Sunday, July 6, 2014

In Treatment, and the Art of TV Storytelling

Recently a lot of HBO television shows became available on Amazon Prime for free, and so for the last few weeks I've been watching In Treatment, a show about a psychotherapist and his patients which takes place almost entirely "in session."

It's hard to imagine that a story which unfolds almost entirely with two people sitting and talking in chairs could be riveting, but I just finished the first season and I tell you, I'm brimming, to the point that I must write something here simply to decompress emotionally.

I'll abstain from a detailed review, though it's tempting to spend all day writing about it. Let me just say that the show is a true work of art.

As a fiction writer I find it to be, in terms of style and structure, an incredible feat of storytelling. It airs five days a week (for 9 weeks), and has the therapist, Paul, meeting with one particular patient each weekday (i.e. he meets with the character "Laura" every Monday). On Friday, Paul meets with his own therapist and former mentor, Gina.

Each of these five relationships and its corresponding course of therapy constitutes a fairly self-contained story, and yet they do connect. These connections, sometimes intuitive and sometimes completely unexpected, surface just frequently enough to remain believable and keep all the stories relevant to each other. The impeccable pacing ensures that this five-ball juggling act doesn't prevent each story from resolving fairly and faithfully in the final week.

What truly has me reeling, though, is the complex of acute, authentic emotions it evokes: In Treatment is at turns surprising, illuminating, maddening, exhilarating, funny, devastating, and joyful. But always beautiful. Always deeply human. At one point, when I was about halfway through the season, I encountered a stretch of gloomy days and forced myself to take a break from watching it, for fear I wasn't well-enough equipped to manage the emotional intensity.

And now that I have finished, I wonder if I'll ever be able to brave watching the second season, for fear it will not measure up to this one. Or that it will, and that two doses of this experience will be too much.

Art so moving it intimidates? That's usually a good find.

In Treatment is actually an American adaptation of a show that originally aired in Israel, a show which has also been adapted -- mind you, not just aired, but translated, culturally modified, and re-filmed with an entirely new set of actors and directors -- in twelve different countries.  Wow.

Even if you haven't seen the series, this interview with the original Israeli show's creator, Hagai Levi, is a great read.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Stop Telling Me I Worry Too Much

Dear World (and all the People):

I hate when you tell me I shouldn't worry so much.

*Image from http://www.mrmen.com
Case in point: A superior delivers ambiguously bad news, requests that we meet to discuss it, but cannot meet until five days later, at the earliest. When I ask for preliminary details to quell my wild imagination, I'm told this is not possible (fair enough) and also that I shouldn't fret before our meeting.

Ah, yes. How silly of me. Here, let me just turn the dial back.

Consider that your hasty advice, while offered with good intentions, sucks.

Consider what you're essentially suggesting is that I disavow my natural, emotional response to the situation. Oh, that's not what you meant? Then what did you mean?

Consider that I already know my anxiety has little practical value in this matter, may even make things more difficult, but is nonetheless irrepressible... and while the anxiety may be managed to some degree, I hardly need you to remind me to do so. I've been managing worry, in fact, for most of my adult life, and if I had a nickel for every time some polite but patronizing soul said or implied that I worry too much, well, I'd still be an anxious man (just a filthy rich one).

Consider that, if you'd have told me the day before the earliest possible meeting instead of five days, you might have spared me most of very anxiety you're suggesting I simply dismiss.

Consider that this consolation you offer may be more comforting to you than to me. And if you believe wholeheartedly that the situation doesn't merit the level of emotional response you're observing in me, consider explaining why, for the love of Jove, instead of assuming I know what you know.

Consider that other disavowing tidbits, like "Don't cry," and "Don't get angry," and "Don't think so much," may be just as unhelpful, and taking a second or two to find a better consolation --- like "I'm sorry to see you so upset," or even, "I'm surprised to see you this upset. Tell me why." --- may make a huge difference.

How could you possibly consider all that before you offer a simple consolation?

That depends. If you actually care --- and I trust that you do --- then never mind how. (Don't worry so much about it, if that helps you.) Just try.

On the other hand, if you didn't really care that much to begin with, then perhaps it's better to say nothing at all. Personally I'd prefer sincere disinterest over insincere consolation.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

"The worst vice is advice."
- Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Scott Prouty: A "Regular Guy" with Irregular Integrity

Need inspiration? If you haven't done so already, watch the first interview (which aired on The ED Show Wednesday night) with Scott Prouty, the Boston (!) bartender who recorded the infamous "47 percent" video at Mitt Romney's fundraiser.



