Field of Science

Slaughter in Sandy Hook: What Facebook Taught Me

'Nothing brings people together like a tragedy' is a phrase we learn early in life, usually after the first tragedy we experience. That's often a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. Think about how Americans came together after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then think about how some people came together to ostracize people with brown skin assumed to be of the Islamic faith.

Yesterday a young man armed with a number of guns, killed his mother, entered the school she worked in and assassinated 20 elementary school children and 6 adults, before turning the gun on himself.  The news spread like wildfire and although there was no new information for hours, updates (saying nothing new) were constantly coming. Of course social media networks blew up as well and then I learned (relearned actually) a number of things about people.

First, people are caring and empathetic to the parents, surviving children, and community.
People are also lazy and unwilling to actually do anything helpful for the parents, surviving children, and community.

For example, my facebook feed was littered with the following prayers and calls for prayers:

Nothing says commitment to helping those in need like hitting the 'share' button. Way to really do something about the tragedy. You can't actually come up with a sound-bite statement on your own, so you use one someone else made. Did you at least take a minute or two to add a comment. Actually no, in fact almost every single one of these posts that were shared (by multiple people) did not contain a word of extra text personalizing the 'share'. So we can click the 'share' button and select OK, because that truly embodies personal caring and empathy to the parents, surviving children, and community. But taking the time to do something useful, well that's just crazy talk.

Looking back on it, these kind of platitudes make some sense. The whole idea is that thinking, praying, or at least acknowledging that some people somewhere are suffering equates with helping in some way.  Why do people think that praying is in some way helpful? Do you believe god is sitting around taking a head count of how many prayers he gets? Once he gets the necessary number he will help otherwise, nada. Actually a lot of people do believe this, which is why see people praying for rain in Texas and Georgia.
You want to actually do something to help? Here is a short list I came up with in response to the plethora of empty platitudes.
  1. Donate blood. I know, you may not live in the Sandy Hook area. But your blood is needed by someone. You could actually save someone's life by spending a few minutes at a donation center. You could spend the time while donating sharing how you are actually doing something to help people. You can even pray while you are actually helping if it makes you feel better.
  2. Donate time to the affected families, shovel their driveways, cook some meals, etc. Don't live in the area, donate some time to help a neighbor, colleague, or the community. You know just generally make the world a better place.
  3. Write letters of condolences-support to the affected community. Even a simple letter to the editor of the Sandy Hook local newspaper. (It's the Newton Bee if you are interested.) You could write letters to the Board of Selectman of Newton CT or Sandy Hook elementary school. I expect your letters would reach some appropriate ears.
  4. You could push to change public policy to help avoid these kinds of shootings in the future. You could try to implement tougher gun laws, or make access to mental health services easier, or restrict violent video games, or whatever you think will make a difference. You may be wrong, you may not succeed, but at least you would be doing something.
  5. Spend time with your children, other family, friends. Let them know they are important to you. You should probably spend 10 times more with those you love than you do watching the news waiting for the important new information that comes once every 48 hours or so.
The second thing I learned, people will use any excuse to advocate for their favorite cause.

The two big ones I saw were gun control and not enough god. Yes, gun control would help. Yes, now is a good time to discuss it. No, empty platitudes regarding guns are about as helpful as praying. The second picture about gun control is even counter-productive. Anyone looking at it should realize the problem, it is not controlled for population. If we assume the numbers are correct, the fact that there were almost 11,000 handgun deaths in the US compared to almost 50 in Japan is meaningless unless you already know that the population of Japan is one-third  that of the US!

Then of course the persecuted Christians who are at war for Christmas need to screech about god and schools. Please just shut the fuck up. Your kids can pray before school starts, between classes, at lunch, recess, whenever they damn well want as long as it doesn't inhibit the learning of others. What you don't get to have is the government forcing every child in the school to have your preferred beliefs indoctrinated into them.

But really?!?! You worship a god who is so insecure that unless he is constantly being told how great he is, he will send a young adult to kill someone elses' kids. That is the take home message of the above picture. I see where that viewpoint comes from, the Abrahamic religions were founded on the story of a dad who was told to kill his son and was happy to do it (of course the prank was called off at the last minute). Hell, the Noah's ark story is the complete genocide of every man, woman, child, infant, and baby on the planet except for 8 adults (not called off).

The third thing I learned is that some people to realize the importance of community and that we should care about each other.

Now is a good time to remind our children that these tragedies are extremely rare and that they have friends and families that love and care for them. Of course, this is also an empty platitude unless it is acted upon. Saying you love your kid, but ignoring the problems they have is useless love. Telling someone you are there for them and not being there, the same as nothing. (Remember this the next time you see someone with an "I support the troops" bumper sticker. Feel free to ask them how, 99 times out of 100 they simply put a bumper 
sticker on their vehicle and maybe prayed a bunch.) 

So if you want to help, then do something. Otherwise, Ill go on assuming you are just trying to make yourself feel better by letting everyone know you really care by sharing empty platitudes.

