About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Divine Supplement


In my last blog post, I introduced the concept of the Divine Supplement, which I briefly described as an object that represents God, but is not of God.  In creating this term, I am abstracting from  Rousseau’s idea of the Dangerous Supplement.  I am not literally reframing his argument to religious terms, instead, I am paralleling it with this term.

The Dangerous Supplement describes an inferior thing that becomes more significant than the real phenomenon that it is a substitute for.  Rousseau initially came up with this theory because he recognized that masturbation could become a damaging replacement for sex.  He later evolved the idea into the concept that writing was the dangerous supplement to speech.  Writing, in Rousseau's philosophy, was removed from direct connection to thoughts, and therefore a poor substitute for the speech, which was more directly connected to the mind.  In terms of Rousseau, the Dangerous Supplement can be broadened to explain any situation where the less authentic thing becomes superior to the more authentic one.

This idea creates a framework for the Divine Supplement, which, as I have introduced, is where a semi-sacred object can become a substitute for the authentically Divine.  I will address the issue of the authentically Divine in another post, because it is too complex to present in a brief space.  For now, I ask the reader to accept the idea of authentic Divinity.  This concept first appeared in human history in the Book of Joshua, where the Tribes of Israel, who lived on the east bank of the Jordan River, erected a substitute altar to connect them to the true altar in the Tabernacle.

This altar was a representation of the true one, but still had the spiritual power to bind the people to God.  As such, it was the first religious object in history that was not truly sacred, and yet it was also not profane.  I am using the word profane in Eliade’s sense of the word, where the profane means that it gives man no pattern for his behavior.  The Sacred, according to Eliade, is the space where man “conforms himself to the Divine” and it demands from him a certain defined response.  An example that Eliade uses to describe the sacred is that of Moses and the Burning Bush, where Moses halts and removes his shoes.

By this definition, the altar in the Tabernacle was truly sacred space, because it housed the Ark of the Covenant, which in turn housed Yahweh.  Further, that space was the only location where the priests could perform the rituals to invoke their Deity.  From the encounter between Moses and Yahweh, up until the events in Joshua, Jewish ritual and consequently, connection to God, could only occur in the Tabernacle.  After Joshua, connection to the Divine could occur at least in some form through the substitute objects of the replicated altar. 

This concept would revolutionize religion in the Western World.

As I stated in the last blog post, it detached God from a specific location or object and allowed religion to become a non-localized phenomenon.  In fact, none of our modern religions could exist without this dislocation.  If it had not occurred, the Jews could never have maintained their faith outside of the Holy Land.  Further, neither Christianity nor Islam could have become world spanning religions, because there would have not been an ability to connect to the Abrahamic God away from the places where His presence was made manifest.  All three religions would have been bound inexorably with the Promised Land.  (And since Mohammad was from Makkah not Israel, he may never have become a Prophet because he would not have been a part of the Abrahamic Tradition.)

But the impact was even more profound than just that singular idea of deities without borders.  It also allowed for religious experience to occur through objects that came from the hand of man rather than God, and it allowed those objects to connect people back to God.

Prior to this, the only genuinely sacred things were the Fetish Objects of the religions.  As I stated before, a fetish is an object that houses the spirit of Deity, and is an actual physical manifestation of the Divine.  In Judaism, the prime fetish was the Ark of the Covenant, which not only held the fragments of the Tablets given to Moses, but also was the physical dwelling place of Yahweh.  In order to perform the rites of the Jews, the priests had to be in the presence of the Ark.

But the idea of the Divine Supplement changed this.  As it evolved, some religious experiences could occur in the presence of a substitute.  People no longer needed the presence of the Fetish in order to worship or give devotions.  To the modern mind, this does not even seem to be that significant; we are completely used to the use of symbolic objects.  But remember, to the ancient mind, these objects were not symbolic, they were authentic.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the phenomenon of seeing the image of Jesus or the Virgin Mother in an object.  From a modern religious point of view, this is a symbol of God’s presence, but we don’t necessarily view the image as true manifestation.  In the ancient world, they would believe He was actually present in that picture.  (I am not going to address the fact that humans are pattern makers and find images everywhere.  That is a topic for another day.)

To further this point, let’s examine the idea of the Altar.  In the Torah, the only true Altar was the one that existed in the Tabernacle, because upon that Altar rested the Ark.  God’s physical presence was required to make the Altar holy.  After the Temple was built, it was sanctified by the Ark.  In the period of the Second Temple, the altar held a replica of the True Ark, the original having been lost with the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple.  Still, that substitute was holy enough to allow the rites of the Temple to occur in its presence. 

Today, every synagogue has an Ark, which instead of housing Yahweh; it holds a copy of the Torah.  The Ark of the modern synagogue is Divine Supplement that symbolically ties the assembly to their history.  This object is not an altar, but it is an object that connects the worshiper to the worshipped.  The copy of the Torah is yet another Divine Supplement; it is only made in Jerusalem and in a highly ritualized fashion that evokes and connects to the one true Torah written by Moses.  Though this, both the space and the text are symbolically connected back to antiquity.    

As we move into Christianity, we stretch the idea of the Divine Supplement even further.  It is interesting to see how it evolved in the various Christian sects.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, churches typically had a relic of a saint, or if they were truly wealthy and important, a relic of Jesus himself.  These objects are directly venerated, as were the fetishes of antiquity, and they are important to the sacridity of the church, used rituals and rites that made the space sacred.

Like the Torah Scrolls in Synagogues, these objects are a spiritual linkage to God.  They are not in and of themselves divine, as they are either the remains of saints, or physical objects connected to Biblical events, but they represent a connection to God.  Again, we see the idea of the Divine Supplement; the semi-sacred relic that is purely human substituting for the Divine Fetish.  On a side note, the Roman Catholic Church required the presence of a relic in all altars prior to 1969.
This process of development of the Divine Supplement takes an even larger step in the Protestant faiths.  Their churches are consecrated through a ritual process that makes the space sacred, there is no need for a fetish object or even a relic to sanctify the space.  Rites, which Eliade would describe as hierophanies, have taken the place of the fetish objects that were necessary in antiquity, and they have become an alternative to the concept of theophany, which is a literal manifestation of God.

The very concept of the hierophany is the utlimate exemplar of the Divine Supplement.  In the ancient world, experience of God required a theophany, in other words, He had to physically manifest, either in form or in action.  Examples of this are Moses and the Burning Bush, the Pillar of Fire, or the Fiery Chariot that carried Elijah bodily into Heaven.  Yahweh in the Pentateuch was known through his actual physical presence.

