Sunday, May 31, 2009

Easy, Rider

What do guns and credit cards have in common?

Other than that credit cards are sometimes used in buying guns, not much. Not much, that is, unless a bill to legalize the carrying of loaded weapons in national parks is attached as a rider to the Credit Cardholder’s Bill of Rights legislation. Then they have a lot in common.

Bundling legislation is nothing new; it’s been a common practice—almost routine—for as long as I can remember. But just because it’s been around for awhile doesn’t make it right. Unfortunately, that’s one of the ways the people’s business (or business’ business) gets done on Capitol Hill, and until voters get angry and demand that it stop, it’s a practice that’s likely to continue.

Piggybacking legislation is popular among legislators because it allows for the passage of a marginal bill (the rider) that lacks popular support and otherwise wouldn’t have a snowflake’s chance in a toaster oven of making it into law on its own. Simply inserted into the text of the original bill late in the proceedings, a rider often goes unnoticed and, therefore, it faces no opposition.

Another way the piggyback ploy is used and abused is when an opposing party adds a rider that contains egregiously bad legislation—that no one wants to become law—to the primary legislation to thwart or delay its passage. Quite often, our esteemed legislators would rather see a good bill die than have it pass into law if it means that a rider bearing dire political consequences would also become law.

In the matter of legalizing the carrying of loaded guns in national parks, I think the gun lobby saw in the credit card bill the perfect opportunity to get long-desired gun legislation passed. They must have been onto something (rather than on something), because it worked. Of course, had the credit card bill not passed, the political fallout would have been overwhelming; no way could politicos afford to let it die.

So, what do relaxed gun laws mean for people who frequent national parks? Are the anti-gun crowd’s fears justified, or is theirs just a knee-jerk reaction to something they don’t fully understand? Will park visitors, park rangers and animals be in greater danger of being shot, or will the risks stay about the same? Does rampant paranoia undermine discussions of the issue? And finally, are people even asking the right questions about the issue?

The likeliest outcome of the new legislation permitting loaded weapons in national parks is that we’ll see a higher level of civility in the parks. When milquetoast Paul Reubens, wearing a monster .357 Magnum revolver—with a 14-inch barrel—on his hip, approaches blowhard redneck Randy Quaid with a polite request that the latter kindly lower the volume on his amped-to-the-max stereo, you can safely assume that Mr. Quaid will say, “Yes sir, Mr. Reubens, right away!”

Or, alternatively, Mr. Quaid will simply discharge a load of double-aught buckshot in the general direction of Mr. Reuben’s head, effectively causing the other half of Mr. Reuben’s brain to go missing. It’s a scenario that doesn’t end well for either party. If, indeed, it plays out this way, we can look upon it as a huge loss for both Mr. Reuben and Mr. Quaid, and (the way I see it) a huge gain for everyone else; neither one of these guys would be making another movie anytime soon.

Beyond that, I don’t think there’s much to worry about.

Lock and load!

Q >>>

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's a Conspiracy!

Once again the debate rages—okay, “rages” is probably not the best term to use here because it’s more like a pouty little temper tantrum of the “is not, is too” variety—over at AlterNet about conspiracy theories, particularly conspiracy theories as they relate to the tragic events of 9/11/2001.

The problem is that both sides of the debate show a certain lack of critical thinking skills. On the one side you have the naysayers, the denouncers of conspiracies and conspiracy theorists who, in making their denunciations, reveal themselves to be unprepared for a rational debate. On the other side you have the conspiracy theorists who, in making their wild assertions, indicate that many of them need to adjust their tinfoil hats.

Clearly, there was a conspiracy afoot on 9/11; everything was too well planned and too coordinated for it to be otherwise. To deny the existence of conspiracy in the matter of 9/11 is to suggest that a series of unfortunate but random, unrelated incidents just happened to converge in the rubble of the twin towers, cause the collapse of Building 7, leave a gaping hole in the Pentagon, and put an ugly gouge in a Pennsylvania field.

