channel Bill Maher, I propose a New Rule: put kindness toward all ahead of your religious faith or lack thereof. Realize that our various faiths and beliefs, while often helpful and insightful to those who practice those faiths and beliefs, are not the most important aspect of their lives or of our lives. Our most critical virtues need to be kindness, openness and an understanding that we really all are one.

It’s hard to practice and obviously I am not a saint in this matter. It’s hard for even me to see that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is not as wide as I think. However, if I can practice open listening and tolerance, I am likely to be heard and acknowledged by the other side. And open hearts should open doors of communications and facilitate enlightenment in general. So I too must practice looking and emphasizing for those things that I have in common with people unlike me. I need to practice dialog with people like this, dialog that is respectful and healing.

This, I think, is the path to real enlightenment.

 
The Thinker

The Wildlife Concert: the best of John Denver

It is strange how you can leave some music or some artist on the shelf for many years, then pick it up again and find yourself so moved. With Google Play’s music service I have been reacquainting myself with these artists I’ve enjoyed but whose repertoire I’ve only mostly only sampled.

One of those pieces of music that I haven’t heard in decades was the Moody Blues very first album, Days of Future Passed. I haven’t heard it in literally decades, except of course for the famous song from the album most of us over thirty have heard: Nights in White Satin. So far, hearing music I listened to in my youth again has been a mixed experience. A lot of it, frankly, didn’t deserve to be heard again. (This includes a lot of Mike Oldfield.) Apparently I had pretty awful taste in music as a teenager but heck, how was I to know better? Days of Future Passed is one of the exceptions. It’s mixture of rock/pop and blended with orchestral interludes was pretty much unique for 1967. Arranger and conductor Peter Knight’s was able to merge and enhance their songs into a seamless story that begins before dawn and ends in the darkness perfectly complements the Moody Blues mostly gentle and heartfelt rock music. Forty-seven years later it’s still a remarkable album. (Simon & Garfunkel’s amazing album Bookends is another truly great album that deserves to be heard by younger generations.)

For the last couple of weeks I have also been listening to John Denver again. I actually wrote about John once before in 2005. Unfortunately, I’ve only got a few of the late artist’s albums and never felt inspired to pick up more albums, mostly because I was busy with things I judged more important. Now with Google Play, I am going through many of them. Mostly though I am stuck on a live concert he gave in 1995, The Wildlife Concert.

John’s relatively abbreviated life would end two years later in 1997 when his experimental aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove. John was in his early fifties when this concert was performed and recorded. The concert is quite remarkable. Was his singing any better than in the early 1970s when his career first took off? Not really, but his singing in this album feels more heartfelt, if that’s possible, from a man who openly wore his heart and soul on his sleeve and dared to be human rather than a stereotype. There is playfulness in much of John’s music, but in this concert, some twenty years after producing his major hits, we get a John that is more introspective, more real than surreal (his higher register voice can be startling if you haven’t heard him) but somehow even more deeply human. The effect, at least for me, was to feel like I heard John Denver performing at likely his very best.

For me about a third of the music was new. Most of his popular tunes are performed live in the concert, but it’s the newer songs that grabs your ears and pull at your heart and which in some ways are much better than his better known songs. Some are exquisitely beautiful. I am talking about songs like “A song for all lovers”, “Darcy Farrow” and “Wild Montana Skies”.

But it’s more than that. This concert feels more intimate and it sounds much better than his previous live albums. The accompanists include an excellent bass player, a saxophonist and a flutist. They frankly make for a better live experience than other live concerts of his that I have heard.

When I finished the concert recording, I felt more than a little dumbstruck. Quite frankly, I was all teared up. Moreover, I felt a profound sense of loss that we lost him too soon.

In one of his songs, John says, “It turns me on to think of growing old.” I wish he had the opportunity to do so. I wonder how much better he would have gotten with another twenty years to perform. I feel grateful to be able to listen to his music seventeen years after he was taken from us, for hearing him perform again is joyful and deeply moving. But knowing that there simply is no more, that is something to truly grieve over.

You can listen to lots of musical artists. I will bet that you will be unable to find a singer more heartfelt and sincere than the late John Denver.

Pick up the album or give it a spin on the music service of your choice. The concert is also available as a DVD, which I may pick up. It is John Denver at I suspect his very best and his most authentic. It’s a truly great performance.

 
The Thinker

Iraq: what now?

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is very much in the news, since a Sunni fundamentalist army called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) now occupies most of Western Iraq, not to mention portions of Syria. Recently it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and is now threatening Baghdad itself. The Iraqi Army doesn’t much resemble an army, as it is retreating quickly from combat. Many are concerned that ISIS will capture Baghdad and create a state in fact, not just in name. Life in this fundamentalist Sunni state is likely to be quite fundamental, as in crazy Muslim fundamentalist. Some here in the United States worry that this new state will sponsor international terrorism and bring it to the United States.