A hierophany, on the other hand, is a substitute for the physical appearance of the Divine.  It is an ideal model presented in lieu of an actual manifest Deity.  This ideal model, according to Eliade, is a system of laws, commandments, and rituals which create value, direction and purpose.  This system is what creates the Sacred, eliminating the need for an actual physical connection to God.  Connection to God, in the hierophany model is spiritual, not material.

By creating this ideal model, connection to God becomes both ritualized and internalized.  I will examine the internalization of this connection in my next blog, for now, I want to explore the ritualization of connection.

I began to address this in my last post, when I discussed how the Laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy set the Jews apart from the rest of the people of the Middle East.  The Covenant became the basis for being Jewish, as opposed to a physical location.  It created an identity separate from nation and allowed the Jews to remain Jewish regardless of where they lived.  As long as they held to the Covenant, they were tied to God. 

But this concept goes even further as we move forward in time.  In the ancient world, only priests could participate in the rituals that tied the people to the Gods.  The non-ordained could not even set foot in the temple precincts.  This held true in almost all of the lands around the Mediterranean.  Common people could watch certain rites, like the parade of the statues in the Opet Festival, but that was the absolute limit of their participation.

This contrasts sharply with the Jews, who in keeping to the Laws, participated in a number of the rituals that tied them to Yahweh.  Some rites, such as the Burnt Offering, could only be performed by the priests, but many other rituals, such as the Bar and Bat Mitzvah, had the participation of all of the people.  Further, unlike the Greek and Egyptian Temples, all Jewish men could enter the Temple itself.  This ability to participate in the rituals created a sacred connection between man and God.

This ritualized connection increased in the early Christian traditions.  In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, all people participated in Mass, received Communion, and many of the Sacraments of the Church.  Even though the Priest acted as an intermediary and led the rituals, every member of the congregation had a role to play.  It took an entire community to create the sacred space of the Divine Supplement.

In the Reformation, the Hierophany of the ritualized connection became supplanted by that of the internalized connection, and this is where I will pick up in the next Blog. 

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Birth of The Divine Supplement


One of the great paradigm shifts in the history of religion was the idea that deity no longer needed to be tied to a singular location.  While the shift to Monotheism is heralded as the great advancement in human theological evolution, it actually would not have been effective without this parallel, and possibly even more important shift.

Until this point, the Gods were tied to a location, in fact, most of the early temples were either symbolic or literal homes for the gods.  For example, the Gods Amun and Mut were believed to reside in their statues that were housed in Karnak Temple.  These statues were part of significant religious pageantry in the Opet Festival, which re-enacted the marriage and coupling of these deities.  In this annual celebration, the statues were bathed, anointed, paraded, and then wed at the temple of Luxor.  During the wedding, the Pharaoh and his consort would stand in for the gods, and then after a "honeymoon" in the temple, the King and the Gods would sail back to Karnak.

To our modern mind, we would view this as a symbolic act, much like the modern recreations of the Crucifixion.  However, this modern reframing of the festival does not accurately represent the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.  To them, the statues were not substitutes for the deities, they were the actual gods, or at least vessels to contain their spirits.  This idea was also held by most of the Mediterranean cultures of antiquity; the Gods of the ancient world resided in the Fetish Objects of their Cults.  (I am using the anthropological meaning of this term, which refers to an object that contains supernatural power.  This term does not refer to anything sexual.)

This belief tied the Gods to their lands, because they were believed to dwell among their people, at least in spirit.  Because of this, the worship of a god was not transferable.  For example, when Ptolemy and his descendants became the rulers of Egypt, they ceased worshiping the Greek gods of their land, and became devoted to the Egyptian deities.  In fact, many of the great temples of Egypt, such as Dendara, were erected by the Ptolemaic Dynasty, and these rulers are depicted on the temples worshiping as Egyptian Pharaohs.

This idea even held true in much of the Pentateuch, the part of the Hebrew Bible that is attributed to Moses.  Yahweh is mostly confined to the lands of the Israelites, although He does perform miracles in Egypt.  It should also be noted, that, like the Egyptian Gods, Yahweh was later confined to an object, in this case the Ark of the Covenant.  Almost all the acts He performs during the forty years in the desert occur near the Ark.  Also, even in later books of the Bible, his presence often seems to require the Ark. 

Also, in the early books, He is only the God of the Jews.  None of the other peoples, either in Canaan or in Egypt worship Him.  The other deities mentioned, such as Baal or the Gods of Egypt, are not described as false gods as much as they are forbidden deities.  The people in these stories do not convert to Judaism, the only thing they might do is recognize that Yahweh is more powerful than their Gods.

This idea of Gods being tied to geographic locations and objects permeated all of ancient societies, even the proto-monotheistic Jews, although in their case, as they wandered, God traveled with them, because they carried his home with them.  I would consider this to be a transition to the non-localized deity that would later develop.  There are other examples of Gods being carried into battles and such, but here I am going to focus on Judaism, as one of the earliest written traditions reflecting this development.

This idea of a geographically based God began to shift radically for the Jews in the sixth century B.C.E. either during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile.  This is the period when the Book of Joshua was written, and in that book, for the first time possibly in history, we see God and location begin to separate.  Specifically, this occurs in Joshua 22 verses 10 through 34.

In this story, the children of Gad and Reuben, as well as some of the children of Manasseh, build an altar to God on the east bank of the River Jordan, where they are going to make their home.  The rest of the Jewish tribes, believing this to be a false altar raised in rebellion to God, prepared to go to war with their brethren. 

Upon arriving, Phinehas discovered that these tribes had not raised an altar to rebel but to honor Yahweh.  Because they were separated from the rest of the Tribes of Israel by the River Jordan, they had erected the altar so that their children could also know God.  Phinehas blessed this endeavor, and there was no war between the tribes.  The only restriction imposed was that they could not use their surrogate altar to perform specific rites, such as the burnt offering, that were restricted to the Tabernacle.

The importance of this event is overlooked by many.  On the surface, it seems to be another lesson about not worshiping false idols, but it is actually far more significant.  It marks what may be the very first instance of what I will term the Divine Supplement; an object that is not in itself of God, but represents God.  It is the first instance of a modern view of the worship of deity.  I will more deeply explore this concept in my next blog post.   For now, I want to look at how this radical idea might have originated. 

It is not surprising that this concept would occur in the book of Joshua, which is the first book of the Hebrew Bible to be written during the Babylonian Captivity.  The Torah, although probably put in its final form during this period, likely predates it by a century or more.  During this period, the ancient Jews were dislocated from their lands, captive in a foreign nation and trying to cling to the faith and traditions of their ancestors.