I remember how glad I was when that clip came out.  It confirmed my personal suspicions about Romney's real worldview, and I hoped it would be as damning as it seemed.  In fact, I remember being stunned after the first debate that it still seemed like Romney had a real chance, that one (admittedly superior) debate performance could effectively neutralize his candid words from just a few weeks before.  Even so, the video and Romney's remarks turned out not to be a flash in the pan but an enduring wound that may very well have cost him the election.

I voted for Obama.  And I like honesty (honesty's my favorite!), I like when dishonesty is exposed beyond repair.  So yeah, I'm a big fan of this video.

As for the source, I'd always just assumed there was an Obama supporter among the waitstaff who covertly started recording, got really lucky, and sent the video to a news outlet, earning their 15 minutes of personal glory for a spectacular, but ultimately minuscule, act of civic engagement (which is probably what I'd have done) .

Turns out the story behind the video, and videographer, is not so simple. Prouty is a registered "Independent" who is admittedly left-leaning; but he's also open-minded, intelligent, humble, and sincere. Once he decided to make the video accessible, after weeks of careful consideration, he oversaw the process himself, conducted research, and collaborated with journalists and activists he admired, so that he could circulate the video as widely as possible, and in a manner would keep the focus on the content of Romney's words to his guests. Integrity and civic responsibility guided factored into every decision.

Now that he's outed himself, rather than take money for interviews, he's taking a job with United Steelworkers to promote workers' rights. For Prouty, the "47 percent" comment wasn't even the most egregious remark Romney made that night. Rather, it was Romney's callous anecdote about Bane Capital buying a factory in China.

(From left) Kernaghan, Prouty, and host Ed Schultz
Not surprisingly, Prouty is being touted as a hero.  Lord knows he looks the part.  In the interview he is charming yet modest, and while Ed Schultz is certainly a sympathetic interviewer, Prouty seems impervious to attack, so quick is he to point out his limitations, and to give away his accolades to those he feels are more deserving (like the labor rights activist Charles Kernaghan who joined Prouty for part of the interview) because they've dedicated "years" to their cause.

And just for garnish, it turns out that a few years ago Prouty also saved the life of a woman who nearly drowned in her submerged car.

The relative silence of the right-wing media following the interview may serve to confirm this invulnerability.  And of course it's always exciting, and a relief, to encounter an untouchable hero, especially on the political stage, (and especially when he's on your side).

And I agree, Prouty is a hero.  But is it "bravery," a willingness to endure the scrutiny and attacks which might come with his decision to release the video, as many have claimed?  Perhaps.  Then again, it's hard to imagine him ultimately making the opposite decision: to sit on it.  And so far, three days after the interview, Prouty seems unscathed.  Hopefully it stays that way.

For me, what makes him a hero is his decision not just to "release the video" but to take full responsibility for the process and consequences, to invest ample time and mental energy, rather than simply handing it over.  That's what makes this story bigger than a hack-stunt or a lucky break, etc.

The "47 percent" video was already bound to endure in history as a hard lesson in political campaigning, but Prouty's involvement elevates the video to a morality tale: You can only whistle so many different tunes before your act is exposed; all it takes is one humble citizen with conviction and a camera.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Aghast from the Past: Watching the Hubris Documentary

For me, watching the hour-long documentary Hubris: Selling the Iraq War, based on the book of the same name, was what I imagine an acid flashback to be like.  Horrific, surreal.  Shocking.  I'm referring not just to the "shock" of reliving old horrors but also being caught unawares by them, having been far enough removed from them in time to take for granted they were permanently behind me, over with, not to be suffered again, nor worried over or even thought much about.

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As I phased gradually back into the present, groping about for familiar objects and wiping cold sweat from my brow, it dawned on me I have no reason to believe this can't or won't happen again.

Any critic of the Bush administration or the Iraq War already knows the basic story, but for me this was the first time I'd watched or read anything that focused exclusively on the case made for going to war, as opposed to any aspect of the nine-year debacle that followed. .  It was also the first time I'd seen all these bits and pieces tied together into one nauseating narrative, a s of how the agenda of a few warmongering men (and yes, "warmongering" is precisely the word) was launched like an unmanned freight train labeled "Get Saddam" the very day that an enemy with no connection to Saddam or Iraq whatsoever killed 4,000 Americans.