In that unfortunate event, well, mission accomplished I guess, since it is principally these same neoconservatives that pushed us to invade Iraq in the first place. (I predicted the debacle from all this back in 2003, as posts like this will attest.) We let this genie out of the bottle. Naturally many of these same neoconservatives are now arguing that we need to put U.S. troops back into Iraq to clean up this mess. Some are castigating President Obama for removing our residual troops in Iraq in the first place.

These people are great at selective memory, such as forgetting that they believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. More to the point though, if they are going to wag their fingers, they might want to wag them at Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who adamantly insisted that all our residual troops had to go since our presence was causing instability and he had a handle on the security situation. More selective memory: it was President Bush who before he left office set 2011 as the date when all our troops would come home. Yeah, whatever, it’s all Obama’s fault.

To his credit, President Obama has already said that U.S. troops will not be going back into Iraq. He has not ruled out other military options to assist the Iraqi government. Airstrikes are one option that Obama is seriously considering. It’s possible airstrikes might stop the advance of ISIS troops, but in the end this is a lost cause. That’s because, as I pointed out in 2006, Iraq is a nation is name only. (I noticed this post has been getting significant hits these last few days.) The Kurds have pretty much declared their own country, but cling to the political fiction that they are a semi-autonomous part of Iraq, mainly because it is easier to be ignored this way. No matter, al-Maliki has no time for the Kurds, who aren’t attacking him and simply want to be left alone. ISIS is his real problem.

The truth is Iraq has mostly always been a state in name only. Created by the British after World War One under a League of Nations mandate, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the British got tired of managing the place and let it run itself. The Ba’ath Party, managed to create a fractured state glued together mostly through tyranny. Its principle despot and tyrant of course was Saddam Hussein, who we imagined was training terrorists and creating stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to lob at us. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein simply proved what historians already knew: Iraq wasn’t much of an autonomous country.

Curiously, we now seem to be sort of aligned with our enemy Iran at the moment, which is sending advisors to help in the battle against ISIS. Who knows how this will all play out, but if ISIS is smart it will control the Sunni parts of Iraq and stop there. This is because ultimately they have a losing hand trying to make Shi’ites in eastern Iraq follow their version of Islamic law. So most likely after many more battles Iraq will cease to exist as a country, unless the eastern and Shi’ite part of the country decides to go by that name.

There is no point in investing more money and blood to try to change these ethnic and religious dynamics. It’s as futile as building dykes and seawalls will prove to be to stop sea level rise due to climate change. What the United States can and should do is work to isolate whatever new nation emerges. To think though that through military force, or intelligence, or smart bombs we can really change the situation is delusional. Naturally, the neoconservatives promoting these insane ideas are as delusional today as they were eleven years ago when they started this whole mess. Regardless, something like this was bound to happen eventually. The United States turned out to be the catalyst of change, but at some point the Ba’ath Party would have lost control of Iraq anyhow, and something resembling these current problems would have arisen.

My belief is that another Islamic state in this area is inevitable. I also believe the fastest way to get rid of it is to let it come to fruition. I’m not saying the United States should actively help it happen, but that over time this state will go through a political process anyhow, much like Iran’s, most likely. With a few weird exceptions like North Korea or Zimbabwe, oppressive states don’t tend to have much staying power. Today in Iran, pretty much every house that can afford it has a satellite dish picking up illegal channels. The modern world is out there. Attempts to try to repress it won’t work forever. Resistance will eventually build from within and something more progressive will emerge. We can indirectly or covertly assist this process, but we should not risk life or limb to do so.

The truth is that the fundamentalist Islamic revolution sweeping much of the Muslim World is a Muslim problem. Yes, there is some remote possibility that it will result in real danger to our actual national security, which is not our “status” in the world but danger to our homeland and the economic order of the world. Many lives will be lost in these Islamic countries, and huge numbers of people in these countries will be traumatized and/or displaced. I obviously don’t like that this is happening and will continue happening, but I don’t think it can be stopped by external agents like us. I would argue that Israel’s national security is actually enhanced by these conflicts, providing they don’t spill over into Israel itself. Muslims killing Muslims have no time to kill Jews.

The 21st century is likely to be very messy. Most likely we will be occupied by problems closer to home: displacement due to sea level rise due to global change, not to mention the chronic problem of displaced and oppressed people coming into the United States, such as the heartbreaking influx of unaccompanied children escaping kidnapping and death in unstable countries in Central America. Arguably, simply keeping our nation together will be a huge challenge. Red America seems increasingly antagonized by Blue America and visa versa, and there are many in Red America anxious to start a new civil war.