This was an act that was radical at the time.  As I stated earlier, throughout the ancient period, when you moved, you took new Gods.  Even several centuries after the Book of Joshua, this was the typical action.  The expected result of the Exile should have been conversion to the worship of the Babylonian deities.  In fact, that might have been the very reason for the Babylonian Captivity; to stamp out the worship of Yahweh.  I suspect the many injunctions in the bible about foreign gods and false idols are also a reaction to this tradition and to refuse to bow to the convention of religious conversion.

So, given that Judaism was one of the most elaborate theologies of the ancient world, and one that was based on discussion and theological arguments, there became a need to justify the ability to keep faith in a foreign land.  If Yahweh was tied to the land, and even more, to the Ark, in Babylon the Jews were cut off from God.  Both the Temple and the Ark were lost to them.  By constructing a Biblical justification for a substitute altar, the Jews became free to find legitimacy for any temple they might raise in Babylon.  Their God was no longer tied to place or object.  Only certain rituals such as the burnt offering were denied them, not access to Deity.

Judges could also be a response to this exile, with its constant themes of losing and finding faith in God.  The entire Book reflects how hard it is to hold onto faith when surrounded by other religions, with the Israelites converting to the worship of other Gods, only to find their faith again through a charismatic leader who leads them back to Yahweh.

At this point in history, the Jews created something radical, through the writings in their Holy Books. 

Though the Torah, they created a series of laws and rituals that would set them apart from all other people.  No longer was religion based in location, it was based in keeping the Covenant, and living a religiously prescribed lifestyle, reinforced with injunction not to mix with other people.  This kept their purity and made Judaism a religion that could not be adopted just by relocation.  A person had to bind themselves to God in ways that no other society had done before and thus preserved their unique identity.  They found the way to truly create a Jewish Identity.

In the Histories, they created a chronicle of losing and finding faith.  They also created their concept of a God who did not act on whim, but followed a Divine Plan, even if it was utterly incomprehensible to His worshipers.  This is in direct contrast to the whimsical and capricious deities of the rest of the ancient world.  I suspect that He was depicted as cruel at certain moments because life at this time was cruel, and they molded God into that image.  Still, the main story of the Histories is that people need to remain firm in their beliefs and not be swayed to the worship of other Gods.

Finally, the Book of Joshua, while technically part of the Histories, does something radically different than either pf the other two sets of books that were codified in this period.  Joshua creates the idea of a non-localized ability to worship God and still be heard by Him.  It forms the basis of the idea of a religious substitute, the Divine Supplement.

In my next post, I will go into depth on the concept of the Divine Supplement and its relation to the Authentic.

A street in Jerusalem.  I took this picture in 2000. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Well Regulated Militia


It is time to have a serious discussion on the Second Amendment in this country, one that is adult and mature.  We need to talk about sensible issues.  However, in the post Newtown Massacre environment,  we see people beginning to engage in posturing on both sides of the issue.  On the left, you hear calls for the complete repeal of the Second Amendment.  On the right, you have demands for every teacher to be armed.

This is not productive, and if it continues, it will become another wedge that splits this nation apart.  We have enough of those already.  This can no longer be an issue for political posturing on either side; there are already too many dead. 

In light of this, I want to talk about what the Second Amendment actually guarantees, and then I want to examine what I think is a sensible position on this issue, and why we need to look at it.

First, I would like to examine the historical realities that underlie this part of the Constitution.  Before I begin, I would like to quote the exact text of the amendment:

            "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,
            the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Most people, especially in the media, do not discuss the entirety of the text, nor understand the context that it came out of.  So I will start off with some background on this.

In the British Army, weaponry was accorded to soldiers by military rank, which often also corresponded to social class.  The infantry was typically pulled from the ranks of the landless poor, the unemployed, and even petty criminals.  As was the custom at the time, they only received inferior weapons, most typically a musket called a Brown Bess.  This gun was extremely inaccurate, and only worked as a war weapon when you had many soldiers firing simultaneously. (This is called a volley.)  The finer quality of weapons was reserved to the officers, which also happened to be noble born.  Admittedly, this was partially due to cost, but it was also a way to keep the rabble from having truly dangerous weapons. 

In this, the Right is correct in a way.  They kept powerful and accurate weapons out of the hands of the lower classes as a way to help prevent revolution.  Of course, as we saw in the many revolutions that have followed, it isn't really that great of a strategy.  Sheer numbers will eventually overwhelm a well armed minority.  One only needs to look at what happened in Egypt, where the government was one of the best armed in the Middle East,  to see how little superior firepower actually means to determined revolutionaries.

So to return to the point, the European militaries had poorly armed and minimally trained infantries that were drawn from the low end of society, and a well armed, well trained, upper officer caste.  Further, there was almost no mobility between these groups, and service was often by conscription.  In other words, people in the infantry typically did not choose to serve, and then they were given poor quality armaments.  All of this was done to build the world spanning empires of this period.

An understanding of this helps frame the existence of the Second Amendment.  Look back at the text in light of this information.

It starts "A well regulated Militia."  As envisioned by the Framers, there was no Standing Army of the United States.  Although this was quickly modified because they realized that there did need to be a national army, it was still supposed to be the lesser force.  The primary force in the country was to be the state militias.  This system still exists in the form of the National Guard, which is technically under the control of the Governors of the states.

The next part, "being necessary to the security of a free State," indicates the role of this Militia.  The militia, as the National Guard does now, was responsible for the security of the States, both individually and collectively.  Remember, having freed themselves from the yoke of one Empire, the Founders were very hesitant to create a new one in its place.  The states wanted the primary control of military forces, and this was the compromise hammered out.  It protected the states from each other, but created a framework for mutual defense.

The last part is the section that is the problem when removed from the context it was written in.  "The right to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  Taken out of context, it seems pretty plain, you cannot infringe on the right to bear arms.  In context, it becomes clear that the right lies within the bounds of a well regulated militia.

What this amendment initially guaranteed was that all citizens who wished to serve in a militia would be allowed to, and further that they would be allowed to have whatever weaponry they wished.  There would be no class stratification for arms, and also that those militia members would be allowed to keep their weaponry.  This was not typically allowed in the European military, where the weapons belonged to the government, and were only given out in preparation for battle.

Further, allowing the Militia members to keep their weaponry allowed them to be ready to fight at a moments notice; there would be no need to go to the armory to retrieve their weapon.  This made the state forces nimble and quick to respond.

Also, when you look at the Second Amendment in the context of the Third, you more clearly see that they both have relationship to a citizen's rights in relation to the armed forces.  (The Third protects from having to billet a soldier in a private home.)

So to tie this up, the Second Amendment basically provides that all citizens can serve in the Militia, and if they do so, will be allowed to have high quality weapons, retain them in their homes and carry them at will.  But it also means that in order to do so, you must be a part of the well regulated Militia, or at least be willing to serve as such.