The level of deception, fanaticism, and opportunism exhibited by members of the Bush administration seems like something out of a prologue to a dystopian novel  elected leadership   This shameful fabrication could not have succeeded without the complicity, haste, political fear, and naïveté from the Congress, from the press, and to the extent we can be held responsible, from the American public.

Even in retrospect it seems preposterous this case did succeed.  And yet here we are, three trillion dollars deep, 100,000+ dead civilians, 5,000 soldiers killed and 30,000 wounded, a legitimate but protracted war in Afghanistan, and the stains of extradition, torture and unilateral war under false pretense that will surely hinder our ability to serve as the model for democracy, diplomacy, and power-with-restraint that the world desperately needs, and pines for.

And for what? So a few old-timers could pursue a personal vendetta against Saddam? So they could stake their claim to history by deposing a petty dictator (which seemed like low-hanging fruit at the time)?  Such theories are ludicrous, even to me.  After all, wouldn't one war --- a legitimate war against a legitimate enemy  --- be enough to satisfy those leaders who hungered for it?

And yet when you remove the fabricated arguments, what possible reasons for going to Iraq are left, besides personal ones?  I don't know whether I believe the leading perpetrators -- Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, etc. -- committed the fraud consciously, or if they were so blinded by ambition or hatred or whatever that they'd actually lost the ability to distinguish between fact and fabrication, to say nothing of being blinded to the moral and practical implications of their actions.

And if they were so blinded then, might they be just as blind now?  Is their mistake too grievous to admit to themselves, much less to the public?  Hubris ends with a clip from a 2010 interview with former President George W. Bush, coinciding with the release of his memoir Decision Points.  When Matt Lauer asked him if he would ever consider apologizing for the Iraq War, Bush replied:  "I mean apologizing would basically say the decision was a wrong decision. And I-- I don't believe it was the wrong decision."

Given the incredible circumstances that led us to Iraq in the first place, would it be silly of me to harbor an equally incredible hope?  My hope is this:  That some day just one of these men will accept responsibility for leading us into Iraq under false pretenses; that, overcome by a mighty wave of courage and clarity, one of them will proclaim: "Going to Iraq was wrong. It was personal, and it was wrong."

I know, a pipe dream.  But what a gift it would be, to history, to humanity.  To our prospects for enduring peace on the other side of war.  What a gift that would be.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

More NRA: Debating With a Friend and Marine

Understandably my Open Letter to the NRA provoked some strong, dissenting responses from friends on Facebook, including one friend who has served with the USMC since 2004.  If the NRA refuses to participate in a real discussion about this complex issue, perhaps we can have a little one here.

From Billy:

"Your post is way off base. Every aspect of it can be easily picked apart by anyone with some basic knowledge of firearms. First off, what entitles these politicians the right to protect their children by heavily armed guards? The rest of Americans have to hope and pray some horrible event doesn't occur at their public school. Secondly, guess what, if there is a ban on 30 round mags, I can conduct a reload just as quick with a 10-rounded mag without missing a beat. This whole push is just a god damn political joke that this pathetic administration is pulling. As far as training goes, I can take a normal everyday person and easily have them shooting just as well as some of these government agents, if not better. You would truly be surprised at the amount of shooting they really do. While I respect you have your own opinions on the matter, just be aware that most of the bullshit the media slings and force feeds us is just that.

While I don't believe in all of the NRA stances, plus I do realize they have their own political objectives, none the less this is a slippery slope. As a law abiding citizen who has dedicated almost a decade to defending this country and your rights, the bullshit I sling is in fact my views. If I had a child -- matter of fact my nephew, deserves as much protection as those other kids. I really don't give a fuck if they feel they are at risk or not. If anything the horrible tragedy that occurred just drives the fact that armed guards should be in schools. Like it or not every child in this country should have the same protection as these jokes who are elected to higher office."


Billy:  I was kind of hoping I might hear from you, knowing that you support gun rights, are highly critical of this administration (politicians in general, I think?) and most importantly, that you served in the military and have experiential understanding of the power of guns and the responsibility that comes with them.  I hope you don't mind if I post your responses on my blog, along with my follow-up.  I appreciate your keeping me honest about this, and making me think about it further

First, I want to reiterate that my post is criticizing the NRA, and not the second amendment right to bear arms.  Regarding your first point, I don't know what kind of security detail other elected officials have, but the NRA's recent ad is focused on the President and Secret Service protection.