We are fulfilling the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. We sure don’t have to make it more interesting, however, which is why we need to stay as disengaged in Iraq as possible and let this sad sectarian and religious conflict play itself out.

 
The Thinker

Putting yourself in a woman’s shoes

Okay, not literally. I vaguely member trying on my mother’s pointy shoes when I was a lad and that definitely felt weird. I have learned a lot about women since then, mostly by listening to them. I now know that I was lucky to be born male. Recent news reports show some of the violence against women, including the planned execution of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death after refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Just murdering her is not enough though; she first is to endure a hundred lashes for the “adultery” of marrying a Christian man. In Sudan, only marriages between Muslims are considered legitimate, hence “marriage” to a Christian man must be adultery. (If this outrages you, take action here.)

Maybe you are thinking, she’s a weird exception. Just like that woman in Pakistan who was recently stoned to death by her own family is a weird exception, although it happens all the time in less public spaces in Pakistan. Except violence and discrimination against women is widespread. I recently wrote about pay disparities between women and men, which rarely results in lawsuits simply because it is so hard to prove. The gap in the United States is 23%, in that women earn on average 77% of what men make. Think about the lost earning power that represents over a lifetime. It’s no wonder that more women are in poverty than men.

Blacks know what it is like to be guilty of being black. Women are guilty of being women. Even if they are not particularly attractive, it’s not like they get a free pass from the likelihood of sexual assault. Sexual violence statistics against women are frightening. One in 6 women have been raped or have been sexually assaulted. A majority of women say they have been harassed or have been worried about violence because of their gender.

Think about what it’s like to spend your life with these realities. As a guy, when I go outside I don’t give any thought to any kind of assault, least of all rape, unless I am in a really bad neighborhood. (It doesn’t hurt to be 6’2”.) Unless I end up in prison, there is virtually a zero chance that I will be raped. Nationwide, three percent of men have been raped, and my guess is almost all of these happen in prison. For a woman, pretty much any strange man is a potential rapist. So they keep their purse clutched close to their chests. They try to travel in groups and avoid running alone or in the dark. Danger could lurk pretty much anywhere. It never stops.

Having relationships with men is dangerous. You never know what some guy you are dating may do to you. Will you be date raped? Will you be stalked? Will he turn out to be emotionally, mentally or physically abusive? What if you spurn his requests for sex? Typically the man is taller and stronger, so overpowering a woman is not too hard. You have to hope that men you date are civilized, and can remain civilized under stress. It’s a tall order, given these sexual assault statistics.

Then there are all these people treating you like a second-class citizen. Not only are you likely to be paid less, you are considered impulsive and unreasonable. If you are emotional by nature, it’s attributed to being that time of the month. Many politicians want you to get pregnant by making it hard to get birth control. They will bend laws to make sure you can’t terminate an unwanted pregnancy. They want you to bear children of men who raped you. They will even write condescending laws that require doctors to tell you lies about abortion or make you wait for days before having an abortion, assuming you can get one at all in your state. They will even write laws requiring that you to be penetrated against your will by an ultrasound wand before having an abortion. All of this is because you are a woman, and not to be trusted. You are a second-class citizen.

Not only are you paid less; you have more expenses than men. Before Obamacare, you paid more in health insurance because you have breasts and a uterus. Your clothes cost more. You need a wide variety to escape scorn. Try to find a decent bra for under $30. Okay, it’s not a problem if you are a guy, unless you are a cross-dresser. Need your hair cut? You will likely pay twice what a man pays. Men just put on the same kind of pants and shirt, and maybe change their tie. Women bear all these additional expenses while making less money.

More often than not, you are not seen as a person, but as an object. If you like to have sex casually, you are not a woman who happens to have a strong sex drive, you are a slut or words much worse. This doesn’t happen to guys. They get slaps on the back instead.

If you decide to run for public office, you will face higher standards than men. Just how good a mother were you anyhow? Did all your kids avoid drugs and get straight A’s? If not, don’t think about running for anything. Hillary Clinton knows what it’s like. People will watch your hairstyles and clothes and critique them ruthlessly. They will question your choice of spouse. They will count the number of times you go to church. If you are a male running for office, these simply are not concerns. No one thinks to ask such questions.

If you decide to take time off to be a mother, when you go back to work you are at the bottom of the promotion chain again, and at an entry-level salary. You will earn less social security because your wages were lower and your time in the workforce less.

In the workplace you are likely to suffer sexual discrimination, but also likely be doing work that is more menial and less engaging. Next time you visit your doctor’s office, look around. Look for a man on the clerical staff. You probably won’t find one. My wife worked in a doctor’s office for years. It’s a topic for another blog post, but suffice to say these women work like dogs, are vastly underpaid, and are treated very badly. The turnover in these offices is huge and the work is grinding and relentless. All their discounted hard work simply goes to feed the doctors’ bottom lines.

