Suicide and Depression Vs. Modern Medievalism

robin williams

If there’s anything more saddening than hearing about the death of Robin Williams, it might be hearing some of the commentary about his demise that came from certain clueless and classless ideological fanatics.  Civilized and civil behavior requires a certain amount of respect toward the newly deceased, at least for a few minutes. But no sooner had rigor mortis set in than certain individuals began vying furiously for the honor of having produced the most insensitive and idiotic response to the news

The ever-dependable Rush Limbaugh concluded that Williams killed himself out of the “guilt” attendant upon “political leftism”; and when there was an outcry over his utterances, he blamed the whole thing on — what else — the librulmedia. Shepard Smith at the ever-dependable Fox “News” suggested that Williams killed himself because he was a “coward”.  (Smith, unlike the others mentioned here, at least had the decency to apologize later.) . Chris Fields, an official with the Minnesota GOP, thought the mourning of Williams’ fans was, somehow or other, a golden opportunity for him to urge them to vote for the candidate of his choice — and he continued politicizing repeatedly even after  a fellow Republican admonished him to “Shut. The Fuck. Up.” because he was “making an ass of all of us”.

Not only political hucksters, but religious hucksters, weighed in and cashed in. The ever-dependable Westboro Baptist Church Tweeted hateful comments about Williams and threatened to picket his funeral.  Popular Christian blogger Matt Walsh declared (as one of his “absolute truths and alpaca grooming tips” — I’m not sure which he was intending) that “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice”, and went on to say some other insulting things about depressives (more about that in a moment).  The Family Research Council — DING! DING! DING! (sorry, that alarm always goes off whenever the word family appears in the name of an ideological organization) saw the opportunity to hawk a supposed cure for homosexuality.  WorldNetDaily, not content to refer to depression and substance addiction as figurative “demons”, posited that Williams literally was in league with “demonic powers” that eventually destroyed him — and oh by the way, they just happen to have little video that tells you all about other celebrities who’ve done the same, available at the special low price of only $15.95.

There’s nothing new about this type of exhibitionist opportunism. That’s just the kind of thing these people do, and they’re never going to let a perfectly good tragedy go to waste. Ever. But it underscores just how little the American public understands depression and suicide — which are inextricably bound together. Smith and Walsh are symptomatic of a mindset that holds that depression and suicide are voluntary; and that Williams should have been able to just step back and look at his life in perspective, and make the correct choice. But at its worst, depression is something that totally takes control of you. Williams in his final hours  probably was no more capable of being rational than a Fox anchor or a holier-than-thou religious blogger.

We have pious religiosity to thank for much of the current attitudes about suicide and mental health issues.  But these attitudes are more of medieval than biblical origin. The Bible contains no specific injunction against suicide; moreover at least two of its most vaunted heroes — Saul and Samson — did themselves in. The notion that suicide is a “sin” for which one will “go to hell” originated with writers during the Middle Ages — most notably Dante. And as for the mentally/ emotionally imbalanced, they were often presumed in the good ole days when religion ruled the world to have been possessed by or in league with evil spirits, and subjected to whippings or worse.

Christian fundamentalism has not evolved much, if any, beyond the medieval phase. (Fanatics no longer burn “heretics” at the stake, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if they could still get away with it.) It’s still a jarringly contradictory combination of fatalism and free will doctrine, stitched together by the conviction that prayer can alter anything, including the will of God — unless He invokes His power of veto. No wonder Christians are so often confused about what is or is not within their control. No wonder people like Matt Walsh can be so condescending toward people like Robin Williams.

Religionists passing judgment on suicides are likely to point to a set of stone-engraved rules for living that they inaccurately call The Ten Commandments and mistakenly believe are to be found in the Bible. (See previous postThe Myth(s) of the Ten Commandments). One of them admonishes flatly, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”; and the traditional inference is that this applies even when the killer and the killee are one and the same. Your life, folks believe, is not your own, and it’s inexcusable for you to deprive God of the fiendish delight of tormenting you indefinitely.

You know as well as I, however, that there are asterisks on the stone alongside the words. The same God who commanded his people that they shalt not killeth also instructed them to slaughter their enemies by the thousands and stone to a pulp anyone who ran afoul of this or that tribal taboo. Likewise, even today many people who consider themselves Good Christians have no problem with capital punishment or aggressive warfare that annihilates innocent men, women and children all over the place.

And yet…

Suicide still remains strictly taboo, under any circumstances.  Walsh declares it to be a “bad decision. Always a bad decision.”   In part because it entails a “willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.”  Notice that word willingness. While Walsh insists that he doesn’t consider depression to be a sign of weakness, he also says:

I know that in my worst times, at my lowest points, it’s not that I don’t see the joy in creation, it’s just that I think myself too awful and sinful a man to share in it.

No matter how you slice it, it’s still that time-honored smug WASP pastime of blaming the victim. (Indeed, many smug WASP neocons refuse to acknowledge that there is any such thing as a victim at all.) I recall reading about a woman who had been molested by a relative as a teen, and when she confided to her minister about it, he replied, “Let’s pray for your forgiveness.” That’s the kind of lunacy that results from a worldview that maintains that on the one hand God and His agents have total authority over you, and yet on the other, that you are totally responsible for whatever circumstances you find yourself in. The kind of worldview incorporating the notion that, just by committing the offense of being born, you’re graded a sinner by default.

To be sure, there are indeed some suicides that (apparently) are willful acts. These include those situations when an individual has a painful terminal illness; and it is their conclusion that their protracted living under those conditions will cause unnecessary pain, grief and expense to both them and their loved ones. Which doesn’t seem to be such a problem for the anti-suicide moralizers.