Protecting the President, regardless of party affiliation, and his family is a matter of national security. Without that level of protection he'd be dead in a day, or his wife or kids would be kidnapped and used as leverage by our enemies. An assassinated or frantic leader is bad for all of us. And on the matter of protecting one's family with guns, the President is not a hypocrite -- he hasn't proposed anything that would prevent a responsible citizen from acquiring and keeping a gun to protect their family. In fact he hasn't proposed anything yet, but I imagine whatever he does propose will look similar to the NY state laws just passed, in which case it will *still* not prevent a responsible citizen from acquiring and keeping a gun to protect their family.

My quip about the secret service screening and training is my attempt to show how this comparison can easily be turned on its head to demonstrate why gun regulations and restrictions are important. Secret Service agents are extensively screened and trained before they are allowed to wield the deadly force they have. Yet according to the NRA, even subjecting citizens to background checks before purchasing firearms is "draconian."

Yes, it's true that a motivated individual could easily work around the restrictions set forth by the NY laws just enacted. The Virginia Tech shooter showed us how deadly a mass shooting can be even when the shooter must reload multiple times. But that doesn't mean banning high capacity clips would fail to reduce the total number of homicides. And I've never heard anyone argue (sensibly or otherwise) why owning a semi-automatic rifle with a 30-round mag is important for hunting or home defense. So why are we fighting so hard to keep it legal?

Your point about gun-control politicians passing ineffective laws to win political points is, I think, a valid concern. I believe it's a real danger, and its another reason why a responsible gun lobby would be a great asset, to call liberal hacks out on their bullshit. Or at least to raise legitimate concerns. For instance, my understanding is that the 1994-2004 federal ban on assault rifles may not have been effective overall in curbing gun violence. If that's true, where are the intelligent gun rights people with credible data and analysis to show us what we've already tried and what hasn't worked?

But even in the worst case -- even if the campaign against an unregulated gun market is motivated solely by the desire to win political points, that would simply make proponents of gun laws guilty of the same farce that I say the NRA is guilty of: Pretending to care about protecting a fundamental right of citizens while doing nothing to advance the dialogue in a meaningful or productive fashion.

But I've seen no evidence presented for why banning civilian ownership of 30-round clips has been and will be a completely ineffective measure for reducing gun deaths, nor have I heard any argument for why owning a 30-round clip should be protected as part of our second amendment right. That's because there's no argument to be made beyond fulfilling an individual's recreational desire to own mass firepower, even if protecting that person's right to do so means endangering the lives of other citizens.

There's a line between protecting a civilian's right to own a gun for sport and safety, and stoking, feeding and protecting a purely recreational addiction to massive firepower.  At the moment, that line seems to exist somewhere between the grenade, which is pretty much illegal (even though launchers of inert grenades are legal) and an AR-15 type semi-automatic rifles, of which there are roughly 3 million circulating in the U.S., which can be purchased online with no background checks, and which can be legally customized with slide stock barrels for "bump firing" which effectively transforms them into slightly less accurate but fully automatic machine guns.




This line has to be moved.  We need responsible leaders, both elected leaders and *true* champions of protecting citizens' rights -- especially when those rights are in conflict with each other -- to figure out how to move it.

And finally, I'm not at all opposed to having armed, volunteer guards in schools, provided: (1) the guards are screened and well-trained, (2) the program is piloted responsibly, (3) there is rigorous analysis conducted to determine whether such a measure is safe, cost-effective, and is likely to prevent school massacres if implemented nationally.  If a guard with a gun in every school (and every movie theater, and every church, and every place where citizens congregate in large numbers) is what it takes to prevent massacres, I will happily pay that tax, even if it's a stiff one.

But on it's face, the proposal seems prohibitively expensive (even if volunteer-based), and futile.  Considering that most massacres are well planned and end in suicide, all I see happening is that the crazy gunman starts by killing the security guard, and proceeds from there.  Two guards?  Study their routines long enough and a well-armed gunman could pick off both.