So, yes, I was lucky to be born male. So much of that humiliating and toxic crap is simply not part of my experience. Sadly, women have a long way to go to become full partners and truly equal before the law and within society. What’s holding them back is mostly us men. We have to evolve. Will we ever? Will you?

 
The Thinker

Republicans may be insane and vindictive but they are also hilarious

Thanks to all of you visitors who keep coming to read my 2010 post, Psychiatrists agree: Republicans are insane. I still find it weird when a post so many years old retains popularity, as this one sure seems to be.

For better or worse, Republicans speak their minds, no matter how loopy it sounds afterward. Strangely, most seem to enjoy foaming at the mouth, so much so that it goes to prove my thesis that they are insane. DailyKos.com is of course the “Orange Satan” progressive liberal website. It is also the site to go to if you decide that rather than just getting mad at Republicans, you also want to laugh along at their daily rants and lunacies. More and more, I go to Daily Kos simply to get my humor for the day. Republicans seem to provide an inexhaustible supply.

Whatever happened to sane Republicans anyhow? You know, the Nelson Rockefellers of the world? They tended to be from money, but were buttoned down and business-like. They were conservative in the sense that they moved cautiously.

They are apparently gone with the wind, and now only lunatics inhabit Tara. The new residents are hanging from the rooftops and foaming from the mouths. If you look carefully, you can see them with their loaded semi-automatic rifles peeking out the windows. I feel kind of sorry for them but they simply won’t take their Prozac. So I might as well laugh at them. What’s so funny, you may ask?

  • Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi. No amount of facts that show that plain old bad judgment by our late Ambassador who flew some of his staff to an under-guarded consulate in Benghazi, Libya (effectively a war zone) has dissuaded Republicans from their unshakable belief that there were much more sinister motives at work by the Obama Administration and of course by President Obama and Hillary Clinton specifically. No less than three committees in the House are looking into the matter again. Among those they want to subpoena include Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a sitting senator when the incident happened. They believe there simply has to be an Obama conspiracy at work somewhere in this regrettable mistake. Republicans are also convinced that with enough hearings that they will find something that will validate their paranoid delusions about Obama and his evil administration. Even if they don’t find anything, they are certain that all these hearings will help them win more control of Congress in the next election. Most Americans, if they tune into this at all, are simply snickering. If reasonably up on this stuff, like me, they are laughing deliriously at each new paranoid claim.
  • Ping-ponging on the Bergdahl release. Before the rescue the mantra was: the Taliban is holding Bowe Bergdahl so we must get him home and Obama is not trying hard enough! It’s been five years already! Every effort must be expended to free this captive soldier. He may be hurt, tortured, or injured or something! And we must leave no soldier behind on the battlefield! After the deal: exchanging five Taliban detainees, who were never charged with a crime against the United States but held in Gitmo anyhow, is negotiating with terrorists. Before Bergdahl was just a patriotic soldier, but now that they are tuned into the details that he deserted his post (even though he did it before and returned), he’s a traitor that deserved capture. Of course the only thing that really mattered to them was they saw a new potential attack angle against President Obama, which was obviously much more important than securing Bergdahl’s release. In today’s news is news that Bergdahl claims that he was tortured by the Taliban. It will be interesting to see how the GOP spins this now. My bet: “He’s just trying to cop a plea so he is not tried for aiding and abetting the enemy.”
  • Craziness on the minimum wage. Republicans overall are hostile to increasing the minimum wage, which even Republicans agree is far below a living wage. For many the real solution is to repeal the minimum wage. Why would this be good? Because it would incentivize employers to create more jobs, lowering the unemployment rate! Of course, those taking these jobs would mean making less, meaning they would do menial work and digging themselves into even more dire poverty at the same time. Meanwhile, with no wage rate floor, those employers already providing the minimum wage would have incentive to cut their wages, further impoverishing a whole lot more people. All this new poverty would make more people eligible for food stamps. Their obstinacy is quite sad but that they can say these things while maintaining a straight face is hilarious!
  • Fox News. The network pretends to be “fair and balanced” and not at all racist or discriminatory when their female talent consists exclusively of pretty and white conservative blondes. Got to keep those 60-something conservative white guys with plenty of eye candy!
  • Sarah Palin. Nuff said.
  • Donald Trump and his jaw dropping mouth. He doesn’t believe that Obama’s short and long form birth certificates are real, despite both having been produced many times and that an ad announcing his birth was published in a Honolulu newspaper in 1961. He’s in good company as long as he stays in the Republican Party.
  • Regular and blatant lies that global warming is not real, in spite of the statistics that show global temperatures rising pretty much every year and that most years are on average warmer than the ones that preceded it. How can I not laugh at a party full of people so dogmatic that actual facts have no bearing at all?
  • They are the anti-free pro-freedom party! That they are the pro-freedom party while doing their best to deny freedoms to anyone who doesn’t share their values including gays who desire to get married, women seeking abortions, Hispanics who want to become citizens and pay taxes, blacks who want proportional representation in their states and the poor who want to be able to vote without the hassle and expense of getting photo identification. Yes, course it’s appalling but at the same time their cognitive dissonance on the issue is downright hilarious!
  • Our world’s best health care system. They claim that our health care is tops in the world when we rank actually rank #16. Only I guess we’re not #1 anymore because of Obamacare. Because of Obamacare, poor people are getting treatment. Logically, if they weren’t getting treatment, we’d have better health care. It’s hilarious!
  • Rick Santorum and the many Pat Boone wannabees in the party. Rick is so fetishly sober and faithful to his wife that he won’t sit on a sofa with any woman other than his wife. Most Republicans are glassy-eyed in admiration over Rick’s heartfelt demonstration of fidelity, not to mention the cool sweater vest.
  • We love the poor and want to help them by making them poorer! It’s hilarious that they keep denying they hate the poor while systematically doing everything possible to make their lives more miserable and move what little income they have left into their pockets instead. It’s “the beatings will continue until the morale improves” way of making people happy! It’s tough love, but it is love. Feel the love, poor people!
  • Their gun fetish. They see nothing at all peculiar or alarming about paranoid schizophrenics having easy access to all the guns and ammunition they want. They cheer “open carry” losers who like to go into Targets with loaded semi-automatic weapons. Nothing to see here but some honest exercising of constitutional rights! What could possibly go wrong with a group of white redneck young adults strung out on testosterone and loaded assault weapons running around our retails stores?
  • The NRA in general. Any statement from the organization is good for a few laughs. You wonder how any organization could possibly be so clueless about cause and effect. Then you realize it’s not cluelessness; it’s just dogma. Dogma means never having to think through your illogical positions.
  • The Tea Party. It’s a party so principle driven that it is incapable of any compromise whatsoever, so it’s incapable of governing until the unlikely time when there is no one in Congress other than Tea Partiers. Dr. Seuss could not have created a more perfect north or south going Zak.