But the vast majority of suicides are the result of depression, which is a topic very close to home for me. I had a severe struggle with it myself. It runs in my family. I even had a cousin who committed suicide at age 17. None of which qualifies me to determine what is in someone else’s head unless they tell me. And to the best of my knowledge, Robin Williams wasn’t talking to anyone as he tied the knot around his neck. Walsh claims to be able to speak authoritatively about depression because he’s suffered from it himself. It’s hard to imagine, however, that he’s endured any but the mildest emotional turmoil if he can be so presumptuous and judgmental. And even if we assume that he’s really been through the mill himself, that does not put him in anyone else’s shoes. Depression is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon; nor, for that matter, is suicide. 

Yet he professes to know beyond a doubt that Williams died of “choice”  His ideology demands it, so it must be true. He joins the ranks of such experts on the topic as Tom Cruise (a religious fanatic of a different stripe) who know more about depression than do the professionals. He doesn’t go so far as to say, as Cruise did, that “there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance in the body”, but he does insist that it has a “spiritual” element, whatever the hell that means. Well sure, depression has a spiritual component if you choose to look at it that way. So do mud wrestling and nuclear warfare. And how exactly does that change anything? People still slit their wrists, get dirty, and fry.

For Walsh, the prescription for depression is simple: “joy”. It’s the only thing that really defeats depression, he says. Just inject more joy into your life, and you’ll never succumb. Well, yeah — and the key to immortality is simply to refrain from dying. But telling a severely depressed person to experience joy is like telling a blind man to go out and gather some yellow flowers.

The law has long recognized the validity of an “insanity plea”, based on the premise that people sometimes commit atrocious acts that they are not responsible for because they are not in control of their faculties. Most people accept this as reality, as long as you’re talking about one person killing somebody else. Yet when it comes to suicide, we’re still in the Dark Ages. 

Suicide and depression have always been with us, but that doesn’t mean we have to view them as they’ve traditionally been viewed. It’s the Twenty-First Century, folks; and we have unprecedented tools at our disposal to save people from this horrible affliction called depression, and to prevent many suicides. But our feet our still mired in modern medievalism.

Don’t believe it? Cool. Let me tell you about an informative little video that details how many entertainers have sold their souls to the devil. I can sell you as many copies as you like for the amazingly low price of only $49.95 each.

 

(UPDATE: Matt Walsh has done a followup to his original piece, in which he backtracks a bit, and tries to clarify some false inferences some readers have made, and tries to distance himself from the medieval mentality. But he still insists that he knows beyond all doubt that suicide is always a choice.)

“Tarp Gate”: A Sign of the Times

tarp gate

Just when you thought you’d heard EVERYTHING that ANYONE, ANYWHERE could POSSIBLY blame on Barack Obama, along comes… the bungled suspension of a major league baseball game because of rain. No, seriously. Well, it did happen in Chicago, so surely the prez must have been involved somehow or other, eh what?

On the night of Aug. 19, the Chicago Cubs were hosting the San Francisco Giants when a downpour interrupted the action in the middle of the fifth inning, and a grounds crew clumsily covered Wrigley Field with a tarp. Then everyone waited until after 1:00 a.m., when the game was finally called off because the field was too wet. Since the Cubs were leading 2-0 at that point, they were awarded the victory.

But the Giants protested (They wanted to play until 3:00 in the morning?) because they maintained the crew did not adequately protect the field. Officials ruled in their favor, and the game was resumed a couple of days later. The Giants still lost, them bums, but they claimed the consolation prize of the first successful protest of a major league game in 28 years. End of story, right?

Well no, this is where it really gets interesting. And weird. It turns out that the reason the grounds crew was so inept at covering the field was that they were drastically shorthanded. And the reason for that was that some of them were sent home early. And the reason for that was that the bosses didn’t want the lowly laborers working too many hours. And the reason for that reportedly was that they didn’t want to shell out a few more bucks as required by “Obamacare”.

Now there was no real damage because of any of this, except maybe the sore butts of the fans sitting in the bleachers so long — the Cubs even got to keep their mark in the win column. But for some people (notably those at the ever-entertaining National Review), it was another catastrophic failure of the Affordable Care Act — oops, that should be “Obamacare”, of course. Another failure right up there with… well, you know, death panels and stuff.

It’s a sign of the times for a couple of reasons. First, the craze involving blaming any and all problems on President Obama, somehow, anyhow. Second, the trend toward corporate directors being Scrooges and squeezing the underpaid workers at the bottom of the food chain — and then blaming their Scrooginess on President Obama. But there’s yet a third reason.

It turns out that the big cheeses for the Cubs were rather misinformed about the ACA. (What? Someone misinformed about “Obamacare”? Say it ain’t so, Rush.) The dreaded provision of the law requiring them to treat their workers like human beings isn’t even in effect this year. They could have had the full complement of tarp spreaders on hand without having to pay a penny in penalties. As Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research bluntly observes, “This is yet another example of the skills gap that is preventing managers from operating their businesses effectively.” In other words, maybe this is why the Cubs suck so much.

It’s another sign of the times. Few if any of the attacks leveled at “Obamacare” are totally accurate, and most have no basis in reality whatsoever. You’d think that if people were going to criticize a law, or anything else, they’d at least want to avoid making fools of themselves by learning a little bit about it first. Just a tad, a smidgen, a modicum, a crumb.  But for the Cult of Obama  Hatred, this would only spoil the fun.

So far, Republicans in Congress have not cited Tarp Gate as grounds for impeachment. But it’s surely just a matter of time.