Still, I think it's worth considering.  But I don't believe the NRA has any interest in exploring this proposal seriously.  Their purpose is misdirection.  They expected the President to balk, which allowed them to run their "hypocrite" ads, stoking the ire of absolutist gun owners and manufacturers, all while avoiding the simple question of, "Okay, what limits and regulations are acceptable?"  No.  The NRA will not have that conversation.  Why?  Because protecting the right to unconditionally own an assault-rifle for recreation even at the expense needless deaths is an indefensible position.  So they offer a flippant plan at a press conference, take no questions, point to mental health and violent video games as issues that must be dealt with but make no attempt to define what they see as reasonable and responsible gun regulation.  They offer their sham of a plan and wait for the backlash, and then counter-backlash.  Avoidance, misdirection and ire-stoking are the only tools they have.

Meanwhile, lo! The President's 23-point proposal (full version here; summary from Washington Post here) includes six points for heightening school security, and two of those involve incentives and funds for hiring trained and highly-specialized armed guards (school resource officers) in schools that want them.  There are also proposals to fund more research into gun violence including the impact of violent video games, and several measures to improve mental health services and explore the relationship of mental health to gun violence.

Whether it's all political showmanship, a sincere attempt to reduce gun violence, or somewhere in between, it's hard to deny the President's plan is comprehensive.  It's not all about gun regulation.  It includes measures and addresses issues that were featured in the NRA's proposal.  The door is now open for real dialogue and productive compromise.  His proposal invites the question, once more: What gun regulations and restrictions are sensible, and reasonable, in the view of the NRA?

Their response?  "Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation. Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected."  That's twenty words, out of 120 words total.  You can read the NRA's full response to the President's plan here.  It does not address any of the specific points in the President's proposal, not background checks, not assault rifles, not video game research, not mental health, not even armed guards in schools.  So whose proposal are they talking about here?

The NRA claims they lead efforts "...to promote safety and responsible gun ownership, " and that "keeping our children and society safe remains our top priority."  But the non-response to the President's proposal immediately following that statement, about leadership and priorities, is just the latest evidence contradicting that very claim.

And so I repeat: the NRA is not about protecting the second amendment; it's priority is protecting a prolific and profitable gun market --- no matter how unnecessarily lethal the guns are, and no matter who gets them --- even if that means endangering the safety of Americans.  They accomplish privately through lobbying, and publicly by avoiding and preventing any conversation about gun regulation, sensible or otherwise.

And the NRA is 4.3 million strong.  For shame America.  If promoting responsible gun-ownership is truly important to you, you do not belong in the NRA.

Billy again:  Sure, I don't mind man. Not some of my better responses since I mashed them out on my phone. This issue just strikes a nerve since I am a firearms instructor for deploying service members. Swooping bans of anything never works with our society, history has proven this time and time again. Instead of pushing for bans on certain types of firearms, the inept government should work on producing programs to educate the masses and promote safe handling.

Me again:  I wish the NRA was willing to articulate those kinds of arguments, Billy. If there's truly evidence that bans have not, and will not, work, then I would want to know that, and want the government to focus its attention on solutions with greater potential.

Billy again:  The evidence can be seen in most major US cities. If you take a look at the written law, most major cities have very strict laws and regulations on handguns. Does this stop all the violent crimes committed? Not in the least bit. Last year saw some record high numbers of murders or crimes committed with a handgun. This leads to my other question. Why are people up in arms about "assault rifles"? The number of deaths are a fraction compared to that of handguns. I really think this is all just a giant political joke playing on the heart strings of Americans.