This is actually not that much different from the laws in Switzerland, where all men must serve in the military, receive military training, and then for the rest of their lives, keep their weapons with the knowledge that they may be called upon to defend the country.  Essentially, all Swiss men are members of the Army Reserves, which means that every home has military grade weaponry in it.

So, taken under this view, according to the Original Intent of the Second Amendment, the only people who should have weapons are those that have served or are currently serving in either the military or National Guard.  But over the years, as we have become safer, and increased in population, there is not the need or ability for all Americans to serve in this manner.  Consequently, the interpretation of the Second Amendment has expanded.  And this is what sets the stage for our current dilemma.

We need to ask ourselves what are the limitations?

Even in the post Revolutionary War America, there were limits to the types of weapons people could have.  For example, citizens couldn't have cannons, nor could they have the rudimentary bombs that existed in that time.  There were always controls on the armaments that were permitted outside of military armories.

Today, this extends to a wide range of weapons.  For example, people cannot own tanks, nuclear bombs or chemical weapons.  Of course, the counter to that is, those are weapons not arms, and don't fall under the Second Amendment because it specifically states arms.  However keep in mind, switchblades, swords and long knives are also arms, and those are almost universally prohibited, at least if they are sharp and carried in public.  Since the switchblade manufacturers lack a powerful lobbying arm, their products are illegal.  Consequently,  we already limit arms, at least unless politically powerful forces align behind them.
I think a better tipping point of the limitations is how many people the weapon can harm in one use.  The heavy weapons that are illegal are ones that are designed only to kill people, typically lots of them, and do so at a rapid rate.  Therefore we outlaw the weapons of mass killing, like bombs, grenades and similar devices.

However, automatic machine guns and the like are also designed to kill masses of people; they are not hunting weapons, nor are they even weapons of self defense.  A machine gun is not the item that you would pull to fend off a mugger; it is a weapon to kill dozens, and if used in that sort of situation, many people other than the bad guy would be dead.  Outside of a zombie apocalypse, you are unlikely to be set upon by that many people at once.

Outlawing this sort of firearm would not violate the intent of the Second Amendment.  Remember, the Framers never imagined this sort of weapon, they barely had passed from the Musket to the Rifle in their time, and almost all weapons had a very limited kill speed.  As I said, even in their day, they outlawed for private ownership their form of weapons of mass death.

The same thing can be said of high capacity magazines.  Again, these are not items used in hunting, because you try to kill cleanly with one shot.  You don't want to pump a deer full of lead.  Similarly, they are also not for self defense either, for the same reasons listed above.  If you cannot stop an attacker with a few bullets, you are either a terrible shot, or you are fighting an evil superman.  In the first case, you may very well kill others, and in the second case, you're going to die anyway, no matter how well you are armed.

At this point I would also like to address a couple of side issues that I've touched upon, self defense and fighting tyranny.  These are two issues the NRA constantly brings up.  (I'll address the third one in a bit.)

First, there is the claim that carrying a gun is the best form of self defense.  I've talked about this one in a previous post, but I will restate it here.  A gun is only actually good for self defense if you have had military or police training.  The bulk of military training is not to teach you how to shoot, but how to be able to pull the trigger.  Killing people is not instinctive and there have been many studies that prove this.  You actually have to train someone to be able to kill, because every instinct in their bodies rejects it.

Interestingly, there is some proof that first person shooter video games actually function as desensitization training.  This is also at least partially born out by the number of mass murderers who loved violent video games.  However, I am not going to go as far as confusing correlation with causation.  Still, I do think that the Right has a point that these sort of video games do contribute to a reduction of the value of human life.

But still, without training, people will hesitate before firing a fatal shot.  A criminal who has brought a gun to commit a crime has come to terms with killing and is unlikely to hesitate to pull the trigger.  Therefore, in that moment of hesitation, the person carrying the gun is actually more likely to be killed than an unarmed man. 

A few years ago, I was inside a restaurant when I saw the manager get jumped in the parking lot.  One of the employees and I rushed the attacker and we were unarmed.  The attacker probably was, but our sudden and unexpected retaliation shocked him so much that he fled.  That and the fact that we jumped him and started pounding him.  I am NOT recommending this as the appropriate response in a mugging, but sudden, unexpected action is more likely to turn the tables than a gun.

Another thing to remember is that a gun is not necessarily good for self defense in a situation like Newtown.  Again, without extensive training in high pressure shooting situations, it will become extremely hard to acquire the target and shoot with necessary accuracy.  The reality in a situation like this is that you are as likely to kill an innocent as you are to stop the murderer.  Even with military or police training, friendly fire deaths are common.  Without that training, they are almost certain.  Remember, we almost always overestimate our skills, and saying that if we were armed in a mass shooting we could stop the killer is an abject denial of reality.

To sum this up, unfortunately, despite what TV and the NRA tells us, we are actually in more danger if we are armed than if we are not.  The only way to make this not the case is to get the same sort of training that the military provides.  This leads to another sensible gun law, if you are going to carry a weapon for self defense, you should receive military quality training on how to use it.

The second thing that the NRA constantly brings up is that we need guns to protect ourselves from tyranny.  They even state "fear the government that fears your gun."  My response to this is, if you are that afraid of your government, you need to vote them out of office now.  And if you are part of a tiny minority that that thinks the government is already irredeemably evil, consider moving to some other country.

The truth is, Americans will not suffer the yoke of tyranny for very long at all.  We are a rebellious and malcontented group of people on the best of days.  This is a country that will march on Washington at the slightest provocation.  You only need to look at the Tea Party and the Occupy movements to see this. 

If we ever actually faced the sort of dictatorship that the fringes on either end fantasize about, that regime would only last a few days.  Look how quickly most revolutions happen even in countries with iron fisted control, and the masses are often armed with little more than sticks and stones.  With all of the handguns and rifles in this country that would remain legal, even under an assault weapon ban, a hypothetical totalitarian government would never be able to take root in this nation.  This is a straw man fallacy, meant to distract us.

The final issue that the NRA brings up is that if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.  Of course that's true, it's a recursive statement, just like any other if-then assertion.  However, it is also unfounded, at least in the case of these recent mass shootings.  Many of them, especially Newtown, were essentially crimes of opportunity.  The guns were legally obtained, but they were obtained by people who shouldn't have been able to get them.

To be very blunt, mentally ill people and people who have been convicted of felonies should not be able to have guns.  It doesn't matter if that infringes on their rights; the rest of us have a right to not be killed.  There is vast precedent for this.  In many places in this country, if you are a convicted felon, you lose your right to vote.  The same should be true of owing a gun.  You choose to commit a crime, and as such, you know that there will be consequences.  Losing your right to own a gun is no worse than losing the right to vote, and in all honesty, it is actually less severe.