 

Of Redskins and Red Herrings (Plus Eric Holder On Racism)

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By now you’ve probably heard that the NFL team long known as the Washington Redskins will likely be compelled to change its name soon, thanks to a decision by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. And reactionaries have reacted as reactionaries always do — ridiculing the move and dishing up a generous serving of red herrings.

A red herring, as you may know, is a decoy, a distraction — an irrelevant matter introduced to divert attention away from the real issue. An excellent example occurs frequently with the topic of abortion. “Pro-life” ideologues devote a great deal of time to discussing whether abortions “should” occur (accompanied by a very strong answer in the negative), which in turn is masked by another debate on when life supposedly begins.  All of which steals focus from the vital question of how to prevent abortion.  All the “pro-life” posturing in the world does nothing to answer this question, and, by all evidence, makes the problem even worse.  (See previous posts: Abortion: the Big Lie and the Inconvenient Truth, Part 1 and Part 2 and ACORNization: the Curious Vendetta Against Planned Parenthood.)

And so it is with the Redskins flap. Ideologues lecture the rest of us about whether Native Americans “should” be distressed over the use of demeaning stereotypes (with a very strong response in the negative). Does it really matter whether you or I believe they should be? (Even if you are Native American yourself, does that entitle you to decide that nobody else should disapprove?) The thing is, they do object, or at least a good many of them do. The real question, then, is whether the rest of us are willing to respect them enough to cease and desist the use of such stereotypes. Some people will go to the ends of the earth to evade such a question, leaving a trail of crimson fishlets as substantial as Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs.

Inevitably, for instance, the reactionaries peg the outrage as an instance of “political correctness” run amok — whatever the hell that means. “Political correctness”, like “liberalism” is one of those things people love to hate but hate to define or clarify. Naturally, then, the two are often lumped together. This whole stink about the Redskins, they say, is just another attempt by them librulz, whoever they are, to wield political correctness, whatever it is, to take away our freedom, somehow or other. Never mind that the USPTO’s decision was the result of numerous complaints, over a period of many years, by Native American advocacy groups with no political affiliation, expressing the sentiments of Native Americans of all ideological persuasions. What’s really important is to apply the “PC” and “L” words to as many people as possible, as frequently as possible.

Is that an acknowledgment that only “liberals” respect people of all races? If so, I can’t buy it. I’ve known many “conservatives” who were also quite respectful. They may be a minority, but there are still plenty of them.

Yet right-wing zealots make it standard procedure to politicize/ polarize just about anything and everything to the Nth degree — even climate, for crap’s sake. And they proclaimed the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Hobby Lobby case as a victory for “religious freedom” (which, if not itself a red herring, is at least a deep pink mackerel) and a defeat for “liberalism”. As opposed to, say, a slap in the face for women in general whatever their ideology, a religious incursion into government that ultimately is bad news for people of all religious persuasions, and a judicial precedent that will extend the (already quite extensive) imperious reach of the current unscrupulous bench, ultimately having an impact on everyone.

When it comes to encapsulating the reactionary silliness over the Redskins issue, it would be hard to top this commentary called “20 Other ‘Allegedly Offensive’ Team Names That The Left Isn’t Complaining About” by Justen Charters at Independent Journal Review. It wastes no time attributing the dastardly deed to “The Left” and the “PC Police”. And of course to the big bad black guy in The Formerly White House.  Indeed, Charters even links to another article on Independent Journal Review (Should they be required to put a “sic” after Independent?) titled “President Obama is Stripping Washington Redskins Trademarks After Owner Refused to Give Up Team Name”, that begins with this prize paragraph:

This is how the Obama administration rolls. Get in a confrontation with the president, and some IRS branch patent office makes trouble for you. That’s how “community organizers” do business. That’s the Chicago Way.

Never mind that the USPTO made the same decision, later overturned by court interference, in 1999 — which not only was well before Obama was elected, but probably even before he traveled back in time to plant a bogus birth announcement in a Hawaiian newspaper. Never mind that the USPTO has made many similar rulings for the past 20 years or so. After all, President Obama publicly stated that if he were the team’s owner himself, he would “think about changing” the team’s name. What a severe “confrontation”. What more proof do you need that he must have taken time out from his busy schedule of confiscating your guns and euthanizing your grandma to personally dictate that the Redskins must go.  And those cleverly crossed out words above, of course, are an allusion to the IRS “scandal” we’ve debunked before.

Smears against President Obama, by the way, often not only contain red herrings, but not infrequently illustrate how red herrings differ from, yet neatly dovetail with, straw men, which we’ve discussed before. Yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that said “Political dissent is NOT racism.” That’s a classic red herring — nobody is suggesting that political dissent IS racism. But it’s an obvious reference to a straw man very popular among sufferers form Obama Derangement Syndrome: the premise that Obama hatred is nothing more than “political dissent”, and to attribute the former in some degree to racism is to attribute the latter entirely to racism,

Political dissent consists of expressing/ demonstrating political differences — not circulating wackadoodle rumors about birth certificates, death panels, Islamic roots, Benghazi cover-ups, IRS conspiracies, faked mass shootings or FEMA concentration camps. Nor does it involve reflexively obstructing, or trying to sue or impeach a president just because you don’t like him — or his politics. Obama hatred goes way way way waaaaaaayyyy beyond political dissent, beyond disagreement with or criticism of the president, even beyond all bounds of sanity.