Art (another friend of mine) adds: I think it'd make sense to have armed guards in some schools (provided that program is managed well). But Columbine had an armed guard (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/21/columbine-armed-guards_n_2347096.html) so, obviously, that in itself is not the end-all. I'm on the fence about the assault rifle ban. On one hand I think weapons specifically designed for super efficient slaughter of people do not belong in civilian hands. A quote from Josh from The West Wing, as he throws his hands up in exasperation dealing with a colleague on an assault weapons bill: "...with an issue as hot as gun control, I'm prepared to accept a lot of different points of view as being perfectly valid. But we can all get together on [banning] the grenade launcher, right!?" On the other hand, I can understand the frustration/anger with a law that might ban the AR-15 and have nothing to say about the equally capable Ruger Mini-14 wood-stock hunting rifle. That's discrimination. I don't know that the two are equally capable, this guy says they are (http://liberaltaria.com/?p=7). But I'm inclined to believe the packaged features of the AR-15 must give it a tactical/military advantage over its hunting counterpart. The hunting question gets asked a lot (i.e. "Why is owning a semi-automatic rifle with a 30-round mag important for hunting?"). But the context of hunting isn't the point, the issue is whether the 2nd Amendment allows each of us the right to own a particular type of gun or not. Personally, I think "Yes" if it's a small pistol, "No" if it's a surface-to-air anything, and "I'm not sure" if it's an AR-15, but, for now, I'm leaning towards "No" based on what little I know of it. My problem with the 2nd Amendment: despite that (or maybe because) it's only 1 sentence, nobody knows what it means! Was it meant to grant an inviolable right to all citizens to own a gun or was it meant to put guns in the hands of militiamen only? Was it meant to cover weapons deadlier than muskets? We know how some founding fathers felt about these questions because they wrote down their own opinions in journals while they drafted the Constitution. But that doesn't mean those personal views were captured in the language of the Constitution - some of those viewpoints lost their debates and didn't make the final draft
Me again:  Art, yours is exactly the kind of thoughtful, balanced view that I wish captured the essence of the national dialogue on gun control.  But even if the NRA doesn't wield the kind of political influence it used to, I fear they still affect the national dialogue.  By always defaulting to a fanatical, any-regulation-is-a-violation position, they manage to cast all gun control policy and proponents as fanatical (draconian) too, thus distorting the very real possibilities for regulation that both protects a greater number of citizens from gun violence but also preserves their second amendment right.

Rachel Maddow pointed to these two polls that show a majority of registered Republicans are opposed to Obama's plan yet support the individual elements of the plan.  D'urgh?

I don't expect miracles: the public discussion around a complex and heated issue is always hyperpolarized, oversimplified, etc.  But the discussion about gun control is SO distorted, and it kills me because it's a matter of life and death, and because the organization making intelligent conversation impossible is supported by 4.3 million people.  It kills me because there seems to be no alternative to the NRA, a movement or organization that believes the right to bear arms must be protected, but acknowledges it must also co-exist with other inalienable rights, like protection from criminal violence, and would serve as a responsible voice at the table whenever policy-making related to guns is discussed.  It kills me because balking at any hint of gun regulation, while offering no justification, seems to be a form of activism to some people, as if it makes them patriotic somehow.  But standing up against gun-stealing laws and politicians is a bullshit cause that addresses a non-existent problem.  Imagine if those 4.3 million people lent their money, effort and voice to a real problem?  Unemployment? Poverty?  Education?  Actually protecting the second amendment (as opposed to protecting an unregulated weapons market and pretending it's second amendment)?  Even if I didn't agree with their solution, at least they'd be contributing to a discussion worth having.

I'll stop there, but thanks for getting me fired up (in a good way) again.  I can see you've thinking about this even longer than I have.  And, holy shit, I've had that quip from Josh Lyman running through my head ever since the NRA press conference!  Good call.  Though I was relieved to discover that, technically speaking, live grenades are illegal, and the legal grenade launchers sold are intended/manuafactured(?) only for firing flares and chalk-dust training rounds.  If we tighten up background checks, limit ammunition capacity, etc, I think I could accept guys firing fake grenades.

Open Letter to the NRA

Dear NRA,

You are, collectively, a shameful excuse for an American organization. Period. A movement with your resources and the support of 4.3 million members could accomplish any number of amazing things in this world. Instead, you fight to protect and promote the supply and demand of massively destructive weapons, despite the overwhelming evidence that this contributes to thousands of needless deaths. Worse still, you do it under the guise of defending Americans' fundamental right to bear arms. You are doing no such thing. If the second amendment right is defensible at all, you are the scourge of that right.

You have repeatedly claimed, in the wake of mass shootings, that "now is not the time" for a conversation about gun policy. (When, then?) In mere anticipation of the President's gun policy proposals, with no specifics in hand, you paint him as a hypocrite by drawing a ludicrous comparison between Secret Service protection and an ordinary citizen's defense of his home, knowing full well that whatever proposals he offers will not impede the ability of a responsible person to keep a gun to protect his family (and if you really want to make a Secret Service comparison, lets start with the extraordinary level of screening and training agents must undergo in order to carry those guns they have).