The 2012 Election: My Assessment and What Comes Next

My Assessment:
My preferred outcome came to fruition, Romney lost. That is not to suggest that I supported Obama. Obama’s white-washing of criminal torture (we signed a treaty which is binding law), use of drone attacks, support of warrantless wiretaps, prosecution of whistleblowers, increased federal raids on medical marijuana clinics compared to Bush, and other examples of executive overreach made me extremely unsupportive of Obama. However, Romney would have maintained, at the least, and done much worse in these areas (reinstituting torture).

            I almost ran the wish-list table here as well. By and large, the far right wing republicans were sent home. Richard ‘rape is a gift from god’ Mourdock and Todd ‘magic uterine powers’ Akin lost to not insane candidates. Also Allen ‘only my religion counts’ West is unemployed. The legislative IQ average increased by 6.4 points with the loss of Akin and West.
            Locally, I was most heartened that my senator is still Amy Klobuchar and my representative is still Betty McCollum. Furthermore, Rick Nolan defeated Chip Cravaack. I was less heartened that Michele ‘swine flu is a democratic plot’ Bachmann was reelected again. However, there is a rainbow with Bachmann’s reelection. Based on redistricting, which made the MN 6th district even more conservative than it was previously, and the fact that she spent 10 times more than her opponent, Bachmann should have won in a landslide. She won by 1.18% (4207 votes). On a positive note Keith Ellison was also reelected. As an actual Muslim, you know that has to chaff Bachmann’s hide.

State Legislature:
            In this case, I ran the table. My senator is Bev Scalze and representative is Jason Isaacson. More importantly, both houses are in DFL hands as is the executive. Maybe some things can get done.

            Two No’s for victory! The constitutional amendment to redefine marriage as one man:one woman failed. The religious right used the meme that gay marriage was a redefinition, but as far as I can see marriage has been a moving target since its inception and has until recently in the US been a mechanism of property control (the property being women). In an example of cognitive dissonance the party most aligned with ‘traditional marriage’ also flocked behind Mitt Romney whose own religion supported polygamy until the US army threatened to squash them out of existence.
            Secondly, the voter ID amendment also failed. This was a strategic plot to disenfranchise voters most likely to vote democratic, veiled in a logical sounding sound bite.

The Way Forward:
            We all know the election results, it’s old news. So now what? Do we wait until the 2014 election hoping things get done? The short answer is ‘no’, or at least I want to suggest you should not think the answer is no. Now is the time to actually try and get something done. The politicians we just sent to office are now, at least unconsciously, beginning to think about reelection. So if you were motivated before, stay that way. Now is the time to start writing to your senators and representatives at the state and federal level. Tell them what you think and why. Do not simply say that you are for or against something, tell them why you are for it or against it. Give them the evidence/ammunition to use to help deliver what you want.
Insist on rationales. If your senators and representatives are for or against something, then have them explain why. Even if your preferred candidate didn’t win, contact your senators and representatives. They must understand they represent you, not simply those who voted for them. If your candidate is against tax cuts on the job creators, ask them for evidence that the tax cuts will create more jobs or that the job creators actually create jobs. You might even use evidence to bolster your questions. Did you get an answer you do not like? Write a letter to the editor in the local paper. Do some shit.
Do you have a skill set or expertise? Contact your senators and representatives let them know and volunteer your expertise in the event an issue comes up that you might be able to help with. Are you a licensed plumber? Let your congress people know that. Maybe a bill will come down the pike on regulatory issues related to pipe joining compound that your expertise can provide insight. Likely this wouldn’t be the case in a major federal law, but the state representative you help out next month might be your next US senator. Remember: one hand washes the other.

Were you like me and voted against the Minnesota marriage amendment? Well, all we accomplished was to make gay marriage not exceedingly difficult to legalize. The fact is in the state of Minnesota, the legal rights associated with civil marriage are not available to a significant number of citizens. I did not support the NO vote, simply to have gay marriage be illegal. I supported the NO vote as a necessary first step to legalization as was done in Maine and Maryland in this very election. There are numerous issues the Minnesota state legislature has to deal with and two days after the election the DFL stated that they are unable to multitask. Bullshit. Now is the time to keep their feet to the fire. The state has already concluded that gays and lesbians should not be constitutionally relegated to second class citizen status, but they are relegated to second class citizen status by law. Now is the time to change that.

We just completed an election cycle where sanity beat out insanity. But you know what? In the off-cycle elections the more moderate voices stay home, which is one of the reasons we saw massive wins by the tea party in 2010. The founding of the tea party had some reasonable voices that made points worth considering, but these were quickly lost by the right wing fringe that showed up and took over the tea party. They most extreme factions vote in droves in the off-cycle elections, so now is the time to maintain your involvement because it's the best chance you have to accomplish things you believe in and/or support. Now is the time to make sure your legislators hear your voice often. (FYI: a letter saying thank you when a legislator supports your position is always appreciated.)