It may not always be rooted in racism, but quite often racism definitely is at least one factor in play. Yet when Attorney General Eric Holder pointed out this indisputable fact, the wingers seized upon and distorted his comments to push the astronomically false narrative that President Obama — who seldom mentions race (and even then it’s generally to the tune of “let’s get along”) and rarely mentions racism — loves to play the race card. Here are Holder’s allegedly inflammatory words:

There’s a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that’s directed at me and directed at the president. You know, people talking about taking their country back. … There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there’s a racial animus.

These comments were almost universally spun — not only on talk radio and in the rightwingnutball blogosphere, but also in the supposedly more centrist mainstream media (aka the librulmedia) as “Eric Holder Says It’s Racist to Disagree With Him and Obama”. Holder said no such thing, of course. (Read it again if you really need to. We’ll wait.) On the contrary, he clearly specified that  he didn’t even consider racism “the main driver” in that “animus”. The winger spin distorting his words actually lends them validation. And provides us with another classic straw man.

But back to the Redskins. The Independent (sic) Journal Review‘s 20 additional mascots are essentially red herrings, and quite often sterling specimens of false equivalence, which is something we’ll be examining in the near future. They include The Toronto Raptors (Fine, marginalize all the people who got scared by the Jurassic Park movies.”) and the BYU Cougars: (“Last time I checked, Provo Utah isn’t famous for middle aged women prowling on young men.”) Nyuk nyuk nyuk,

Okay, okay. So the piece is intended to be cutesy-poo satire. But that’s just it. By listing team names for which outrage would be preposterous, Charters hopes to portray the disapproval of “Redskins” as equally petty and laughable. It isn’t.

Also included among the 20 are the Chicago Blackhawks and the Cleveland Indians. Had Charters done just a smidgen of homework, he might have learned that in fact the Cleveland baseball team has been a frequent target of protests over the years by The Left, or The PC Police, or whoever those guys were with feathers in their hair. And the Blackhawks? Not so much so, but there are several probable reasons.

First, Blackhawk, unlike Redskin, is a perfectly legitimate and respectable designation for a particular group of people, (Indian, though not preferable, is also respectful and respectable enough; the clamor over the Cleveland Indians isn’t because the word itself is inappropriate.) Second, it’s the name of a specific tribe rather than an entire ethnic population. And third, the NHL team wasn’t even named after that tribe in the first place. It was named after a combat unit in World War I, which in turn was named (like the tribe) after a single historic Native American leader.

Interestingly, the Independent (wink wink) Journal Review overlooks or deliberately omits one of the most egregious offenders: the Atlanta Braves, whose fan ritual of intoning a “war chant” and mimicking a tomahawk chop has ruffled the feathers of those ruddy-complexioned PC Police on The Left for years. The article does, however, suggest that monikers like the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Boston Celtics should be regarded as equally tasteless.

Which is not only nonsense, but screaming-out-loud nonsense. Because the Irish/ Keltics do not have the same kind of history in this country that Indians do. On the contrary, they were, to put it bluntly, among the historical white oppressors rather than the Indian and African oppressed. Furthermore, it appears that those team names were chosen by Irish persons themselves. Native Americans, however, did not choose the Indians, the Braves or the Redskins. Which brings us to the real crux of the problem: a long, long history of white Christian males making choices for everyone else — often through the use of barbarically brutal force.

Native Americans were slaughtered like the bison they depended on, driven from their land and stripped of their religions, their languages, their traditions, their lifestyle and their dignity. All bygones, you say? Not really. The aftermath of that ethnic and cultural decimation is still very much with them. Many of them still live on reservations (paleface lingo for “land we have no use for anyway”).  They still have abnormal rates of poverty, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and suicide. Their traditions have been trivialized and their sacred objects have been lampooned by mass-market gewgaws cranked out in Asian sweatshops. And throughout the sordid history of their interaction with Caucasians, they have been portrayed in mainstream pop culture as cardboard stereotypes at best, and quite often as simpleminded, bloodthirsty savages.

Many Native Americans feel that there is a connection between these things — i.e., that how they are perceived and portrayed has a significant impact on how they are treated. And guess what? Many sociologists agree. Is there any reason we should not give this conclusion the benefit of a doubt?

When we speak of the mascot-ization of Indians as being offensive, we don’t mean that it results in “hurt feelings” — another common red herring. We mean that it undermines respect and dignity. Which brings us to the Independent (snicker snicker) Journal Review‘s concluding red herring, perhaps the mother of them all:

Instead, we should be recognizing the idea that names like Redskins and Patriots are ways to honor the legacy of our ancestors, not defile them.

Now if you really believe that Redskin is an honorific appellation on a par with Patriot, you probably don’t have the cognitive faculties to have made it to this point in the discussion. But for those of you still with us, here are some final questions to ponder.

The reactionaries like to cite a poll indicating that 90 percent of Native Americans have no problem with “Redskins”, and other polls indicating that 79 to 89 percent of the general public don’t (the figure I hear most often is 83); do you really believe that more non-Indians than Indians are bothered by the word? Another poll indicates that 56 percent of Americans believe the term is racist; does this mean that 46 percent of Americans (56 times 83) and 50 percent of Native Americans (56 times 90) think racism is hunky-dory?  Since we’ve been making comparisons here, do you really believe that any sports team today would consider naming itself The Los Angeles Spics? The Memphis Niggers? The San Francisco Chinks? The New York Kikes? What about The Honolulu Japs? Why, then, has it taken so long to get rid of “Washington Redskins”? Why do so many people still think Indians are fair game? Why are they so willing to engage in grotesque distortions of reason in order to justify that predilection? Is it just coincidence that, so very very often, they are the same people who indulge in spittle-flecked, head-banging, pants-pooping delirium about the nation’s first dark-skinned president?