And now you are "outraged" by the landmark laws just passed in New York State, calling them "draconian." Please explain which one of these new laws is a violation of the right to bear arms? Is it the banning of high-capacity magazines? The expanded ban on assault weapons with military-style features? The background checks prior to purchases? The ability of psychologists to report a patient they see as a gun threat? Which of these infringes on your right to keep a gun in your home to protect your family, or your right to hunt, or your right to shoot targets for sport, or your right to be prepared to join a Revolutionary War-era militia should such an opportunity present itself? No matter how one interprets the second amendment, no matter why one believes it's a right worth defending, nothing in the New York State laws comes anywhere close to infringing on that right, because the second amendment asserts our right to bear arms, not to possess unlimited and unconditional deadly force.

I believe there is, in theory, a sensible argument to be made in support of protecting a citizen's right to have a gun. And the NRA is nowhere near making that argument. I would hope that any clear-headed and compassionate proponent of gun rights would be appalled by you and your farcical campaign.

If you were one person, I could dismiss you, but the you represent the collective consciousness and financial investment of 4.3 million Americans who are, at best, ignorant, reckless and misguided, and at worst selfish, greedy, and soulless. That's what kills me, is that you're not some unfortunate but tiny fringe group like the Westboro Baptist Church. Because of your size and your ability to maintain an air of undeserved credibility, you are far more dangerous and depressing. Whether you're the NRA President, a wealthy gun manufacturer, or just a "proud card-carrying member," you are actively impeding change that will *not* threaten an American's second amendment right but may save thousands of American lives. And as long as you continue to oppose change in this absolutist fashion, you have blood on your hands. If you are my close friend and I discover you support the NRA (not gun rights but specifically the NRA), I will almost certainly think less of you. If the NRA was ever serious about protecting the second amendment, it isn't any longer. It's supporting a fanatical appetite for, and attachment to, weapons of mass destruction, and the profiteering from those appetites.

I'm sure you get thousands of open letters. This is just mine. But I want to be clear I'm addressing all 4.3 million of you. If you're serious about protecting American citizens while defending our second amendment right, you should leave the NRA and join a responsible gun lobby, if such a thing even exists. And if it doesn't exist, you should help start one.

As for the rest, there's nothing American about what you're doing.

Sincerely,

Jim Cooney

*Read some follow-up discussion/debate here.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Right Cause, Wrong Message:
Demi and Ashton speak out against sex slavery and trafficking

It's been well over a year since I've posted anything on this blog that wasn't related to fundraising, but thanks to a friend's Facebook post and the ensuing dialogue this topic sort of fell into my lap (it may also be a stall-tactic to avoid more daunting writing projects) so here we go!

I've had what you might call an earnest, if amateur, interest in human trafficking for the past few years. While working at the Harvard Kennedy School I helped plan a series of webinars which focused on combating the problem (click here for an early example), and currently I'm working on a novel that features two central characters who are, or were, prostitutes and victims of human trafficking: There's Eury, who is trafficked from Moldova, and Badra (just decided on that name last night) trafficked from a yet-to-be-determined Near or Middle Eastern country.

Last night, in the early stages of fleshing out the Badra character, my creative brain grew weary and so I began tooling around on the Web to brush up on the latest human trafficking data. Today, by coincidence, a Facebook post drew my attention to the Demi and Ashton (or DNA) Foundation and their "Real Men Don't Buy Women" campaign, the goal of which is to "create a cultural shift around the implicit societal acceptance of child prostitution, and thus, child sex slavery."


The crusade features photos of Ashton, Demi, and several of their celebrity friends, each holding up the sign emblazoned with the campaign message. The photo caption lauds the celebrity's support according to their gender, e.g. "Bradley Cooper is a real man," and "Jessica Biel prefers a real man." The associated Facebook page encourages users to "Like" the campaign and upload their own "Real Men…" video --- there are no suggestions guiding what the video should include besides a sign, and if there are correspondent celebrity videos to accompany the photos I can't find them.

In short, the campaign strikes me as simple, no-frills awareness-raising that leverages Ashton Kutcher's purported savvy for viral internet promotion. The formula (as I understand it): Identify a worthy cause,get famous friends on board,make it hip, Tweet and Facebook the hell out of it. The architecture for spreading this simple message seems to be working --- the DNA facebook page already has 110,000 followers --- and I imagine the campaign would do some serious good, if only it featured a message that was on target.