Preventing the mentally ill from owning guns is a stickier legal proposition, especially given that people do not have control over mental illness.  Taking away a right for something that is an illness is on some level disturbing, but we need to avoid the slippery slope fallacy.  There is a clear dividing line here and laws could be very carefully written to tightly constrain the limitations for mental illness.  Still this needs to happen, given how many mass murderers are not mentally stable.

To sum this up, we need sensible gun control in this country.  We do not need to repeal the Second Amendment, nor should we arm everyone in some sort of Wild West fantasy.

We need to do the following things in the wake of the Newtown Massacre.  First, we need to ban assault weapons, weapons that have no legitimate self defense or sporting purpose, but are designed to kill large numbers of people.  Second, we need to outlaw high capacity magazines, Teflon jacketed bullets, and other sorts of projectiles that are again designed to kill people exclusively.  Third, we need to keep guns out of the hands of convicted criminals and the mentally ill.  Fourth, we need to close the gun show loopholes that allow people to purchase guns without a background check.  Fifth, we need to require that all people who have a concealed carry permit go through military grade training on how to use their weapon, and prove that they are accurate and competent in their handling of it.

None of these things would violate the intent of the Second Amendment, either as originally constructed, or in it's modern permutations.  I do not for one second believe that these steps are a panacea.  No matter what we do, there will always be tragedies like the ones we have suffered this year.  No matter how distasteful it is, we have to accept that fact.  Still, we can act to limit the both the frequency of these events and numbers of people who die in them.

In the end, how many more children have to die before we act?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

God's Coventry


The spate of mass shootings in this country are enough to make people question the existence of a benevolent and omnipotent God.  The issue of how to reconcile the existence of loving God with the evident evil that exists in the world has been an issue for philosophers and theologians since the Age of Rationalism began. 

Gottfried Leibniz created a framework to reconcile these seemingly opposed aspects of the universe, while preserving the theological foundations of a Deity of Good.  He called his creation a theodicy, and it was one of the first attempts to justify the existence of God using rational thought, while also creating a framework to explain the evil in the world.  It is different from a simple defense, which does not attempt to explain the existence of evil or even help people understand why evil exists.

There are four aspects of a theodicy.  First, it must provide justification of the existence of God despite the evil in the world.  Second, it must be built from a common sense world view, which means that it cannot draw on obscure points of theology, but must work from common belief.  Third, it must draw from historical and scientific opinion, which binds it into the realm of logical argument.  Finally, the theodicy must be built off of plausible moral principles.

It was one of the first attempts to bring God into the realms of Natural Philosophy.

As this is an interesting theological exercise, in light of the events in Newtown, I would like to build a Theodicy to try to explain the horrors inflicted by armed villains.  I am doing this in response to the disgusting statements of people like Mike Huckabee, who claim that these mass shootings occur because we have "excluded God from the public schools."

Before I build my argument, I must address these statements, because not only are they vile in light of a tragedy that has left twenty small children dead, but also because if that is true, then God is irredeemably evil, and there is little if any difference between him and Satan.

In the Book of Job, God allows Satan to inflict disaster and suffering on Job, to prove that no matter what happens, Job's faith is strong enough that he will not turn away from God nor will he curse God for what has happened to him.  After Job's faith is affirmed, and Satan is proven wrong in his belief that Job only loves God because God has gifted him, Job receives back what he has lost.  While the story of Job is disturbing on a number of levels, in the end God is shown to be just and compassionate.

That is not the case if God massacres children to prove a point.  Unlike in the story of Job, those children will not come back, nor will they be replaced, as were Job's herds.  God simply obliterated them without mercy.

Even worse, if God is sending these things to teach us a lesson and out of anger that we have supposedly excluded Him from our country, how evil must he be to slaughter the innocents to make a statement.  The children have nothing to do with deciding issues like prayer in school gay marriage or any other social issue people want to blame. It is also quite likely the parents who are now grieving did not have anything to do with those decisions either.  To punish people who have done no wrong, and let the actual decision makers remain unsanctioned is an evil beyond belief.  If God is so cruel as to do these things, then God is not good or loving.

Since that is so alien to what I believe about a loving deity, I must reject it and with it I must condemn anyone who uses this sort of disgusting rhetoric to try to sway a grieving nation.  It is an act as evil as the initial massacre. There are things you simply do not do, and one of those is telling a grieving parent that their child died because America allow gays to marry or has taken Christian prayer out of the schools.

Instead, I must look at how this sort of evil can exist in the world, despite an all powerful and all loving God.  And through that exploration, I will try to build a Theodicy.  I do want to state, I am not a true theologian, and I do not know if this is going to be correctly constructed, but I want to try to rationalize, for myself at least, the issue of evil in the world and how God can permit it's existence.  

I am also not going to fall back on the easy explanation that the evil in the world is the result of Satan.  This explanation either neuters God, making him powerless to prevent the Devil from having Earthly reign, or it makes God a defacto accomplice, sanctioning the actions of Satan.  This explanation is what is called a defense, and would have been the rationalization prior to the Enlightenment.  As such, I would like to use a more sophisticated theology.

The core of the reconciliation between evil and God lies in the concept of Free Will.  I have explored this concept previously, in this blog post, but here I want to look at it from the point of view of God.  God gave mankind Free Will  and this means He cannot intervene, even when our actions are horrific and evil.  People make the choice to commit evil acts, and for him to intervene in these instances revokes the very idea of free will.

It is basically similar idea of a parent letting a child chose their path.  As a parent, you can tell when a child is going to screw up their life, but in the end, forcing a child to make the right decision keeps the child forever an infant.  There is no growth without the ability to screw up.  But beyond that, if God intervenes and stops someone from committing evil, the entire framework of Free Will becomes an illusion, because the underpinning is knocked out.

To further explain this, we have to look at the nature of Sin.  To commit sin, there must be two aspects, the decision and the action.  I reject the traditional Catholic view that the sin exists only in the decision, and the action is irrelevant.  If you decide to commit a sin, then upon reflection have recognition of the irrevocable nature of that sin and turn back from the precipice, then you have found redemption, and have not committed a sin.

Similarly, if you sin outside of a conscious decision, either because of extreme need, or being forced to, you have not actually sinned.  This covers the Valjean dilemma; stealing a loaf of bread because you are starving.  It also covers things like the necessity of killing in a war, possibly even if the cause you are fighting for is unjust in the eyes of God.  While the first is sanctioned by most religious authorities, I know that the second is morally questionable, because it skirts the line of the Nuremberg Defense.  However, most people would agree that killing in times of war is sometimes necessary, especially in a kill or be killed situation.