So, thanks Republicans! You are so completely surreal and out of touch that for those of us with one foot still in reality, laughter is inevitable. And laughter is good medicine, both for the body and soul. You are the gift that keeps on giving.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounter weirdness: June 2014 edition

I note at least 241 page views for my Craigslist casual encounters posts last month, down a little, but still a significant source of my site’s traffic. As I have been doing this for about a year now, I’ve come to realize that because on Craigslist the weird is ordinary, at some point these reviews must lose their shock value, kind of like pornography. So those of you who prefer I ditch this stuff and provide my more civilized content instead, well, I may indulge you soon. I find that scanning this stuff in the hopes of getting more traffic is increasingly less interesting, probably because I am doing it more frequently. Meanwhile, what’s up on this Wednesday night in the weird world of Craigslist Casual Encounters, Washington D.C. edition? Warning: following links may take you to photos with sexually explicit content.

Quick counts on the first page of listings: 39 men looking for women, 44 men looking for men, 3 men looking for a couple, 1 man looking for multiple women, 1 man looking for multiple men, and 4 men looking for transvestites/transgender women. Among the alleged women posting, 9 women are looking for men, and no women are looking for anyone else. No couples looking tonight either. I guess they are too busy giving the kids baths and checking their homework. 3 transvestites/transgenders are looking for men.