Opinion: What It Ain’t

Sibling Rivalry

As mentioned in a prior post (“Matters of Opinion: the Triumph of Passionate, Ignorant and Irrational Conviction in America”), defining exactly what opinion is can be a bit tricky. But recognizing opinion when you see it is rather simpler; and even simpler still is understanding when something is not opinion.

Which brings us to turn the mirror on this blog itself. This is not a blog of opinion, but a blog of fact and analysis.  The blog’s mission statement includes the following sentence:

We offer solid fact without becoming pedantic, and personality without becoming bogged down by opinion.

This has been re-worded several times (at one point it said “without relying on opinion”), largely in an attempt to fend off the gotcha squad — or, as Michael Moore calls them, the wacko attackos. These are individuals who deem it a matter of great importance to attempt to discredit information and ideas that clash with their beliefs, and so they comb through these posts in a quixotic quest for an instance of “hypocrisy” or “contradiction”. (You’ll often spot them when they quote back every little thing you say, followed by a snide retort which they believe to be a refutation.) Evidently they believe that if they can find a single such instance, then they can discard the entire blog with a sigh of relief and a smirk of triumph. And the possibility of finding an opinion in these pages is perhaps what entices them most: find just a single opinion, they seem to believe, and they can safely conclude that the blog is nothing but opinion.

This blog is not about me, and I’m not going to allow anyone to make it about me. I don’t consider it a matter of great urgency to defend myself from attacks — indeed, I consider it of little to no consequence at all. But sometimes the gotcha squadders commit blunders which it can be instructive to examine. And they commit several in their obsession with opinion.

The most obvious mistake they make is to conclude that a statement to the effect that a blog does not focus on opinion can be taken as a claim that it contains no opinion whatsoever. Which of course is patent nonsense, and illustrates how ideologues often zero in on the one interpretation that best suits their purposes.  It’s impossible for anyone’s writing of any length to be utterly opinion-free (at least in my opinion). Of course you’ll find occasional opinions here. Even though this is not a blog of opinion, the door is open to it; it’s just never the guest of honor.

The second point is that what opinions you will find here concern relatively minor matters. I might mention in passing that I consider the Beatles to be far superior to the Rolling Stones, and you would not be wrong to classify that as an opinion (albeit a highly qualified one — I happen to have a rather extensive background in music). But since this is not a blog about music, such an opinion would never be the central concern of a post here; it would only be used to expound upon meatier topics.

But the most significant error the attackos make is to confuse, or deliberately conflate, opinion with subjectivity in general. As we discussed before, opinion is only one type of subjectivity. If I begin telling a story, and start laughing, that’s clearly a subjective response. But is it an opinion?Or have I merely flavored my telling of the story? Someone else might tell it using exactly the same words, but begin crying. The subjectivity of the teller would be very different, but how could our respective renditions be called a difference of opinion if the wording is exactly the same? If I say “this story always cracks me up”, is that an opinion? Nope; it’s just a statement of fact. And if I say, “I think this story is very funny”, that’s also, strictly speaking, a statement of fact; but in practical use it’s so indistinguishable from “this story is very funny” that we might as well call them both opinion.

I especially hear the “that’s just your opinion” refrain from Second Amendment fanatics — not surprising, since they are among the most reactionary of demographic groups. (That’s an observation, not an opinion). Which just might be a good reason why they should not own guns in the first place. (That’s speculative analysis, not opinion.) Although if they did, it’s quite possible that they would take up the slack by committing violence by other means. That’s speculation, which is also not opinion.

I certainly speculate frequently here, and you often can spot it by qualifiers like perhaps, possibly, it well may be, etc. But even without such markers, the speculative nature of the comment is clear enough. And it would be a mistake to assume that I intend such statements to represent undisputed fact. It sometimes would be a mistake to assume that I even believe them myself.

One of the most curious, and therefore most frequent, attacks I’ve received from the gun gallery concerns my comments about the killer of Trayvon Martin — specifically, that he was “aggressively stalking” Martin. Aha! they say, this is clearly an opinion. Nope. Granted, the choice of words is subjective — our word choices are always subjective, in my opinion. But still, those words describe solid facts established by the evidence including a recording of his call to police.

You may say that he was armed and Martin was unarmed, and he made some unfortunate disparaging verbal references (calling Martin one of “these assholes” and a “fucking punk”) to a person about whom he knew nothing except his race, and chose to disregard the dispatcher’s instructions to stay in his vehicle and let the police handle it, and gave pursuit on foot to confront someone he erroneously regarded as a crime suspect but who in fact was minding his own business (unlike the killer) even after expressing concern because the youth was supposedly coming toward him, and the ensuing confrontation was a big misunderstanding that spiraled out of control and resulted in the inadvertent death of an innocent person. I say he was aggressively stalking the kid. You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to. It’s a difference of diction and attitude, not a difference of opinion. It would be a difference of opinion if you said that Martin got what he deserved, and I said that his killer ought to be locked up.

It’s very common these days to lump all subjectivity under the banner of opinion — essays in the media, for instance, are commonly referred to as op-ed pieces, apparently on the assumption that any type of essay/ editorial must hinge on or be infused with opinion. Opinion often is present to one degree or another, but not necessarily so.

For example, you’ve probably surmised if you’ve been following these posts that I am not a charter member of the Dick Cheney fan club. I make that fact known at every opportunity. But my expression of my distaste for the man is not opinion, nor is it opinion when I recount his many vile misdeeds that prompt this response in me. They are all matters of verifiable record. What would be an opinion would be if I stated that he is unfit to empty Lord Voldemort’s chamber pot with a soda straw. After all, it’s entirely possible that such a task would in fact be ideally suited to his particular gifts.