So, outside of the situations that may look like sin on the surface, but do not actually constitute sin, people have the option to chose between Salvation and Damnation.  For God to intervene and stop the actions that are required for the commission of a sin, He actually eliminates the option of Free Will.  At that point, we move into the realm of Predestination, that all souls are destined for Heaven or Hell, regardless of the decisions they make in life.

But why, then does He allow innocents to die.  Can He not contain the evil?  Unfortunately the answer has to be no.  For him to directly intercede in the affairs of man breaks the rules as well.  He would have to weigh the worth of all people, and choose who would live and who would die.  In other words, he would have decide who's life was worthy of being spared and who was unworthy enough to allow them to be killed.

This is problematic on many levels.  First, it eliminates the possibility of redemption.  Perhaps the person is on the wrong path now, but later recognizes the error of their ways and straightens up.  I understand that the concept of omniscience means that God would know if that person would ever find salvation, and of course He could arrange to only have damned souls die in these sorts of incidents, but then that leads to an even more horrific problem.

It means that everyone who dies in incidents like Newtown essentially got what they deserved.  It would mean that everyone who died that day was basically a horrible person who God decided to obliterate.  It also means that people would have no reason to grieve the losses, because they deserved it.  That is the Fred Phelps view of the world, but beyond that fringe, this is an idea that must be rejected.

So basically, God's gift of Free Will means that He understands that sometimes people will misuse that gift.  That is why He gave us the gift.  And further, if he were to intervene, he would either revoke Free Will, or he would make us have no sympathy for the victims, which would irrevocably harden our hearts against people who suffer tragedy.  In this view, Job would have gotten what he deserved and would not be a lesson in faith overcoming adversity.

There is a story about World War Two that is relevant here.  The British had cracked Enigma, the primary code used by the Nazis.  The secret that they had cracked the code was probably the single biggest factor in the Allied victory in Europe.

After the code was cracked, the British decoded that the Luftwaffe was planning to firebomb the city of Coventry, which at the time had almost 200,000 residents.  The attack that was being planned was unprecedented, and would certainly cause massive death and destruction. 

At this point, Winston Churchill had a choice, he could evacuate the city and build up it's defenses, saving hundreds or thousands of lives, but reveal that Enigma was broken, or he could do nothing, let the city be devastated and keep the secret that Enigma had been deciphered.  In the end, he let the attack happen; 800 people died, and thousands were injured.  Most of the city was left in ruins, and in the whole of the war, the only British city to take more damage was London itself.

But the secret was kept.  Thousands were killed or injured so millions could be saved.  Had the Germans known that Enigma was broken, they would have changed the code, and quite possibly won the war.  Churchill later said that the decision to not save Coventry was the single hardest decision of his life, and it haunted him for the rest of it.

In the end, you could say that the horrors that occur in the world are God's Coventry.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

And So It Begins...


We are watching the earliest stages of the dissolution of the Republican Party, and at this rate, it is quite likely that the G.O.P. will suffer the same fate as the Whigs did in the middle of the 1800's.

I am not saying this because of the disaster that was the 2012 Presidential Election, nor am I saying this because of how the current political Right cannot seem to do anything to address the shifting demographics of this country.  In and of themselves, this is damaging, but not truly fatal.  In time, the Republicans could re-brand themselves to appeal to these groups. 

It has happened before, when the Democrats cut loose the segregationist ties that the Southern wing of the party had and whole-heartedly embraced the Civil Rights Movement.  Remember, until President Kennedy met with Martin Luther King and convinced him that the Democratic Party would push for a complete end to segregation in this country, Reverend King was a Republican.  Until the mid-sixties, most blacks in this country were a swing demographic at best.  Now they are one of the most solidly Democratic groups in America.     

So in this sense, demographics are not necessarily destiny; all it would take is the Republican Party spearheading truly compassionate immigration reform, equal pay for women and a few other similar causes.  If they did this, they might level the long term playing field, maybe not for 2016, but probably for 2020 and beyond.  It only took about ten years to shift minority support into the solid Democratic column, and it is not a guarantee that it will always remain there.

The reason that I am saying the Republican Party is doomed is because Charlie Crist became a Democrat.

It is not specifically because he changed parties, while extremely popular in some areas of the electorate, his political shift is not what is going to bring down the Republicans.  Instead, it is what the change symbolizes.  Charlie Crist said the same thing Arlen Specter said a few years ago when he switched parties.  He comments, "I didn't leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me."  And it is that statement that shows the disintegration of the party.

Understand, Charlie Crist IS a Republican, not a Democrat, at least not genuinely one in the post F.D.R. and Johnson Democratic Party.  I am not condemning Crist with this statement; he is actually one of the Republicans I admire, along with Jon Hunstman.  I think they are stellar examples of Republicans who are trying to work for a better America, and who passionately care about the future of this country.  While I may find them to be a bit conservative for my tastes, I do recognize them as excellent leaders.

But both of them are still slightly Right of center, whether you call them Progressive Republicans or Blue Dog Democrats.  Their ideology is more on the right side of the traditional political spectrum than the left.

Before I go any further with my overall point, I want to take a moment and discuss the political spectrum in the country.  Despite what you hear from the talking heads on Fox News, the United States is actually a center-left country, at least in terms of what they want the government to provide.  I am not saying this because I tend to be liberal and want to paint the country into my own frame of reference.  I am saying this because the facts on the ground prove this orientation.

When push comes to shove, Americans like the left at least slightly better than the right, even if they don't realize it or recognize that the things they like are on the liberal side of the spectrum.  Some of the most popular things in America, the things that the majority of people by double digits say they like are to the left of center.  Most people love Social Security, Medicare and disaster relief funds.  Most Americans also strongly support Unemployment Insurance, Public Schools, the Interstate System, National Parks and Progressive Taxation.  They even support things that they may not totally agree with like Welfare, Food Stamps and Medicaid.  In general, over 60% of this country, including a fair number of Republicans, support at least the idea of a social safety net, and very few would like to see these programs cut back or eliminated.  In the past, most of the debate centered not on the programs, but simply on the funding mechanisms for them.

These are left of center ideals.  They are not Socialist by any stretch of the imagination, but they do fall on the left side of the scale.  Even our obsession with an enormous military force does not shift the scale that much, especially given our equal support of the V.A., the  G.I. bill and military pensions.

To further clarify the point, a center-right country might support some social safety net programs, but only in more extreme circumstances.  It certainly would not accept the universality of these programs and benefits.  You see the center-right approach on things like means testing of benefits, lifetime caps and other things to limit or eliminate access to them.  Understand, I am not making a value judgment here, and this is a far cry from the "Makers/Takers" dialog that is occurring.  I am simply talking about how a center-right country might approach these things.