  • Among the latter is a “Magnum XL Girl” with ten inches between her legs. “She” is only 23, or so she says, she’s in a fishnet but I’m not sure how great a catch she is as this is one experience I definitely don’t plan to have, but if I were to judge transvestites on appearance alone, she’d be an 8. She says she has a real ten incher “Magnum”, but I’m guessing it’s closer to eight inches. She may be black and Dominican, but she doesn’t come free. “Nasty gifts are required.” The STDs you may pick up come at no extra charge. Since ads with phone numbers are usually flagged, she posts her phone number in a photo instead. Dial 202-631-8966 if you like playing her game of Russian roulette.
  • Among the men looking for men is a true submissive who is open to anything, quite literally. Pick your orifice but you don’t have to limit them to just one. He’s a 20-year-old trim college boy that looks more boy than man and in tight blue briefs. He’s amenable to being tied down (and his picture proves it) and — this is weird — you can cover his whole body in lube. In that case, you had better bring an extra tube of lube and a rubber sheet, but be careful: he might slip away on you.
  • Need to get pregnant? Here’s a 23-year-old man who says, “i don’t care” if you are looking to get pregnant, or if you are married. In other words, he’s so highly strung on testosterone that he is the human equivalent of a tomcat in heat and he is anxious to make a deposit providing it is made deep in a woman’s traditional spot. In a way it’s good that he is posting on Craigslist, because he won’t get any responses, and if he were capable of thinking about this for half a second, he’d realize what a jackass of an idea this is. He posts his phone number but only accepts texts.
  • Looks like it’s my big opportunity to have carnal knowledge of a woman my daughter’s age, actually a couple of years younger than her, which sounds more than a little creepy. “I’m a female, 22, hwp. I really want to get with an older guy (in his 40′s, 50′s). Respond with a pic!” For a while there was a “Shades of Grey” thing going on among Craigslist women. No mention of that here, or of any craving to be a submissive or a masochist. She’d have to look hard to find my grey. Anyhow, it looks like I already have a ring on my finger, so no thanks! Also, I’d prefer not to have my picture posted across the Internet. What really motivates this woman? Most likely she is looking for a monetary reward and/or some blackmail. Expect a recurring donation on your Mastercard.
  • A 25-year-old Silver Spring, Maryland woman wants to know if I have a craving for chocolate. Yes, please, dark chocolate, preferably those addictive dark chocolate peanuts from Wegmans! Oh wait, she means do I have a craving for very obese black women. Umm, not in particular. But it was courteous of you to ask, I guess.
  • Now this is definitely weird, even for Craigslist! A 24-year-old Germantown woman wants guys to do a drive by jerk off into a condom. She just wants to watch and maybe direct you. It doesn’t appear that she wants to touch you. But when you are done and have reached your ecstasy, you need to give her your filled up condom. Maybe she should hook up with that third poster. I really think she just wants to get pregnant but doesn’t want intercourse, so perhaps she’s a lesbian with a maternal instinct. The saddest part of this ad is that there are so many horny men in the area that if she is serious she’ll get plenty of offers. My bet: “she” is actually a he, probably a cross-dressing he.
  • A black woman from Prince Georges County in Maryland is looking for a stud woman. How is this possible? She looks cute enough from her selfie. She also has a strap-on that she wants to use, and is very freaky but also is looking for a friend. So if you are a freaky and friendly lesbian or bi woman not over size 12, hit her up.
  • I knew it would be amusing to scan ads of men looking for multiple men. So many lurid titles to choose from! My favorite is this 50-year-old man from Ashburn, Virginia who posted an ad with the ever so genteel title: “Cum fuck this crossdressing bareback bottom slut and whore”. Read the ad if you want more of the same language. He likes to cross-dress but that’s not a deal killer, he just wants lots of men, or more specifically what’s between their legs, particularly after orgasm. While he says he is a tramp whore, he still has at least one standard: you got to be freshly showered, dudes!
  • Okay, just one more of these otherwise I am likely to go blind. Here’s a 29-year-old woman in D.C. into business travelers. She is attracted to single men under 40 who are tall and attractive. She however is a “curvy/BBW real woman”. I suspect any traveling businessman will prefer to hit up the hotel bar instead.

The woman looking for filled up condoms wins my creepy post of the month. More maybe next month.

 
The Thinker

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

The general rule of movie sequels is that the sequel is a pale imitation of the original, and was written primarily to make more money off the success of the original film. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, the belated sequel to the successful Anchorman (2004), proves the rule is true.

Oh dear god, this is a painful movie to watch, even if you like screwball humor, which was the appeal of the original movie. To get through it, it helps to like the underlying actors. Will Ferrell (playing big-haired anchorman Ron Burgundy), of course, is known for lots of movies other than Anchorman, and is one of the forces behind funnyordie.com. Steve Carell (Brick Tamland, weatherman), of course, played Michael Scott over many seasons of The Office as well as a forty-year-old virgin, which he sort of plays in this movie as well.

One sign of a sequel in trouble is when they stuff Hollywood A list players into bit parts. So you get Harrison Ford as a network CEO, Tina Fey as an entertainment reporter, Liam Neeson as a History Channel host and Will Smith as an ESPN reporter. It helps to be on the A list because it means your career can survive association with bad movies like this one.

There are sophomoric movies and there are movies that basically only kindergarteners will find funny. This is the latter kind of movie. It includes “hilarious” bits like a fried chicken outfit that actually serves fried bats and an RV on cruise control that Ron leaves driverless going down the interstate. They took the things about the first movie that made it generally entertaining, and dumbed them down ten more times.