First, let me say I admire DNA's efforts. I will assume that Ashton and Demi are reasonably well-informed about human trafficking, are valuable spokespeople for the cause, and I concede they have already done more than I have or probably ever will in terms of activism around this issue.

And they could not have selected a cause that is more worthy and urgent. Statistics on human trafficking vary widely (this fact sheet nicely summarizes what info we do have) but the UN estimates that roughly 800,000 people are trafficked each year, many of whom are women and children who are subsequently indoctrinated into the sex trade. Most activist organizations claim that human trafficking is one of the largest, and possibly the fastest-growing, criminal industry in the world.

My criticism of the DNA campaign concerns the message, Real Men Don't Buy Girls, which seems intended to shame customers (aka "johns") and potential customers away from paying for sex. But the shaming is redundant. I don't have data to back this hypothesis, but my instincts compel me to believe that paying for sex is, at least for many men, an act of shameful desperation. They can't get sex, or sex with the kind of woman they want, legitimately, so they resort to paying for it, an act that is not only illegal but considered by many to be immoral and even pathetic. That's why it's done in secret.  I assume exceptions exist, but I personally don't know anyone who brags about sex they pay for.

An awareness campaign that targets men should instead aspire to raise awareness of the coercion, extortion, and brutality that often accompany prostitution, a reality to which many men may be completely oblivious (typical victim scenarios can be found here). Those who profit most from the sex trade, the traffickers and the pimps, typically remain behind the scenes, which allows the john to naively conclude that the prostitute has made her own life choices, independently and free of undue pressure, is not a victim, and that the laws prohibiting prostitution are implemented primarily to preserve a standard of sexual morality, rather than to protect girls from harm.

Granted, the truth will not be a deal-breaker for everyone, but one must wonder:  Would the average, first-time john be as likely to pay for sex if he knew the horrific road the girl had traveled to be inside that hotel room (or inside that curtained cubicle) with him?  Would he be as likely to enable such malevolent forces if he knew what the girl's life was like when she was not busy fulfilling his sexual needs? Or what her life would be like,in five or ten years, when her body is aged and her spirit is broken? I doubt he would.

I'll go further, and argue that male sexual insecurity is part of what creates demand in the first place, in which case the DNA shaming-message may be exacerbating the problem. Having beautiful celebrities doing the shaming just makes the campaign absurdly ironic on top of everything. Look at the photos. Who among them has ever been truly desperate for sex? I mean come on, Justin Timberlake??? Having Justin Timberlake say "Real men don't buy girls," is like Warren Buffett preaching "Good folks don't steal from the tip jar." If you insist on the shaming route, you might at least find some famously un-attractive people for your campaign (How about Michael Moore? Or Tom Petty?), people who, before they were famous, may have had to weather the occasional dry spell, but forewent paying for sex, deciding instead to heed their better angels and remain "real men."

So what's the right message, then? Awareness, I repeat, is not cure-all, but it's a vital component in any effort to reduce and prevent this atrocity. Moreover, awareness may be the "low-hanging fruit," so to speak, our opportunity to exert the most influence using the fewest resources (the virtue of the "Real Men" campaign is that it probably didn't cost a dime to implement). The consequences of paying for sex, in terms of its facilitating the victimization of women and children, should be as clear to potential johns as lung cancer and heart disease are to potential smokers.

In that spirit, I suggest the following alternative.

Attention MEN:
Prostitution is not a victimless crime.

It's not as pithy (eight words instead of five), but it accomplishes two things the current DNA message does not. (1) It corrects a popular and pernicious misconception. (2) It evokes an urgent question—why not?—for the under-educated recipient, a question that may inspire curiosity... enough curiosity to, say, click a link, peruse some facts about trafficking, read some victim stories, and so on. In other words, it asks the recipient to do some work, and to meet our well-intentioned informers (Demi and Ashton, et al) halfway.

Like most, I believe Justin Timberlake is a talented and infallible boy-god, so if I'm a john, I'm not especially moved when you hit me with bad news I already know: You're not a "real man" like JT over here.  Ha!  No shit.

If, on the other hand, you show me a photograph of Justin Timberlake brandishing new information, about people who are suffering, you can bet your ass I'm listening, and that I'll want to know more.

*Photos from demiandashton.org