I also want to say here, for most of the 20th century, liberal and conservative were separate distinctions from political party; you had Progressive Republicans and Conservative Democrats.  In fact, some of the greatest "liberal" achievements in this country were initiated by Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Follette.  Also remember, Strom Thurmond was a Democrat until Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which he tried to filibuster.

For most of the 20th century, with the exception of the anomalies of the 1920's, and the Regan era, where the country to a decidedly right turn, the United States has been slightly liberal.  And since the Bush years and the economic meltdown of 2007/2008, we have shifted back to our standard position of being a social democracy. 

However, the Right Wing of the Republican Party has not moved with the country; in fact, it has gone in the opposite direction.  Today, even Ronald Regan, the ideological father of the modern conservative movement would be chucked out of the party for the simple fact that he raised taxes many times.  At best, Regan would be called a moderate to his face and a R.I.N.O. behind his back.  Eisenhower, who was probably the greatest Republican President since Teddy Roosevelt, couldn't even get nominated in today's party.  Instead, that nomination would have gone to McCarthy.

To return to my point, the reason the Republican Party is falling apart is that there is no room for the Specters or the Crists in today's party.  The Far Right is purging them.  To be fair, there have been extreme ideological impulses in the Republican Party before, Barry Goldwater being a perfect example, but even at the height of that movement, the moderates like Gerald Ford were not shoved out of the party.

This time they are.

Ideological purity trumps electability, it trumps reality, and in the end, it trumps viability.  And if it continues, this is the end of the G.O.P. as a national party. 
Even though the Republicans currently have quite a bit of power in the States and in the House of Representatives, they are still killing themselves by pushing a hard Right agenda that will turn off the majority of voters eventually and accelerate driving the moderates out.  But before Democrats crow about a perpetual majority, it also dramatically and irrevocably changes the face of the Democratic Party as well.

Let me chart what might be the next twenty years of politics in this country unless the Republican Party reverses course and the moderates seize back the party.

As more and more economically center-right and socially liberal Republicans are shoved out of the party, the party becomes more and more an echo chamber of Far Right Ideology.  You see it even now with the calls to purify the conservative message.  The party heads claim that they need to articulate the conservative vision better and people will flock to them in the next election.  The problem with that is, the majority of the country is repelled by the call to turn Medicare into a Voucher Program, privatize Social Security and all of the other dismantling of the safety net that these people are advocating.  However, purging the moderates removes what little reality check exists in the Republican Party, and so they move even farther and farther to the Right.

And with it, they become more and more unappealing to the majority of people in the country, who as I said before, tend to be slightly center-left, and tend to like their government programs, at least the ones that they think they might need.

In the short term, this means that the Democrats will continue to rack up huge wins, especially as the Republicans push an ever more extreme agenda.  In this process, disaffected Republicans will become independents and then ultimately Democrats, but their core beliefs will still stay on the Republican side of the spectrum.  It has been years since there has been a truly Progressive Republican; they fell victim to the Goldwater Purge of the 1960's.

And as these former Republicans move into the Democratic Party, the party will shift somewhat to the Right to accommodate and welcome them.  In fact, it will likely end up as a purely centrist party, sometimes falling slightly left, and sometimes slightly right.  And during this period, there will likely be essentially one-party rule, with the Democrats becoming slightly schizophrenic trying to fill the role that was once held by two viable political parties.  Also, as the Republicans purify, they will become a fringe party that is not much more viable than the Libertarian Party is today.  Even if all of the Far Right parties were to merge, they still would not be viable in this center-left country.

This is not a sustainable situation, and at this point, something interesting is likely to happen; the Democrats will become the conservative party. 

As the Republicans become increasingly bizarre, the Democrats will have to function as both a liberal and conservative party.  Since the Democrats value their current image as the "Big Tent" Party, they won't throw the conservatives back out of the party, they will accommodate them, and in doing so, they will alienate the actual liberals of the Kennedy/McGovern wing of the party.

Then, those disaffected Liberals will also succeed from their party, but since there is no viable party on the left, they will probably form their own party, splitting the Democrats in half.  For a couple of election cycles, they will not win, any more than the remnants of the Republicans will, but they will gain steam as the Republicans start to see the Democrats as a true centrist party where their voices can be heard.

In the end, we will be back to a fully functional Two-Party System, but this time, the Democrats will wind up on the center to center-right end and the new party, let's call them Labor just for kicks, will end up on the center-left to left end of the spectrum.

And through this process, the system will self correct and the political spectrum will shift back to it's traditional orientation.  We will again have two viable and truly representative political parties in this country, who are not so ideological that things cannot get accomplished.  Once this happens, the United States will return to it's moderate roots, and gears of good government will begin to freely turn, instead of grind in place.

And we will be better for it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Reality Divided


Right now in America, we are experiencing what could be termed a soft partition on facts.  Depending on which side of the political spectrum you follow, you have your own set of "facts" that are utterly different from the "facts" that the other side holds inviolable.

If you are on the left, you believe that all Republicans want to reduce America to a two class society where wealth equals power, and if you are part of a minority or a woman, they want to take away all of your rights and put you in chains.  You also believe that the Social Safety Net is an essential part of American Exceptionalism; that wealth inequality is going to doom economic growth; and that the United States must lead by example and be an integral part of the community of nations.  Finally, even if you don't think Obamacare goes far enough toward equitable health care, it is at least a good start that can be built on to.

If you are on the right, you believe we have a coke dealing, illegal alien, Muslim President who wishes to turn America into a socialist country under the control of the United Nations.  You also believe that people who receive Entitlements are lazy "Takers" who contribute nothing to the economy or country; that tax cuts for the rich are the best way to spur economic growth; and that the United States is a Force Majure in the world, and we do not ask for agreement, we demand it.  Finally, you think Obamacare will destroy the country, and you might even question whether all people have a right to have health care at all.

In actual fact, the only thing that either side can agree on is that their opponents will destroy the country they love.  Beyond that, there is almost no agreement.  Anything one side believes is completely discounted by the other side as lies and falsehoods.

It is a terrifying scenario.

However, in this blog, I am not going to look at the actual answers of who is right and who is wrong.  I am not out to deconstruct arguments, fact check or prove a point.  Really, in this case the actual truth is irrelevant.  I am far more interested in why this is happening, and along the way, I will discuss why fact checking and actual reality does not matter in this new world.  In the end, I will also propose some solutions about how to return to a world where everyone agrees on at least the basic factual content of a situation.