Speaking of public officials appointed by Supreme Court fiat, it once seemed rather anomalous to speak of court decisions as “opinions”. A judge’s task is presumably to interpret law and the constitution, not to mandate opinion into law (even if opinion inevitably comes into play). While it may be semantic hairsplitting to differentiate between interpretation and opinion, there is a distinct line between ruling based on how one reads the constitution or the law and ruling based on one’s personal ideology. At least there once was.

The current majority of five “conservative” justices, however, have crossed that line repeatedly and blatantly. The watershed moment was Bush vs. Gore, in which among other things they halted the Florida recount because it was their opinion that protecting Bush’s claim to victory was more important than finding out who really won. (No, that’s not an exaggeration.)  This arrogant act has paid off in further dividends for the worshipers of opinion; the “president” they installed was in turn able to appoint two young replacements for members of their gang who were running out of gas, assuring a steady stream of such rulings for at least a generation.  Most recently, these five male Catholics decreed that religious conviction takes precedence over law — at least provided the religious convictions are their own and the law is one backed by a president whom the wingers have determined to despise at all costs.

If you would have a little practice in identifying and distinguishing between observation, analysis and opinion, try reading a few movie reviews (of which I’ve written quite a few in my time). All three are generally present in any given review, and they’re often organized in more or less discrete chunks.

Typically, a review will begin with observation and analysis. How long is the film? Is it in black and white or color? Is it a comedy, drama, thriller, slasher, mystery, satire, sci-fi/ fantasy, or some combination thereof? Who are the actors, writers, directors and designers? Does it appear to be influenced by Hitchcock or Bergman or some other master? Does it contain elements of film noir, nouvelle vague, or cinema verite?  There may be some subjectivity, of course, involved in answering such questions. The answers sometimes may even cross the border into the Domain Of Opinion. But there are usually definite “correct” answers that even critics can supply. (That’s a joke, critics.)

Then the second part of a review tends to focus on opinion. Is the ending effective? How well did the cast perform? Is the pacing good? Is the gore excessive? Should Woody Allen have quit while he was ahead? There are no definite right or wrong answers here. (Well, except maybe for the part about Woody Allen). Such opinions will give the readers a better idea of whether or not they should see the film, based on their opinions of the reviewer’s opinions.  But while reviews almost always contain opinion, and often are largely opinion (or at least highly opinionated), that isn’t always the case. When I wrote reviews, I considered it more important to give prospective ticket buyers an idea what to expect for their buck than to bring the world up to speed on my personal tastes. Accordingly, I kept opinion in the background just as I do with this blog.

The next time your immediate impression is that something in a review, or a blog post, or anywhere else, is opinion, you might want to take a closer look. You may find that you’ve been painting with too broad a brush.

 

Bill Maher and “Zombie Lies”

Bill maher

Bill Maher was in fine form, as he often is, on July 11 when he coined the much needed term “zombie lie”  for a lie that keeps coming back and making the rounds even after it has been thoroughly killed. He is referring specifically to GOP lies about the ACA (or, as it will be forever branded, “Obamacare”), but he quotes other notable examples. And makes some pertinent observations:

Look, I get it. Neither party has a monopoly on lying. And in fact they all do it so often they invented their own word for it. “I misspoke”. .. But how come the rule for one party, the Republican Party, is that when they get caught in a lie, they don’t have to stop telling it?

It’s a question worth asking. And a video worth watching.

Obama Haters + Benghazi + Iraq = More Spinning Than a Dervish on a Carnival Ride

dick-cheney

A couple of brief but worthwhile articles by Steve Benen at MSNBC highlight the dizzying heights of lunacy to which the cult of Obama hatred has ascended. One is about the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected terrorist mastermind behind the attack in Benghazi in 2012. Remember Benghazi? It’s one of the many “scandals” that the Obama Haters hoped would spell the end of the guy in “their” White House.  Terrorists attacked an American consulate in the Libyan city and killed 4 Americans, so somehow President Obama must have been to blame for something or other, right?

But now that the Obama administration has bagged the suspected mastermind of the assault, they’re all ready to give the president credit for at least trying to compensate for his (as yet unidentified) misdeeds, right?  Well, about the best they can come up with (Courtesy of fairandbalanced Fox)  is that the capture of Khattala is “good news, I guess”.  The rest of the radical wingers have kept piling onto their already massive heap of hatred, hyperventilation and hilarity, ever striving to come up with fresh and inventive ways to embarrass and humiliate themselves.

Benen’s piece lists a “top ten” of right-wing talking points on this development, including the claim that the whole thing is a publicity stunt to promote Hillary Clinton’s book tour. And an especially amusing twist is that, after frequently alleging that anything and everything the president does is a “distraction from Benghazi”, they’re now saying that his focus on Benghazi is a distraction from the (other) phony IRS “scandal”. You have to wonder at this point if there’s a limit to how far they’re willing to go, or if they’ll continue to “reach the bottom of the barrel,  (then) drill deeper.”

That phrase comes from another piece Benen wrote about Obama’s critics (and I use the term as an overwhelming understatement) on Iraq — quite often including many individuals who not only have  been themselves tragically and catastrophically wrong about Iraq in the past but, in at least one case, was among those responsible for creating the Iraqi nightmare that Obama is now trying to clean up. That would be one Richard Bruce Cheney, who for some reason is still not behind bars, and was, according to the Supreme Court at least, vice president for 8 years.