Naturally the plot is convoluted, which is perhaps to be expected for a comedy, but Jesus, this plot is one frigging mess. Ron and Veronica are married and have a six-year-old son Walter (Judah Nelson) and are both co-anchors at a New York City network-affiliated TV station in 1980. Network CEO Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford) calls them into his office, they think to be promoted to prime time news anchors. Veronica gets chosen and Ron is unceremoniously fired for being, well, Ron. He heads back to San Diego where he makes an unsuccessful attempt to kill himself. Immediately afterward, a talent scout for a new 24 hours news station, GNN, persuades him to come back to New York. Ron of course goes to fetch his old gang. Champ, the sportscaster (David Koechner) has turned into a crazy right wing Republican selling fried bat wings as chicken. Brick is psychotic and speaks at his own funeral. Brian, the sportscaster (Paul Rudd) seems to be channeling Matthew McConaughey and intimates he gave crabs to Florence Henderson (that’s supposed to be funny?) Ron is supposed to bring his team to the Big Apple for his show, which turns out to be from 2 AM to 5 AM. He is just a small potato next to telegenic Jack Lime (James Marsden), the prime time GNN actor.

Ron hasn’t lost his ability to be uncouth. His ignorant mouth gets him in trouble pretty much everywhere he goes. His boss is a take no prisoners younger black woman Linda (Meagan Good). Ron manages to immediately touch all the racial triggers in the worst possible way. Anyhow, Ron decides to wing his middle of the nighttime slot, and models Fox News that had not yet been invented. He does it by highlighting stories only the National Inquirer would love and which play on people’s patriotism. The show takes off and a lot of predictable things for a movie this bad happen. His improbable success means that Linda puts the move on Ron, and boy are they an odd couple. Meanwhile, Ron gets the rap of being a bad parent while Christina dates a famous psychologist (played by Greg Kinnear) who Ron believes can read minds.

Somewhere in the convoluted plot while at the height of his success Ron goes blind and a lot of kindergarten humor is exercised when he takes residence in a lighthouse. This includes creating a fire in the dishwasher, cooking poker chips for dinner and lots of stumbling over things. Ron and Christina sort of get back together, Ron tries to be a better dad and they even adopt (and I swear I am not making this up) a pet baby shark. Eventually surgery which conveniently leaves no scars restores Ron’s sight, and he goes back to work for GNN and sort of resolves his bad parent rap by belatedly making it to his son’s piano recital. To do this he first has to get through a gang war among various TV anchors and their crews in a city park. It was funny when it was done in the original movie; here it is not the least bit funny, just with ten times the cast of characters. Seriously, you will want to view this part between cracks in your fingers.

You will get a few inadvertent chuckles in. You will probably laugh more if you see this with a group instead of by yourself. This is the kind of movie to see with a few beers in your belly before the movie starts. To enjoy it you will need to lower your standards far lower than they have been lowered before. Beer will help but it might not lower them far enough. I’d say see it with your kindergartener, but there are occasional swear words and a few adult situations, so it’s not even appropriate for them.

Anchorman 2 is frankly an awful movie masquerading as a comedy that it largely fails to execute. The humor is so strained that the result has no substance at all. I assume the money was good. Sadly, Will Farrell shares the writing credits for this disaster.

If you haven’t seen the original Anchorman, that is worth your time. This one isn’t. It would be generous to say it’s a parody of the original movie. It’s frankly a massive embarrassment to anyone associated with it. I wish I had been warned.

1.8 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★¾☆☆ 

 
The Thinker

Rampages and beatifying the beautiful

Another disgusting rampage. Another white male (well, actually half white, half Asian, but obsessed enough with looking white to the point of dyeing his hair) decides he has been persecuted enough and goes on a murder spree. Of course I am talking about 22-year-old Elliott Rodger, who killed six people and injured thirteen others in a rampage on May 23, 2014 and then did what these cowardly murderers usually do: take his own life with a handgun. For a young man who railed against pretty women who he believes unfairly gave him the cold shoulder, four of his murders were against men, three of who were apparent roommates. The women were likely complete strangers, but were coeds at the local University of Santa Barbara he attended and likely reflected the archetype he expounded upon in his rantings and final video, of course uploaded to YouTube.

A few details of this incident did not fit the rampage stereotype. Three of the murders, of his roommates, were apparently carried out with knives and may have included a machete and hammer. I’m not sure what his beef with them was. Perhaps they were white and/or jocks. The others, of course, were shot expeditiously with our ubiquitous symbol of power for the powerless: a gun, specifically a Glock 34 pistol, acquired quite legally in California by a man with well established mental illnesses. Isla Vista police had earlier checked up on him, after his parents reported his disturbing videos on YouTube. Police found a mouse of a man and gave him no further thought.

Rodger says he did all this simply because he wanted to get laid and kept getting spurned from even getting a date. Of course it was more than this. Getting laid is not hard, even for a virgin. Anyone who can afford $5000 in guns can afford a street prostitute, or even an expensive blonde-haired escort like he lusted after. What Rodger really wanted was to be validated in the warped way that he thought he should be validated. He had to lay the right kind of stereotype. In his mind she had to be white, she had to be blonde, she had to find him attractive and apparently she had to be submissive and show respect by swooning over the fact that he was a man.