The argument about conspiracies is diversionary in that it keeps either side from getting at the truth. Instead of arguing about whether or not there was a conspiracy, we should focus the debate on who owns the conspiracy.

That’s a debate worth having.

Q >>>

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Power of One

Contrary to popular Western beliefs, Western-style justice is not altogether unheard of in faraway places like Iran; it’s just a little slow to catch on.

To make my point, I offer into evidence quotes from two e-letters that arrived in my inbox yesterday:

“When Roxana Saberi, a 32-year-old American journalist was sentenced to eight years in prison on trumped-up charges of espionage, you and thousands of other Amnesty supporters immediately responded by sending over 26,000 letters to the Iranian government in less than 24 hours.

“Your letters worked! Roxana was just released from prison today after an appeal court in Tehran reduced her sentence to two-years, which was then suspended.”

—Amnesty International

“Ms. Saberi appealed her conviction on charges of espionage, and thanks to international pressure on the Iranian government including the almost 28,000 activists who signed our petition, she appeared in court to have her appeal heard yesterday and her charges were reduced. She walked out of prison in Iran today and was reunited with her parents.”

—Rebecca Young, Care2 Action Alerts

I can’t begin to tell you how gratifying it is when a letter I’ve written or a petition I’ve signed actually helps persuade someone in a position of authority to change his or her mind. Of course, not all petitions and letters bring about the desired results, but even those that fail send a powerful message—a message that can’t be ignored—to the powers that be: Not all of the unwashed masses are sound asleep; some of us are awake, and we’re watching you.

Some bloggers are of the opinion that signing petitions and writing letters are largely a waste of time; based on my experience, I respectfully but wholeheartedly disagree. While I lack the resources, as an individual, to buy a lobbyist or sway a politician, what I can do is add my voice to the voices of thousands of like-minded citizens; speaking as one we make ourselves heard.

Would Roxana Saberi still be in prison if no one had spoken out on her behalf? Almost certainly she would be. Would journalists in Iran be more immune to false imprisonment if no one had been paying attention? Almost certainly they would not. Do petitions and letters influence political decisions, and do they make a difference? Obviously, they do.

Why, then, do some people suggest that online activists are only wasting their time? Is it because online activism really doesn’t work, or is it because they are part of an entrenched order that adheres to the status quo and fervently hopes that you won’t exercise what little political power you have?

Okay, now it’s your turn; ask the next question.

Q >>>

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fiction: As Real as It Gets

Like music, fiction is an indispensible part of popular culture. Fiction encompasses many genres, and reaches its audience via books, magazines, movies, television and, now, the Internet. Even news media, having discovered how lucrative fiction can be, include fiction in much of their content to help sell the news.

Storytelling, regardless of the form it takes, is useful for educating, for recording and preserving history, for presenting new ideas or scrutinizing old ones, or simply as entertainment. It’s also a tool for changing history (not all fiction is history, but all history is fiction). History is written, then rewritten again and again, to best serve the purposes of whatever group happens to be in power; Republicans are particularly adept at this—even when they’re not in power.

All fiction contains elements of truth, and many stories present ideas worthy of further exploration. Ideas are the seeds of reality, and sf writers, in particular, cast those seeds far and wide to help shape the world in which we live. But all genres of fiction hold up a mirror in the face of society to show us what we are—or what we’re in danger of becoming.

“Virgil had an interest in short stories when he was in college, but journalism seemed more immediate, something with its claws in the real world. The older he got, though, the wider he found the separation between reported facts, on one hand, and the truth of the matter on the other hand. Life and facts were so complicated that you never got more than a piece of them. Short stories, though, and novels, maybe, had at least a shot at the truth.”

from Heat Lightning, a novel by John Sandford

On Friday, 4/17, The Chinuk posted four must read sci-fi works on his Real Oregon Reality blog. A little more than two hours later, Preemptive Karma’s Kevin posted about his life-long love affair with sci-fi. These short blog articles reminded me of my own relationship to fiction in general, and to science fiction in particular.