It’s a sort of unwritten rule of civility among members of former administrations that they don’t badmouth current administrations. For one thing, it generally just makes the former appear petty and puerile.  But Dick Cheney, as always, is the epitome of class, as witness his suggestion on the Senate floor that a colleague “fuck yourself”. Accordingly, he has made disparaging comments about the current president not just once but numerous times. That’s particularly galling from someone whose own ascension to his office was, to put it charitably, highly questionable.

And now he and his daughter Liz (who, one gathers, is another foreign policy expert of equal caliber) have co-written a diatribe in the Wall Street Journal about the Iraq quagmire which opines that

Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.

But ironically enough, it’s not a confession about the administration he served. It’s another sleazy attack on the current administration.  In Benen’s words:

Yes, the failed former vice president, a man whose catastrophic failures and misjudgments are the stuff of legend, has decided the president cleaning up Cheney’s messes has been wrong about everything – according to the man who was wrong about everything.

Just how much credibility has Mr. Cheney earned on Iraq? About as much as George W. Bush on the English language. Or Sarah Palin on American history. Or Bill Clinton on marital fidelity. Or Alex Jones on mental health. Not just because of his incompetence, which lord knows is considerable, but also because of his dishonesty, which he’s served up in equal doses. He and other members of his administration repeatedly lied and pushed fraudulent evidence to make a case for the invasion of Iraq.

My favorite instance of Cheney chutzpah was when he appeared on Meet The Press in 2002 and solemnly declared:

There’s a story in the New York Times this morning — this is — I don’t — and I want to attribute the Times,” said Cheney. “I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge.

Was he possibly referring to the “ultra-liberal” New York Times, the kingpin of the librulmedia cartel that controls what we see and hear, and is never to be trusted?  Well, it turns out a little skepticism would have been in order, because the article by Judith Miller turned out to have been based on phony intel — supplied by the administration itself. That’s right: the Cheney administration first supplied fraudulent information to a journalist, then cited that journalist’s obedient parroting of that phony information as justification for its plans to invade Iraq. Classier and classier. Somehow, this guy reminds me of the anecdote about the kid who killed his parents and then implored the court for leniency on the grounds that he was an orphan.

This man’s colossal blunders and duplicity have cost thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of lives, and trillions of dollars — but coincidentally have made a tidy profit for Halliburton. And he expects people to lend him an ear as he savages the current president. Don’t look now, but the media are doing just that.

At the conclusion of his essay about the Cheneys, Steve Benen asks,  “Is the nation comfortable with a degree of political madness this severe?” The answer, alas, appears to be yes.

Matters Of Opinion: The Triumph of Passionate, Ignorant and Irrational Conviction in America

Buckley and Vidal

Back in 1968, ABC News did something really revolutionary. It made opinionated commentary the centerpiece of its evening newscast.  Because, as its anchors explained in announcing the stunning innovation, opinion was something that had been sorely missing from news coverage. (We’ll pause while you catch your breath.) It wasn’t the first time commentary had been used on newscasts, of course; but ABC’s bold move in programming at this particular time proved to be groundbreaking, the opening of what many consider a Pandora’s box of domination by opinion.

It was perhaps an ideal time to try such an experiment, an explosive year at the height of the Vietnam conflict and the civil rights movement, with vociferous student protests and other civil unrest, a presidential election, violent clashes between police and civilians in Chicago, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As part of its fare, ABC  made an honest attempt at being fair and balanced by featuring frequent debates between the preeminent voices of “conservatism” and “liberalism” : William Buckley and Gore Vidal. At one point the affectedly suave, urbane and unflappable Mr. Buckley became so flustered that he threatened to “sock you right in the goddamn mouth”  — not the only time he threatened to punch out a debating opponent — and suggested that the “queer”  stick with his “pornography”, a reference to Vidal’s racy novel Myra Breckenridge. (And it’s an illuminating comment on American culture, such as it is, to note that when Buckley’s tirade aired, the network censors bleeped out only the word “God”.)

ABC’s revolutionary new format was short-lived, but it left a lasting impression; commentary remained a standard feature of its newscasts, and other networks followed suit. While network officials may have been rather uneasy about the way Buckley and Vidal clawed at each other like rival faction leaders in a schoolyard, the public ate it up. One might argue that 1968 helped pave the way for George Putnam and Wally George and Morton Downey Jr. and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck etc., etc., etc., etc,, planting the seeds for the “infotainment” establishment so prevalent today in media coverage of current events.

Today, opinion is the coin of the realm in the public forum. People believe  not only that it’s important for them to have an opinion about everything, but that it’s urgent to express it, and that the world has an obligation to deem it of great importance.  Everybody has a blog, and everybody comments on everyone else’s blog, and Facebooks and Tweets every little reaction they have to every little thing. In theory, there’s something healthy about this unprecedented level of exchange; but read the discussions on many of these blogs and you’ll almost always see them degenerate into catty, juvenile bickering that benefits no one. (I have to remain vigilant to prevent that from happening even here.)

It’s also a great irony that when we have such a phenomenally unprecedented source of knowledge as the Internet, it’s so often used to promote and reinforce pre-existing beliefs.  If you have concerns about the safety of vaccines, you can pull up all the legitimate research you’d ever want in a matter of minutes; instead, people often just Google-channel Jenny McCarthy.