It’s the latter issue that is the primary subject of today’s essay. Rodger apparently saw himself as flawed. First, he was half Asian and to fit the archetype he believed blondes were looking for, he had to be all white. He thought that by dyeing his hair white he could join the white guys’ club, but it just made him look unnatural. This contributed to his rage. There were doubtless other things. Perhaps penis envy was also part of his perceived imperfections. Whatever, his doubtlessly clumsy attempts to win female attention did not work. He likely projected an aura of a messed up person, which is not hard if you are mentally ill. This is likely why women were spurning him, but it sounds like he set his bar unacceptably high anyhow. Chances are if he had actually laid one of these beautiful blonde goddesses, he would have been brought down to earth. Any subsequent relationship, if he could see past the confusion of his own mental illness, would reveal just another human being with flaws and foibles, just like him.

In some ways, Rodger was waiting for Godot. As we all know if you wait for Godot, it’s going to be a very long wait. No wonder his expectations were unfulfilled and his virginity remained intact. He was seeing women as he wanted them to be, not as they are. Women had become objects, not real people. He could only imagine validation through a woman so flawed that she had to be a stereotype. Naturally, his unsuccessful attempts piled onto themselves and turned into the perceived feeling that all women were against him because he himself was not the perfect male archetype he was convinced that they demanded. This anger fed his rage. Guns made it easy to kill half of his victims, but those living with him were in his intimate space, and on them he could unleash a more personal rage by killing them with knives and possibly a hammer. It is likely that his female victims would have suffered a similar fate if he could have gotten close enough to them, but of course he perceived them as spurning him, so he had to kill them remotely, hence the gun.

Rodger had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and had been seeing shrinks since he was eight years old. You would think this mental illness alone would make someone unqualified to own a gun, but of course you would be wrong. “Joe the Plumber” (a.k.a. Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher) got some attention recently by asserting that if his gun rights cause people to be unnecessarily murdered, that’s just too bad, the former being much more important than some goddam human lives. While I don’t agree with his thesis, I do reluctantly agree with his conclusion. If the Sandy Hook murders weren’t enough to restrict access to firearms, even if just to the mentally ill schizophrenic like Rodger, then he is clearly right. Mentally ill schizophrenics cause almost all these rampages, and they are generally also young men about Rodger’s age. Simply taking away gun rights from them would save the lives of many people every year. It’s obviously not something politicians are willing to do, since few are anxious to take on the crazily obsessed NRA.

Rodger’s larger issue though was a fundamental misunderstanding of who women actually are. It’s not hard to see how he picked this up, as our culture glorifies the beautiful and Hollywood prefers white actors. Hollywood is in the business of selling entertainment, and selling movies with actors who look like average Joes or Janes is generally not very marketable. We beatify the beautiful. With the beautiful and the talented grabbing most of our screen time, it’s not surprising that Rodger picked up this value and assumed he was unfairly and permanently discriminated against.

How to see past the cultural and Hollywood smokescreen? Part of the solution is to tune this stuff out, obviously not an easy thing to do in our increasingly interconnected world, as attested by the volume of Netflix downloads constantly streaming across the Internet. It might help if we could substitute books for visual mediums. In a book, unless its illustrated, the attractiveness or otherwise of its characters is not an issue. Schools and religious institutions can also do more to project the values that worth is not contingent upon your genetic makeup or your rating on hotornot.com.

It would be helpful for everyone, but particularly our youth, to be less cliquish. We should put people of different ethnicities, life experiences and perceived beauty together more often. By interacting with others outside our normal class, it becomes obvious that we are all basically the same and that beauty and genetics say nothing about worth or character. These values become real only when they are experienced. People of different types have to work through issues together over a long period of time to get this understanding.

For students, it might mean lots of group projects where people in a group are picked specifically because they are different, instead of the same. Leveraging our diversity on all levels is actually a great strength. The more we all understand the multi-dimensional aspects of all of us, and feel it in our core, the more empathetic we become and the better we become at solving problems that affect everyone. This takes a lot of practice, and it often takes trained facilitators to help people see the strength in our diversity and our essential humanity. We have to see each other as real, not surreal.

And of course where there are signs of obvious danger, like Rodger’s mental illness, we must take logical steps to protect society. The NRA says that owning guns is a right. That is the current Supreme Court’s interpretation. The truth is that gun ownership, like driving a car, should be a privilege. It can and should be restricted to those sane and sober enough to use guns responsibly. By making it a right, it’s like giving a teenager a hotrod, a full tank of gas, a set of keys and a fifth of Tequila and telling them to enjoy their drive. That’s is the message we send to people like Rodger. Until we finally figure that out, Joe the Plumber will, unfortunately, continue to be right.

 

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