First, I would like to look at the idea of social cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is a condition where a person hold two completely contradictory ideas at the same time, and cannot see that there is an actual conflict between the views.  An example of this is to be anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment, provided that the anti-abortion stance is based in the idea of all life being sacred.

But this cognitive dissonance can also occur across a society.  It happens when different factions believe things that are diametrically opposed to societal values.  A perfect example of this is when people recite the Pledge with its line "one nation, indivisible at the opening of a Tea Party rally that drives a deep wedge into the fabric of American society.

This type of cognitive dissonance can divide entire societies.  There have been studies on the worldview of devout Christians vs. more secular individuals.  The one that I found the most interesting was study done a few years ago regarding the number of ribs in men and in women.  I read about this in Discover Magazine, but cannot seem to find it to link to.  ( I hate that, I like to source these things)

Anyway, the actual reality is that both men and women both have 12 pairs of ribs for a total number equaling 24.  However, extremely devout Biblical Literalists tend to believe that men have one less rib than women, because of the story in Genesis.  In fact, this segment of the population, when shown two skeletons, one of which is male and the other female, actually count different numbers on the two skeletons.  These people literally cannot see that the number of ribs is identical.  For all intents and purposes, reality for these people is actually different from the rest of society.  I should note here, that even extremely devout medical students have the same factual blindness.

The upshot of this is that for certain population groups, there is a subconscious blindness to things that to not fit into their expected reality.  The subjects would never be able to see the world in the same manner; their biases profoundly altered their perceptions.

The same thing occurs with Political "Facts."  People cannot accept things that do not fit into their perceptual biases.  This goes a long way toward explaining the certainty of a Romney win among the Right and the anger at being wrong.  Many on the Right were and are convinced that Romney was leading by a solid margin and was headed to a landslide.  When he lost, they couldn't reconcile it with their perceptions, so the obvious conclusion has to be that President Obama won through nefarious means.

Unlike the rib situation, the perceptual bias is not strong enough for them to actually believe that Mitt Romney won and will be inaugurated in January.  It is a bias, not a psychosis; actual reality does intrude at some point, but not before Karl Rove had a meltdown on national TV.

However in small cases, like the ribs, or in cases where the facts are disputable, unlike the pictures of President Obama giving his victory speech, the perceptual bias will reign.  As in the rib case, no amount of proof will sway the believer, and sometimes it will even reinforce the belief.  In some cases, the person giving the proof will be the one pitied for not knowing the "actual truth."

But this social cognitive dissonance does not arise in a vacuum, and the cause of it is part of what drives the split in the country's perceptions.  That cause is the highly partisan news media.  If you had watched Fox News in the run-up to the election, you would have barely known anything about Hurricane Sandy's aftermath.  That is because Fox was wall to wall talking about Benghazi, and talking about how it was a cover-up of Watergate proportions.  If you watched CNN or MSNBC, you heard nothing about Benghazi, but massive amounts about Sandy.  And on MSNBC, you heard about how this was the result of Global Warming.

Different news channels, completely different facts.

It is even worse on the internet, where on-line news sources like the Drudge Report, Red State, HuffPo and Think Progress present echo chamber reporting to reinforce a particular world view.  There is no longer a need to step outside your comfort zone and hear points of view, or even actual news, that contradicts your belief system.  There is not longer any need to hear about things that upset you; you can live in a perfect information bubble, and still think you are a well informed individual.

And with this information bubble, you lack of challenging information gradually skews your world view.  Your "facts" constrict and when there is any situation where there are two sides to the story, you automatically assume your side is right and the other wrong.  And this mental iron curtain prevents you from accepting even the possibility of validity to the other side.

But this bubble isn't the whole story either.  In fact, our current media situation is very similar, at least in targeting, to what occurred in the years between the Revolution and the Civil war.  At that time, every town had many newspapers, and those newspapers were extremely partisan, just like the current internet news sites and like today, people tended to only read things that they agreed with.  

So what else has changed to bring on this factual bifurcation?

The other part of this is the hyper-partisan, us vs. them political environment.  No longer is it enough to win, the opposition must be crushed, demoralized and humiliated.  The opposition must be left bleeding in the gutter and the only way that can happen is if they are demonstrably the bad people out to destroy the country.  And you have to have the "facts" to support that, otherwise it is just character assassination.

But even further, as the "facts" become partisan, the independents matter less and less.  Firing up the base becomes the primary task of the politician which pulls both sides closer to their fringes, and away from the middle.  The middle only needs to be appealed to in the very last weeks running up to the election, and even then, the base is still very important.

However, in fairness, I must note, the Republicans are far more influenced by their fringe elements than the Democrats are.  The  Democrats, in trying to pull in disaffected Republicans, tend to remain a bit more moderate on the whole.  Still, both sides become more polarized as the middle becomes less significant.

Without the need to appeal to moderates, and with the fear of being Primaried by the fringes, the average politician becomes beholden to the extreme partisans.  In this process they have to craft a message that paints their opponent as evil.  The distortion and division of "facts" aids in this process.  Having your own set of facts reinforces why your side MUST win.  Splitting the narrative in the country serves the Base political needs, and it is not in the interest of the Parties to have information out there that contradicts their message.

Again, the Right is better at this than the Left.  While MSNBC regularly criticizes the President and will occasionally call BS on the propaganda of the left , Fox rarely condemns and Right Wing Politician and actually functions as the propaganda wing of the Republican Party.  Still, both sides do engage in this.

So how to we combat this problem?  How do we seize back the factual narrative in the country? 

One method is to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, which requires all media outlets to present both sides of an issue.  On the surface, this seems like a good idea, and I would personally love to see Rush and Glen Beck have to present a liberal rebuttal to every one of their shows,  However, this method is not the best, because sometimes one side is factually wrong and the other is factually correct.  Having to present both sides as if they had actual merit and gravitas is really counterproductive to the process; sometimes you just need to call a lie a lie.

The next thing we could do is demand our media rise to the standard that should be expected of the Fourth Estate.  We could expect them to present the truth and nothing but the truth, call out a lie when one occurs and hold all politicians liable for the things they say.  We could hang facts like the albatross around their necks.

I fear that is a bridge too far.  There is a lot of money to be made on partisan facts, and I doubt that the fringe panderers will willingly become responsible.

Therefore it is up to you to find the truth.  Find out both (or all) sides to a story, determine what is valid, talk to people you trust from both political parties and try to dig down to the truth.  You may be exposed to a lot of information that upsets you, that is difficult to accept, and that shatters you complacent worldview.  Being exposed to the other side does not mean that you will have to give up all of your beliefs, just the ones that are actually wrong.

Being a part of a democracy is a lot of work, but being well informed of actual facts is one of the things we  owe to our nation.

And maybe through this, we can rebuild a nation that is actually indivisible.