I recently saw an online poll about whether people think Michelle Obama’s attire aboard Air Force One was disgraceful. Seriously, people? This is how you choose to spend the precious hours of your life that will never come again? Yet however frivolous such a discussion may be, it is at least a genuine matter of opinion, as there are no absolute standards about what a first lady should wear while traveling.  All too often, there’s a public avalanche of opinion about topics that aren’t matters of opinion, such as evolution. Evolution is a scientific fact, and none of your opinions (yes, including your opinions about the meaning and significance of biblical passages) will alter the reality one whit. It can be interesting and illuminating to discuss the facts; but trying to discredit them with opinion is like trying to conceal the Grand Canyon under a napkin.

We’re awash with opinion, drowning in opinion. Americans have become intoxicated with the notion  that opinion is inherently interesting. But opinions are only as interesting as the facts or ideas they’re attached to; and all too often, both are sorely absent.

Case in point: game show host Pat Sajak recently generated a great deal of free publicity that his career desperately needed when he Tweeted the following:

I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends. Good night.

He later insisted he was just joking, but the purpose of the “joke” was to ruffle the feathers of the “alarmists” (i.e. scientists and those who support their work). No explanation of how he acquired greater knowledge of science than scientists — apparently from years of watching Vanna White play with the alphabet — but anyone who challenges him is, if not an “unpatriotic racist”, at least an “alarmist” and a “liberal”. Opinion is supreme, and fact mustn’t dare infringe upon it.

That selfsame Bill Buckley who yearned to settle differences of opinion pugilistically also once commented that

“Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”

This remark is touted by his disciples as a clever putdown of “liberals”, but it actually betrays a common problem among “conservatives”. No, I don’t mean that it often seems their greatest joy in life is attacking them librulz, though that’s certainly a consideration. I’m referring to a common fallacy they exhibit or pretend to: the premise that respecting other people’s beliefs would entail presuming that all beliefs are created equal. Just because I respect your right to believe that AIDS is caused by peanut butter doesn’t mean that I’m going to take such a belief seriously. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean that I’m going to stand by idly while you try to make such a belief the cornerstone of public policy.

“Conservatives” have a habit of pushing for policy based on passionate beliefs that are unfounded at best, and often ill-informed, irrational and sometimes squarely in collision with solid fact and even their own convictions. These include the following: that capital punishment deters crime; that aggressive warmongering discourages aggressive warmongering; that having more guns makes us safer and an armed society is a polite society and citizens use guns to prevent millions of crimes a year ; that homosexuality  is both an illness and a voluntary “lifestyle”; that creationism is a substitute for science; that outlawing abortion will reduce its incidence, and doing so makes a person “pro-life”; that “Obamacare” is “socialized medicine”; that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War; that government assistance to the needy encourages indolence, while government assistance to the wealthy encourages industriousness; that the U.S. was intended to be a Christian nation and God is on our side and Christian morality is more moral than everyone else’s  morality.

Their only “evidence” for such beliefs is that somebody else said that somebody else said so.  Yet they want these tenets not only to be treated as the equals of fact-based beliefs, but given unquestioned supremacy — if you dare request some substantiation, they are likely to play the “liberal intolerance” card just as Buckley did. (Technically, there’s a distinction between belief and opinion, but the two are so closely allied, and so often used interchangeably, that we’ll let it slide for the moment.)

And oh yes, there’s the matter of global warming. Having an opinion about global warming is like having an opinion about the boiling point of water or  the number of days in a week. You either know the facts or you don’t. You either accept them or you don’t. Opinion is superfluous and irrelevant.  But that doesn’t prevent Pat Sajak from drawing his brilliant conclusions. Or Sean Hannity from saying “global warming is a myth, in my opinion.” At least these two had the decency  to acknowledge, in these particular instances, that they were merely expressing an opinion. Not so with James Inhofe, perennial senator from Oklahoma, who called climate change

the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state

And this, mind you, is a person who is in a position to shape legislation, a person whom the citizens of Oklahoma have voted into office repeatedly. Again, there’s no hint as to why Hannity’s or Inhofe’s opinions on such a topic should matter. We just know that they should somehow — apparently to a very great degree.

There are many subjects that I’m not an expert on; so when discussing such subjects, I’ll gladly defer to people who know more about them than I do. Which is why you’ll never hear me join the Sajak/ Hannity/ Inhofe chorale in proclaiming global warming a “myth” or “hoax”.  Am I suggesting that you never should question authority? Not at all. But quite often there’s a difference between authority and expert. George W. Bush was the ultimate authority on this planet for 8 long years. But he never exhibited expertise in anything except lies and deception, mangling the English language, destroying international goodwill, and magically transforming black ink to red. And he also. by the way, behaved, like many other “conservatives”, as if he considered scientific truth negotiable, heavily subjugating it to political ideology.

By all means, question authority if you feel so inclined. But if that also entails challenging the experts in their own fields, you’d better be armed with a lot more than opinion. You’d better have a level of knowledge at least equal to theirs. That is, if you don’t want to make a Sajak of yourself.

Do you really care if I believe that Bogota is the capital of Peru, or that the Baltimore Orioles won the American League pennant in 1944? Then why should you care what Pat Sajak or Sean Hannity or James Inhofe thinks about global warming? Or Pat Robertson thinks about evolution? Or Alex Jones thinks about government policy? Or Sarah Palin thinks about… well, anything?

The correct answers are (a) Lima — Bogota is in Columbia; (b) the St. Louis Browns, who did not become the Baltimore Orioles until a few years later; (c) it’s very real; (d) likewise; (e) he’s long overdue to be fitted for a new white jacket, and (f) she has achieved an extraordinary level of ignorance on a wide range of topics.

Those are the verifiable facts. Any contradictory opinions are probably — in my opinion, at least — a big waste of your time.