Having had the good fortune to get a mom who thought that reading to her kids was a smart thing to do, I always considered myself lucky in all the ways that truly mattered. And while her bedtime readings had opposite the intended effect (instead of luring me to sleep, they contributed to my insomnia), I credit them—and her—for my early fascination with words, an insatiable curiosity, an active imagination that often runs amok, a strong desire to learn, and a lifelong love affair with fiction. And a restless mind that won’t—or can’t—shut down.

Reading came easily to me, and I took to it like a fish takes to swimming. As a third-grader, in early 1954, I discovered sf authors Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Lester del Rey. From that point on, the term “age-appropriate fiction” lost all meaning for me. Okay, okay, at that age I’d probably never heard the term “age-appropriate fiction; it was more like “why can’t you just read what the other kids are reading?” See Spot run.

By the time I was a high school freshman (1959), I’d become familiar with, in addition to the aforementioned Heinlein, Asimov, and del Rey, most of the great sf writers of the day. Ray Bradbury, A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim, Arthur C. Clarke, and many writers whose names I’ve forgotten provided uncounted hours of entertainment while they educated me on the necessity of questioning the underlying assumptions of just about everything, and of looking at consensus reality and conventional wisdom with a great deal of skepticism.

In the ensuing years I’ve broadened my horizons to include almost all fiction genres, Gothic romances and chick lit excepted. In the sixties I read Mickey Spillane and Richard S. Prather, John Steinbeck and James Michener, John O’Hara and James Jones. In the seventies, it was J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut, Irving Wallace, John Updike. The eighties, otherwise known to me as the “lost decade” because of competing interests, were the least prolific in terms of my reading, but I still found time for Ayn Rand, John Irving, Ken Kesey, Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy.

During the nineties, my circumstances again having changed, I dabbled in Anne Rice and Tom Wolfe, devoured Dean Koontz like a hungry bear, blew through Stephen King like a Teflon bullet blows through body armor. I discovered Patricia Cornwell and Katherine Neville, read as much Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald as I could get my hands on, and reread many of my earlier favorites, particularly Heinlein, Bradbury and Vonnegut.

As the first decade of the 21st century winds down, the reading frenzy continues. Since I started keeping track of my reading at the beginning of 2005, I’ve read nearly 340 books and more than 120,000 pages and, in the process, discovered dozens of writers previously unknown to me—and gained a new appreciation for the writers who already were.

For the naysayers who argue that fantasy fiction is not worth one’s time, I urge you to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy; Richard Adams’ Watership Down; Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series and Duma Key; Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories; Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and The Anansi Boys; and, just about anything written by Storm Constantine. You can’t—absolutely cannot—read these works and walk away from them unaffected.

“People who view fantasy as second rate or childish are usually people who don't read or understand it. I like to tell them that good fantasy is social commentary combined with good storytelling - Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, the Oz stories and so many others. Sure, the stories take place in an imaginary world. But those worlds mirror our own and tell us things about ourselves that need to be said and understood. I also like to tell them how often other forms of literature use fantasy as the bedrock of their own stories. Fantasy transcends its own form in wider scope than any other type of writing.”

—Terry Brooks

And for anyone who doubts that women are capable of writing crime thrillers as well as men, I ask you to compare Katherine Neville, Patricia Cornwell, Faye Kellerman, Tess Gerritsen, Tami Hoag, Alex Kava, Karin Slaughter, Kathy Reichs, and Erica Spindler to any of the men who write in the same genres. I think you’ll find that women writers are easily the equal of their male counterparts.

Good writing is good writing, regardless of who does it. Good storytelling is good writing skills brought to bear on the subject at hand. The imaginative use of words, a clever turn of phrase, carefully constructed sentences and paragraphs that convey meaning and build an emotional response in the reader are, in and of themselves, reasons enough to read. Those are among the reasons why I read fiction in many genres.

Those are the reasons why I hunger for more.